Researcher's guide to customer personas and creating detailed buyers

Posted on March 12, 2024
9 min read

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How well do you know your customers? If you’re like most of us, probably not as well as you should. One of the biggest mistakes marketers, product teams, and designers make is not developing a deep enough understanding of their customer’s needs and so making a lot of assumptions about how to solve for them. That’s why creating customer personas is so important.

What is a customer persona?

A customer persona (also known as a buyer persona) is a semi-fictional archetype that represents the key traits of a large segment of your audience, based on the data you’ve collected from user research and web analytics. It gives you insight into what your prospective customers are thinking and doing as they weigh potential options that address the problem they want to solve. Adele Revella, founder of Buyer Persona Institute, describes it like this:

Actionable buyer personas reveal insights about your buyers’ decisions—the specific attitudes, concerns and criteria that drive prospective customers to choose you, your competitor or the status quo.

Why are customer personas important?

Customer personas can provide tremendous value and insight to your organization. For example, they can help everyone on your team:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of customer needs and how to solve for them
  • Guide product development by creating features that help them achieve their desired outcomes
  • Prioritize which projects, campaigns, and initiatives to invest time and resources in
  • Create alignment across the organization and rally other teams around a customer-centric vision

And as a result, you’ll be better equipped to serve your customers and deliver a superior experience that keeps them coming back for more. But if you don’t nail down your customer personas, every aspect of your product development process, user experience, and marketing campaigns, will suffer. A lot has been written about how to create a customer persona. But wading through all the noise to find the best resources takes a long time. Here are the five best resources to help you create effective customer personas.

How to create a customer persona in four steps

Step 1: Get to know your target customer like a best friend

The first step is developing a real, deep understanding of who your target customer is - and I mean go full private investigator mode. Use every qualitative and quantitative research method in the book to peek into their lives.

While you should definitely start with surveys and user interviews, don't stop there. You can dig further into your customer's digital footprints through tools like UserTesting that let you get additional user feedback. You can also comb through social media, listen in on those customer support calls, and make a habit of visiting those online forums relevant to your industry.

This multi-pronged approach doesn't just give you direct insights into what they like and how they behave but also the why behind their actions. Once you've gathered all this juicy data, look for patterns and group your audience into distinct buckets or tribes - this will form the foundation for your customer personas.

After your user research, you'll have qualitative data to enhance your understanding of your target customer. Then, you'll synthesize the data to discover similarities and patterns between your test participants. 

Step 2: Get the 411 on your persona's demographics

Now that you've got your main personas outlined, it's time to beef up their demographic stats. But we're not just talking basic age/location/gender here. 

During your user research, begin by asking questions to learn the demographics of your target customer. Here are some examples of questions you should be asking:

  1. How old is the customer?
  2. Where do they live?
  3. What's their gender?
  4. What industry do they work in?
  5. What's their highest level of education?
  6. What's their profession?

By asking these questions, you learn more about your target customer and can create your ideal customer persona. 

You can also use quantitative data to create user personas with Google Analytics.

For example, demographic data can clue you in to which platforms your customers hang out on most or how they prefer to consume content. With these richer demographic insights connected to real-world actions, your personas will be packing some serious actionable intel.

Step 3: Uncover your customer's deep motivations and struggles

Figuring out the "why" behind your customer's behaviors is where the magic happens.

Use a blend of direct questioning through interviews/surveys and inferential analysis to really get inside their heads. Leverage tools like sentiment analysis and emotional intelligence assessments to complement direct customer feedback.

This multi-angled approach lets you build an intimate 3D understanding of what motivates and inspires your customers...but also what keeps them up at night. Nailing this step is crucial for aligning your products and marketing in a way that truly resonates with your audience's needs and values.

Step 4: Bring your customer persona to life

Time to actually build your persona! But we're not just listing off some dry demographic stats and calling it a day.

Channel your inner storyteller and construct a vibrant narrative that makes your persona feel like a living, breathing human. Give them a name, a face (through stock pics, illustrations, or even use AI to generate unique faces), and a whole backstory covering their daily life, how they interact with your product category, the kind of messaging that clicks for them - the whole nine yards.

Sprinkle in direct quotes from your research or hypothetical thoughts that represent their viewpoint. Getting this level of specific, authentic detail makes your persona way more relatable and easier for your whole team to empathize with.

