What is a Persona: The Buyer Persona Development Process

One of the most common questions to arise during a strategic planning meeting with potential or new partners is, “What is a persona?” Most know it has to do with target audiences but aren’t aware of what goes into the process or even why it’s important.

Download the 44 point cheat sheet to identify your target audience

Building buyer personas is typically the first recommendation we have for companies we’ve just started working with – even before we build a strategic plan. It’s like reading the owner’s manual for a new camera before you turn it on. You want to make sure you know what you’re doing first. Understanding what your current customer is like – or who you want your customers to be (if those two types happen to be different) – should always be your starting point.

The companies we work with typically have four to five key personas. As you read on, you should keep in mind the most important customer types to your business. If you build out more than five personas, you will find it very difficult to utilize them in any meaningful way. Once you feel confident that you have a solid buyer persona document in place that describes, in detail, each of your most important customers, then you can go to work.

What Is A Persona?

A buyer persona is a profile that is built out to represent the most common traits of your most important customers. It addresses their wants, needs, demographic and psychographic information. Most importantly, it lays out the best ways to connect and engage with these people from a sales standpoint. An IT director, for example, will have a completely different makeup than an executive assistant will, yet both might be important to your company.

Buyer personas are 1-2 page documents, intentionally short and concise, to give your marketing and sales team members all the important information they need to quickly yet fully understand each customer type. Personas are also visual. You want to see who these people are. And each persona is given a name to make it easy to reference internally and in your marketing plans.

Here’s an example of only some info you might find in a persona for Apple:

Larry the Director of IT at University State

  • Details: 45, male, master’s degree, married, two children in their teens
  • Work Details: Has worked at the college for 16 years, grew in the ranks from an IT associate, reports to the VP of IT, has eight direct reports as well as three interns
  • Buying Info: Responsible for upkeep and maintenance of all current hardware and software across the college, including faculty equipment, is currently in search of new Apple computers for the three new graphic design labs that just opened in the Business and Arts center, he’s always been a Windows guy, so he needs guidance, despite his deep IT knowledge

How To Build Buyer Personas

When you begin work on any marketing project, referring to those buyer persona documents beforehand puts you in the right lane and guides your work. For new employees or short-term vendors being added to the project team, it’s even more valuable. Now you don’t have to waste time training these folks on your customers, and you can make sure that everyone is getting the same information. It’s fantastic for message control and consistency.

There’s typically a five-step process involved in building buyer personas:

1) Research

Your first step with anything in marketing should always be research. Buyer personas are no different. There are some resources you can tap into – both free and paid, owned and third party – that can give you deeper insight into your current customers. Consider these options:

Google Analytics: Rich website data that can let you in on how people behave on your site, what the most popular pages and content are and general demographic data.

Social Media Sites: The topics your fans are most interested in, l, age and gender.

Claritas Nielsen: Categorized by popular segments, understand hobbies, family life, and living habits of customer groups from this longstanding, trusted research resource.

US Census: Don’t forget to tap into free Census information. If you sell locally or regionally, search by zip code and gain insight into household income, ethnicities, and more.

2) Internal Interviews

Now, organize a group of internal stakeholders. Salespeople and customer service representatives work best since they interact directly with customers. Divide your lot into small groups, no more than 5-7 per group, just like traditional focus groups. Make sure you have a good mix of personalities so you can try and avoid dominant voices competing against one another. Prepare a list of questions to help you gain insight from these individuals. Tell them to close their eyes. Envision their prospects or current customers. What are they like? What are their interests? How do they interact with you?

Here are just a few useful questions to get you started:

  • How often do they do business with you?
  • Who do they trust inside of their organization?
  • What is their educational background?
  • Where would you likely bump into them?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • What kind of newspapers, magazines, blogs do they read?
  • What kind of devices do they use?
  • How long is the buying cycle?
  • How much interaction does it take on new or repeat business?
  • Why are they contacting you?
  • What is their problem as it relates to your solution?
  • What influences their decision to buy or take action?
  • What is their family life like?

3) External Interviews

Once you have a thorough amount of notes from your internal stakeholders, now it’s time to validate that information. Basically, you’re looking to figure out if what was said is true. No better place to go than the source. Work with your sales team and arrange in-depth interviews directly with select, current customers. Two to three customers (for each persona) should do the trick. Create a list of questions stemming from your internal interview notes and identify the validity of that data.

