Ah, the user persona. Every marketing expert will tell you that you need one as the foundation for your content marketing strategy. But so many people just slap together some vague demographic data, give it a cute, alliterated name like “Busy Betsy” or “Hipster Henry” and call it a persona.
Then they wonder why they aren’t seeing user engagement with their content.
If you want to create meaningful content that wins fans and conversions, your user persona needs to be more than a collection of data points. To make your user persona come to life, you need to create a fully fleshed-out character with dreams, fears, challenges, and desires.
You need a complex, uniquely human hero for the story you’re telling with your brand.
But it can’t just be a pure flight of fantasy. Each characteristic and inner motivation of your user persona should have data or real-life examples to back it up.
Sound like a tall order? Worry not: this post will give you the online resources you need to make a hyper-specific user persona. I’ll show you how to use persona-building tools so you can create deeply engaging content that will draw in your target audience and make them stick with you.
But first …
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Why Do We Need User Personas?
Writing generic content to a general audience just doesn’t cut it anymore. Gone are the days of keyword stuffed, SEO-focused content, clickbait social media posts, and salesy email blasts. The average internet user can see right through these flimsy marketing ploys.
If you want to stand out on search engine results, on social media and in your email marketing, you need to have robust, human-centered content that hits people right in the feels. And a User Persona helps you define just who that human is and what kind of content appeals to their needs.
But maybe I should back up a few steps. Let’s take a quick look at what a User Persona is.
A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.
When creating your buyer persona(s), consider including customer demographics, behavior patterns, motivations, and goals. The more detailed you are, the better.
So basically, a User Persona is a made-up customer who represents the very real customers you want to appeal to.
In case you’re feeling a bit skeptical about the impact of a fictional character upon your bottom line, here are a few stats from Cintell's 2016 Benchmark Study to help fire up your faith in the Power of the Persona:
- 71% of companies who exceed revenue and lead goals have documented Personas
- 65% of companies who exceed lead and revenue goals have updated their Personas within the last 6 months.
- Persona based content increased customer engagement almost six-fold when targeting cold leads (10% versus 58%).
- Using Personas increases email open rate 2-5 times.
- It is more effective to target cold leads with Persona based content than targeting warm leads without using Persona based content (58% versus 45%)
Pretty impressive, right? So just what is it about User Personas that make such a huge difference in customer engagement and conversion rates?
It comes down to a potent mixture of storytelling, psychology, and sociology.
Why Do User Personas Work?
As marketers, we’ve long known that the fastest route to inspiring empathy and emotional connections in audiences is to tell a story. But recent neurological studies have confirmed that if you really want to hook someone, tell them a story about a protagonist with a relatable goal and describe their struggle to reach that goal.
So here’s what you want your User Persona to be:
- An individual with internal and external features similar to your audience,
- A person whose goals mirror your audience
- A character who has everyday struggles that your audience can immediately relate to.
The more specific you are about what makes your User Persona an individual, the deeper an emotional connection your audience will have with your brand. And the easier it will be to convince them to take action.
Be Fearless In Your User Persona
Back in 1978, two hippy guys decided to sell ice cream out of an abandoned Vermont gas station. Within five years, their chunky, flavorful ice cream packaged in colorful pint-sized containers caught the attention of grocery stores. The ice cream sold so fast from freezer sections they could barely keep it in stock.
Ben & Jerry’s was a tremendous hit.
How did they become such a big success where other homemade ice cream shops have failed? Because Ben & Jerry weren’t afraid to get specific about their user persona.
And their user persona wasn’t what people had come to expect from a homemade ice cream brand.
Here’s how your typical, old-school marketing team would probably have done it: using traditional market-focused research, they would have focused on the “homespun Vermont” aspect of Ben & Jerry’s and featured a hand-operated ice cream maker in their logo.
Instead of focusing on the buyer, they would have extolled the quality of the ingredients and the deliciousness of the flavors. Their flavors would have had Vermont-inspired names like “Backwoods Berry Blend” or “Maple Syrup Swirl.”
But Ben & Jerry knew who their customers were, and they weren’t the rustic, antique-loving Vermonters of popular imagination. Note that their original container illustration featured a hand-cranked ice cream maker—but there’s a person with a distinct personality doing the work: a stout, bearded dude who bears a striking resemblance to The Original Chubby Hubby himself, co-founder Ben Cohen. Also, the style of the illustration brings to mind the underground comics and concert posters of the 1960’s and 1970’s, not the vintage etchings of the 1900’s.
There’s something mischievous, verging on subversive about Ben & Jerry’s branding. But fun/peace-loving subversive. Yellow Submarine subversive.
