The basics of buyer personas (and what they can do for your marketing strategy)

Even if you’re new to marketing and design, you may be familiar with the idea of buyer, customer and user personas. 

Today, personas are a widely used tool that helps organisations better understand the people buying and using their services and products. But less than 40 years ago they didn’t exist. 

So what is a persona, and how did they come to be? 

What is a persona?

As Smashing Magazine puts it

“A persona is a way to model, summarize and communicate research about people who have been observed or researched in some way. A persona is depicted as a specific person but is not a real individual; rather, it is synthesized from observations of many people.”

Personas are tools - often one-pager documents - that describe a fictitious character who is the focus of the marketing effort. Each persona helps designers and marketers to hone their work to a cast of characters, not a generic ‘everybody’.

Personas are about marketers putting themselves in the shoes of a person who will use or buy a product or service. 

Where did personas come from?

It’s widely agreed that the concept of personas was created by Alan Cooper, now considered something of a modern computing and design genius. 

In 1983 Cooper was interviewing colleagues and acquaintances who were likely candidates to use the piece of software he was writing at the time. 

In his interviews, Cooper recalls that he spoke with a woman named Kathy who worked at Carlick Advertising. In her job, she was responsible for ensuring that staff members were used to their full capacity, and enough staff were on projects. 

As Cooper puts it, “It seemed a classic project management task. Kathy was the basis for my first, primitive persona.”

From there, Cooper tells a story of having time to take a lunchtime walk around a nearby golf course while a program took an hour or more to “compile” – such was the state of technology in those days.

“During those walks, I designed my program. As I walked, I would engage myself in a dialogue, play-acting a project manager, loosely based on Kathy, requesting functions and behaviour from my program.

“I found that this play-acting technique was remarkably effective for cutting through complex design questions of functionality and interaction, allowing me to see what was necessary and unnecessary clearly and, more importantly, to differentiate between what was used frequently and what was needed only infrequently.”

That is the personas origin story. 

Cooper refined the concept and began to use personas in each of his design projects. When he wrote about them in his influential 1998 book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, personas began to enter the business mainstream.

What is the difference between personas and profiles?

As this excellent blog post by Tim Elleston at digital balance says, “[m]arketers often talk about ‘customer profiles’ or ‘customer personas’ and generally use them interchangeably, but they are two different things.” One, he says, is qualitative, and the other is quantitative. 

Personas, according to Elleston, “paint a picture of a person’s goals, their motives, their habits, their likes and dislikes, where they shop, where they spent time, what technology they use, which sites they frequent, whether they are family orientated etc. They describe the customer; they try to express the customer’s needs and wants.”

That is very much what Cooper was doing with Kathy (but thinking about her as a person using, not necessarily purchasing, his program). 

Customer profiles, on the other hand, “describe groups of customers based on known facts or data. Because of this, profiles tend to be more numeric; counts of things, percentages, z-scores, averages, standard deviations, comparatives etc.” 

The two can work together as part of a broad marketing strategy. But Elleston says profiles are a tool suited to finding new prospects, targeting marketing campaigns to customers and understanding the value and behaviours of types of customers. 

Personas are useful to “help craft your messaging” and “inform team members and stakeholders of the motivations behind your customers”. Or, as Steve Floyd puts it in his blog post for AXZM, ‘A History of Personas in Marketing’, “[t]hey help pinpoint speed bumps and deterrents that could negatively affect progress in high-quality services and products.”

How do I make a persona?

In her blog post for Prototypr titled ‘The Problem with Persona: How to Make ’em, Use ’em, and Abuse ’em’, Maggie Peterson says there are numerous techniques for developing personas. 

The Cooperian Persona is one we’ve already covered: fictitious characters with concrete goals, formed from collected research and data.

An Ad-Hoc Persona, developed by Donald Norman, is based on the persona creator’s “own intuition and assumptions”. They “can be discovered by questioning the main stakeholders, leaders, and members of the design team about their perceptions of the primary users” – or marketing team of their perceptions of the primary audience or potential buyers, as the case may be. 

Pastiche Personas, favoured by Mark Blythe and Peter Wright, are “developed from existing fictional characters from television shows, books, and films. They can open up new thinking and design insights, because the characters are richly complex and embedded culturally within society.”

Behavioural Personas “focus not on who the user is, but rather what they do and why they do it… Goals can change throughout the journey of a product or service, so a person can fit into multiple Behavioral Personas.” 

That’s a broad selection to choose from. ​

Is one type of persona better than the others?

You’ll get different answers to that question, depending on which expert you ask. Instead, a better piece of advice is this summary of why personas are such a powerful tool from Peterson’s post:

“Personas promote user-centred design when our natural tendency is to be self-centred. Users have varied needs and desires, and personas can help explain their complexities, and act as a proxy with designers and stakeholders.”

Whether you’re a designer or a marketer, the same principle applies. When used well, personas, as Alan Cooper intended them to be nearly 40 years ago, are all about empathy. 

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