Tutorial: Crafting the Perfect Audience Avatar

During his seminal 1990s run on the The Flash for DC Comics, writer Mark Waid developed the relationship between the titular character’s alter-ego, Wally West, and his future wife, Linda Park.

One of the cornerstones of Waid’s run on the book was that regardless of how directionless Wally became as The Flash and no matter how lost he became during his sci-fi adventures, Linda was always there to be his lightning rod.

She was his true north. She was the force that kept him focused and when his direction did waver, she was the one thing that reminded him exactly where to focus his attention.

Cute, right?

What is an avatar / customer persona and why should you create one for your business?

Without Linda, Wally got lost.

And without an avatar, or as they’re sometimes known, a “customer persona”, it’s easy for your business to become directionless and to get lost, too.

As an early stage entrepreneur or founder, you need to know exactly who you’re serving; as a content creator you need to know for whom you’re creating content.

You need to know why they align themselves with you; what you can do to help them; what needs they have; the values they hold dear.

You need to be empathetic to their lifestyles, sympathetic to their worries and proactive to their concerns. In fact, you need to know your avatar as well as you know yourself and your own “why”.

Without this, how can you be sure that your content / product / service is solving the right problem, for the right people, at the right time?

How can you possibly plan anything within your business without really understanding who you’re talking to?

Simply put, your avatar is a metaphorical representation of your business’s ideal customer.

More importantly, by creating an avatar as discussed here, your avatar is your business’s ideal person with whom to trade.

They are the type of person with whom you will develop a real-life, lasting relationship.

For early stage entrepreneurs, that avatar is typically derived from the customer conversations that you have during the research phase and sums up your perfect / target customer in an easy to understand, yet highly useful way.

As your business grows, you may find yourself needing to create multiple avatars, too. The reasons for this can be complex, we’ll get into that a little later, but broadly speaking wherever there is a differing set of needs amongst your audience or customers, a new avatar may well come in to play.

As with each part of your business, your avatar will grow and develop alongside you but with proper consideration and thought early on, your avatar won’t dramatically change — it will simply evolve as you evolve.

Alongside your internal brand guidelines, avatar creation is one of the most important planning assets in your marketing arsenal and will inevitably guide every single piece of content & every single product that you create.

Your avatar is the person to whom you’re promising to deliver upon your brand values. And to develop your brand values, you must understand exactly what values your avatar holds dear, in return.

Your brand and your avatar are two sides of the same coin, and together they form the backbone of your business.

Your brand = “I promise to do x, y and z whilst upholding [these values] in order to best serve [this person (your avatar)].”

My first exposure to avatars / personas, and the effect it has on my business (aka. why I’m passionate about YOU nailing it!)

When I was in my early twenties I began studying at The Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing in London.

At that time, I was unfamiliar with the concept of buyer personas, avatars and anything over and above simple demographics based market segmentation.

In fact, I was still a freelance digital trainer and just starting out in business for the first time “properly”.

Wow, how time flies and grey hair appears.

Thinking back to that time, I was focussed on providing a solution to people, and I knew my “why”, but what I didn’t know were the real down and dirty values that the people I was trying to help, hold dear.

As part of our first couple of days studying, we analysed campaign examples of how businesses ranging from one-person bricks and mortar businesses to the world’s largest car manufacturers built and worked with their own avatars & buyer personas to develop awareness, acquisition and retention campaigns that generated reasonably predictable results.

What became clear to me almost immediately was that each avatar created, be that a new customer avatar, a current customer avatar or a lapsed customer avatar, served a purpose and gave whomever was responsible for strategising the marketing campaigns a real hook to latch on to — it gave them an angle, because they knew exactly why they were talking to that person and exactly how to talk to that person in order to generate an emotional response, trust link or purchase safety net.

Since then, avatar creation has been a staple part of any business that I’ve been involved in.

