cardboard cutouts: catalysts for authentic audience insights

My first exposure to a “buyer’s persona” was a cardboard cut out. After graduating from college with a German degree and finishing my internship abroad, I returned to Boston to get marketing "street cred" at a great ad agency. What I witnessed in my first months on the job taught young Erdie a valuable lesson: really knowing your audience is the secret to authentic and effective marketing. 

I remember walking past the creative area at the agency. There were two larger than life cardboard figures of Boston Celtic’s fans. A very flat guy in his early 20’s, baggy t-shirt and jeans, a buzzcut under an Irish scally cap. A 2D woman in a green jersey and white jeans, sporting an oh-so-cute Celtic’s beanie. Thought bubbles surrounded their heads, alluding to what these superfans do in their free time, where they go for entertainment and information, etc. These may have just been fancy representations of personas for an upcoming client meeting, but the concept really stuck with me. 

Over the next two years, I assisted my manager as he conducted numerous interviews of our clients’ customers to create personas. I took notes, poured over the transcripts, and looked for commonalities and disparities. Our insights were incorporated into beautiful creative work, positioning, and messaging (and yes, probably some cut outs) for biotech, healthcare, and financial services clients. Fast forward 13 years (gasp!). I now make it a point to conduct persona research early and often, and my marketing campaigns are super successful as a result. 

The funny thing is, so many companies think they know what their audience needs, thinks, feels, or wants. After all, they’ve been in the business for umpteen years. But they don't really know their audience, or how their needs change over time. 

Here's why you owe it to yourself to do the research and develop buyer's personas:

Don’t go blindly into this dark night. Are you marketing to a new audience or launching your products to a new segment? Does your brand or messaging feel wicked stale? If you build personas first, your journey will be much more productive.

Surprise! You’re having twins! We talk about persona research. But it should be called personas research. Have you ever thought that you have target audiences (plural)? You have more than one persona. You might have triplets. You might have octuplets. (Good news: I’m not suggesting you make 8 cardboard cutouts). Your prospects or customers may seem similar on the surface (i.e. they are all accountants or moms), but trust me - there are segments within segments. If you haven’t mapped this out, how will you design Creative, positioning, and messaging to appeal to the unique needs of each one?

Get everyone drinking the Kool-aid. Could your teams do an even better job of positioning your products and services? Sharing, discussing, and documenting the results of your persona research cross-functionally will get everyone on the same page, speaking with the same authentic voice. Loop in Creative, Sales, Product, and other teams. Even if your colleagues aren’t on the front line with customers, they'll appreciate this insight. 

Guaranteed forehead slapping moments. No pain no gain, right? As you conduct your research, you will most certainly uncover the unexpected. You think your audience loves X? They actually hate X. You thought they always turn to thought leader Y, but Z actually has more mindshare. Example: In talking to HR decision makers, I learned actually hate to go to the big national conferences that we were paying tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor. They preferred to attend small, local HR association events!  The surprises are what makes this exercise so valuable.

“One and done” is good for kidney donation. Not for persona research. Your personas are guaranteed to change over time. Think about how quickly the competitive landscape or market conditions can change. Be prepared to revisit and repeat your research every 6-8 months. 

In summary...

You can engage an agency, a market research firm, or a strategist like me to create buyer’s personas for you. Either way, you owe it to yourself, your company, your team, and your customers to take these steps. This all sounds great, but you don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered…


Thumbnail photo credit: Casper Aprikatis on Unsplash
Note: no political leaders were harmed in the creation of this blog post.