Persona is a term that has been bandied around for years. Personas are really important to us at Reflect Digital, so we always ask clients what they have in place when we first get introduced and what we see really varies, everything from a list of demographics to full persona stories and journey plans. It seems there is confusion around the real benefit of personas and therefore what they should contain to be useful, so I thought I’d take some time to put down my point of view on this.

To me, personas are the bedrock of any marketing strategy and any campaign. Without intimately understanding your audience and their motivations you are failing them by just starting to market to them. In this article, I will help cover why I think they are so important, what should be included and different types of personas from empathy mapping to data-driven. 

Why personas?

Personas are there to help guide your marketing strategy. If we all just sat in boardrooms and did what we thought was best for our marketing we’d probably get it wrong quite a lot of the time as we are most likely not our target audience. Personas give us a lens to view our ideas and strategies through, and a filter to help us in making decisions.

Personas can also help us with our biases. A psychological nudge the ‘identifiable person effect’ means that one identifiable individual who is described in great detail evokes deeper emotions than a large group of anonymous individuals. So when we are trying to get buy-in for our strategies and to make people stop and listen, using a person to illustrate the why is much stronger than just saying ‘most people will like this’.

What gets included in a persona?

So we now know why, but what should personas really contain?

Almost always you see demographics, and sadly sometimes this is all you see! So demographics are useful to be there, for example, it’s a female audience, aged 20 - 30, with disposable income based in cities. This gives you some information to target, but in my mind, it misses the gold dust, so it is useful to have but not empowering. Demographics can sometimes come into their own with paid media targeting, but if demographics is all we know then it’s going to be really hard to craft the right messages.

Image mood boards, are often included in a more detailed persona and can be useful, especially when sharing these documents with designers. But it is important to consider where these mood boards come from as if it is an opinion of one designer they aren’t likely to be very reliable!

You then start to see stories written about the persona, which depending on how these are crafted can be useful, they might include ideas of the individual personally and professionally. 

  • Goals and tasks - you might see this in a persona, an idea of where the person is trying to get to or what they are trying to do relevant to the product or service. This can be insightful but if it’s not unpacked enough, it can lack the impact. 
  • Motivations - this is where it becomes interesting. This is where you can often throw some of the other info out the window, as actually, motivations unite people in a way that doesn’t always delineate with demographics etc. If we can understand why a person might be motivated to buy or use a service we can start to craft messaging that resonates with them. 

A great example of this is if you think of a 4x4 car buyer - I personally drive a 4x4 and my motivation was that I really liked the look of the car, I feel really good when I am driving it. A parent on the other hand might have done weeks or even months of research around car safety and which car seats fit which cars etc. and therefore could be a similar age and demographic to me but a completely different reason for picking the same car. This is where demographics fall down and motivations can absolutely win in driving results - as we can start to craft messages for the different types of motivation. 

Finally, we have data-driven personas, these rely on quantitative, behavioural data and machine learning methods to uncover users’ characteristics and group them statistically without subjective judgement. At the LAB group, our data comes from multiple sources - we survey customers/prospects, we can scrape content from online forums, social media or websites to allow us to index how a particular audience speaks and we then take this data and analyse it using machine learning to look for clusters. 

How do we build personas?

Across the LAB group, we have two key processes for building personas depending on what we are aiming to achieve.

#1 Persona workshops - empathy mapping

Our persona workshops are best suited when we want to be able to be creative and start to ideate messaging or campaign ideas. The focus is to create an empathy map. 

Why create an empathy map?

We know that the more relevant our message is to the current circumstance of the customer the more they will engage, but demographics do not ensure relevancy. Within any demographic, people presented with the same options make different choices, and some people make the same choice for different reasons.

What is an empathy map?

Based on empirically proven psychology models, an empathy map is a description of the many different intrinsic motivations that could be driving a choice or action. Most importantly, it gives us a language with which to communicate with the emotional, irrational, non-conscious mind of the customer.

We use our own psychology model, which is based on: 

  1. Triune Brain Theory – Paul MacLean PhD
  2. FIRO Theory – Will Schutz PhD
  3. Self-Relations Theory – Stephen Gilligan PhD
  4. 3 Needs Theory – David McCelland PhD
  5. Neuro-Linguistic Programming - Richard Bandler PhD & John Grinder PhD 


We design the empathy map during a workshop with experienced, customer-facing people on the client-side of the business, sometimes with actual customers in the room as well. This gives us insights into the customer which we use to model hypothetical ‘personas’.
Following the workshop, our behavioural science team will write the findings up into a detailed motivational based personas document. Within the write up we’ll include ideas of messaging hooks, call to actions and a digital translation - what is the user journey likely to look like for customers like this person. 

