This week’s episode is all about buyer personas – what they are, why you should take the time to create one and how to get yours right from the get-go. I’ll be sharing my tips and tricks with you on this subject to help you engage and resonate with your target audience.
I’ll be focusing on the following:
- What is a buyer persona and why would you want to create one?
- Why common approaches to building personas actually waste a lot of time, effort, and money.
- The one question that you need to start building a persona that you can use to create a marketing message people actually want to listen to.
I have included lots of examples from my own experiences in this area of copywriting to help you stay on the right track and avoid getting stuck in a persona rabbit hole. I have also thrown in a couple of fun sketches to exemplify how simple this process should be and how some people can really over-complicate it!
I hope that you enjoy this episode and that it gives you a solid understanding of buyer personas and the information you need to create a useful and authentic dialogue with your customers so that you can begin seeing results from your sales messaging.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Write with Influence podcast where I share my messaging tricks and techniques to help you make more sales. Strap yourself in for 10 to 15 minutes of lively chat but don’t let my light-hearted demeanour deceive you – these are weighty issues that you and I are dealing with.
Today I want to talk to you about personas and copywriting. Now, creating personas is a big topic, but in these podcast episodes, I want to zero in on specific problems and solutions so that you can put things into practice and start getting results. So today we’re going to look at, first of all, briefly, why you would want to create a persona. Then secondly, why a common approach to building personas (which feels like a smart and the thorough approach) actually wastes a lot of time, effort, and money. And then finally, we’ll be looking at the one question that you need to start building a persona that you can use to create a marketing message people actually want to listen to. Are you ready to write with influence?
OK, so first of all, what is a marketing persona (which is also sometimes called a buyer persona)? Well, according to HubSpot, they created this definition in under a hundred words:
“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 personas, consider including customer demographics, behaviour patterns, motivations and goals. The more detailed you are, the better.”
Let’s say you are selling quilting or crafting kits and based on the people that you see coming into your store, you might say, ‘our persona is a lady in her mid-40s to 50s with a family, a part time job and she likes to quilt and craft in her spare time – probably spends around 20 hours a week on it and maybe she makes things as gifts for her family and friends or to donate to her local church to help fundraising’. This is the kind of details that you commonly see in personas.
So why would you want to create this kind of profile?
There are a few reasons, especially when it comes to writing persuasive copy. One is that it’s likely your customers will share a number of common characteristics – people who go paintballing are likely to be adventurous, people who frequently visit DIY stores and home improvement stores probably own their own home and either love doing a bit of work around the house or at least have a significant other that really wants that shelf put up! So, it can be useful to remind yourself of these common characteristics when sitting down to write. It can also help with your own confidence when it comes to writing. It’s much easier to sit down and think about writing to one person than to sit down thinking, OK, this email is going to go out to 10,000 people on our list. That can certainly hamper your creativity, make you a little bit more nervous about writing and publishing content, but the most important reason for me is that it gets you actively thinking about your customer. When I work with organisations and ask them, ‘What is your biggest challenge in creating a strong message?’ 95% of the time, it’s this:
“We talk too much about our company and our products. We don’t talk enough about our customers and what they’re going through.”
Now, I want to take a little pause here because I just sent you a little listening test and I’ll come back to it later. In screenwriting, this is called the setup and payoff, you know, like when Q shows James Bond a Rolex with a laser beam, you know he’s gonna use it later, right? Well, I’ll be doing something similar later, and if you picked up on this, then you can award yourself five Write with Influence points!
So, the purpose of a persona is to put you in your customer’s world so that you focus on them and their interests. Buyer personas should help you write copy. They should make your job easier, help you come up with better ideas, get them down on paper and out to your audience faster. And they should help you write copy that makes your readers say, ‘Hey, that sounds exactly like me’. So, why do I see so often horrible personas that are a waste of time and actually do nothing to help people write good copy? Well, the answer actually lies within that original definition by HubSpot. I’m not knocking this definition at all, but here’s where people can very easily go down the wrong path and this path is long, irreverent, irrelevant and leads you into a dark forest of copyrighting obscurity, the kind where witches live in gingerbread houses.
So how can you go so wrong?
Here are the two points I picked up in that definition that are likely to trip you up:
- “It’s a semi fictional representation.”
- “The more detailed you are, the better.”
