As an essential tool in any marketing strategy today, buyer personas cannot be missing from a strategic document, whether it’s about product launches, communication campaigns or digital strategies.
Unlike classic brand analysis tools (such as charts, positioning maps, SWOT analysis and so on), buyer personas have a unique charm, because they describe real people – consumers who have the appearance of being our peers, detaching themselves from the cold and mathematical world of data analysis.
This subtle psychological component of the personas (and therefore difficult to trace back to certain parameters) is the reason why sometimes a few questions reappear in our thoughts to which (until now) we were not able to give a clear answer: what are buyer personas really, and why are they so important? But above all, how to build a buyer persona without it being a purely stylistic exercise?
With this quick guide we figure out where they come from, what their usefulness is in marketing and communications strategy, and how to build them in a way that makes them actually useful.
Personas were not born yesterday
One of the ways to better understand what buyer personas are – and what they’re for – is to understand where they come from. To do this we have to call into question a pioneer of software development in the 1980s: Alan Cooper. He is the one who, for the first time, used the term “user personas” to define profiles of typical users of his software, identified from focus groups, with the aim of deepening the interactions they had with his products and improving their interface.
In the ’90s, the development of new digital tools opened the possibility for marketers to segment the target audience in a detailed way, optimizing investments.
From being a tool for user experience analysis, personas, with their richness of detail, became fundamental for marketing and communication and buyer/customer personas and target personas were born. We’ll now delve into the (important!) differences between them.
What are buyer personas for?
Another opaque issue related to buyer personas is their true usefulness. Without a clear idea of why to create them, the result could be a bunch of ineffective – and sometimes counterproductive – information.
Let’s start with the obvious: buyer personas are not a tool for identifying your target audience. Instead, they are a very specific tool, with the purpose of exploring the behaviors of a typical subject who is part of the target, but who does not represent it as a whole. The richness of details and the human component of the personas make them true insight generators that help us empathize with the target and think like it.
This is why the purpose of creating buyer personas is closely linked to the themes you want to investigate. Some examples are:
– What purchase behaviours does the target have on a specific occasion, or on a typical day?
– What elements influence their choices?
– Who is able to influence them? What is the relationship between customer and influencer?
– What problems might arise in the customer journey?
– How does the user deal with problems? How does he react?
– What media is the customer usually exposed to? Are there any particularly effective media?
– What cultural context do these people live in? Are they a part of any niche?
– What is their personality and history?
The amount of information you want to investigate may be limited or very large, thus resulting in greater or lesser specificity of the personas profile.
What do I need to create buyer personas?
Earlier we said that personas are not a tool for identifying the target. This is because their construction is the last (and not the first) step of a path, preceded by other fundamental steps to achieve a meaningful result. Let’s see which ones.
- The first thing to clarify is the target, defined by socio-demographic parameters identified through the research and analysis of data.
- Good practice is then to segment this target by dividing it into clusters, that is, groups of people who share specific traits, such as belonging to a certain cultural or social niche, or sharing the same problem, need, desire. Clusters are often identified by terms that highlight the common traits of all subjects, such as “fashion-addicted” or “sneakerheads“.
- Once the clusters are identified, it will feel natural to associate them with specific individuals. This is good, because it means that the clusters are well differentiated, but before building the personas we need to do another fundamental step. Depending on our needs, it’s important that personas are built from quantitative data (surveys, market research, analytics) and/or qualitative data (focus groups, one-on-one interviews). This increases the likelihood of creating effective profiles, avoiding cognitive biases as much as possible.
- Analyze the data, organize it and select the most relevant ones: now you are ready to create your personas.
Personas starter pack: what must be included
As we have already seen, the construction of the personas depends on the theme we want to explore: it can be one or many.
In any case, there are some must-haves that are usually encountered in most cases.
Name and photo
The very first element of a persona is just what differentiates it and makes it human. Giving our persona a name and a face will help us refer to it as a real individual and remember it easily. After all, we are genetically inclined to identify our fellows by recognizing their somatic features.
Age, gender, education level, employment status, income and residence. All these data, in the form of a list, allow us to frame the persona at a glance within the target audience.
Short bio or typical day
This is a more or less detailed description of the subject, often focused on behaviors that have to do with the product or service for which the research is carried out. Depending on the case, it might be more relevant to tell about his background or his typical day.
The customer journey, that is, the “path” that leads the consumer from the first interaction with the brand/product/service to the purchase (and beyond), is an analysis tool that can also be unrelated to the buyer persona, but if integrated with it can give rise to very helpful insights. By mixing a typical customer journey with a persona, it’s possible to analyze her feelings along the way, her concerns, the obstacles she needs to solve and what gives her relief.
No, we don’t mean Chiara Ferragni. Influencers are all those individuals, part of the persona‘s life, who are able to influence her choices. It can be a partner, a work colleague, a child or the sales staff of a store. There is no such thing as a persona without its context, which is why it is important to analyze it.
What media is the persona exposed to? What social media does he or she use? What newspapers does he/she read? Does he/she watch TV? And in what time slots? What are his/her favorite shows?
Of course, let’s not forget OOH (out of home) media such as billboards, and anything else that can convey a message in general (from events, to branded landmarks, to the aisles of a supermarket). Understanding our persona‘s media exposure allows us to identify the best ways to communicate with them.
Last but not least, a quote of what the persona would say about a particular aspect of their customer journey, character or habits. This allows us to spot that person’s trait at a glance when our personas are getting numerous.
Personas are not only “buyers”
The term “buyer personas” suggests that the personas are necessarily those to whom we want to sell our product/service. As we’ve seen, however, personas live within a context, and in relationship with other individuals who influence their choices.
Let’s take an example. Marco is a family man, and together with Elisa, his wife, he has an 8-year-old son, Giacomino. The end of the school year is approaching and the parents want to give Giacomino a present. The father sets out to find and purchase the gift, and begins to gather information. Of course, as Elisa is involved in her son’s education, she also wants to have a say in the choice of the gift. For example, she would like to avoid gifting the bb gun that Marco likes so much. In addition, the two of them will also choose the gift based on Giacomino’s age and inclinations, so they will definitely avoid buying a 1000-piece puzzle or a crossword book.
In this situation, there are three different types of subjects: the buyer (Marco), the influencer (Elisa), and the actual user (Giacomino). All of them contribute – directly or indirectly – to the final purchase, and a good marketing strategy must take all of them into account.
If we are dealing with product development, the reference personas will be the actual users, like Giacomino (user personas). If we are dealing with branding and communication we must take into account all those who can influence choices, such as Elisa (target personas). If at last we are thinking of a tactical marketing action (like a discount operation) our reference will be the actual potential buyers, like Marco (buyer personas).
Be careful: these personas do not compartmentalize! They influence each other and are further influenced by other people. That’s why, for a good marketing strategy, you should always develop personas of all types, so that you have a complete picture of the situation.
In short, the world of personas is much deeper and more complex than a couple of profile images and a rough description. Data research and analysis, sensitivity to the target audience, clear objectives: this is what it takes to build personas that are truly useful for our marketing strategies (digital or not). Once these elements are understood, the construction will come by itself, without necessarily using a predefined template. Finally, a tip to make sure that the personas you create don’t fall into disuse: make them live. Mention them (by name) during meetings with your colleagues, brainstorms, and conversations with clients. Personas are a “slow” tool: the longer they live, the more they develop a distinct identity that can lead to interesting insights.