Noah is the COO at Palo Alto Software, makers of the online business plan app LivePlan. He started his career at Yahoo! and then helped start the user review site Epinions.com. From there he started a software distribution business in the UK before coming to Palo Alto Software to run the marketing and product teams.
How to Create a Detailed User or Buyer Persona
11 min. read
Updated October 27, 2023
Here’s the simple truth of business: Without customers to buy your products, you’re not going to make any money. Almost every decision you make—what you sell, how much you sell it for, where you’re located, who you hire—is made with the intention of bringing in the maximum number of customers to your store, and to optimize the likelihood that they’ll buy your products while they’re there.
Many businesses develop personas to help them make the right choices as they start, grow, and advertise their business. A buyer or user persona is a fictional character that represents a business’s customers or potential customers, based on what you know about their demographics, behaviors, and what motivates them.
“Buyer” and “user” personas are very similar, but the labels do help to differentiate the kind of persona you are creating. “Buyers” are the people who make the spending decisions while “users” are the people who actually use your product. For many businesses, buyers and users are the same person. But, for some businesses, the person who makes the purchasing decision and the actual user of the product are different.
What is a persona and how do you use one?
Success in marketing and product development comes from a deep understanding of your target customer. Your ability to put yourself into the shoes of your customer, to understand their pain points, needs, wants, aspirations, work and home environments—in fact, every aspect of their lives—will drive your success. Being able to think and behave like your customers is the key to being able to communicate with them effectively.
This is why entrepreneurs are often encouraged to build businesses that solve problems that they have themselves. It’s much easier to develop a product and design marketing content and campaigns when you know exactly who the customer is and how they will react to different kinds of marketing. If you’re marketing to yourself and people just like you, you have a huge advantage because you know exactly how you, and your customers, will react.
But, what if your business is solving a problem that you don’t have? What if the target customer isn’t you? How do you start seeing your business through your customers’ eyes?
In marketing and product development, we can solve this problem by doing the right user research (market research) to create fictional characters that are highly detailed representations of your target customer base. These characters are called personas, and just like in plays and movies they need a full backstory so that you, as a business owner and entrepreneur, can fully understand their goals, motivations, and problems.
There are two commonly-used persona types: buyer (or customer) personas, and user personas. But, depending on what kind of business you are running, you might just need one persona for your entire business. Let’s look at the different types of personas to see if you need several personas or just one.
Buyer (or customer) personas
Buyer personas describe your ideal target customer. The customer, or “buyer,” is the person making the purchasing decision to get your product instead of a competitors. But, this person isn’t always the same person as the one that actually uses your product.
For example, a company that is searching for new customer relationship management (CRM) software might have a senior executive make the purchasing decision, even though she might not be using the software on a daily basis. In this case, you need a persona that describes this type of person who is in charge of making the buying decision.
A buyer persona will help you make decisions about your marketing and sales processes. When you’re thinking about a new marketing campaign, you should be thinking, “will my buyer like this?”
User personas are critical for companies that designing and customizing their own products or services. These companies need to ensure that what they are building is exactly what the user of the product needs and wants. Here at Palo Alto Software, we developed a persona named Garrett who drives the bulk of our product decisions.
Designers—of software, shoes, kitchen appliances, websites, and pretty much everything else—have long relied on user personas for developing products. The idea is two-fold: if you design with a certain user in mind, not only will you design a product that gives that user what they actually want and need, but you will also design a product that that user will actually buy (i.e., a product that gets you customers).
Buyer and user personas are very similar, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably—especially when the buyer and the user are the same person. But, if your business sells to one person and then your products are used by someone else, you may need both types of personas. That said, the differences between the two types aren’t as important as understanding how to create a buyer (or user) persona, and how to use it to your business’s advantage.
What’s your biggest business challenge right now?
How to create a buyer or user persona for your business
Creating a persona doesn’t have to be hard and it will lead to a better product, better marketing, and a better business. In other words, it’s a small investment that can pay off big time.
The 10 basic components of a user or buyer persona
I’ll give you a few tips for creating your persona in a minute, but first let’s review what makes up a good persona:
1. A name
While this may seem obvious, giving your persona a name is a huge step forward in making your persona real.
When you persona has a name, they’re easier to relate to as a “real” person and easier to talk about in marketing and product development discussions.
2. Their professional and personal background
These two elements go together. Specifically, you want to describe what your target customer does for a living and where they are in their career.
You also want to expand their background into a quick review of your target user’s hobbies, educational background, likes, and dislikes. This background influences your persona’s disposable income and also their brand choices.
3. Demographics: Age, gender, education, ethnicity, family status, and so on
Here, avoid dividing up your persona into age ranges or percentage male/female. You’re creating a fictional character for this exercise, so be specific about age, family status, and other details.
