How to Use Personas in HR as a Practical Tool for Segmentation

August 22, 2019

Personas have conquered the marketing space and have ultimately gained the credentials to benefit HR processes and professionals. 

Is your brand’s marketing strategy as effective as it could be? User personas are a valuable tool to tailor your outreach to a specific audience base. 

Leveraging semi-fictional characters called “personas” is a technique agencies use to enhance marketing campaigns.

When the time comes to launch a new product or penetrate a new market, personas can to be very useful as you identify your target market.

Lately, personas have made their way to many human resources (HR) departments. After reading this article about personas in HR, you will understand that this welcome shift could decrease employee turnover and improve staff engagement to help facilitate a workforce where everyone feels respected and understood. 

How Businesses Can Use Personas in HR

  • Ground your HR personas in reality rather than your preferences for an ideal workforce
  • Mine for quantitative insights from people analytics tools and qualitative insights from surveys
  • Aggregate all the information you’ve discovered to keep biases at bay and spark a better understanding of the people behind your user base

Model Your Personas Off of Your Target Audience

A persona is a semi-fictional representation of real buyers within a particular segment of a brand’s market.

Today, personas drive the market of personalization – a trend that half the companies in the world consider profitable and worth investing in. 

In most cases, personas pull information from actual market research, qualitative data from focus group interviews, and even global trends that significantly impact customers’ purchasing decisions. 

In short, a persona is a deliberate generalization of a group within your target customer base. The image below depicts an example of a male customer named “Kyle Fisher” who might be interested in buying a small SUV from Drake Motors.

Buyer personas reflect segments of a business's target audience and contain information such as demographics, interests, and possible needs.

This persona includes a personal profile of what this fictional buyer’s personal life might be like. In narrative form, it describes his background, socioeconomic information, family life, career, and current interest in buying a car. A graph lays out how he allocates his existing assets, paired with a list of his current product-content needs.

The persona is specific enough to create helpful content and campaigns that resonate with target audiences, yet sufficiently general to cast a wide net when it comes to using an advertising budget. 

A persona lets a marketing professional walk in the shoes of potential buyers they wish to understand, support, and influence. 

The sophisticated use of personas has enabled the personalization software industry to turn relevance into a fine art

Without personalization from personas, savvy customers in the current market will get bored with generic content and bounce from landing pages that don’t specifically engage them. They will ignore messages that fail to address their unique needs and pain points.

The graph below shows the correlation between personalization maturity and revenue. The spectrum ranges from the basic factors most businesses use, like single message mailing, field insertion, and rules-based segmentation. 

As personalization maturity increases, so does revenue.

Higher-level tactics leveraged by leading companies like Amazon and Spotify are behavioral recommendations, optimized omnichannel, and predictive personalization.

Personalization is forecasted to be a $3000 million industry by 2024. On average, customization improves email click-through rates by 14% and makes websites 2 to 5 times more engaging.  

Considering how demonstrably well personas work, it’s no wonder they have been adopted by software developers, the banking industry, and fortunately HR departments as well.

Show Your Brand Values Empathy

Harvard Business Review has been vocal in its support of personas. It has zeroed in on why personas are such an intrinsic part of today’s agile businesses. 

As the world shifts online and customer-brand interactions become almost exclusively digital, a void has developed within companies. It is extremely easy for the people powering a brand to consider their buyers and browsers as nothing more than numbers in an analytics engine.

How can you combat this trend? 

Personas generate and propagate empathy by making buyers seem human, rather than just a set of metrics. They help brands tap into the hopes, fears, and aspirations of their customers.

Of any department in a given business, human resources teams need to be empathetic and focused on the human aspect of its stakeholders the most. 

HR had the first brush with personas when the war for talent peaked

As organizations started losing star performers to better pay, a two-fold need was born. 

  1. Uncovering new channels to find the right candidates: Some available channels weren’t always necessarily guarded by recruitment agencies.
  2. Understanding what the best employees and business collaborators are looking for in employment: Competition based on salaries and perks hit a glass ceiling pretty quickly. And brands have had to distinguish themselves based on values and priorities that are important to their prospective workers. 

Personas have helped HR departments think outside the box. CEOs started delivering talks at universities where their ideal candidates were already enrolled, which brought brand awareness while internship programs cemented loyalty early. 

Today, simply hiring the right talent is no longer enough. The “product” which HR needs to sell to its customers (namely, employees) is retention. 

This realization has spurred forward-thinking organizations into action. Personas are rapidly moving from the talent acquisition department to retention and pathfinding, extending empathy from the realm of customers to the workforce. 

Draw From Your Audience to Create Personas

It makes little sense to borrow personas from other brands. Use your own audience to create personas.

Instead, here are some rules of thumb that will help you identify your personas and then compile documents that let you understand workers better, guide them on their path of personal development and in the process even nurture the leaders of tomorrow. 

1. Make Sure Your Personas Are Grounded in Reality

Before embarking on this journey, it’s critical to understand that the HR personas you craft won’t fully represent your ideal employees. You can always draw up a wishlist of competencies and characteristics, but a persona belongs with your talent acquisition department.

