• When learning how to deploy personas, some clients are stumped at how to synthesize what they’ve learned into actionable insights
  • Marketers can use the “sticky note exercise” to organize large amounts of data on the basis of natural relationships
  • Convene a small group of those who helped in the interviews or key stakeholders, and follow eight steps for each persona

When learning how to deploy personas, some of our clients are stumped at the prospect of synthesizing what they’ve learned into actionable insights. They tell me, “We’ve done lots of face-to-face interviews and have so many data points about challenges and initiatives. How do I help my marketing team identify what’s most important?”

Communication meeting I suggest teaching marketers a new skill affectionately called the “sticky note exercise.” Sounds wildly scientific, doesn’t it? But it’s actually based on a formal problem-solving technique developed by anthropologist Kawakita Jiro. I first learned about the KJ Method or affinity diagram in facilitator training for the total quality management (TQM) movement. It helps organize large amounts of data based on natural relationships and is a perfect way to look for patterns in interview responses.

Follow these steps for each persona:

Team. Convene a small group – no more than 10 people – of those who helped in the interviews or key stakeholders willing to roll up their sleeves. Have a facilitator ready to help in case participants get stuck.

Logistics. The exercise should take no more than two hours; materials include sticky notes, markers and a whiteboard or flip chart.


  • Divide the group into two teams – one to tackle challenges (what keeps buyers up at night) and one to cover initiatives (projects they are launching that relate to their goals).
  • Team members divide interview verbatims and write one response per sticky note.
  • Arrange common responses into groups that reflect similar ideas. This is where the whiteboard comes in handy. Draw a grid on the whiteboard, and start placing similar responses in groups.
  • Soon patterns will emerge among the responses that suggest a summarizing header or theme for each group. Summary examples: pressure to cut costs and do more with less; find staff with the right skills; make sure we’re in compliance with the new regulations; transform our computing environment to a hybrid cloud; or figure out what to do with all this data.
  • Expect some outliers. In responding to our research studies, some CIOs have mentioned dealing with Facebook, and we wondered whether this represents a challenge, initiative or personal problem for this persona.
  • Expect consolidation of headers or themes as team members get more comfortable. One caveat: Beware of consolidating themes too far or using overly generic language like “performance” or “efficiency.” Use the persona’s own words.
  • Move the stacks of sticky notes to illustrate similarities among themes or headers.
  • After the initial exercise, have each group present their work. Look for overlap or links between challenges and initiatives, which might represent two sides of the same big issue for the target audience.

You may find yourself with an embarrassment of riches – a dozen or so themes for each category. Another useful technique from TQM: Conduct a voting exercise to identify the most significant headers. Each team member gets to allocate three stars to the statements that resonate most strongly. Results can be stack ranked and compared to known strategic objectives.

There is something viscerally satisfying about seeing the alignment emerge. This exercise also helps institutionalize persona knowledge within the marketing organization, providing a firm grasp of the data so insights can be incorporated into downstream deliverables. Just remember to buy lots of sticky notes!