Buyer personas (sometimes referred to as marketing personas) are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customers. Personas help us all -- in marketing, sales, product, and services -- internalize the ideal customer we're trying to attract, and relate to our customers as real humans. Having a deep understanding of your buyer persona(s) is critical to driving content creation, product development, sales follow up, and really anything that relates to customer acquisition and retention.
"Okay, so personas are really important to my business. But ... how do I actually make one?"
Ahh ... the million dollar question. The good news is, they aren't that difficult to create. You just need to ask the right questions to the right people, and present that information in a helpful way so the people in your business can get to know your persona(s) better than the backs of their hands.
Now for the even better news: Hubspot put together an interview guide and a free template for creating buyer personas, so it's easy as pie to do your persona research and compile it all into a beautiful, presentable, palatable format. So follow along with this interview guide, and download the persona template so you can start plugging in your research. Before you know it, you'll have complete, well thought-out buyer personas to show off to your entire company!
Why Exactly Are Buyer Personas So Important To Your Business?
Buyer personas help you understand your customers (and prospective customers) better. This makes it easier for you to tailor your content, messaging, product development, and services to the specific needs, behaviors, and concerns of different groups. In other words, you may know your target buyers are caregivers, but do you know what their specific needs and interests are? What is the typical background of your ideal buyer? In order to get a full understanding of what makes your best customers tick, it's critical to develop detailed personas for your business.
The strongest buyer personas are based on market research as well as insights you gather from your actual customer base (through surveys, interviews, etc.). Depending on your business, you could have as few as one or two personas, or as many as 10 or 20. But if you’re new to personas, start small! You can always develop more personas later if needed.
What About "Negative" Personas?
Whereas a buyer persona is a representation of your ideal customer, a negative -- or “exclusionary” -- persona is a representation of who you don’t want as a customer.
For example, this could include professionals who are too advanced for your product or service, students who are only engaging with your content for research/knowledge, or potential customers who are just too expensive to acquire (because of a low average sale price, their propensity to churn, or their unlikeliness to purchase again from your company).
How Can Personas Be Used in Marketing?
At the most basic level, developing personas allows you to create content and messaging that appeals to your target audience. It also enables you to target or personalize your marketing for different segments of your audience. For example, instead of sending the same lead nurturing emails to everyone in your database, you can segment by buyer persona and tailor your messaging according to what you know about those different personas.
Furthermore, when combined with lifecycle stage (i.e. how far along someone is in your sales cycle), buyer personas also allow you to map out and create highly targeted content. You can learn more about how to do that by downloading our Content Mapping Template.
And if you take the time to also create negative personas, you’ll have the added advantage of being able to segment out the “bad apples” from the rest of your contacts, which can help you achieve a lower cost-per-lead and cost-per-customer -- and see higher sales productivity.
Now, are you ready to start creating your buyer personas?
How To Create Buyer Personas
Buyer personas can be created through research, surveys, and interviews of your target audience. That includes a mix of customers, prospects, and those outside your contacts database who might align with your target audience.
Here are some practical methods for gathering the information you need to develop personas:
- Look through your contacts database to uncover trends about how certain leads or customers find and consume your content.
- When creating forms to use on your website, use form fields that capture important persona information. For example, if all of your personas vary based on company size, ask each lead for information about company size on your forms.
- Take into consideration your sales team's feedback on the leads they're interacting with most. What generalizations can they make about the different types of customers you serve best?
- Interview customers and prospects, either in person or over the phone, to discover what they like about your product or service. This is one of the most important steps, so let's discuss it in greater detail ...
How To Find Interviewees For Researching Buyer Personas
One of the most critical steps to establishing your buyer persona(s) is finding some people to speak with to suss out, well, who your buyer persona is. That means you'll have to conduct some interviews to get to know what drives your target audience. But how do you find those interviewees? There are a few sources you should tap into:
Your existing customer base is the perfect place to start with your interviews, because they've already purchased your product and engaged with your company. At least some of them are likely to exemplify your target persona(s).
Reach out to both "good" and "bad" customers. You don't just want to talk to people who love your product and want to spend an hour gushing about you (as good as that feels). Customers who are unhappy with your product will show other patterns that will help you form a solid understanding of your personas. For example, you might find that some of these "bad" customers have bigger teams and thus need a collaboration element to the product. Or you may find that "bad" customers find your product too technical and difficult to use. In both cases, you learn something about your product and what your customers' challenges are.
Another benefit to interviewing customers is that you may not need to offer them an incentive like a gift card (a typical incentive for participating in surveys or interviews). Customers usually like being heard, and interviewing them gives them a chance to tell you about their world, their challenges, and what they think of your product. Customers also like to have an impact on the products they use, so you may find that, as you involve them in interviews like this, they become even more loyal to your company. When you reach out to customers, be clear that your goal is to get their feedback and that it's highly valued by your team.
Be sure to balance out your interviews with people who have not purchased your product or know much about your company. Your current prospects and leads are a great option here because you already have their contact information. Use the data you do have about them (i.e. anything you've collected through lead generation forms or website analytics) to figure out who might fit into your target personas.
You'll probably also need to rely on some referrals to talk to people who may fit into your target personas, particularly if you're heading into new markets or don't have any leads or customers yet. Reach out to your network -- co-workers, existing customers, social media contacts -- to find people you'd like to interview and get introduced to. It may be tough to get a large volume of people this way, but you'll likely get some very high-quality interviews out of it. If you don't know where to start, try searching on LinkedIn for people who may fit into your target personas and see which results have any connections in common with you. Then reach out to your common connections for introductions.
4) Third-Party Networks
For interviewees who are completely removed from your company, there are a few third-party networks you can recruit from. Craigslist allows you to post ads for people interested in any kind of job, and UserTesting.com allows you to run remote user testing (with some follow-up questions). You'll have less control over sessions run through UserTesting.com, but it's a great resource for quick user testing recruiting.
Tips For Recruiting Interviewees
As you reach out to potential interviewees, here are a few tips for getting a better response rate:
1) Use incentives. While you may not need them in all scenarios (e.g. customers who already want to talk to you), incentives give people a reason to participate in an interview if they don't have a relationship with you. A simple gift card (like an Amazon or Visa credit card) is an easy option.
2) Be clear this isn't a sales call. This is especially important when dealing with non-customers. Be clear that you're doing research and that you just want to learn from them. You are not getting them to commit to a one-hour sales call; you're getting them to commit to telling you about their lives, jobs, and challenges.
3) Make it easy to say yes. Take care of everything for your potential interviewee. Suggest times, but be flexible; allow them to pick a time right off the bat; and send a calendar invitation with a reminder to block off their time.
How Many People Do You Need To Interview?
Unfortunately the answer is, it depends. Start with at least 3-5 interviews for each persona you're creating. If you already know a lot about your persona, then that may be enough. You may need to do 3-5 interviews in each category of interviewees (customers, prospects, people who don't know your company).
The rule of thumb is, when you start accurately predicting what your interviewee is going to say, it's probably time to stop. Through these interviews, you'll naturally start to notice patterns. Once you start expecting and predicting what your interviewee is going to say, that means you've interviewed enough people to find and internalize these patterns.
20 Questions to Ask in Persona Interviews
It's time to conduct the interview! After the normal small talk and thank-you's, it's time to jump into your questions. There are several different categories of questions you'll want to ask in order to create a complete persona profile. The following questions are organized into those categories, but feel free to customize this list and remove or add more questions that may be appropriate for your target customers.
- What is your job role? Your title?
- How is your job measured?
- What does a typical day look like?
- What skills are required to do your job?
- What knowledge and tools do you use in your job?
- Who do you report to? Who reports to you?
- In which industry or industries does your company work?
- What is the size of your company (revenue, employees)?
- What are you responsible for?
- What does it mean to be successful in your role?
- What are your biggest challenges?
- How do you learn about new information for your job?
- What publications or blogs do you read?
- What associations and social networks do you participate in?
- Describe your personal demographics (if appropriate, ask their age, whether they're married, if they have children).
- Describe your educational background. What level of education did you complete, which schools did you attend, and what did you study?
- Describe your career path. How did you end up where you are today?
- How do you prefer to interact with vendors (e.g. email, phone, in person)?
- Do you use the internet to research vendors or products? If yes, how do you search for information?
- Describe a recent purchase. Why did you consider a purchase, what was the evaluation process, and how did you decide to purchase that product or service?
The #1 Tip for a Successful Persona Interview: Ask "Why"
The follow up question to pretty much every question in the above list should be "why?"
Through these interviews, you're trying to understand your customers' or potential customers' goals, behaviors, and what drives them. But keep in mind that people are not always great at reflecting on their own behaviors to tell you what drives them at their core. You don't care that they measure the number of visits to their website, for example. What you care about is that they measure that because they need a number they control to show their boss they're doing a good job.
Start with a simple question -- one of our favorites is, "What is your biggest challenge?" Then spend a good amount of time diving deeper into that one question to learn more about that person. You learn more by asking "why?" than by asking more superficial questions.
How To Use Your Research To Create Your Persona
Once you've gone through the research process, you'll have a lot of meaty, raw data about your potential and current customers. But what do you do with it? How do you distill all of that so it's easy for everyone to understand all the information you've gathered?
The next step is to use your research to identify patterns and commonalities from the answers to your interview questions, develop at least one primary persona, and share that persona with the rest of the company.
Use Hubspots free, downloadable persona template to organize the information you've gathered about your persona(s). Then share these slides with the rest of your company so everyone can benefit from the research you've done and develop an in-depth understanding of the person (or people) they're targeting every day at work.
Here's how to use the template to do it ...
Fill In Your Persona's Basic Demographic Information
If you didn't feel comfortable asking some of these demographic-based questions on the phone or in person, you can also conduct online surveys to gather this information. Some people are more comfortable disclosing things like this through a survey rather than verbal communication.
