You Are Not Your Customer
Spending time to create customer personas can help you avoid one of the biggest marketing mistakes you can make: assuming that you are your audience.
I remember once, as a young marketer in my first marketing job discussing a potential promotional partnership with a local radio station. I did not listen to that station or that type of music, so my naïve mind was convinced that the strategy would not work.
My mistake? Assuming that I was my customer.
And yet, I have heard that error repeated again and again throughout my career. It sounds like:
“I have not seen our ads anywhere.”
“We need a brochure.”
“We should be on [insert newest social media platform here].”
When you create customer personas, you are forcing yourself to see things from a new perspective. Understanding who your customers are, how they make decisions, and how your product fits into their lives drives better tactical decisions. These are not anecdotal observations, personas are built from data, research, and marketing intelligence.
What is a customer persona?
A customer persona is a fictional character that represents your typical or ideal buyer. It combines data and knowledge about your customer’s behavior with external factors, like demographics and generational insights. Information can come from a variety of sources, like your CRM, surveys, focus groups, social media and web analytics, and industry-specific research.
When you create customer personas, you should answer three critical questions
- What is the problem your customer faces?
- How is your product or service solving that problem for that customer?
- How does your customer learn about you and make a purchase decision?
Armed with this information, you should be able to select the best messaging, tactics, and creative to reach your target audience and influence their purchase decision. This ultimately means smarter marketing decisions and more efficient use of money and resources.
Not only that, but creating a customer persona can help with other decisions, like “where do we need to invest to better retain clients?” or “how can we improve our operational processes?”
Who needs to create customer personas?
All businesses of all sizes at all stages need to develop, refine, and revisit their customer personas regularly. A rapidly growing company that is expanding into new markets quickly might be review and create customer personas every year as the business evolves. A more mature business might revisit personas every few years as part of in-depth business or marketing strategy planning.
Like human behavior, customer personas do not exist in a vacuum. Technological changes, social and cultural influences, generational shifts, the political climate, the economy, social trends, and more influence how people prioritize their time and money. Revisiting and revamping your personas ensures that you continue to connect with your audience in the current moment.
How do I create customer personas?
Depending on the complexity of your business, your personas can be very robust, or may just include a few key factors. For me, the big three are 1) what is the problem they need to solve, 2) how are they researching solutions, 3) how do you solve that problem. Answering those questions, along with some basics about the customer sets the foundation for a very effective messaging strategy and great marketing decisions.
Here are some things to consider as you build a persona.
Age range, generation (gen X, millennial, etc.), income level, living situation, marital/family status, and so forth. Select the factors that matter most for your product, for example what matters in selling luxury goods is very different that what matters in selling higher education.
Your CRM is probably your best friend here, as it can give you an accurate picture of your current buyers (and reveal any gaps between this and your ideal customer). If you do not have a CRM, you can look at web and social analytics for some general information, but know that they are not always accurate or specific enough. If you do not have customers (yet), then think about who you want to attract and use industry or other third-party research to validate your assumptions.
What and who are involved in the purchase decision? Is it an impulse buy, or carefully considered with comparison shopping? Who are the key influences, such as family, peers, co-workers, bosses? Are they shopping around, and what factors are they comparing (price, style, features, function, etc.)?
Surveys can be a great tool for this, especially if you have existing customer surveys that capture some of this information (especially in the comments!). Don’t have customers yet or engaging with a new audience? Conduct interviews or discussion groups with people who could be your customers. Generational and demographic research can be helpful here, but it paints in broad strokes, so you will need to eventually go deeper. Another source of information is your competitors. By conducting a thorough competitor analysis, you may be able to gather some insights about who they are targeting, and therefore how you need to approach the same audience.
How is your customer shopping? Where are they researching options (online, in a store, word-of-mouth, etc.)? Are they looking at customer reviews? Do they need a demo before purchase? Is this a product they need or want to see in-person before purchasing? Do they interact with a salesperson or client relations manager, and if so, how? Are there secondary decisions, like features or options, and how do those impact the overall buying decision? How do they first hear about you?
Sales data should reveal a lot of this information, and interviews or focus groups with your client-facing teams can tell you a lot. Supplement first-hand information with industry research, and of course, customer surveys and interviews can be really helpful here.
Their challenge and your solution
What is the problem your customer is facing? Do they see it as a problem, or do you need to show them how things could be different or better? What is the impact of this problem? Are they aware that solutions exist? Do they know your solution exists? What solutions have they tried? How are they researching options? How is your product the answer?
All of the same data sources I mentioned earlier apply here as well, but customer surveys and interviews are going to give you the best and most valid answers. Developing a good customer survey takes some work. You need to think through exactly what you want to know and then ask the right questions, but the data is invaluable. Following up with one-on-one interviews and focus groups will add even more depth to your understanding, and more value to your marketing efforts.
When should I create customer personas?
Customer personas should be a core element of your overall marketing strategy, but there are a few key times when you will want to review and possibly revise your personas.
- Before developing or launching a new campaign, promotion, product or service
- Is there a different audience you could reach? What segment of your customers will most benefit?
- As part of a customer journey mapping process.
- Closely related to personas, journey mapping is a process of outlining how your customer becomes aware of your product, makes purchase decision, engages with your company as a customer (i.e. retention, repeat buying), and how they eventually exit (no longer need you product), and become an advocate or a detractor.
- To troubleshoot your marketing or business strategy.
- Maybe you are not retaining customers as long as you think you should be. Or, you are attracting prospects who are not converting. Maybe you have shifted your business model and need to reevaluate your customer base. Revisiting or redeveloping customer personas can provide some “ah ha” moments and new perspectives.
How many personas do I need?
How many personas you create really depends on the complexity of your business. To start, you have to consider your major categories of purchase decision makers.
For example, in higher education you may want personas for various segments of potential students (incoming freshman, transfer students, graduate students), and should also want to consider key influencers, like parents or family. Nonprofits might look at individual and corporate donors, as well as advocates that encourage and support the organization.
For a B2B business, you should consider both the end user of the product or service and the person making the buying decision, as they may not be the same. And if you are in B2B2C, then you need to consider the primary buyer and secondary user. For example, if you sell training packages to corporate HR leaders, you also need to think about those enrolling in the training, as both are customers.
What comes next?
So you have created an awesome set of customer personas that includes your top buyers and their influencers. Now it is time to start thinking about how you can clearly articulate your value proposition to this potential customer, in a voice they will relate to, with a message that resonates and drives action.
From there, you can get into specific marketing tactics, like should you use social media ads, or focus on enhancing relationships between clients and your sales team? Should you consider events or webinars, or do you need to work on building a content marketing strategy? Through all of this, you are clarifying where and how to focus your limited resources, ensuring that you are spending money on the tactics that will resonate most with your target audience.
That is strategy, and building your customer personas is a key element of success.
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Use my customer persona checklist as a guide in creating your own personas.
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