You may think that creating fancy strategy documents and perfectly-designed personas is a waste of time. I’m here to tell you: you’re probably right. The truth is, the way that most organizations create community member personas is a complete waste of time. They are based on stereotypes, generalizations, or social media posts. As such, they can actually deepen community engagement problems and cause harm.
There is a better, more useful way to create personas. It isn’t fancy, but it will supercharge all your efforts. It will require a small upfront time investment, but if you take about an hour to set yourself up for success now, you will save weeks, months, even years of time you would have otherwise wasted.
What are community member personas?
First, what are personas within a community context? Community member personas short summaries of the members you serve, based on your relationships with real people, which help make all your community decisions. They are continually consulted, referenced, and refined. They need not be fancy or expensive to create.
Unfortunately, when you Google the term “customer persona,” you will find lots of misleading examples. You will see beautifully designed worksheets with illustrations and photos of composite characters that are mostly useless for you. These personas often help marketing and sales teams determine how to communicate with potential buyers. Community personas serve a different purpose and thus must look different from your typical customer persona.
Community personas must address members’ needs, fears, dreams, and opportunities directly, and they must do so based on real conversations you have with members, not based on what you have gathered from their Instagram profiles or automated surveys. When we base our events and programs on such surface-level insights or even total fabrications, our community work falls flat.
Why do community member personas matter?
Community member personas are essential because they allow us to do three things:
Create empathy for members’ experiences
Envision unique programs for our members to meet their hyperspecific needs
To craft and test calls to action and other pivotal decisions about your community
Essentially, community member personas simplify what we know to be true about our members so that we can test our assumptions and make changes to better serve. They also ensure we don’t only design community experiences for those with access to money, technology, or existing power structures. By ensuring that you talk with a diverse array of members, you will build community with nuance and accessibility in mind. After all, all human beings are “edge cases.” None of us is a perfect composite of any persona in real life. Why would we design our communities under this harmful assumption?
To create effective personas, it is essential to make persona creation an active, ongoing process -- a habit in your weekly workflow. As you talk with your members and get to know them better, you will naturally identify gaps in programming, copy, and calls to action. Let’s talk about what this looks like.
How do you create your community member persona?
What many community managers struggle with is how to take the time out to create personas. To address the very real overwhelm that many community managers face, you can create personas that are educated guesses and then refine. Here is the process I teach clients to work through if they do not have time or money to do this persona research all in one go.
Compile a list of initial categories of your members. These may be based on buyer personas to begin, but they are likely to change over time.
Pull a list of people who you think might fit into each category. Reach out to them, asking if they would be willing to chat with you for 45 minutes.
Write a script for the chat, but make sure to delve deeper into areas of personal importance. You can see my previous post on interviewing members for more tips on how to conduct these conversations.
As you conduct these interviews (do one per week if that’s all you have time for!), take notes in a spreadsheet of members’ needs, worries, dreams, technology usage, opportunities for growth, or other areas relevant to your community.
See the example below. Please note it includes first names only - and even those are not necessary! You do not want to be recording any personally-identifying information about your members; this is a privacy and ethics no-no.
Next, after you have completed at least 10 interviews, look back again at the initial categories you had chosen and see if they still fit. Does a new description better encapsulate your members now that you know much more about them? Do you need subcategories? Do you need to get more specific?
If so, it’s time to simplify and create new personas that you can use to systematically test new copy, calls to action, and programs to serve. I recommend having no more than three personas to begin. This will focus your efforts and help you deeply serve a few groups initially. You can always go more broadly as time goes on. See the examples below:
And that’s it. Really. It needn’t be more complex than that unless you have the design and time resources to do so.
From here, continue interviewing members on a regular basis. Try to talk with one member on the phone or Zoom at least once per week and update your first spreadsheet with each new conversation. Circle back with those you’ve spoken to every few weeks to check in, develop a deeper relationship, and refine your insights.
More than anything else, begin testing. Check if your assumptions are true. If you thought you heard that a certain subset of members desperately needed mentorship, but you roll out a program and no one participates, what is going on? The only way to know is to continue to tweak the program and test it or ask for feedback. As you do, refine those personas even further.
Personas don’t have to be time-wasting, resource-intensive efforts. They are actively updated, dynamic documents that should be used as a tool in your community-building toolkit. They’re not a chore; they save you from the chore of explaining (yet again) why your community programs are not working.