When it comes to retention, the work has to be grounded in reality

2. Consider the Data to Back Up the Personas

It's important to invest in the right tools when recruiting the best talent. Prepare to dive deep into your people analytics tool, and consider objective metrics based on quantitative research.

Your timesheet tool should give you an accurate idea of your employees’ average workweek. You can easily separate staff members into cohorts. Some groups will naturally emerge that spend more time immersed in “work,” while others will be less connected to the office system.

Complement this information with the output from your performance management system. Performance reviews serve a valuable purpose by telling HR about the goals met and failed expectations. 

3. Don't Undervalue Qualitative Data

Tap your 360-feedback management tool to assess qualitative data. This type of system is essential to have in place.  While legacy information, such as the sentiments of employees on an ongoing basis, is useful, a 360-feedback polling feature can capture anonymous insights into your workforce’s goals and aspirations.

Choose your queries carefully. Asking open-ended questions lets you analyze the "lingo" of your organization. What words are your talent using to describe themselves and the company culture? 

As a follow-up, re-affirm key assumptions with multiple-choice questions that are less ambiguous. 

4. Return to Company Values

Use these principles to categorize personas rather than actually filling in the gaps. As suggested, anything aspirational from the HR perspective about hiring needs to be communicated to recruitment. 

You find that some of your employees feel these ways: 

  • Don’t wish to adopt new software or policies 
  • Have a hard time with agile practices 
  • Wish to establish a direct line of contact with the manager and are prone to using this as a subtle influence to get their way 
  • Are fairly productive and meet their goals 

Company values will give you a clear indication of: 

  • Whether this behavior is desirable (or has been inadvertently encouraged) 
  • How to help these individuals progress to a state where they are more in alignment with what the brand expects from its star performers 

What you decide to “name” these personas is of little importance as long as you’re not supporting biases or promoting stereotypical thinking. Don’t label the persona discussed above something like “Gen X Gerald," because some of the individuals in that cohort might actually be millennials. 

5. Make a List of Elements to Consider When Creating Personas

Based on the size of your company, you may end up with 2 to 6 personas. Look at the characteristics of the groups you’ve identified. 

Add these factors: 

  • Demographic data (age, salary scale, location) 
  • Psychographic data (goals, hopes, fears, future vision) 
  • Strengths (what does this segment of your workforce excel at?) 
  • Common Objections (what are these people apprehensive about) 
  • A Custom Development Plan (the type of coaching and learning that can drive positive changes in these individuals) 

When you complete the overview, a persona should look like the example below.

Personas for recruiting talent include information such as experiences the potential hires may want, their seniority level, their average day, and problems they face.

This sample persona contains much more concrete data and actionable insights than the initial version presented in this article.

Do your due diligence by holding focus-group interviews with employees who can comment on your personas and answer lingering questions. Feedback sessions can test how effective your suppositions turn out to be. 

Personas Coming To HR Departments at the Exact Right Time 

Compiling your HR personas is a fascinating exercise, but your work doesn’t end when they’re complete. In fact, creating personas is just the first step. 

HR personas have arrived right when they’re needed the most. In light of the internet revolution, people are connecting with others around the globe and expanding their worldviews. 

The added flexibility of online work is also giving rise to distributed teams where employees share the responsibility of moving a company forward, but don’t work in the same office space. 

If HR teams remain incapable of satisfying employees who prioritize how they feel through intangible indications like “quality of life” more than a base amount on a paycheck, then retention numbers will continue to plummet. 

Remote work requires its own set of practices to ensure that all workers, including HR professionals, view their peers as people and not AI bots who know how to get work done. 

When used consistently, HR personas can: 

  • Shed light on the employee journey: Equipped with the wealth of information personas provide, HR professionals should be able to gauge where employees in specific segments wish to see themselves in the future. Based on this insight, they can nurture the teammates’ potential to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow. 
  • Uncover fears and insecurities: According to Inc, 70% of the workforce is disengaged, and engagement can’t solely come from incentives. HR personas can help human resource departments address pain points in how they deal with every employee.  Becoming more empathetic enables better job performance and allays fears in a workforce, thus reducing employee churn. 
  • Reduce admin workloads: HR personas can even cut down redundancies in the admin processes. If certain employee segments don't benefit from the HR tactics in place, scraping data can help to eliminate touchpoints that aren’t contributing to talent retention. 

For example, if most personas don’t respond to email nurturing, consider removing email sequences from the onboarding process. Instead, try a more personal approach with less intensive follow-up. Deploying the AI-powered Donut solution is just one potential method to explore.

Changing Paradigms Hold Promising New Solutions For Your Business

The classic HR structure has remained rigid and static for decades. It’s time to replace outdated practices with paradigms that demonstrably work better.

HR companies encourage businesses to embrace personas as a valuable tool to usher in a new age of personalized, need-based support, training, onboarding, and recruiting for both potential and current employees.