Know your customers: the magic of buyer personas

  1. Crash test dummies.
    Ray Newman

    Ray Newman UKBF Regular

    147 31
    3 |

    Do you really know your ideal customer? Do you know where they get recommendations, what worries them and why they might buy from your competitor rather than from you? If not, it might be time to make like Victor Frankenstein and create some people.

    Buyer personas are essentially imaginary individuals – avatars or proxies for whole groups of potential clients, often with names and faces.

    When you’re deciding at whom to market your product or service, paralysis of choice can kick in – if you focus on Group A, won’t you miss out on the custom of Group C?

    No, surely best to keep it neutral. 

    Well, except that synonyms for neutral are ‘undecided’, ‘colourless’ and – oh dear – ‘beige’.

    If you attempt to be all things to all people and don’t make at least some attempt to narrow your target, you’ll probably miss out on the business from groups A through to Z because you won’t stand out against the competition.

    No things to no people.

    What buyer personas do is force you to direct your energy towards one, two or perhaps three specific, imaginary, perfect customers – to tailor your message and invest in the marketing activity that will generate the greatest return on investment.

    The origins of the buyer persona

    The generally acknowledged inventor of the concept of buyer personas, or ‘user personas’ as they were originally known, is Alan Cooper, a veteran software engineer. 

    He told the story of his 1983 breakthrough himself in a blog post for his company, Cooper Professional Education back in 2008:

    “I was writing a critical-path project management programme that I called ‘Plan*It.’ Early in the project, I interviewed about seven or eight colleagues and acquaintances who were likely candidates to use a project management programme. In particular, I spoke at length with a woman named Kathy who worked at Carlick Advertising. 

    “Kathy’s job was called ‘traffic’ and it was her responsibility to assure that projects were staffed and staffers fully utilised. It seemed a classic project management task. Kathy was the basis for my first, primitive, persona.”

    Cooper undertook imaginary dialogues with ‘Kathy’, who acted as a stand-in for all the other project managers who might use the software he was engaged in designing:

    “I found that this play-acting technique was remarkably effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to clearly see what was necessary and unnecessary and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently.”

    Essentially, the power of personas is this: it’s easier to answer the question “What does Kathy want?” than “What do my customers want?”

    Later, in the mid-1990s, working as a consultant, Cooper created three software user personas called Chuck, Cynthia and Rob. 

    They didn’t represent demographic segments based on gender, race, age or class but, rather, groups whose commonality was the goal they were trying to achieve and the obstacles they faced getting there.

    Cooper eventually set his idea out in a book called The Inmates are Running the Asylum, published in 1998, and before long, personas had gone viral in big business marketing circles.

    But what use are they if you’re running a sandwich shop in South Shields or a car hire firm in Carshalton?

    Practical applications of personas

    One of the most common topics of conversation on UK Business Forums is how best to spend a limited marketing budget – personas are great for helping with this kind of decision.

    Even when it comes to something as specific as deciding where to place social media ads, or where to spend time and energy generating organic engagement, personas can help you tighten your focus. 

    If your ideal client is Judith, a 60-something woman with an eye for a bargain, you might want to concentrate your ad-spend on Facebook, whereas to reach Gideon, a 21-year-old recent graduate who wears designer clothes, you’d be better off concentrating on Instagram.

    It can also help with pricing and presentation. 

    Is Gideon budget-conscious or does he prioritise status symbol quality? If the latter, does the way you present and market your product suggest quality? If it’s too cheap, or looks cheap, you might actually put people off.

    Another term you’ll hear in connection with buyer personas is ‘pain points’ – what problem does your ideal client have that your product or service solves?

    In an ideal world, you’d work these pain points out through market research but, in practice, it’s possible to come up with sensible working assumptions based on experience and common sense.

    Gideon works as a consultant and likes to keep trim but doesn’t have any time to cook healthy food on weekdays – how can your catering business save him from rich restaurant meals or junk food?

    Judith’s late husband used to do all the motorway driving and she’s not confident about her upcoming four-hour drive from London to Leeds – how will renting a car from you help with that?

    In working out how to address these anxieties you might find the killer hook your business needs.

  2. Millerd

    Millerd UKBF Newcomer

    40 9
    Maybe we've lost the art but I've just read a great book regarding how to do this ... "Talking to Humans" by Giff Constable
    Posted: Aug 16, 2019 By: Millerd Member since: Feb 24, 2019
  3. Jacky Nikson

    Jacky Nikson UKBF Newcomer

    14 0
    Nice post. I think you are right! Thank you!
    Posted: Aug 29, 2019 By: Jacky Nikson Member since: May 28, 2019
  4. bodie007

    bodie007 UKBF Newcomer

    31 5
    Great article and thanks for the history showing where the concept came from.
    Posted: Mar 1, 2020 By: bodie007 Member since: Jul 4, 2008