How To Create Effective Customer Personas

Andrea Fryrear on Content Marketing

Confession time, marketers: how many personas have you created and then never referred to again?

Two? Four? Twelve?

Personas are a key foundational element of a successful content marketing strategy, but they’re also notoriously difficult to get right.

You can brainstorm generalized characteristics of an imaginary audience and throw them on a page with stock photo, but that doesn’t mean you’ve compiled a truly useful persona.

Earlier this year at the Intelligent Content Conference, long-time persona expert Ardath Albee shared her nine components of truly useful personas.

Take the time to go through each of these pieces and you’ll be crafting truly useful, audience-centered content that delights your readers (and makes sales).

Why Unlock the Power of Personas

No matter how great your content is, Ardath reminded her audience that, “if you don’t build personas you may not be telling the story that anybody cares about.”

Our readership will always be made up of real people with real problems; personas help us understand those people more completely.

Need a few more enticements to undertake your persona research? Ardath has done countless explorations, and she argues that when done well, personas can:

  • Actively inform content strategy
  • Increase relevance by matching value to context
  • Make buyers the hero of the story
  • Help drive buyer outreach
  • Provide a relationship-building framework
  • Create alignment with sales teams

Commonalities Create Personas

Before we launch into each of the nine parts of successful personas, let’s make sure we’ve got our definitions straight.

Personas focus on the commonalities among segments of your audience. Whenever you’re trying to decide what to include in any of the nine components below, things that the members have in common always trump the unique attributes of a handful of segment members.

The reason that we go to all the trouble of doing persona research in the first place is to arrive at validated commonalities among our audience that can inform our content strategy and drive engagement.

Ultimately, all of this should lead to better content, more leads, and increased revenue.

Pieces of High-Quality Personas

We’ve all seen generic personas that don’t go much beyond name, age, and job title, but the really useful ones are deeply detailed documents.

Ardath suggests a 9-part discovery process to really get to know the people who make up your personas:

  1. A day in the life
  2. Objectives
  3. Problems
  4. Orientation
  5. Obstacles
  6. Questions
  7. Preferences
  8. Keywords and phrases
  9. Engagement scenarios

We’ll walk through Ardath’s recommendations for each of these one at a time, but overall you’re looking to create scenes that will let you speak to people about their real-world problems.

Whether that conversation happens through a downloadable resource or on the phone with an account rep, when you have valuable personas you can communicate with your audience with confidence.

A Day in the Life

These are first-person scenarios, not stories about the person.

Ardath’s example was as follows:

No: Diane is a hard worker who is determined to make product launches more efficient
Yes: I’m struggling to get products to market faster because our processes are too convoluted but my boss is worried that changing them will create more chaos.

(Note: all examples in these persona components are from Ardath Albee’s presentation at the Intelligent Content Conference 2016)

Although one of the most important pieces of an effective persona, this component is best developed after you have all the other information below. Ardath suggests keeping it to about 300 words and focusing first on all the other components outlined below.

Persona Objectives

We’re not talking about the objective to reduce costs or run a faster mile. This component is focused on the goals and responsibilities that drive your personas’ decisions or keep them up at night.

No: Grow Revenues
Yes: Eliminate inefficiency to speed time to market

Problems of a Persona

Problems are essentially the flip side of objectives according to Ardath. They are whatever could happen at each stage that keeps your persona from moving forward.

It can be very tempting to frame these problems around what you know your software or service can do, but, like all persona creation, it needs to be rooted in your audience’s real lives.

Specificity is also crucial when it comes to selecting topics for content:

No: Inefficiency
Yes: Lack of automated workflows adds months to product launches.

Orientation Not Demographics

There’s really no need to get hung up on the demographic details of your personas unless they have a direct impact on your relationship with them.

For example:

No: Married with 2 kids + dog
Yes: 20 year career; confident leader; mentors his team

By focusing on the persona’s professional standing, this sample B2B persona makes communicating with him around a software purchase much easier. After all, if he has a dog, how does that change what type of content he’d like to consume?

Obstacles of Persona

It’s much too easy to just go with “price” and move on from obstacles, but in many cases (particularly in a B2B context) cost is not a primary decision driver.

Instead, consider why a potential customer might hesitate before making a payment or picking up the phone.

No: Price
Yes: What do I need to know to convince Tom? What if our people won’t adopt the new workflows?

Common Questions

Conversations with real customers or prospects are invaluable in fleshing out this component. The closer you can get to their actual phrasing, the better.

According to Ardath, the type of questions you should focus on are the ones they ask on their journey from the status quo to making a choice. That choice could be to make a purchase, to postpone, or to abort the buying process altogether.

You’ll want to insert yourself as the source of answers to as many of those questions as possible.

No: What features does your product have?
Yes: Given my situation, why should I care? How do I eliminate x to achieve y? What can I do now that I couldn’t do before?

Discovering a Persona’s Preferences

Again, we’re not talking about whether this group prefers white wine or beer; our focus should be on how they like to consume content or engage with account managers.

Persona preferences center around:

  • Channels
  • Social Media
  • Content Types
  • Content Formats
  • Interactivity
  • Preferred Media

Identifying Keywords and Phrases

Once again, don’t fall into the temptation to structure this component of your personas around your product.

Dive into the phrases you hear your audience using via search engines, LinkedIn profiles, conference presentations, surveys, or interviews.

No: Product-related words
Yes: Reduce time to market; product launch best practices

Engagement Scenarios

Consider possible ways that your audience would engage with your product, and map those out; Ardath suggests doing so both in the form of a story and in the form of marketing execution.

In a nutshell, engagement scenarios help you visualize how the conversation will happen so you can facilitate it with relevant content and touchpoints.

How to Get the Personas You Need

That’s a lot of components, and they cover quite a lot of ground. So, how do we find out all that highly specific information?

We ask questions (a lot of them).

But even in our quest for the ultimate personas, we need to be respectful of our interviewees’ time. Tell them you’ll need 30 minutes tops, and have your questions well prepared in advance.

Some of Ardath’s suggested questions for a persona interview (and the component they help create):

  • Tell me about your job… (A day in the life)
  • What happened that made you look for a solution? (Problem)
  • What was the outcome you were trying to achieve? (Objectives)
  • What did you need to learn about? (Questions)
  • Why couldn’t you solve this internally? (A day in the life)
  • Who else was involved? (Persona identification)
  • Where did you find the most useful information? (Preferences)
  • What kind of pushback did you get? (Obstacles, Questions)
  • Do you remember the turning point when everyone got on board? What happened (Engagement scenarios, Sales enablement)

Secondary Research for Persona Creation

While one-on-one conversations are a gold mine for powerful personas, doing some secondary research can also reveal surprising information about your emerging audience segments.

Ardath recommended the following sources for supplementary data:

  • LinkedIn
  • Analysts and research reports on the industry or role
  • Leading industry or thought leader blogs
  • Competitor websites, blogs, social media profiles, and case studies
  • Adwords keyword tool
  • Twitter hashtags and other social media influencers
  • Job listings

Put Personas to Work For Your Content Strategy

Although definitely effort-intensive, creating relevant personas will pay huge dividends in your content strategy.

Use Ardath’s tried and true approach to ensure that your content is telling a story that people actually care about.