Why Personas are Critical for Content Strategy

The most popular content strategy tools borrow from the discipline of information architecture, but there is one invaluable tool that is imperative to the process of strategy and implementation of tactics that we can thank our user experience cousins for: personas.

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This series of articles explores content strategy and interaction design. Curated by Colleen Jones of Content Science, each article highlights a new voice, a new way of doing content strategy, or applying tried-and-true content principles to new situations.

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Why Target Audience Segmentation Isn’t Enough

At an organizational level, content treatment, be it in print or online, has traditionally defaulted to the use of broader target audience segmentation to define messaging and distribution/dissemination. Speak to most content owners and creators within established departments – communications, marketing, policy – and you’ll hear how their messaging strategy aligns with the organization’s (or product/service’s) target audience. The challenge with digital content, however, is that the target audience segmentation approach of yesterday’s Industrial Revolution falls far short of the content requirements of today’s Information Age.

“A persona is a user archetype you can use to help guide decisions about product features, navigation, interactions, and even visual design.” – Kim Goodwin

The Benefits Of Personas To Digital Content

Personas help to bring richness to otherwise statistical data. Unlike traditional target audience segmentation, they provide greater depth and context to generic target audience groups by focusing on one character who embodies the predominant qualities of the larger group.

When done right, personas bolster demographic, psychographic and technographic data with more qualitative information that is paramount to all content decisions:

All of the above have incredible effects on the types of content published, when it is published, how it is published and what happens to it after it has been published.

Because of this, those who undertake content strategy without doing their due diligence to create personas will miss critical information points that should be used to inform the planning, creation, management and measurement of digital content.

Target Audience vs. Personas: A Case Study

I recently worked on creating a bilingual (English/French) content strategy for a university publication that was transitioning from print-only to digital first. When I started, the information provided by the editorial team and the communications department was that the publication had two distinct primary target audience segments:

  • alumni over the age of 40; and,
  • alumni under the age of 40.

Their secondary target market was university staff and donors. As a starting point, these vague delineations didn’t provide enough information to help decide:

  • What content needed to be created;
  • How to digitally disseminate the content (Through email? Social? Web? Mobile?);
  • Where visitors would be viewing the content (Locally? From around the world?);
  • How they would access the content (From their desktop computer? From their iPhones? Not online at all?)

By bolstering the initial broad target audience segmentation with additional psychographic and technographic data, the university still didn’t have enough information to help properly create an effective digital content strategy for such a broad target audience group.

With so many critical questions left unanswered, and too many costly technology decisions to make, the university agreed to create personas from research undertaken for that express purpose.

Amazing results were uncovered once the personas were completed. A third target audience segment emerged (current students) and the university discovered that the technology assumptions they had made based on dividing their primary target audience segment into two groups – older and younger users – was erroneous. It turns out, their highly educated older demographic was just as inclined to read content on a tablet as their younger audience group. What’s more, the personas also helped to define an effective content strategy for user generated content in multiple languages. This helped to plan for a better user experience through an adaptive translation approach rather than a more traditional virtual English/French tumble approach.

Surprisingly, the most valuable effect the personas had on informing the content strategy was on the conversations they sparked with key stakeholders. Similar to most organizations, the university had content stakeholders scattered between a variety of different departments – web, communications, marketing, graphic design, alumni, public relations, development, and the magazine itself. While each could agree on the segments they were trying to target, none could agree on which department’s communications objectives and content were more important.

(c) All rights reserved by Follow The UX Leader

Borrowing from the fundamentals of user experience design, I printed the personas on 4×3 foot poster-size paper (as seen in the image above) and hung them up in the boardroom for all to see during critical content strategy meetings. Each time content strategy discussions derailed due to departmental agenda, I was able to re-direct the conversations to one of the personas hanging on the wall – how would this decision/requirement/objective/perspective help this particular user in obtaining the information that he/she wants or needs?

This approach helped all inter-disciplinary teams contribute to the overall content strategy by directing their expertise and efforts towards creating a sustainable model and governance structure that satisfied not only the needs of the department, but of their users as well.

With the foundational research completed for each target audience segment, the university now has a baseline upon which to continue to assess, measure and tweak the initial content strategy. In two years’ time they can update the personas with new research and continue to glean insights from the rapidly changing technological and social landscape that impacts the university’s messaging and delivery.

