Personas: you’re doing it wrong


Claire Hunsaker

Creating personas to help group and understand the audience is a routine part of marketing. However, it’s still not a common part of developer relations practice.

In this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Okta’s Senior Director of Demand Generation and Developer Marketing, Claire Hunsaker, looks at how to apply personas to developer audiences.


So, I’m Claire Hunsaker. We’re going to talk about personas. And the way I think about personas, I think about them as part of the tradecraft of marketing. 

So marketing, much like software development, much like developer relations, or developer experience, or developer… developer evangelism is a tradecraft that you build over time, mostly by doing it. And I think of personas as one of the foundational tools that you learn. And I’m going to time check because I have done this talk in 40 minutes, and I’ve done it in 18 minutes. 

Defining personas

So, hopefully, we won’t go 40. So, what’s a persona? A persona is, this is my persona. This is how I would show up. I have a certain title. I work for a company of a certain size, that happens to be Okta right now. I’ve spent 12 years in early and growth stage marketing. 

Eight of those years, I’ve been spending doing developer marketing, in addition to the other things. I was a VP of Marketing at Stormpath, which was an authentication API that was acquired by Okta about two-and-a-half years ago. One of the things that if you look at all, at my online presence, is that I am a crazy knitter. I knit that sweater. 

I knit a sweater identical to it for my little sister. I knit almost all the time. And occasionally, like a sales guy picks up on this. And he’s like, “So, I saw you were knitting. But it is relevant, right? I spend almost all of my time outside of work, all my free time, doing, making, building type things, whether it’s knitting or actually building stuff. 

You know, demographically, and I think this is relevant. I’m 41 years old. I’m married. I’m urban. I live in an urban environment. I particularly live in this urban environment, which means I’m differently educated on certain topics, whether they are technology or social. In putting this all together, is really just the starting point of how we take personas and we use them. 

So, what I’m going to talk about today is, how do you gather qualitative data, so that you can build personas and then put those personas to use? And then I’ll leave with a couple of, like, pro-tip action items. But a lot of this should be directly applicable because it’s tradecraft. So, let’s talk first about gathering data. The most important thing when you’re gathering qualitative data is to talk to your power users. 

Overturning early impressions with qualitative data

So, this is Tom Abbott, who was the Head of Product at Stormpath, and is now a Product Architect at Okta. And he and I have worked together for many years. And I love using Tom as an example because if Tom showed up in your API logs, you might think, “Product guy,” you know, you might not be that excited. Tom spends almost all of his free time, when he’s not with his family, hacking. And he is one of the most up on new technologies of any person I’ve ever worked with. 

It’s exciting to be around him for that reason. So, the way you would find that out, is mostly by talking to the guy. So, you get Tom talking on any technology related issue, and what you see is that he has a technical depth that is not reflected in his title. So, that might change the way you looked at that title. So, for qualitative persona development, it’s all about getting people on the phone. 

We do… This is great. You know, I think a number of people have mentioned this today, early data. If you don’t have a lot of usage data, if you don’t have a lot of quantitative data, qualitative data, and just a few high fidelity inputs can be really helpful. It allows you to test programs. I think we’re going to go into this language. I think we’re going to start supporting this framework. 

What do you think about that? I think that’s great. I think it’s a stupid idea. You know, getting that early feedback can help you identify who that is. These people tend to be highly qualified. And we’ll talk a little bit about sort of how to segment them and what to look for. But you want to really focus your personas on three or four groups. 

Finding representative personas

Three or four really, really tight groups who are highly qualified to, like, use your shit, make money with it, pay you, that’s always good, and to really be those power users. Because if you can dial in on the power users, it’s much easier to figure out everybody else. One of the things that I did when Stormpath was very early stage, I was there from employee number five to our acquisition, was that I identified representatives from each of our personas. 

And I talk to him at least every quarter. When I’ve given this slide before, I use one of our very early users, but I don’t like to blow him up anymore. But what that does is it allows you to build a relationship, so as you’re bringing new features to market, if you’re trying to figure out, you know, what is wrong with your documentation was a question that we really struggled with for about a year at Stormpath. 

