Customer understanding is a critical piece of designing and delivering a great customer experience. Employee understanding is just as important to designing and delivering a great employee experience. That understanding work includes three important tools: (1) feedback and data, (2) personas, and (3) journey maps.
I’ve written about personas several times before and included them in my first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business). But one thing I haven’t written about is negative personas. What are they? Why are they important? How do you use them?
I’ll delve into that and more in this article.
What Are Negative Personas?
Negative personas describe the type of individuals or organizations that are unlikely to become customers or clients. These personas represent the opposite of your target audience and help brands avoid wasting resources on people who are not a good fit for their products or services.
How Do You Develop Them?
Negative personas are created by analyzing and understanding the characteristics, behaviors, needs and preferences, and demographics of those who are not a good match for a particular offering.
Just like when you’re developing your personas, to develop negative personas you’ve got to talk to customers and potential customers. You’ll learn a lot from these interviews.
An important source of data about these folks is churn surveys and win/loss surveys. Who are the customers who never converted once they tried your product? Who are the customers who stopped using your product because it didn’t meet their needs or solve their problems?
Another important source is competitive/benchmark surveys. Which customers are loyal to your competitors? How are competitors filling their different needs (different from what you’re able to fulfill with your products)?
Your sales and marketing teams can be helpful, as well, and should have tons of data on the types of customers who convert or don’t, who just download content but never engage to buy, etc.
It’s important to note that, just like personas, negative personas should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Remember that customer needs and expectations change, products change and evolve, the business evolves, etc.
Why Are They Important?
Negative personas help make what you’re doing to design the experience more efficient and effective. They’ll save you time and money by ensuring you focus your sales, marketing, product, and other customer experience efforts on customers that bring your brand the most value.
Some of the benefits include:
- More Efficient Resource Allocation: Negative personas help you allocate your resources more efficiently by not focusing on individuals or groups that are unlikely to convert into customers. You can focus your efforts on the people or organizations most likely to be interested in your products or services, leading to higher conversion rates.
- Better Personalization: Negative personas enable you to create more personalized and relevant marketing messages, content, and experiences. By knowing who you’re not targeting, you can concentrate on content, products, and experience design that appeals to your ideal audience, resulting in a more compelling experience.
- Data-Driven Decision-Making: Developing negative personas involves data analysis and research, which helps you make more informed and data-driven decisions about your CX strategy. It provides a solid foundation for strategy development and optimization.
- Reduced Waste: By excluding negative personas, businesses reduce wasting resources, including advertising spend, product investments, and staff time. This cost-saving aspect is particularly important if you’re working with a limited budget.
- Enhanced Customer Experience: Excluding irrelevant or uninterested prospects from marketing campaigns and product or service design work leads to a better experience. Customers receive content, offers, recommendations, features, and more that are more aligned with their interests, which can lead to greater satisfaction and engagement.
- Alignment with Business Goals: Negative personas help ensure that product, marketing, and sales efforts are aligned with the overall goals of the business. By focusing on the right audience, you work toward attracting and retaining customers who are more likely to contribute to your brand’s success.
- Competitive Advantage: By refining your strategies and reaching the right audience more effectively than your competitors, you can stand out in your industry.
How Do You Use Them?
Negative personas are used in a variety of ways, which I’ve probably addressed in the previous section, including: refining your target audience and where you’ll focus your experience design, messaging, and sales efforts; product development; content personalization; messaging and positioning; channel selection; market research and competitive analysis; and more.
Update (11/1/23): Check out this video by John Miglautsch of the Wisconsin DMA; he reviewed this article and shared some examples of how these personas are used.
What Are The Potential Gotchas?
As with any other work that you do in designing the experience, there may be some challenges and other gotchas to consider.
- Overgeneralizing: Avoid assuming that everyone who falls into a specific category is a poor fit for your offering. Negative personas should be based on data and insights rather than assumptions.
- Data Quality: Developing negative personas relies on accurate and up-to-date data. If your data is incomplete or outdated, you might create personas that are inaccurate or miss potential opportunities. Ensure that your data sources are reliable and regularly maintained. Do the work, and talk to customers. Don’t forget that part.
- Customers Evolve. Customer behaviors, needs, expectations, and problems to solve change over time. What might be a negative persona today could become a valuable customer in the future. Be sure to review and update your personas to account for shifts in your audience.
- Journey Complexity: In some cases, a prospect who initially appears to be a negative persona might eventually convert into a customer. The customer journey can be complex, and a seemingly poor fit at one stage might evolve into a good fit later. Be cautious about prematurely excluding potential customers.
- Exclusion Errors: While negative personas help you exclude certain groups, it’s crucial not to be overly aggressive in your exclusions. Overzealous exclusion can result in missed opportunities and potential customers who may convert with the right approach. Striking the right balance between targeting the right audience and excluding the wrong one requires a deep understanding of your target market and ongoing adjustments as you learn more about your customers.
- Lack of Flexibility: Negative personas should be flexible and adaptable. I’ve already mentioned this previously, but businesses evolve and customer needs and expectations can change. Don’t be too rigid in your approach; regularly review the personas; and be open to adjusting them as needed.
- Negative Brand Image: Be careful how you talk about negative personas both internally or externally. Avoid giving the impression that your business is judgmental or dismissive of certain groups. Negative personas are about optimizing the experience, not about making value judgments about people.
Negative personas are an important tool to have in your toolbox because they allow you to optimize your customer experience strategy, save resources, and improve the overall effectiveness of their customer acquisition strategies. They are a valuable tool to help you make the most of your budget and effort while delivering a better experience to your target audience.
Avoid making broad assumptions, regularly update your personas, and strike a balance between targeting the right audience and excluding the wrong one. Negative personas should be a dynamic part of your strategy, not a static or overly rigid concept.
People ignore design that ignores people. ~ Frank Chimero
Annette Franz is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. In 2019, she published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. In 2022, she published her second book, Built to Win: Designing a Customer-Centric Culture That Drives Value for Your Business (Advantage|ForbesBooks), which is available to purchase on Amazon, Books A Million!, Target, Barnes & Noble, and thousands of other outlets around the world! Sign up for our newsletter for updates, insights, and other great content that you can use to up your EX and CX game.
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