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“You Talking to Me?” Using Personas for Better Communications

Posted by on January 31st, 2012
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Messaging, Storytelling    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick the authors share a story about how one of the most successful public education campaigns ever came to life. Faced with the challenge of trying to end littering on the highways, the Texas Department of Transportation, along with a researcher named Dan Syrek, sought to develop a campaign that would convince people that they should stop throwing trash out their windows.

Now, Texas could have just politely asked people to “Please don’t litter.” In fact, they did, but it didn’t work. Why? Because messages like this need to consider the point of view of the typical litterer.

Syrek and his team took time to think carefully about those whose behavior they had to change. And it wasn’t the people most likely to be swayed by a polite request.

Instead, the savvy marketers focused on their target audience. Who were the worst offenders? Men, ages 18-35. But they didn’t stop with demographic data. They also created a persona that painted a psychographic profile of their target audience. Naming their character “Bubba” they spent time thinking about who Bubba was. What did he care about? What did he wear? Where did he shop? What did he do on weekends?

Syrek and his team got a picture of Bubba, along with a picture of Bubba’s truck, and they realized that to change Bubba’s behavior, they had to convince him that people like him don’t litter. They had to tap into what Bubba thought was most important. And for Bubba what was most important was his pride in the state of Texas.

Syrek and his team tapped into Bubba’s patriotism and created the message “Don’t Mess with Texas.” The rest is history. Littering decreased, and the anti-littering slogan became so successful, it’s practically the state motto.

What Syrek and his team did — creating a profile of their target audience — is also referred to as creating a “persona.” This is an approach we often employ with our nonprofit clients, helping them think strategically about who they are trying to reach by not only considering their demographic characteristics, but their deep-seeded concerns and cares, as well.

In a blog post last week, Nancy Schwartz shared a terrific step-by-step process for creating your own personas. We share a like mind with Nancy when it comes to this approach and encourage you adopt this process into all of your communications.

Before sitting down to write your next annual report or newsletter get out of your own head. Instead of asking yourself “What do I want to say?” ask instead “What does my audience want to hear? What do they care about?”

Think about the communications challenge from their point of view. Ask yourself what your audience cares about. And create a persona that brings that character to life.

One of the things that helped Syrek and his team be so successful was that they found an actual picture that represented the persona to whom they were addressing the message. Thus the campaign was no longer focused on an abstract message, it was focused on a personalized message to one individual. If you can do the same in your campaigns, you’ll likely strike gold.

One final note, my colleague, Sarah R. Moore, is fond of reminding us that in order for a persona to be successful, it must be crafted with love. If you create a one-dimensional caricature, you won’t be able to connect with your target audience. Focus on what’s great about that person — what you love about them — and the resulting messages will come to life.

Related: 10 Questions That Produce Better Psychographic Profiles


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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