The Most Important Persona Question (Hint: It involves super powers)

Three Business SuperheroesIf you have ever watched a young child play you’ve seen them turn into all kinds of super heroes from Spiderman to Wonder Woman to the Incredible Hulk. It’s fascinating to watch them transform into these fantasy characters. It gives them the ability to break from reality and imagine a world where they are in control; where they are special in very visible ways.

And although we don’t show it in quite the same way, humans don’t out grow this desire to be a super hero. Deep inside each of us is a super power waiting to come out. A secret desire to control destiny in super human ways. That’s why if I only had one question to ask a research participant it would be  “If you could wave a magic wand and have ANY super power what would it be and why”. It’s a question most research participants don’t expect. That alone makes it worth asking. But even more important, the responses are incredibly enlightening if you listen carefully to the why.

Although it is a great question, we’re lucky that conducting research isn’t based on only having to ask one question! Here are some other things to keep in mind as you are conducting persona conversations.

IT’S A CONVERSATION, NOT A SURVEY: Being prepared means establishing an interview guide to drive your conversation. Unfortunately, if you’re not well-practiced at persona research your interview guide turns into a survey. You ask ALL of the questions on the survey in the order you wrote them down. Nothing more, nothing less. Surveys are incredibly helpful tools, but they are unsuitable substitute for a conversation. Instead provide give and take. Use open-ended questions. Go down an unexpected path that the research participants leads you towards. Comment on their responses. And whatever you do DON’T compile the interview responses into a “survey like” summary report. You’ll be missing all the nuance that helps you build a persona that truly drives at emotional motivation.

YOU ARE NOT MESSAGE TESTING: While you’ve got a potential buyer on the phone why not test some messaging? Two very good reasons. First, you are putting words into your participants mouth and you’ll miss the chance to hear what words they use to describe challenges and opportunities they face. Second, if you really want to create a persona that can be used as a foundation for all kinds of marketing outreach it must be independent of your specific offerings and company. You are trying to figure out what makes a person tick not if they will like your product. Personas are about emotional triggers NOT buying processes.

TALK TO MORE PEOPLE THAN YOU THINK NECESSARY It’s natural to go into persona research thinking you know the “profile” of your buyer. Our instincts are to find 5-7 people who validate what we think to be true. While human nature, it is also a terrible opportunity lost. Don’t limit your research to the obvious candidates. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give you 30 minutes of their time if you ask. And while it might turn out some of the interviews don’t align completely to your goals, you are likely to be pleasantly surprised by others.

PERSONAS ARE NOT TITLES Titles are easy to identify, but they are incredibly misleading. Many people try to make a persona a profile and start looking for “target personas”. This naturally leads to a persona becoming a search for people with different titles. Instead a persona should be used to (1) Create a basis for generating content and offers that attracts the right kind of buyer. Are specific analogies going to appeal to them? What tone of voice is likely to resonate? Are they visual in nature? What is their underlying emotional motivation? (2) As a basis for evaluating how to maximize the relationship of a person you are already engaging. As I am talking to someone do they seem like persona A? persona B? If I know that about them how will it change the words I use? The amount of time I engage them? What I propose as next steps? As a marketer you need both personas and profiles, just don’t try to do both in one approach!

Lucky for us, we don’t need super powers to conduct research. Just be yourself and make people comfortable being themselves. With some unexpected questions and an open mind you’ll learn more than you expect.