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The Definitive Guide to Building Bullet-Proof Buyer Personas

One of the not-so-secret secrets to successful marketing is knowing your audience. Arguably the best way to do this is to create buyer personas.

When we onboard new clients at 97th Floor we always ask for their existing personas, and they often shrug their shoulders and rifle aimlessly through some papers. “I think we had some made about a year or two ago,” they say. But in this age of smart digital marketing, that just won’t fly. The world needs more personas-- and better personas. We at 97th Floor have the expertise, and we’re here to make the internet a better place. So we put this guide together to help you build personas for your business that will bring in consumer insights that will elevate all of your marketing efforts and increase your revenue.

Having a good buyer persona is like having your ideal customer sit next to you while you planned their content campaign. They could remind you of what’s going on in their lives and how that might affect their connection with your ads, blog posts, social media efforts, and emails.

 

What is a buyer persona and why should I care?

A buyer persona is a fictional depiction of an ideal, individual customer. Creating and applying a buyer persona helps marketers craft campaigns that feel more true and have more impact. A good buyer persona can turbocharge the understanding of your customers, leading to more traffic, higher conversions, and eventually, bigger revenue figures. Who doesn’t want that? So here’s how to make it happen.

 

Ingredients of a buyer persona

The ingredients are simple, and the process is not rocket science. Like baking bread, you already own most ingredients—flour, water, yeast, salt—and the things you don’t already have in your cupboard are easily accessible.

Buyer Persona Recipe-01

Begin with a little market research. What data do you already have about your customers? What are their current job titles, responsibilities, interests? If you can, use a tool like SparkToro to find out more about what your customers care about. Ask: why would they benefit from your brand? What are their pain points and how does your offer solve them? The more research you can do, the better.

Then add a little speculation. If your persona loves running, you can assume they’ll care about running form or proper running shoes. If they’re a busy mom, you can assume they’re looking for ways to relax and save time. Some assumptions are okay, and even needed, but be sure you don’t get off track.

Once you flesh out your customer with a few assumptions, mix your research and speculation together with a knowledge of the user journey for your product or service. For instance, how do they come in contact with your brand? Will they be eager to buy or will they need a little persuasion? What appeals to them on your site?

Finally, sprinkle a little creativity on top. This is the fun part: make it a story. Be as specific as you possibly can. What is their name? What do they look like? How does an average day in their life flow? Don’t be shy, write it out. Use your imagination. The end result should be fun, spunky, realistic, and easy to remember.

 

The special technique

In baking bread, you simply put the dough in an oven. For personas, however, you need something much more rare: objectivity. A good persona requires you to set aside what you think you know about your customers and to see what the data tells you. This is very, very difficult for most businesses, which is why it makes sense to ask someone else to do it for you. When it comes to paying someone to create a customer persona for you, the greater the objectivity, the more you will pay. Spend less, and you will have a few assumptions mixed in with your objective assessments.

However, assumptions, especially when used in the less-critical and less-controversial parts of the buyer persona, are likely a good trade off for many businesses. Not everyone needs to spend $50,000 to get something truly useful.

The personas that we build for our clients at 97th Floor are a mix of strategic assumption and objective research. We are intentional in our approach choosing where we can assume and where to use data. It might not be the right approach for every business, but it’s appropriate for most businesses most of the time.

 

Let’s break it down

There are three major parts to buyer personas:

  1. Demographic information
  2. Psychographic information
  3. The buyer story

 

1. Demographic information

As you might presume, demographic information tells us the external details about the persona. This describes the age, gender, racial identity, socio-economic details, family status, occupation, and such. We glean it from a number of sources: existing customer profiles, analytics data, competitive analyses, etc. We use whatever we can get our hands on.

When we build our personas we use a balance of assumption and evidence. Our stance is that in this area, the information that we infer is good enough for the purpose and the potential mistakes are low-impact ones. But don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t go wild with assumptions here.

There isn’t much value in knowing that your average age customer is 37 rather than 39 or 40. But there is a significant difference in an average age of 30 instead of 45. Be careful that you have enough evidence for the correct ballpark. But don’t waste resources digging into teeny specifics if they aren’t likely to be impactful.

