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How to Use Field Research to Develop Audience Personas

On any given day, it’s my job to go through three or four personality changes.

From a 34-year-old Latin American mother of two to a C-suite exec looking to protect my wealth to a loving dog mom (OK, so this one doesn’t require much pretending), I’m constantly pinning down our clients’ audience personas and putting myself in their shoes so that we can tell the right stories to the right people.

Related: Don’t waste marketing dollars on audience assumptions. Have an up-front strategy.

But channeling so many personas can be challenging — which is why for each client, I rely on field research and ethnographic studies first.  

Why Does Field Research Matter?

It’s in the numbers: 52% of consumers and 65% of business buyers are likely to switch brands if a company or vendor doesn’t personalize communications to them, according to the 2017 State of Marketing report by Salesforce Research.

Ideally, brands would conduct large ethnographic studies for a more detailed picture of their ideal consumer, but these studies are costly and time-intensive. So what do you do on a tight timeline and budget?

Rather than skip the important step of understanding your audience, conduct small-scale contextual field research instead.

We’ve gotten good at it, since it’s our job to become experts across a wide range of industries. Here’s what we’ve learned from contextual field research and how you can apply the same methodology before starting new projects or refreshing audience personas for your own business. 

7 Ways to Conduct Field Research Fast

The problem with building audience personas through field research is that many ethnographic study methods can take a whole year, and sometimes businesses don’t have that kind of time.

We’ve been there. Here are our tried-and-true recommendations for high-value, in-a-pinch field research:

  • Take to the streets, grocery aisles, and public parks, and survey consumers on-site.
  • Call an expert or attend expert panels in the industry.
  • Comb through research papers online. (I like Microsoft Academic and Academia.)
  • Conduct consumer audits and surveys online with tools like AYTM and SurveyMonkey.
  • Keep an eye on social media by searching hashtags and using social listening tools.
  • Be a secret shopper in your own store or business.
  • Reach out to your family, friends, and former classmates or coworkers in the market.

Putting yourself in your consumers’ shoes can bring to light overlooked audiences, brand perceptions, and what your competitors are doing in a similar place.

Update Your Audience Personas Often

Like anything else in your marketing strategy, your audience personas require some upkeep. You’ll need to assess and adjust them as their habits (and yours) inevitably change. Shoot to evaluate them at least a couple times per year.

Updating your audience personas could be simple, trend-related refreshes (likely to stream shows on HBO; receives HelloFresh meals) or as in-depth as rethinking and rebuilding them from the ground up. Either way, you should walk away with complete pictures of your audiences and how (and where) you’ll have the most success talking to them.

Understand the Why

While observing and interacting with audiences in their purchasing environment, you also can experience and understand their barriers, pain points, and motivators; both emotional and rational. Emotional motivators include how people react to brand names and colors, while rational indicators include price, quantity, and perceived value.

Ask yourself:

  • What draws their attention?
  • What do they want to know more about — i.e., what parts of your product or service do they fixate on?
  • How long do they take to make decisions?
  • What might they interact with instead of your product or service, and what are the differences between that offering and your business’?

Here’s a tip: When you can, meet a potential customer’s searcher intent online, where 68% of B2B customers are most likely to do research that will inform their purchase decision.

Look for a How

Interacting with your product or service through the eyes of your audience allows you to find other marketing opportunities you might not have dreamed up otherwise. Don’t be afraid to take on a whole new marketing strategy based on your findings. What works for your brand is all about what works for your audience.

Another key part of research is to always be open to hearing criticism about your company, product, or service. The most successful companies know how to use feedback, good and bad, from their audience to improve what they have to offer.

By moving beyond what you assume of your target market and building your strategies through experiential field research, you can gain a better understanding of who your audience really is, what you can do to make their buyer journey more efficient, and how you can better serve your customer. If we know anything, it’s that they know best.  

To see other ways we’ve helped our clients reach their audiences, check out our work page.

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