From here we can advance into detailed customer journey mapping which is done against the different personas, but that is another whole article - this previous article of mine will give you some insight.

#2 Data-driven personas

Data-driven personas need more time to build and are particularly strong in directing UX ideas or in responding to a tighter brief or challenge a brand might have with its audience. 
How do we do this?

First, we design a short survey to elicit behavioural, psychographic and topical responses from your target audience. We aim for 1000 respondents to make confident decisions about your audience's motivations, needs, frustrations and behaviours. 

These responses are then statistically analysed and clustered into personas using machine learning. Each ‘cluster’ or ‘persona’ represents different characteristics that are statistically similar to each other. E.g. The Cluster 1 persona might be younger and prefer scrolling lots and seeking inspiration when shopping online. In contrast, the cluster 2 persona might be older, enjoy using filters when shopping online but fear paying on their mobile. 

The characteristics of the persona are based on the survey questions we ask. We give each persona a more ‘human’ touch and make user-centric recommendations accordingly. 

What is the impact?

Personas often lead to an ‘ah ha’ moment - that moment when you can’t believe you didn’t see it like that before.

When it comes to our persona workshops the impact is quick, when the write-up is complete and the messaging is set with campaign ideas you suddenly see campaigns perform in ways they weren’t able to before.

For one of our B2B clients, we completely revamped their display and programmatic banners using the motivational personas we had created and the results were outstanding. One of our ads outperformed the original by 364.6% in terms of click-through rate and users that saw this concept were 3x more likely to complete a form. Across the campaign, the new ads resulted in a 23% reduction in cost per acquisition. 

This is one of many case studies from the years we have been refining this process, we always see a positive impact when we merge the customer understanding from the business, with a motivational focus and behavioural science - it really is a match made in messaging heaven!

From a data-driven perspective, the insights are sometimes surprising, especially how clear the data clusters into trends. The team at Verj are using this process and can build out confident recommendations based on data. There is a much lower subjective bias than can be found in the more creative ways to build personas, such as our workshops, but this is why it is so important the right process is in place for the desired outcome. Data-driven personas offer greater flexibility and application - whether it be segmenting coronary heart disease patients to establish persona-specific education plans or assessing the feasibility of personal safety mobile apps for women in India, data-driven personas have been used to transform user understanding in a way simple intuition never could. 

Whichever route is taken - personas give you a new way to look at things, and tests you can put in place and measure the impact with. Whether it's messaging for a paid media campaign, or the user journey and call to actions on a webpage built for conversions, or even for a full UX revamp of a website. There are so many use cases and when done right, personas will always bring insight, new ideas and a validation tool that as marketers we would be lost without!

Key takeaways

Personas are there to ensure you are marketing to your audience in a way that they want to be marketed to. It is pointless to just create messages that you and your team like - your number one influence needs to be your customer.

Personas have to be more than demographics as demographics tell us nothing about why a person does something. It is in between the realm of why a customer thinks they buy something and why they actually buy something that you’ll find your positioning sweet spot - it is not easy to find, but that is where the magic happens. 

Finding the right process to create personas for the desired use case is key - there is no correct answer.

Test, test and test again - personas should be a living part of your marketing strategy, not a dusty PDF dragged out every now and then. You should be testing different messaging, campaigns and customer journeys using your personas and refining them based on your results. 

What now?

Take time to review the personas your business is using, from what I covered - what are you missing? What are you aiming for from your personas? If they were just something someone put together and then filed on the shared drive to gather dust, then you are missing a huge opportunity. 

Your audience personas should be a living part of your marketing strategy, being revisited and refined over time to ensure you have the right lens to make critical marketing decisions. Take time to create a new habit within your marketing team that is embedded within your processes to ensure personas have a place at the table for every campaign ideation, review etc. 

If you’d be interested in finding out more about building personas for your brand, then please get in touch.




Reflect Digital was once nothing but a dream in Becky’s head. Becky is Reflect Digital’s CEO, having started Reflect Digital in 2011 she has grown the business to the strong agency team it is today.

Becky is a strategist at heart, and she shares her experience and knowledge with the Reflect Digital team and the business we work with. Full of creative ideas but with an eye always on ROI, Becky has a natural talent for spotting campaign opportunities and ensuring value is delivered.

More about Becky

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