How Startups Can Build Effective Buyer Personas

Buyer personas make your marketing more effective — and save you from making costly mistakes. Here's how you can build them the right way.

May 4th, 2018   |    By: Keith Shields    |    Tags: Customers, Marketing

One of the biggest reasons that a startup’s marketing initiative fails is because they aren’t treating potential customers like people. It’s an easy mistake to make.

When you have target KPIs to meet, you need to be thinking in terms of numbers and metrics. But if you start seeing the world merely through the lens of numbers and begin to neglect the human element, your message is unlikely to connect with your target audience.

What’s the solution? Buyer personas.

Buyer Personas

Buyer personas are fictional representations of your ideal customers, based on real data and categorized by market segment.

When you envision a composite “person” as you’re creating your marketing content and messaging, you’re more likely to create something that’s relevant and meaningful to the people you’re trying to attract.

In order for these buyer personas to be effective, they have to be based on real data, not just your best guess or what you assume to be true based on your own experience with a few people you know in the same demographic as your target audience.

But, how can you find this information as a startup, without a pool of existing customers to study, if you don’t have a big budget for market research?

Here’s how:

1. Start Small

Even if you’re going to be targeting several market segments, you’ll want to focus on just a few personas to start with. It’s better to thoroughly know and understand a few personas than to have a surface-level understanding of many personas.

After you’ve run campaigns that performed well for your initial set of personas, you can tackle more.

2. Rely on Interviews

While interviews take more time than surveys or focus groups, they’re less costly and easier to conduct.

Surveys have a low response rate, so you’ll need to find thousands of people in your target market to send to.

Focus groups tend to be expensive because you’re hosting a group of individuals on site. Interviews, on the other hand, can be done over the phone.

And you really only need about a dozen people if you get a truly representative sample of your target audience.

Tip: Look for Interviewees in unconventional places

Typically, companies rely on their own customers and on purchased lists to do market research. But startups usually don’t have access to these. Instead, you’ll need to get creative. Here are some ideas.

  • Reach out to your network — Ask everyone you know if they could introduce you to someone in your target market for a 20-minute interview.
  • Ask your prospects — If you’re currently talking with anyone that you hope to convert to a customer, ask if they’d like to participate. This request will also give you another great reason to get back in touch!
  • Connect with people through organizations or clubs — Do many of the people in your target market segment belong to an industry organization or hobby club? These groups are excellent places to meet interviewees.
  • Watch social media — Check out social media groups that people in your target market hang out in. What questions are they asking? What are they talking about? You can learn a lot simply by eavesdropping on these conversations, and it’s easy to identify people that you’d like to interview.

Questions to ask your interviewees

The questions you should ask will depend on your specific product or service and the problems you solve or value you deliver. The questions will be quite different if you’re selling B2B vs. B2C. Here are the kinds of questions you’ll want to focus on to get you started.

B2B Questions:

  • What industries does your company serve?
  • What are the job titles of the buyers and/or decision-makers?
  • What’s your job title? What role do you play in your company?
  • What does a typical day look like for you?
  • How is your performance measured?
  • What are your personal work goals?
  • What do you want to be doing in five years?
  • What are your biggest challenges?
  • What frustrates you the most about your work?
  • If you could change one thing, what would it be?
  • How do you learn the information you need to do your job?
  • What blogs do you read? What magazines or other publications?
  • What associations do you belong to?
  • What social media platforms are you active on?
  • What is your educational background?
  • What was your career path up to this point?
  • How do you research options when you’re ready to buy a product or service?
  • What are you looking for in a vendor?
  • How do you prefer to interact with vendors? Phone? Email? Online? In person?
  • What is your evaluation process?
  • What are your personal demographics? (age, level of education, etc.)

B2C Questions:

  • What are your personal demographics? (age, level of education, etc.)
  • What does a typical day look like for you?
  • What do you want to be doing in five years?
  • What are your biggest challenges?
  • What frustrates you the most about [area of life or task your product or service impacts]?
  • If you could change one thing about [area of life or task your product or service impacts], what would it be?
  • What blogs do you read? What magazines or other publications?
  • What associations or clubs do you belong to?
  • What social media platforms are you active on?
  • Would you describe yourself as more impulsive when you make a buying decision, or do you take time to research all the options?
  • If you research your options, what does that process look like?
  • Does anyone else make buying decisions with you (partner or spouse, for example) or do you typically make purchases on your own?
  • What’s important to you when making a purchase?
  • What brands do you most admire? Why?
  • What brands do you purchase the most?

3. Ask Why

During your interviews, don’t be afraid to dig into the answers people supply. Ask “why?” to find out what’s underlying the answers.

4. Look for Commonalities

As you conduct your interviews, you’ll start seeing overlaps in the responses.

When you’ve finished all your conversations, analyze all the responses and look for answers that appeared in the majority of the interviews — these are the things you’ll want to focus on.

You can be fairly certain that these characteristics, feelings, or beliefs are shared among the majority of the people in your target audience.

5. Create Your Composite “Person”

The final step is to build the character of your persona. Give this fictional person a name, and describe who he or she is and what he or she cares about. Tell the story in a way that brings the person to life.

Now, when you’re creating your marketing campaigns, you and your marketing team have an accurate reference point. When you’re wondering if a certain tagline would resonate, “ask” your target persona.

When you’re considering which social channels to promote your new ad on, you won’t be wasting money on platforms that your audience doesn’t use.

Personas not only make your marketing more effective, they also save you from making costly mistakes.


Also worth a read:

  1. A Storytelling Blueprint for Better Marketing Personas
  2. How To Use Customer Insights To Build Your Brand
  3. How to Use Customer Stories to Grow Your Startup

About the Author

Keith Shields

Keith Shields is the Co-Founder and CEO of software development company Designli. Designli maintains a focus on building beautiful, transformative digital products for startups and enterprise clients.

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