Intent, Context, Barriers: The Keys to Marketing Persona Development

By Rhen Wilson

A content strategy requires a deep understanding of marketing personas. Use intent, context, and barriers in your persona development quest.

Writing is a lonesome occupation. You sit at a desk, confined to the corner of a quiet room; the door’s shut, the air’s still, the solitude is stifling. But the blank page demands an audience. The writing must be read. But as the words struggle across the page like a reluctant child dragged to the bath, you feel in that moment that you are fighting a lonely battle.

To be a strong writer and, by extension (at least for me), a strong content marketing strategist, you must not only tell your story, you must know to whom you are telling it. A story, a message, a communication must have an audience, and it is essential this audience be known and codified—but never crystallized.

In the world of marketing, we call these audiences personas. A marketing persona is a research-driven, interview-based profile of a business’s common buyer types. It’s not a single buyer but a profile of many buyers who all share common buying habits and traits.

A persona is the missing piece in your office. A persona, when done well, will sit with you at the desk, perhaps mounted to the wall behind your computer, smiling at you as if to say, “Hey, remember me?”

Without this persona development, you’re banging your head on a keyboard, screaming into the empty void that is your blank Word doc—and the blinking cursor is the cruel reminder that without a defined audience, your content will not work.

To develop your personas, you need to understand your audience at a deep level. You need insight into your audience. And that insight is broken into three central components: intent, context, and barriers. In this post, I aim to define these core components so that you have the framework to develop personas for your business.

Intent — What Do They Want?

To understand the intent of your audience, you’re looking for motivation. What motivates a person and what drives their intent? Intent can be distilled into two elements: needs and goals.

Needs are those surface-level desires. These are usually tangible things—or purchases—a person wants. A vacation planner needs a vacation package. They need a hotel, an airline ticket, accommodations, restaurant reservations, etc. Needs are what you can touch, taste, see, experience.

Goals, on the other hand, show what’s going on below the surface. Goals are the subtext of needs. A vacation planner may need a vacation package for her family, but her goal is to create lasting memories, or to bring her family closer together, or to spend one last summer with her kids before they go off to college.

Needs influence decisions, yes, but goals are the true motivators of an audience.

In your deep-level persona development quest, you must be able to distinguish needs from goals. Of course a vacation planner is looking for the best package deals, and you and your competitors will certainly be able to come up with thrilling incentives. But if you can tap into the goals—the motivators—you can distinguish your brand from your competitors. You can tap into the subtext of your audience and demonstrate that you have true empathy for your audience.

Context — What and Where Are They?

You may know what a user needs and wants, but to distribute your content effectively, you must know the context of the consumer. You must know where they are both physically and mentally.

Physically, a user may be moving from desktop to mobile to tablet to Alexa/Google Home/(and soon HomePod). Consumers are omnichannel users, moving seamlessly from device to device, and they expect their experience to be uninterrupted.

Beyond device, you must know where they are in the world. What time are they at work versus at home? Do their shopping or research behaviors change based on location? What about traveling? In big cities, it’s not uncommon for consumers to research brands while commuting on the bus. And even at home, devices are switching. Think with Google reports that “92% of YouTube viewers watch YouTube on a mobile device when they are at home.”

Google YouTube Stat to Help You with Your Persona Development

Adapting your content and messaging for the best experience across multiple devices—creating a true omnichannel experience—is vital for effectively targeting your marketing personas.

But context is not just about where your audience is physically. You must understand where they are mentally too. I’m referring to the buying decision process of your users. This journey has many phases and many touch points and many micro-moments that you must understand to create content that resonates at the right moment for your audience.

The context of a top-of-funnel user is very different from one at the bottom of the funnel. At the top of the funnel, the vacation planner has a goal of bringing her family closer together, but she may not even be thinking about a vacation as the solution. Therefore, our job as marketers is to spark the idea that a vacation is a perfect opportunity to bring a family closer together—and our destination is ideal. By knowing where your audience is in their buyer journey, you can better understand the context of your audience’s intent and how that intent changes or becomes more nuanced as the user moves down the path to purchase. These details are essential to a successful persona development process.

Barriers — What’s Stopping Them?

Lastly, no marketing persona is complete without knowing the barriers to purchase. Unfortunately, marketing and selling are hard. Many buyers won’t purchase from you, and that resistance stems from known and unknown barriers. During your persona development endeavor, uncovering those barriers—or friction points—is essential to painting the complete picture of your target audience.

Barriers at the simplest level are those blockers to purchase. It costs too much. It doesn’t have everything I need. It’s too far away. I’m more comfortable with the other company. But barriers don’t have to be isolated to that final purchase decision. Barriers happen all along the buyer journey, and part of your research into the context of your buyers is to understand what are those barriers.

A barrier may be that the product or company research is convoluted or esoteric. If a product requires a lot of research up front, some people just don’t have the capacity to wade through heaps of jargon not part of their day-to-day lives. They need the information simplified for them so they can fully understand the benefits and solutions.

Barriers can also be a lack of autonomy in purchasing. For instance, the vacation planner may need to get her entire family to agree on a destination. Or a B2B buyer may need to get approval from her boss or the board. Once you identify these barriers, you can begin to circumvent them with content and messaging strategies.

Dig Deeper with Persona Pain Points

Barriers don’t have to be exclusive to the buying decision process. They can also be the pain points in the everyday lives of consumers. Lack of time is a common pain point. Staying ahead of the competition is another. Or fearing your teenage kids are slipping away from you might be that persona’s pain point. These barriers are more fundamental to the persona. This is what keeps people up at night. These are the gnawing thoughts that are unlikely to ever go away completely, but your brand may relieve or soften them—even if just for a moment.

Barriers are all about conflict with the buyer. This is where brands can stand out as the champion of the consumer, overcoming the conflict and defeating those adversarial machinations plaguing consumers. When a brand can meet the needs and goals of a user by overcoming their barriers, that’s when a consumer becomes a customer.

How to Capture the Intent, Context, and Barriers During Your Persona Development

You can start to put this picture of your marketing persona together by bringing in third-party research and data, looking into your website analytics for behavioral insights, and reviewing your databases for common user data. All this data is important to understand and to distill into meaningful insights. But it will only result in a faint sketch of your buyer. It lacks the details, the colors, and the shading to truly understand them at a deep level.

To get a complete picture, you must work directly with your buyers. Customer interviews are vital in this regard. Nothing will give you a better look into the mind of your customer than sitting across from them—asking questions or observing (ethnography). Doing so makes your buyers real. The questions you get and the answers you receive will unlock ideas you didn’t even know you were looking for in the first place.

For instance, when Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity in the late 17th Century, we all were certain we knew everything we needed to know about how planets orbit the Sun—the Sun’s massive size attracts a gravitational pull on all its planets. But when we applied these rules to the orbit of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, the math didn’t explain the strange shift of the planet’s orbit. It wasn’t until Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity more than two centuries later that we found our explanation: Gravity isn’t a force on two objects; it’s the result of the bending of space-time. And Mercury’s close position to the Sun means its orbit is affected by the dramatic bend in space-time around the sun.

Mercury's Orbit

The point of this anecdote is simply that Einstein might never have understood how gravity works without Newton discovering gravity in the first place. By solving one problem, Newton exposed a larger one.

The same is true for your persona development customer research. Your interviews and observations are meant to understand intent, context, and barriers, but they should also shed light on more questions you never anticipated. Which is why personas should never be finished and crystallized.

With your deep-level buyer insights, you can feel less alone in your content marketing strategy. You will know to whom you’re writing and why, and that should help the words spill across the page.