Get to Know Your Members With Empathy-Based Personas

meetingsmemo Associations Now September/October 2017 Issue By: Tim Ebner

Empathy-based personas can help your association to take an up close and personal look at your members' needs and motivations.

How well do you know your members? Can you list their favorite sports teams, TV shows, books, or magazines? Hilary Marsh, president and chief strategist of Content Company, says getting to know your members’ habits can tell you a lot about their unmet needs.

Before she worked as a consultant, Marsh was managing director of, the website responsible for keeping the National Association of Realtors’ 1.3 million members informed daily. While the web team could identify readers’ news and information habits, NAR had a harder time understanding members as various audience groups. To get up close and personal with members, Marsh conducted an exercise in building “empathy-based personas.”

“We found it to be a transformative process for the association,” she says. “It helps people to stop thinking about themselves and their departmental work and to start thinking about the mission of the organization and the needs of membership.”

The challenge—to organize more than a million members into four identities—wasn’t easy. A cross-section of staff from NAR’s two offices in Washington, DC, and Chicago met to consider 14 proposed identities, eventually whittling them down into four personas. The persona approach was led by an outside partner, Esteban Gonzalez, founder and principal strategist of Brand Therapy, and NAR used member focus groups to test their work.

It helps people to stop thinking about themselves and their departmental work and to start thinking about the mission of the organization and the needs of membership.—Hilary Marsh

“You start to say, I know that person, I know their motivations, and you can think about them qualitatively,” Marsh says. “By the end of this exercise, we were friends with these people. We felt like we knew them.”

So much so that Marsh assigned names, ages, and personal preferences to the four personas. She even created life-size cutouts of each one and posted them in her office. Picturing the person helps NAR staff to think critically about members’ motivations, she says.

Anthony is the 29-year-old, up-and-coming, type-A real estate agent who lives in the New York City suburbs and watches Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Meanwhile, Susan is the 54-year-old veteran agent from St. Louis who likes to read O, The Oprah Magazine and watch HGTV.

The goal was not to pigeonhole members into a specific identity, but rather to convince NAR staff to put interests aside and serve audiences according to their information and content habits.

“Knowing what Anthony looks like didn’t help us, but knowing what matters to him did,” Marsh says. “You’re seeking to draw upon experience, so you can think about what members want and how and when they want it.”

With the personas in mind, NAR redesigned its website and member newsletters. “Coming out of this, we knew how to reach Anthony or how to write to Susan,” Marsh says. “When staff came to my office with a question, we looked at each member and asked, ‘What would they do?’”

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Up Close and Personal."]

Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.