It allows you to really get into it and really get that high fidelity, and also figure out how to best serve that persona. So, they’re going to have… It’s weird to talk about sort of challenges and objections that are different from everybody else. But building that relationship with them, over time, allows you to understand where they fit in the arc of your business, but also, like, as their community changes, as the security world changes, there’s all sorts of different market changes. 

You can understand where they are and how they’re evolving in that. So, definitely get to know them. 

Building bridges between dev rel and sales

The second most important thing, and I think this is challenging for people, both in marketing and on the dev rel side of things, but it’s like the most important thing is getting in the boat with sales. And the reason for that is that salespeople are like heat-seeking missiles. 

You know, they are going to go, like, directly to where the value is. So, if they’re on the phone with a developer or a CTO, they are looking for, what are the personal signals? What are the technology signals? What is going on in their business? They are looking very, very closely for, like, what are the things that are going to allow me to sell. 

And that knowledge is critical for you because it allows you to understand how to message to those people, right? If you get in front of the value that you’re trying to provide for that segment, your salesperson, if they’ve been there for a little while, they know what it is. So, I would get their input on who to ignore, who to focus on, and who to cultivate. 

Using sales acumen to read customer signs

And we’ll talk a little bit more about that framework for how you use personas. I think Steve said it great, “You can’t focus on everybody.” You want to talk about the buying motion and the signals that they look for. Sometimes the keywords that sales guys look for are, like, totally different from what we would intuit. But they can be really helpful little, I call them provoking events, to help you understand where people see the value in what you’re doing. 

They can help you understand… because only consumers really buy products in isolation. They can help you understand the whole buying team and define the roles on that team, so that you can understand how to differentiate the message to everybody who might need to write the check, might need to implement the damn thing, might need to make the final technology decision. 

So, getting the input from sales is valuable. And then secondly, get on the sales calls. The most important thing is to just be a fly on the wall. And the thing that I do is, and you can even, like, have the office manager do this, write down the keywords. Every single keyword that somebody says is important. You know, Steve talked a lot about where engineers are on that kick ass curve. 

What that implies is that there’s a lot of bias in your interpretation, and in your engineers’ interpretation, in your dev rel teams’ interpretation. Everybody’s got this sort of expertise bias. But when you listen to the words that your customers actually use, it tells you what words you need to use for them. 

Understanding the differences between personas

And they will be different from persona to persona. You can also hear when you’re on the phone, you can hear their motivations and excitement. So, that’s really kind of cool. But then you can also hear what confuses them. So, if you know what confuses them, you can get out around that earlier. “I don’t understand your security posture.” Check, I can fix that. 

Right? So, understanding what is more relevant to different people also helps you to understand what to put in an email sequence. Like, if you want to talk to them, like, what to put in the subject line. What to tweet about, what to write content about. So, internet research, I think sometimes we like to think the internet holds all the answers. 

And it holds some answers. It says, “Where are we going? You know, generally as a community. What are communities fighting about? What are the trends that are broad? And what are we seeing? What’s picking up steam? 

What’s losing steam? But what it doesn’t tell you about is stuff that’s relevant to your business. It doesn’t tell you what your users care about and why. So, an example of this would be, you know, you might see on the internet, all sorts of discussion about authorization schemes within a particular programming framework, and how they’re differently implemented, and all the arguments around that. 

Things to avoid when building personas

But what you don’t hear is that the fundamental problem is that people don’t understand how to structure authorization. And figuring out how to do that education is actually how you talk to that user. So, let’s talk about building a persona. All right. Here’s what’s not to do. I’m not going to apologize for blowing these people up because they should do better. 

This is what not to do. These words could describe 75% of the people in this room. It is, like, not useful at all. The only thing that’s even a little bit valuable is the goals section. So, goals, yeah, that’s good. But, like, otherwise, what the hell do you do with this? I don’t know what to do with this. 

And I’ve been marketing for, like, a decade and a half. This is the way I do it. And this is not a developer example. I love how fricking over the top rigorous this is. So, Day in the Life, where do they go for information? What are their objections? What problems do we solve for them? 

