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How To Build a Better Audience Persona (Choose a Detailed or Quick Method)

Updated October 12, 2022

Good marketers know how to sell a brand. But to be a great marketer, you must know the people you’re trying to sell it to.

Creating (and documenting) clear, robust marketing personas is an effective and time-tested approach to reaching that goal.

Ardath Albee defines a persona as a composite sketch of a target market based on validated commonalities – not assumptions – that informs content strategy to drive productive buyer engagement (i.e., revenue).

But remember: The digital landscape evolves. Ongoing changes affect your audience’s needs and priorities, as well as their content consumption habits and engagement preferences.

That makes it important for content marketers to base their content decisions on clear, accurate, and regularly updated personas.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Personas are filled with critical audience insights. They are developed through detailed customer research, direct conversations, and thoughtful analysis of relevant trends and opportunities. They reflect your customers’ genuine interests and intentions, which fuel resonant, relatable brand stories.
  • They help creative teams convey the voice of the customer. Without personas, you can only assume what content your audience wants. That can lead to content on topics your brand knows best (your products and company) but little focus on what the audience wants to know.
  • They help unify strategic approaches, priorities, and creative processes. By sharing with other teams that use content (like sales, PR, and product management), your personas function as a single source of audience truth. That makes it easier for each team leader to set topic priorities and align messaging across multiple customer touchpoints.
  • They are essential for audience segmentation and content personalization. By aggregating your persona insights with data gathered from your content analytics, you get a fuller picture of your audience. That enables you to precisely target them and customize your content for deeper resonance.
A persona helps unify a brand’s strategic approaches, priorities, and creative processes, says @joderama via @CMIContent. Share on X

With these benefits (and others) in mind, I’ve collected expert advice to help you prepare, build, and apply personas efficiently while making them as effective as possible.

Collect accurate customer data

Before creating a persona, you need to access and collect data on your audience’s needs, interests, and preferences. You also need to identify where they are in the buyer’s journey and their role in the buying decision.

You’ll find some of that information by analyzing your performance data. You can try other approaches, too. Some of these can surface deeper contextual and emotional information unavailable from any database.

Consult with your sales team

When gathering audience insights, Ardath says the first steps involve your salespeople and CRM data.

“These team members are on the front lines of customer interactions, so chances are they have plenty of information they can share,” she says. Consulting with sales also helps you align the personas with the people with whom they most want to connect.

Interview your support staff

As Kane Jamison points out, your customer support team also knows a great deal about why buyers (and prospects) contact your company.

A quick conversation with this team can give you a different view of the real-life struggles encountered by prospects and customers and spark new ideas for content to address them.

Interview customers

Nothing beats the ability to get information directly from customers. Through one-on-one interviews, consumers can provide more detail on their content needs and preferences than anonymized data or standardized forms can’t provide.

Do external research

While it’s important to consult your internal resources and directly engage with customers, the data gathered through these methods can often be subjective, situational, or colored by interview bias.

To enhance and validate your initial findings, it helps to do external research into publicly available information sources. LinkedIn profiles, industry blogs, and social media profiles of industry influencers aren’t likely to be influenced by your business agenda.

Leverage progressive profiling

This technique uses automation tools, smart lead forms, and directed questioning to gather audience insights that grow more detailed over time.

That information can be used to confirm the accuracy of your initial characterization and deepen your understanding of your persona’s content needs.

Go deeper than demographics

Generating demographic and behavioral insights through these methods provides a baseline understanding of your target customer and how they make decisions. Yet, these data points fall short of revealing emotions that also factor into those decisions.

To dig deeper into those critical purchase drivers, Paul Longhenry suggests augmenting your acquired insights with psychological personality profiling.

Paul describes a profiling method used in academia called the OCEAN model (originally developed by psychologists Robert McCrae and Paul Costa). By polling a focus group and scoring their responses, you can paint a more nuanced picture of where your audience fits within the five key personality traits outlined by the psychologists:

  • Openness– how open one is to new experiences versus a preference for familiarity
  • Conscientiousness – how controlled or measured someone is in contrast to their spontaneity
  • Extraversion – how much one enjoys the company of others as opposed to alone time
  • Agreeableness – how much one values cooperation and harmony versus independence
  • Neuroticism – how anxious or emotional one is as opposed to being stable

You can use the resulting scores to analyze, understand, and even predict how your personas will respond to the content you create to target them.

“The further a score is from the population median, the more distinguishing that factor is – and the more you should pay attention to it when creating (or personalizing) content for that target persona,” Paul says.

In Paul’s discussion, he shared a rose chart adapted from the work of McCrae and Costa that expresses the personality of a focus group. The size of each wedge (or “petal”) visualizes the relative importance of each of the five factors (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) to the group’s personality profile. This group in this chart is more open and extroverted than the average – an insight that can inform the content you create to target that persona.

Gauge sentiment from relevant social conversations

Social listening tools are improving at assessing consumers’ emotional states to contextualize their social chatter. John Hall notes how modern text analysis software can give an overview of the language used in those social conversations and the likely sentiment behind those words.

Building your customer personas

Persona development is a customized process because it’s meant to help your team address its unique marketing challenges and opportunities. However, the following framework can help you get started on the right track:

Step 1: Envision your ideal customer

Pick the person your content efforts are likely to help most. Give a name to that persona and detail their characteristics most critical to your business. Answer these questions to create a strong foundation for the persona:

  • Who is this person? What demographic and psychographic characteristics describe them?
  • What’s their job title and function?
  • What kind of company/industry does she work in?
  • How long have they been serving in this capacity within the organization?
  • What experience/expertise do they bring to this role?
  • How does their job relate to the job of others in their department and other departments in her organization?

Step 2: Consider the objectives, responsibilities, and obstacles this person might regularly encounter in their role

For example:

  • What goals do they need to accomplish in their job?
  • What challenges frustrate them most about their job?
  • What gaps might they look to fill? What problems would they need to solve to alleviate some frustration?
  • What might keep them from addressing those gaps and problems?

Step 3: Characterize their role in relation to your business’ buying cycle

Not all your customer targets will be sole decision-makers – especially if you’re marketing a B2B brand or big-ticket family purchases like homes and cars.

Use these questions to reveal important clues about where your persona fits in the purchase process and whom else they may need to consult before buying:

  • How influential are they in the decision-making process? Where might pushback come from?
  • Who else might influence their decisions (internal and external)?
  • Do they need others to sign off on decisions?
  • How far along are they in the buyer’s journey?
  • What questions are they likely to ask to satisfy their criteria for making a purchase?
  • What obstacles might stand in their way as they look to satisfy those criteria?
  • What words are they likely to use to search for the answers they need to push forward?

Step 4: Detail their personal communication preferences

Your persona should include functional insights related to their job. It should contain details related to their engagement behaviors and content preferences, including topics, content platforms, formats, and social channels. For example:

  • How do they typically access content?
    • Do they gravitate toward certain formats?
    • Do they prefer accessing content online, via a mobile device, or on other channels/platforms?
    • Do they get most of their information during work hours or at home?
  • How much information might they want to receive, and how often?
    • How often are they exposed to relevant content/information as they go about a typical day?
    • How often do they log on to social networks? Which ones?
    • Have they shown a preference for weekly vs. daily newsletters or updates?
  • Who/what influences their content consumption?
    • Whose advice do they trust or seek most when engaging with content (e.g., industry analysts, vendors, thought leaders, friends, colleagues)?
    • Do internal or external events trigger variations in their content consumption pattern?

Answers to questions like these can help you identify potential content ideas most likely to catch the persona’s attention or move them closer to making a purchase.

Take a shortcut

While the process outlined above is thorough, it’s time-consuming and requires a lot of data. Aaron Agius offers a hack to build multiple personas more quickly. It boils the process down to 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?

