The Power of Personas

Published on 21 October 2019

Think about your association’s membership for a minute. Do you have any insights into their personalities, their desires, their challenges and what they find engaging about their membership?

One of the most potent aspects of running a successful association and conference is profi ling its members. Personas are imaginary people that you describe and define, and who embody your ideal member.

The characteristics that you assign to these personas – as associations may contain many different personas – gives you a roadmap you can follow as you develop the services, events, content and learning materials for your membership.

Value is the foundation of your association. Members expect to receive support and services, but how do you know if the support and services your association has created fully supports your membership? This is one powerful way you can use personas.

Personas are also a powerful way to test whether a new product or service you are planning will find an audience. You can create a persona of the ideal member who would use these new products or services. Also, personas are a great way to increase your association’s member retention levels and the level of engagement your association receives from its different member groups.

"A persona is a fictional, yet realistic, description of a typical or target user of the product. A persona is an archetype instead of an actual living human, but personas should be described as if they were real people."
Aurora Harley, Nielsen Norman Group


Defining Members

Speaking to Brenda Sanderson, Executive Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA), the global network dedicated to the professional practice of Interaction Design, she outlined how personas are a key component for association to deliver world-class member services, conferences and events.

“Personas can play a vital role in your association activities and conferences by bringing common user needs to the forefront of your planning before you’ve committed to designing your conference format and activities.

It’s tempting to think the membership data associations have will give a complete picture of what our members or conference delegates want from us or are looking for in their experiences. The data only tells us who they are, and little about their needs.

We don’t know from data segmentation why did they choose to join our association? What made them pick our meeting to attend? What are their key goals in attending our conference or event? Also, how might they feel about the experiences we are creating for them?

Also, personas can provide your team with a shared understanding of the different types of attendees your conference might attract - especially people that are not necessarily motivated by the same goals and capabilities as you - and inform how you design your conference to deliver on their expectations while meeting your organisation’s strategic goals.

Using personas is a practical way all association leaders can better understand their membership and how services and support can meet a member’s expectations.

Using an exercise to develop personas, and an ongoing checkpoint to evaluate and refine these personas, for your association can have several benefits.

It is common that your association or conference serves multiple stakeholders with different needs. Using personas to evaluate your program can help your team align on shared interactions that benefit all stakeholders. Using personas can also reveal unique needs that allow you to tailor offerings to specific stakeholder groups that may be of strategic value to the organisation.

Personas can let you evaluate content and programming to optimise your conference - grouping tracks thematically or bringing everyone together for plenary sessions where the content is ranked highly by all your stakeholders. Most importantly, personas let you put a ‘face’ to the member or attendee, versus describing them by data, so that you and your team understand their motivations, interests, and aspirations by being part of your organisation or attending your conference." 

Developing personas for your association in general or to support and refine a conference program means understanding the differences between membership segmentation and the creation of personas.

“Segmentation is essential and has a critical role. It will tell you in specifics about the ‘what’ and ‘who’ of your conference attendees. For example, I can tell you this about Interaction attendees: 70% are attending for the first time, while 30% have attended two or more conferences. Primary reasons to attend are inspiration and insight; following trends in the field and learning about methods and practices. Also, over 70% are mid-level to senior practitioners or managers, and over 20% lead their practice group or are the head of a consultancy.

Personas enable your association develop clearer pictures of those members and attendees - what types of sessions might be of interest to them, how they want to network at your event. Whether translation or captioning might make your sessions more accessible to a broader international audience, and if publishing speaker videos and slides after the conference can benefit your attendees once they return home.”

Clearly, the use of personas is a crucial component of an association and conference development. Brenda concluded by outlining how she believes the use of personas will expand in the future.

“Developing and maintaining personas for your association and conferences is a path to help tackle the critical questions we all face as association managers and conference planners: You already engage with your association members. How do we keep them engaged, and how might they be evangelists for future growth? Developing personas can help you answer that question.

If our conferences are open to attendees beyond current members, who are you hoping to attract? What are they looking for? And how do you build program content and a conference experience that might draw them into joining your association?

Who are the competitors in our industry sector? How do they understand whom they serve and whether they meet their member needs? Might these personas be people we don’t want to target, or might they be people we haven’t considered before?

And finally, how do we use our personas to develop effective marketing campaigns that will drive attendance and attract sponsors to meet our conference goals? The best personas are based on insights and research that you already have. It starts by asking questions and looking for common ground and unique attributes.”

Using Technology

Using more data analysis tools is a clear trend across the member organisation landscape. How are these technologies impacting on the development of personas?

Mark Dewell, Managing Director, Private, Public, Advanced, explained to AAE:

“Innovative technology can help associations spot trends that they have not perhaps been aware of, and find correlations, which creates a better development process for personas.

This is where technology innovations around artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) come into their own, analysing vast amounts of data held in databases and CRM systems and automating the process of finding new correlations.

Technology can also help make it easier to capture new areas of data about members and ensures that this is only used when the member has opted-in to allow them to be contacted. Developments such as apps and intuitive portals can be used to capture information while people are on the go, replacing the perception that too much time will be used in these data-capture processes.

Also, this is the true value of personas in a nutshell: Building a persona is all about those extra layers of information. We see personas as a 3D profile of someone, rather than the simple 2D profiles derived from basic market segmentation. For example, if you’re a member of a self-employed organisation, this may not be automatically stored on your member database, yet that additional layer of information may mean such a person is more flexible about the timings of which events they will attend."

Do event organisers often not have a detailed enough view of their delegates to deliver real value at the event? Is more personal data analysis the solution?

“One of our observations is that people often sign up to specific sessions at events, yet if these are analysed based on what they attend or do at events, there’s usually a huge disconnect. So, it’s tricky for event organisers.

The danger in not having a detailed enough view of delegates. You’re treating people too simply and perhaps not taking the additional steps that give you more insight, and in doing so, allow you to be more tailored to what delegates want.

This can be down to offering different tracks at conferences, but equally as simple as what time they are held, or where. Delegates need to be seen in the wider context of their life, which is where personas come into their own. For instance, early breakfast events often won’t work for parents with responsibility for getting children to school. It’s about having enough information to deliver the real value. Personas reveal that it’s often the areas that haven’t been considered that can be the most impactful for delivering that value.

The reality is that associations operate in an increasingly tough sector where you have to work hard to retain members. They can’t take members for granted, especially as demographics are changing so rapidly with Millennials in the workforce, changing the dynamics. This is especially the case when competing with continuous partial attention – we see personas as the best route to vie for people’s attention.”

Personas can help associations and conferences target exactly the right members to the right event or service. They provide a rich, qualitative picture of a ‘member’ and their member journey, which in turn ensures the organisation (association, conference organiser etc.) truly understands the person they need to reach.
Mark Dewell and Charles Bagnall, Advanced


Personas Evolve

Valli Rajagopla senior executive in eLearning design talks to us about personas evolving.

How do you think persona usage will evolve and change over the next few years?

“We’ll be using personas in areas we haven’t used them before. Technology allows us to reach more people than we can meet face-to-face, but it puts a distance between us as well.

As we use more technology throughout our associations, including in providing education, using personas allows us to retain a focus on the learners and their needs. Personas make them more real to the people developing solutions and help us to make sure our solutions do solve our learners’ problems.” 

How can association leaders improve their use of personas?

“By building them using data, not the personal assumptions of staff. Personas are a piece of the foundation, so they need to be solid. The projects that are built on these foundations can be
very expensive.

However, I’ve seen organisations try to take a shortcut by just getting staff to make the personas up. Unsurprisingly, the organisation didn’t gain any new insights from the exercise and carried on producing the same sort of material it has always produced.”

How is technology notably data analysis helping associations gain more insights into their member personas?

“Data can help to reveal the values, barriers, desires and motivations of users, and provides validation for decisions.”

Valli Rajagopla is a senior executive in eLearning design for professional educators who have created and deployed multi-award- winning digital learning solutions for a global audience. Valli specialises in the development of digital learning solutions that help professionals to develop their management and accounting skills. Valli is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the Learning and Performance Institute and is currently studying for an MA in Education and Technology at UCL Institute of Education.


Personal Connections

Creating a range of personas for your member organisation is a practical way to understand how any changes or innovations you are planning, could impact on specific groups of members.

Perhaps you want to make a radical change to your website. Creating a persona of the members this change could affect will give you the insight you need to understand the potential impacts this change could have.

The strategic roadmap for your association or organisation can also be hugely influenced by the personas you create. Often, you will need to work with outside service providers. Giving them one or more personas clearly defines the audience they are developing their services or products for. This reduces possible confusion, resulting in projects that complete on time and budget.

Ultimately, the personas you create for your association or event are a tool you can use to better understand your membership. This insight is vital to ensure that your association or organisation continues to deliver value to every member.

How to create a persona

Follow these steps to create personas for your association.

1. Define your Goal

It’s essential that you understand why you are creating a persona. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. Is thisto expand your membership? Alternatively, perhaps to understand which of your member groups engage with which products or services you have or want to create.

2. Use your Data

Your association already contains detailed information about your members. You can use primary data such as demographics to begin to define a persona. Often, this will be based on age, gender, region or something more defined such as professional qualification. This is also the time to give your persona a name. This personalises the persona you are creating.

3. Responsibilities, Challenges and Fears

This element of the persona is where you define what pressure points the persona has. Surveying your membership or a segment of them will give you the insight you need to define their challenges, responsibilities and fears. This element of the persona is vital, as it informs you about how your organisation can be an asset and valuable to that member persona.

4. Interests and Goals

Delivering value to each member means a deep understanding of what members want to achieve.This could be part of their professional development for instance. Alternatively, if you have an event, understanding interests and goals will lead you to what the event or conference should contain based on the personas you are creating.

5. Channels of Communication

This element of the persona defines which communication channels the persona prefers. As you could reach your membership using a wide-range of channels particularly in the digital space, defining a preference for a persona is vital. For instance, would the persona read a new blog you are planning? Or would a new podcast series be attractive to the persona you are creating?

How we use Personas

Brenda Sanderson, Executive Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA) gives us a practical view of how personas are created, how the personas were developed for the recent IxDA conference.

Olivia - Tribesman / Women

A senior practitioner from London (UK) who is also a local leader within IxDA. She’s motivated to attend the Local Leaders Retreat before the conference to connect with her IxDA ‘family’ and looks for speakers to learn stuff that she hasn’t heard about before. She often arrives when a presentation has just started because of all the conversations she’s been having during breaks. 

Un Jie - Craftsman

A designer from Shenzhen (China) with several years’ experience. He works for a big software company, and it’s his first time attending the conference. It’s his first time in the US, and he’s a little anxious about communicating in English. He expects to hear advanced content that he can take back and apply to his work. He takes lots of notes in Google docs - both for himself and because his employer will expect a presentation about what he learned in Seattle.

Heather - Local

Heather is a local Seattle designer who switched to interaction design a few years ago. She’s always wanted to attend an international conference but has yet to make it - so she’s excited that Interaction is in her backyard. She’s looked at the program and realised three of her design heroes are keynoting, so she’s hooked. She sticks to the program and wants to see everything. Following the conference, she can’t stop talking about how it inspired her and motivated her to use her skills to create a better world. She can’t wait to attend the 2020 conference.

From these three sketches, you can see how the different personas enable you to understand the different interests, motivations, and even concerns, of our attendees. This lets the conference team design experiences that deliver on those expectations while managing or minimising concerns.