First of all, I’ll tackle the problem of when more detail becomes too much detail. Last year I was talking at the Conversion Boost Conference in Copenhagen and I touched upon the subject of personas and during lunch, a lady came over to me and said that the firm that she worked for, which was an international jewellery retailer, had previously hired an agency to develop their buyer personas and this agency had come up with 40 different personas, all detailed and delivered in a comprehensive, impressive looking deck. I asked her how they had managed to use them in their marketing and she told me quite simply, “We didn’t, they were so specific, so different to each other, we didn’t actually know what to do with them. We shelved them.” She was saying it was a real frustration of hers because she was passionate about working within the marketing department, they had waited a long time to get these personas and in the end, whilst it looked like a great flurry of activity, there was very little they could do to actually turn that into marketing content. You know, this is an exercise that would have taken weeks if not months to complete and at the end of it, it was an exercise that didn’t actually create any useful copy. This is an extreme example and you’re more likely to get this type of problem in a much larger organisation, but it doesn’t mean that smaller companies and even individuals can’t get stuck in the persona rabbit hole. Now, detail isn’t a bad thing – when I’m writing, I want a lot of detail. If I’m selling a product, I want to have used it, if it’s a course, I want to have taken it and I want as much exposure to customers as possible. The problem is when you combine those two elements from the HubSpot definition, namely when you have a lot of detail and it’s semi fictional. What I mean by this is when we start making things up and putting them into our customer personas. “But Amy,” I hear you say, “Why would I do that?” Well, because a lot of persona advice inadvertently encourages you to make up details or to create assumptions instead of revealing useful information about your target market. Creating a persona should be an exercise in getting to really know your customer and a lot of the details you’re encouraged to pin down can instead give you information that you can’t actually use effectively, if at all when you write your copy. And this is what can turn building a persona into an empty activity, one that yes, may make you feel very busy, has the illusion of progress, but which doesn’t actually tell you what you want to know. This actually got me thinking about job interviews and the techniques that are used to get to know and understand a potential candidate. Because think about it, when you’re going to take the time and the money to invest in someone, you really need to get to know that person. Recently I saw an article about the questions top CEOs ask in job interviews and I saw a similar problem in the questions that they asked, the style of questions that they use and the style of questions that you sometimes see in buyer personas. Here is a quick sketch to illustrate – many, many moons ago, I once went for a job interview to be a sales assistant in a clothing store and I seem to remember it going something like this. . .
Interviewer: OK, Amy, you have applied for the role of shop assistant. Now, we sell pretty, cheap, fashionable wear for the undiscerning youth. You’ll need to turn up on time, be able to fold and hang clothes and be friendly to customers.
Amy: Sounds great.
Interviewer: So, I’ve got some questions for you, which will really tell me about your ability to perform those tasks.
Interviewer: On a scale of 1-10, how weird are you?
Amy: Sorry, what?
Interviewer: Just answer the question.
Amy: Well, what’s the context of the scale?
Interviewer: You’re struggling with the question?
Amy: No, but is 1, you know, insisting on turning the toilet paper around the right way and 10 being someone with sociopathic tendencies?
Interviewer: Interesting that you chose those options?
Amy: No, those are examples, it’s your scale.
Interviewer: It’s not so much about the number as to you answer it.
Amy: OK, I’m a 5 weird, I like 1970’s country music and if I think I can get away with it during a cooked breakfast, I put marmalade on my toast before dipping it into the baked beans.
Interviewer: Interesting. That does tell me a lot.
Amy: Does it? About how I’ll do the job?
Interviewer: Next question, on a scale of 1-10, how lucky in life are you?
Amy: Well, I’ve got to be about a 10 to get this kind of job interview.
Interviewer: Interesting. Now, what is your superpower or spirit animal?
Interviewer: Or spirit animal. This one will really help.
Amy: OK, OK, I have one foot that doesn’t really feel much. It’s just not as sensitive as my other foot so I’ve always thought that if some hot coals should present themselves and someone was needed to hop through them, I’m confident I could do that.
Interviewer: Oh, very good! And in the event of a zombie apocalypse, what would you do?
Amy: Oh, for the love of George Jones and sweet Tammy Wynette!
Interviewer: Quickfire question – a hammer and a nail cost a $1.10 and the hammer cost $1 more than the nail. How much does the nail cost?
Amy: Does the job involve selling hammers or nails?
Interviewer: What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
Amy: Breakfast? Look, I can promise to turn up on time, to fold clothes . . . to be friendly. I’ve had five years’ experience working in the exact same store at another location and can provide several glowing references to attest to that. I’m not certain what these questions are actually telling you now.
Interviewer: How would you describe yourself in one word?
Amy: One word. I’ll give you several ***** and ***** and *****!!!
Now, if you think I’m being facetious, I’m not. These are actual interview questions from big CEOs including Zappos, BCA and Hootsuite, and in the article where I found these questions, sometimes the interviewers claimed that they didn’t judge people based on their answer, but it was important to see how they reacted. Well, here’s what I would say to that; if you ask an irrelevant question, you’re going to get an irrelevant reaction. My favourite example of top CEO interview styles (and I’ll then explain why this is so important when you think about personas) comes from a famous article about how the CEO of Charles Schwab, Walt Bettinger interviews top candidates. Walt explains that he takes them to a restaurant, asks all the normal questions etc, but he also does this – he arrives early, pulls the manager aside and says, “I want you to mess up the order of the person who’s going to be joining me, it’ll be OK, I’ll give a good tip, but mess up their order!” His reason for this is, he wants to see how they will react. He believes it will show him a lot about the candidate. He says it will help him understand with adversity whether they are upset, frustrated or understanding and he believes it will show him more about their heart as well as their head. What was interesting though, was that within the article, the writer also made assumptions about what it would mean if they didn’t say anything about the order. You know, that they paid little attention to detail or that they’re unwilling to write a wrong, and these would obviously be terrible messages to give to an employer, but to me this doesn’t really show how someone reacts to adversity, to me, this will tell you what someone does when they’ve been invited to a job interview and they get the wrong order. That is the only situation in which it is fair to evaluate their behaviour. Now, if this is something that is going to happen in your job all day, every day, by all means Walt, set that as a test. But take me, for example, would I say anything? Do you know what? Probably not. It doesn’t mean I’m timid. It doesn’t mean I won’t right a wrong. It means I love food. You know, if the restaurant’s good, I’m pretty sure I like it and I don’t want my companion to feel uncomfortable with the delay in service if I send something back. So, I wouldn’t eat under duress, I’d see it as a bonus surprise, a little food adventure in my day whilst I concentrated on my interview questions. I mean quite frankly, I think job interviews done over lunch are just mean – food shouldn’t be a background to an event – food is the event.
