A buyer persona is a composite that gives you a richly-detailed picture of your target audiences by combining demographic and psychographic information and insights and then presenting it in a way that’s easy to comprehend.
From a practical perspective, buyer personas help you set priorities, allocate resources, expose gaps and highlight new opportunities, but more important than that is the way they get everyone in marketing, sales, content, design, and development on the same page, moving in the same direction, trying to reach the same destination.
In plain terms, this means that buyer personas provide:
Even though different teams use different tools and tactics to do their jobs, buyer personas help to ensure that all those individual efforts are complementary, not competing.
To be effective, buyer personas should:
- Represent key segments of your customer base
- Be developed from a solid combination of research, direct observations and experiences, and individual expertise
- Be realistic
- Include needs, drives, motivations, likely behaviors, and other characteristics that make them easy to understand
- Be organized around a framework that is directly related to your product or service
The actual process of creating buyer personas is part art, part science — the art is which framework you choose to define and differentiate your personas; the science is all the traits, tendencies, and characteristics that are associated with those types of people.
Choosing a Buyer Persona Framework
There are lots of ways to group your customers, but a good framework should always reflect the specifics of your business — what you sell, how you sell it, and why your customers buy it.
In most cases, this means using one of the following organizing principles:
- Use Cases
- Pain Points
- Journey Maps
- Buying Triggers
- Value Proposition
- Lifestyles/Life Stages
Which one works best?
Use cases, pain points, and buying triggers are popular for business-to-business (B2B) personas; use cases, journey maps, and lifestyles/life stages are popular for business-to-consumer (B2C) and direct-to-consumer (DTC) personas.
While you can usually pick your organizing principle before you do your customer research, there’s a chance you’ll have to revise it or replace it later, especially if your findings reveal something surprising or unexpected.
A use case is a brief description that explains why, how and/or when a person uses a particular product or service. Use cases are popular framing devices for buyer personas because they work in almost every situation. The goal with uses cases is to pick at least two examples, and usually between three and five examples that are distinct and identifiable — if you can’t identify any of the key characteristics that different types of users have in common, like demographics, life stages, occupations, lifestyle choices, attitudes, affiliations, behaviors, etc., then you need to either revise your use cases or select a different framing device.
Pain points are persistent or recurring problems that inconvenience or annoy prospective customers. The solution is always your product or service. The key to using pain points with buyer personas is being able to associate each one with a distinct set of demographic and/or psychographic characteristics. In the broadest sense, there are four types of pain points, which range from the experiential to the existential:
If your pain points are defined too broadly, you may end up with groups of customers who are actually all the same; if they’re defined too narrowly, you may end up with customers who don’t fit into any group.
One trick is to combine pain points with a secondary framework, like use cases or life stages.
A journey map is a graphic interpretation of the process a prospect goes through in order to become a buyer. Journey maps can be quite specific, but generally follow the same overall basic steps:
- Realize need
- Research and evaluate options (more important for B2B; less important for B2C)
- Make choice
- Use product/service
- Re-use product/service or replace it
When maps are used as a framing device for buyer personas, it’s important to be able to identify the key characteristics those at each specific waypoint are most likely to have in common, such as demographics, life events & stages, occupations, attitudes, affiliations, lifestyle choices, etc.
If you can’t identify any of these specifics, you should either choose another framing device or combine journey maps with a secondary framing device.
A buying trigger is an event that signals intent or heightened interest by a customer. Because triggers can be quite generic (especially when they’re digital), they can be somewhat difficult to use with personas.
The key is to either choose triggers that relate to specific, identifiable characteristics or use triggers in conjunction with a secondary framework that relates to specific, identifiable characteristics. If you can’t identify the underlying characteristics, you can’t sort your customers into distinct groups.
Using your value proposition or value prop as a framing device for buyer personas is one of the more time-consuming ways to create buyer personas. In most cases, it means connecting the inherent value of your product or service to fundamental human needs and then relating those back to identifiable subsets of your customers.
Bain & Company’s Elements of Value Pyramid is a good way to better understand your value prop.
Lifestyles / Life Stages
Lifestyles and life stages are combinations of demographic attributes that can be used to identify a unique subset of the population, such as:
- Developmental Stage (infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, or mature)
- Marital Status
- Family Size
- Household Income
- And more…
Using them as a framing device for buyer personas is sometimes dismissed as being “too generic,” but can be quite useful.