I’ve created multiple avatars for my own businesses, from HACKSAW™ to Podcast Websites and of course, for Excellence Expected; I’ve undertaken marketing projects for clients and created avatars for each and every campaign we’ve ever undertaken and every time, we’ve gone deep into understanding the people with whom my client wants to work.

There’s no getting around this: creating your avatar is one of the most important early stage tasks for you and your business.

It shouldn’t be put off, nor should you assume that you “know your customers”.

In fact, before you even start to consider creating your first avatar or buyer persona, I wholeheartedly recommend that you undertake some stringent, high quality customer conversations to find out exactly what your potential audience wants and needs from you.

It’s not just about demographics

Initially, it’s easy to assume that your avatar is as simple as demographics:

My avatar is a stay at home mom.

Or, to put this into more service-based business terms:

My avatar is any business who wants a website.

The issue here is that this feels alright. It feels like you’re providing a solution to anyone who wants it and sure, in the early days of your business it’s very very easy to take the approach that “Hey, if someone wants to buy from me, then sure I’ll sell it to them!”.

But this isn’t sustainable. This can bring bad money into your business and bad money is one of the most poisonous things to happen to your business.

Instead, you have to delve deeper into so many aspects of your ideal customer that you can even begin to anticipate their behaviours; you understand what matters to them; you have empathy for their situation; you knowhow to create a desire weighted against their emotional triggers.

You have to make them a real person with attitudes, desires, needs, foibles, worries, reactions and plans.

You must understand external factors that influence them, you must understand not only where they are in their journey to you, but also you must understand how they make their purchase decisions and to whom they turn to for advice.

Going deeper, you have to predict, based on customer conversations, where they hang out online. You must figure out how they feel after a purchase, you need to understand what they value — is it price, service, quality, a combination thereof or something completely different?

The single avatar model

Your initial avatar should represent the most rounded version of an ideal customer and represent the core values of each sub-avatar that you may develop.

This person is someone who you will come to rely upon. It is the person to whom you’re writing when you create a new article; to whom you’re speaking when you create a new podcast episode; the person that you’re providing a solution for when you’re developing a new product or service.

This person’s values should marry with your own brand values and this person should be the one who keeps you moving in the right direction, just like Linda did for Wally.

This single avatar should be your base and all others should build upon this by adding layers that may not apply to your base avatar right away.

Live example: Podcast Websites’ base avatar

Meet Amy. She is 31 years old and is a part-time beginner podcaster looking to start her own show around a full-time office job.
Because she is working part-time on her podcast, Amy struggles to stay on top of all of the content online and values succinct and solution driven content with clear, step-by-step outcomes.
Amy is pretty tech savvy, but has never built anything more than a simple website using Squarespace. As such, she is familiar with the core concepts of web technology but needs help from intermediate level upwards.
Amy is already worried about the need to learn how to podcast and the pressure of learning about websites, media hosting, download statistics and every other piece of technology surrounding podcasting is a real concern for her that may result in her simply not podcasting.
Setting her podcast up on a budget, Amy values the understanding of exactly what she will need to spend each month and doesn’t have the time to deal with multiple contacts for each aspect of her podcasting setup.
Amy wants to feel like a part of a community that values her and supports her.
Amy shops on the high street and frequently books late deal holidays to all-inclusive resorts. She looks for the balance of the right value at the right price, not simply opting for the cheapest option.
An avid content consumer in her downtime such as before bed, at weekends and during passive activities like driving or training at the gym, Amy is keen to find a trusted source for her podcasting needs.
Because of her time constraints, Amy is most likely to open and respond to emails or other content before work, during lunchtime and after 7:30pm.
Her choice of social network is Facebook and she relies upon a group of friends and mentors, plus a growing mastermind group, to make the best decisions for her podcast, with a trusted recommendation holding more weight than any amount of marketing promise.
Amy is likely to explore all options when considering a new purchase but will come to a decision quickly when faced with the right value proposition and service promise.

What makes this a good base avatar?

It gives us deep insight into Amy, our ideal customer and importantly it gives us insight into her behaviours, needs and emotional triggers.

