Replacing Personas with Characters: Best Practices in Storytelling

a typewriter

-Teresa Zimmerman, Vice President of Marketing 

From the time I could read, I’ve had my nose in a book.  

The number of books I’ve read in my life would surely number in the thousands by this point and while I wish I could say I remembered each of them, there are only a handful that stand out. Why?  

It might have been because of a great plot – the twists and turns to keep you hooked – but more often than not it was the characters. We read stories to learn about life, the world around us and how people react or behave in various situations. If we can relate to the character and internalize what the character is feeling, then we come away from the story and the experience feeling enriched, feeling more prepared than before.  

In recent years, I’ve realized that the love of characters I developed reading for pleasure is just as important in the work we do with nonprofits and associations. Understanding the characters – their attributes, their behavior, how they react in certain circumstances – is critical in writing a compelling, memorable story for your organization.

This is especially true when your success depends on maintaining and deepening a personal bond. A character, aka a persona, can illuminate what your constituents are thinking and doing, creating a multi-dimensional profile and revealing insights about the emotions, passions and reasons they engaged with you…or have fallen off the map.  

Just like a good story, your organization’s narrative probably doesn’t just hinge on a single persona. You may want to create personas to understand your donors, new graduates, different categories of members (e.g. lapsed members)…the options go on and on.  

Sounds complicated? The good news is that it’s not. Building a persona doesn’t have to be the domain of an agency. Anyone can pull a persona together with some data and a little imagination. Start with the basics:  

  • Demographics: Gender, age, education, socioeconomic status, stage of life and/or career. 
  • Priorities: Why are they engaging with your organization? What do they hope to achieve? 
  • Typical Behaviors: What does a day in their life look like? Where do they get their information? Are they heavy social media users? Are they introverted and prefer online communities or events?  
  • Picture: Stock photos are a fun way to represent your persona (don’t use real members; I almost always use friends and family). 
  • And, anything else you think would be helpful. 

Where can you find the information? Part of what you’re looking for is likely in your CRM or AMS but if you really want to know your members – ask them. Surveys can be helpful in gathering large quantities of data but picking up the phone or starting a post in your online community can work just as well.  

The result? Persona-driven insights mean better decision making and less wasted time and budget. The insights you get from personas can help cut through complexity. If you know exactly what your members/donors want—if you know what their sweet spot is—you can concentrate on giving them exactly that.   

Characters stick with us long after the story fades away. Make sure your organization gets the happy ending it deserves.  

What’s next? Once you craft your personas, deliver targeted messages to them using the PESO (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) Model.

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