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As technology enables people to pick and choose personalized products and services for every area of their life, one of the best ways to attract and retain customers is to tailor their experience to their unique wants and needs. Compared to traditional marketing methods, which assume the universal value of a product, modern businesses need to seek out personalized methods to reach their user base, especially in a competitive market where consumers have more choices.

Developing a persona is one of the most well-rounded strategies for understanding unique consumer needs, but where do you start? Let’s take a look at what exactly a persona is and how you can implement one in your marketing plan to target an audience more effectively.

What Is a Persona?

A persona is a character with a specific and detailed set of goals, interests, and experiences who represents a composite of different real-world people. In the marketing world, personas exist as a tool for identifying different types of potential customers and developing a comprehensive understanding of how each of those customers interacts with your products, advertisements, and brand in general. Personas take quantitative data about user demographics and use qualitative research to personify that information, creating a method for analyzing customer needs that takes people’s unique perspectives into account.

Depending on the context of your project, personas can emphasize various traits, such as a customer’s age or profession, but they also need to provide holistic and intersectional insights into their daily life. Personas consider how various traits influence the way people think and behave, especially in the context of how they interact with your brand.

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This information helps marketers recognize the differences between their consumers and use that information to appeal to a wide audience as needed. In short, personas are what would happen if the target audience section of your business plan came to life and sat down for a conversation with your entire company.

Purpose of a Persona

By allowing you to empathize with a variety of people in contexts that are relevant to your business, personas provide both a goal to work toward and a road map for success. They give your team a framework for thinking strategically, connecting with your market on a deeper level, and evaluating their ideas. Personas serve a key purpose in every stage of product development and distribution. and can be used to:

  • Set reasonable expectations for consumer behavior
  • Guide the purpose of content related to your company
  • Recognize patterns in how people interact with your brand, product, or service
  • Identify key consumer needs and gaps within a market
  • Create, evaluate, and adjust a user interface

Who Uses Personas?

Personas focus on appealing to audiences and personalizing their experience with your brand, but their significance reaches far beyond the business-consumer relationship. Everyone involved in a business’s design, development, research, marketing, distribution, and customer service can use personas to refine their work and develop their problem-solving skills. Examples include:

  • Investors: Investors use personas to understand the direction of a project and gauge a company’s ability to appeal to its target audience
  • Small business owners: Any business owner should have an understanding of their customer base, but personas are especially important to entrepreneurs who are involved with the day-to-day operations of their business, so they can develop and adjust their company’s mission statement and business model.
  • Marketing and advertising professionals: Marketers and advertisers use personas to develop customer outreach techniques. They use personas to predict how a real customer would respond to various situations before committing resources to a project.
  • Product designers: Product designers rely on accurate assessments of customer needs in order to create a functional, relevant product.
  • Graphic designers: Artists and graphic designers focus on what would catch the attention of a customer and encourage them to engage with a product. Personas help them design with purpose, directly aligning the images they create with an audience’s interests and preferences.
  • Copywriters: Copywriters study personas to write content in a style and tone that their customers relate to and understand. Personas help copywriters increase the clarity of their work by encouraging them to align all their written content with customer perspectives.
  • Customer service associates: Anyone who works in customer service can use personas as a way to role-play challenging scenarios. Personas allow customer service professionals to anticipate the best course of action when interacting with a customer.

Types of Personas

In order for personas to be effective, they must be tailored to the specific context of your company and the goals you hope to meet by creating them. Developing a useful persona requires extensive research, so you need to be mindful about which aspects of the persona need the most detail and attention. Successful personas isolate the most influential characteristics of consumers in a way that instigates thoughtful discussion and encourages your team to ask the right questions when creating content. There are a few common types of personas, each of which responds to a unique marketing need:

Goal-oriented

Goal-oriented personas envision how a user will benefit from your product or service. Because user goals motivate user behavior, goal-oriented personas seek to establish a direct relationship where every aspect of a product facilitates those goals. Goal-oriented personas emphasize what customers hope to accomplish by engaging with your brand and use that information to improve the user experience.

Role-based 

Role-based personas develop user perspectives within the context of an organization, whether that is a workplace or a community group. They identify the types of professions or societal roles that use a product and explore the context of that role’s purpose. Role-based personas help marketers determine how a product or service impacts others and explore ways to target related roles, functions, or larger business objectives.

Engaging

Engaging personas operate under the belief that having a holistic understanding of a person’s life is the best way to encourage your audience to connect authentically with your message. They dissect the intersections between user needs and other aspects of their lives. Engaging personas are the most in-depth type of persona and are also the most challenging to create, requiring complex analysis about how each aspect of a consumer’s lifestyle influences their buying behavior and satisfaction with their user experience.

