By Aaron Agius published July 10, 2017

Hacking Your Buyer Personas: The Only 3 Questions You Need to Ask

buyer-persona-hacksThere’s something to be said for thorough, extensively researched buyer personas.

When you’ve taken the time to answer 150 questions about your target customers, there’s no way the content written for them and the way you market to them won’t resonate.

The data backs this up. Katie Sweet, writing for IBM’s THINK Marketing blog, shares some insight that proves how important understanding your customers is to your marketing campaign’s success, including this statistic: 63% of consumers say they would think more positively about a brand if it gave them content that was more valuable, interesting, or relevant.

63% of consumers would think more positively about a brand if it gave them valuable #content via @RaptMedia. Click To Tweet

Clearly, customer insight is key. If you have the time for extensive buyer personas, that’s great.
But what if it doesn’t take answering 150 questions to achieve this necessary level of understanding?

There is a better way.

These questions won’t give you the same thorough understanding you’d get by meticulously filling out a customer persona template, but as you’ll see, they will help you dive into the mindset of your target audience members.

The three questions are:

  • What is the first thing my customer thinks about in the morning?
  • What is the last thing my customer thinks about at night?
  • Why?

These might sound overly simplistic, but stick with me. There’s a method to this madness.

Buyer persona hack: What’s first thing customers think in morning, at night, & why, says @IamAaronAgius. Click To Tweet

What is the first thing my customer thinks about in the morning?

Think about the way you wake up in the morning. What do you think about first?

If you’re like most people, chances are you think about what’s on your schedule for the day. Maybe you’re feeling frustrated about going to a job you hate. Maybe you’re stressed about a big presentation. Or maybe you’re excited about spending time with your family or working on a project you love.

What is the last thing my customer thinks about at night?

Now, think about how you typically feel at the end of the day.

Rather than thinking about the micro-events of your upcoming days, night-time thoughts tend to occur on a macro level. You aren’t thinking about the appointments in your planner – you’re reflecting on whether you’re happy with your life or whether you should make changes to everything from your social life to your career and more.

Why?

The “why” question is a bit nebulous; every person has different reasons for making the choices or having the feelings they do. But digging into this question is what makes this exercise so powerful.

Let’s go through an example so you can see what I mean:

Meet Mark

Mark is a member of the target audience for my marketing agency – he’s the marketing manager of an enterprise brand.

What is the first thing Mark thinks about in the morning?

When Mark rolls out of bed, he’s worried.

He has a big meeting coming up with his boss – the vice president of marketing – who is stressed about how the department’s performance looks to other members of the C-suite. There has been talk of spending freezes, and both Mark and his vice president are anxious to justify their work and the choices they’ve made.

What is the last thing Mark thinks about at night?

At the end of the day, Mark is somewhat relieved. His meeting went well, but he can’t shake the nagging feeling that, although he was able to put out one fire, another one will be right around the corner.

He’s frustrated. He took this job because of the great pay, but the stress of it is affecting his time with his family and friends. He wonders if he really can make it work, or if he should start looking elsewhere for new opportunities.

Why?

Mark was worried in the morning because he wasn’t confident in the ability of the agencies he’s hired to drive results – and he’s afraid those decisions will reflect poorly on him.

He wants to do a good job, and he wants his performance to reflect well enough to help him move up the ladder at his company. But at the same time, he’s frustrated because his work is getting in the way of other things in his life he deems important.

Marketing to Mark

I didn’t answer hundreds of questions about whether or not Mark has a dog at home, what his hobbies are, or whether he’s carrying student loan debt.

But I have enough insight to understand what matters to Mark and his current frustrations to build content tailored to his needs and pain points.

Knowing what I know about Mark, I could write company blog posts on titles such as:

  • Selling the C-Suite: Making the Business Case for External Marketing Agencies
  • The 5 Monthly Reports Your Marketing Agency Should Be Providing You
  • 10 Tips for Separating Successful Marketing Agencies from Scam Artists
  • What It Means to Be a Fully Transparent Marketing Agency (And Why You Should Choose One for Your Next Project)
  • Handling Agency Conflict: What to Do When Results Fall Short

Each of these proposed titles supports a concern or pain point I identified in Mark’s life, using the answers to the three questions. (These are hypothetical and somewhat off the cuff; I would refine them based on competitive research data on content already published.)

The topics may not all be winners, but taken together they give the clear impression that I understand Mark’s needs and how they could be met.

When you don’t know your Mark

In the example, I base my assumptions about Mark on past experiences I’ve had with my customers. If you aren’t your target audience, you’ll need to do a bit more digging to find how they would answer the questions.

Sure, you could guess – and you might get close. But why not take the time to look through sites like Quora, Yahoo Answers, public Facebook Groups in your industry, or industry-specific forums to find the questions people are asking and the language they’re using?

Use sites like @quora or @yahoo to find the questions people are asking, says @IAmAaronAgius. Click To Tweet

For example, if I were researching Mark, I might start a query for “routines” on Inbound.org:

search-results-routines

By opening each thread, I could get answers about how marketers structure their days.

