Personas 101 & Content Strategy

In the present blog I try to give a comprehensive overview of some of the possible approaches to the topic.

Matic Molicnik
May 30, 2018 · 6 min read

But please bear in mind: this article is not meant to be an easy read. It is an overview, complete with references for digging deeper into the topic.

Target audience and personas play a major role in many strategy related resources (e.g. Halvorson & Rach, (2012); Osterwalder et al., (2014); Tuškej, (2015)), though approaches and essentials often differ. This makes sense as the purpose of each audience is slightly different and adjusted to fit the model used.

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Persona vs. Target Audience — which is better?

In reviewed literature authors mostly recommend using Persona/s (in psychology this is called profile). Stajic (2017) agrees with Stickdorn & Schneider (2011) that having a persona instead of target audience helps to keep the focus. Thinking of the exact person (e.g. 42-year-old Nina from Düsseldor, 2 kids, married, employed as …) helps identify his or her pains, gains, issues, needs or whatever we are examining. This is also the case argued by Revella (2015); Pulizzi (2013); and Osterwalder et al., (2014). These authors propose creating multiple personas, providing cases with 3–10 personas. Osterwalder et al., (2014) are some of few authors to suggest the exact process of combining these different personas into a useful group overview. But despite this process, they suggest keeping original personas separate and even advise on coming back to the start from time to time.

As is seems personas are business favorites as they help keeping the focus during the workshops and are easy to work with ((Osterwalder et al., 2014). However, psychological literature (and some exceptions, e.g. Tuškej (2014)) prefer using (target) groups. The idea comes from statistics and classical test theory (e.g. Moosbrugger & Kelava, 2011; Field, 2013). The danger in using personas lies in the construct called within-group variance. In principle, when comparing 2 or more groups, between-group variance in key indicators (features) should be higher than within-group variance. If this is not the case, the examined group does not differentiate from the other group and we should review the results. For example, we can have 2 groups, one consists of HR professionals and the other of engineers. Comparing the two groups, all other things being equal, can display no significant variance between groups in a number of kids or the age of participants. However, we should see significant between-group variance when comparing answers on questions like: “On a scale 1–5, considering your work, how important it is to have the knowledge of keeping employee turnover low?” (assuming HR wants to keep numbers low and engineers do not care about that issue). This also shows us that personas consist almost entirely of irrelevant data. On the other side, jumping to groups almost certainly leads to false statements, therefore this method might be more appropriate once we have access and/or data insight for the (target) group.

Content Strategy approach

Halvorson & Rach (2012, p. 71) suggest making stakeholder (= “people who matter to your project” (Halvorson & Rach, 2012, p. 40)) interviews, especially with internal stakeholders. They propose what they call 5W Interview, using open questions, starting with “who, what, when, where, why,” etc. (Halvorson & Rach, 2012, p. 72). Questions should clarify other stakeholders’ views, missions, and approaches. Ideally, it seems, each interviewed person should cover 4 pillars: target audiences, messaging, channels and Workflow/Governance. However, the focus of these questions is directed at in-house stakeholders. Since Parinama Institute has 2 in-house stakeholders, one being the author of this project, this approach is taken into consideration but not actively pursued.

Content Strategy meets Buyer Personas

Pulizzi (2013, p. 93–101) leans on Ravella’s (2015) early findings (see resources: Pulizzi, 2013, p. 101), suggesting using 1 persona per group. On following pages author talks about mistakes often made and suggest the following solutions:

  1. do not make things up, talk to actual people (20–30 minute interview per persona).
  2. Make as few personas as possible (using multiple insights, whenever possible).
  3. Set questions based on answers, do not make scripted interviews.
  4. get 5 important insights:
  • Priority initiatives. 3–5 problems buyer dedicates the time to.
  • Success factors. What metrics/rewards does buyer associate with success?
  • Perceived barriers. What factors can prompt the buyer to question whether your company/product can help them?
  • Buying process. What process does the buyer follow in solution and barrier exploration?
  • Decision criteria What aspects of each solution will buyer evaluate when making a decision?

These points are modified after Pulizzi (2013) for content purposes.

Ravella (2015) provides further advice on recording every interview and writing a transcript. The first step is then to determine which aspects are relevant and what (text) is redundant. Relevant text should be categorized based on the research goal (e.g. using 5 insights’ categories from above) and key findings come in a categorical form based on direct quotes. Key findings are categorized as this enables the transformation of qualitative measure into quantitative. To partially avoid researcher’s subjectiveness it may be useful to include “scale” questions during the interview (“On the scale 1–5, how important …”).