Oppositional

Sometimes, it is useful to understand the type of consumer that you’re not targeting. Especially if you are building a brand, having oppositional personas can help shift gears from one strategy to another and bring in new types of customers. Generally, oppositional personas are used in tandem with other types of personas to provide a comprehensive overview of possible audiences.

Attributes of an Effective Persona

Personas have to be more than just an imagined character that might use your product; they must inspire insight and guide interactions based on data that is easy for every member of your team to interpret. Regardless of the type of persona or its purpose, all effective personas need the following attributes:

  • Collaborative: One of the reasons personas are so useful is that they can be used across departments without requiring extensive training in market research. By the same token, a collaborative persona should be created using the feedback of many different people. Because personas are designed to inspire empathy and goal-oriented thinking, aim to have a composite of many different perspectives to create a realistic profile for your persona that various roles can benefit from.
  • Thorough: Personas should provide a thorough, detailed profile of a customer. Being thorough and specific allows you to envision their needs more accurately and apply them to more contexts. Adding details that may otherwise seem unrelated serves to create a realistic character that you can empathize with more easily.
  • Living: Personas should be a living document, meaning that they adapt over time based on new data, changing customer needs, and company development. Personas need to be dynamic in order to serve a variety of needs and be evergreen within a company
  • Data-based: you can’t just imagine any person and have it give your company noticeable results. Your persona needs to be based on a range of qualitative and quantitative data that shows a wide cross-section of your potential user base.

How to Create a Persona

Regardless of how in-depth of a persona you need to create, you’ll develop personas for a project through a complex and time-intensive process of research, brainstorming, and review. In order for personas to be both realistic and useful to your company, you need to tap into your creativity and be open to challenging any assumptions you have about your audience.

No matter how seasoned you are at marketing, you’ll always enter a project with some sort of bias or assumption about your customers. The persona development process eliminates that bias through extensive data collection and empathetic analysis techniques.

Persona development is an ongoing process that should begin near the start of a project and extend throughout its lifetime, integrating each persona into project guidelines and goals.

Follow these steps to create a persona that will uncover useful and statistically relevant consumer perspectives for developing your marketing content:

1. Collect Data

The first step to creating a persona is to collect data about your user base. In order to successfully build a realistic persona, you will need to perform several stages of research. Because personas look at the possible real-world applications of different roles, goals, and traits, it is important to have real people as guides from which you can develop a composite. The best way to gain this insight is by conducting interviews with your user base.

Start with basic data about the customers. Consider demographics, job roles, and the geographic location of your ideal buyer, and use this information to identify a wide range of interview candidates within your target audience. Your initial round of research and interviews should address the main questions that you need to accomplish, such as:

  • Who uses your product?
  • What need does your product fulfill?
  • How do customers view your brand?
  • What assumptions do customers make about using your product?
  • What resources do they use to inform their purchases?
  • How does their environment influence their purchasing behavior?
  • What do they dislike about the user experience?

If possible, perform each interview in the context of the subject’s life by visiting them at home, work, or their favorite hangout. This allows interviewers to draw conclusions based on the environment of their customers, providing additional insight into their lives that may not be covered in a neutral setting such as a focus group or market research center.

When conducting the interview, ask questions about their lives in general and about how they relate to your product. By asking questions that cover a range of topics, you provide opportunities to draw connections that you may not have otherwise discovered in your research. Patterns tend to form after about 30 interviews, so plan on recruiting a range of interviewees.

Look for patterns among interview responses such as common traits or similar behaviors to develop an understanding of the primary types of users. Then, perform another round of interviews, this time focusing on people who are not customers but who share common traits with the first round of interviewees.

This second round of interviews confirms the traits that will define each persona and possibly provide information about previously untapped markets. Understanding how people who are not buying your product relate to your brand is a valuable method for overcoming barriers to purchase.

2. Analyze and Organize

After completing your interviews, analyze your data to identify the most relevant and universal themes for your product and user base. Organize characteristics, behaviors, and demographics into a few main categories that represent possible persona groups. Look at the differences between groups and consider how you can customize user interactions to meet the needs of each type of persona. During the analysis phase, reflect on how the market research confirmed or refuted initial assumptions about your ideal customers.

3. Decide How Many You Need

Although a persona can provide a wealth of information, chances are you won’t be able to capture the breadth of your customer base with just one. Having multiple personas allows you to imagine different scenarios to reach as many potential customers as possible. Generally, projects have one primary persona as the focal point with multiple secondary personas available to provide context or situation-specific customer perspectives.