So, what is the real problem here and why is it important for you to keep these things in mind when building your persona? Well, number one, these questions are not about true clarity, they’re about being clever instead of uncovering how well someone will do a job, and two, they rely on the interviewer to make some big assumptions based on the answers to those questions. In the article about the questions CEO’s asked, to me, the best ones were the ones that directly asked for experience. No super power, spirit animal, but straightforward,
“Hey, tell me about a time that you had to solve this type of problem.”
Is it as exciting as asking about the zombie apocalypse? No. Will it get you better answers? Absolutely. So back to personas – the type of bad questions or things that encourage you to pin down a detail that is meaningless to how your customer will interact with your product and one that causes you to make assumptions about that person that may not be true. For example, how often have you seen buyer personas trying to pin down the car that the customer would drive? Why, unless you sell cars (in which case this is definitely relevant), would you ask this? Because not only is it not relevant, you’re also in danger of using your own bias to create meaning. For example, let’s say that you put down that your customer is a BMW driver. Now you might love BMWs and you think that this means your buyer persona is someone who is strong, they like power, adventure and security. But then let’s say someone else on your team, your copywriter or marketing manager has been cut up several times by BMW drivers – they think that that means the customer is a rude, aggressive, dangerous, and it’s this type of ambiguity which renders detailed, semi-fictional personas useless.
OK, just one moment now . . . that’s the sound of me getting down from my soap box and ranting about rubbish personas!
So, what can you do instead? Well, you start with one question. One question to your customers, whether you send a survey or email your list, this one question will unlock answers to give you insight into how to sell your product to these people. Now this is where the listening test comes in – do you remember early on – what was the question that I ask clients? I asked them what their biggest challenge was when creating a strong message. That’s what you need to ask; what is your customer’s biggest challenge in trying to achieve what it is that you can deliver? For example, what is the biggest challenge your customer faces when they’re trying to train their dog? What is the biggest challenge someone faces when trying to learn a language or trying to get more clients to their business? The challenge question encourages your customer to talk explicitly about where they are now and the problems they are actually facing. No random maths questions, no spirit animals, just a clear explanation of their pain and their woes. And do you know what this does? It tells you what problems you can start addressing in your marketing and set you up as the company to solve those problems. You can use this information to establish empathy by saying, “Look, I know what you’re going through.” It shows you have insight and most of all, it shows that you have value. If you can then say, “I know that you’re probably frustrated about (for example) getting more people booking into your hotel and getting them to become repeat customers and this is exactly what we solve here and here’s how we do it . . .” It makes it a much more useful and authentic conversation. Now, I’m not saying this is the only question that you could include on your persona – I mentioned earlier that this as a big topic and a short podcast, but this is the best start. Oh, and here’s a final tip – when you get your answers back, really listen to them. I mean it. Sometimes we try too hard to infer meaning. Think about all the different conclusions Walt Bettinger could have come to based simply on how someone reacted to their food order being messed up. Don’t do that with your customers. Don’t layer your assumptions on top. Listen to their answers. I’ll admit though that this is something my husband Malc and I still definitely struggle with.
Amy: Oh, thanks for helping me wash the dishes Malc.
Malc: No problem.
Amy: Hey, do you think we could try and keep the kitchen tidy every night?
Malc: What do you mean?
Amy: Well, sometimes we let it slip and it’s just, it’s nice to have a clean kitchen in the morning.
Malc: But what do you really mean?
Amy: Uh, that I’d like a tidy kitchen.
Malc: Where’s this coming from?
Amy: A desire for a tidy . . .
Malc: Have you had a rough day?
Malc: Has something upset you at work?
Amy: No, I just, I just, I just really want a clean kitchen.
Malc: No, it can’t be that. It must be something else. Look, I don’t want to get distracted tidying the kitchen every night until we have got to the root cause of this problem and find out what is really going on with you and how I can help.
Amy: I just want a tidy kitchen!
Really, sometimes it is as simple as what people are telling you!
Ok, that wraps up for this episode. If you want to subscribe, you can do so over at iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. Let me know what you think of today’s episode and if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to leave a comment on the episode page at Write with Influence. You can always also tweet me @HarrisonAmy, I always reply.
Until next time, keep believing.