It is super, super, super actionable. And it talks a lot about this person within the context of the company that they work for, which tells a lot about the decisions that they make. So, what goes into a persona? Who are you? How do we help you? What key message did you share about us? You can kind of massage these. 

I don’t think there’s, like, any one template to rule them all, but you figure out what works for you. 

Honing in on your needs

So, first, who are you? I think demographics can really matter. The messages that might work for a demographic group that’s 22 years old versus 52 years old, and both of them can be very valuable demographic groups, but you might want to talk to them a little bit differently. 

Career history. Are they brand new in their framework? Are they brand new to development or are they an incredibly seasoned engineer who’s worried about more complex architectural issues? What is their role in this sales process? What do they need to know? What are they looking for? What do they want to do? 

I think the important thing about goals that it’s easy for us to overlook, is in a world where we’re selling to a bunch of people who are improving their tradecraft, we need to think about what that means for them personally. So, for a lot of people, being able to demonstrate, you know, their growth of that curve or their ability to adopt a new framework, or their ability to solve the technical problem, that has major personal implications for them at work. 

And understanding that piece, I think could be really valuable to equipping them to be your referral, to be your advocate within that company. Challenges. You know, everybody’s got different kinds of challenges. You want to focus in on what their particular challenges are, and other stuff they care about. I tend to find that these are business strategy type things. So, the other piece of persona content is, how do we help you? 

Learning what helps different personas

And this is less about who you are and more about what is our relationship? And how do we provide value in this relationship? So, you know, how do we help? What are the common objections you hear from these people? What questions do they ask? I don’t think it’s, like, mega important, but I think it’s nice to know who they’re influenced by. 

Randall is the Head of Developer Evangelism at Okta. Ilan is Ilan. He’s also a red herring. You know, sometimes influencers just don’t matter to how you’re going to message to somebody. Catalysts. I like to think about what is going on in their business, that might make them really interested in me, that might make them really qualified? 

And so, sometimes that’s like a business event, like, they just launched or their competitor just got hacked, or whatever. There’s all sorts of things. And then stuff I love. What do they love about your products? You know, what value have you provided them? So, get really dialled in on what are the specific things that delight them? 

And you can hear those on calls. So, then you distill all of this down, not only into your persona, but into a key message, and if this looks the same for multiple personas, you need to tighten up your personas because it should look a little bit different for everybody. All right, so, let’s talk about how to use them. 

Understanding there’s no one solution to serve them all

Okay. You cannot be everything to everyone. So, there’s everybody, that’s everybody who you could address. There’s everybody who has signed up for your API, signed up for your service, downloaded something, that’s somebody in your community. There’s the people you are going to ignore, the people you’re going to focus on, who are matched to your personas, and there’s everybody else. 

And everybody else is the biggest bucket. The focus bucket is probably the smallest bucket. So, who do you ignore? Very often, you would ignore things like students. So, these are people who you know aren’t going to pay you. They might be in a geography that you can’t serve because that geography is particularly focused on zero-cost open source software. 

They might be at a company size that can’t afford you. They might be in a programming language where you don’t have a good fit. They might be in an industry, like, you know, they work for the federal government and you’re not FedRAMP certified. They might have a job title. You know, I’d like to say, if you’re not selling librarian software, and you see a librarian, no. 

And the goal is to show them the love, although maybe not a love that’s so dwindling, font fail. We don’t want to totally ignore these people, but they can go into zero cost nurtures that keep them up to date on the product. You know, we can interact with them on social. This should be the purview of a community manager. 

It shouldn’t be a high touch interaction. We don’t need to be devoting resources to these people because frankly, they’re just not going to move our business forward. You want to focus on the people who matter. 

Knowing where to concentrate your focus

So, the people who match your personas, and that you’ve identified are highly qualified. And one of the things that you do there, BANT is a sales qualification, and SQL at the bottom there is not a database. 

It is sales qualified lead. So, BANT is Budget, Authority, Need, and Timeline. It’s how you identify whether someone can actually pay for your stuff. And one of the ways that you can identify need before someone ever talks sales is, you know, are they coming to your site a lot? Are they logging in a lot? 