The folks who flocked to Ben & Jerry’s were real people who loved pop culture, leaned to the left politically, had an irreverent sense of humor, and got the munchies when they partook in their recreational mood-altering substance of choice.
In other words, Ben & Jerry’s target user was,well, Ben & Jerry.
So Ben & Jerry created a product that spoke to THAT Persona. Even at the risk of alienating the people who don’t fit that description.
Ben & Jerry aren’t afraid to court controversy and voice their stances on political and social issues. A recent blog post prominently features the “Black Lives Matter” sign in their signature hand-lettered calligraphy. No doubt this wins them even more brand loyalty from their socially-conscious target buyers. (Source)
In fact, not being afraid to take a stand is an essential quality of Ben & Jerry’s User Persona. The ice cream brand has used content to inspire their audience to help them face down Pillsbury-owned rival Hagen Daas in the form of boycotts and protests.
'We believed that Pillsbury’s actions were illegal,' says Ben, 'but we knew that in a strictly legal fight we’d run out of time and money long before Pillsbury would. Our only option was to rely on our customers and the media to pressure Pillsbury into backing off. So we started printing the slogan “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” on our pint containers, along with an 800 number for the Doughboy Hotline. Everyone who called got a Doughboy Kit, with protest letters addressed to the Federal Trade Commission and the chairman of the Pillsbury board, and a bumper sticker.'
By publishing their Doughboy Hotline, they collected the names and addresses of their highly engaged (target) customers—customers who they could send additional marketing content like coupons or recipe booklets to. Ben & Jerry created a targeted lead magnet before people were even using the world wide web.
And their User Persona doesn’t only impact their marketing strategy—every aspect of Ben & Jerry’s from product to operations was created with their user in mind. Because their target buyer (and their executive team) is socially conscious, Ben & Jerry’s was one of the first companies to adopt an executive salary cap (although they dropped it when they hired a new CEO in 1994).
The secret to Ben & Jerry’s success is not in their admittedly delicious ice cream, but in their ability to understand what their target buyer ultimately wants from the world.
Recommended Reading: How to Find Your Target Audience and Create the Best Content That Connects
The Keys to a Great User Persona
So how can you make your target buyer feel like you really, truly “get” what they’re about?
By asking the right questions about who they are and finding real-word answers.
Those are external factors about the circumstances of your target user’s life. Things that, unless they make a major life change, they have little control over.
As you discover more about your target buyer, you’ll unlock the hidden desires, fears, and challenges your target user faces so your content can help them navigate along their journey toward their biggest goals in life.
And the more you help your target user, the more they will trust you, and the more they will want to do business with you.
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After you’ve developed your user persona, here’s what you can expect:
- You’ll gain a clearer picture into the external and internal life of your target user
- You’ll have more relevant content ideas
- You’ll write content faster
- You’ll know where to find your target user
- You’ll know which people/publications your user sees as influencers
- You’ll know where to promote your content so your target reader will find it
- You’ll dramatically increase your conversion rates
So without further ado, here are some resources you can add to your persona-building toolkit today.
1. Target Audience Kit
CoSchedule has created a handy downloadable package that includes a worksheet on how to conduct audience surveys and a quick-and-easy template for a user persona. Print them out and use them as guidelines as you hunt down demographic and psychographic information.
2. Startup Target Customer Profile Worksheet
What if you don’t know who your target customer is because you’re just starting out?
I’ve created an in-depth worksheet for startup founders to help you ask the right questions in your search for the perfect customer. It covers not only their demographics and psychographics, but also their digital tribes, influencers, popular hashtags--basically all the information you need to reach your target user when they’re actively looking for stuff that relates to your service. You can download it here.
3. Xtensio User Persona Creator
This intuitive web-based template by “lean design agency” Xtensio helps you create a beautifully designed persona to share with your clients or team members as you create your content marketing strategy. When you sign up for a free account, you’ll also have access to templates for pitch decks, business plans, content strategies, and press releases, among other tools. If you’re a startup founder, this could be a true life (and time) saver.
Alright, you now have three blank slates for creating your user persona. But how do you find the data to fill in the blanks?
Below you’ll find some essential resources to help you discover information about your target customers based on real-world data.
4. Google Analytics
First of all, are the right visitors finding you? What are the interests of the people visiting your site, and what kind of content are they engaging the most with? Is there anything you need to change about the way visitors discover your content? A peek at your Google Analytics will give you these insights and more.
One Way Use Google Analytics (of Many):
If you don’t have Google Analytics set up on your website, take a few minutes to get your tracking code and install Analytics to your website.