Pairing these results with other hot topics (found on Inbound.org under “Top Content”) would give me a better idea of what marketers’ top concerns are and what they’re struggling with:

hot-topics-forums

From here, I can start to answer my three questions:

  • What is the first thing my customer thinks about in the morning?
  • What is the last thing my customer thinks about at night?
  • Why?

I won’t be as confident in the answers as I would if I had real-world experience working with this audience, but the process gives me a starting point to create content without wasting time answering dozens of demographic questions.

Conclusion

Will your content and messaging benefit from more detailed buyer personas rather than ones derived from the three questions? Of course. More information is almost always better when it comes to marketing.

But there are trade-offs to consider. Time spent researching endless details and creating fully fleshed out customer avatars is time you aren’t creating content or actively marketing. And that time has a cost in terms of missed opportunities resulting from your delays.

In my opinion, you need to find a balance. Use the three questions to kick off your content planning and to inform your early marketing messages. As you gather content performance data, use it to further develop your buyer persona.

For example, if multiple articles around a single topic perform poorly, you may need to explore other facets of your audience – add and answer more questions about your buyer. But keep moving forward. Don’t wait to have a perfect understanding of your audience to start creating the content they need to see.

Would you use these three questions in lieu of a full buyer persona? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a note in the comments.

Simplify your content marketing education by subscribing to CMI’s daily newsletter featuring a single topic article.

Cover image by Nick Karvounis via Unsplash

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Author: Aaron Agius

Aaron Agius is an experienced search, content and social marketer. He has worked with some of the world’s largest and most recognized brands to build their online presence. See more from Aaron at Louder Online.

Other posts by Aaron Agius

Join Over 200,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples FREE!

  • Lisa L. Flowers

    Nicely done. And I’m glad I kept reading for those insightful nuggets of information. (Shared on my LI, Twitter, and company FB page. :-))

    • Aaron Agius

      Hi Lisa, Thanks for reading. And thanks for the shares!

  • http://www.itforce.in/ itforce

    Good Post. really i like this post interesting facts explained here nice information i got here thank you so much

    • Aaron Agius

      Thanks for reading! Glad you found the article helpful.

      • http://www.itforce.in/ itforce

        share your future post also

  • Kirsten Knipp

    Hey Aaron –
    I respectfully disagree with your approach – in fact, I think it runs the risk of making so many improper assumptions that the personas are deemed useless > and thus continues to throw shade at the entire practice of personas. While I do concur that in some cases less is more and that rarely will a brand have perfect data, your three questions are not enough.
    Imagine a B2C brand selling vacuum cleaner or high-end flooring. Not only do they target many personas, but the reality is that their persona – perhaps a busy parent or a DIY enthusiast – is not thinking thoughts about their category when they wake up or go to sleep. They are indeed thinking some of the broader thoughts you’ve suggested … which have nothing to do with these products. To do the research appropriately, marketers need to understand the triggers for need for a specific category, their personas mindset (which some of your questions get at), their priorities, values, how they seek information and learn about products and services and more. In the case of a B2B persona – if your product or service addresses their top problem at work, then a simplified approach like you’ve suggested may work – but that seems to be a limited scenario.
    The best personas are not hallucinated – they are grounded in segmentation data, that has been enriched with a variety of other data sources both from observation as well as dialogue with target customers. I can only recommend marketers not shortchange the exercise – because inaccurate assumptions can lead to marketing that’s totally ineffective. Cheers and keep sharing! Kirsten

    • Aaron Agius

      Thanks Kirsten – appreciate the perspective. I agree, to some extent. In the conclusion, I mentioned that marketing always benefits from more information and more detailed buyer personas. It’s probably also worth noting that this process would work better for B2B customers than B2C, as B2B generally has fewer options for customisations based on preferences.

      That said, where I see plenty of people stumbling with buyer personas is assuming they have to be perfect before they can begin any kind of marketing. And there, the perfect really is the enemy of the good – especially when you consider that the best way to get most of that personalisation and segmentation data is often through actively marketing and gathering insight.

      Ultimately, I’d rather be moving forward with the wrong messaging and getting the feedback I need to iterate it than standing still because I’m afraid my buyer persona isn’t fleshed out enough to do anything.

      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful feedback.

      • Kirsten Knipp

        We can definitely agree on ‘perfect as the enemy of good’:) Thanks for your PoV!

  • George Stenitzer

    Hi Aaron, it’s dangerous to take the shortcut you describe. Real buyer personas give marketers key insights on where buyers seek information, what are their questions, what obstacles they encounter, and how they make decisions. The only way to get real buyer persona insights is one-on-one interviews. Taking shortcuts can tank your marketing.

    • Aaron Agius

      Hi George – thanks for your thoughts. As I mentioned in my reply to Kirsten, I absolutely agree that more information is better than less. Where I see the problem is when companies become paralyzed trying to craft the perfect buyer personas and put off any marketing. Especially when it is through marketing, gathering insight and A/B testing that we learn more about our buyers. But of course, different methods work for different companies. It’s all about finding the right approach for your business and your buyers.

