The most valuable part of any research is the insight. That nugget of truth that expands your understanding and guides strategy and messaging. Digging for insights isn’t easy—you have to go beyond the surface and get some dirt under your nails. And gasp! you may even have to talk with people outside your organization to widen your own (narrow?) perspective and blow up those assumptions you’ve been operating from for way too long.
Yet this tendency to institutionalize internal biases and base strategic thinking on stubbornly persistent misperceptions is all too common. Our research clearly shows a split, almost right down the middle, on opinions about insights and personas. Sadly, nearly half (46%) of all respondents say their personas are not yielding any new insights. If personas are to add value, they simply MUST yield new insights or face extinction. As more businesses are turning to personas to reveal new insights, practitioners must take a methodological approach instead of repackaging hunches or restating hackneyed marketing adages as insight. We must raise the bar.
Here’s a big part of the current problem: our research shows that far too many businesses (57%) are relying solely on internal information to create personas. To us, this is nothing short of marketing malpractice. It’s navel-gazing of the very worst sort. This reliance on incomplete and often inaccurate information fails to reveal gaps between what your customer wants and what you offer, causing you to miss potentially valuable opportunities. How can you possibly meet your customer at the intersection of their unmet needs and your capabilities if you have no roadmap?
In addition, many respondents (40%) say they’re creating personas in less than a month. Any researcher worth her salt will tell you this is more like a “fill-in-the-blank” exercise than a real exploration that may reveal unexpected insight. Good data takes time(!). It takes time to understand the landscape first, then to formulate hypotheses and questions. It takes time to find and talk with the right people and follow where those conversations take you. It takes time to analyze the results and see what the patterns are. And it takes time to wrap all that up into a highly actionable, nearly living and breathing persona. This is not an exercise in fiction writing—this is non-fiction, biographical work that requires more research than imagination. And it takes time.
Creating actionable personas also takes money. Like any valuable business investment, personas will only deliver the value you put into them. Our research shows that unfortunately, many businesses (33%) are spending the equivalent of a couple of focus groups to create up to nine personas. Imagine that for a minute: if you’ve talked with 18 people in two focus groups over the course of four hours, that means you’re basing your personas on two people (not even enough to form a pattern) that you’ve heard from for a matter of minutes. That’s not responsible research. It’s not even close to giving you any real understanding of who these people are. And yet, that’s what’s happening all too often.
Committing to personas also takes persistence. Personas aren’t a permanent solution, yet many businesses recycle personas year after year, even in the face of great change. Personas are a place to start to understand your customers and your prospects, but they’re not the end. They must be refreshed and updated to reflect changing needs, attitudes, behaviors, values and market conditions. When personas become stale, they’ve outlived their useful life and need to be re-examined in light of current realities.
So let’s recap: A lot of businesses are investing too little time and money, and relying on past-their-expiration-date personas. No wonder there’s an insight problem.
To sum it up, if you’re looking for more insightful, valuable personas, you might consider adopting more of the attitude of Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense who once famously said, “There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Let’s go find out what we don’t know and stop making stuff up.