Once you’ve created your Analytics account and installed your tracking code to your site, wait about a week for Google to collect data about your visitors.
Then log into your account and browse around. You can see your average visitor’s demographics, what content they’re spending the most time looking at, even their interests based on their typical search behavior.
Google Analytics helps you see whether or not the users that are coming to you are the users you actually want. For example, I noticed when I went into my Users > Interests > In-market Segments that the top four interests of visitors to my site were:
- Travel/Hotel Accommodations
- Employment/Career Counseling Services
- Dating Services
My site is for Copywriting and Content Strategy Services. So somewhere there’s a disconnect between the content of my site and the people who are finding it. Now the challenge is to figure out why people are coming to me looking for jobs, accommodations, or love.
So I take a look at my Landing Page analytics to see which page is attracting the most traffic, and lo and behold, other than my home page, the top two pages are two blog articles: one about the TED Talk formula for sales pitches, and one about finding your target customer.
The “target customer” post starts with a story about my experiences with online dating and how they parallel with a startup founder’s search for the perfect customer. Later in the post, I give an example of a travel bag company that used “Alternatives to AirBnB” as a way to capture their target leads.
So, that explains why people interested in Dating Services and Travel stumble upon my site!
It also tells me that I need to build up the content on my site for my target customer so more startup founders and less lonely hearts and wayward travelers find their way to my blog. Even more reason to really hone in on my User Persona and their needs
There are a myriad of ways Google Analytics can give you insights about who is coming to your site and what changes you need to make so your content is getting in front of the right people. Do yourself a BIG favor and take some time to evaluate the quality of the traffic you’re already getting so you can determine what you need to tweak to improve it. CoSchedule has created a quick guide to how to use Google Analytics to understand your audience.
Let’s say that you haven’t launched your site yet or you’re getting ready to do a major overhaul of your website. You may be feeling a bit in the dark as far as who your ideal customer actually is.
The good news is you have plenty to learn about your target audience by getting a glimpse at who’s going to the competition. Alexa provides detailed demographic reports on visitors to any website, as well as the most popular keywords people use to find them.
Here’s the quick-and-dirty way to get the goods on who is looking for your products or services. Google your core offer and see who your top competitors are in the paid and organic results.
For example, let’s say you’re a virtual assistant for small business owners.
The top paid result is for TasksEveryday.com. Go to Alexa.com and type in the URL and when you scroll down you’ll see related sites (ie other competitors in your niche):
And their audience demographics:
By using the new Audience Overlap Tool, you can get a big-picture demographic view of who is using virtual assistant services similar to your top competitor:
Just click “Audience Overlap Tool” on the main overview page:
Select the competitors you wish to compare:
Scroll down to Demographics and take a look at what these sites have in common and what makes them notably different. For example, I noticed that getfriday.com visitors have a much younger average age (18-24) than taskseveryday.com (35-44).
When I investigated, I clicked on “getfriday.com” to open a site overview in Alexa and discovered one of the main sites that led visitors to GetFriday was YouTube:
So I clicked the link and discovered that the videos that lead to getfriday.com are all about outsourcing Virtual Assistants from the Phillipines.
Is that giving me a clearer picture of who is going to my competitors and why? Well, if I do a little more digging into the demographic information on Alexa, I can discover that the average income of the GetFriday user trends lower than the average income of the TasksEveryday user.
So now I have a decision to make: do I want to target my Virtual Assistant service to a budget-strapped startup founder looking to outsource on the cheap or a well-to-do CEO of a small company willing to invest in a top-notch professional?
Once I make that decision, I can start deep-diving into the world of my target user to fill in the gaps of their larger story.
You now know the “who’s” about your target customers using Google Analytics & Alexa.
Now it’s time to discover the “what’s” and the “why’s.” What are your customer’s goals and Why do your target customers need your help accomplishing their goals?
BuzzSumo is hands-down the most popular audience discovery tool for content marketers. After an initial free trial, you have to pay for it, but if you’re trying to build an audience and relationships with influencers, it’s well worth the $99 a month.
Why? Because with one keyword search, not only will you find the most popular articles about a topic in terms of shares and clicks, but also who the most influential people are within a niche AND who their followers are.
So to continue with our fictional Virtual Assistant service, let’s say we want to cater to startup founders.
So I type “startups and virtual assistants” into the BuzzSumo search box and see which articles have had the most engagement over the past year:
Then I click on “View Sharers” to see who has been engaging with the post.