The key is to make sure there’s a clear connection between your product or service and whatever specific demographic criteria you’re using to define your lifestyle or life stage.
Using Your Buyer Persona Framework
Once you’ve worked out the details of your framework, the process of using it to build your buyer personas is straightforward with the following steps:
- Consolidate your customer research so you get a good, overall picture of your customer base.
- Use your framework to sort and filter your customer into individual groups
- Identify the qualities and characteristics members of each group have in common
- Condense and consolidate these commonalities and package them up into individual buyer personas
Step 1: Consolidate Your Research and Findings
If you did formal research, you’ll probably have charts, graphs, tables, and a written summary from your research team, as well as a few spreadsheets full of means, medians, ranges, quartiles, k-means clusters, etc.
If you did your research on your own, it probably means you’ll have iPhone pics of your white-boarding sessions.
In either case, the idea is to map out what you know about your customers, especially details about who they are, why, when, and how they buy, and anything else that’s directly relevant to your product or service.
Step 2: Use Your Framework To Sort and Filter Customers Into Groups
Once you’ve mapped your customer base, use your framework to sort your customers into different groups based on which criteria they meet.
Keep in mind that even under the best of circumstances, this can be a challenge — sometimes you have to make basic assumptions, take educated guesses, or work through multiple iterations before you finalize who goes where and why.
If you just can’t sort all your customers into groups, you may have to rework your framework or underlying criteria.
Step 3: Identify Underlying Demographic and/or Psychographic Qualities
Once you’ve sorted your customers into distinct groups, you need to come up with a unique set of characteristics that helps you differentiate one group from another.
To make this easier, “best practices” suggest focusing on identifying characteristics that fall into the following categories:
- Needs and Wants
- Drives and Motivations
- Life Stages
- Achievements and Milestones
- Lifestyle Choices
- Household Income Levels
- Education Levels
- Distinct Personality Traits — e.g. innovative, frugal, social,” mindful, conscientious, etc.
Like sorting customers into distinct groups based on your framework criteria, identifying unique sets of characteristics can mean making assumptions, taking educated guesses and/or working and re-working your choices
One trick is to look for patterns.
What qualities do members of each group have in common? Do they the share key demographics? Key psychographics? Are any of these characteristics unique? Can they be used to differentiate members of this group from the others?
Another trick is to look for the lowest common denominators: unique (but not too unique), high-level characteristics that are common to everyone within a given group. While this can also take a bit of effort before you arrive at a suitable list of commonalities, but tends to yield good results.
Step 4: Simplify and Package Your Individual Personas
Now that you’ve identified key demographic and psychographic descriptors for each group, the last thing to do is condense and consolidate this information to create individual buyer personas.
This is usually a pretty straightforward process: keep what’s most unique, meaningful and/or representative, and get rid of what’s not.
If you have a few descriptors that are similar, you’ll want to combine them; if you end up with more than one unique set of descriptors for any given group, you’ll want to split them into two different personas.
When you’re done you should have individual sets of descriptors that reflect your framework and represent the composite characteristics of your key customer groups.
Making Your Buyer Personas More Accessible And Impactful
While you could just give your team a list of the descriptive characteristics associated with each of your buyer personas, a few simple additions can make this information much more accessible.
Start by giving each buyer persona a unique name that relates back to your organizing framework — e.g. 4-Wheel Fred The Off-road Influencer, Tia The Teacher, The Independent Fashion Designer, etc.
Then, include a brief bio or personality summary that aligns with your underlying descriptors and any demographics. And finally, add an image or illustration that puts a face on your persona.
If you use an online persona builder (or are willing to do the work yourself), you can make your personas even more engaging and immersive by including additional details, like brands and lifestyle choices, hobbies & interests, specific personality traits, and/or tendencies that would commonly be associated with the type of person you’re describing, social media habits, interaction styles, engagement needs, narrative preferences, etc.
You might also want to layout an empathy map:
Once you’ve packaged up your buyer personas, the last thing to do is share them with sales, marketing, design & development, customer success, and anyone else on your team who needs to better understand who you’re trying to engage and how best to engage them.
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In addition to core drives, motivations, and lots of highly-targeted functional insights, there are a host of practical and tactical suggestions designed specifically to help marketing, branding, content, and sales teams.
Here are guides, worksheets, and other resources. If you’re interested, Martech Zone readers can also save 20% on a professional plan: