Let’s start this blog post with five marketing personas: Ed, Alicia, Shelly, Maria, and Brad. Ed runs growth at a startup in New York City. Based around the corner from Ed, Alicia builds digital programs for one of the biggest publishers in the world. Maria is a content strategist who has a track record for transforming brands into storytellers. Shelly and Brad are corporate innovators who are leading re-branding initiatives for a 177-year-old finance company.

If you met Ed, Alicia, Shelly, Maria, and Brad over coffee, you’d probably like them a lot. You’d spend time discussing challenges that you share in your roles, marketing tactics and industry gossip. As you think about these hypothetical people, you probably imagine your best friends and coworkers — not sketches who exist through customer development, Google docs and years of data collection.

Ed, Alicia, Shelly, Maria, and Brad are the best types of marketing personas. They’re based on real people — with real personalities and needs. They’re personas that I used to create this blog post — and the reason why you’ve made your way to this paragraph. Here is the blueprint that I used to create them:

1. Actual customers

Modern marketing depends on strong customer relationships. Now more than ever, audience attention spans are fleeting. According to one report, goldfish are easier to keep engaged than human beings.

A powerful way to ‘cut through the noise’ is through personalized digital experiences that align your messaging with your audience’s in-the-moment needs. As you can imagine, there are multiple moving parts for marketers to optimize when creating targeted campaigns — the minutiae can almost feel dizzying.

Marketing personas help by bringing a ‘big picture’ vision to your campaign planning strategy. They help you remember that there is a real human being on the other side of the computer screen.  When you imagine actual customers, you’ll stop ‘thinking’ and begin ‘feeling’ instead — empathy will replace psychology as your guiding force.

When crafting your marketing personas, start with actual customer examples like Ed, Alicia, Shelly, Maria, and Brad.

2. A wide net

Imagine that you’re assembling a panel with five of your favorite customers — and that you’re inviting each person over the phone. Your conversations would have commonalities, especially around frequently asked questions. Your communication styles with each person, however, will be very different.

In the world of customer conversations, subtleties matter. People respond to different tones, styles, and content — and many of these differences come from demographic or psychographic variables. From the perspective of a marketer, it’s challenging to understand what influences these varying perspectives.

The best way to start is to look for patterns. Start by creating a list of 20 customers. Group them together in a way that feels natural to you. As you continue to condense these groups, identify the trait that members share in common.

This process will help you define each persona’s business value. Now, it’s time to name these groups — Ed, Alicia, Shelly, Maria, and Brad.

3. Imagination

Humans build connections through stories. From casual chit-chat to in-depth conversations, we learn from one another by sharing real experiences. The more time we spend together, the better we can understand each others’ complex personalities.

With marketing personas, this process is exponentially more challenging — you’re dealing with a two-dimensional, hypothetical sketch of a fictional person. That’s why you need to stretch your imagination as far as it can possibly extend. Use your imagination, through storytelling, to create a thorough customer profile. Each marketing persona should touch on the following dimensions:

  • Demographic details like age group, location, potential family status
  • 'For fun' preferences like hobbies, personal styles, sense of humor
  • Professional skillsets and aptitudes
  • On-the-job goals and challenges
  • Fears and risk tolerance
  • Personal motivations

Don’t feel constricted to a marketing persona template. Instead, start with a free-form story that fully captures the persona that you’re trying to describe. You may need to jump back to step 1 — to let your actual customers guide you.

4. CRM data

If you run a marketing team, you know that every customer relationship is valuable. Unfortunately, you can’t devote the same level of attention to every customer. Different personas require varying levels of attention to reach their full potential as customers.

CRM data can help you prioritize strategies for each marketing persona. For instance, you may notice that one of your personas has a high churn likelihood. In response to this trend, you may decide to modify several steps in your onboarding process.

When evaluating CRM data, look beyond the personas that generate the most money for your company. Instead, focus on opportunities to improve relationships, minimize churn, and understand your customers on a 1:1 level. These subtle optimizations will help you improve aggregate-level revenue.

Final thoughts

Whatever you do, resist the urge to prevent stereotypes. There’s a reason why this guide doesn’t force you to use a template. Instead of  forcing customers into a mold, this process encourages free-form thinking and inductive reasoning. The less you focus on what a persona ‘should’ be, the more you’ll be able to see your customers for who they actually are, on a 1:1 basis. The next step? Creative, personalized marketing.