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An Alternative Approach to Developing Content Marketing Personas

Audiences are not just buyers.

Let me explain.

As we’ve outlined, one of the key elements of the approach of content marketing is that it cannot simply be a replacement for our direct marketing efforts. If we are ever to truly succeed with a content marketing strategy, we must provide for the capability to drive multiple lines of value for the business. Audiences enable this capability. Thus, the content platforms we create have one distinct goal: They must build an ever-growing, addressable, trusted audience.

Yes, some members of our audience will become customers – traversing the traditional funnel, acquiring the attribute of “lead,” then “opportunity,” then “buyer.” Others will never buy from us but may provide more long-term value than a customer. They may acquire the attribute of “engaged,” helping us organically connect with four new customers that we may have never otherwise reached with paid media. Other audiences may be “influencers,” helping us amplify our reach, thus creating a more efficient paid media effort. And, finally, some audiences may be “trusted,” and enable us to drive direct revenue from content – thus providing a marketing platform that pays for itself.

At the heart of this valuable audience is, of course, content. And if we are to build successful, trusted platforms, we must change the way we go about developing the personas that will subscribe to them.

To gain subscribers for our #content platforms, we must change how we develop personas, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

Buyer personas – limited answer for content marketing

Before we begin, let me state that I’m a huge proponent of buyer persona development. I think it is a critical part of helping product- and service-focused marketers get an understanding of how to bring their product into the marketplace. Buyer personas have been defined as:

research-based archetypal (modeled) representations of who buyers are, what they are trying to accomplish, what goals drive their behavior, how they think, how they buy, and why they make buying decisions

This is a perfect definition of the person I want to understand after they self-identify as someone who has a specific need for my product or service.

If we are focused on the classic four Ps of marketing, buyer personas are, well, perfect. Buyer personas help us understand how to position features and benefits and the way we describe our product. Buyer personas help us define the best place for distribution or access to our product. Buyer personas help differentiate pricing strategies we may need to employ. And, buyer personas help us determine the right promotional mix for our integrated plan. In the simplest terms, buyer personas put our company/product/service at the center of the story.

Instead, as we develop personas, what if we started with the customer’s need at the center of the story? In other words, what if rather than starting with an answer – and then attempting to figure out how we lead the audience to get to that answer – we started with the question. What if we started with the audience’s interests, challenges, and questions – and then figured out what our unique answer to them might be.

Jobs to be done

If you’re not familiar with the jobs-to-be-done theory, it’s an extraordinarily powerful framework to get to new, innovative product ideas.

To be clear, the jobs-to-be-done theory is neither new nor a CMI invention. The history of the approach can be linked to the late 1960s when marketing professors Chester Wasson and David McConaughy suggested customers don’t buy products – but rather a “satisfaction bundle” for solving problems.

And, my marketing hero, Harvard professor Theodore Levitt, suggested products themselves had no intrinsic value – that customers really use products for problem-solving activities. This was the birth of his now famous quote, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

Image source
Image source

But the theory really became more popular out of an idea called Outcome-Driven Innovation® in the late 1990s, and it was popularized (and the name trademarked) in Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Solution.

There’s much more, of course, to the jobs-to-be-done theory. And if you’re interested in that, there are wonderful books here and here and here.

We have found that the jobs-to-be-done theory is an extraordinarily helpful tool for getting to a much more useful audience persona profile for content marketers. It opens a wider set of opportunities for content marketing stories. It helps broaden the story to theoretically cover the entirety of the audience’s journey. And it can also be extraordinarily specific – helping the brand get to what CMI founder Joe Pulizzi might call the better “content tilt” – something our brand is the best in the world at delivering.

The jobs-to-be-done theory is helpful tool to get more useful audience persona profiles, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

We’ve used this approach in our workshops and advisory engagements, customizing it a bit for audience development. It breaks down into five steps:

  1. Define your target – Detail the total addressable audience.
  2. Discover the “so I can” – Uncover the jobs to be done.
  3. Decide on your niche – Find your sweet spot.
  4. Differentiate your content approach – Sweet spot meets the tilt.
  5. Design the map of success – Document the audience journey.

While each one of these steps could be its own post, let’s briefly take a look at each:

Step 1: Define your target audience and its size

When we define a target audience, it’s critical to go beyond the traditional segmentation of demographics such as age, geography, income levels, and job titles. We must make sure to open the question to a wide variety of interests and/or challenges because we’re not using interest in our product or service as the common foundation.

It’s critical to go beyond traditional segmentation of demographics when defining target audience. @Robert_Rose Share on X

Of course, we’re not starting with a blank slate here either. It would be overwhelming to simply say, “Let’s look at anything that our target audience might be interested in or challenged with.” We at least will likely focus on the general topic area of our business.

As we’ll see in Step 3, the more niche we can be with a targeted audience the better chance we are going to find a differentiated approach. But we also want to balance this by quantifying the target audience to ensure that it is ultimately a viable enough number to justify pursuing.

