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A common questions we’re often asked, especially when we’re doing customer journey mapping, is, “What is the difference between a role and persona?” Quickly, followed by, “Why does it matter?”

Don’t confuse roles and personas. You need both.

Clarifying Roles from Personas

Let’s first clarify the difference. A role reflects specific group of individuals who typically perform the same function. In the B2B world, title often provides some insight into a role. For example, a chief financial officer, a chief security officer, a systems administrator.  From these titles, you can begin to understand what function the person serves within the organization.

These people may or may not have the same persona. For example, accountants perform the same role or function in most organizations. But among accountants there could be a number of personas. Some accountants may be “strictly by the book.”  Others might be willing to “push the envelope.” Personas are archetypal groups that represent the needs of a larger group’s goals, requirements, and personal preferences. Personas “stand-ins” for real customers. A persona seeks to hone in on behavior and characteristics using a concise and specific qualitative description.

Personas describe customers while roles describe relationships between customers and the product or service. Roles do not resemble real people. They define a collection of characteristic needs, interests, expectations, and behaviors in relation to a product/service. Personas on the other hand are figurative models that resemble real customers, even down to photos, background information, and personal history.

Bringing Personas to Life: An Example

Creating personas takes data, offered gather using both primary and secondary research. Here’s an example of how data helps create personas.

A number of years ago, Booz-Allen & Hamilton and Nielsen//NetRatings completed a study on web usage patterns. They wanted to understand HOW people actually use the Internet as a potential approach to segmentation.  Their study introduced the concept of ”occasionalization,” as a way to segment people based on online usage. The study suggested that occasions rather than on user-based characteristics, such as demographics or attitudinal data provided a better way to segment online customers. 

Here’s the personas they crafted from their extensive research and the implications to marketing:

  • Quickies: Typically short (1 minute) sessions that center around visits to two or fewer familiar sites. Users spend about 15 seconds per page extracting specific bits of information or sending e-mail. Users in Quickie sessions may not notice any type of message as they scoop up the needed information and log off.
  • Just the Facts: Users seeking specific pieces of information from known sites. At nine minutes, these sessions are longer than Quickies but share the aspect of rapid page views. These occasions are less likely to involve sites best enjoyed at leisure, such as entertainment. Users in Just the Facts sessions have a low propensity to buy.
  • Single Mission: Users want to complete a certain task or gather specific information, then leave the Internet. During these visits, generally lasting 10 minutes, users venture into unfamiliar sites to find what they need, while concentrating on sites within a single category. Users in Single Mission sessions are only open to messages related to the purpose of the session, but a well-targeted banner ad may provide a good return.
  • Do It Again: These sessions are 14 minutes in length and are notable for lingering page views: two minutes, tied with Loitering for the longest of the seven types of sessions. Ninety-five percent of the time is spent at sites the user has visited at least four times in the past. Users in Do It Again sessions may be willing to click through banner ads that are strategically placed on their favorite sites or react to site sponsorships that bring real content directly to the them.
  •  Loitering: At 33 minutes in length, with two-minute page views, Loitering sessions are similar to Do It Agains: leisurely visits to familiar “”sticky”” sites, such as news, games, telecommunications/ISP and entertainment sites. A company undertaking a brand positioning campaign would focus on Loitering sessions, for which the user spends more time on each page and is more likely to absorb the marketer’s message and develop the necessary brand associations.
  • Information, Please: These sessions average 37 minutes in length and are used to build in-depth knowledge of a topic, perhaps for a research report. They differ from Single Missions because users gather broad information from a range of sites. Users in Information, Please sessions are mostly going to familiar sites, but are willing to cross categories and linger on a page that piques their interest, giving marketers an opportunity to expose them to different messages.
  • Surfing: Surfing sessions are the longest, averaging 70 minutes, with few stops at familiar sites, as users hit nearly 45 sites in a typical session. Time per page is a minute or more, suggesting wide, but not deep, explorations. Surfers usually spend time on sites with lots of content, giving marketers opportunities to build branding awareness, since during these occasions users will be exposed to messages for a relatively long time. Sponsorships of content are another good approach, encouraging users to associate their favorite content with a specific brand name.

Personas are just as valuable in B2B. Personas bring a particular type of customer to life. It helps Marketing, Sales, Customer Support and the rest of the organization understand the personality, motivations, priorities, challenges and concerns.  Personas provide a common organization-wide point of view about customers and insights their preferences regarding messages, content and channels.

The Value of Roles and Personas

Using roles and personas to help with marketing initiatives has advantages and disadvantages. 

A guiding principle about defining a role is that the information should fit on a single index card. Roles are concise quick and easy to understand. However, typically roles do not provide context or a portrait of the customer.

Customers are people. As such they are complex and multifaceted.  Personas tend to provide a better reflection of the customer. For them to be valuable, there must a an appealing, memorable narrative associated with the persona. If overdone personas can obscure what is important and make it difficult to know where to focus.

Persona development is quite an undertaking.  When does it make sense to go through the effort of creating personas? When people performing the same function act (buy, use, etc) differently because they have different motivations, intentions, context, skills or experiences then personas will provide you with greater insight than a role approach.

Personas also enable customer-centricity and facilitate organization-wide alignment, making it easier for everyone to keep their target market and prospects in mind as they go about their respective functions related to increasing revenue and profitability. Creating personas takes real research. 

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