Value Proposition Design approach

Evolving from Osterwalder & Pigneur (2010), proposing The Business Model Canvas, Osterwalder et al., (2014) have introduced the accompanying Value proposition canvas, consisting of Customer profile and Value proposition. Despite the changes in core approach (from the structured approach in 2010 to agile development in 2014), Customer profile has simplified personas creation. Despite the fact that customer profile was developed with the Value proposition in mind (and not a Content strategy, as is the case in Halvorson & Rach, 2012; Pulizzi, 2013), the profile proves to be useful in first steps. Using it alongside the Business model canvas (Osterwalder & Pigneur, 2010), all 5 important insights, proposed by Pulizzi (2013, p. 97) or all 4 insights (Halvorson & Rach, 2012, p. 72) can be covered.

Service Design approach

Stickdorn & Schneider (2011) cover the topic from another angle. In their canvas, they focus on channels before and after the service, and on the process during the service. The canvas examines customer’s expectations pre-service, experience mid-service and dis/satisfaction & its effect post-service. This approach is unique to others because it puts a great emphasis on the periods after customer acquisition. And despite the fact that content strategy in itself serves multiple purposes, not only acquisition (that’s marketing’s role), other aspects of this project might but should not be neglected.

Interview and Survey

Whereas interview allows for greater flexibility and exploration (Pulizzi (2013) even advises against structured interviews), they also leave greater room for manipulation and biases (Moosbrugger & Kelava, 2011). Surveys, on the other hand, provide greater reliability within- and between-group, and are time-effective, however poor execution can lead to questionable validity which cannot be corrected later on (Moosbrugger & Kelava, 2011).

Besides custom-made surveys, standardized surveys provide a great insight into the target audience. The back draw of these surveys is that they are made in someone else’s interest (including their bias) and especially if we are looking at specific demographic in the specific country, such research may not be available. Moreover, when speaking of blue ocean, the standardized survey is not yet available. (Standardized survey being a survey with proven internal validity and reliability, according to Moosbrugger & Kelava (2011)).


Customer Gains Trigger Questions. (n.d.). Retrieved from…/customer-gains-trigger-questions.pdf

Customer Pains Trigger Questions (n.d.). Retrieved from…/customer-pains-trigger-questions.pdf

Customer Profile. (n.d.). Retrieved from…/the-customer-profile.pdf

Field, A. (2013). Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics (4th ed.). Sage Publications.

Halvorson, K. (2008, 12). The Discipline of Content Strategy. Retrieved March 2, 2018, from

Halvorson, K., & Rach, M. (2012). Content Strategy for the Web, 2nd Edition (2 edition). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Moosbrugger, H., & Kelava, A. (2011). Testtheorie und Fragebogenkonstruktion (2nd ed.). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.

Osterwalder, A., & Pigneur, Y. (2010). Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers (1st edition). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Osterwalder, A., Pigneur, Y., Bernarda, G., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T. (2014). Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (1 edition). Hoboken: Wiley.

Pulizzi, J. (2013). Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less. New York, NY: Mcgraw-Hill Education Ltd.

Revella, A. (2015). Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business (1 edition). Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Stajic, D. (2017, July 27). What Is the Difference Between Buyer Personas and Target Audience? Retrieved February 23, 2018, from

Stickdorn, M., & Schneider, J. (2011). This is Service Design Thinking: Basics — Tools — Cases. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.

Tuškej, M. (2015). Brez frendov ni brendov: zgodba o tem, kako s pravimi metodologijami osredotočeno soupravljati znamko. Ljubljana: Medijski partner.

Thanks for reading! Give this a few 👏👏👏 if it was useful. You can also reach-out to me on Twitter @maticmol

Content Strategy meets Psychology

Tips, tricks & stories from the intersection of Content…

Matic Molicnik

Written by

#Psychology and #CX with focus on #ContentStrategy and #BusinessEducation. | #cos17 | #Freelance

Content Strategy meets Psychology

Tips, tricks & stories from the intersection of Content Strategy and Psychology.

Matic Molicnik

Written by

#Psychology and #CX with focus on #ContentStrategy and #BusinessEducation. | #cos17 | #Freelance

Content Strategy meets Psychology

Tips, tricks & stories from the intersection of Content Strategy and Psychology.

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