Remember that a buyer persona is different from a target audience. This is not a broad composite, but a fictionalized specific individual. There is value in having a target audience in mind--in knowing a range that describes the whole of your customers--but the value of a buyer persona is to clearly envision one perfect client.

 

2. Psychographic information

The demographic information describes the external details of the individual, while the psychographic information describes her internal life. We want to know what she likes and dislikes, what makes her excited or nervous, what she reads and who she follows. This is the information that a savvy marketer will prize.

We obtain this through research into tens of thousands of individuals’ web habits. With this information, we can better predict the specific behaviors and biases of a likely customer, but also general principles that describe a lot of people. There are tools out there that will help you to accomplish this task with some confidence--just don’t forget the critical role of objectivity here. We’ve seen clients with personas that only really describe the client themselves. It’s an awkward conversation, “Since you’re just launching Bob’s Widgets, is it realistic that your persona is already a member of the Bob’s Widgets Fan Club?”

When you get the psychographic profile right, it’s almost magic. For example, our research might uncover that people who like your brand also are fans of the Chicago Bulls or the Los Angeles Dodgers. It is probably too specific to know which particular team that they root for, but it is useful to know that your audience are sports fans (as opposed to, say, fans of quilting or politics or tattoos).

 

3. The buyer story

Many clients we onboard don’t have personas (or have only target audience information). Others have spent tens of thousands of dollars from specialists to get personas built. These expensive ones are often very slick, visually stunning, but a little impractical. While there is a lot of good stuff in these large personas, the mental strain to use them—and to tell what is most important—is too much. So we developed a convenient method that uses our inherent human neurological strengths to make it memorable.

We tell a story.

Maybe our stories aren’t on par with Shakespeare, but we are not doing this to scratch a creative itch. We are doing this because as humans we remember stories. We also remember songs, but that seemed like a little too much. So we’ve chosen to always tell a story about our persona.

There is no new information in the story. All the data we use for the story is already covered in the demographic and psychographic sections. But when we craft it into a couple of clear, easy-to-read paragraphs to describe the character succinctly, suddenly she is easier to understand and easier to remember. Because of that memorable image, it is easier to keep clearly in mind, and thus easier to create campaigns just for her.

Critically, when we tell a story we have more of the facts in easily accessible memory. Without personas, marketers will create campaigns crafted for one or two of the most obvious customer characteristics, and they generally fall pretty flat. They’re not much better than target audience descriptions. But a good story to anchor our memory allows us to retain a fuller picture of the individual. In turn, our campaigns therefore have more depth, fullness, and richness.They are, simply, more effective campaigns.

Perhaps an illustration would be useful here. Below is a story from a buyer persona that 97th Floor made for a fitness company with unique offering for choosing your goal weight:

Sharon just had her 45th birthday and it wasn’t the happiest day. She felt like everyone there was staring at her thinking of how much weight she’d gained since her second baby was born ten years ago.

She tried to diet and exercise, but her goal seemed so distant. Plus, was it even realistic for her to lose 50 pounds when she barely had time to pee alone before one of her hungry kids found her? She wanted more direction, maybe from a personal trainer or dietician, about what her goal weight should be. But they were so expensive.

She’d tried doing her own research about her BMI and ideal weight. But those gave her wide ranges or goal weights that seemed impossible.

Do you see how this little clip from Sharon’s life makes her a tangible woman? We feel her discomfort at the party. We understand why she is the perfect customer for this fitness company. We even get excited to find marketing strategies that will help Sharon find our client’s company and feel empowered on her next birthday.

 

How to use a buyer persona

Personas that hang around in a company’s back pocket unused aren’t doing anyone any good. A successful buyer persona is one that gets frequently referenced and utilized. The team has read it, talked about it, and knows it. They know that fictionalized individual as well as they know each other. She feels real to them.

Not only should these personas feel real to your team. You should lean on them during planning and writing content. For instance, as you're sitting down to plan out Q2’s content, turn to your personas. Mention, “Taylor (your persona) has young children. During Q2 those children will start summer break. How might that affect the kind of content she wants to access during that time? How might it affect how much time she has to engage?” Use the persona’s name. There’s power in shared vocabulary. Of course “Taylor” won't mean much to those outside this team, but your marketing team should be using your persona’s names. Use the personas to tap into the daily life of your content consumers, and they will feel a more realistic connection to your company.

