How to Create Powerful Personas with Corporate-wide Impact


With more data and analytics available than ever before, marketers are better able to understand what content, channels, and touch points may be most engaging based on a prospect’s buying role and where they are in the buying process.

But if it still feels like a hit or miss situation, you may be wondering what else you could be doing to help guide your content and channel decisions.   

Well, if you have not yet created personas, now is the time. Personas provide significant corporate-wide benefits and visibility – not just marketing impact. They also help you prove and improve the value of marketing.

This article provides the what, why, and how of personas so that you can get started creating this valuable asset.

What Is the Definition of a Persona? 

Personas are archetypal groups that represent the needs of a larger group’s goals, requirements, and personal preferences.  Think of them as “stand-ins” for real customers. A persona seeks to zero-in on customer behavior and characteristics using a concise and specific qualitative description.

It’s important not to confuse personas with profiles and roles. A profile contains information about the type of user/buyer relevant to the product being offered. Profiles contain general characteristics about your groups of users/buyers. Profiles serve as the foundation for constructing personas.

And while these two concepts seem similar, they are quite different. Profiles describe types of prospects, customers, or users. Roles define a function performed or part played by a prospect, customer, or user. These two charts illustrate some of the key elements and differences in crafting a description of a profile vs. a role.

Profile Example: CFO

Gender 70% are male
Age Nearly half are 40-49 years old
Education 80% have an accounting background or audit-related experience
Tenure 70% in position 3 years or less
Average US Income $117K
Common Responsibilities Responsible for all the money that the company receives and disburses. Oversees the accounting department to ensure proper maintenance of all accounting systems and function. Supervises the staff in the accounting department making sure that the department runs smoothly. Ensures the maintenance of appropriate internal controls and financial procedures.

Role Example: CFO

Role Accurately project the long-term financial picture of the company as well as analyze the company’s financial data to maximize profitability
Areas of focus The recent financial crisis has reinforced the need for CFOs to pay close attention to cash, cost management and working capital. The CFO has primary day-to-day responsibility for planning, implementing, managing and controlling all financial-related activities of the company. This includes direct responsibility for accounting, finance, forecasting, strategic planning, job costing, legal, property management, deal analysis and negotiations, investor relationships and partnership compliance and private and institutional financing.
Insights CFOs are typically strong problem solvers.  They exercise sound judgment and make decisions based on accurate and timely analyses. They operate with a high level of integrity and dependability with a strong sense of urgency and results-orientation.
What keeps the CFO Up at Night Do we have the right sources of cash? Are we using our cash correctly?Have we established the right accounting policies and procedures for credit and collections, purchasing, payment of bills? How can we do this more effectively and efficiently? Is the company’s performance as expected?

Personas describe the nuances that can exist in roles.  Let’s continue to use a CFO role to illustrate the concept.  Within the role of a CFO for example, there could be several personas: the CFO Strategist, the CFO Traditionalist, and the CFO Risk Avoider.  Each of these personas represent CFOs who have similar responsibilities and similar profile and role descriptions, but they are very different personas.

The name assigned to each persona itself reveals something about the character. And as a result, the content and messaging will be different and so will the narrative and pictures associated with each.  Most likely what they read, the problems and opportunities that grab their attention and so on will be different.

For example, the narrative about John the CFO Traditionalist will emphasize that he operates primarily as a financial gatekeeper so you will need messages and content that will help John demonstrate his expertise in performance accounting and financial management. Bill the CFO Strategist, on the other hand, will have a narrative about how Bill acts as a strategic partner and trusted advisor, serves as a leader in the business and focuses on creating shareholder confidence.

Personas are typically written as a narrative. For example, an excerpt for the narrative for John the Traditionalist might read as follows:

John values tradition and security.  He is 45 years old with 10 years of experience and a BA in Accountancy.  He took a traditional path of serving as an auditor, finance manager, and financial controller, to his current role which he has been in for almost 3 years.  He will work hard and long to fulfill his duties.  John is company vs. customer-centric. 

John is process oriented, looking for every opportunity to introduce time- and step-saving processes to every function which he controls. John has profound respect for facts and concrete information. He appreciates structure and order. He dislikes abstract theories and doing things that don’t make sense.  He makes decisions objectively, applying logic and rational thinking.  He is loyal, faithful, stable, practical, down-to-earth and family oriented.

Why Invest in Creating Personas?

Personas bring a particular type of customer to life by giving them a name and/or title, personality, motivations and in some instances even a photo. They provide a common organization-wide point of view about customers’ goals and need.

Personas also enable customer-centricity and facilitate organization-wide alignment, making it easier for everyone to keep their target market and prospects in mind as they go about their respective functions related to increasing revenue and profitability.

For example, personas help:

  • Corporate marketers understand what content, channels, and touch points may be most engaging and cost-effective
  • Product managers/marketers develop an initial set of market requirements, product functionality, design and positioning that will meet prospects’ needs
  • Salespeople identify what specific messages and content will resonate and accelerate the sales cycle
  • R&D prioritize development efforts based on market/customer needs

So, you can see that while they are simple in form and structure, personas provide valuable input for strategic decisions throughout the organization.

How to Create A Persona

Even though personas are fictitious, they are based on knowledge of real customers. Therefore, creating a persona requires research. You need data to develop personas that actually represent customers rather than reflecting internal opinion. You might start by looking at existing customers for a particular role and see if there are some obvious clusters.  You can use this as a starting point to design your research to identify trends or patterns in user behaviors, expectations, motivations, preferences, and concerns.

One of the best ways to gather your initial data is to interview real customers. The first step is to decide who to interview.  We recommend including current as well as potential customers. Plan to conduct at least 15-20 one-hour long interviews for each persona type.

Structure your discussion guide so that you can learn

  • Basic demographics, job responsibilities, and major tasks
  • What the person likes best and least about their job
  • What a typical day is like and how the person spends their time
  • What frustrates the person and what makes for a good vs. a bad day
  • What kinds of fires they put out and how often
  • Their goals, attitudes, values, and beliefs

Once you complete all of the interviews, analyze the data to find patterns and clusters. Give each persona cluster a brief description that captures the persona’s goals, needs, behaviors, concerns, experiences, likes, dislikes, etc.

Combine details from the customer interviews in the same cluster. Select and include details in your narrative that will help the sales team understand what motivates this person and how they buy.

Then give each persona a name and a photo or graphic representation.  Try to keep the persona to one page. The next step is to develop a messages map that resonates with each persona and customize sales presentations and materials accordingly.

There is no ideal number of personas; however, we suggest keeping the set small—perhaps three-four primary persona clusters for each role.

Turning Personas into a Powerful Corporate-wide Tool

You probably started down this path to improve the value and effectiveness of your marketing, e.g. to better focus your sales and marketing training and materials, and to enable marketing and the sales team to identify and communicate customers’ needs efficiently and effectively.

Now share the personas across the organization for corporate-wide impact. These “stand in” customers, based on real customer data, help the entire organization connect and engage in meaningful ways that will resonate with customers and prospects.