140 Characters of Pure Persona Bliss

In my last post, I fleetingly mentioned 140 character personas. These deserve more air time. They’re super cool. They have the power to transform your nonprofit’s messaging.

Meet Jia Zhang. He is a graduate student at MIT’s Social Computing Group and a visual journalist intern at FiveThirtyEight. Zhang noticed the following:

Census data is often seen at a large scale — atlases, research studies and interactive visualizations all offer the view from 10,000 feet. But there are people inside those top-line numbers. And when you start to look at the people in the data sets, you get a glimpse of their lives. Just a few descriptors — how much they work, whom they take care of, where they were born — can give us a sense of the people around us.



Called censusAmericans, it tweets short biographies of Americans based on data they provided to the U.S. Census Bureau between 2009 and 2013. Using a small Python program, the bot reconstitutes numbers and codes from the data into mini-narratives. Once an hour, it turns a row of data into a real person.

This clever Twitter bot mines census data and dishes up gems like these:

Personas, Twitter, census data















And–bam!–just like that you get a good sense for these people. Can’t you just see how their story might unfold? Can you see how what these three people care about might differ? How their day-to-day lives would look really different from person to person? Knowing that–and expanding on it to create a full persona–is the stuff of messaging magic.

If you don’t have the time, or feel overwhelmed at the prospect of, creating a full-blown persona, create a 140 character one. It’s a whole heckuva lot better than not having a persona at all! Zhang has made it easy–simply look through the censusAmericans Twitter stream for inspiration that auto-magically regenerates every hour!

Two Great Tools for Perfecting your Personas

Personas are a super important part of getting your messaging to resonate with different target audiences. That’s why we’ve written so many posts on it on blogs. Like this one, and this one, and this one, for instance.

Refresher: Personas get you out of your head and into the heads–and ultimately hearts–of your donors, supporters, volunteers, board members, etc. They allow you to understand the motivations and behaviors of different types of people. This means you can optimize your messaging and the mechanisms in which you use that messaging, e.g. website, Twitter, appeal letters, etc.

In Claxon University’s Words on a Mission course, nonprofits create a persona in Lesson 7. In prepping the Study Guide for that lesson, we came across two suuuuuuuuuuper funective (fun + effective) tools for  building personas. They give you extremely useful info on people in different zip codes and couldn’t be easier to use.

1) ESRI’s Zip Lookup

They’ve created a series of different target audience groups. Clack in any zip code in the country and you get a quick n’ dirty sense of who is living in that area. I tried 98118, the most diverse zip code in the country as of a few years ago. Here’s what I learned:

ESRI Screen Shot 1


And when you click on one of the titles, you get info about that group:

ESRI Screen Shot 2


You can also quickly see info about income by zip code, county, state and the country as a whole. Super spiffy.

2) Nielson’s MyBestSegments Tool

You can also search by zip code using this tool. Their breakdowns are a little more granular. You get information like this:

Nielson Zip look up


And then you can click on segments for a description, like this one for the Big City Blues segment.

Again, super spiffiness abounds on this site.

These are both great jumping off points for nonprofits who are savvy enough to create personas. Yes, you’ll still have to do work to create a persona that makes sense for your marketing objectives. But these free tools mean you can get all sorts of really good data in about as long as it takes you to say, “Do I have to create a persona?!” (Answer: Only if you want fabulous messaging that helps you successfully achieve your goals…up to you.)

P.S. Need some quick inspiration to get you going? Behold–personas in a 140 characters or less, all based on census data. Short, sweet n’ geeky.

***Want to engage more people more deeply in your mission? Grab your seat at Claxon University!***

Personas are people, too!


Photo credit: http://recycledinc.wordpress.com/
What do I do with all these personas?!

Susan Howlett brought me a question her class had asked about personas that had “stumped” her. It takes a lot to stump Susan so I figured, if Susan’s stumped and her class is stumped, you might also be stumped. This post is an effort to de-stump-ify you if you are, in fact, stumped by how to handle personas.

Before we get to the question, let’s be clear on what a persona is. Personas help you decide how to most effectively engage with your believers. They are a fictional representation of your ideal supporters. They help you get into the heads and hearts of the types of people who would be part of one of your target audience groups. What do they care about? Where do they get their information? How do they engage with organizations online? (For a blow by blow on how to create personas, download this awesome resource from Hubspot.)

A very specific point before we move on: If we’re being honest, we rarely write a piece from the perspective of the reader. Instead, we use ourselves as a proxy, i.e. we sit down and write something that we ourselves would want to read. If we like it, won’t everyone like it? No. What resonates with you and hits your emotional hot buttons doesn’t really matter. (Sorry to be harsh, but it had to be said.) What matters is what matters to those supporting your organization. So you have to get out of your head and into theirs. Thus personas.

Now that you know why you need personas and how to create them, the question then becomes: “If I have a whole bunch of personas and each of those personas is motivated by different emotions and, therefore, different words, how the heck am I supposed to make sure my annual report/newsletter/blog post/speech resonates with all of them!?”

The short answer is: you don’t.

The slightly longer answer is: you can’t please all the personas all the time. If you did that, you’d end up with boring, bland stuff that no one would want to read because you’d be trying to appeal to everyone. The whole point of having personas is to be able to craft messages that hit the mark for that particular persona, right? If you try to hit on everything that might possibly, conceivably matter to all of your personas at the same time, it’d be like unleashing a blaze of arrows at the same time—they’d go hither, thither and yon while never hitting the bulls eye. So sad.

Here’s what you do: you optimize each piece for one persona.

Every time you sit down to write something, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the goal of this piece?
  2. Based on #1, which persona does this piece need to resonate with most in order to be successful?

Optimizing for one persona doesn’t mean it won’t resonate with other personas. It means it will resonate most with the types of people you need to connect with in order for that particular piece to be successful. For instance:

Are you optimizing your event materials for ‘Sue the Sponsor’ or ‘Fred the First-Time Attendee’? (If you want more help on the event sponsor front, check out Shanon Doolittle’s amazing event fundraising video series.)

Is your Annual Report optimized for ‘Erin the Existing Donor’ Or ‘Patty the Potential Donor’? Erin will be delighted to learn more about what her donation has done, but really what’s in it for Patty? Usually not as much as we’d like to think. Optimize for Erin.

Is your newsletter really, truly optimized for ‘Dawn the Dutiful Donor’? If, based on your research while building your personas, you learn that the Dawns of the world prefer hard copy newsletters, then sending it electronically, although less expensive in the short-term, might be costing you money in the long run.

At first, optimizing for one persona will feel scary. But try it a few times and, usually, the results will speak for themselves.

Quick Tip: Zan McColloch-Lussier shared this tip with me many moons ago and it’s a really, really good one. Whenever you sit down to write something, write down the name of the persona for which you are optimizing. Yep, like write it down where you can see it. You’ll be stunned and amazed at how much more on target your messaging becomes when you have a crystal clear mental image of who will, eventually, be reading it. (Cuz as we covered above, it ain’t you.)

Photo credit: http://recycledinc.wordpress.com/

Stop talking to donors like donors

When you’re engaging donors, volunteers, board members, etc in your work, do you keep front and center the fact that:

Most people wear a bunch of hats and don’t think of themselves primarily as donors.

People think of themselves as a mom, dad, friend, daughter, brother, auntie, etc. Or, donning their professional hat, a barista, a nurse, a project manager, a student, a lawyer, a developer, a chef. etc. Or, donning their hobby hat, a runner, a yogi, a musician, a painter, a football fan, a poet, a knitter, etc.

“Well, duh, Erica!” you’re saying right about now. But admit it–when you’re ready to write an e-newsletter, a direct mail piece, a blog post, etc, you likely switch to thinking of the people on the receiving end of that communications first and foremost–and possibly solely–as donors. (It’s okay, we’ve all been there.)

Fundraisers focused on major gifts help people switch hats all the time. The good ones do this really, really well. When they sit down with someone, they know a lot about them. That’s what allows them to start out the conversation with what’s going on in that person’s life. They help them take off their “harried parent/busy professional/OMG-I-forgot-to-swap-out-the-laundry” hat and put on their “I-can-make-the-world-a-better-place-yihaw” hat. Did their son just head off to college? Is their niece in a dance recital? Did their dog just graduate to the next level of doggie school? They start the conversation there and then ease into a conversation about how their donations, investments, philanthropy and charitable choice.

So how do you apply this high-touch, in-person one-on-one fundraising technique to one-to-many marketing efforts? You do everything you can to make everything you do feel as personal as possible.

Two tips:

  1. Look at your list and figure out what hat the people on the receiving end will be wearing when they read or, more likely, quickly scan your piece. (Yes, yes, many people, many hats. Take your best guess. If you have no idea who anyone is on your list, you have a different problem, my friend.) Will they be in front of a computer, having just arrived at their office, slamming back a cup of joe before heading into a day full of meetings? Will they be at home on a mobile device, making dinner, switching out laundry and sifting through their personal email? Or perhaps they’re a retiree who enjoys more in-depth information and has the time to read longer pieces? Figure out their situation and write accordingly. Feed them the information they want, how they want it. (Hint within a hint: Look at your balance of ‘you’ to ‘we’. ‘We’ is usually followed by something about the organization. ‘You’ is usually followed by something about them. You want more ‘you’ than ‘we’.)
  2. Write everything with one person in mind. A real, live person who represents the type of person who will be reading the piece. (This is why personas are so important.) Write something they’d love to read. Others will love it, too.

Obviously, you shouldn’t stop talking to donors, volunteers and board members. But you should stop talking to them as if supporting your cause is the only thing they have going on in their lives. It isn’t.


Analytics on the Brain

analytics, fundraising, statistics, brain science

Last week, I got an infusion of awesomeness from Josh Birkholz and Justin Ware of Benz Whaley Flessner. They did a workshop on navigating the new frontier of social media and predictive analytics.

