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Include Your Clients in the Persona Research Process with Affinity Mapping

Creating personas requires a great deal of data and background information, so it can be difficult to collaborate with others during the research process. Using affinity mapping can help keep clients in the loop in real time—making it easier and quicker to set standards and address any uncertainties.

When I’m asked to create personas using market research, it’s generally done entirely in a vacuum. Usually, it’s just me sitting at my laptop, digging through piles of data, drawing up a detailed audience and plucking a selected handful of personas who best represent the people visiting my client’s site.

It’s somewhere between art and science – but it’s entirely a process, and it serves as the beginning point for all of our disciplines, particularly content strategy.

Persona research is central to the content strategy process because it allows us to create content that speaks directly to the users we want to target. We are able to gear our messaging toward the interests, aspirations, concerns, and desires of the very people we’ve identified as being crucial to our client.

Not only does this give our clients a better, more effective strategy that increases the conversion potential of their content, but it actually improves the user experience of the most important consumers of a client’s brand. Rather than trying to reach everyone, and failing (which is what happens when you try to reach everyone), we’re able to speak in a way that resonates with relevant personas, and everyone benefits.

Applying Affinity Mapping

Recently I was tasked with developing personas through a process called affinity diagramming. I’m very familiar with the process, but it is rarely used in a data-driven persona development process. I was initially unsure about how it would work. My process is so scientific and complicated that it would be unrealistic to walk a client through it and have them come away from the discussion fulfilled.

However after giving it a second thought, I realized affinity diagramming would be the perfect way to display the persona creation process and allow the client to input their own data. And while it relies somewhat more on opinions and assumptions, the affinity diagram process is actually an acute if not entirely parallel process of creating personas – just with Post-it notes instead of pie charts.

Affinity diagramming is a process for gathering ideas or opinions of a group of people in which verbal and written data is used to form organized groupings of thoughts based on mutual affinity. This method of data collection expresses the facts, opinions or ideas of a chaotic or uncertain problem in data extracted directly from the minds of all key stakeholders. The data is organized in an Affinity Map so as to identify a problem, prospect the future and conceive an idea.

The KJ Method

The affinity diagram, or KJ method wasn’t originally intended for quality management. It was actually developed by an anthropologist, Jiro Kawakita, in the late 1960′s as a research technique. However, it has become one of the most widely used management and planning tools. Its purpose across all disciplines was to discover meaningful groups of ideas within a raw list. In doing so, it lets the groupings emerge naturally, using the right side of the brain, rather than according to preordained categories.

In my case the affinity maps were used to create personas by grouping Post-it notes on a wall that represent facets of distinct types of consumers relevant to our client.

One of the key processes that affinity mapping provides for a client is an imagined voice of their consumers. In the persona creation process at iAcquire, every persona is created based on several data sources including market segmentation data from Experian Simmons, Nielsen PRIZM and sometimes custom quantitative research surveys that we run on Survey Monkey. While the inputs often vary depending on the situation the end result is me informing the client who their audience is based on the data I collected.

In traditional marketing, affinity mapping is the standard. But in the SEO and digital marketing world, personas created by traditional marketing agencies don’t always align with whom the client believes their audience is. This can be difficult because it challenges long-held assumptions about customers, and forces clients to consider new ways of doing business. Sometimes there’s push-back, and sometimes there isn’t  The easiest way to resolve any issue is to include the client in the persona research process from the beginning.

Let them see how the sausage is made, as it were.

While a traditional affinity diagram exercise is mostly based on opinions or ideas, we conduct the exercise with data that helps to inform all of our concepts. That way the personas created can be tied back to facts, not just an opinion.

How To Use Affinity Mapping to Build Personas

We conduct our affinity diagram exercises in four distinct rounds:

  • Assumptions Round One: Each person uses a Post-it to record a goal, activity, action or problem from the top of their head, not looking at any data. The entire group discusses each Post-it and then decides if it should be placed on the wall. These are then randomly placed on the wall, visible for everyone to make decisions in groups.
    • Examples: ‘Goes online to watch TV shows’
  • Assumptions Round Two: Keeping the goals, activities, actions or problems noted in round one, an attribute of a given user is assumed and tied to an assumption from round one. This process is repeated for each Post-it from round one.
    • Examples: ‘Males age 35-50 who watch TV shows online’
  • Factoid Round: To help validate assumptions we ask clients to pull out key facts from their data (sales records, analytics data, user profiles, focus groups, internal market research) and place them on a Post-it note. Each factoid is read out loud, discussed with the group then placed on the wall among the grouped Post-its that is most related to.
    • Examples: ‘Men 35-50’ from focus group watch less TV online than younger men’
  • Final Round: Talk it out! Participants then discuss the shape of the diagram, noting any surprising patterns and talking through controversial pairings. At this point in the discussion, key divisions in how all of the team members view their audience are revealed, and talking points are made clear.

How To Connect Affinity Mapped Personas to Data Sources

At this point the persona’s story almost write themselves. All that has to be done is organizing the data collected from the Post-it into personas.
Simple! Well not really.

The affinity mapping process yields persona skeletons that will need to be filled in with corroborative data points from other data sources in order to build personas that are reliable assets. Collecting data from a variety of sources, building myriad pivot tables and cross-tabbing a seemingly infinite number of data points we append our insights to the skeletal personas and flesh them out.

An affinity mapping exercise conducted with the client is used as a base in the persona research I conduct. Every persona created has a story, which I pull directly from the affinity mapping exercise, and back up with hard data.

We do this to bridge the gap between how the client views their audience, and what their audience actually is. Everything we create can be tied to an actual audience segment identified using pre-existing segmentation. For example in the case of Experian Simmons, we look to connect affinity-mapped personas back to Mosaic types.

What this affinity diagramming exercise does is create a dialogue among stakeholders and our agency allowing us to get a better sense of what is important to the client and understand their business from the inside, as it actually is. This feedback loop is incredibly valuable and can offer better results than just analyzing data in a vacuum and dictating the audience to the client, but only if the client truly does have at least a rudimentary understanding of their audience.

The disconnect between brands and their audiences tends to be a lot bigger than any company would like to believe. While pure data can reveal to a client the actual nature of their audience, it is unlikely to resonate if the client’s assumptions have not been made a part of the process. Affinity diagramming allows clients to come to fact-based conclusions about their audience, seemingly on their own, though behind all of it is a finely-honed audience research process.