What we're talking about

A customer persona (or avatar) is a fictional profile that represents a particular target customer. Usually, businesses will have a handful of them to cover the majority of their customer base. Though these personas aren't real people, they're informed by data and research – some of which will come from your real customers, if you have them. 

Customer personas help businesses understand the people they're trying to sell to and how those people will be using their product or service – they're particularly useful for marketing and product design departments. A thorough persona will include both demographic details (eg, age, gender, income) and the answers to more intimate questions, such as what their passions, concerns, challenges and buyer motivations are. How much detail you go into is up to you but, generally, the more you flesh things out – and we're talking about drawing out the persona and giving it a name – the more useful the process will be. 

Why it's important 

This is a clarifying step for a small business and it needn't cost a lot. All parts of your team will benefit from knowing who your customers are, from sales and marketing to customer support and product development. With this shared understanding, you'll be able to identify problems that require solving; make educated decisions on attracting and supporting customers; and make better calls on content, product design and communication techniques. 

Personalization, after all, is key. One 2018 study suggests that 91% of people are more likely to shop with businesses that provide relevant offers and recommendations, while another suggests that 80% of people are more likely to purchase a product or service from a brand that provides personalized experiences. Though especially helpful when you're just starting out, creating personas can add value at any point in your business' trajectory – and, indeed, you should return to them as your customer base evolves. Reviewing personas regularly can help you to identify new challenges, desires and potential product enhancements. The closer you are to your customer, the more value you can add.

Things to note 

You can create personas even if you don't have customers yet. How comprehensive your personas are will naturally depend on your business' size and where you are in your trajectory. But this exercise is accessible even if you're just starting out, and it can help with preconceptions about your customer base and product. Schedule a few conversations with people you're looking to target. Remember, the conversation focus should be on understanding them at this stage, not talking about or selling your idea. Iterate regularly as you learn more about your target audience, and keep these people engaged – they could end up being your first customers.

Personas differ when you're selling to businesses. If you're building a customer persona for a retail business, you'll be focusing on individual customers. But, if you're selling to a business, your customer persona will be a little more complex. The decision-maker or buyer might not necessarily be the end user. That means you need to think about the boxes that different individuals are looking to tick in order to find solutions for their business and professional pain points. This guide focuses on business-to-consumer personas but, for more on business-to-business customer segments, here's a handy introduction from business resource website Strategyzer.

Use your personas once you've made them. While the process of creating personas is helpful in itself, you shouldn't stop there. You and your team should refer back to them frequently – and put yourself in the shoes of your personas when making decisions across sales, marketing, product and strategy. For example, personas can really help with customer education; by understanding your customers' buying journey, you can ensure that you're fulfilling their specific informational needs at each step. 

There's heaps of stuff online. Make use of online resources – there are templates, checklists and specialized platforms for building customer personas. Along with the usual demographic sections, a good persona template will include customer challenges and frustrations, gains and desires, and what the customer is ultimately trying to achieve or get done.

How to create customer personas 

1. Define your focus. Start with a broad idea of who you're targeting and what you need to know about them. Take stock of your business goals and values, plus your existing customers and who you think your product would naturally help or appeal to. From here, you should be able to intuit a rough breakdown of your customer base. For example, if you're a pet wellness brand, a customer type could be urban millennials with a dog. 

2. Start researching. Begin with what you can access with minimal effort. This could include speaking to customer-facing employees, browsing social media followers and feeds (your own and your competitors'), reading reviews and research reports and looking through customer databases. Capture all the basic demographic info you can, while writing down any recurring themes and attitudes you notice.

3. Collect additional data. One option here is to put out a survey to your customers via email or social media. Overall, you should have a clear picture of your target audience – to the extent that you can split people into core ‘types’ (who will eventually become your personas). Directing interviews with customers who fit each type can be very helpful. Our guide to user research might help you with places to find these people and what to ask them. Three to five interviews per persona type is a good number to start with.

4. Analyze your research. Take time to refine the threads of similarity you've identified, settling on a number of personas. It's best to start fairly small – around two to five personas – so you don't spread yourself too thin with early marketing efforts. 

5. Put a name to a face. Create your personas, with a little bit of color and creativity. Use a template, like the one linked below, to guide you. Start by giving each persona a name and finding an image or drawing a picture to represent how you imagine they'd look. Then note down other demographic information: age, gender, location, spending power, marital or family status, education level and profession. 

6. Go deeper. Think about interests, attitudes and activities. Broad categories might include motivations, challenges, goals, how they behave at work, how they behave in their free time, who they spend time with, what they're interested in, what they're annoyed by, and so on. You could include soundbites from your interviews or insights from your data collection to back it up. When looking for a deeper understanding of behaviors and motivations, keep your questions open to get as much detail as possible.

7. Make your personas widely available. As we've mentioned, it's crucial that you use your personas to guide decision-making going forward. Make sure that there's a digital version stored in an accessible location and let your team know about it, explaining the purpose of the exercise and how you'd like them to be used across departments. Invite feedback on the personas from any team members who weren't involved in the creation process.

8. Update when necessary. As you grow and bring in new customers (fingers crossed), you'll need to revisit your buyer personas – adding new ones and updating old ones. This is especially true if you're expanding to another territory, launching another product or changing your pricing strategy – or if there are major societal changes. Make a point of assigning responsibility for your customer personas – whether that's you, someone else or a combination of people. Don't let your customer personas gather dust on a shared drive.

Key takeaways 

• Personas help you truly understand your customers – they can have a huge impact on how you communicate with, market to and design for your customers.

• They're devised using a combination of intuition, data and strategic thinking. You can tailor how extensive your research is but, no matter how small your business, you shouldn't solely hypothesize. 

• Each persona should represent a fully formed and complex person, taking account of all aspects of their situation and personality. 

Learn more 

Perspective. From business magazine Entrepreneur, here are some tips on harnessing your buyer personas to create the best content for your brand and audience. 

Example. Here are a bunch of templates from the Buyer Persona Institute, and an example of some user personas in action from the Office for National Statistics. 

Tool. Here are 55 questions to ask when you're building buyer personas. Strategyzer is another excellent resource with insightful questions and easy-to-use templates.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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