Before You Go to Market, Go to Persona

7 minute read

Upland Admin

At SiriusDecisions Summit 2018, I happened upon a Portfolio Marketing Program of the Year presentation that featured one of our customers, Merrill Corporation. I decided last minute to tag along with our customer advocacy manager who was on the enthusiastic yet demanding quest to support all of our customers who were presenting at the Summit—not just those who were speaking on our behalf. We weren’t sure what to expect, but each of us came away with a fascinating insight into the transformational effect personas can have on a business.

After the applause had died down, all I could think was, “Wow, personas really don’t get enough love.”

Maybe it’s because personas don’t feel exciting. And let’s face it, they aren’t particularly sexy. We marketers have had the necessity of personas drilled into our heads for as long as any of us can remember, but as we confront our ever-expanding to-do lists and our exciting new strategic priorities, giving our personas some love usually slips to the bottom of the pile.

It shouldn’t.

Especially not if Axel Kirstetter—who serves not only as Merrill’s VP of field marketing but also product marketing and pricing—found the time.

Missing Personas Are a Blocker to Progress

Kirstetter faced a host of challenges that will sound familiar to many of you. Namely, that his 50-year-old company was—and had been for too long—siloed. Challenged by serving customers in more than 40 countries, Merrill needed to change the way it was seen publicly.

“We wanted to change the perspective of an established global brand, but we knew we couldn’t make that happen until we changed our own perspective of our customers and prospects,” said Kirstetter.

Merrill is a complex company. Its work is highly secure and highly secret, which means that talking about itself is more difficult for its marketers than it is for those of other corporations. Nevertheless, they were determined to transform their image from that of a financial printer to a tech-enabled solutions company, one that had insight into the complicated content and communications that facilitate enterprise growth.

Quite the transformation. So what did they need to do to get there?

Kirstetter realized that, in order to solve the problems Merrill faced, his team would need to start with the basics. Before they could tackle the flashy stuff, they’d need to:

  • Build a common taxonomy
  • Build a customer profile
  • Establish use cases
  • Align brand architecture
  • Distinguish between marketing personas, product users, and pricing buyers
  • Upgrade the people, processes, and technology within the organization

5 Steps, 18 Months

Kirstetter and his team set about attacking the problem in five key phases.

Phase One: Research

In an effort to be thorough, the team committed four full months to identify their target audience. They conducted interviews with current clients and talked to internal services and sales teams to get a clear picture of who they as marketers should have in mind when developing strategy and content.

With a clear picture visible, the team could begin mapping its value proposition.

Phase Two: Document

Taking the insights gained in the research stage, the team resisted the urge to charge ahead, recognizing the importance of getting stuff down on paper. It can be tempting to take the information you gather and run with it, assuring yourself that you’ll circle back some day to get everything down. But if our research is any indication—just 39% of respondents quoted in our upcoming Marketing-Sales Alignment Benchmark report told us their organization had documented buyer’s journeys—you probably won’t.

Documentation is important for many reasons, but most of all, it’s the only way to ensure the work you do now continues to provide value for years to come.

Phase Three: Validate

They’d done the research and documented what they knew about their audiences, but the team wasn’t satisfied yet. To ensure they were pursuing the right strategies, Kirstetter and his team made sure to get confirmation on the validity of the purchasing paths they had built. They went straight to the source, talking with real, existing clients to make sure what they were saying was accurate.

“After the months spent developing personas and buyer’s journeys, we made it a point to step back and confirm our work as a complete data ecosystem. After all, just because we were proud of what we had created didn’t necessarily make it right. We were determined to get the most out of our investment of time and energy, and that meant securing full confidence in our work,” said Kirstetter.

Phase Four: Activate

Now it was time to put all of their hard work into action. Kirstetter’s team created sell sheets, built out demand generation programs, and even orchestrated a relaunch of their website, which was redesigned to allow visitors to personalize their digital experience.

In an effort to produce targetted, high-value content, Merrill also launched Merrill InsightTM, a webinar series dedicated to thought leadership. By understanding the needs and wants of their audience groups, Kirstetter and his team could invest in high-quality content with confidence.

Finally, Merrill brought on a sales-enablement team, understanding that the only way to get the most out of their work on better personas and better content was to ensure it was used by the sales team.

Phase Five: Measure

At last, it was time to assess their progress. Their ability to do so was rooted in the proper set up of their systems, including Salesforce, Eloqua, and Kapost. With a framework in place, all core systems could work together to provide accurate, real-time insights.

Reaping the Fruits of Their Labor

Ever the organized mind, Kirstetter assesses his impact across five separate categories.


With every last awareness piece tagged by persona, Kirstetter could rest assured that none of Merrill’s content was generic. Even at the top of the funnel, each piece was designed with a particular audience in mind.

This work didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, their efforts earned them a Kapost Customer Award for content inventory and tagging. And instead of patting himself on the back and moving on, Kirstetter used the recognition from an industry leader to recruit new team members. After all, who doesn’t want to work for an award-winning marketing team?

“It was great to have buy-in from my team on this project and to have them share the success with others, like Kapost. I had no idea the award was coming—and to have Kapost recognize the steps we had taken to revolutionize our tagging and taxonomy infrastructure was an opportunity to further validate and activate our framework. We used it as a tool to achieve another goal: to bring in a new generation of talented team members, and used Kapost as a point of pride in our recruiting efforts,” Kirstetter explained.


Kirstetter’s team didn’t shy away from sharing their persona mapping with consumers. Rather than hiding their persona tagging from their audience, Merrill displayed their categorization front and center, allowing users to self-identify and guide their own exploration.

Demand Generation

When it came to demand gen, the team didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. By making simple, persona-based adjustments, conversion rates increased as both consumers and internal team members knew whether Merrill solutions were right for any given prospect.


Using Kapost’s Insights app, Kirstetter was able to generate bird’s-eye views of his persona and buying stage coverages with the click of a button. With access to these metrics, Merrill’s marketing team knows where coverage gaps exist at any given time, enabling them to prioritize content creation.


Kirstetter has taken personas all the way from the awareness stage to the product itself. Now, users can self-identify at any stage, which has enabled Merrill to increase its persona mapping from 50% to 70%. In turn, the company can provide an improved user experience, paving the way for happily renewed accounts and customer advocates.

All this success out of a commitment to personas? Next time personas don’t feel exciting enough to become a priority project, remember that creating and tagging content by persona is more than an exercise in good bookkeeping. Rather, personas form the foundation for strategic content, enabling teams to prioritize creation, optimize distribution, and create winning customer experiences.

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