      • George Stenitzer

        Aaron, we agree that perfectionism is the enemy. An 80% or 90% accurate buyer persona is better than none. But below 80% it’s hardly a worthwhile exercise.

  • shailv

    Hi Aaron,

    Being founder of an inbound marketing agency buyer persona is foundation of marketing strategy & I believe your post gives simplified, minimal formula to prepare buyer persona at macro level. As you already mentioned in your post title it as a hack – we should not expect it to meet all parameters of buyer persona creation approach.

    So, for me having this hack is another tool in my strategy kit for faster execution.

  • http://www.propelgrowth.com Candyce Edelen

    Hi Aaron, I definitely agree that “perfect is the enemy of done,” and that there is no perfect buyer persona. But I’d challenge a couple of your assumptions.

    1. I don’t think a thorough buyer persona needs to answer 150 questions. But it does need to go deeper than the 3 you’re suggesting.
    2. It’s an interesting idea to use networks like Quora to do research, but I don’t think you can get thoroughly researched personas using only that source.
    3. Your questions don’t consider other issues that impact Mark’s decision process (like who selected the agency – him or his boss?). It’s critical to know what kinds of obstacles and objections buyers face, especially in the B2B space.

    I agree with George’s comment below. I find that we can get really useful persona information by interviewing 4-5 people in the target audience. They don’t have to be current customers (recently lost deals are even better), and they don’t need to be long interviews (30-45 min is ideal), but they do have to be carefully planned conversations. Then back that up with some online research like what you’re recommending. But it doesn’t have to take weeks and weeks to complete.

    • https://mentorkenya.wordpress.com amailuk

      Candyce, I think the 150 questions was a way of saying the questions can be endless in an effort to get the perfect outcome.

      As for Quora, you definitely cant get the best of the best outcome from it. It gives you a head start, better than wringing your hands seeking elusive interviews especially if you are just starting out.

      The articles sets out to inform us that you can get by with three questions. Buyer Personas are a challenge for most. This was meant to get them started, not the encyclopedia.

      If one can find the persons to interview, then cool, else no one should fail for lac of interviewees.

      • http://www.propelgrowth.com Candyce Edelen

        As I read your response and the other comments on the article, it seems that people are operating from two very different assumptions, and the assumption deeply colors the approach they take to personas :

        1. The first, which is espoused by the article, is that getting persona interviews is too difficult, too time consuming, and/or leads to paralyzing indecision.

        2. The second is that it’s impossible to do good marketing without thorough buyer personas. I come from that point of view.

        Sloppy personas lead to sloppy marketing content. Might be content that is beautifully produced, but if it doesn’t start from an understanding of the buyer, then how can it possibly communicate with that buyer needs to understand?

        For example, I’m in the active pursuit of finding a new bookkeeping service. But I do not wake up worrying about my bookkeeping and I do not go to sleep worrying about my bookkeeping. That does not mean I don’t need help, it just means that it’s not top of mind all the time. Most of the time, I wake up and notice how beautiful the sun is shining on the houses across the street. So if a bookkeeping service used your approach, it would end up writing about sunrises and sunsets instead of topics about tax minimization, and other issues that are important to me related to bookkeeping. You can bet that I am not going to hire a bookkeeping service that’s blogging about sunrises. Even if I wake up worrying about a client, that’s still not relevant to bookkeeping.

        If you shortchange the process of doing buyer research, I guarantee you will spend more money building irrelevant content. It is far more expensive to get it wrong then to get it right.

        • https://mentorkenya.wordpress.com amailuk

          Agreed, you make sense. This is more like the chicken and egg situation.

          Thorough profiles make for better outcomes. Problem is many are put and never get anything done. How best can they be helped?

          Think the article was offering a compromise not necessarily the best among good. That said, I agree totally with you “Sloppy personas lead to sloppy marketing content.”

  • http://rebillem.com Becky DeForest

    I was thinking that this framework only works when the customer problem you solve is the highest priority problem in their life.

    But then I thought that, if I were getting started with a new product and didn’t have customers, I should start thinking about the people that have identified the problem that I can solve for them as the highest priority in their life.

    This hack has the most benefit for a brand new product or service, where you can’t interview customers and you don’t have any data to rely on.

    • https://mentorkenya.wordpress.com amailuk

      I like your thinking!

  • http://www.realfreshcontent.com Bobby Burns

    Hey Aaron,
    I really like your approach. But I am more amazed and impressed by the volume of so many intense comments on your thesis and on personas in general. As a marketer, I have to deal with personas, but I also deal with the clients who either don’t appreciate or understand their own personas. So, in my experience, simpler is often better.

    And – as a side note – I suspect there can be a hint of professional conceit when it comes to touting the power of personas: too much can be built on “imaginary” prospects or customers that are simply words on paper.

    Real people are fickle, shifting, and contrary beings. Personas can be incredibly useful guides, but they are not real people. And it’s real people we must understand, attract, and engage. Not always an easy task. Obviously!