What we've learned.

Personas should be based on narratives.

Most marketers and product designers value “personas,” typically recognized as profiles or compilations of characteristics that distinguish and define customer types or “archetypes.” Have a prototypical customer that you can envision, and you have a better feel for how to design a product or service that will have value for the idiosyncratic customer and learn how you might communicate with the customer most effectively.

Most of the time, personas are developed based on statistical modeling that ferrets out how different data about customers consistently “cluster.” These clusters show, with a level of predictability (rarely approaching 100%), that the data will cluster in the same pattern if you take different samples of the population and gather similar data.

Researchers and marketers commonly give these personas names the reflect their distinctive nature (e.g., “Suburban extraverts”, “Liberal adventurers.”)

There are issues with the methods and authenticity of this approach to understanding customer and employee groups that we have found to be disconcerting:

1. The foundation they are built upon are only as good as the data collected (did you ask the right questions? Did the respondents understand the question the way you did?).

2. They are built upon data that indicates what people do or say, not why.

3. They focus on the relationship between variables about people, not the people themselves.

When you base personas on an inner narrative people use to guide their behavior, what we call a Guiding Narrative®, you’re treating people not as so many pieces of data that remotely describe them, but rather as sentient humans who live, breathe, and feel their way through the world. The differences we as humans manifest in behavior and preference is reflective of differences in how we see the world and the way to survive in it. When you rely solely upon cluster analyses or other statistical procedure applied to survey responses or behavioral data to segment groups of people, you miss the opportunity to connect with what is most important to individuals — their beliefs and values about the world — and therefore miss the chance to deliver value. You miss the chance to see the role you, your organization, and/or your products play in the mental life of your customers. 

Don’t miss that chance. Segment your audience by the story they tell themselves about you and what you mean to them.