All of this work might seem like the buyer persona is creating extra work: compressing data into a single point, and then it has to be expanded again when doing the actual marketing. The magic of the buyer persona is that it enables, and even encourages, the marketer to work at an individual level but to have that function at a broad scope. The compress-decompress that the buyer persona facilitates will hone the edge of the campaign. In practice, if it’s done right, it can feel like a superpower.

 

Buyer personas in action

We create personas for clients as a service, or we upgrade existing ones, but personas are only the launching pad into the deep pool of consumer-facing work. Here are a few examples of great client work powered by a marketing team that understands its audience using the processes we describe above.

 

The rage cage

eFileCabinet came to us with a goal of increasing their brand visibility. In a fairly stagnant industry, their cutting-edge technology had a hard time gaining the excitement it deserved. Our team came together to define who eFileCabinet’s customers were. Like most businesses, they required multiple personas, but one particularly useful buyer persona portrayed an accountant who was frustrated with endless paper filing and tedious office chores.

Sure, this persona is an accountant, but he was far from boring.

We looked closely at what human emotions and pain points he faced, as well as ways he might enjoy letting off steam. The answer: taking a hammer to the often-frustrating office equipment he sits in front of every day. Enter: the Rage Cage.

 

AdAge Sequence

 

So they could live the Office Space dream, our team crafted an experience for an accounting conference that would give them what they really wanted — the chance to smash old office equipment. Then we connected with these individuals to introduce them to the benefits of eFileCabinet’s problem-solving, headache-reducing software. This became an award-winning campaign that brought eFileCabinet the highest influx of MQLs in a single month and 100+ closed deals. None of this would have been possible without concrete, memorable, human buyer personas.

 

Diving into the data lake

One 97th Floor client, a data service company called Qubole, was facing a long sales cycle that they were eager to tighten. We knew that buyer personas would undoubtedly help Qubole target the most promising potential customers. So we took a closer look at Qubole’s ideal buyers and got to work.

We created a persona who was a data scientist at a growing tech business that needed to scale quickly. We got to know his pain points with bringing on a data company—including security and IT complications. Knowing this information we created a hyper-focused content strategy that was built with him in mind.

With the help of this persona sitting in the driver’s seat of our newly targeted content strategy, Qubole’s traffic and conversions skyrocketed. In fact, 97th Floor's strategy led to a 600% increase in organic traffic and a 300% increase in qualified organic leads. In addition to chopping their buyer’s cycle from 240 days to only 90 days.

 

Slam dunk audience targeting

As with most NBA teams, the Utah Jazz found themselves struggling to sell their summer season ticket. They came to us with a desire to increase their summer ticket sales and maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to do something never done before: sell out the entire lower bowl for the summer season. As always, we began with the audience and personas.

Because we are from Utah, we knew what a typical Utah Jazz fan looks like, and so we had a good understanding of the audience to begin with. The final version of our persona consisted partially of what we knew from the standard Jazz fan and was merged with the data we had collected about folks who buy low-cost items (like summer season tickets) via Facebook Ads. Once we had our more specific persona, building the campaigns in Facebook Ads came very naturally.

First, we fanned out our ads’ reach to a wide audience of Jazz fans on Facebook. Then, we conducted tests to see which ads were the most effective at increasing sales (this information even informed our personas to make them better for the next round). We found that segmentation, even to a non-Utah Jazz audience, and sales-focused ad copy brought in a positive ROAS, a great achievement for the low budget of their summer season marketing. Our knowledge of the buyer personas of these summer customers gave the Utah Jazz an increase in ticket sales by over 300% MoM.

As these examples show, personas are not reserved for folks in content marketing roles. Entire teams from SEOs to paid media specialists to well, everyone, should be well versed in your buyer personas because a good persona will have insights that influence every decision from every member of a marketing team.

Jeff Windsor

Jeff Windsor is a SaaS industry pioneer, former professor of literature, and culinary arts school graduate. He did his master’s work at BYU, and his Ph.D. work at Ohio State. At 97th Floor, Jeff is Vice President of Content Marketing where he leads content strategy, customer experience, and content ROI.

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