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Personas on the Move: The Art of User Journey Mapping

We are not in the camp of marketers that believes personas are dead. Research-informed personas are the easiest way to spread a user-centric mindset to your entire team and keep the user’s perspective in focus at all times. The simple act of putting a face and a name to your users is powerful; it’s a lot easier to get your channels and messages right for “Cynthia” or “Jake” than for “low-income moms” or “prospective students.”

Personas are meaningful, but they don’t move. They can feel a lot like paper dolls when it comes to your actual marketing funnel or flow. How does Cynthia get from seeing your poster in the grocery store to visiting your website, participating in your program, and sharing it with her friends? When and why does Jake apply to your school and ultimately accept your offer?

The most important question

Once you know your users and what they’ve got packed in their emotional suitcases, it’s time to map out how they travel.

If we asked you to describe how most of your users experience the journey of interacting with your organization—from the first moment of awareness through to becoming consistently engaged—could you answer us with confidence?

This is the most important question for any marketer to answer. And don’t get us wrong, it’s not simple to answer. But if you can press pause on cranking out content to dig in and understand how your users discover you, how they interact with you, and how/when they eventually do what you want them to do, you’ll hold the map to a rock-solid, data-driven marketing strategy.

By creating a user journey for each of your primary audiences, you’ll gain a better understanding of:

  • How your users first get to know you
  • What they do to get to know you better
  • Which of your channels and content pieces drive conversions
  • Which stages of your journey are losing people and need to be patched
  • How to better guide your users to the main thing(s) you want them to do

Note on the last bullet: Better doesn’t always mean faster. You might realize that right now, you’re pushing your big CTA right away and people are fleeing the scene. They may need more time, more information, and more delightful little moments with you before you pop the question.

What does a user journey look like?

User journeys can take on many visual forms, but they are always landscape-oriented documents with columns or markers that signify the major engagement stages (which can be labeled however you choose). Within each stage, there’s information on the actions users are taking to interact with you, along with notes on their thoughts and feelings. It might look something like this:

journey map example from a university
Source: Behance

How do I go about journey mapping?

If you’re a neat freak, we would be remiss not to warn you that journey mapping, when done right, gets messy.

First off, you’ll need to dig up all of the user research you have access to. Pulling together any user surveys and interviews you’ve conducted that are still relevant, Contact Us submissions, call logs, and pulling up your Google Analytics is a good start. Schedule and record chats with client-facing members of your team to pick their brains, too.

Don’t just doodle out your assumptions and call it a user journey—this does more harm than good.

Then scour all of these resources for information and quotes that demonstrate how your users behave at each of the following stages:

Awareness: How do they first learn about you?

Consideration: What do they do to learn more, to vet you, to test the waters? Who else/what alternatives are they considering at the same time?

Preference: What do they do once they’ve determined you’re for them but haven’t taken the plunge yet?

Conversion: How, when, and where do they finally do what you most want them to do (e.g. donate, apply for your school, become a member of your association)?

Advocacy: What actions are your most committed users taking to support and spread the word about you?

To answer the questions above, channel your inner Harriet the Spy.

Think about all of the ways people drop clues indicating what they’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

Pro tip: If you have a search bar on your website, you can use the Site Search > Search Terms report in Google Analytics and add “User Type” as a secondary dimension to see what people are hunting for when they’re new to your site vs. returning. And by installing Google Search Console for free, you can see exactly what search terms people use that lead them to you.

If you don’t have enough data to fill in each of the engagement stages, you’ll need to conduct additional research. Don’t just doodle out your assumptions and call it a user journey—this does more harm than good. A new user survey or some in-depth interviews might be in order.

Beyond determining how your users are behaving within each of the big five engagement stages, you’ll want to incorporate as much empathy mapping as possible—how are they thinking and feeling at each stage? The more you can pull in direct user quotes from interviews, surveys or anecdotes shared by your colleagues, the more lively and accurate your map will become.

Why is it a journey, not a funnel?

You’ve probably seen a traditional marketing funnel where the wide top of the chute is labeled “Awareness” and it narrows through to “Conversion” and “Advocacy.” Just like personas, this funnel serves an important purpose but doesn’t illustrate the way people actually interact with your organization, which probably looks something like this:

traditional marketing funnel graphic where it shows the true path a user follows, creating a visual mess

It’s quite comical, really—picturing a person sliding down to the next level of a marketing funnel, realizing they don’t want to be there yet, then desperately clawing their way back up the side as people tumble past and pile on top of them. Like some sort of amusement park nightmare.

By flipping the marketing funnel on its side, our users can freely travel back and forth between the stages as they do in real life, and we can introduce the dimension of time.

It’s not like people discover you and slide down a chute to donate, become a member, or apply to your school that very second. So how long does it take someone to travel from the Awareness stage of your user journey all the way through to doing that thing? How many laps do they swim in the Preference Pool before toweling off and sunning in the exclusive Conversion Cabana?

Mighty Insights

Turn your inbox into a toolbox

One user journey probably isn’t enough.

One of our clients, the Ed-Fi Alliance, works in the education technology sphere and has numerous audiences to reach. It’s important that they build relationships with everyone from superintendents to chief technology officers, principals, teachers, education technology developers, and state education agencies.

Each of these audiences have very different wants and needs. So we conducted user surveys specific to each of Ed-Fi’s primary audiences, informing a separate user journey for each of them.

We discovered through analyzing this research—also pulling from a handful of other data sources—that, while each audience does indeed have different wants and needs, the actual steps they take to become more engaged with Ed-Fi are similar.

This informed the creation of more audience-specific web and automated email content (saving client time and resources) that addresses each group’s unique thoughts and feelings more effectively. And for one audience that proved very different from the rest—superintendents—their user journey comprises a unique, targeted outreach campaign.

Final thoughts

The reason we’re recommending user journeys for more and more of our clients is twofold: the mapping process informs a much clearer understanding of what’s happening now, and the resulting journeys provide a lot more clarity around marketing decisions. Plus, it’s easier to convince your boss that you’re on the right track when you can point to a literal map with your users all over it.

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