The Power of Persona Development for Health Care Marketers

Michael Piperno
Marketing Health Services
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Key Takeaways

​What? The digitization of health care has put more customer information at our fingertips than ever before.

So what? You connect best with health care audiences by understanding the motivations behind their buying actions.

Now what? Better understand the pain points and attitudes of your key buyers to create content and marketing materials that are more relevant to their specific needs.

​Nov. 16, 2016

Why a thoughtful process can pay dividends to health care marketers

Health care marketing has been transformed in recent years, becoming more complex with innovations in marketing and advertising tools and technologies. New applications and resources have put at our fingertips more health care information than we could ever want.

The decision-making process we experience when looking for a health care provider or product is much more active than it was in the past because we can easily perform our own research or quickly survey our friends for recommendations and advice. In addition, the abundance of opportunities for exposure, both online and off, creates an environment where prospects are inundated with messages at every turn. Determining the best strategy for reaching your key audiences and breaking through the noise requires research, planning and a solid understanding of precisely whom you’re trying to reach. We call this the “persona development process.”

Demographics help us create only part of the total picture needed to connect with health care consumers on the personal level they have come to expect, especially with younger audiences who tend to forge highly personal relationships with brands they buy and recommend. Health care brands must work to understand the behavior patterns, goals and pain points of their customers and prospects—in other words, connecting personally with health care audiences is best done when you understand the motivations behind their buying actions.

Understanding Your Buyers and their Purchasing Processes

According to HubSpot, “Personas are fictional, generalized characters that encompass the various needs, goals and observed behavior patterns among your real and potential customers.” Working to intimately understand real and potential customers on a personal level allows brands to continually target and refine their ideal prospects and connect with them through relevant content, visuals and experiences. A thorough persona development process includes a review of the demographic and behavioral data you already have, an assessment of who you are already reaching (you want to define specific characters, not just age groups or medical conditions) and brainstorming regarding whom else you should be reaching in order to achieve your organization’s short- and long-term goals. That data should then be supplemented with information collected from your current buyers through interviews, questionnaires and analytics from your digital properties that indicate behaviors and preferences.

Once you have formed a clear picture of your target personas, you’ll start to see trends, similarities and differences that will help you determine how to best reach them through the myriad of marketing channels available, including online search and display advertising, out-of-home ad placements, radio spots or other methods appropriate to each buyer persona. You’ll also be able to more carefully consider how they buy, whom they trust and what they need to hear from you in order to view your organization or product as the most appropriate solution for their personal needs.

You may be thinking you know who your customers are already, and you don’t need to go through the persona development process; you just need to know how to best get in front of your buyers. The fact is that the landscape of advertising, marketing and public relations is changing faster than ever, and the best way to reach your customers changes just as quickly. Understanding your personas is invaluable in helping you ensure your strategies will reach them effectively because your awareness of where they are and how they currently buy will be heightened. This is why persona development is a process that is never complete. You’ll tweak, refine, update, add and remove personas over time in order to ensure your marketing and communications remain relevant to your audiences.

A Quick-Start Guide to Developing Buyer Personas

Here are some initial steps to get you started on the right track.

1. Start with a Workshop.

Invite a small group of your organization’s team members to a brainstorming session to begin defining your core personas. Make sure the invited individuals represent the departments within your organization that sell to, market to and service your clients. Keeping the group relatively small will allow for a more productive workshop. Set the goals of the workshop to defining only one or two personas, with one being your core persona, and schedule subsequent workshops for additional personas that are needed.

Before the workshop, send an agenda and goal summary to the invited participants. Make sure the goal summary clearly explains what personas are and why they are important to your organization so they can start thinking about your buyers ahead of time. When we run persona development workshops, we send clients a short presentation to distribute to the workshop participants, which explains the persona development process and also gives examples of fully formed personas so all participants have a general sense of what to expect.

When we conduct workshops, we like to use the simple and effective persona framework developed by Jason Fraser and Janice Fraser of Pivotal Labs (formerly of Luxr). Their framework consists of a four-quadrant grid that aids in brainstorming and can be easily created on a whiteboard. The four quadrants include:

  • Name and visual

  • Facts

  • Behaviors

  • Needs and goals

Here’s how it typically looks once complete.

Before beginning, we hand out a sheet of questions that help guide workshop participants with thinking through each quadrant and participating in the brainstorming process. Then, we work with the group to define some topline traits of their ideal customers in order to pick the first persona to work on. Once we have consensus, we give the persona a name. We like to use names with alliteration, like “nonprofit Nancy” and “executive Elliot”. Note that these names often change as we go through grid process. Next, we define a key clue—one core thing that the organization’s services or products do for this person—and assign a picture to the persona. The name, image and key clue get placed in the top left quadrant on the wall.

Next, we ask participants to write down specific facts, behaviors, needs and goals for the persona and place them in the relevant quadrant. If someone else has already placed the same item in the quadrant, then a participant needs to write a different item. All participants must write at least one item per quadrant, and most do many more. We emphasize that this is a brainstorming session and not to worry about being right or wrong.

Once the group has completed posting their items, we lead a discussion to refine the items together, moving notes from one quadrant to another, combining similar notes, and removing notes that we all agree are not particularly relevant. We also record all of the final items on a worksheet and take photos of the grid to ensure we have captured everything.

2. Gain Additional Insights.

Now that you have a lot of information about what your internal team knows about your target personas, you should consider the value of investing time into hearing from your actual customers or prospects. Surveys and interviews are great ways to gain insights from your existing customers. Data from your website, CRM, or marketing automation platform can also provide mountains of information that, when analyzed well, will help you discover additional behavior patterns and preferences for your personas.

3. Write Their Stories.

Now that the heavy lifting is complete and you have defined your current core personas, it’s time to write their stories. Use the information gained from all of the work you’ve done to date, and write a one-page descriptive narrative of each persona. Consider all of the facts, behavior patterns, goals and pain points uncovered during the development process and use them to make educated assumptions about where they get their information and what motivations are behind their actions. Then, you can begin to make plans to reach them when and where they are most likely to engage. Remember, persona development is an ongoing process, so plan to revisit these stories and continue to refine them.

Be Prepared for Today and Tomorrow

The challenges health care marketers face in identifying and reaching prospects are ever changing. The best way to leverage today’s tools and technologies, and to be ready for tomorrow’s, is to be confident in your understanding of your buyers, especially as their behaviors and attitudes change. In addition, the persona development process can help you uncover specific needs of key prospects that are being unintentionally ignored as well as shed light on marketing dollars wasted on marketing and advertising that is not likely to connect with your real prospects. Taking the time to better understand the pain points and attitudes of your key buyers will help your organization create content and marketing materials that are more relevant to their specific needs, which will enhance your credibility and establish stronger relationships from the start.

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Author Bio:

Michael Piperno
Michael Piperno is executive vice president and chief creative officer of Imbue Creative. He can be reached at
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