Pharma and Social Media: What Role Should Personas Play?

Last Thursday, I attended Business Development Institute’s Social Communications & Healthcare Conference. There were a number of good presentations for Pharma social media. One that stood out was the folksy talk given by Pfizer’s VP/Worldwide Communications Ray Kerins. Ray ingratiated the group by acknowledging that Pfizer still has a long way to go, but promised to listen and try to get it right… Or listen to Rick Wion, VP of Interactive media at GolinHarris, co-creators of McNeil’s two ADHD social media sites, speak about how to work within the regulatory environment.  Jonathan Richman also presented Healthcare and Social Media: Know the Rules.  And for conference takeaways, read Sally Church’s Pharma Strategy blog The Challenge of Social Media in Pharma as well as Steve Woodruff’s Impactivity Blog Pharma and Social Media Progress!.  Or follow the many tweets at #BDI

As part of the conference, I also attended a round table session on Personas led by Carol Banks Setter, SVP of Strategy, WHITTMANHART. Interested in the use of personas in marketing, I wanted to hear what was new…

WHITMANHART uses personas primarily for web design to maximize the user experience- using real insights so that design is aligned with deep understanding of the audience.  This allows them to make ‘swift and accurate’ decisions throughout a project’s design based on each Persona’s needs.

Other discussion during the round table centered on whether personas can be helpful tools to integrate on-line and off line brand communications and product design…and whether personas complement, replace and/or extend the traditional segmentation work most often done in pharma today.

Implications for Pharma Marketing

While the use of Personas has its detractors (37 Signals), I am of the mind that-when done well- personas can be an important tool for all brands, including healthcare ones, to:

  • Build empathy and increase their ability to deliver patient-centered solutionsby incorporating real needs and usage into the design and functionality of all key marketing initiatives; for many pharma brands, this would take websites and social media activities to the next level…
  • Help leverage and execute segmentation strategies beyond their current state; Market Segmentation is an invaluable tool for identifying the groups of people most likely to ‘purchase’ your product or use a website and why. However market segmentation is not designed to provide deep insight into how the website, for example, needs to work and how it is best designed to full fill user expectations and needs. Personas drive understanding of how people will actually use the site or product/service. (KM Column: An intro to Personas; Cooper Journal: Reconciling Market Segments and Personas)
  • Communicate and integrate all brand design activities(I’m thinking design in the broadest sense here across off line and on-line advertising, relationship marketing, social media, and product/clinical planning); Personas can lead to better decision frameworks for strategy (offerings, channel usage, features), marketing (branding and communications, market research) and design (information architecture, interaction design, visual design, content, user testing).
  • Provide a means to consider and test the potential impact of different scenarios against user needs and actions.This can help teams express product/service imperatives for clear prioritization of product requirements and deliverables;
  • Facilitate productive brainstorming for cross-functional teams; Personas can help bring focus, channel creativity and encourage consensus.
  • Avoid the “sum of all desired features”, the logical approach if you canvas the user community, but one that results in weak and inappropriate interaction design (Alan Cooper: The Origin of Personas)

What Makes for a “Real and Productive” Persona?

  • Personas are based on real data- quantitative, qualitative and ethnography, field studies/usability testing…Traceable details that researchers heard or observed firsthand
  • Personas describe people’s current behaviors in the context of their lives. Good descriptions capture: attitudes, work or activity flows, environmental factors, skill level, current frustrations and goals, including end goals, experience goals and life goals.
  • A human face and picture adds to the power and credibility of the tool; don’t give them funny names-dilutes empathy.
  • Maximize usefulness of sets; show how the persona set describes a range of user behaviors. Embody context of entire product/service work flow involving separate individuals.
  • Use the personas as a tool within a scenario-based approach to interaction design and communicate design solutions.
  • Personas weren’t designed for one-time use, but work best as an on-going tool

Times Not to Use Personas

  • Product space and target users are extremely well understood by you and all of your decision makers
  • You’re designing for a very narrow group of users to which you have direct and easy access
  • Your users are your stakeholders

Personas are a tool…a means to an end. They are not an end in and of themselves. Good personas aren’t fictitious, abstract, or a replacement for user research.

What’s your thinking or experience using personas? Could well thought-out personas help Pharma brands deliver a more consistent and superior customer-experience?


For additional reading:  Death to Personal! Long Live Personas! E Bacon & S Calde; Cooper Journal: Reconciling Market Segments and Personas; The User Is Always Right: Making Personas Work for your site by S Mulder

Photo credit: iStock


8 thoughts on “Pharma and Social Media: What Role Should Personas Play?

  1. Betsy,

    Thanks for your feedback. Empathy is a big part of the idea of personas which is one reason that I believe it is a useful tool for pharma…btw, to look at two examples of personas, slide 19 in Long Live Persona PPT and slide 4 in the User is Always Right PPT at the bottom of blog.

  2. Great post Ellen. I have been using the concept of personas without knowing that this is what I was actually doing- really helpful concept. I also believe it is essential to apply this to social media strategy. Right now there is a tendency to “jump“ at the tool – “Let’s us twitter – not facebook is better“ discussions ;-) It is not about that. Social media is about understanding your audience needs 100% and to then see who uses which channel and tool to satisfy which need.
    Thanks for enlightening me ;-)

    • Silja, Thank you! I so agree that personas can be v useful for pharma to really understand which social media tools will best match up with each persona so to speak in order to meet and exceed consumer expectations…you’re so right,the only way for pharma to add value in sm is to deeply understand their customer goals and behaviors…;-)

  3. Interesting perspective. I’ve always had a hard time getting my head around personas – they’re not real but abstract, so for me, building empathy with a hypothetical construct is difficult.

    What do I do instead? Well, for me it comes back to real people and patients. Having met many and listened to their real life stories, it is much easier to empathise with those real life situations and do something about it.

    • Sally,

      I hear you and think a persona is only helpful if it really is inciteful and captures concrete real life stories/representations of what ‘real’ people would do so that it gives the designer/leader a vivid mental construct to consider how to provide solutions for each particular important patient group…Sometimes, if one just listens to a few real life stories they may not know how those real life stories map back to priority patient segments that they may be trying to have conversations with, provide value to… etc.

      Additionally, the persona if based on real life stories…provides a way to have a shared communication for the whole team to ‘do something about’…As you know, so often, its not about one of us being clear, but a whole organziation, brand team and their partners…and getting teams to think and plan for different scenarios and solutions…

      Thank you so much for your throughts!

    • Marsha, Interesting question…No I don’t think it’s important to tell consumers that one is using personas…I think its more important that the use of the persona and continual listening and user-tesing etc provide solutions and value that the particular consumer is looking for…Let them vote with their feet so to speak!

      • …and if they find out that the ‘person’ they were identifying with is a marketing construct? You don’t think that could boomerang?

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