The Foundation for Every Meaningful Customer Interaction


I made my first marketing mistake pretty much right away. I had started in Procter & Gamble’s Tide division, and was asked to figure out Tide’s buyer persona. In other words, who was their ideal customer?

“Easy,” I thought. “I’ve used Tide before. My mom uses Tide. So their persona’s gotta be someone like my mom, right?”

Of course, that was a big mistake.

And yet I think a lot of people fall into that trap. That’s because humans are biased. We want to believe that everyone is exactly like the people we know, so it can be hard to step back and really work off of measurable data and behaviors.

Since then, I’ve had my hands in many different marketing vertical and channels, and I believe that truly understanding your customer persona and their buyer journey are the foundations for your entire marketing strategy.

If you don’t really understand who your ideal customers are, you’ll never connect with them in a meaningful way. And you won’t have the insights you need to make big-picture business decisions, either.

I explored these ideas in depth during a recent talk at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (you can watch the presentation here), but I’d like to share the key takeaways with you in this post.

First, what are personas—and why do they matter?

Let’s get to the dictionary definition first: personas are a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer, based on market research and real data about your existing customers.

They help you understand the real people you’re selling to, not those you think you’re selling to. Personas are semi-fictitious in the sense that they combine all the characteristics of your ideal customer into one, but they’re based on real data.

When you take the time to develop a strong customer persona, you can:

  • Acquire higher-quality leads through your marketing funnel.
  • Deploy a sales strategy that targets and converts the right people.
  • Develop key products based on what your buyers actually want.
  • Create a better user experience, whether it’s digital or physical.
  • Make better decisions about where to invest limited time and resources.

Developing a strong buyer persona

We all have biases about the types of people we think use our products. For example, if you have a handful of enthusiastic customers who love and advocate for your brand, you might assume that they’re your ideal audience. But while they may be enthusiastic, the real question is...are they profitable?

The data can help you figure that out. First, segment your audience and identify your top 25-30% most profitable customers. Next, really try to find out who they are and what they care about. You can do this through user surveys, focus groups, individual interviews, and observations.

The information you gather should be multidimensional in nature and include both demographic data like age, gender, and education as well as psychographics like motivations, fears, hobbies, where they spend their time online, and so on.

What you eventually create should look something like this:

This persona reflects a multidimensional person. We can see that she’s a 35-year-old director who travels a lot for business. We can also see her personality, goals, ambitions, frustrations, motivations, and brand loyalties.

Most importantly, she has a picture and a name. When you share this persona across your organization, that’s what will help people understand, on an emotional level, exactly who they’re targeting. I’ve seen too many personas that leave this piece out, and so they miss that opportunity to create a real connection.

One final note: if you sell multiple products to different types of people, you may need to develop multiple personas.

Creating a buyer journey map

Once you’ve developed your persona, create a visual representation of what a buyer experiences each time they interact with you. This is called a journey map.

Be warned: developing a journey map is not something you can just knock out in a day. You’ll need to gather a lot of information before you begin, including:

  • Timelines. These are all the stages at which a persona interacts with you. Are they in the awareness stage, considering your product, comparing you to the competition, etc.?
  • Emotions. Which emotions does the person experience at each stage, and can you optimize for them? For example, if they tend to feel overwhelmed at a particular point, how might you simplify the information you give them?
  • Touchpoints / Channels. Touchpoints are the kinds of interactions the person has with you, and the channel is the platform where these touchpoints happen. If I contact product support, my interaction is through support, but the channel could be phone, chat, in app, in person, and so on.
  • Moments of truth. These are times when you turn an otherwise frustrating experience into a lasting positive impression. I’ll share an example. A few years ago, I booked a flight so my family could come out to San Francisco for Christmas. This is a big deal for us: my mom must see me on Christmas or else the world will end. But a big snow storm was coming, and it looked like most flights would be cancelled that day. Just as I was feeling anxious about missing Christmas with them, Virgin Airlines called. To my amazement, they asked if my family wanted to leave on an earlier flight to avoid the storm! After that one moment of truth, I flew Virgin every chance I got.
  • Supporting characters. Consider your persona’s supporting characters. Who are the people who influence their decision-making process, and how do they do it? How could you educate them so they support your buyer’s journey?

Developing a buyer journey map is a big project. If you’re doing it for the first time, here is the process I recommend:

  1. Review goals with key stakeholders. Get everyone in the same room: your data analysts and business ops people; your supervisor and their supervisor; the key stakeholders from sales, product development, and design. Once you put this journey map in place, you’re going to want people to use it, so get their buy-in up front.
  2. Gather your research. Along with the usual methods, one of my favorite tips is to have someone go through all of your support tickets and social media complaints. You can get valuable insights about the customer experience from these, since people tend to speak out when they’re unhappy.
  3. Brainstorm touchpoints and channels. Identify every touchpoint you have: online and offline ads, your website, a free trial experience, email funnels, and so on. Include sales and support touchpoints as well.
  4. Create an empathy map. Try to understand the emotions the customer experiences at each touchpoint. Do they feel excited? Intrigued? Anxious? If you understand their emotions, you can better respond to their experience.
  5. Take a step back. Now step back and ask yourself: What does our brand want to stand for? What do we want to deliver? Is that trust, reliability, comfort? Is it a feeling of empowerment? Define the experience you want customers to have as they interact with your product/service at every step of the journey.
  6. Create a visual map. You’ll find a thousand journey map templates on Google, but the important thing is just to sketch it out at first. Once you have all the pieces in place, have your design team create a digital journey map you can share with the rest of the organization.

As with personas, you may find that you need more than one journey map—for example, one for each different vertical or product line.

Developing a buyer persona and journey map can take a lot of time and effort, but the pay-offs are big. Not only do these tools transform your marketing, they often bring greater clarity to your organization. That’s because at every major decision point, you can look back at the data and say, “OK, this is our most profitable customer. What are we doing to serve them? How can we focus on them?”
















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