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Build a Better Buyer Persona: 5 Creative Data Sourcing Ideas

focus on buyer personaWe are all aware that buyer personas are integral to creating a focused and successful content marketing strategy. However, what people don’t often tell you about buyer persona development is that collecting the data to create them is a lot of hard work.

Surveys and interviews seem to be the go-to source for learning about your target audience’s needs, interests, and goals, but they are not the only way to accomplish this goal. Below, are some other options for sourcing the data you need to create detailed, multi-faceted personas that provide insights above and beyond what direct questioning techniques can accomplish on their own.

Google consumer surveys

Google Consumer Surveys have several advantages over other crowdsourcing survey tools when it comes to buyer persona development. To begin with, respondents answer questions in exchange for premium access to specific content. This makes it good not only for data sourcing, but also as an opportunity to get potential leads into your funnel.

GCS offers organized and clean data analysis that is easily segmented into useful categories. The Double-Click cookie tool, combined with an IP address, allows it to infer important demographic and geographic information that adds an additional level of depth to your results. Marketers can use GCS as an added component of their persona development process — namely to understand behaviors, motivations, beliefs, and habits of real people who are representative of the customers you are targeting. Augmenting your  data sourcing efforts with GCS also offers the ability to gather a larger sample size of data without increasing your workload significantly — and we all know that more data from different sources leads to more informed and statistically significant insights.

For example: King Arthur Flour sells a variety of mixes and multipurpose flours. The company set out to expand its understanding of bakers’ motivations and behaviors beyond the data they would be capable of gathering through its small test kitchen in Vermont.

King Arthur Flour used GCS to survey bakers across the country and gain insights into what motivated their flour purchases. The results surprised them: Prior to their Google Survey experiments, the company had believed customers were highly motivated by discounts, promotions, and loyalty programs. Afterwards, they learned that prospective customers were more situationally motivated — for example, when looking to try out a specific recipe or to bake for a specific event, like a birthday or holiday party, they chose whatever brand was most conveniently available to them at the time. Knowing this helped the company to better understand how to focus its content marketing efforts, but also provided deeper insights on their customers — a benefit for its sales and marketing efforts, on the whole.


Those of you who are familiar with Quora likely associate this social surveying tool with questions like, “Why do bees sting me?” or “How long do penguins live?” Yet, Quora can also provide interesting ways to gather data for a buyer persona.

The tool aims to be “your best source for knowledge” and works by allowing people to pose and answer questions on over 250,000 topics. Even if you already have clearly developed buyer personas, posing targeted questions on Quora can help you dive more deeply into your audience members’ motivators and interests, and flush out the content topics they are most likely to engage with.

Pretend for a moment that you run a small business that matches tutors with struggling students. You likely already know a lot about who your customers are, but learning additional details about their behaviors can give you a more complete picture of their needs.

Questions to ask on Quora in this scenario might include:

  • If you have hired a tutor for your child, how did you find him or her?
  • What are the qualities that are most important to you when selecting a tutor?
  • What makes you trust a tutor to work with your child?

It’s easy to see how Quora can provide insights on the considerations involved for parents who are looking to hire a tutor for their child — information that would allow your tutoring business to go beyond demographic information and home in on the key decision-making factors that their customers are concerned with.

For example: Stephanie Kapera runs an online content production website out of Raleigh, N.C. She is always looking to creatively source information so she can develop relevant personas of her customers. Stephanie used Quora to research the ways that staffing professionals at large nonprofit organizations find and interact with freelance writers. She asked a series of questions aimed at eliciting the information she was looking for (e.g., “If you use freelance writers who aren’t experts in your industry, what makes you trust them to write well about your specific topic areas?“), and was impressed with the quality and variety of answers she received. In fact, she remarked that using Quora even allowed her to develop an entirely new persona that had not occurred to her to target before (the Small Hospital Marketing Director).

Mechanical Turk

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk works to connect businesses with a large and diverse on-demand workforce that can help them address challenges and accomplish tasks effectively and cost-efficiently. Though the service is often used for outsourcing lower-level tasks, its capabilities (like feedback tools and content creation and monitoring services) can also be applied to helping increase the insight and accuracy of buyer personas. For example, you can access Mechanical Turk to build heat maps or screen shares that give you a clearer understanding of how workers engage in a task, or with content, or use it to venture more deeply into the world of behavior and specific engagement practices.

For example: Marshall Kirpatrick, a Senior Writer at ReadWriteWeb, was organizing a conference and wanted to develop cutting-edge conference content tailored to the specific needs of his registered attendees. He provided a list of attendees’ Twitter handles and a template to Mechanical Turk workers, and asked them to populate the template with specific information about those Twitter users, including gender, job status, and links to their personal blogs or company websites. His crowdsourcing allowed him to conduct this detailed research — for a cost of only $50. Persona developers could easily use MT for similar audience research processes.


Today’s social applications are successful because of the insights that emerge through their use — the suggestion of music or books that you might like based on mutual interests that you have with a friend, for example. Organizations no longer need complex data mining initiatives to learn about the dark matter hidden within their user data; lightweight tools like NoSQL can speed time to market with new content and features by quickly unlocking inferences about customers.

NoSQL is a coding language that is sophisticated enough to work with the growing mound of Big Data that marketers have available to them. This coding tool works with cloud-based technologies and allows marketers to query a huge amount of data in a quick amount of time. Because NoSQL is non-relational, it allows users to source this data in unique ways.

For example: Sears used NoSQL to develop a new social network for fitness enthusiasts. Fit Studio was unique in its development approach because it started with minimal features and allowed users to develop profile data that later informed content development on the site. As the site grew, Sears was able to bring on content marketing specialists to develop specialized content for different fitness segments.

Feedback Army

Where Mechanical Turk is useful across a huge range of topics, Feedback Army is geared more closely to providing you with feedback about specific web content. It is a quick and inexpensive way to test out content topics and experiment with new ideas by querying people about their interests and preferences, like:

  • Which aspects of our business confuse you most?
  • What services are most appealing to you?
  • Which of our services would you be most likely to pay for?

Feedback Army can also help with buyer persona development. The tool is not great at allowing you to define a segmented audience — you’ll have to hack the tool by including questions in your survey that allow you to do segmentation later. (This may be an irritation, but Feedback Army is inexpensive, and in return, you can get high quality answers. It’s a trade-off you’ll have to weigh.) Use it to gather user information that can help you add depth to your persona profiles around issues of user habits and engagement.

For example: When testing a new Firefox add-on, Mozilla used Feedback Army to query consumers on questions like, “What confused you about the installation process?” and “How do you activate the spell and grammar checking?” The results the company received were quite detailed and provided some additional layers of information (e.g., workers volunteering information about their Facebook use or about workarounds they had come up with). While Mozilla wasn’t sourcing for persona data here, it’s clear that Feedback Army has the potential to be used in this capacity, especially if you build in some audience segmentation at the front end.

The takeaway

While many content marketers stand by interviews as the best method of sourcing data for buyer personas, the rise of social media and the development of sophisticated crowdsourcing tools have been game changers. New tools can help provide a more complex and comprehensive view of your customers’ identities, interests, and motivations than was ever possible before. With a well-developed persona that answers more than just the who question, you will be able to identify and target customers with more precision and personalization.

Understanding your audience is one of the most essential requirements for successful content marketing. Get helpful tips for managing this challenge — and others — in CMI’s eBook, Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Internal Processes and Content Marketing Strategy Tactics.

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