The Long Term Value of Personas To Content Strategy

Content strategy is more than just a discipline. It’s an approach to content that must be adopted at all levels of an organization to be effective. As it becomes ubiquitous to the way in which traditional disciplines create and manage content (marketing, communications, public relations, etc.) across digital channels, the tools that we use now to plan for content will need to evolve beyond the out-dated approach of target audience segmentation. With the demise of top down communications and a increasingly fractured digital channel landscape, organizations must continue to plan for and produce content that remains liquid and linked to engage users on their terms.

That’s why personas are such a critical component to an organization’s overall content strategy. You can’t provide the right content, at the right time, on the right device to every user without it. Over the long term, personas are the insurance policy that all organizations need to protect a key component of one of their largest digital assets – their content.

NC-BY-CC-2.0 by cannedtuna

Kristina Mausser

Kris is a Content Strategist with an extensive background in marketing, communications and writing. Over her 15 year career, she has worked both client and agency-side for companies like Microsoft, Sephora, Fusion Brands Inc, and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. Before starting one of Canada's first Content Strategy consultancies, Digitalword, she held senior manager and director level positions in both the private and public sector. Kris is one of the co-creators behind the highly popular Follow The UX Leader workshops on user experience, information architecture, content strategy and writing for the web.

22 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Personas vs Target Audience | Project Wolverine

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  4. Malia on

    Great article, Kris. You mentioned that the university allowed you to conduct additional research that was specific to the personal development. What activities did you completed?

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  7. Nancy on

    Nice article, but what I’m missing here is how you created the personas.

  8. Joanna Pieters on

    I agree absolutely with you Kris, that solid personas can make a huge difference to content strategy projects, both in achieving the best outcome and helping align internal differences. This is a great case study of their benefits.

    I’d be interested to know how you managed to get agreement for the additional research. Did it require additional budget, or did you have to take away from another area (tech? content creation?)? Did it also mean a shift in timescales? If so, was that a cause of further internal friction?

  9. Rudy Chou on

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of content strategy as it relates to marketing.

    The fact that there are so many different communication channels to use, it definitely rewards those that understand how to communicate with their audience while meeting companies goals.

    Too many times, each department feel that their messaging takes priority. Unfortunately, when you communicate too much, you lose focus and communicate with no one effectively in the end.

    Great article!

  10. Pingback: Why Personas are Critical for Content Strategy | Johnny Holland | UX Stream

  11. Kris Mausser on

    @Malia I’m glad you enjoyed the article and hope the ideas shared were of value. For this particular project, we sent out an email survey to everyone on the magazine’s distribution list. We actually had quite a high response rate and the data collected was aggregated separately between English and French respondents to account for cultural distinctions. Questions asked had both fixed and open responses, which provided much needed qualitative and quantitative data to achieve a sense of realism for each persona.

  12. Kris Mausser on

    @Nancy The personas we use actually combine the properties found in those created for the express purpose of user experience, with information gleaned from traditional marketing elements such as psychographic, technographic and demographic information. An excellent resource for creating personas can be found here: http://wiki.fluidproject.org/display/fluid/Persona+Format

  13. Kris Mausser on

    @Joanna I was actually quite lucky with this project, as I am with a lot of my projects. We actually build personas into the project plan right at the beginning. It’s quite easy to sell the client on their value once I start asking questions they can’t answer, and share with them the success other clients have had as a result of doing due diligence at the start. In essence, personas over the long term actually save the client money and that’s really their ROI to the organization.

    With some clients, we don’t have the liberty of the extra research phase (often due to budget constraints). As a result, we take the time to walk clients through a series of hands-on exercises that help to inform persona creation. The key here is to ensure front-line staff are present, as well as marketing/communications stakeholders in order to balance market research with actual customer scenarios.

  14. Kris Mausser on

    @Rudy Well said. I believe Content Strategy must be ubiquitous to all communications processes within an organization both on and offline. As you so astutely point out, “when you communicate too much, you lose focus and communicate with no one effectively in the end.” That’s why using personas to narrow the conversation to one that truly engages and inspires with target audiences is so effective. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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  18. AJ Perisho on

    Great post Kristina!
    Personas are a key tool in identifying your entire strategy for marketing.
    It’s easier to talk to an individual, rather than everyone.
    Thanks for sharing great insight :-)

  19. Kris Mausser on

    Thank you, AJ. They are such a versatile tool that many different departments can use to not only define strategy, but to help bring together multidisciplinary teams. In terms of marketing, you’re right, primary and secondary target audiences are just too broad given the many channels we now have to target our brand messages. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Cheers!

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