Across every industry, across every nation, business people are asking the same question: “What do my customers want?” Never has this been more important than now, when competition is fiercest and the demand for convenience is at its highest.

Yet there is no single answer to this question: simply crunching numbers won’t reveal exact customer needs, nor can you rely on past strategies since customer tastes change regularly. However, many companies are finding success using an outside-the-box solution: the user persona (a.k.a. buyer persona, a.k.a. marketing persona).

Marketing persona example
An example of a marketing persona. Via Xtensio.

Simply put, user personas are made-up characters based on user data designed to help you understand your customers. But there’s much more to them under the surface. Personas take many of the abstract areas of business and make them easier to digest, such as:

  • Data and analytics
  • User experience
  • Customer pain points
  • Social media
  • Site design
  • Writing voice
  • Brand identity

Referring to a persona rather than raw data makes it easier for decision-makers to reason out the best course of action.

Below, we explain everything you need to know about creating user personas, whether you’re looking for advanced-level tips or are building your first one from scratch.

Let’s start with the basics:

What is a user persona?

Example of a marketing persona
Marketing personas don’t need elaborate graphics as long as the data is there. Via Buffer.

Think of a user persona as a representative of a broader customer group. A persona can consolidate expansive customer data into a single document that’s both easy to reference and easy to understand. This document can then be shared among the entire team to keep everyone on the same page.

Each persona funnels the user data into a “character” along with an information sheet that lists their personality traits, preferences and any data relevant to your business. This sheet, and the data it represents is the persona document.

How do you use a user persona?

Whenever someone on the team encounters an obstacle or needs help making a decision based on customer interests, they can refer to the project’s personas. Instead of going through each separate user test and analytics report, the persona has all of the relevant information in one clear location.

At the same time, the character aspects of a persona make the data easier to process, by simply giving a face to all those numbers. If you’re at a crossroads about how to meet customer preferences, it’s sometimes difficult to draw answer from dry analytics. It’s far easier to imagine a specific person in your head and visualize what they want and how they may react.

When using personas, you may ask yourself questions like:

“What would Mike think of this design choice?”

“Can Jane afford this price?”

“What would it take to get Spencer to switch over to our company?

Having a user persona handy gives you a focal point for questions like these. It’s easier to wrap your head around what one customer thinks than what all your customers think, especially when that one customer is designed specifically to represent the others. Thinking in terms of personas also safeguards against a common pitfall: marketing or designing for yourself instead of your customer. This small shift in perspective can help a company focus on who’s really important and avoid creating campaigns with personal bias.

Marketing persona example
If the need is there, your persona can span several pages or utilize multiple tabs. Via Buffer.

Personas can also be used as a deliverable or company document. For new hires or freelancers, all you have to do is send a persona file to get them up to speed. This spares you the hassle of explaining the nuances of your customer base over and over again.

Personas have many different practical benefits, depending on how you want to use them:

  • Personality and behavioral traits in personas can lead to more focused lead generation and inspire ideas for new markets.
  • If your company brainstorms with role-playing exercises, a persona is an ideal (and premade) character.
  • Highly detailed personas can even influence marketing decisions directly. For example, a persona’s daily schedule tells you the best times to post on social media. A list of his or hobbies suggests which avenues to advertise on.

If you want to dive even deeper into understanding customers, especially their habits, you can also use these personas for more involved exercises like customer journeys or user scenarios.

What does a good user persona include?

User personas or marketing personas come in different styles and sizes, much like the actual customers they represent. If you’re asking what to include in your persona, the quick answer is: whatever is helpful to your company.

If you’re creating a marketing persona for a tech company, you’ll want to include details like their skill level with tech devices—information that is relevant to the way you design an interface. But if you’re a shoe company trying to keep up with children’s trends, tech skill might not be relevant.

That said, there are some specifics that are useful for every industry, and provide the backbone of an effective persona. These are the areas that bring your persona to life, which is to say, aid you in better visualizing the personas.

Marketing persona blank template
Marketing persona blank template. Via Xtensio.

