The middle-aged finance executive and single mom who plays tennis in her rare moments of spare time. The Millennial-aged chief operations officer who’s out to prove himself by finding greater efficiencies using his background in behavioral economics. The CEO focused on building a profitable enterprise while also demonstrating leadership in addressing environmental issues.

These are all examples of personas a marketing department might develop as they think though the way they’ll drive awareness and demand for their firm’s products and services. You’ll notice some details are highly specific -- almost as though they describe a living, breathing person. That’s the point.

While personas are fictitious profiles, they should serve as representative examples of the kind of people who exist in your target market. They should reflect the fact that, while they may be interested in what your firm has to sell, that’s far from the only thing on their minds. They work well because they reinforce the need to think of marketing as a one-to-one activity, where personalizing all messages and other content as much as possible serves to foster a genuine relationship.

Unfortunately, in some organizations personas are developed and then, like many other business documents, are left to gather dust -- even if they only exist as digital files. Product launches move ahead without really considering personas, or an ad campaign is developed that doesn’t really reflect any of those well-rounded individuals the marketing team brainstormed.

Beyond making sure you don’t simply forget about your personas, however, there are some other dos and don’ts that will help maximize the value they can bring to marketing in the Age of the Customer:
 

Do: Take a ‘persona-first’ approach to ideation


Some organizations get insight and direction from their product or R&D team first, create what they want to sell and only afterwards look at the personas when it comes time to try and drum up interest in them. It’s an understandable strategy, but possibly a backwards one.

The most successful companies start by looking at who their target market is and then develop the products and services they offer from there. That’s why personas don’t just get dreamt up by the marketing team out of nothing, but are often based on primary research such as surveys and focus groups. Instead of using personas as a sort of check and balance against your message, start with them as you conceive the stories you want to tell.
 

Don’t: Treat the journeys personas take as a one-way trip


The pace and pressure of marketing today makes it easy to want to take short cuts. You might develop a campaign, for example, that considers the background of your target persona and makes an instant connection directly to that moment where they might want to buy your product.

In real life, of course, the journeys most customers take are more complicated. They might have a need, research something, then pause as other things crop up in their day-to-day life. Unforeseen circumstances, like budget cuts or macroeconomic conditions, may delay the timing of their decision. They may also be working through a buying decision across your website as well as social media channels like Facebook.

The journeys your target personas take are important because they will help both the marketing team and the sales team think through things like the length of the buying cycle, how often they might need to nurture them as a lead and more.
 

Do: Keep coming back to points of empathy


Companies tend to want customers to think a certain way (“I want to buy their product!”) and act a certain way (buying the product!). When you’re working with personas, though, you should also spend time thinking about how customers might feel. This isn’t always an area you can control as a brand, but it’s an area where you can show you recognize those feelings and want to support them in whatever way is helpful.

Even if your CEO persona is a tough-talking, highly decisive individual, they may face moments of fear and uncertainty about tying themselves to a particular supplier, for example. After all, they might have shareholders to please, a board of directors to answer to and a bad experience with a previous supplier that still haunts them. How might your marketing content address those sorts of feelings head-on and perhaps offer guidance on how they can overcome them as they enter into a relationship with your brand?
 

Don’t: Treat personas as once-and-done


People change. Over time, personas should too.

Just as your target market might become more savvy and sophisticated about certain issues, for instance, or as they place a higher priority on certain kinds of business objectives, you should revisit and revise your personas accordingly. Talk to customers and incorporate their feedback into your personas. Notice how the demographics of your key decision-makers might be evolving -- you may need to develop some brand-new personas to reflect them.
 

Do: Conduct regular persona ‘performance reviews’


Looking back over how well an employee did their job is a regular part of the human resources process in most organizations. The best marketers do something similar with their personas.

If you’ve got the right elements in your personas, for example, you should be seeing the right outcomes from your marketing efforts, whether it’s conversions from online ads, leads that come through content marketing assets like white papers or registrations and attendees at your events. If you’re not, sit down with the rest of the marketing team and look at your personas again. Are there interests, aspirations or other elements you’ve missed? Are there better ways to align the personas with the activities you’re pursuing as a team?

As with any tool, personas won’t solve everything, but they can contribute to your success in a big way. At their best, they’ll be so well-developed and realistic that when you meet your customers in real life, they’ll look, act and talk in a way that seems reassuringly familiar.