4 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Personas

There is a rumor that at Amazon Jeff Bezos has an empty chair at meetings to stand in for the customer because decisions should be made with the customer at front of mind. Creating personas is a similar act, only it fills in the details about your customers or your audience. It fills the empty chair.

“Personas breathe real life into your audience so you don’t fall into the trap of depersonalizing your customers by thinking of them as users, rather than considering real flesh-and-blood people,” writes Ahava Leibtag, content strategist and president of Aha Media Group. “Personas help all content creators focus on the customer, making their needs, worries and responsibilities foremost, rather than our own.”

How to Gather Data for Personas

Make sure you gather information that is specific to your mission. If you are a foundation that deals with education, you’ll want to gather info about whether your audience includes teachers, students, administrators, policy makers, or textbook publishers. Kevan Lee on the Buffer Social blog writes, “An Internet news company would require different customer information than a medical supply company, and a persona built for a buying funnel might look different than one built for a blog.”

Your website analytics are a great place to get information to build your personas. “Inside your analytics, you can see where your visitors came from, what keywords they used to find you, and how long they spent once they arrived,” writes Lee. This data can reveal the desires that led your audience to you as well as the tools they used.

Listen on social media to learn about your audience and potential audience. What kind of questions are people asking about your product or your cause on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn? There are a lot of complaints on social media; use them to figure out what kind of problems your audience has.

Talk to your sales team. They interact with your audience every day and will have a lot of great insight. 

Most important, talk to your audience directly. Talk to them in-depth and ask them the questions that will get at the information that you can't get anyway else. 

Avoid Persona Mistakes

Adele Revella, the founder and president of The Buyer Persona Institute, writes about four common mistakes organizations make when creating personas.

1.    Making stuff up about personas

Often there will be holes in the information that you can gather easily about your audience. Not everything can be revealed by analytics or talking with your sales team. Don’t just fill in these holes with what you imagine might be true. You have to dig deeper.

“If content marketing is going to benefit from buyer persona development, you will need to uncover specific insights that are unknown to your competitors or anyone inside your company,” writes Revella. “This information will be so valuable that you would never post it on your website. However, it will tell you, with scary accuracy, exactly what you need to do to deliver content that persuades buyers to choose you.”

Talk to the people who engage with your organization. Ask them why they did. Ask them why they didn’t go with someone else who does something similar. Ask them what they thought at each step in the process of interacting with your organization. “Each in-depth conversation should take 20 or 30 minutes, but the time it will save you in planning, writing, and revising content for each persona will be immeasurable,” writes Revella. She recommends having these conversations several times a month to keep your information, and thus your personas, current.

2.    Getting sidetracked by trivia

When you gather a lot of information, it can be difficult to decide what is relevant. You want the information that you use to be actionable when you are creating content. If you are an organization that promotes the welfare of children, knowing your audiences’ preferred shoe brand doesn’t matter. Unless you’re TOMS.

Revella says there are a few pieces of information that you should prioritize. What are the problems that your persona dedicates time, money or political capital to? What does success mean to your persona (this can be either a tangible or intangible metric). What barriers does your persona face to interacting with your organization? How will your persona evaluate your service or cause?

3.    Developing too many buyer personas

Many people think they should create a new persona for each demographic group. Not so, according to Revella. You only need to create a new persona when a segment of your audience differs in a way that’s related directly to your cause. For example, if there is one group of people who have time that they’d like to volunteer, while another group has money they can donate, they should be represented by two different personas because these differences markedly change how they interact with your organization. It doesn’t matter how old these people are or what gender.

4.    Conducting scripted Q&A interviews

“Using a telephone script or online survey to learn about your buyers won’t reveal anything you don’t already know—inevitably, your buyer’s first answer to any question will be something obvious, high level, and not particularly useful,” writes Revella. “The structure imposed by surveys and scripts leads to nice charts, but it fails to reveal the new insights that you need.”

Instead, have a real conversation and ask open-ended questions. Ask probing questions. Let the answers you get lead you places you didn’t know you needed to go. Follow-up is everything.

Revella emphasizes the importance of really understanding your audiences’ perspective. Before you can be persuasive, you need to be empathetic.


This article is an excerpt from my book-in-progress called "Ignite Action: A Digital Strategy Handbook." For more about the book, check out my "why" for writing it.