21 tips for creating buyer personas

What the heck is a buyer persona and why does it matter? Basically, a buyer persona is to your marketing, sales and communications strategy what a mannequin is to clothing. It gives you a model to base your decisions on.

Personas are short descriptions or biographies of fictitious, archetypical customers—or more accurately, prospective customers.

The idea is to understand the wants and needs of a group of people who are among the most likely to buy your product or service. You may have only one. You may have more. Regardless, you need to understand what makes them tick. Once you do, you stand a much better chance of communicating with them effectively and persuading them to take the actions you want them to take.

So here are 21 tips for creating buyer personas that can help you focus your communication strategies and unify the efforts of marketing, sales and product management:

1. Don’t create too many. Adele Revella suggests listing the job titles of each of the personas that influence the decision to buy and then ranking their importance. This can be accomplished by considering the extent to which each type of buyer is:

  • Influencing decisions that significantly impact the success of an upcoming launch, revenue goal, or marketing campaign
  • Unlikely to be excited by something that is unique about the product, service or solution
  • In an organizational role that the sales people do not currently engage for sales of other products or services

2. Start with what’s on the table. Along the lines of not creating too many, a good place to start is with whatever campaign or initiative is most pressing and only build buyer personas for that task. This way, you won’t get overwhelmed and you’ll be able to more quickly demonstrate the value the personas bring to the project. Choose the people your sales team is struggling to reach, the ones they’re not calling on now. Choose the buyers who have the most influence.

3. Own the persona. Begin with the most important buyers, and then assign a single owner for each, regardless of what the company hopes to market or sell to them. Create a collaborative home (such as a wiki or Sharepoint site) and encourage people throughout the company to post their observations of real buyers. The owner has the final say about what is included in the persona, but the opportunity to contribute to the effort is distributed across the company.

4. Know your audience, or know those who do. Attention Sciences says visit or speak with customers and non-customers on a regular basis. If product managers, sales managers, customer support, or others have visited or spoken with customers and/or non-customers recently, they should have good data about the most urgent problems facing your target buyers. You will want to focus on the information they collected from non-customers, as these are the people you most need to influence.

5. Create a buyer persona worksheet. Set up a worksheet with categories for each of the buyers that have the most impact on the purchase decision for your solutions. Then record any information gained during interactions with these buyers, or that you’ve learned via third-party sources, listing their pain points in priority order according to their importance to the target audiences. Include specific quotes that reflect the exact words that your buyer uses. Soon you’ll begin to see a pattern—this is the time to start to create your buyer persona profile. Include the words that buyers would use to describe their most urgent problems and the ways that buyers want to measure the success of their investment.

6. Answer this question — what prevents this type of buyer from choosing us? This is the most important question you can ask and answer in persona development. Don’t settle for answers such as “it’s too expensive” or “too hard to use” or “missing X capability”. Dig deeper. Understand why. Ask real people real questions.

7. Know what you need to know. Jason Katzenback, in his blog JohnCow, says while you may only have one persona, or you may have several, you need to know the following about each persona:

  • Their background
  • Their goals and aspirations
  • Their problems (so you can solve them)
  • Where they go to solve these problems
  • The solutions to their problems
  • Their daily activities (as applicable; you can skip things like bathroom visits unless they apply to your product or service)
  • How you can best reach them
  • What is important to them
  • What kind of language they use
  • What kind of images appeal to them
  • What kind of multimedia they use

Be sure to develop them into a real personality. Give them a name if that helps. The more you know about your market, the easier this will be to do. And what you don’t know, you’ll learn by doing this exercise.

8. Segment your communications strategy. If you’ve got more than one persona, then you have to segment your communications strategy to target each of them. We’re trying to get away from the one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to communications; it won’t do you any good to go through the buyer persona process and then try to shoehorn all the personas into one communication strategy. Or to shoehorn messages for multiple personas into one campaign.

9. Make sure that your personas accurately reflect the real needs of a target set of buyers. Again, from Adele Revella, when you take into account real buyer needs, using honest and in-depth insight, you’ll find the efforts of product management, marketing and sales become more unified. Product managers will look to the next product release with the question “which capabilities will buyers need?” in their sights. Marketers measure their efforts by asking “what can we do to capture buyer interest?” And the sales team asks “why does the buyer need us?”

For each persona, answer the following:

My GoalsMy perceptions of your product/service/solution
My FrustrationsMy buying criteria and success metrics
My Approach to Gathering New Ideas and InformationMy influence over the buying process

10. Read everything they read. Online and off. Set up an RSS feed and Google alert for keywords or company names that are relevant. This will give you better insight into their concerns.

