How Creating Personas Can Expand Your Audience

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When the American Chiropractic Association overhauled their website, they went straight to Google Analytics, and the data told an interesting story.

After discovering only 10% of its 5,000 web pages were getting significant page views, ACA decided to focus on the top 500 pages. The most visited page was an explainer on chiropractic, suggesting the site was more of an authoritative resource than a membership tool as ACA staff previously thought.

So they developed personas, or representations, of typical website users. They asked questions such as: Who is this person? What is their age? What is their capability with technology? What are they looking for?

We hear a lot these days about personas—and for good reason. The advancement of data is allowing publishers to learn more and more about their subscribers and members, making them easier to categorize.

"Technology allows us to do so much more than what we've done in the past," John Morrow, managing director of Franklin Trust Ratings, told me earlier this month. Franklin Trust is one of SIIA's Models of Excellence (for their use of data) this year, and Morrow will speak at our Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS) in Fort Lauderdale next month.

He said that the "enormity and granularity of data in health care is stunning." But according to a recent survey (by Content Management Institute), only 51% of B2B publishers use customer personas. That's not enough.

The National Association of Realtors took up the challenge of organizing more than a million of their members into about 14 identities and finally four personas. Here's what they did:

1. "You start to say, I know that person, I know their motivations, and you can think about them qualitatively," said Hilary Marsh, president and chief strategist of Content Company, in an article in Associations Now. "By the end of this exercise, we were friends with these people. We felt like we knew them."

2. Marsh gave names, ages, and personal preferences to the four personas, and even created life-size cutouts. "Picturing the person helps NAR staff to think critically about members' motivations... The goal was not to pigeonhole members into a specific identity, but rather to convince NAR staff to put interests aside and serve audiences according to their information and content habits."

3. "Knowing what Anthony looks like didn't help us, but knowing what matters to him did," Marsh said. "You're seeking to draw upon experience, so you can think about what members want and how and when they want it."

4. Based on those personas, NAR redesigned its website and member newsletters. "Coming out of this, we knew how to reach Anthony [one of the personas] or how to write to Susan [another]," Marsh says. "When staff came to my office with a question, we looked at each member and asked, 'What would they do?'"

"Data leads you to answers," Morrow said. "Data are answers. It shouldn't require evaluation and decision making. We're getting people to the answers without requiring triangulation."

Social media can also help in creating personas. "The social tools that you're given to find lookalikes of who you're targeting gives you scale you that weren't able to see before," said James Arnold, VP of digital sales for Farm Journal. 

A few years ago, Farm Journal was struggling to find prospects in the Southwest. "We put up 50,000 names of known cattle guys in our database and found a million lookalikes on Facebook and marketed to those folks."

Arnold will present this case at BIMS in a session titled, Case Study: How Personalization Drives Farm Journal's Go-to-Market Sales Strategy.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…