Extra pro-tips:

  • Keep It Fresh: Don't let your personas go stale! Set up a process to regularly revisit and update them as new data rolls in, markets shift, or your offerings evolve. Keeping them relevant is key.
  • Make Them Cross-Functional Rock Stars: Don't hog your personas for just the marketing team. Share them across the entire organization - product dev, sales, customer service, even HR. Understanding your customer should be baked into every aspect of your business.

Follow these steps and you'll have customer personas that don't just feel like real people...they'll practically be part of your company's family! Having this level of intimate customer knowledge gives you a huge leg up in creating products and marketing that truly click.

Further reading: Asurion's three steps to developing frontline attitudinal personas

How to find test participants to create a customer persona

To design a persona, find people that align with your target customer. Here are a few ways to find some interviewees. 

1: Use your current customers

There's no better place to start than by asking customers who actively use your product. You have a higher chance of finding people who match your target persona when you conduct research with your actual customers. 

Make sure to use customers who value your product, as well as those who aren't fond of your product. Although it's tempting only to use customers who love your product, you want a well-rounded and accurate representation of your customers' concerns and dislikes. Even the customers who don't like your product can provide useful information to help you develop your persona. 

2: Use prospective customers

You should consider prospective customers in addition to customers you already have. They're a great option because you usually have their contact information. Use any data you collected about prospective customers to determine who matches your target persona.

3: UserTesting can help to find interviewees

With our UserTesting Human Insight Platform, you can run remote user interviews with our Contributor Network, where you can find test participants to deliver diverse and balanced insights. No matter how specific your target audience is, our global contributor network will fit your demographic needs and is consistently maintained by quality assurance methods.

You can get immediate access to real users worldwide and refine the users to pinpoint your target persona. If you’re not yet a UserTesting customer, you can always schedule calls with your panel of customers or users and hold user interviews over Zoom. With Live Conversation, 1-on-1 interviews can be scheduled with contributors as soon as that day.

1. The complete beginner’s guide to marketing personas

If you’ve never created a customer persona before, or if you need a quick refresher, we recommend starting with this guide from Buffer. You’ll get a high-level understanding of what customer personas are, why they’re important, and how to create them. While it doesn’t go into as much depth as some of the other resources below, it’s a great place to start learning.

Via Buffer

Via Buffer

2. How to create customer personas with actual, real-life data

This guide from ConversionXL makes the case that, to be effective, personas need to be based on data-driven research, rather than opinions and assumptions. This section from the book sums it up well:

Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success… The problem with many personas is that they are either based on irrelevant data, poorly sourced data, or no data at all.

You’ll learn three ways to collect qualitative user feedback, and how to combine those insights with your web analytics data to get the complete picture of your customer’s behavior. You’ll learn that you need to use multiple sources of data to understand the motivations, attitudes, behaviors, and desired outcomes of your customers.

Via Mailchimp

Via Mailchimp

3. How to create detailed buyer personas for your business

This resource from HubSpot gives you a step-by-step guide on how to conduct in-person customer interviews for your persona research. It goes into specific detail on how to set up your interviews, tips for recruiting interviewees, and exact questions you can ask during your interviews.

Via Hubspot

Via Hubspot

4. Personas: The art and science of understanding the person behind the visit

Although the introduction of this guide from Moz initially makes it sound like it’s only for marketers, it’s equally applicable to any UX designer or product team that wants to create a persona. This guide gets really specific about how to collect:

  • Qualitative feedback - using customer interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic research
  • Quantitative research - using your web analytics, market segmentation tools, multiple choice surveys, and other internal data

It also explains the difference between segments, cohorts, and personas, and gives specific use cases for how you can implement personas into your organization.

Via Moz

Via Moz

5. Quick and dirty guide to creating actionable content marketing personas

This guide from the Content Marketing Institute shares essential steps to create and apply content marketing personas that get results you can put into action. Although it was originally written for content marketers, the underlying principles apply to designers, product managers, and other marketers too.

Via Content Marketing Institute

Via Content Marketing Institute

Bonus resources

If you’d like to learn more about how to create customer personas, see customer persona examples, and how to use them to enhance your entire customer journey, check out these resources:

Customer persona templates

Other bonus resources

Leveraging personas to create better experiences

Whether you’re a product manager, UX designer, or marketer, customer personas can help you develop a deeper understanding of:

  • Your customer’s needs
  • How to solve for them
  • Which features, campaigns, and initiatives to prioritize

Just remember that your personas are only as good as the data-driven research that goes into them. They should be based on a combination of qualitative and quantitative data collected from multiple sources—not from the opinions and assumptions of your team.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to learn how UserTesting can help you understand your customers through on-demand human insight, contact us here.

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