What are Personas and How Every Marketing Team Can Use Them

Andrea Fryrear on B2B Marketing Strategy

Personas are highly detailed biographies of fictional users of a product or service. They are generally correlated to particular market segments and allow marketers to create messages that are aimed at a particular person rather than a general group.

When done correctly, personas let us as marketers connect with our customer base more effectively by helping us write/draw/speak to a person.

Many marketing teams map all their content and campaigns to particular personas to ensure that they are communicating in a way that their audience will find meaningful.

Here we’ll address the ins and outs of how to create personas, as well as what to do with them after you’ve made them.

Caution: Personas Require Groundwork

It can be very tempting to just sit down at your computer, throw up a pre-made persona template, and fill it in with your own understanding of your customers’ demographic, behavior, and attitudes.

While easy, this kind of persona creation isn’t likely to give you any new insight into how your customers would like you to communicate to them.

Chances are you’re already speaking to that persona because it came out of your head.

Instead, you need to undertake some investigation before writing your personas for the first time.

Best Case: Market Segmentation First

Ideally you’ll do a market segmentation study first, which will help you identify large, valuable groups (segments) of your market. Then you can use those segments as the basis for your personas.

This 1-2 punch is powerful, because it gives you a solid basis of hard data from which to create highly specific (yet still fictional) people to market to.

For some marketing departments, however, there isn’t any budget (or time) for this kind of large-scale study.

Next Best Thing: Your Own Market Knowledge

If you’re unable or unwilling to undertake market segmentation research, don’t abandon the idea of personas. You can still create highly useful tools for yourself by tapping into your company’s collective expertise.

This approach is particularly applicable to products that are already confident in who their target audience is in general.

For example, take a look at what you know from customer feedback, sales reports, and input from your own sales, support, and marketing teams. It might already be clear that your most valuable market is recent college graduates, followed by young professionals under 35.

From this (totally free) information you can create 2-3 personas for each of your primary segments and then let them guide your marketing.

The downside to using this approach to persona creation is that it’s unlikely to reveal untapped market segments. But it’s much faster and cheaper than a market segmentation study.

Regardless of which method you choose, don’t just use one person’s opinion for personas. They should be a collective effort for maximum accuracy.

Good Personas Are Personalized For You

Everyone’s personas will be slightly different, because every business is slightly different. But before the writing process starts you should answer two big questions:

  1. How much personal/professional detail will be helpful to my team?
  2. How many personas are we comfortable working with?

Establishing Your Personas’ Focus

You’ve probably seen some persona examples that give preferences on alcoholic beverage, TV shows, books, favorite foods, and more. Others don’t ever mention family life, while others focus almost exclusively on leisure activities.

None of these are “right” or “wrong”; they all cover pertinent areas of the persona’s life based on what kind of marketing needs to be done.

If you’re a B2B company, you can touch on the more personal and emotional aspects of your persona, but what’s going to be most helpful is their behavior and attitude in a professional setting.

Conversely, if you market consumer products like clothes, you need very personal details in order to reach your audience on the emotional level that drives many clothing purchases.

The Perfect Persona Number: No More Than 8

A highly targeted marketing department might only have two personas, whereas a broadly focused team could triple or quadruple that number.

As a general rule, I recommend no more than eight personas per marketing team. Any more than that and your messages can start to feel schizophrenic.

If you’ve got a smallish team, keep the number of personas small as well (3-5), but make sure they are as accurate as you can make them. They should correlate to your largest and/or most valuable market segments so they give you the most bang for your buck.

Larger teams, and those going after a wider demographic base, can climb up to the 6-8 range. Just make sure that you’re not making more personas just because you can.

Each one should be unique; it should have a real personality that your marketing can speak to. If you find yourself wondering if a particular piece of content is targeted to Jasmine or Janice, then it may be time to winnow.

Personas Are Your New Marketing Directors

Once done, you should be using your personas to drive all your marketing efforts.

If someone proposes a new product, price structure, or feature set, you should ask which personas would be excited about them. Put yourself honestly in their mindset, and imagine their reaction. If each and every one them says, “Meh,” don’t adopt the change.

You can also work in the other direction. Consider every aspect of a specific persona’s day, and think about where you’re not reaching them or where there is an unmet need. Then go after them one by one.

Personas are particularly great when there are differences of opinion about marketing campaigns. They can be a (somewhat) objective reference to point that you can use to mediate discussions.

Instead of saying, “I hate this new email campaign. It will never work,” you can approach it through a persona’s perspective: “Javier would hate to receive an email like that, but if we change the messaging like this I think he’d respond more favorably.”

Personas Are For Everyone

Regardless of the size of your marketing department, the makeup of your market, or your budget level, personas will help you create more impactful campaigns.

They create “real” people that you can talk to, instead of generalized groups that are difficult to target effectively.

It’s easy to write Tweets that Jamaal would want to click on; it’s harder to make an infographic for “young professional males in an urban environment.”