Buyer personas aren’t perfect, and I have questioned how effectively a company that is having trouble understanding their customers can map out a buyer persona based on those customers. To a certain extent, it’s a bit of a catch-22. Companies that have an easier time creating accurate and effective buyer personas are probably the ones who already understand their target market the best and thus are not as desperately in need of those personas. Companies that really need them to help focus their efforts and understand their customers are probably the ones who are already not doing a great job at understanding their customers in the first place, which makes creating buyer personas more of a challenge. Because of this somewhat hedged opinion on buyer personas in general, I was reading Vince Giorgi’s article on his own skepticism with interest when the following quote, I admit, stopped me in my tracks.

“I have this nagging sense that, when personas do get developed, many end up being more suitable as backstory for an actor preparing for a movie role than as firm footings on which to base strategy and creative work.”

Nope. Nope. That’s just wrong. Sometimes the many years I spent studying dramatic performance of one type or another prove useful in my current career, and this is one of those times. And let me say, it’s not wrong because I disagree with most of the points being made in the article, I agree with basically all of them, but because the kinds of empty details that Giorgi is referring to wouldn’t help me at all as an actor, either. Not only that, but the kind of information that was the most critical to figure out as an actor developing a character is exactly the same information that is critical to understand as a marketer. And so, with great appreciation to Uta Hagen and my college script analysis professor, tips from acting for creating a viable, effective buyer persona.

What do they want? – Regardless of the school of acting, you’ll hear talk about what a character’s motivation is. It’s become kind of a buzzword punchline outside of the acting world, but it’s actually fundamentally important both to good acting and to creating a buyer persona or really generally understanding your customers. All motivation means is “what do they want?” That’s it. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s complicated, but that’s all it boils down to. In a longer performance, you may have an overall motivation for the piece as a whole and then specific motivations for individual scenes or groups of scenes, and you can do the same thing when dealing with a buyer persona. Think about what a customer generally wants out of their relationship with your company, or out of a certain class of products or services, and then what they want out of an individual product.

What’s stopping them from getting it? – In any play or opera or movie or television show, the fundamental conflict is between what the character wants, and what’s stopping them from getting it. It can be another character, it can be unseen universal forces, but something is stopping them from easily and immediately getting what they want. That’s what creates the plot. For a buyer persona, you can look at this several ways. Either there’s something stopping them from becoming a customer, or there’s something keeping them from getting what they want (at least not entirely) out of the existing relationship they have with a company’s offerings.

How do they change? – Every interesting character changes over the time we watch them. The same is true for your customers. How do you want to see them change after they start using your products or services? Part of this should be the resolution of whatever was stopping them in the previous step, but you can and should go beyond that to larger goals. If you sell cookware, your end goal may be for your customers to cook more and be more confident in the kitchen. If you offer IT services, your goal may be for your customers to have less stress around their corporate network functionality and to have more time for other things. This goal can be big and pretty broad, as long as you figure out how you get the customer there. It’s not enough to just plop an end goal down and call it done, you have to know how to get through the customer’s story to that point.

What do they want now? – For an actor, this helps them have a sense at the end of the piece of “what now?” Because the character’s life in the context of the story doesn’t stop when the play or movie does, it’s important for actors to have a sense of the continuity for their character past what the audience sees. For a buyer persona, this is how you understand how to move a customer back from the bottom of the sales funnel back to the top. Once they have their first product from you, or once you’ve helped them resolve one need, what’s next? What do they move on to now? We all know how humans are, we always want something, so don’t be fooled into thinking that stops just because one need has been addressed.

You don’t need to know what kind of dog your customers own, or whether they prefer chicken to beef, or what their favorite color is. What you need to know is fundamentally what they want. The fact that that question has different answers is why buyer personas are necessary and potentially powerful, but you always have to maintain your focus on that fundamental question. If I was writing a buyer persona for you right now, what would the answer to “what do they want” be? Sharing in the comments is, as always, appreciated.