Funny thing: even though companies have been told for years and years they need buyer personas, most still don’t have them. And those who claim they do usually have something like this:

“Stay-at-home Sally is a 41-year-old woman with three kids, a dog, and a busy husband.”

“Self-starting Sam, 24, loves the outdoors and Chinese food.”

They probably have a sentence or two about frustrations or what their desires are, but where did that come from? Real customers? Actual data? Someone’s best guess?

These superficial “stories” aren’t buyer personas. They’re bad descriptions from a dating show. And they’re utterly worthless from a data-driven marketer’s standpoint.

The whole point of creating buyer personas is to help create a positive customer experience, whether through content, customer service, or better products.

To do that, you need to understand the customer’s mindset, not their demographics. Good buyer personas are a combination of data and psychology. If you’re sitting around doing thought-experiments about who might be the best fit for what you’re offering, you’re missing the point.

The Biggest Problem with Most Buyer Personas

Like most best practices, buyer personas are treated as another checklist item, something to quickly get done so we can move on to more important matters. But knowing (or guessing) at someone’s age, job title, car choice, or family structure isn’t going to help you understand how to change their behavior.

Collective wisdom says buyer personas should be imaginary. This is completely misguided advice, and it’s the reason most people scoff at buyer personas in the first place. The problem is not the personas themselves, but the approach most marketers take when making them. Fabricating shallow stories based on demographics, imagined scenarios, and a bunch of people’s intuition is simply playing Marco Polo with who your customers are.

Success is based in reality. So your buyer personas should be on real customers, doing real things. Here are two ways this plays out:

You’re a New Company, with Few or No Customers

Aside from questioning how you have a business with no customers (aren’t customers the definition of having a business?), I understand we all start somewhere.

If you haven’t sold anything yet, there’s no way you can come up with real information about your customers. Zero plus zero is zero. But that doesn’t mean you’re totally stuck. The internet is not just a fountain of funny memes; it’s also a goldmine of people sharing opinions about how products and services just like yours.

Rather than getting a bunch of people into a room and guessing who your customer is, you can do a little “data mining” on forums, blogs, comment sections, and online reviews. Sites like Quora, Amazon reviews, Answerthepublic.com, and Reddit are treasure troves of people sharing unvarnished thoughts and asking specific questions about similar products and services.

Use them.

There’s no better data than the words of customers, even if they’re just look-alike customers. These people will reveal behaviors, preferences, mindsets, and a slew of other information that will be critical in shaping your ideal buyers before you ever speak to a real customer.

You’re an Established Company with Happy, Satisfied Customers

If you’ve been able to sell your product or service—even to a handful of people—you should be speaking with them regularly. Not harassing or spamming them, but asking for their feedback in thoughtful ways. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share a good experience with a product or service.

I love case studies for this reason.

If you have customers, you should be engaging them. I have a client with a highly localized business. Online reviews matter. A lot. So, two months after working with a customer, we send a personalized email, telling them how important their feedback is and ask them to complete a survey. The last question asks if they’d be willing to be a case study. Everyone says yes. Everyone.

Now, we have a backlog of willing customers to speak to whenever we want. And as a third party, I can get people to open up to me in ways they may not otherwise. It’s a win-win, and they provide a ton of valuable feedback which helps us further refine our messaging.

Align Assumptions with Real Data

Look, sometimes you do the best you can with what you’ve got, so some guessing early on might be necessary. But basing your marketing program entirely on assumptions is going to be bad news for you in the long run.

Your goal in creating buyer personas should be to align your assumptions with real knowledge—which is where talking with customers, mining the internet for information, and examining your assumptions is important. I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about.

About a year ago, I was helping a client clarify their buyer personas. They had some, but it was work that had been done years ago and no one had looked at them for ages.

Because I had already written a handful of case studies for them, I knew what their customers were saying about the services they provided. Not surprisingly, customer feedback didn’t match the copy on the company’s website, so I focused on creating alignment there.

To do my due diligence, I also wanted to know what the sales team was saying. Rather than conduct a bunch of lengthy phone interviews, we decided to anonymously survey the sales team. Their answers revealed that most were leading their conversations with pricing discussions. But interviews with customers told us price was third or fourth on their list of concerns, so this didn’t make sense.

Many on the sales team assumed customers were price sensitive (and some always are), but their customers were saying otherwise. Knowing this information allowed us to tailor new website copy to their customers’ ideas of the company’s biggest benefits, and we helped the sales team get on the same page with their messaging.

Go Beyond Generalities

When you create buyer personas around generalities, you’re mailing it in. There’s no real value in that, so you might as well not waste your or your team’s time. But you also don’t have to make it harder than it should be. Most of us don’t have the time or resources to go to the market, probe a few thousand people for answers, compile all the data, and make conclusions.

Aaron Agius at Content Marketing Institute recommends focusing on just three questions if it’s all you can muster.

  1. What does your customer think about when he/she wakes up?
  2. What does your customer think about when he/she goes to bed?
  3. Why?

Aaron goes into greater detail in his article than I will here, but the gist is this: if you can understand what’s on a customer’s mind at the start and stop of each day, you will have a better understanding of your customer’s mindset than any shallow demographics will ever give you.

Beware: Ongoing Work Required

Creating buyer personas is not a “set it and forget it” kind of job. Naturally, they’ll evolve as your company and offerings do. I get it: you may need to start out by heavily relying on your assumptions. But you should also make a plan to revisit them every few months.

Keep them visible. Check in on them. Let them grow as you do. Continuously ask yourself who you’re helping. Figure out what your newest customers care about and put some context around their life.

Look for signals in your emails, content shares, blog post popularity, and anything else that might give clues as to what’s working.

The Biggest Advantage

If you build your buyer personas around real customers, you’ll be less likely to forget them. They’re not some abstract imaginary person with an image you ripped from the internet. They’re actual customers with actual reactions to you and your company.

If you’ve read this far, I don’t have to convince you buyer personas are useful; you already know that. The question now is how can you make yours better?

I’d start by asking them a few questions.

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Chris Cooper

About Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper owns Real Good Writing in Denver, CO where he helps SaaS companies with Seed or Series A funding gain traction and kickstart their marketing program. Visit www.rgwriting.com or connect on Twitter @ElCoopacabra.