Customer Personas – Part 1: What They Are and Why They’re So Valuable

by | Sep 28, 2019

What are customer personas? Are they imaginary customers? What’s the big deal – why do I need them?

Think you already know all about customer personas? You may want to think again.

Most entrepreneurs believe that creating a persona is simply a matter of thinking up (i.e., imagining) a very specific customer that fits a detailed profile. But they would be wrong.

In my recent post on how to find your target audience, Step 2 recommends building a persona for each of your customer segments. Several people wrote in with questions – usually a good indicator that others are wondering the same thing.

So let’s get started!

What are your customers’ goals?

Let’s say you have a great business idea and you’re ready to bring it to life. Who is your target customer? Are they really willing to spend their hard-earned money on what you’re selling? If so, why?

Understanding your customer is the single most important element in building a successful business.

No matter how much funding you have and how life-changing your widget is, without customers (paying customers) you’ve got nothing. Once you know what people are looking for – what they really need – you’ll be ready to get to work building a company that meets those needs.

How to find out for sure.

There’s a secret to learning the needs and goals of your target audience. Talk to them! That means you’ve got to get out of the building – your house, your office, your classroom – and interview them. (This is known as field research.)

Speaking to your target customers adds a crucial human dimension to every decision you make about your product and service offerings. Back in the old days, entrepreneurs focused on disciplines such as industrial design, software design and graphic design separately, as if they had little to do with each other. Since then we’ve learned:

(i)   How essential the human element is to the success of any startup.

(ii)  How important it is to take a holistic view that integrates the all design disciplines.

That requires taking a holistic view, integrating the traditional design disciplines and human-centered design in all aspects of the problem-solving process. The result? More successful, more profitable businesses.

What customer personas ARE.

A customer persona is a tool for understanding the goals of your target audience. It helps you distill the information you collected from your interviews, and apply it to a framework that helps you shift from what you think your customer wants to what your customer actually wants or needs.

Customer personas…

  • ARE research-driven empathy. In other words, they’re a method for understanding and internalizing your customer’s thoughts, actions and feelings by stepping into their shoes.
  • ARE focused on customer goals. It doesn’t matter what you want – what matters is what the customer What are they trying to accomplish? Why? Customer personas are simply a convenient tool for uncovering this information.
  • ARE grounded in research. They are created based on field research (interviews). You know how everyone keeps telling founders they need to “get out of the building?” This is what they’re talking about. You can’t learn about your customers only by sitting in your office talking on the phone, sending out surveys and researching on your computer.

What customer personas ARE NOT.

Customer personas…

  • ARE NOT personal opinions. As I pointed out earlier, they are based on research.
  • ARE NOT fake people. They do not come from your imagination, so you can’t simply think them up.
  • ARE NOT the same as demographics. Demographics are about statistical data. Personas are about the thoughts, feelings and behaviors relating to a particular aspect of customers’ lives.

More about demographics…

People with different demographics may have the same goals… and vice versa (those with the same demographics may have different goals). Imagine a set of twins who live in the same home, with the same parents, etc. When it comes to their favorite desserts, one may love chocolate ice cream while the other loves pistachio – or hates ice cream altogether… and loves cake!

Demographics are background research you may want to have before conducting your interviews. Then again, it may be better to wait until after your interviews since research can inadvertently introduce bias or assumptions. Remember, demographics are simply facts and figures about who people are – something you can add after you’ve completed your interviews.

Personas with DEPTH.

The key to a great customer persona – one that helps you really understand your target audience – is detail.

Here’s what I mean:

When a customer describes some aspect of their life as being “inefficient” that’s not good enough.

You need to dig deeper.

Are they talking about “hours wasted waiting on line?” “too many clicks to make a purchase?”

What is the customer’s personal life like? Describing them as “married, 2 kids, lives in suburbs” isn’t good enough. It much more valuable to know “they’ve been working 15 years, been in the game for a while and know how to get the job done.”

Ultimately, a valuable customer persona teases out the reasons why a person acts or behaves in a particular way.

A convenient tool.

Listen, you don’t have to build a persona. It’s simply a convenient tool. However, if you want to create a successful product or service, you HAVE to get out of the building.


Next month I’ll show you how to create customer personas the right way, including the five questions you need to conduct a meaningful customer interview.

Want more tips like these? Give me a call or click here for more info.

Tight budget? Check out my DIY Kit.

Share this post: