What is a Persona?

A powerful way to understand your audience

ARTICLE BY Maysa Husseini

Fictional characters grounded in real data

Personas are a way of understanding your target audiences or customers. Born out of layers of customized research, these personified profiles are essentially fictional characters grounded in real data: people who don’t exist, but are similar – in their interests, experiences, and sometimes demographics – to plenty of real people.

Organizations can use personas to gain clarity about the types of people who are interested in their offerings, and to gain better insight into how loyal customers differ from those who are less engaged. Most target audiences (whether consumers, voters, users, or others) include multiple segments with different wants and needs. A persona can help you understand which of these segments is your ‘ideal audience’ and can also put a spotlight on other potentially receptive segments you may be missing.

In addition to supporting evidence-informed communications approaches, personas also help to inspire creative thinking. When decision-makers begin to imagine and empathize with the personas who make up their markets, they gain a more vivid picture of their audiences, including the personal needs, barriers, and expectations that shape their choices. The distance between organizations and their customers narrows.


What if my organization isn’t looking to sell a product, but an idea?

Personas can inform any kind of communication or engagement – from consumer marketing to messaging about social causes. Consider an environmental NGO wondering why their social media campaign on climate change isn’t engaging younger Canadians. They know research shows that younger generations care about the environment. So why is the campaign falling flat? Personas can help to answer that question by illuminating key variations within the age cohorts the NGO is targeting.

While young people in general may indeed be concerned about climate change, the effects that galvanize them may vary widely. Digging deeper into the research, NGO leaders might learn that:

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Timothy, for example, sympathizes with the NGO’s campaign, which focuses on the effects of climate change on wild buffalo.
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His co-worker Carlo, however, doesn’t worry about endangered species. ‘Survival of the fittest,’ he says. Carlo’s top climate concern is resource degradation – so the NGO is most likely to galvanize him on climate action with messages highlighting regions in the world suffering from severe water scarcity.
purple icon persona marrisa
To their mutual friend Marissa, both buffalo and far-away droughts feel abstract. But with high scores on the Social Value Effort for Health, Marissa does worry that climate change seems to be bringing more mosquitos (and possibly infectious diseases) into her area.


Personas can help you understand:
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What makes some people tune in to your messaging and others tune out.

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Top-of-mind concerns for key segments.

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What personas of interest have in common, and which concerns divide them most starkly.

A unique approach to developing personas

The Environics approach to personas is distinct. Here are two key differentiators that make our personas especially useful for the organizations we work with:



Adding depth with Social Values

Underdeveloped personas can be cold and unapproachable, making them hard for organizations to work with. Environics Research uses Social Values research to give personas human depth, infusing them with the nuances and contradictions that remind us of real people we know. We’ve been measuring Social Values in Canada since 1983, tracking evolving norms in areas ranging from family structure to environmental concern to enthusiasm for technology. By embedding the Social Values framework into our research design, we can identify deeper motivations behind human behavior, predicting people’s reactions to situations, opportunities, or challenges.

A quick example of how Social Values insights can operate:

Our Millennial Social Values Segmentation identifies six distinct groups of Millennials. The segments differ in world view, attitudes, and lifestyles. Like all generations, Millennials were shaped by coming of age at the same time – but they cannot be understood as a monolith. At first glance, two of our segments — “Diverse Strivers” and “Mainstream A-Listers” – have plenty in common. Both groups have the desire to impress others with possessions that symbolize affluence, such as a Swiss watch or Dyson vacuum. Both segments also score high on the value Need for Status Recognition, expressing the desire to be held in esteem and respected by others. With these values in mind, we begin to understand both Diverse Strivers and Mainstream A-Listers as types who care deeply about what others think of them.

Differences between the two segments begin to emerge, however, when we look at their relationships with brands. Expressing high Confidence in Advertising, Mainstream A-Listers tend to trust and use advertising as a source of reliable information, identifying with the role models that advertisements promote. Diverse Strivers aren’t as inclined to mimic celebrities or other brand champions. They value Brand Authenticity, and are looking for a deeper level of experience with the brands they engage with, such as a feeling of soul, history, founding myth, or place of origin that confers its own culture.

These kinds of nuanced differentiators help us imagine how to build messaging for different segments of an audience.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we used Social Values to explore the state of Canadians’ values and attitudes, paying close attention to how these informed outlooks and behaviors during a time of heightened fear and confusion.



Visualizing your personas on a spectrum from “easiest to reach” to “hardest to reach”

Receiving a package of personas can be overwhelming at first. Some organizations initially struggle to decide which groups to prioritize, and it can be tempting to try to reach everyone at once.


Imagine this line as an ideological spectrum with personas positioned based on how they think about certain issues. Some personas will naturally align with your organization’s message – these people will be easier to communicate with. Others sit further away from your ideals – these people will require your organization to spend more time and effort to connect with your message.

To help our clients prioritize target audiences and communication efforts, Environics Research visualizes personas on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum are the personas whose perspectives are already aligned with the organization’s current messaging and intentions; they’re more likely to feel good about what they’re hearing and to consider the organization a credible, trustworthy source. (Recall Timothy, who was already sympathetic to the environmental NGO’s message about the effects of climate change on wildlife.)

On the opposite end of this spectrum are the personas whose perspectives differ – a little or a lot – from the one the organization is trying to express. These people may be unreachable, or they may require a patient, tailored approach that reaches out to them across a relatively narrow bridge of shared concern. (“Your favourite golf course might be at risk from climate change.”) Our system helps organizations understand how planned messaging could connect with even a hard-to-reach persona, while also supporting strategic conversations about whether some segments are worth the investment (or whether resources are better deployed elsewhere).

Even people who disagree on most things can find common ground – and smart communicators can use good research to craft strong, unifying messages. Derek Leebosh, VP – Public Affairs at Environics, explains how affordable housing and public transit funding united disparate groups of voters in Toronto’s mayoral election.

People are complex. Their choices and behaviours don’t always line up neatly with the opinions they might express in an ordinary survey. Seemingly small nuances in preferences or beliefs can signal important underlying differences, with major consequences for organizations’ communications approaches. Instead of dismissing these nuances as trivial, we help our clients drill into them and explore whether they have the potential to shape messages that achieve greater resonance and impact. By personifying key market segments with colourful and memorable traits, we help to make audience-centered communication easier and more engaging for every member of our clients’ teams.


Learn more about Personas and Social Values with these recent case studies:

Find out how Environics Research can help your organization


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