Building good customer personas is one of the first and most integral parts of the product development process. Without a solid foundational knowledge of who your best customers are, what motivates them, the challenges they face, and what goals they have, you'll have a rough time trying to build an enticing and functional product. These personas should represent customers, decision-makers, buyers, and users, and you need a well-rounded understanding of these individuals in order to build the best product.
Persona development largely relies on market research, site/product usage data, surveys, and user interviews from customers and non-customers. This is a time consuming process and at times it may be difficult to find enough people willing to respond. It's also common to spend thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars on market research firms or tools that offer semi-reliable data at best. But it doesn't have to be this way!
Enter: community. Your community is made up of your most passionate customers, who actively use your product and want to form connections directly with your company and other people who also use your product. They are reliable respondents who are more willing to freely provide feedback and answer any questions you may have--while product managers may struggle to receive 1-2 responses from every 10 people they contact, community managers can expect 5-10 responses from their engaged community members. Since they are already using your product you know their behavior and that they are one of your personas and a good representation of the type of customer you want to target.
There are other downsides to traditional persona development outreach when you don't have a community to turn to: if you have to send emails to unclear segments of customers you will see minimal return, potentially harm the standing of your email domain if too many people unsubscribe or mark as spam, increase email fatigue for your company as a whole, or even awaken "sleeping" customer service issues.
"But how is a community member different from a customer?" you may ask. It's sort of like how a square is a rectangle but not all rectangles are squares. There is overlap, but important nuance: community members are invested and passionate about your product outside of everyday product usage. Sure, customers use your product, but community members spend additional time (likely their free time outside of business hours when they're not even using your product!) and energy devoted to connecting with you and other customers.
You can glean critical persona insights without even having to directly ask community members for feedback. Community members may share relevant information, content, or resources within your community space without your prompting, they may have casual conversations with other members about their challenges, goals, and motivations, or they may reach out on their own to your community manager to initiate conversations and share thoughts.
Using your community to source data around your ideal personas ends up being more reliable, faster, and less expensive than traditional research methods (though having a few different data sources is still important). This extra piece to the persona puzzle will leave you wishing you had incorporated community into your business from the get go.
If this is your first rodeo with personas or you want a refresher on what one could look like, here's a (fake) one for reference:
Status: Employed full-time
Description: Paula was a social media marketer for four years, and was recently transitioned to a new role within her company as a community manager. She is familiar with online communities but has never moderated or run one before. Paula is looking to learn more about community building and management, and wants to connect with other community professionals for support and education.
- Absorb as much information about community management as possible
- Seeking support from peers
- Understanding what success looks like as a community manager
- Little support or understanding of community within her organization
- Minimal budget for education and training
- Lots of new tasks with little direction from management
- No clear way to measure success in her new role
- Find the best resources for learning about community management
- Connect with peers in both a group and 1:1 setting
- Build confidence in ability to succeed as a community manager
- Receive direct feedback and advice from people with experience in the field