11. Attend seminars. Go to the seminars they go to and interact with them. Go to keynote sessions and listen to what they say, then pick up on those topics that interest you as well and approach people at breakout session. Engage them in conversation about what you just heard.

12. Monitor conference topics. Track the topics that are being presented at conferences, who’s presenting, what they’re speaking about. Get on the mailing list. See the word choices they use. How are they presenting these topics in ways that are compelling to drive people to attend? Realize that the people you’re trying to reach don’t have the same level of knowledge you do, so this is a great way to keep in touch with the level of interest and knowledge they have on your topics.

13. Don’t build self-serving personas. Be careful not to build personas that are overly enthusiastic about your products and want to buy them. They’re lovely ego fodder but they may not be real. Plus, they’re not the people you most need to reach in your selling. You need to reach the people who are most critical of your products and company.

14. Talk with sales people. Good salespeople go into a sales call and listen, more than they talk. That’s how they discover the most about a buyer’s concerns, issues, priorities, resistance points, and who is going to be involved in the buying process. This lets the salesperson create a tailored plan for winning the account.

15. Don’t rely too much on salespeople. Salespeople listen for what’s going to win them business. They’re not listening objectively. Also, they have a narrow scope of vision and are thinking about a couple of accounts or topics they’re focusing on. They’re not looking for patterns, they’re looking for individual cues. For that reason, they may not be advocates of personas and will insist that every customer is unique. Your goal is to try to create groups of buyers who will respond to your message.  Lastly, even the best salespeople don’t always know how to talk to all buyers or all those who influence the buying process.

16. Gain information from win/loss analysis. This is one of the most useful ways to create effective buyer personas. Talk to the people who’ve just chosen you and talk to the people who didn’t and find out why. Learn what you could’ve done better. You may find out that there are perceptions that aren’t even true. Or that they’re things that product management must address. Ask the real buyers. Don’t get it secondhand from the salespeople because buyers may lie to them about the real reasons they did or didn’t buy, or the salespeople may give you biased answers that lean toward things they want you to change.  Find out:

  • What capabilities are most important to buyers?
  • Which attitudes prevail among deals you win and those you lose?
  • What process did the buyer follow to make the purchase decision?
  • Which resources did the buyer consult during the decision process?

17. Use your website to capture persona info. Use landing pages to measure and improve the information you have about buyers based on real data on how people navigate through your site. Use dropdown boxes under general headings that offer customer-service style questions, such as “How can we help you?” and allow users to pick the situation that best fits theirs. You can collect a lot of data on buyers this way.

18. Conduct interviews onsite, by phone and at conferences. Yes, it’s the most difficult but it’s the way you can get the most fruitful information. If you’ve been doing the other things on this list, you have enough credibility to call someone who attended a conference but hasn’t bought your product yet and ask them to spend 10 minutes answering questions about which topics are of concern to buyers and why. If you can convince them you’re not in sales, 3 out of 10 people will talk with you.

All of this will enable you to align sales and marketing with buyer personas. You’ll learn:

  • Which buyers will be receptive, and which will resist
  • What is keeping buyers awake at night
  • Why this problem persists
  • What, specifically, will improve after they buy
  • What criteria will this buyer use to make a decision where buyers go to get new ideas and information

19. Know the difference between customers and buyers. Customers who already own your product are now focused on user criteria—aspects of the product they do or don’t like—instead of buying criteria, aka, what led them to make the purchase.

20. Test the strategy, not the persona. Buyer personas are a tool that you use to build messaging strategies, product strategies and sales strategies. Your objective should be to measure everything you do. Test, measure and refine your strategies and use them to provide  feedback  for refining your personas.

21. Know that personas are a tool. They will never be perfect. They require updating to stay accurate.  It’s an ongoing process to keep them sharp and precise.

22 thoughts

  1. I love your metaphor — personas are for your marketing strategy what mannequins are for clothing — a model to base decisions on. If the clothing doesn’t fit the mannequin, the designer knows that more work needs to be done before the production stage. Well said and then lots of great details about how to do the work. Well said Karen!

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  8. This is fantastic. So comprehensive, it could almost be a series. Well not almost. Thank you for sharing. This is remarkably generous of you, since the information your espousing is so GD helpful. Often this very topic is discussed on blogs in empty platitudes and bumper sticker philosophy. I love the heavy focus you placed on satisfying the buyer’s buying criteria by asking me to imagine the buyer’s friggin’ buying criteria. Duh! I’ve found small business owners (mom and pops and boutiques) are so frightened of divorcing themselves from their antiquated ideas of their sales cycle, that they tether themselves forever to a failing, static selling paradigm that perhaps reflected their buyers 20 years earlier. Thank you for donating your time to this cause. I sure hope it continues to fall into the hands of the neediest among us.

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