Just as every single marketer should know the size of their TAM (total addressable market), every content marketer should know how big their audience (total addressable audience) is in (or outside of) that TAM.

For example, a software company we worked with wanted to target small entrepreneurial law firms with its software and services. Its research revealed there are 50,000 U.S. law firms with more than two people. Further, 90% of those firms have more than one and less than 10 people. That TAM for its products and services was 45,000 (each business would buy the software once). But, remember, audiences aren’t just buyers. An audience size is different. The average number of partners in the firms was three. So, from an audience perspective, the total addressable audience was 135,000.

Take the time to research, define, and quantify the target audience.

Take the time to research, define, and quantify your target audience, says @Robert_Rose. Read more>> Share on X

Step 2: Discover the “so I can” – uncovering the jobs to be done

A job to be done is not just an audience “need.” For example, the statement “I need directions” doesn’t compel me to use a particular map or resource. However, the statement “I need directions to that place because I’m bringing my family and we all hate reading maps” is both social and contextual. It helps to define a very specific functional and emotional job to be done.

As we research our target audiences, listen for those social and contextual aspects. One pattern to listen for is this:

When I am ________  I need   ________ so I can  ________.

For example, in a discussion, a potential audience member might say:

When I’m working, I don’t need more marketing software, I need tools that give me freedom, so I can have peace of mind and spend more time on my business.

The “so I can” in that sentence is the big clue to the job to be done. The strategy then is not to provide more information on tools (that’s the quarter-inch drill). Rather, the focus should be on how to deliver interesting things that help entrepreneurs achieve “peace of mind and spend more time on their business” (the quarter-inch hole in the wall).

Of course, not everyone will express everything the same way. But we can look for the patterns and group them together.

Step 3: Decide on your niche – finding the sweet spot

Once we’ve assembled both the size of your audiences and started to catalog the jobs to be done, we can begin to explore and make decisions. Pull the levers of size of the job vs. size of the audience. Look at how underserved these jobs are in context with how many others in our marketplace of ideas are trying to solve them.

Think of it like this: As we work on your audience personas, we may decide it’s better to solve a small, niche job for a huge audience. Or, we may decide to solve a huge job for a niche audience.

For example, let’s say our business is in retail banking. Would we rather try and solve some specific niche part of financial education for millennials? Or, would we rather identify a new niche audience (maybe young parents who are branching into home-based businesses) and solve the entirety of financial education? Neither is the wrong answer – but give yourself that flexibility.

The decision is a great example of what Joe Pulizzi calls “the sweet spot.” As he says, it’s “where your particular field of knowledge and your skill sets intersect with a passion point of your audience.”

The sweet spot is where field of knowledge & skill sets intersect w/ audience passion point. @joepulizzi Share on X

Step 4: Differentiate – the sweet spot meeting the tilt

In the simplest sense, the sweet spot is the relevance we seek to provide an audience. You have, no doubt, seen the Venn diagram that marks “what they want to hear” and “what you want to say” as the sweet spot of relevance.


But relevance isn’t differentiated.

Once we’ve identified the underserved audiences, cataloged all the jobs we could do, and chosen our sweet spot, we must prioritize the jobs to be done by those that we should solve with our unique and distinct point of view.

In other words, if our brand doesn’t have differentiated expertise, has no particular point of view, or (by some corporate mandate) cannot develop a new, differentiated point of view on solving that job – then perhaps that job is not ours to solve.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: How Adidas Creates Moments of Relevance

Step 5: Design the map of success – documenting the audience journey

Once we have identified the ideal jobs and the ideal audience, now we can map the high-level success statements (or whatever level deemed necessary) for each step the audience takes to solve that job. Is this journey mapping? Yes, but again, it’s not a customer journey or a buyer’s journey – it’s the audience journey for the steps they take to get that job done (or not done as the case may be).

The goal is to identify as many of the kinds of value we can provide across steps of this job to be done. One structure you might consider for each success statement is:

value action | metric | job action | contextual/social clarification

Identify as many kinds of value your content can provide across the job to be done, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

For example, going back to our small business law partner audience, a success statement might be:


Once we’ve categorized these success statements, we might then roll them up into one larger success statement that exemplifies exactly the overall success of that persona.

Audience persona profile

Ultimately, after all the research, the interviews, the brainstorming, and clarifying, we can take these steps and assemble our audience persona profile. It can look similar to the buyer persona profile. It will just contain different attributes:


A great content marketing strategy places the focus on the continual growth of the audience as an asset with many, many attributes. These are people who trust us, engage with us, want to hear from us, and will – over time – exchange value with our business in many ways.

There is much more depth to explore here, and if we can help, let us know. But, hopefully, this framework can help you open up your storytelling options much broader than just solving the buying process with your content.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute