If you were to look at two separate photographs on a newspaper website – one of a burned down house, and one of a sobbing child being held by a firefighter – which one would more likely encourage you to click to read more?

I’m sure an overwhelming number of you would say the photo with the child.

But why?

I could delve into the science and psychology of it all, but really it comes down to this: people read newspapers; houses don’t.

What I mean is when crafting a news piece (or, for our interests, a piece of marketing material), you have to make sure you consider the interests of your readers.

People care about other people more than they care about some inanimate object.

That’s why the buyer persona has been a staple in marketing for ages. Buyer (or marketing) personas help us understand the perspective and mindset of our ideal customer by creating a fictional representation of the people we want to target with our product or service.

And by fictional character, we really do mean character. By the time you’ve completed your buyer personas, you should have the names, occupations, spending habits, food tastes and more about your characters.

The more detail you have, the more targeted your messaging can become.

The million-dollar question then, is, how do you create your ideal buyer personas?

First, start with existing data.

A little research and data can go a long way

You already have a ton of data at your fingertips to use to begin developing your buyer persona.

For example, how and where did your audience find and consume your content? Someone who uses an Android phone and Bing will likely have different habits and interests than someone else who used Yahoo from a desktop.

Don’t overlook the human element either. Your sales team is out there in the trenches, speaking directly to your leads, prospects and customers. Lean on them to help you create generalizations of your audience. Do they notice that specific prospects with a certain trait or background are more likely to become a customer?

This type of information is priceless.

Ramp up your own segmentation as well. When creating forms on your website, include form fields that capture aspects of a persona. For example, if most of your prospects are CFOs, start finding out the size of their organizations through additional form fields.

Talk to your customers and prospects

Like any true marketer, I hang my hat on data. Numbers are what help me develop and adapt strategies that I’m confident will perform well.

But don’t compromise the human element for data. Remember, in the end, you’re selling to people.

When building your buyer personas, tap into (and interview) your most valuable asset: your customers and prospects.

When choosing whom to interview, keep in mind:

  • Unhappy customers are as valuable as happy ones
  • Prospects are worthwhile interviewees. It helps you determine the type of person who’s resistant to a conversion
  • Consider using incentives to get people to talk (Amazon gift cards work wonders)
  • Find at least 3 interviewees for each persona you’re creating
  • When interviewing your subjects, focus on the why ¬– the why will help you better understand the reasoning behind a person’s actions and behaviors

Now, which questions should you ask?

You’ve lined up the people you’re going to interview to help build your personas. Now you have to ask them the right questions.

The types of questions you’ll ask will vary based on your industry; but some general topics worth covering include:

  • Personal background (when appropriate, discuss marital status, children (or not), age, education, etc.
  • Try to determine how your subject came to be in the career he/she is in now. More often than not, one’s career path is filled with left-turns and uphill climbs, all of which helped mold the person whom you’re interviewing
  • Have them describe a recent purchase, including their evaluation process (where they went to obtain information) and how they made their final decision
  • Get them to share what associations, social networks, publications, and blogs they subscribe to and are a part of
  • Since addressing pain points should be atop your goals when marketing your product or service, have your subjects explain their biggest challenges in life

By the end of your interviews, you should have the information necessary to identify patterns and commonalities, which will become the foundation of at least one, if not several, buyer personas.

Take, for example, the following:

Prototype Phil is the head of human resources for a company he’s worked with for the past 7 years. He was promoted to his current position after spending five years as an HR associate.

Phil’s recently divorced, and has two children (12 and 9).

Phil’s in his early 40s, with an income greater than $100,000, but less than $150,000. He lives in a suburb of the city where he works.

Despite his stressful job, Phil carries a calm demeanor. He admits most of his calls are fielded by an assistant, as well as unsolicited emails. He prefers to receive digital materials, vs. printed collateral.

As an HR manager, Phil’s goal is to maintain a positive work environment that nurtures collaboration and minimizes turnover.

Phil’s take on challenges is unique. As the head of HR, he’s frustrated at the amount of work that has to be done with such a small staff. But during his time as an associate, he remembers being frustrated at how little involvement his supervisor had with day-to-day operations. He’d rather not emulate that behavior.

What your company can do:
Introduce solutions that empower Phil’s team to get more work done with less effort, while supporting Phil’s goal of being more involved with his team and colleagues than his predecessor was.

Common objections (why Phil wouldn’t buy your product or service):

  • I don’t want to have to train my team to use a new application
  • It’s difficult to have company heads agree to invest in a new application
  • It’s not the software that’s slowing things down; it’s the lack of resources

I think it helps to give your persona an actual name (ours is Prototype Phil, for this example) and, while you’re at it, include an actual photo that represents that persona. It might seem silly, but the more realistic your persona appears, the more likely you’ll remember who, exactly, you’re trying to target.

Armed with that data and feedback, you can begin to craft marketing materials that speak directly to the pain points of your audience, while addressing their objections before those objections are even made.