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Personas: What they are and why your marketing needs them
Marketing Foundations

Personas: What they are and why your marketing needs them

Personas are a key piece of a successful marketing initiative, whether it’s building a website, planning an email marketing campaign, or writing a messaging guide for your brand. So what exactly goes into developing them? A few of our team members got together to talk about how to create useful customer personas, and how they inform their particular marketing disciplines. 


First of all, what are personas?

Heather Vaughn, Director of Marketing Strategy: I think it’s important here to note what personas aren’t first. They aren’t just someone’s job title or function at work. They’re a deeper look at your audience, and what factors influence their decision-making.

Neil Kloppenborg, Associate Creative Director/UX Designer: Right, exactly. Persona development is an exercise in which a brand or product’s entire audience is distilled into 3-5 user archetypes, which we call “personas.” Persona development utilizes research and collaboration among the client and agency to portray these archetypes as real people; people with needs, motivating factors, and pain points. They go well beyond demographic information. Personas need to feel as authentic and relatable to real people as possible. As a project team gains understanding and empathy for these “real” people, they are empowered to create more personalized, relevant, and valuable products that are centered around their end-users.

Why are personas important?

NK: Persona development is a foundation of good UX, content, and marketing. It helps a project team remain targeted to what is truly important to the user. When produced collaboratively, they can create team alignment and thus streamline decision making and approval processes. Personas offer an informed justification for every choice that is made in a project or product. 

Milan Zori, Content Strategist/Content Writer: If you’re a writer, the idea of a blank piece of paper staring back at you could be very intimidating. What do you write? Where do you even begin? Marketing’s the same way. Personas eliminate that blank white page and instead start you out with some guidelines to work within. It’s a lot easier to create effective marketing pieces when you have a basic framework about your audience—the people you’re trying to reach the most.

What should be included in a persona?

NK: Every project is different, and thus no two persona documents should be the same. Consider which questions need to be answered to best understand the users of a given project. Here are some details that I try to include in most of my persona documents:

    • Name, age, career role, and photograph (these things help the team begin to see the persona as a real person, and grow empathy for and understanding of them.)
    • Quote (this quote should act as a one or two-sentence summary of the persona. Example: “It is about more than just making sales; my success depends on building relationships”)
    • Career Responsibilities
    • Motivating Factors
    • Pain Points
    • What do they need from us? Project features they will find useful
    • Technology preferences
    • Websites, publications, and/or trade shows they are readers/visitors of

A persona document should NOT be overly complicated or long-winded; it should be something that anyone can look at for a few minutes and understand who the persona is and what they need. I recommend printing each persona out on 11x17 paper and hanging them up in a project team’s area as a great way to keep personas top-of-mind.

What’s your favorite thing about working with clients on personas?

NK: To me, nothing in this industry is as satisfying as setting my own opinions and assumptions aside and learning about a person completely different from me, walking a thoughtful mile in their shoes, and then building something that is NOT for me; it is just for them. That discipline is at the heart of good UX.

MZ: Sometimes in our research phase, we learn things that fly in the face of every preconceived notion a client has about their audience. Being able to disprove those assumptions is so much fun because it’s an honest-to-god game-changer. We’re able to show clients that by assuming things about their audience, they were using tactics that weren’t very effective. And now they know why.

What’s your least favorite thing about developing personas?

NK: Every project, client, and budget is different, and the gathering of information can change drastically from project to project. Making assumptive personas (personas based on assumptions and best practices but minimal research and data) is still an invaluable exercise for a project, but having a lack of research and data can cause some anxiety and self-doubt.

MZ - You know, the heart wants what the heart wants. And sometimes, the client’s heart wants a thing that goes against everything we’ve learned about their audience. When that happens, we always gently advise them against it and explain why it won’t be the most effective decision. In the end, though, it’s their dollar. They get to have the final say, and everything that comes with that decision.

What’s a mistake marketers can make once they have their personas in hand?

HV: NOT using them! Marketers should be referencing them often, and sharing with others in the business - sales, product, customer service, and executives.

NK: Mistake 1: Never referencing them again post-completion. Personas should be displayed so the team can always remember the people they are building the project for.

Mistake 2: Never revisiting them. Personas are meant to be living documents which evolve along with a business and the needs and behaviors of their audience. Personas should be reevaluated every 1-2 years to make sure they still speak for the needs of the modern audience. Sometimes personas will have to be revised. Sometimes they will have to be rewritten entirely.

MZ: All of the above. Especially the last part about revisiting them. Audiences evolve, and your personas should be updated to acknowledge that evolution. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself preaching to the wrong choir, in the wrong ways, and getting less and less return.


But don’t take our word for it...

The most successful B2B content marketers are putting their audiences’ needs first, according to an annual study of B2B content marketing from the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs. Fully 9 in 10 of the “most successful” B2B content marketers prioritize their audience’s informational needs over sales/promotional messages, compared to just 56% of the “least successful” respondents. Other survey findings likewise found a heightened focus on audiences.




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Curious about how personas could help your next marketing project? Drop us a line at and let’s get personal.

Heather Vaughn

Heather Vaughn

Executive Director of Marketing

Heather Vaughn is CI Design's Marketing Services Director. Her marketing career has been split with equal time on the agency and client sides, giving her a 360 perspective on marketing, and a keen understanding of how to use all its glorious data effectively.

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