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A Marketer’s Guide to Developing Buyer Personas

June 21, 2019

Marketing personas have been around since the 1990s. They may not be new, but they represent an invaluable tool for marketers, advertisers, Web developers, and UX designers.

“Personas are often met with opposition because they’re a lot of work to assemble, and once assembled they are living, evolving things and must be maintained. Like people, buyer personas change over time with the market, the times, the ebbs and flows of products and services.

They absolutely require work, but they are entirely worth it.”

— MarketingProfs.com

So what exactly is a marketing persona?

A persona is a representation of your ideal customer brought to life through demographic and psychographic data. Done right, it is an incredibly powerful tool for reaching your target audience and growing your bottom line.

Key Aspects of a Marketing Persona

A persona is based on research and data from your existing customer base, not pre-existing assumptions or educated speculations. The fundamental attributes all personas should include are:

Photo: This is a key visual element which is why not just any stock image that matches your core customer will do; get a real-life picture from first-person research, it’s more relatable.

Name: It is a small, albeit crucial detail that will bring your persona to life.  

Demographics: Here you’ll have to include factual information such as age, income, location, education, family structure, etc. When you add all of these facts, you’ll be able to picture your persona’s day-to-day life.

Psychographics: Beyond the facts, you’ll need to take into consideration the values, fears, hopes, interests, aspirations, and other psychological criteria that define your ideal customer. Think about all the things that help you answer the question “Why do they buy?”; hobbies, brands they follow/shop from, media consumption habits—these are all relevant aspects.

Yet gathering as much information as you can on your customers isn’t always helpful. In the end, personas are part real and part fictionalized (the fictionalized information is still based on data from real customers) and should help you answer questions such as, “Who is my customer?”, “Why do they buy?”, What is my customer’s preferred method of communication?”.

“Marketers sometimes make the mistake of gathering [persona] information that doesn’t really help them deliver more effective content or campaigns.

If your marketing team is debating whether your buyer persona is a man or a woman, or if you are bogged down finding just the right stock image of your persona, then you’re focusing on the wrong things.”

—Adele Revella, The Buyer Persona Institute

The Difference Between Good Marketing Personas and Great Ones

The main difference between the two is data—great personas are data-driven.

One of the most common mistakes when developing a persona is relying on empirical data. If you’re trusting your guts when it comes to filling in the blanks instead of using factual information based on your real customers, you risk turning your persona into an avatar.

So what’s the best way to find the information you need for your marketing persona?

Reach out to different departments, not just marketing: your brainstorming group should include people from sales, finance, IT operations—anyone who interacts with your customer and has relevant information on them.

Check product reviews, social media posts, and call center logs: think of these as “feedback goldmines”; if you want to be able to understand your customer’s pain points, you’ll need your customer’s honest opinion.

Online customer journeys: tools like Google Analytics and Adobe can work wonders if one of your main channels is online. Use the search data from your website’s analytics as a window into your brand’s online audience.

First-person research: what better to find out how your customers feel about your brand than by asking them directly? Reviews, focus groups, surveys—all key ways of uncovering what your customers’ values, goals, needs, and pain points are.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of building a marketing persona, it’s important to also notice the most common mistakes that could prevent you from achieving the desired outcome.

The Most Common Pitfalls of Developing Marketing Personas

  1. Profiling Your Buyers Instead of Your Buyers’ Decisions

This is the number #1 mistake made by marketers.

The purpose of developing a persona is to better understand the actions that make a customer prioritize one choice over another; that is why your process needs to highlight not just your buyer’s behavior, but the decisions behind their behavior as well.

When you focus on information irrelevant to your buyer’s decision, you end up with something more akin to a profile than a marketing persona. Think of the data your gather in terms of “will this help me create actionable content that will influence people to prioritize the problem I solve?”.

  1. Too Many Assumptions, Too Little Data

We’ve already established that great personas are data-driven. And while conducting online research and talking to sales reps are both valid ways of gathering information about your buyers, the best way to get inside your customers’ minds is by talking directly to them.

According to Adele Revella, founder and president of The Buyer Persona Institute, sales reps will never be able to extract the kind of information you need to create stellar content. “Buyers are reluctant to reveal too much to your salespeople for fear that the information will be used to manipulate them. Your product experts may interact with current customers, plus a select few of your largest prospects, but this is not representative of the larger market your content must address.”

Revella suggests carving out a few hours every month to chat up recent buyers and discuss the decisions that lead to their final choice—be it your brand or your competitor’s.

  1. Developing Too Many Buyer Personas

This happens when marketers “layer buyer personas onto their existing market segments, frequently defined by demographics such as industry, geographic region, or company size”. Instead, you should look for commonalities across your market segments, according to Revella.

When deciding on the right number of buyer personas for your brand, consider the  5 Rings of Buying Insight. If these five insights differ significantly across various segments, then you’ll need separate personas.