To make smart decisions for your organization, you’ve got to have analytics on the brain. For marketing, that means looking at what’s working, what’s not and for whom.

Josh pointed out that marketers focus on defining groups of people whereas fundraising data-heads (aka people like Josh who practice predictive analytics) differentiate between groups.

To get people engaged, you learn the art of identifying which types of people are drawn to your organization and create personas based on that. Then you figure out how to get the attention of people who fit that persona.

To keep people engaged, you differentiate by figuring out what works best with different types of supporters in your database.

For-purpose, mission-driven marketing is often more art than science. Organizations generally don’t have the budget to test in a way that produces statistically significant results. However, you can bring some science to the art of figuring out what works with different types of supporters.

Once you’ve created personas for your top 2-3 types of supporters, here are two simple ideas to try:

  • Do A/B testing on your e-newsletters and see what motivates current subscribers to forward it (which eventually leads to more newsletter subscribers and, eventually, supporters).
  • Track which Facebook posts get the most reaction from different types of people, e.g. someone who ‘likes’ you but doesn’t donate, current volunteer, past donor, etc.
Over time, you’ll learn what works with which types of people. You’ll be better able to make decisions about how to align your messaging, content and tactics with current goals.
If you already have plenty of people in your database and want someone super smart to help you make sense of it all so you can better achieve your goals, call Josh. You’ll learn a ton AND have fun.

Lady Gaga on Nonprofit Marketing

Whether she knew it or not, Lady Gaga offered some great advice to non profit marketers in a recent interview when she said, “There is magic in reality.”

Here’s how this relates to you: the reality of the person doing the marketing (that’s you, if you’re reading this) is different than the reality of the person to whom you are marketing. If you want to be able to engage people who care about your cause, you’ve got to figure out what the magic of their reality is. As forward and uncomfortable as it may sound, you’ve got to get in their heads.  

If you are the one in charge of marketing your non profit, you–by definition–lack perspective. (No offense. It’s just how it is.) You’re thinking about, reflecting upon and proactively doing something about getting people’s attention. The person on the receiving end is wondering if they should have a second butterhorn for breakfast. They’re in a different head space. Your job is to get into their  head space.

Here are two resources for helping you get into the heads–and hearts–of people who want to help you advance your mission:

Have you made personas for your organization? Any other ideas for how to get in the heads of people who care about your cause?

Relativity, Narrowness and Names

My son, who is three and a bit, is obsessed with organizing things by size. Cups, toys, trains. Is the red cup bigger than the yellow one? Is the brown bear smaller than the white one? It’s all about relativity. Why is this?

At a workshop I gave in Bellingham on St. Patrick’s Day, I shared that there were 36.5 million people of Irish heritage in the U.S. That’s nine times the population of Ireland. Which number do you think they remembered at the end of the workshop: 36.5 or 9? That’s right, 9. And not just because it’s smaller. But because it was relative.  We train our brains from a very early age to compare and contrast. Absolutes are tough to wrap our brains around. My son will not grow out of his penchant for comparing; he’ll grow into it.

We spent a fair amount of time at Tune-Up Tuesday thinking about relativity as it relates (ha, ha) to messaging.

Lesson: use relativity to your advantage so people remember your organization and mission.

Two other key take-aways from this month’s meet-up:

  1. Personas are powerful. They are also hard to do. They force us to be specific and think deeply about one type of person who cares about our cause rather than the universe of people who might. Lesson: Deep and narrow beats shallow and wide when it comes to messaging.
  2. Names matter. A lot. If your organization goes by an acronym, be consistent about using that acronym. If you have an acronym AND you use the full name, you’re managing two brands. That’s expensive and erodes brand equity. Lesson: When it comes to names and acronyms, use one or the other but not both.

For those that were there, anything to add? For those that coudn’t join, what were you hoping to cover?

Participant-Powered Engagement

Mea culpa. For years, I’ve referred to ‘target audiences’ and ‘target markets’. I did this because knowing who you are trying to engage in your mission is important.

But audiences and markets sound like nebulous blobs. Faceless, feature-less, and certainly not able to help you advance your mission.

What we’re really after is passionate participants. Individuals, organizations, and institutions who want to help power your mission.

Inspired by Nancy Schwartz and Kivi Leroux Miller, I would like to suggest that we start using the term ‘target participant’.

How then do nonprofits go about identifying, connecting and engaging target participants?

  1. Identify your goal. What do you want people to do? What will be different for your organization and the community if people participate in making the change happen? Make it S.M.A.R.T.
  2. Identify target participants who would want to help you achieve your goal. Who are they? Why would they care?
  3. Write a hypothetical persona for each target participant. [Don’t worry about this step yet. We’ll tackle it later in the month.]
  4. Craft messages that will resonate with those personas.
  5. Test the messages with real-life people who match your persona.
  6. Push the messages out via channels that your target participants use. (You’ll figure this out when you do the personas. Again, don’t stress about it yet.)

I’m not going to lie: participant-powered engagement takes some work. But you’re working hard anyway, so why not make that hard work pay off for you, your mission, and your community?!

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?