5 Things Fictional Characters Can Teach Us About Customer Personas
Why bother creating customer personas? Fictional characters offer a clue.
Customer personas: Your secret marking weapon!
You hear it from all the content marketing experts: “To succeed with marketing, you need to understand your customer.” The same experts inevitably suggest creating customer personas to get inside the heads of the people most likely to buy from your company.
“But personas are a waste of time!” you say.
I get that. It can seem way more valuable to put time into business activities with tangible short-term returns. But for success in the long term, personas may just be your secret weapon.
To understand why, let’s look at the process a little differently. Instead of seeing customer persona creation as a tedious time-waster, think of it as writing a story. The plot is your marketing funnel and the characters are your customers.
Ready? Let’s go. (It’ll be fun; I promise.)
But first…what is a customer persona?
According to HubSpot, a customer persona is “a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.” You might also see them referred to as buyer personas.
To create personas, you put yourself in your ideal customer’s shoes and basically map out every detail about them that’s relevant to their potential interactions with your business.
Put that way, yes — it sounds like just another boring “business thing” you have to grind your way through. But something really fun occurred to me recently while filling in a persona template with a client.
For context, I used to write fiction. Like, a lot of fiction. The amount of time I spent noodling around in characters’ heads might be embarrassing if not for what it taught me about the value of understanding how they think, act and feel.
I realized that customer personas work the same way. Getting a detailed picture of your ideal buyer teaches you important lessons about the way your audience behaves. It’s one of the keys to a fruitful content marketing campaign.
Here are five of those lessons — pay attention to them as you build out your own personas!
1) Customer personas make it easier to understand mindset.
Spend a significant amount of time developing and writing a character, and you become familiar with the intimate details of their lives. You get insight into their families, hobbies, opinions, biases, likes and dislikes. Even if some of it winds up being irrelevant to the plot, it all has an impact on how they behave in the context of the story.
For this reason, your personas should have the same level of detail.
Consider, for example, a startup promoting a subscription fitness app. Users download the app, take a quick survey and get a personalized exercise program with guidance from a trainer.
The goal is to get as many people to sign up for the app as possible, but to achieve this goal, the company needs to know who to target and how.
After a little research, the marketing team discovers that busy men with lofty fitness goals make up a large segment of their target market. Thus, “Warren the Weekend Warrior” is born.
Warren is married, has a couple of kids and works a typical desk job, so he doesn’t have a lot of time to work out. He likes to stay active but doesn’t want to spend hours at the gym. And it would be nice if he could bulk up a little.
All these details about Warren influence what workouts he searches for, why the fitness app might appeal to him and the how the company can best capture his attention.
2) Customers’ stories influence their actions.
Every character has a backstory. It’s what makes them interesting and allows us to empathize with their experiences. Backstories also give context for how characters respond to their circumstances and interact with other characters.
You can think of personas as your customers’ backstories. Take Warren in the above example. The focus of his searches for fitness solutions will be a lot different than, say, George the Gym Rat.
Warren is going to look for and interact with content that shows him how to get fit on a tight schedule.
George will prefer to get pumped with longer workouts using the equipment available at his local gym.
Both Warren and George have different levels of exercise experience and different workout goals. Knowing this allows you to map out a series of actions each persona might logically take on the journey to discovering and engaging with your brand.
3) Inconsequential details can turn out to be important.
How many times have you read a well-crafted story in which a character made a one-off remark that actually foreshadowed a major part of the plot?
Your message needs to make sense to your customer personas.
It’s the same with personas. While it might seem pointless to brainstorm things like hobbies, leisure activities, favorite TV shows and secret fears for your ideal customers, this kind of information can be invaluable to your marketing message.
How? If Warren is into group sports rather than solo training, you’re more likely to grab his attention with content about a local fitness class than something on the benefits of a solitary hike. And you could land George as a customer with a video on how to do the perfect deadlift if he’s harboring the suspicion that problems with form are undermining his gains.
4) Customer personas evolve over time.
In any good story, characters grow. They change. They adapt to new circumstances. If they don’t, the story goes stagnant and fails to keep people’s interest.
You can see how this applies to business. Your customers aren’t always going to interact with your company in the same way. Searching, shopping and buying habits change, and your personas need to change to reflect new patterns.
What happens if they don’t? Your content stops attracting your company’s Warrens and Georges because it no longer aligns with their mindsets, habits or needs.
And then we have the most challenging similarity between personas and fictional characters…
5) Real customers don’t conform to personas.
Characters are fickle. Ask any fiction writer. You create them, give them a nice, neat plot to follow, and they grab the story and run in a completely unexpected direction.
It’s like they have minds of their own!
(And before you ask, “But don’t you control them?” … trust me, it doesn’t work that way.)
Characters do unexpected things; so do customers.
Don’t expect your customers to behave exactly like the personas you envision. Working out detailed personas can get you close to a realistic view of who you’re marketing to, but people will always be the variables in your content marketing machine.
It’s not just about changes in markets, search algorithms or technologies; it’s about the complexity of real humans. Customer personas guide you in making educated guesses but can’t predict every possible interaction.
Not to worry, though. All is not lost! If you’re diligent to monitor what does and doesn’t work in your content campaigns, you’ll gain a better understanding of how customers behave in real life and can adapt your content strategy accordingly.
See? Personas aren’t as boring as you thought. They’re interesting, dynamic and a little unpredictable, just like fictional characters. And the people they represent will always continue to surprise you. Learn to enjoy the process, and use it to fine-tune your content strategy.