I see that Stephen Bronner, news director for Entrepreneur has been sharing the article, which tells me he thinks his followers would find value in it. So now I can take a look at his followers. After scrolling through their bios, I spot an ideal candidate for Virtual Assistant services: a PR coach for entrepreneurs and startup founders:
Now I can take a look at her Twitter profiles to get insights on her life and the lives of her followers-- people who are starting their own companies and need help.
Like this follower, who describes herself as a serial entrepreneur:
BOOM. Target achieved.
This person’s Twitter account is a window into her life. She tweets about where she likes to go to eat, the big projects she’s working on, her hobbies, the religious holidays she celebrates, the brands she likes. You can fill out an entire User Persona template with this information alone!
7. Customer Surveys
Let’s say that you’re an established company looking to shift to a customer-centered content marketing strategy. Your current customers are an invaluable resource for insights. Just ask them about their lives.
Pioneering content strategist Colleen Jones says customer surveys are a great way not only to determine user behavior (what they do), but also the emotions and motivations leading to their decisions (what they’re feeling):
“If you want to assess your success at producing effective content marketing, you need useful, actionable feedback about it. That means you need to know what people think about your content. Surveys are an invaluable way to find out.”
Here are some customer survey tools you can try out for free:
Survey Monkey- The most popular contender, Survey Monkey has a great reputation for being easy to use and having a step-by-step tutorial to walk you through the survey-building process. However, to export the survey data you collect, you’ll have to upgrade to a paid version.
Typeform- Typeform’s survey templates are slick and beautifully designed, which means your participants are less likely to abandon ship mid-survey out of boredom.
Google Forms- Simple, straightforward, free, and easy to access via your Google Drive account.
Need help coming up with some good questions? Michael Patterson, CEO of marketing research software Hotjar has come up with a great list of customer survey questions that get into the minds (and hearts) of your customers.
If you lack a customer base or even a list to send audience surveys out to, Quora can be an invaluable tool to grab information about your target customer’s needs “in their own words.” Don’t just look at the most-upvoted answers: sometimes the replies to expert answers can provide you with deeper insights into your target user’s world than the more polished expert responses.
Confession time: I’ve spent more time than I should looking through Twenty20’s gorgeous curated stock photo collections, in search of The Face of the User Persona for my clients.
Why Twenty20 as opposed to the kajillions of other stock photography sites out there? Because Twenty20 sources and curates photography that looks like real people’s lives instead of glossy studio sessions.
Here’s what you should look for in a great User Persona profile pic:
- A headshot of one person- Your user persona represents an individual, not a group.
- Personality- Unless you’re creating content for a modeling agency, your user persona is probably not a fashion model. Look for pictures of everyday folks.
- Match the data & demographics- If your research suggests that the majority of users in your niche are 50-something white-collar professional women, don’t use a headshot of a 20-something tattoo artist.
- In their natural environment- Try to find a picture that shows your User Persona where she’d be using your product or service.
Above all, User Personas should represent and look like the real people you're creating content for.
Here are some other examples of great User Personas to help give you a kickstart in creating your own.
Note how in-depth the above persona is in terms of Alyssa’s desire to balance her creativity with her business sense. This is a great starting point for giving a “voice” to a brand’s content: that of a passionate artist who wants to be a success without being a “sell-out.”
So based on the information I gathered using the tools above for my fictional Virtual Assistant service, here’s the User Persona I created using the Xtensio template tool:
On the other end of the persona spectrum, we have MailChimp’s multiple User Personas.
These visually appealing Personas aren't as specific in their narratives as Xtensio’s, but they still offer psychographic data for inspiring content. Even though these Personas lack a written story, the specificity of the look, dress, and descriptive text communicate volumes about each individual.
To achieve this Portrait style persona, all you need is:
- A graphic design tool like Canva or Photoshop,
- A great stock photo,
- A list of personality traits and motivators.
Here’s what I made in Canva using the same Virtual Assistant target user:
How to Create Your Own Persona in Canva
Here’s a quick example showing how you can create one that is similar:
- After opening Canva, select “Create a Design”
- Select the “Blog Graphic” template from the Blogging & eBooks section
- Upload your stock photo (or you can choose from Canva’s collection of stock photography and pay a $1 to download it)
- Drag and drop the stock photo as the background to the layout
- Select the Heading text tool and start typing the personality trait keywords. Choose various fonts, sizes or colors as needed.
- You can change the angle of the text by selecting the text box, clicking on the Rotate tool (the circular arrow at the bottom of the text box), and rotating the text box around.
It's Time to Start Creating Better User Personas
Alright: you've now assembled a well-stocked persona toolkit. It's time to get to work!
Have fun creating your User Persona—and if you've made one you're particularly proud of, feel free to share it with us!