Enhancing your audience understanding through personas – a how-to guest blog

When someone is super duper smart about something, I always hope they’ll share their smarts. Lucky for us, Heather Hamilton, who knows a gob smacking amount about personas and audience segmentation, has agreed to. She knows about the art and science of connecting with people on-line. Enjoy! Erica


“My name is Heather, and I research people online for a living”. Well, that’s partially true…I mean, it’s part of what I do. I run a small consulting firm called Whiz Bang Solutions that helps organizations connect with people online. We help our clients understand who their most important audiences are and then we develop content and engagement strategies that help these organizations connect with those people in relevant and meaningful ways. So target audience insights are a foundational piece of that work. In fact, I believe that understanding the folks on the receiving end of your messaging is the most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your outreach. All the help that Erica provides to organizations telling the story of their missions? It all starts with knowing their audiences.

So Erica asked me to share a little about my process. Let me start out by saying that if you are an organization with a humongo budget for an audience insight project, I am NOT your gal. My experience comes from  looking up boyfriends online almost twenty years in the staffing industry, where you really can’t attract the right people if you don’t know who they are, and from creating these target profiles with a budget of exactly zero dollars. Fortunately, the age of over-sharing is upon us, so gathering data online about peoples’ opinions and habits? Piece of cake.

Step One: Define your mission and stakeholders. It sounds a little basic, but revisiting your objective and asking yourself who the people are that can impact your success will help ensure you’re looking at the right potential audience subjects. For example, if your mission is to provide safe playgrounds for kids and you are only reaching out to moms of toddlers, well, Houston, we have a problem. You’re not thinking big enough. Explore your objective, toss it around and poke at it so you are able to define your stakeholders in the broadest possible way. For example: parents, members of communities that include children, child-related service providers, people who talk about issues related to children online, leaders of organizations serving families, toy manufacturers. You get the idea. Brainstorm and go broad.

Step two: Determine where you can find data about these people. Much of the data you can find online, but don’t forget the data you collect about your current supporters. I really enjoy this part. I feel like a PI (sans mustache)…that data is out there and it’s my job to uncover it. Don’t try to focus your research only on uncovering your targets in the context of their interest in the nonprofit space. Donors don’t think of themselves only, or even mainly, as donors.  They think of themselves as parents, professionals, neighbors, friends, etc. Get creative and think about where folks might share their relevant thoughts. For example, you might find people sharing comments about the merits of specific playgrounds in parents forums. You’ll find information on peoples’ careers and interests on LinkedIn. You’ll find folks’ buying habits in Amazon product reviews. And here and there you will strike upon chunks of data that really start to paint the picture of your target audiences.

Step three: This step I refer to as “collect without judgment” because you’ll start to collect data for analysis before you ever know if that data is important. For example, you may end up finding that families with multiple children are more likely to use a playground. You won’t know this at the outset of course. So capture your data (like number of children) when it’s available and don’t judge its usefulness just yet. I use Excel for this because it allows me to create huge data sets and manipulate them easily through hiding, filtering and sorting. Make sure that all of the stakeholder groups you identified in step one around accounted for. You now have loads of audience insights. So now comes the targeting part…

Step four: Next determine some messaging or engagement goals that relate to your objectives and the role that your stakeholders play. Let’s return to our safe playground example. Perhaps enhancing name recognition for the organization and retaining donors are shorter term priorities and growing your average gift size is a longer term priority. When they align their stakeholders to these goals, they see the importance of people who talk about issues related to children online, because this stakeholder group impacts their short and long term priorities: they can help generate name recognition and can be a source of donor advertising opportunities; they may even become donor-advocates. These stakeholder groups are now priorities for your analysis. They aren’t your target audiences, but they will be highly represented.

Step five: Now the data fun begins. I’m not even joking. This is where your target audience personas really come to life. Review your data set and specifically focus on your priority stakeholders from step four (without completely excluding your other stakeholders). Start to sort the data and you will see trends emerge. For example, you might see that there is a group of stakeholders that live in large cities, are active on social media with many followers and like to post pictures online, and others are donors to child-related organizations, go to church, have a dog and drive a sensible car. The magic of this stage is that you don’t end up finding your target audiences, your target audiences end up finding you. Don’t keep your data subjects sequestered in their stakeholder buckets. The folks that live in large cities and post pictures to their massive Twitter followers can help you generate more name recognition and the sensible donors who drive a Volvo may be great fundraising targets.

Step six: Create audience personas. This part is creative and can feel a little silly, but it really helps rally the troops behind your target audience segments. I write short biographies about a prototypical member of each high-priority segment. So “Susie” may be your social media maven, who lives in a walk-up in Brooklyn with her two kids and cat. She works as a writer and on weekends she takes her kids to the playground and then out to lunch and checks her Facebook account frequently throughout the day and writes her mommy blog at night. By creating a persona for fictional but totally data-based Susie, your influencer audience comes to life. And the people responsible for messaging can make sure they are talking to Susie each time they produce a campaign or program aimed at generating more name-recognition for your organization.

Essentially, you’ve taken a big amorphous group of people who maybe-could help your organization fulfill its mission, and turned them into tangible audience members with the highest likelihood of helping you kick a little do-good butt.

If you’ve got questions on my approach, or ideas on great sources of audience data, feel free to get in touch or drop a comment here!



Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?