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:
- 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.