This article is part of our “Business Startup Guide” – a curated list of our articles that will get you up and running in no time!
Here’s the simple truth of business: Without customers to buy your products, you’re not going to make any money. Almost every decision you make—what you sell, how much you sell it for, where you’re located, who you hire—is made with the intention of bringing in the maximum number of customers to your store, and to optimize the likelihood that they’ll buy your products while they’re there.
To make those decisions easier and more effective, many businesses develop personas (fictional characters that represent the business’s customers or potential customers) to help them make the right choices as they start, grow, and advertise their business.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- What a persona is and how a business can use one
- How to create a persona for your business
- Common mistakes to avoid
Success in marketing and product development comes from a deep understanding of your customers. Your ability to put yourself into the shoes of your customer, to understand their needs, wants, aspirations, work and home environments—in fact, every aspect of their lives—will drive your success. Being able to think and behave like your customers is the key to being able to communicate with them effectively.
This is why entrepreneurs are often encouraged to build businesses that solve problems that they have themselves. Clearly, it’s much easier to develop a product and design marketing campaigns when you know exactly who the customer is and how they will react to different kinds of marketing, because the customer is you. If you’re marketing to yourself and people just like you, you have a huge advantage because you know exactly how you, and your customers, will react.
But, what if your business is solving a problem that you don’t have? What if the target customer isn’t you? How do you start seeing your business through your customers’ eyes?
In marketing and product development, we can solve this problem by developing fictional characters that are highly detailed representations of your target customer base. These characters are called personas, and just like in plays and movies they need a full backstory so that you, as a business owner and entrepreneur, can fully understand their goals, motivations, and problems.
There are two commonly-used persona types: buyer (or customer) personas, and user personas. Depending on your business, you might just need one persona. The key is to not be overwhelmed with the thought of creating lots of personas and then end up creating none. Just having one persona that you design your marketing around will give you a huge advantage over many other businesses, and it’s worth the initial investment in time and research.
Buyer (or customer) personas
Buyer personas describe your ideal customer. They help you make decisions about marketing and sales processes. I’ll dig into the details of creating a buyer persona in a minute, but first, here’s a quick example of a buyer persona that you may be familiar with.
While most businesses don’t make their personas public, Subway did with their spokesman, Jared. Even though he isn’t fictional, he is still a character that represents a segment of Subway’s customers: Overweight Americans who want an easy-to-follow, affordable diet plan with lots of choices and familiar foods. The Jared buyer persona helped Subway redefine itself as a healthy place to eat, and the company reorganized its menu to highlight its low-calorie sandwich and meal options and revamped its advertising to make eating at Subway seem like a good diet plan. Much of what Subway does in its sales and marketing is driven by asking themselves the question, “Would Jared want this?”
Once you develop a solid buyer persona, that’s the question that you should be asking yourself constantly: “Would Jane (or John) like this?”
User personas are critical for companies that sell a product that is purchased by a person who is different from the person that ends up using the product or service. If your business makes its own product, you should consider developing a user persona. Here at Palo Alto Software, we have developed a persona named Garrett who drives the bulk of our product decisions.
Designers—of software, shoes, kitchen appliances, websites, and pretty much everything else—have long relied on user personas for developing products. The idea is two-fold: if you design with a certain user in mind, not only will you design a product that gives that user what they actually want and need, but you will also design a product that that user will actually buy (i.e., a product that gets you customers).
Buyer and user personas are very similar, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. The differences between them aren’t as important as understanding how to create a buyer (or user) persona, and how to use it to your business’s advantage.
Creating a persona doesn’t have to be hard and it will lead to a better product, better marketing, and a better business. In other words, it’s a small investment that can pay off big time.
The 10 basic components of a persona
I’ll give you a few tips for creating your persona in a minute, but first let’s review what makes up a good persona:
While this may seem obvious, giving your persona a name is a huge step forward in making your persona real. When you persona has a name, they’re easier to relate to as a “real” character and easier to talk about in marketing and product development discussions.
Professional and personal background
These two elements go together. Specifically, you want to describe what your target customer does for a living and where they are in their career. You also want to expand their background into a quick review of your persona’s hobbies, educational background, likes and dislikes. This background influences your persona’s disposable income and also their brand choices.
Demographics such as age, gender, education, ethnicity, family status, etc.
Here, avoid dividing up your persona into age ranges or percentage male/female. You’re creating a fictional character for this exercise, so be specific about age, family status, and other details. Once you have created one persona to represent your core customer, you may think about creating secondary personas to represent other customer groups. But, for now, just create one persona with as many specific details as possible.
What are your persona’s goals? Oftentimes, user goals are beyond the immediate problem that your company solves. For example, while we sell business planning software, our customers’ goal is to create a successful company.
“I need/want” statements
What does your persona want and/or need in order to reach the goals you have defined for them?
What concerns does your persona have? Are they worried about security? Are they concerned about potentially difficult return processes? How important is reliability and long-term access to your product or service?
Past buying behavior
Do most of your customers buy from you repeatedly? Or is their purchase a one-time purchase? Does your customer have brand loyalty? How have they solved their problems and achieved their goals in the past?
Environment, including physical, social and technological environment
Often overlooked, your persona’s environment is a critical aspect that defines who they are. If you’re building an online application, is your persona going to be mostly using your site from home? From work? Maybe on their mobile phone? What is their home or work environment? Is it noisy or quiet? Answering these questions will create a full picture of your persona and how they will be interacting with your site.
A quote that sums up what matters most to them
A user quote should be just one or two sentences that sums up what matters most to your persona. For example, our persona Garrett says, “I want a simple planning solution that will impress my investors and not take too much time away from actually building my business.”
- A photo
To complete your persona, add a picture. After all, your buyer persona should be real to you and your team and adding a picture accomplishes this. It may seem counterintuitive to just focus on one person, but focusing on just one customer that is a good representation of your core customer base will make your marketing and product development much, much more effective.
5 steps to create a persona
Now that we know what a persona is, it’s time to create one. Here are five steps to create your persona:
Survey your existing customers
If you have customers, put together a survey, get on the phone, or talk to them in your store and get to know them better. If you have email addresses for your customers, you can even use services like RapLeaf to automatically gather demographic data. If you don’t have customers yet, find people who you think are going to be your customers and talk to them.
Get out of the building
This seems obvious, but it can be a huge hurdle for many marketers. Your biggest advantage over your competition is to get to know your customers in their “native habitat”. Seeing where your customers live and work gives you the real-world picture of how your customers will be making decisions. You can also observe what other brands your customers choose to surround themselves with.
If your customers are all from one location, or from a single industry, you can get a lot done online. If you’re trying to learn about a location, Wikipedia is a great resources to learn about the region your customers are from. Do they live in a college town? Where are most people employed? What are the prevailing politics?
If you are researching a particular industry, turn to YouTube. You’ll be able to find industry experts talking about the industry as well as videos showing workplaces, locations, etc.
Analyze your data
Once you have collected all of your data, you need to synthesize it into one persona, as I described above. Over time, you may end up building multiple personas, but even having just one persona to work with gives you a huge advantage over many businesses that just do “shoot from the hip” marketing and product development.
Since you’ve now gone through all the effort of researching and creating a persona, now is the time to share with your entire company. This is not something that should only be presented to the management team. Everyone in the company should know who your ideal customer looks like, how they make decisions, and what kind of interactions they expect from your company. Some companies have even made posters of their personas and put them up on the walls of the office so that everyone knows exactly who they should be trying to design for, market to, and sell to.
Finally, here are a few mistakes to avoid when creating your first persona.
Don’t base your customer persona on one real customer. It’s tempting to go out, meet one customer, and then write a bio of that customer for your persona. A good persona is a composite of all of your core customers and will bring in elements from multiple real customer profiles.
Don’t base your customer persona on stereotypes. This is similar to mistake #1, but you might not even realize you’re doing it. Don’t make assumptions about your customer persona’s interests and needs based on their age, gender, or location—do your research, and let your customers tell you about themselves.
Inconsistencies make your persona unrealistic. Your persona should be as real as possible, so try to avoid inconsistencies. If your persona is a Portland hipster, they probably don’t also drive a BMW.
Don’t be generic. As a counterpoint to mistake #1, don’t be too generic when you create your persona. Your persona shouldn’t be “between 30-45 years old.” They should have an exact age, specific interests, etc. You may find that you need to create multiple personas to represent different customer segments. Just make sure that each one that you create is specific and represents one of your core groups of customers.
Taking the time to create a customer persona will accelerate your marketing, sales, and product development efforts. The time you take to create a solid persona will pay off many times over in the growth of your business, so make the time and watch your business take off.
Have you developed a persona for your business? I’d love to hear your tips for creating a persona in the comments.