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What's a Persona? Hear From an IMC Expert on the Power of the Persona


As the founder of Wax Marketing — an integrated marketing agency based in St. Paul, Minnesota — Bonnie Harris and her team design and implement IMC strategies for clients across the United States, focusing primarily on mid-sized companies in the healthcare, technology, and manufacturing industries.

As an industry trailblazer, we’re excited that we had the opportunity to interview Harris on our weekly Marketing Communications Today podcast. Here’s what she had to say.

Michael Lynch: I want to talk about personas. What is the traditional definition of persona in an integrated marketing communication platform?


Bonnie Harris: One of the reasons that I love talking about personas is that they have transformed over the years. Traditionally, a lot of food marketing companies and bigger brands would create semi-fictitious representations of their best customers, and that's really traditionally how personas were created for brands. Betty Crocker being probably the most famous persona in the U.S. An interesting thing about Betty Crocker is that a survey a few years ago showed that she was so prolific that 60 percent of people thought she was an actual person, so that's how powerful they can be today.

Today, and for the use of integrated marketing, we really use personas in a different fashion and much more like digital marketers do in that traditional personas really focused a lot on demographics and descriptors of these customers. Whereas, in IMC, we really look at the behaviors that are relevant to what we're trying to get done. Also, it usually has a name and a face, so that we can feel like we get to know that person — ergo, the name persona. We're looking at what are they doing, how are they interacting, how are they engaging, and that's really how we define them in IMC.

ML: I know traditionally a lot of brand managers and people like that have tried to create a personality for their brands. In the age of social media and in the changes that we've seen in marketing, are we still seeing that brands are trying to give their products a personality?

BH: I mean, I think that this is a little bit of a separate topic, but you're right. I mean the whole thing with social media and also with integration is that you have to be authentic. And that hasn't changed that much over the years except that in the past, we really had very few channels in which a brand was represented. You had broadcast television and print, and few years ago, blogs started coming. Now, there are a million different channels or networks that we represent, and we have to be authentic and familiar across all of them.

Having a strong personality — that no matter if you're seeing this brand on a billboard or you're seeing them within Twitter, or Facebook, or on a traditional broadcast ad — it's still familiar. You know that personality. And as marketers, we know that the more familiar something is, the more we like it. So, that's really how that brand personality comes about.

ML: How do personas really tie into influence marketing or influencing behaviors?

BH: Influencer marketing is really interesting because what we've seen is social media has become so much more powerful — the impacts of peer-to-peer marketing and recommendations and reviews. An example, is health care, anybody who is doing health care provider marketing as we are at Wax knows that reviews for doctors have suddenly become just massively important. Personas in health care marketing help define a particular patient to reach that target market based on their needs.

ML: Why would we want to use personas with integrated marketing communication?

BH: Well, one of the things that integrated marketing really focuses on is the customer user experience, or at a very basic definition, the five stages of the buying cycle. If you think of a purchase as getting an interview with a journalist, everybody goes through this first: They recognize that they have a need and at the very end, there is post-purchase behavior. And then there are other steps — from searching for alternatives, the actual buy, all that kind of stuff. So, if we know how our target audiences are behaving within each of those steps and we know the behavior or we know the messages that we can use to motivate that behavior and get them to move faster through that, then we'll reach our goals that much more quickly.

We're not really building personas that look like a full holistic picture of a person. That's a traditional persona. IMC persona or a persona used in digital marketing or in integration is really focused on the behaviors that are only relevant to our goals, so they're super small. They're nuggets of information. They're much easier to build. I would go to a data person like you and say, show me some trends within these demographics of how people behave and convert when filling out a form, for example. That would help me understand the behavior.

ML: How can you create good personas quickly?

BH: You go to the data guys. If a marketer has been working within a brand for a long time, some of it is already there. Digital marketers may already have personas that can be adapted for other channels. For example, if you're wanting to do more brand awareness, you've got to really get a lot of communications out there or a PR. You can usually adapt something that a digital marketer might have used for a similar audience to get social media engagement going or to get influencer marketing going. But again, you're adapting that persona based on the goals or KPIs that you have. So, you're adapting the persona to be focused on the behaviors that are relevant to your goal and nothing else.


More About Bonnie Harris: Prior to founding her IMC practice, Harris worked in the technology industry for 16 years, eventually rising to the role of vice president, where she oversaw sales, marketing, and operations for nine profit centers in eight states. She received her master’s degree from the West Virginia University IMC program in December of 2007 and completed her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Minnesota in 2001.

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