It's also helpful to include some descriptive buzzwords and mannerisms of your persona that you may have picked up on during your conversations to make it easier for people in your sales department to identify certain personas when they're talking to prospects.
Here's an example of how you might complete Section 1 in your template for one of your personas:
Share What You've Learned About Your Persona's Motivations
This is where you'll distill the information you learned from asking "Why" so much during those interviews. What keeps your persona up at night? Who do they want to be? Most importantly, tie that all together by telling people how your company can help them.
Help Your Sales Team Prepare for Conversations With Your Persona
Include some real quotes from your interviews that exemplify what your personas are concerned about, who they are, and what they want. Then create a list of the objections they might raise so your sales team is prepared to address those during their conversations with prospects.
Help Craft Messaging For Your Persona
Tell people how to talk about your products/services with your persona. This includes the nitty gritty vernacular you should use, as well as a more general elevator pitch that positions your solution in a way that resonates with your persona. This will help you ensure everyone in your company is speaking the same language when they're having conversations with leads and customers.
Finally, make sure you give your persona a name (like Finance Manager Margie, IT Ian, or Landscaper Larry), and include a real-life image of your persona so everyone can truly envision what he or she looks like. Purchase an image from a stock photograph site like Thinkstock, or download one of our royalty-free images. It may seem silly, but it really helps to put a name to a face, so to speak!
Customer Profiles vs Customer Personas
Most business owners have an ideal customer in mind. However, far too many of them fail to do more than scratch the surface when describing that person. Their customer profiles contain generic, basic information: age range, geographic location, household income, whether they have children or pets, rent or own their homes, etc. In the B2B environment, the customer profile may focus on business information, such as number of years in business, the market served, annual sales and length of time in operation. Taken together, the customer profile provides a marketing starting point.
The first step in developing customer personas is to develop the ideal customer profile. Again, the profile is different from the persona; the profile is generic, overarching information. You can cull this information from your customer data, as well as based on the market research you’ve done to determine who your product appeals to. As you develop the profile, it should include:
- Marital status (if applicable)
- Geographic data (country, region, ZIP code)
- Household income
- Household size
- Homeowner status
- Special characteristics (children, pets, hobbies, interests, political affiliations, etc.)
- Geographic data (country, region, ZIP code)
- Number of employees
- Number of locations
- Length of time in business
- Annual revenue
Once you have a customer profile, you can move on to creating a persona. The first rule of creating buyer personas is that you cannot make them up, based on assumptions, your existing customer data, and anecdotes from your sales and marketing staff. You can’t base personas on what you glean from the social media profiles of the people who engage with your company online. That information may be useful in creating a customer profile in that it provides some general demographic insights, but it doesn’t give you what is referred to as the “customer archetype.”
The Science Behind Creating Buyer Personas
To help you get started developing your customer personas, I found this very helpful infographic titled, "The Science Behind Creating Buyer Personas," which encapsulates much of the above information into a concise format that walks you through the process of creating buyer personas.
To know today’s B2B buyers more deeply involves the use of qualitative contextual inquiry. Contextual inquiry has served the fields of social science, qualitative research, and journalism very well. It can serve B2B Marketing and Sales very well also.
Buyer persona development is an exercise in formulating customer and buyer strategies. To formulate strategies requires informed knowledge about your customers and buyers. One way to characterize buyer persona development is to call it a strategic modeling initiative. An initiative every level of management should go through to make informed decisions. One piece of advice Zambito can give after being at this for a dozen years – do not skip strategy and jump to tactics. You are going to miss out on plenty about your buyers.
Strategic Modeling Tool: The Buyer Persona Canvas™
Zambito utilizes a strategic modeling tool designed for buyer persona development: the Buyer Persona Canvas™. (Zambito drew inspiration for the canvas from Alex Osterwalder’s, founder of Business Model Generation, wonderful creation of the BUSINESS MODEL CANVAS commonly used in start-ups. NOTE: But should be a key element for developing business models for any company regardless of its stage of development) It is designed to serve as a strategic guide for understanding your buyers more deeply. The model highlights ten (10) areas where we need in-depth knowledge about buyers to make informed strategy decisions.
I have actually been involved in the process of creating buyer personas. However, instead of calling them personas we called them lifestyles. Lifestyles is a pseudonym used in marketing that describes how customers spend their time and money. To determine the lifestyles of our customer database, which numbered almost 100,000 customers spread over 17 national geographic areas, we used the services of a professional marketing analytics firm. This was an expensive process which took over three months to complete. I don't recommend this for everyone. The lifestyle analysis that we compiled utilizes demographic data, consumer credit data, census data, and behavioral tendencies about consumers by specific geographic locations.
Courtesy of an article dated May 28, 2015 appearing in Hubspot Blog and an article dated June 30, 2014 appearing in Digital Currents and an article dated September 2013 appearing in Tony Zambito Blog and an article dated May 20, 2014 appearing in WSI Blog