Using a matrix approach to create more meaningful personas

By Posted in - Audience engagement journey & Personas on May 22nd, 2017 2 Comments

Have audience personas had their day in helping us to shape our content, marketing or communication strategies? They offer us a planning technique that predates modern views of user experience and user journey modelling, and yet they still linger around the halls of modern marketing like that weird kid that just won’t graduate.

Traditionally personas have tended to be one dimensional: a suite of fictional “people” designed to represent our different audience segments. They’re often shaped around demographic insights and behaviours, and can be rather helpful in determining and prioritising things like key messages, information needs and – thus – information architecture and user journeys.

However, as communication platforms become ever more personalised, fragmented, multi-platform and non-screen or page based, so too must we start to think about our use of personas in new ways.

For some time now at Pickle Jar, we’ve been developing personas for our clients across the education sector in a phased approach that ushers in a matrix-style view of modelling our content and communications activity based on persona insights (no, not a Keanu-type matrix, sorry to disappoint).

Our approach stems from a frustration that personas often seem stuck in a demographic and behaviour mode. They might tell us something about a person’s age, gender, nationality, social class, and “buying” behaviours and influences, but they often don’t go deep enough to give us enough information on which to plan personalised content experiences, or really get to the heart of the values that truly underpin the decisions that they make.

And so, as we evolve the approach to persona development to make it fit and useful for evolving communication trends, we recommend preparing personas in two or three different, but overlapping, ways – hence thinking of them as a matrix

1. Demographic personas

Example: a 22-year-old prospective postgraduate research student from China
Leads to: content that is essential and relevant to their demographic details

Demographic personas are like the ones that I mentioned above and tend to be most familiar to us. Often with these personas, we give our fictional representative a name, a whole set of demographic characteristics and some corresponding behaviour traits. In a recruitment cycle in higher education, for example, this style of persona often manifests itself as “the prospective UK undergraduate student”, “the prospective postgraduate research student from North America”, and so on depending on how detailed you want to be.

Demographic personas are often still a good starting point, but we’re on dangerous ground if that’s as far as we go. They can be great for planning key content and information needs, especially where there is essential content (such as visa and immigration requirements, or application processes) that are specific to particular demographic groups. But if we stop here, we are in danger of only shaping our content strategies around core information needs that we might see as being “housekeeping” content, information but not the type of content that will necessarily influence their decisions.

So we need to complement our demographic personas additional ways to segment our audiences.

2. Interest-led personas

Example: A prospective undergraduate student with an interest in biochemistry
Leads to: content that is interesting to them and connects to other interesting content

Just because I’m a thirty-something middle-class woman from the North East of England doesn’t mean that I actually have anything in common with others of that description beyond, well, that description itself. Put me in that box alone and you miss what actually matters to me. That’s where interest-led personas come into play.

With interest-led personas we begin to build up more of a picture that enables us to plan for and create the types of content that serve an individual’s different interests. From this position, we can then begin to build connections between our content based on relevance for people based on their interests. This is essential for developing personalised content approaches, creating effective uses of marketing automation technologies, and – eventually – building artificial intelligence (such as chat bot) interactions in a meaningful and convincing (“human”) way.

But we can also go a stage further…

3. Motivational personas

Example: An individual that wants to improve global health
Leads to: content that demonstrates empathy and influences relationships

It seems as though our audiences are becoming ever-more self-aware about their passions, their purpose in life, their goals and visions, and – underpinning it all – their values and motivations.

By adding the layer of motivational-based personas, we’re able to rethink how our audiences might bond or find common interest around deeply held beliefs or defining personality traits, not coincidences of birth or interests.

So, with our motivational-based personas we start to segment our audiences as “tribes” with common values. Do they aspire to change the world for the good of all others? Do they have aspirations to be in the rich list? Are they driven by a sense of adventure and a need to explore?

By tapping into their real motivations and values, we can really plan the substance of our content strategies in a way that doesn’t just provide them with critical information or interesting content, but actually provides them with content that shows empathy for their beliefs and truly influences them and their relationship with your organisation. In a way, we can consider this the evolution of branding in a world separated by personalised and segmented content experiences, and diverse values and beliefs.

Ideally, we’d recommend a blend of all three or at least two of these approaches to develop the matrix of personas to inform your content. This is something that we’ve already developed as a model for a number of education institutions, so don’t be afraid to reach out for a chat about how we can develop a similar approach for you.

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  • Ross McCall - Reply

    May 26, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    This article was really helpful in showing how the personas my organization has been working with are one or at best two dimensional by these criteria. I wonder whether you create these as three totally distinct sets of personas for a client, or whether all three aspects are built into one document. Are there examples you can share of finished persona documents.

  • Tracy Playle - Reply

    July 4, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for the comment Ross. We tend to blend them in a number of different ways, or preference using one type more predominantly than another. To give an example, I’ve recently completed a set for a university where there are 12 demographic personas and 6 motivational personas. In each of the demographic personas, we assign a “weighting” of the motivational personas to them, to show how dominant those motivational triggers and characteristics are within each of the demographic personas. We then build content approaches aligned to each. Typically demographic personas influence core information needs (stage of study, visa requirements, course information, etc), whereas the motivational personas influence the type of content to really set your institution apart – including content marketing content (inbound content), and planning content for personalisation.

    Sadly I can’t share real examples here as they’re all (and there are many now as we do this a lot) from paid consultancy that we’ve done for clients and are therefore sensitive client info, but I’m happy to talk through them more if you’d like to get in touch or ask further questions.


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