For any great marketing strategy to catch fire, one must first put their target user personas (aka  customers or buyers) front and center. Getting to an accurate understanding of what the customer looks like and needs is a lot harder than it looks. This article will help you to frame what questions to ask (and what to avoid) in order to create realistic buyer personas. What is a buyer persona? Hubspot defines a buyer persona as a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers. 

When thinking through who best represents your organization’s real life customers, it is important to recognize tangible versus aspirational customer attributes. Be real with yourself (or the decision makers that you’ll be brainstorming with) to arrive at defining who your customer is and what are their jobs to be done

One way to get things in motion is to leverage an existing strategic framework. There are plenty of them to consider, along with a plethora of consultants that can help shape and organize archetypical users for you. 

An ideal customer profiling framework that we’ve found to be effective, and one that works gracefully with non-profits is the Differentiation Zone. Its first principle beautifully defines the customer as the person whose life you promise to impact through mission delivery

They go further, espousing that in today’s crowded world for attention, organizations can’t escape the customer zeitgeist, that it’s the customer who decides what matters most to them and that achieving customer clarity is essential to mission and strategic relevance. The framework also offers tools and real-time guidance to ensure you will define your ideal customer as well as stay on-track through the complex process of customer profiling.

Now that you’ve landed on a working framework, the next step is to gather the data. Some organizations will probe their sales teams to paint a picture of the customer, others rely on the marketing team. Most of the time, this approach is fuzzy at best since each departmental source is bound to have collective bias that quickly makes its way into your composite profiles. Furthermore these sources of information end up describing non-essential qualities that do little to actually define the customer. 

Most user personas blather on about demographic details like how old the customer is, their generalized job titles, what types of education they may have received or even worse, their outside hobbies. None of these actually help define an accurate picture of your customer, because people do not fit into nice little boxes (anymore).

Assuming you have customers, the best (and most effective way) to define them is by studying your existing customer base. Do some lightweight user research. Watch and study real people for yourself. Then, like an eager anthropologist (or a modern-day ux designer), record everything. Document what you see, what they say and most importantly what they actually do when in the setting of getting things done. 

Using online tools like CrazyEgg or Hotjar offer easy and frictionless methods to view actual user sessions, individually or in bulk. Whether it’s online or in a focus group, you will start to notice obvious patterns on your target audience that are grounded in reality versus anecdotal stories or tired assumptions dreamt up in a conference room.

Lastly, consider using Hubspot’s Make My Persona online tool. It’s a step-by-step wizard to help you fill in the blanks on your customer. Best of all it has an export feature that will save your buyer personas, so that you can easily share your outputs throughout the organization.

Remember, getting to the heart of your customer requires a health dose reality, most of which is revealed by examining existing customer pain points and recognizing actual behavior patterns through data, not intuition. 

About the author

Naveed Usman is a mentor at 1871’s Small Business Initiative and the founder of the Usman Group, a boutique digital strategy firm that helps corporate & nonprofit organizations develop successful websites, mobile apps and integrated digital marketing programs that are elegant, cost-effective & easy to implement.