At the heart of marketing is a desire to focus content on what people need, want, and think.

Rather than blanket mass-produced messages to everyone, it’s imperative to dig into what audiences truly identify with, and then target them with the right material at the right time.

Assigning personas to clients and users can be a great way to achieve this goal. More and more brands are better understanding their audiences by taking deep data- and feedback-driven dives into the different types of people they work with.

While this technique has been floating around for a while, its popularity has skyrocketed over the past year or so.

It Pays to Use Personas

It’s more vital than ever for marketers to stay up-to-date with the changing needs and habits of their users. Modern audiences now expect to receive content that’s specific to them. In fact, one survey shows 74 percent of consumers get frustrated when they’re shown irrelevant content.

This is where persona development can be so helpful. Personas help you avoid wasted time by enabling you to focus only on specific buyers. Plus, they create a common audience for everyone in an organization to keep in mind — not just the marketing department. With this consistent view, it’s easier to communicate messaging across all departments and keep every employee aligned.

Finally, behavioral personas can remove the guesswork and allow you to understand the actual needs and wants of your users. They focus on real people, their real lives, and their real emotional drivers. They can provide insight into behavior and the context around your product that’s relevant to each user.

Best of all, personas can work if they are tied to behavioral data. As you probably know, similar to behaviorally targeted ads being twice as effective as those that are not targeted, websites that create marketing personas are two to five times more successful and can be easier to use than those that don’t.

Using Personas Correctly

There’s no doubt personas are the industry standard for understanding customer experience — but just using them isn’t enough. Here are five common mistakes brands need to avoid when developing their personas:

  1. Creating fluffy personas

Too many marketers create high-level marketing fluff personas and have no way to tie them back to any type of metrics. With no attributes to measure, they can’t assign anything to their current customer relationship management (CRM). Plus, if personas are too conceptual or broad, they lose their core value: the fact that they present a true picture of your target audience and accurately reflect how their values, wants, and needs apply to your brand.

For example, knowing that a client loves to go shopping on Thursdays will help a clothing store know when to run a flash sale, but knowing that she owns three cats is only adding fluff to the equation. Be sure you can tie your personas to metrics that validate user behavior, as data-driven personas add stability better than projected assumptions.

  1. Forgetting to apply personas to prospects

Personas are a valuable tool for understanding your current customers, but they’re also invaluable for prospecting. Without looking at their online behaviors or general interactions, it’s impossible to know the best way to engage with people.

By defining your prospects and tracking their behaviors, you’ll be better equipped to understand what type of content appeals to them, what times of day they are more likely to engage, what websites they enjoy reading, and more.

  1. Disregarding the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect happens when subjects know they’re being studied and modify their behavior accordingly. In the case of personas, it’s important to make sure you’re basing them on actual behaviors and not self-reported ones. So many of my company’s clients — even the Fortune 500 companies we work with — realize that analyzing behavioral data leads to completely different insights than they were expecting.

Actually looking at what people are doing — rather than asking them for their sides of the story — opens up new, more accurate insights for companies. Users don’t always remember their exact actions, nor do they always know how to properly document their past experiences. Studying behavioral data avoids this confusion.

  1. Confusing personas with segmentation

Segmentation and personas are complimentary to each other, but they answer different questions. It is important to make this distinction because people often label them as one in the same.

Segmentation essentially uses a variety of data, including clusters and demographic information, to tell you who your defined users are. Personas, on the other hand, drive design and focus on experience goals (what the person wants to get out of your product).

  1. Assuming one time is enough

A one-time webinar on personas or a quick email mention is not enough to drive home the big idea. The more touchpoints a marketing staff has with defined personas, the more likely they will be to understand, remember, and adopt them.

Further, the more fun you have with your personas, the better. Try using video or even desk drops (like bobbleheads or coasters) to get your staff engaged and excited by them. For some of our clients, we have hired actors to act out each persona on stage at various company meetings.

Personas also must be revalidated periodically to ensure they’re still relevant and leading to the best returns. This is certainly not a one-time project. I recommend updating based on how often you are refreshing data.

For example, for some clients, we have created a tie to their CRM so that they are automatically updated based on “real” behaviors. The majority of our customers are more on the quarterly, biannual, or annual plan, however. Again, this is based on how often they are refreshing their customers’ insight research and if they want to tie it their real-time analytics.

The proper development of personas is vital to the success of any marketing campaign, but you must first design and capture the needs of your users in order to tailor personalized experiences for your customers. By avoiding these five mistakes, you can develop personas that accurately reflect the values and behaviors of your audience in a way that optimizes all of your brand touchpoints with them — and, ultimately, your ROI.