Insights

Identify Audience Motivations with Proto-Personas

"Know Your Audience" (Part 3 of 3): Explore strategies that help raise the bar for meaningful, mission-driven external communications

In this final installation of our “Know Your Audience” series, we present one last approach to building a deeper understanding and empathy for the audiences on the receiving end of your communications content. Last time, we covered jobs to be done, a simple but not simplistic approach to clarifying what value your audiences need from your content. In this final chapter, we’re talking personas.

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Personas are useful for understanding mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals who operate in complex environments. While a traditional persona is usually a product of hundreds of hours and even tens of thousands of dollars of validated research, a proto-persona is a low-cost solution that is created with a combination of interviews and the collective knowledge of stakeholders internal to the organization.

Are you cringing when we say that proto-personas don’t require research?

Personas (whether proto- or otherwise) are not perfect. And it's important you’re informed about where their utility begins and ends. Proto-personas don’t require traditional research (going out “into the field”, talking to end-users and beneficiaries, etc.), but they do require you to consult reliable experts.

Talking to your colleagues and stakeholders can serve as research. They are likely interacting with potential audiences of your organization on a daily basis. If you need to create a high-net-worth donor persona, walk over to your development manager’s desk. Ask her a few questions. She will most definitely have a lot to say about what these individuals think about, what motivates or scares them, etc. If you need to create a grantee-specific persona, walk over to a program manager and borrow their expertise.

When you’re strapped for time or money, tap into the abundance of information that already exists within your organization and do your best to create a reliable snapshot of your audiences with the information they give you. A proto-persona is not used for its factual integrity. It does not represent absolute truth. It is an imperfect, but still useful tool to nudge communicators towards considering the needs and obstacles of their audience with more nuance.

How do you create a proto-persona?

Once you’ve identified at most 4 target audiences through the “impact vs. influence” matrix that we covered in Part 1, fill in the following information about the group:

  • Who is this individual? Write a short description about this individual. Keep it simple:
  • Why would they want to engage with your work? What might their goals and aspirations be?
  • What obstacles and challenges might they face?

Imagine you are a legal advocacy organization embarking on redesigning your website. You’ve identified four target audiences to keep in mind through the project. Let’s zoom in on one audience and create a proto-persona for them: peer & partner organizations.

Who is this group? Write a short description about an individual who would personify the group.

I’m in a lead advocacy role at a similar organization. My work entails lobbying local and state policymakers and government. I coordinate press and public relations efforts to change the narrative around the issues I care about.

Why would this individual want to engage with your work? What might their goals and aspirations be?

I’m interested in potentially partnering with your organization. I believe that your state-level influence combined with my grassroots, community-centered experience could increase the power of our lobbying efforts.

What obstacles and challenges might they face? What might they need from your website to meet their goals?

I am not 100% clear about your position on certain issues. I don’t have an understanding of the complete breadth of your work. Are there other synchronicities that I’m not seeing? Are you open to partnering? Who have you joined forces with in the past?

Even just answering these 3 simple questions opens up a world of understanding about this target audience group, what they might be looking to get out of your website, and how you might directly address their needs through design and content.

Two things to consider. The answers are written in the first-person, a simple shift that helps you the communicator step a bit deeper into the shoes of the person you are creating content for. Secondly, we did not rely on demographics (age, gender, income level, what kind of media they consume, etc.) because this information can further entrench stereotypes and is not necessary for the purpose of this persona exercise.

Proto-personas can help you think of your audiences as real human beings

Your audiences are rich with past experiences, current needs, constraints, and behaviors, and future goals. Partly because of its more narrative nature, proto-personas give the creator room to zoom out, ask about, and consider the influence of system-level forces on individual behavior and decision-making.

Conducted as a group activity with your wider team, persona creation can help your stakeholders build a shared understanding and common language around the organization’s audiences. This can ultimately lead to better alignment over the course of your work, providing everyone a common lens through which to make informed decisions.

Time and time again, we’ve found personas to be an eye-opening exercise for our clients. A simple, but smart set of questions, combined with conversations and insights from experts who interact with these target audiences regularly can crack open a whole new way of thinking. Given the constraints that most non-profits face (i.e. budgets, resources, and design/research expertise), proto-personas, though imperfect, can be better than no persona at all.

This simple method can enable us communicators to build a deeper understanding of who they are speaking to and raise the bar for coming up with smarter communications strategy and solutions.

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