Each persona should include:

  • Name: Could be realistic, could be taken from an actual customer, or it could be a descriptive handle like “Sally the Thrift-shopper.”
  • Photo: It always helps to put a face to a name. Stock photos are fine, but avoid photos of celebrities, coworkers or other familiar faces that may come with built-in connotations and assumptions. The idea is create a new, original identity.
  • Personal quote/motto: Just like a photo, this helps flesh out the persona to make them seem more real.
  • Bio: Give a little backstory to make the person relatable. What was their childhood like? Why did they choose their current job? How do they spend their free time? These tiny details could influence strategic choices down the road.
  • Demographics: Age, sex, income, location—whatever attributes are relevant to your industry. Job title is particularly important, considering its business and financial implications.
  • Personality Traits: People with low attention spans want faster site designs. Cautious people are most likely to comparison shop. Personality traits are one of the most useful features of personas, so choose these with care.
  • Motivations: Like personality traits, this helps you get inside the customer’s head and understand how they think. For example, would a customer be more likely to buy a product that improves their career or their personal life? It depends on which motivates them more.
  • Goals and frustrations: The scope of these is in direct relation to your needs. A lifestyle company would keep to general life and career goals, while a tech company could hone in on more specific goals like tasks they hope to accomplish with their software.
  • Preferred brands and influencers: You can tell a lot about a person based on which brands they like and what kind of people influence their decisions. You can also look at those brands’ marketing strategies to see if their tactics might apply to you as well.

Keep in mind that personas are wholly customizable, and the above list is just a starting point. Here are some additional areas that some companies find useful when building out a persona:

  • Preferred social media channels
  • Daily routine
  • Tech skill
  • Myers-Brigg personality types
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Education level
  • Job responsibilities/duties
  • Shopping and product research habits

Personas should be customized to your specific needs, so it’s better to create your own original personas than to use ones designed for other companies.

Marketing persona example
An example of a complete marketing persona. Via Xtensio.

Expert tips for creating your user persona

With the basics out of the way, let’s get into some practical advice to make the most out of your marketing personas.

1) Always use real data

Just in case we haven’t hammered in this point yet, let’s be explicitly clear: always use real data for your personas. In other words, don’t just make stuff up. This is, after all, a business document, not Kindergarten finger-painting fun time.

For example, resist the urge to say “oh, wouldn’t it be fun if one of Jennifer’s goals was to start a rock band.” Sure, that’d help make the character more human, but is it accurate? Do your customers even like rock music, or do they prefer softer music? If the urge is strong enough for her to quit her job to pursue her music dreams, is she still within your target customer group?

Even if one or two of your customers had this desire, the rest don’t. Marketing efforts to please Jennifer with a wild streak would fall short on your actual customers who are in reality more grounded than your persona.

The truth is, your personas are only as strong as the data supporting them. The more you stray from empirical data, the less effective the persona will be.

2) Use customer surveys for quick data collection

Did we scare you a little talking about user data? Ideally you’ll already have adequate customer data to draw on, but if not, don’t worry. You can collect some easily.

The fastest route is customer surveys because you can ask the exact questions you need answers to, even identifying personality traits if you can phrase your questions with the right tact. Your performance analytics can also answer a lot of demographics questions, depending on your settings.

However, if you have the time and resources, it’s ideal to invest in more thorough user research: actual user interviews, product testing, diary tests, on-site field trips, and so on—just stay away from focus groups as they’re not as effective as you might think.

3) Create multiple personas to represent different groups

Personas are representatives of larger customer groups, but what do you do if your customer base is too diverse and expands into different segments? Simple: just make more personas.

Aim to have a single persona representing a single group. For some companies, one persona is all they need to encompass all their customers. Others, especially enterprises, may need quite a few different ones. Multiple personas also allow you to tailor different campaigns to different segments.

different customer profiles
One persona may not be enough to represent all your customer groups!

4) Detailed bios

The bio section of your persona may seem superfluous, or even intimidating for non-creative types. But don’t shy away from it; in fact, tackle it proactively.

One of the greatest benefits of personas is humanizing the cold, hard data, and the bio ties all those human aspects together. It may be tempting to gloss over it or skip it completely, but we urge you to challenge yourself to create a lifelike description that depicts a realistic human being.

If you’re struggling, feel free to use a background from one of your real-life customers. Ideally, you’ll have a user profile on file from your own customer research endeavors, but if not you can pull some information from your actual customers’ social media profiles.

5) Take advantage of persona tools

While personas can be customized to any format you prefer, templates and pre-existing tools can speed up the process and provide an easy first step for newcomers. Xtensio is a good site for learning the ropes, but requires paid plans for ongoing use.

Marketing persona example
A few of the examples from this article are pulled from Xtensio personas. Via Xtensio.

When a single customer is a good thing

Don’t forget that a persona’s biggest strength is presenting user data in a way that’s more comprehensible to us—through the lens of a single customer. It’s easier to market to one customer than a million; personas work because they create a single “person” that represents the whole. The underlying goal throughout the entire process of creating user or buyer personas is to have them embody the prominent strengths of your main customer groups. That, more than any creative element, is the ultimate goal. Give it a go!

What is your experience with user personas? Let us know in the comments below!