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Beyond data: using empathy for mapping a buyer persona

Content Strategy

The rise of personas dates back to the late 90ies. Before that, Alan Cooper, an American software designer and programmer, developed a project management tool. He used a fictional character named “Kathy” to figure out what the program needed. It became a bestseller. In 1998, Cooper introduced the concept of “personas” in his book The inmates are running the asylum. Suddenly interaction designers and software developers used hypothetical archetypes and started designing user-centric products. (Cooper, 2020)

Cooper’s concept of personas got widely recognized amongst other disciplines. Today entrepreneurs, marketers, writers and content strategists use personas to develop better products, services or content. Many of these professionals rely heavily on data only. They collect insights about demographics, personal skills, job roles, and favorite holiday places to develop a look-a-like customer for their business. Adele Revella, CEO of the Buyer Persona Institute, describes buyer personas “[...] not in the way that marketers often use them, which is basically to build a profile of the people who are their intended customers.” (Revella, 2015) She further explains that data has its limits as it does not reveal anything about a buyer’s motivation, feeling or expectations. Data-based buyer profiles were too generic to build a sustainable and effective relationship with potential customers. (Revella, 2015)

Hilary Marsh explains 3 current problems with personas

Hilary Marsh, a US-based senior content and digital strategy consultant, also advocates for looking beyond data when creating a buyer persona. She thinks that there are several problems with the usual way personas are created:

  1. They (annot.: current personas) are usually focused on what the organization WANTS the person to do, rather than on what the person wants to do.

  2. They primarily reflect the person's demographics, not their context or anything about WHY they are interested in the organization's offerings.

  3. Because they are created by an outside entity, they often are either just used for marketing segmentation or not at all, because the subject matter experts in the organization don't know about them or aren't motivated to use them.

Therefore Hilary Marsh, (also) uses empathy to understand a targeted audience. In her workshop, she said: “Effective content should feel like a conversation between the organization and the audience.” (Marsh, 2021) Marketers and business owners have to come up with more than “Look! We have the best offer in town.” Sentences like these are not appealing. An empathy-based persona is like a friend.

What is empathy and why does it matter?

Empathy - not to be confused with sympathy - is the “ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person (...)”. More importantly: Empathy helps to establish a relationship.

It is not easy to approach the definition of empathy, because there is hardly a term in psychology for which there are as many definitions as for empathy. Empathy is often equated with compassion, but a link with the concept of pity is also often seen. In essence, empathy means that you can put yourself in the emotional world of your counterpart (and this can be human or animal).

In general, defining empathy is not easy. Few psychological terms have more definitions than empathy. Compassion and empathy is often an attempt at a quick explanation, but it does not capture the full range of the term. An 'empathising with the whole present emotional world of another living being' is probably closest to the core.

Our own experiences, current feelings and thoughts also play a major role when it comes to empathy. So-called emotional empathy comes into play when we can empathise with something particularly well.

Whereas cognitive empathy is more the area of being able to comprehend the intentions, motives and thoughts of the other person, even without having an emotional reaction ourselves. Here, non-verbal messages from the other person play a big role (body language, mini, gestures).

A third sub-area is social empathy, the ability to understand and also influence complex groups or systems.

All in all, all three types of empathy are an important tool and an ingenious skill for those who are able to use them.

 To create Personas, emotional and cognitive empathy are essential, but social empathy is also useful when it comes to target groups, for example.

6 steps to establish an empathy-based persona

The process of developing an empathy-based persona (in a nutshell) - from a content strategist consultant perspective:

  1. Grounding in the data first: Gather your clients' target group profiles, see what different types of personas the client already gathered/is using. If they don’t have any, do the homework (or hire sb to do the homework: collect data, analyze and create a demographic based persona)

  2. Prioritize the personas (let the client choose who is most important)

  3. Write a personal story for the persona based on the data collected (think about the people you know in your life and use your imagination to create the story)

  4. Have your client engage with the personas by getting them to think about motivations, aspirations, fears, etc.

  5. Choose a picture

  6. Create ideas/messages along the engagement journey

Where to go from here #

Personas are mentioned in several places in our program, e.g. they play a major role in user research in general and content marketing in particular.

The article by Alan Cooper, who was the first to formulate the concept, is fundamental. See references for more details.

A good book on empathy for designers and content strategists is "Practical empathy" by Indi Young:

References #

Cooper, A. (2020): The Long Road to Inventing Design Personas. Medium. Retrieved 05/2021, from:

Marsh, H. (2021): Empathy-based personas: Shifting your view from inside-out to outside-in. Workshop at FH Joanneum Graz on 03/09/2021.

Revella, A. (2015). Buyer personas: How to gain insight into your customer’s expectations, align your marketing strategies, and win more business. John Wiley & Sons.

Date of lecture: 9.3.2021.

This article is a student-written report on a lecture by Hilary Marsh in the M.A. program in content strategy.

It reflects the understanding of the content from the students' point of view and may therefore contain interpretations that do not coincide with the instructor's opinions.