Personas Are NOT the Audience!

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I read an exceptional article by Mitch Joel recently entitled The Audience (formerly known as the Audience). In it he writes about how perceptions and standard audience research (that leads to the creation of personas or avatars for marketing purposes…) are actually quite flawed. The challenge to fixing this or working through it, is in the ways they are flawed.

Here’s a scenario:

You are developing a new product for your client base that is aimed at stay-at-home moms. Immediately, a persona of the stay-at-home mom is put together in your mind’s eye…

  • Female
  • early 30s – early 40s
  • Spouse / Partner works out of the home, 9-5.
  • Wears casual / workout clothing for comfort and ease of care (the kids are ALWAYS spilling things…)
  • Drinks a LOT of coffee
  • Perpetually exhausted with too much to do
  • Drives a “family” vehicle (mini-van / SUV) that is full of child-related stuff
  • Gets together with friends regularly (with children) to chat and commiserate.
Do you see this stay-at-home mom persona in your mind’s eye? 

Now, as you go through your week, carefully observe the people you see who might, or do, qualify as stay-at-home parents. Out of a hundred or so, how many look like the persona here? Five or ten? As Joel points out in his article, even if up to seventy of them fit this description, how many of their personal interests, traits, purchasing habits and preferences are similar? Like him, I guess the number is pretty close to zero.

This presents the small business with a real problem.

A huge number of small businesses never do audience research. The owner has a particular customer firmly fixed in her or his imagination that their product or service is for, and all marketing is targeted, for good or for ill, at THAT customer. Some success is possible this way, but usually entails an enormous amount of effort to grow beyond, reaching new customers.

So, the owner decides to come up with another mind’s eye portrait of another potential customer….or decides to have someone do a bit of snooping and research for them. They dig into some data to get to the next level of understanding. Depending on the person or agency engaged, the owner can get a report that could provide a few more personas that touch on a few more segments. This is good, but still presents us with the same problem….

We are presented with SO MUCH DATA! Where do you draw the line on what you can use to understand your audience?

To paraphrase Joel:

We’ve built this world for diversity. Now that we have it, perhaps we need to re-define what your audience truly is. Building an audience is critical to your business.

One of my efforts in this area has been to try to understand the nature of my audiences based upon my communicative relationship with them. I’ve written a lot about this construct that I call VACC. This stands for Visitors / Audience / Customers / Community. While you can search on my blog here to go deeper into what this is and how it can allow you to see where your online relationships fall, here is a short description:
  • Visitors – These people are exactly that…Visitors. They discover your web site, find and LIKE your Facebook Business page, read through your Yelp business description, and so on. It is an entry point for your relationship.
  • Audience – These folks have not only found you, but find you interesting. You struck a chord with them and their passions, or at least provided them with some valuable information they were looking for. I like to think of them as the people who, upon coming to your Facebook Business page, elect to LIKE you and then scroll down to see what you have to say….then start reading more. They will return to see what’s new and keep up with your shared interests and valuable information and insight. They may even comment and share, which totally rocks!
  • Customers – This obvious distinction changes the nature of the relationship. Now you both have “skin in the game” and they look for you to deliver top notch customer experiences. They will remain part of your Audience, too, but now they may use online channels to ask for support, provide feedback, and refer you (or not, depending on how the customer experience goes…). Once they enter this relationship with you, they never stop being both Customer and Audience.
  • Community – This elite level of customer relationship is one that most small businesses never get to, which is unfortunate. Your Community is that group of customers that are so head-over-heels about your product and service that they actually take on the role of unpaid evangelist! They sing your praises online everywhere, and especially when others as for referrals. This group, which is usually small but mighty, can really drive additional value to your business in the areas of innovation and evolving customer service. They can tell you what they wish you were doing to make what you do better. They can come up with ideas for new services or products you might never have come up with on your own. There is no limit to the extra value these few people can bring to your business, and the tremendous value you can show them by listening and acting on their input.
This is to alert you to the complex problem that you face as a business. The answer is not easy, and it is constantly evolving (who has ever made the mistake of nailing down who your customers are, and then having them move on without you?…). My recommendation is that you don’t try to do this yourself, unless you are already a marketing professional or have a savvy research staff. Get some help, and do not let whomever you hire sell you some boilerplate work. Your business is unique, and your customers are, too. You may never get to the utter edge of understanding their wants and needs so you can fulfill them, but accepting the complexity of the challenge is the first step to digging into the kind of work that can net your business real gains.

Don’t accept seeing your audience through a one-size lens.


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