Why Writing for Personas Doesn’t Work
Writing for personas doesn’t work very well.
And that’s not because it’s a bad idea, it’s simply because it’s rarely executed in a way that generates a useful outcome. Most personas follow a similar pattern:
“SaaS Sally” is the marketing manager at 40-person startup. Her company has raised $1.5 million and is looking to scale quickly. She has a small marketing budget to work with, so solutions need to be lean and effective. She’s in her early 30s and also enjoys reading Fast Company and Buffer.
Here are just a few of the reasons personas like this aren’t helpful:
- Companies tend to give personas silly names. This makes them feel fictitious.
- Personas tend to reflect the average, not the median. This means you end up writing for a person well outside the stated demographics.
- No one really knows what it means to write for “SaaS Sally” vs. “Techie Tom” anyway, so the exercise doesn’t actually affect how the content is produced or distributed. It’s too aspirational.
Worst of all, personas are littered with buzz words that lack a real meaning to the writers and editors charged with doing the work. It’s largely a waste of time.
We’d like to propose an alternative to the traditional marketing persona that helps inform the style of writing and the quality of the ideas. Instead of asking, “Who is our target reader?” ask, “At what level is our target reader thinking?”
Let’s unpack that a bit.
Write for Pay Scale, Not Demographics
The hierarchy of a company represents more than pay scale, but it’s a pretty good place to start building personas. The people at the top think differently than the people near the bottom. They don’t need information—that’s been commoditized. In general, the higher in the food chain a person is, the more strategic their thinking is.
The spectrum from tactical to strategic isn’t perfect. There are plenty of grey areas along the way. The point is that strategic thinkers need frameworks, not information. And tactical thinkers need information, not strategies. And sometimes there’s crossover. “SaaS Sally” may need information (tactical content) about which email provider to use and frameworks (strategic content) to allocate her 2018 marketing budget.
Before you decide that you want to change your content strategy to reach strategic thinkers, consider that software is often adopted by an entire group and each person plays a different role. (This is where content marketing pays the bills when done well.)
The leader, based on a strategic vision, directs the researcher to find a behavioral email tool that integrates with the customer database. The researcher hunts around in search of options and presents them to the leader and the implementer. The researcher shares information, the leader determines how it helps them execute the strategy. The implementer sits somewhere in between. They must understand the mechanics of each option as well as how those moving pieces fit the vision of the leader.
Content marketers love to talk about “decision-makers” and “reaching the C-suite.” The best way to do that is often by appealing to the researcher and the implementer. A variety of tactical and strategic content can help you reach just about anyone in a company.
How to Write Strategic Content
Strategic writing reaches strategic thinkers.
That sounds obvious, but it’s the rule that makes this work. Strategic thinkers have more stress and more hard decisions to make. Leaders tend to have more ownership and therefore more risk. Information isn’t helpful to them. They need to be able to run large problem sets through simple frameworks to help them make decisions.
When presented with a principle or mental model, they can apply it on their own ideas and easily explain complex problems to their strategic peers. In this way, strategic thinking is far more broad and flexible. Leaders love to find frameworks from other industries that they can apply to their own.
Take, for example, Scott Adams’ Goals vs Systems idea, which is very powerful in the self-improvement world. It posits that goals can be dead ends since once they are achieved, momentum is easy to lose. Goals rely on willpower, which is limited. Systems on the other hand, are the mechanics required to reach the goal. If the goal is to complete a triathlon, the system is the training plan.
A strategic thinker can take this framework and apply it to their own world. Imagine a company that is spending money on social media ads to drive traffic. It worked well at first, but now they seem to be spending a lot of money with very little return. The leader recognizes that it was a goal, not a system. So they set to work on a system for growth that involves experiments, many of which will fail. The system makes it okay to try and to fail because they find new things that work. The social media spending was a dead end, but the growth system means it was okay to try and fail since there are so many other tests to run.
Here are some examples of great strategic writing:
- Goals vs. Systems
- MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable
- The Gospel of 10x
- Mutually Exclusive and Completely Exhaustive
- Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing
- The Iceberg Model
- Blue Ocean Strategy
These all neatly captured ideas that don’t need a ton of explanation. Once you comprehend the principle, it’s easy to apply.
Here are a few other rules about strategic writing:
1. Strategic writing is based on principles, models and frameworks.
These are complex ideas distilled to their most basic level. They can often be illustrated with simple visualizations. It might require the reader to mull the idea for a while before it before it clicks.
2. Strategic writing doesn’t look like content marketing.
And it sure as hell doesn’t read like it. In order for this to work, the writing has to be high-level. It’s often best written (or at least ghostwritten) by a CEO or other leader. The reader should immediately feel that they are amongst peers.
3. Strategic writing can’t be forced.
In order to share a framework, you have to truly understand it. It’s really easy to catch fraudulent attempt at strategic writing. (See The Feynman Technique for more on this.) Novices posing as experts is the reason most content marketing is so bad.
4. Strategic writing has to be sporadic, almost by definition.
If you’re planning on writing twice each week, don’t expect to write strategic posts every time. These high level ideas are harder to come by and more challenging to write. That’s okay though, since a variety of strategic and tactical writing is what makes a good blog.
5. Strategic writing productizes ideas.
You’ll notice that examples shared above had catchy names like “The Blue Ocean Strategy.” This is important because it productizes great ideas. Without a name, a principle is too complex to be shared in a meeting or explained to a colleague. It’s easy to say, “Let’s try to find more blue ocean,” and it conveys an entire business philosophy in just a few words.
Even better, if you identify an idea, you can name it yourself. When we realized that 15% month-over-month growth was the perfect goal for most SaaS blogs, we decided to call it the True North Formula. Now it’s easier for us to share and easier for readers to latch onto the idea.
Remember, strategic writing reaches strategic thinkers. Forget demographics and focus on the quality of the idea to reach the right people.
How to Write Tactical Content
Tactical writing reaches tactical readers, whether that’s intended or not.
Most of what we call content marketing is highly tactical. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an article like “5 Tips for Better Subject Lines” but it will reach tactical thinkers exclusively.
You might get the idea that tactical writing isn’t a good idea, but that isn’t the point. The point is that most blogs default to tactical writing because the people executing are tactical. They are writing for their peers. A content creator two years out of college simply doesn’t have the in-the-trenches experience to identify a framework that will resonate with an experienced CEO.
So people fake it. And it’s really easy to spot a fake. When non-experts try to write for experts, the results are usually not good. Content defaults to all of the things we hate about content.
Most content creators have decent writing skills, but little experience. This is a formula for noise.
If you (or someone on your team) is responsible for creating content for people that know more than you, you cannot fake it. That doesn’t mean you can’t create great content, it simply means that you need a new approach.
How to Write Like a Pro When You Aren’t a Subject Matter Expert
Step one is admitting that the you aren’t (or the content creator isn’t) an expert. What a relief! Now you can focus your energy on writing what you know as you learn it. This is the key to honest writing that resonates with your peers.
Here are three straightforward frameworks you can work from.
1. Take them on a Journey
Buffer is the classic example of this style of content. Their Open Blog has been sharing the company’s journey—from massive growth to a financial crisis and so much more—for six years. It works because no matter what happens in the company, they have something interesting to write about. In fact, it works because they don’t know what will happen.
Anyone can use this narrative to write about almost anything:
We’re going to give this a shot. We don’t know what will happen, but we’ll share the results either way.
I don’t believe that every company needs to be radically transparent in the same way as Buffer. They got a lot of press by sharing their salaries, but there are other ways to take readers on a journey. You also don’t need to stick to the same journey for six years. You can take readers on smaller journeys tackling smaller problems over time.
Here are a few examples of ways SaaS companies could create compelling content without seasoned writers:
- Replace your onboarding emails. Talk about the strategy, the process of getting them designed and written. Chat with the leader and the implementer about their roles. Share the tools used to manage the workflow. Once the new emails are live, share the results and the iterations.
- Add live chat to your website. Discuss how you chose a tool and how it works with the other tools in your stack. Talk about the reaction from visitors. Share anecdotes about things that went wrong. Write about whether or not you will keep it and why.
If you can identify something your company struggles with, it’s likely that other companies are struggling with it too. That’s why this kind of content works.
2. Run Experiments
Experiments are similar to journeys since you don’t know the outcome—a key component of writing great content when you aren’t the expert. The value is in learning together.
The difference here is that experiments rely on data. You simply need to identify a hypothesis, then come up with an experiment to test it. You can do this in the style of industry report where you use anonymous customer data to share larger trends, or by creating micro-experiments to help you find very specific conclusions.
Here are a few examples:
We Stopped Publishing New Blog Posts for One Month. Here’s What Happened. – Buffer, known for their prolific content creation, decided to stop writing new content and focus on optimizing older content for 30 days. They detail the strategy and the results. It’s a very interesting post that challenges the conventional thinking on content marketing.
Buying Instagram Followers? Our Experiment Reveals The Truth… – AdEspresso has published a number of experiments that have been wildly successful. This one dives deep on their experience buying Instagram followers and delivered more than 100,000 pageviews in its first year. Evergreen content FTW!
The Wistia Guide to Calls to Action in Video Marketing – It’s likely that you already have tons of data at you disposal. Wistia analyzed 324,015 videos along with their respective calls to action to figure how the copy, colors and timing of a great CTA.
Run a test. Find something new. Use it to entertain or inform. This is a great way to establish your site as a place for information that can’t be found anywhere else.
3. Interview Experts
This is by far the easiest way to share non-obvious, specific information on your blog. You also earn credibility by associating your site with smart people. It’s a win-win strategy. There are three keys to doing this correctly:
- Find people who are experts but don’t have 100k Twitter followers.
- Ask really specific questions. And use the best interview prompt out there: “Can you tell me more about that?”
- Don’t get stuck in your industry. A psychology professor might have very interesting insight into email marketing.
Once you have the interview, don’t publish a Q&A. It’s lazy and no one likes reading posts like this. Instead, package it for the reader by:
- Weaving the expert’s quotes into a broader narrative.
- Ghostwriting on the expert’s behalf. (This works well for coworkers. Interview your CEO or a manager is a great way to get interesting content.)
- Publishing video or audio recordings of the interview.
- Getting your own voice out of the way. Remember, the reason to do this is because you aren’t the expert and they are.
There isn’t room here to go over the nuances of conducting a great interview, but here are a few good resources:
- Dissecting the Success of Malcolm Gladwell
- The Wisdom of Dumb Questions
- How to interview like a journalist
Understanding the mechanics of great content makes it easier to create and distribute. Understanding who pays the bills makes it easy to create content that converts. So leave your personas at home and think much bigger about your content strategy.