Consider the demographic information, psychographic information and how they approach doing business with you. This is your opportunity to get those hard-to-reach insights. Think about buying cycle, pain points, budget questions, etc. The accuracy in these types of data points is what makes a buyer persona effort successful or a total waste of time.

If you have a software-as-a-service or app product, you might also want to look into user testing, action-based data rather than just mental insight. User testing is where sampled groups of people use your software or app and provide feedback about their experience and the product’s usability. It’s highly recommended for hands-on technology products/services. That insight will pair with your buyer persona interview information.

4) Write-up

After all your information is gathered from each of your interviews, you now have the challenging job of mining through all of it, synthesizing and pulling out the most valuable bits, and writing summary reports for each persona. These shouldn’t be boring white papers. They should have a tone that’s easy for your marketing and sales folks to read and digest. Remember, it’s internal documentation so it can be conversational (and you can even reference internal processes).

Here’s a small excerpt from the opening summary of a buyer persona our company worked on:

Harry is a jack of all trades. He’s constantly being pulled in multiple directions, dealing with typical sales tasks like networking with prospects and increasing leads, but also with day-to-day operational tasks like production downtime and new hires. While he does have a small team supporting him, Harry always wants to be the first to know about problems across his company – both small and large – and feels a strong need to be involved at every level of his company. As a result, his primary objective is to find service providers who will make his life easier, but who are also open book and tolerant of his questioning nature.

5) Design

Finally, the last step. Once you finalize your summary text, you’ll now want to insert it into a design. Having the information paired with a visual component will allow you to see a face behind the name. Plus, the layout is oftentimes lengthy, so having a design that breaks up the text and formats it so it’s easy to digest and interpret is important. Consider bullets, icons, and photos to help complement the piece and enhance its readability. Some companies keep these as one-two page sheets while others do them as a large magazine spread format (11 x 17). Either way, having that visual component really polishes the product and helps it become a more useful document.

Here is an example of a persona we created for a client:

What To Do With Buyer Personas

The reality of the matter is that you shouldn’t be in business if you aren’t trying to meet a certain need for a certain group of people. Buyer personas shouldn’t create customers out of thin air. They instead should help you understand the customers who have (or should have) an interest in your product or service.

There really isn’t a marketing tactic where buyer personas *aren’t* needed. Pick any type of work in marketing and the first recommended step is going to be to determine who you’re selling to and to revisit that customer’s persona so you can fully grasp their needs.

Here are a few examples of how you might be able to put personas into play:

Media Buying: Legend has it that some people still watch network television. In all seriousness, each of your personas could vary greatly in how they consume video content. For one person, you may choose to do YouTube ads. For another, you might need to do traditional media buying and air commercials during prime time network television.

Support: You want to make customer service as easy and productive as possible. There are a lot of choices to make when it comes to customer support. Will it be live or delayed? Phone, web form, text, chat, video chat, etc.? Will you use a bot or not? Your personas will all have different preferences for how they interact directly with sales and customer service.

Content Marketing: Whether it’s a blog, a video, or a discount offer, you need to understand the person you are intending to reach and sell to and tailor your visuals and messaging to that person. A blog topic and the way it’s curated will sound a heck of a lot different for a CEO than a CTO.

In addition to the persona, also be sure to note your product, channel, vertical, buying stage and call to action. Use a short table like this:


“What is a persona?” is a question we’re asked constantly. Making sure we answer it with confidence helps our clients trust in the process. When we’re able to put personas first, the rest of the work is always more successful.

You wouldn’t start building a new house without first drawing up your construction plans and creating a blueprint. These documents help you, in a very short time, determine how the house will be laid out, and even what materials you need at various stages. Similarly, you can’t carry out marketing efforts without first establishing the ground rules.

Buyer personas are the structural cornerstone of any marketing program. Take the time and invest the resources to get them done and get them done right. They will pay off, over time, in more deliberate and effective work. You should revisit your personas every five years to make sure there haven’t been any changes to your products, services or business which may warrant new personas or adjustments to the current ones. Keep your personas current and accurate and you’ll keep your marketing operating at its optimal effectiveness.