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I have spent many years taking venture-backed tech startups from fledgling to established. At that critical go-to-market phase, when you’re focussing on growth, it’s crucial to nail the target persona.

Developing an accurate and complete target persona has a huge impact on a company’s growth. Taking the time to properly flesh out who you’re trying to reach can make a dramatic difference. With one of our recent clients, Moogsoft, they increased total lead volume by 21% while improving digital ad efficiency by 39%, in the first quarter alone.

Building a persona has two main steps:

  • Asking the right questions.
  • Turning the answers to those questions into an actionable insights.

The Questions

Note: Ask this same set of questions to employees and customers.

With employees, keep it all anonymous. This is crucial, so crucial I include it in my contracts. Focus on those that are close to the customer: sales, marketing, product and support.

With the customers, be sure to rephrase questions as is appropriate for the customer. Be flexible, follow your instincts with follow-up questions, clarifications etc.

What’s your role?

  • What’s the role of the person you’re selling or marketing to? Don’t ask titles. With the exception of lead scoring and data append, they have little relevance. The role is what they actually do in their day to day.

Who is the product built for?

  • You’re trying to understand if the product is built for the economic buyer, or is it used further down the line. This is really important. This is the first step to understand who influences the economic buyers decision making.

What category does the company compete in?

  • It is critical that everyone in the company understand in what business category they are competing. The reason this is so important is that it influences which benchmarking data departments choose to use, which research reports they read, how the brand is positioned, market sizing, etc. It is very, very common that you will get a different answer from almost everyone you ask, including the exec team.

What brings them to your website (context)? What happened?

  • For this question, you’re trying to understand what happened inside their organization to have them start looking for a solution. Not “your” solution but “a” solution. In other words, what exactly was going wrong?

What do you think about the term [insert primary web or mobile taglines]?

  • If people feel you are using to much jargon or marketing speak, it will surface here.

What do they want out of the experience (product/service)?

  • The key here is experience. You’re not asking about features. This is not a product/market fit interview. What you’re trying to understand is what value your product/service will provide to them. No matter what they say, don’t interrupt, just let them talk.

What do they like or dislike about your brand?

  • This will require you to give them some context. Explain that a company is more than it’s product. It’s their service, social presence, content, culture, website, etc. So generally speaking you’re trying to understand how they feel about your brand in totality.

What is their attitude about (secondary taglines or industry category)?

  • This is similar to the earlier one about taglines, but will elicit a different response.

Who are your Influencers? What websites or bloggers do you turn to? Analysts?

  • What you’re asking them is who they turn to when they need advice about your type of product or service, not your service in particular. Remember, personas are brand blind, until you give them a reason not to be.

Where do you hang out online personally and professionally? How do you consume news (Alexa or Google Home)?

  • By now you’ve built up a rapport, so they have no problem answering this question. Don’t offer up any of the options below until they run out of things to say. The list below is by no means complete, but you get where I’m going. Be sure to rank their answers. You will quickly begin to see patterns. This is very helpful to marketing in terms of where they should be placing their testing dollars.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Udemy, Audible, Alexa or Google Home, Quora, SlideShare, Twitch, Email subscriptions or newsletters, Podcasts, etc.

Constructing the Persona

The answers to these questions are very important for web/mobile design, copywriting and content development.

What do people in your role typically dress like, what ethnicity, male or female, etc.?

  • Explain that the answer to this question and the following questions are used to develop images and copy for the website, and content development. It will help put them at ease because these can be awkward if they don’t have context.

What is your attitude towards life and your surroundings?

  • This helps inform the tone of the copy. Their answer will tell you if they view themselves as optimistic or pessimistic, introverted or extroverted, etc.

Tell me about your social background, education, upbringing.

  • This is a general background question. The answer will have value to some, and not others.

What are your emotions and attitudes towards technology?

  • This helps you understand if they embrace the latest in technology or fear it. If they fear it, that will inform content development.

What would you say your main personality traits are?

  • This is similar to the earlier question about “attitude towards life” but will elicit a different response. It’s very important that you understand exactly how they see themselves, and not how you want to see them. If they struggle to answer, ask it this way: “how would your significant other or family describe your personality traits?”

What is the first thing you think about in the morning?

  • You’re looking for a pattern of work anxiety. Does your product or service help reduce that anxiety, or does it make it worse?

Is there anything I missed that I should have asked?

  • This answer sometimes will be the single best response of the interview. If there’s anything else on their mind, this is where they will say it.

Once you have the above information, take all of the employee interviews and roll them up into a single fictitious persona. Then do the same for the customer. Write these in the first-person, so you are the persona describing yourself in line with the information you gave during the questions.

This is not easy. You have to be very careful not to bias what you’ve heard, during the editing process.

Stay true to what they said, not what you wanted them to say.

Once complete, name your personas. Any name will do, but make it personal. This will bring the persona to life. Inside your company they may be called Amy or Nathan, but they won’t be called “persona.” The more you treat them as human, the more everyone else will too.

The last step is to turn the freshly minted Amy or Nathan over to design and have them conjure up a beautiful PDF that is concise but comprehensive, and can be distributed across the company.

The reason this works across sales and marketing is because both departments were actively involved in the development. It wasn’t merely tossed over the wall by marketing without any input from sales, which is all too common.

Finally, use the persona to help inform website updates, content, sales playbooks, campaign development, collateral and so much more. If executed correctly, a consistency will emerge across all departments. No-one will wonder how to speak to the customer, what their pain point is, what they care about and why they buy.

For more on personas, see The Rise of the Detractor Persona

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