Can you see activity that it shows that they have some sort of need for a particular product, you know, they’re trying something out. You can see what they’re doing. Budget and authority is a little bit harder to see early on. But you can usually hear it on a sales call. And authority can often be based on title. So, what you want to do with these people is, this is, like, white glove concierge. 

You devote your resources here. You devote your focus here. You devote the company’s attention across marketing, dev rel, you know, product engineering, and you advocate for these group of people. And you score them, if you end up in a world where you’re stuck with the marketing automation piece, you score them, so they zip right through. 

So, they go as far into a positive experience as possible. And then cultivate. 

Cultivating the casual user

There’s going to be a lot of people left over who, like, don’t have an active need. They were just kind of messing around on your API. They don’t have a strong timeline. They don’t have a project. They just kind of wanted to check it out. 

This is typically a large pool of people or they might be, like, working in a framework, you’re not totally supporting yet. So, what you want to do is cultivate them. I do this. This is usually marketing’s world. So, you know, the focus people, we want to kind of, like, really zip quickly through marketing. We want to identify them and blast them through to somebody who is going to be able to take better care of them technically or through sales process. 

But the cultivating people, this is marketing’s world. And what we can do is create email sequences and remarketing campaigns and content to stay top of mind as we release new features, and support more things, and have big events, so that when they’re ready, we are here and we’re still in their brain. 

People need to be reminded of a brand or a concept seven times before they actually remember it. So, it’s important to keep that cadence up. And marketing can do that in scalable ways. So, an important concept is you have to be ruthless. 

An argument against hackathons

I have seen it break the hearts of many a developer evangelist when I say things like, “We should not do a student hackathon.” 

I actually… It is, like, deeply painful on a profound level. And just is a total side note on the hackathon thing. I am also anti-hackathon. External hackathon, internal hackathons are super powerful at every company I’ve been at. But external hackathons are great. If you want to see all the, like, low hanging broken, because you will see all the low hanging broken. 

Audience member: Bring your engineers in! 

Judith: Bring your engineers, that’s darn tooting! Yeah. We always took our engineers, and you get a really high fidelity on where all their expertise bias is. But they will not make you any money. I’ve never seen it work. So, things to do today. Review and update your personas. 

So, personas change, markets change. I think a couple of things that are really interesting with regard to this right now is security. If you don’t have a component of security and what is the thinking on security for each of your personas, then it needs to evolve because it is so much more pertinent to everyone. 

You know, we used to have a situation, I would say seven years ago, where I don’t think developers cared that much about security. And I’ve seen that radically shift, where it’s often one of the first things that we need to address for them. And that’s great. I love that trend. It’s a hard trend. 

Disregard early red flags

So, the other one is identify three obvious ignore disqualifiers. So, students is one I mentioned. We don’t sell actively in India. So, even though we have a lot of website traffic and free trial signups from India, we just don’t actively qualify them. And that’s fine. You know, there’s still great things to do there, and we might get there someday, but not right now. 

And put those into your system to make sure that your marketing team and everybody is aligned on, “We’re not going to do this.” This one’s similar to the kick-ass curve. And this is like the super pro-move, right? So, if you need to get somebody up the kick-ass curve, you need to identify the people who are going to do that, and how to interact with them at different places. 

If that’s an 18-month curve, and the people you are addressing are in month one, versus if it’s a two-month curve, and they’re in month one, they are in a different phase in that learning cycle, and so, your messaging to them should be different. So, how long it takes for someone to really fully adopt your product is n important thing to know. If it’s super simple, it might be real transactional. 

But if it’s much more complex and takes a long time, you’re going to have a much more nuanced way that you build the messaging around that persona. 

Understanding differences 

Build a cultivation program or co-opt a marketer into doing that. And then expand your personas. You know, when you do your review update… I used to do a quarterly dumpster dive, where I would, like, just go through, look at everybody who signed up, who was new and was a heavy active user, and look for trends in what’s changing. 

You know, look for, are they using different features? Are they different titles? Are they coming from different places? These can help you sort of refine things. Because often, what you’re going to see is, like, certain geographies are going to blow up first. And then you’re going to get to other geographies. And the way that marketing and development, and the kinds of communities that are influential there, are going to be totally different.

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