The answers keep you focused on identifying the pain points of a typical customer – a critical insight for content planning. However, Aaron points out that this approach works best when your target consumer considers addressing those pain points a top priority.

An audience-first alternative

Robert Rose shares a content-centric persona development process. It opens a broader set of opportunities for content marketing stories and can cover the entirety of the audience’s journey.

Based on the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) theory, Robert’s approach prioritizes one goal above all else: Building a scalable, addressable, trusted audience. It has five steps:

1. Define your target

Research, define, and quantify your total addressable audience – the number of people who may be interested in receiving your content, not just those who might ultimately make a purchase.

2. Discover the “so I can”

In your audience research and interviews, listen for statements illuminating your audience’s functional tasks and goals and the social and emotional contexts surrounding them.

Here’s an example: When I’m working, I don’t need more marketing software; I need tools so I can have peace of mind and spend more time on my business.

3. Decide on a niche focus

Pull the levers for the size of those “jobs” rather than the size of the audience to determine a relevant focus for your content.

Joe Pulizzi refers to this as the sweet spot – an area where your brand’s skills and expertise intersect with a passion point of your audience. For example, can you derive more marketing value from solving small, niche jobs for a huge audience or huge jobs for a smaller, niche audience?

4. Differentiate your content approach

Next, prioritize the jobs to be done by those you can approach in a uniquely valuable way. If you don’t have a new perspective or distinct expertise on solving a particular job, the content won’t stand out enough to attract your target audience.

5. Document your insights as a map of success

Create success statements. These summaries identify how your brand can provide value. Map the summary of each step the audience takes to solve that job.

Following Robert’s recommended process will give you all the information you need for a documented audience persona profile. It characterizes the job to be done, why the persona wants it to be done, and what success looks like when it’s accomplished.

For example, a persona for a small business law practice might have this success statement: “Minimize the time I spend working in Excel instead of reading up on new legal trends.”

Broken into informative elements, the structure for the success statement looks like this: Minimize (value action) the time I spend (metric) working in Excel (job action) instead of reading up on new legal trends (contextual/social clarification).

Value Action | Metric | Job Action | Contextual/Social Clarification

Robert suggests rolling up the success statements into a broader success statement representing that persona’s overall success. Separate the profile attributes into three categories. Here’s how it reads for Ellen – the ambitious entrepe-lawyer:

  • When I … work all day in the practice and have to work at night to attend networking events to get new business …
  • I want to … find ways to hack or shortcut the tasks. Automate things. Discover ways to get around things like marketing, accounting, and sales.
  • So I can … create the most forward-leading firm, practice law instead of managing Excel, and enjoy my real job instead of marketing.

Then create the larger success statement: “This is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve got to get out of the business of chasing clients for money, marketing, and sales, so I can create the law firm of the future. I’ve got to start doing my real job more than 20% per day.”

Activate your personas across the enterprise

You may take these additional steps to ensure your brand benefits from the same deep understanding of your personas.

Share them with other departments

While developing personas is primarily a marketing exercise, make sure to document and share this information with other teams that create or use content.

Remember, in the age of social media, anyone in your organization could be engaging with potential prospects and customers, so it’s useful for everyone in your organization to work from the same information.

It’s also helpful to share your personas with your sales team and any new hires in your company. This can help them acquaint themselves with your customers and prospects more deeply.

TIP: Create two versions of the same persona – a detailed version for content creators and marketers and a shorter version for the rest of the organization.

Update them regularly

Once you build the core personas, you’ll likely refer to them often for years to come. Problems arise, though, when you rely on the information long after it’s lost relevance.

Revisit your personas regularly to update them. Then, they will stay aligned with your current content marketing strategy and reflect on any new opportunities or emerging challenges.

Your content can’t help an audience you don’t understand

Content marketing works best when you understand – and write specifically for – your audience.

Meticulously crafted buyer personas can help you identify their interests and motivations, communicate with them on their terms, and keep them top of mind throughout every step of your content marketing process.

Do you have additional tips for developing and working with buyer personas? We would love for you to share them in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute