The Power of Personas

I’ve always been intrigued by the ability of an effective coach to enhance the skills of a highly successful athlete. How do you motivate a decorated veteran like Serena Williams to compete at Wimbledon? How does Michael Phelps’ coach inspire him to break yet another Olympic record? Successful coaching requires understanding the goals, needs and behaviors of an athlete—knowing what frustrates them, what frightens them, and especially, what fuels and triggers changes.

That’s why it surprises me when I see business executives react with skepticism when we discuss the power of tapping into a persona and driving change.

What I See in the Field Every Day

On a daily basis, across the US and Canada, I work in the field with Sales Associates and Executives who are customer-facing and accountable to the different needs and desires of their customers. Training these various Associates requires me to adapt my training strategy to the audience of each city I visit. Why? Teams often take on the identity or persona of the city they reside in. Philadelphia is a working-class city with tough-as-nails sports teams. So, in speaking to my team in Philadelphia, we coach with a no-nonsense and matter-of-fact approach. Palm Desert, located adjacent to Palm Springs, is a more relaxed resort destination; in some ways it’s a throwback to retail during the Mad Men era. The approach in Palm Springs is customer-driven, VIP service with a certain prestige exuded by the Sales Associate. So, as I touchdown in each city, I review the unique characteristics and preferences of my audience and modify and customize the content, communications and training tactics to best suit their needs.

Before You Roll Your Eyes…

Now I know, it’s tempting to think, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Personas are nice to haves, not need-to-haves. I know my audience… I have bigger priorities right now.” And that may be true, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. In our experience, marketers mistakenly use personas for the wrong reasons. So, let’s start by aligning on what a persona is and isn’t.

A persona is:

  • A clear description of who your ideal customers are, what their days are like, the challenges they face, and how they make decisions
  • A critical tool to help you gain the perspective of a potential buyer or existing customer
  • Used to drive operational, field-level customer experiences

A persona is not:

  • A one-and-done exercise. Rather, persona development is an “always-on” analysis of changes in your customer base, fed with real insights (in my case, from the field)
  • A targeting tool; you should use quantitative segmentation for targeting. However, segmentations can be further fleshed out with personas.

Sourcing Personas

Personas can be low-tech or high-tech. Many big data companies utilize technology and data to build and deliver customized content. Netflix recently revealed that the content they choose to produce—not just the obviously customized viewing experience—is heavily influenced by customer personas. Netflix overlays multiple customer data points onto each persona, creating a full 360-degree picture of their customers and their preferences. But even with this amount of data, Netflix has to make the personas accessible and actionable for the creatives who ultimately select, design, produce, and direct the content. For example, Cary Fukunaga, Emmy award-winning director, recently revealed that Netflix worked with him in the editing room to structure his new show Maniac using their algorithms to reveal the exact moment when likely viewers (based on the persona the show was built around) tune in or out.

Low-tech personas can be created by an individual trainer, or by a store manager, based on direct observation. Talk to enough customers, and you’ll see the patterns emerge. The “bargain-obsessed suburban mom”, the “husband in a rush to buy a gift”, the “I just need some clothes for work, get me out of here.” The trick is writing these observations down, and telling consumers’ stories. This is what I do—and the act of writing and thinking about the consumer gets me even more inside their head.

Getting Traction

Personas help sales reps, trainers, managers, and marketers focus on their customers at an individual level, allowing them to “walk a mile in their shoes”—gaining insight into their goals, needs and behaviors, while at the same time learning what frustrates them. Personas don’t work when they sit on a shelf. This often happens in the translation from a magnificent piece of research work to a sales rep choosing to take them time to really understand and consume the content.

To get traction in a world of constant distractions, personas need to tell a story. They need to be funny and memorable. Oftentimes, two or three key insights per persona are enough. If you’re training a field sales force, do it in person. Play a game; create funny names or mnemonics for the different segments; use visuals. One other trick is to take the time to laminate 9 X 11 double-sided persona cheat-sheets and hand them out. These have a much better chance of getting used—and occupying an honored place on a desk or in a briefcase—than a PDF file or bound PowerPoint presentation.


In summary, whether you’re a director tasked with editing a television series, a trainer modifying tactics to better engage Sales Associates, or a CMO charged with overhauling your value proposition, personas are qualitative, storytelling tools that help people remember who their customer really is. When personas are activated in customer engagement strategies, whether in field or online, you are almost guaranteed to make the customer feel like you really do know them. This goes a long way in driving results.