Once you have created one persona to represent your core customer, you may think about creating secondary personas to represent other customer groups. But, for now, just create one persona with as many specific details as possible.
What are your persona’s goals? Oftentimes, user goals are beyond the immediate problem that your company solves.
For example, while we sell business planning software, our customers’ goal is to create a successful company.
5. “I need/want” statements
What does your persona want and/or need in order to reach the goals you have defined for them?
6. Concerns or pain points
What concerns does your persona have? Are they worried about security? Are they concerned about potentially difficult return processes? How important is reliability and long-term access to your product or service?
7. Past buying behavior
Do most of your customers buy from you repeatedly? Or is their purchase a one-time purchase? Does your customer have brand loyalty? How have they solved their problems and achieved their goals in the past?
8. Environment: Physical, social, and technological
Often overlooked, your persona’s environment is a critical aspect that defines who they are. If you’re building an online application, would the real people you’re targeting be mostly using your site from home? From work? Maybe on their mobile phone? What is their home or work environment? Is it noisy or quiet?
Answering these questions will create a full picture of your persona and how they will be interacting with your site.
9. A quote that sums up what matters most to them
A user quote should be just one or two sentences that sums up what matters most to your persona.
For example, our persona Garrett says, “I want a simple planning solution that will impress my investors and not take too much time away from actually building my business.”
11. A photo
To complete your persona, add a picture. After all, your buyer persona should be real to you and your team and adding a picture accomplishes this.
It may seem counterintuitive to just focus on one person, but focusing on just one customer that is a good representation of your core customer base will make your marketing and product development much, much more effective.
5 steps to create a buyer or user persona
Now that we know what a persona is, it’s time to create one. Here are five steps to create your persona:
1. Survey your existing customers
If you have customers, put together a survey, get on the phone, or talk to them in your store and get to know them better.
If you have email addresses for your customers, you can even use services like TowerData to automatically gather demographic data. If you don’t have customers yet, find people who you think are going to be your customers and talk to them.
2. Get out of the building
This seems obvious, but it can be a huge hurdle for many marketers. Your biggest advantage over your competition is to get to know your customers in their “native habitat.”
Seeing where your customers live and work gives you the real-world picture of how your customers will be making decisions. You can also observe what other brands your customers choose to surround themselves with.
3. Research online
Do some market research. If your customers are all from one location, or from a single industry, you can get a lot done online. If you’re trying to learn about a location, Wikipedia is a great resources to learn about the region your customers are from. Do they live in a college town? Where are most people employed? What are the prevailing politics?
If you are researching a particular industry, turn to YouTube. You’ll be able to find industry experts talking about the industry as well as videos showing workplaces, locations, and so on.
4. Analyze your data
Once you have collected all of your data, you need to synthesize it into one persona, as I described above.
Over time, you may end up building multiple personas, but even having just one persona to work with gives you a huge advantage over many businesses that just do “shoot from the hip” marketing and product development.
Since you’ve gone through all the effort of researching and creating a persona, now is the time to share with your entire company.
This is not something that should only be presented to the management team. Everyone in the company should know who your ideal customer looks like, how they make decisions, and what kind of interactions they expect from your company. Some companies have even made posters of their personas and put them up on the walls of the office so that everyone knows exactly who they should be trying to design for, market to, and sell to.
Avoid these persona mistakes
Finally, here are a few mistakes to avoid when creating your first persona.
- Don’t base your customer persona on one real customer. It’s tempting to go out, meet one customer, and then write a bio of that customer for your persona. A good persona is a composite of all of your core customers and will bring in elements from multiple real customer profiles.
- Don’t base your customer persona on stereotypes. This is similar to mistake #1, but you might not even realize you’re doing it. Don’t make assumptions about your customer persona’s interests and needs based on their age, gender, or location—do your research, and let your customers tell you about themselves.
- Inconsistencies make your persona unrealistic. Your persona should be as real as possible, so try to avoid inconsistencies. If your persona is a Portland hipster, they probably don’t drive a BMW—well, maybe they drive one that’s vintage and restored by hand, but not a new one.
- Don’t be generic. As a counterpoint to mistake #1, don’t be too generic when you create your persona. Your persona shouldn’t be “between 30 to 45 years old.” They should have an exact age, specific interests, and so on. You may find that you need to create multiple personas to represent different customer segments. Just make sure that each one that you create is specific and represents one of your core groups of customers.
Taking the time to create a customer persona will accelerate your marketing, sales, and product development efforts. The time you take to create a solid persona will pay off many times over in the growth of your business, so make the time and watch your business take off.
Have you developed a persona for your business? I’d love to hear your tips for creating a persona. Find me @noahparsons on Twitter.