4. Empathize

Developing empathy with your buyer is one of the most critical steps in creating a persona. It is helpful to complete this step as a brainstorming group where multiple perspectives can build a variable degree of empathy. Consider using an empathy map, or complete role-playing exercises to imagine the perspectives of each persona group. This can help you prepare to begin writing descriptions of a fictional, representative character. Imagine the goals, values, and limitations of someone with a particular list of traits and envision how they could benefit most from your marketing solutions.

5. Write Descriptions 

Once you have decided on the main traits of your primary persona, you can begin drafting their character profile. Try creating an outline with the most relevant categories to keep you focused. When writing about each aspect of your fictional persona, aim to use relatable language that validates the fictional persona as a real and valuable perspective. Some personas provide more depth than others, with a comprehensive persona including categories such as:

  • Name
  • Education
  • Lifestyle
  • Limitations
  • Demographics
  • Interests
  • Values
  • Media use
  • Behavior patterns
  • Goals
  • Personality

6. Create  Scenarios

In order to gain valuable insight into customer perceptions, you must be able to put their user profile into practice by creating hypothetical scenarios of common customer issues. Describe a variety of situations that inspire customers to use your products or engage with your brand. These scenarios allow you to use storytelling to understand your market by casting a fictional persona in the role of a customer-facing various challenges. Creating scenarios keeps personas solution-oriented and encourages adaptability when responding to customer needs.

7. Share the Persona Throughout Your Company

After successfully applying your personas to the context of your company, share personas throughout your team to create a cohesive understanding of your ideal customer. This provides consistency and helps everyone on your team become invested in the particular angle of the project. Persona development must be an ongoing process, even when the research phase has long passed. Take feedback from other departments earnestly, and create new scenarios for your persona as different challenges appear.

Persona Formats

The format of a persona report depends on how it will be used in the company, ranging from bulleted lists to multi-page narratives. You may even have the same persona formatted a few ways to make the information more accessible to your team. For example, stakeholders may appreciate the big-picture perspective of a narrative persona, while a design team would prefer an organized table with clear specifications about user needs. Many persona formats include photographs of what the customer might look like at the top of the page to further personify the customer base.

Image via flickr by Hydrogen

Persona Example

As long as your persona is rooted in an empathetic perspective and strong market research, there’s no wrong way to develop a fictional persona for your company. Here is an example of a thorough persona that could be applied to a number of situations to help get you started:

Basic Biography

Amber Singh is 52 years old, married, and has two adult children, both of whom are still in college. She works part-time as an administrative assistant and is heavily involved in volunteer work within her community. She was a stay-at-home mom while her children were growing up and was excited to go back to work part-time as they got older. She currently lives in Santa Barbara, CA where she owns her home.

Education

Amber has some college experience and hopes to go back to school and finish her degree in business. She is well-read and interested in learning new things independently or by taking classes.

Lifestyle

Amber enjoys a middle-class lifestyle and is a well-respected member of her community. She trusts the opinions of her peers and often turns to them for recommendations before searching the web. As an empty-nester, she prefers to stay busy and regularly organizes family get-togethers and game nights among friends. She eats healthy, with occasional indulgences, and travels a couple of times per year with her husband.

Limitations

Amber is financially comfortable but uses most of her expendable income to support her children through college. Her hectic schedule makes it difficult to break out of a daily routine.

Values

Amber highly values interpersonal relationships. She is focused on setting her children up to have comfortable lives where they can pursue their passions and ambitions, but she also values her independence. She appreciates quality and simplicity. She views her neighbors and community members as an extension of her family and works to uphold a good example for others.

Media Use

Amber occasionally uses social media to organize events and share photos with friends. She is tech-savy but does not regularly use the internet outside of work. She gets her news by watching cable and enjoys watching sports on TV.

Behavior Patterns

Amber wakes up early each morning to talk to her youngest daughter on the phone, who lives in a different time zone. She grabs a fast breakfast on her way to work, where she greets all of her coworkers by name in the hallway. Her husband meets her for lunch where they discuss the books they have been reading, then she volunteers at an after-school program at a local elementary school. She spends her evenings reading and taking art classes.

Personas can guide your company’s brand and voice while connecting with your audience in targeted ways. Although they require a substantial investment of time and resources, personas provide a comprehensive tool that can serve your marketing needs for years to come. By prioritizing marketing solutions and seeking out experts to collaborate on unique personas for your company, you can connect with new audiences in meaningful ways that convert them into loyal customers.

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