Considering that this represents our ideal customer, a base avatar as deep as Amy’s gives us the parameters within which to work when acquiring new members and within which to develop and pitch our brand and business.

If a prospective member doesn’t fit Amy’s avatar, then we know we must dig a little deeper to make sure that we’re a good fit for that person and that that person is a good fit for us.

We’re also able to project the best times to send content to Amy, when to schedule our webinars for and although this always needs testing, it’s better to start with a solid assumption versus a scattergun approach.

And when we create that content, when we create promotional materials or our conference merchandise, we pitch it at Amy and if she would find it useful, then it gets green lit.

The benefits are endless, from pre-emptive support actions to understanding the real motivations behind customer frustrations; new product development to cling parts of the service down — Amy allows us to make decisions based on the needs to a real person.

The multiple avatar model

Most tutorials will teach you to create a single avatar for your business and without a doubt, this is the most important first step that you can take.

But, just like your brand guidelines, your pricing strategy and your customer service attitude, your avatar development must continue to progress.

Your base avatar should be your focus. But, there’s little doubt that different people have different needs, circumstances and values.

These may all be ideal customers for you, but they may respond to different messaging and as such, where there is a distinct difference in circumstance or attitude, there is an opportunity to create a new avatar.

The reason for this is simple: when undertaking any marketing activities, you need to be able to be as specific as possible with your messaging, your calls to action and your value proposition.

The bigger picture actually comes into play here, too.

What happens as a customer grows and develops? What happens as they move through your purchase cycle?

Sure, their values stay the same, and their needs remain relatively similar at their core, but in the example of Amy above, new skills will be acquired and the solution that we provide to her will evolve as she moves from beginner podcaster to experienced producer.

When developing your business, your avatars will inevitably develop, too.

Based on experience, there are three areas of layered development that can lead to the creation of multiple avatars.

Each of these areas of development maintain the core values of your base avatar but in turn, each has its own characteristics that will directly influence how you communicate with that type of person.

Avatar layer #1: Status differentiators

Say you’re a car manufacturer and your base avatar is a person who values build quality, stylish looks and amazing service.

Those core values remain the same across the board, of that there is no doubt — they’re your brand promises.

But, of a set of three physical people who are all represented by your base avatar, there may well be three differing purchase reasons:

  1. Customer A is interested because your car offers the best fuel efficiency in class.
  2. Customer B is interested because your car offers the best performance in class.
  3. Customer C is interested because your car has the most family space in class.

These status differentiators offer enough difference between motivating factors that your base avatar can evolve in to three sub-avatars, perhaps as follows:

  1. Customer A — Alan, 58 years.
  2. Customer B — Ed, 42 years.
  3. Customer C — Adam, 36 years.

The question then becomes:

Why bother creating sub-avatars if the core values remain the same?

And the answer is simple: so that you can segment your marketing and sales efforts, make them more quantifiable and most importantly, create messaging, content and campaigns that speak directly to each segment of your audience, each of which is represented by a sub-avatar.

In the most extreme example, that of a car manufacturer, there may even be different car models with differing price points aimed at each separate avatar*.

Avatar layer #2: Emotional triggers

What really matters to your avatar? Your base avatar holds a series of values and they align with your brand promises as noted in layer #1, above.

Building upon the idea of status differentiators leads us to the notion of emotional triggers.

The fact is that your product or service may not come with a set of differing options that can be quantified and distilled into status led decisions means that people who fit your base avatar have just one product to decide to buy from you.

The challenge here is that although your base avatar gives you an exceptionally strong base to work and market from, the more that you understand your audience and / or the outlets within which you begins to sell your wares, the more emotional reasons you’ll begin to see affecting your prospects’ decision making.

For example, some people value price where others value convenience; some value customer service where others value something completely different.

Sure, you could market to everyone using one set of messaging that fits your base avatar, but by applying some developmental logic to your avatar, you can create even deeper segmenting that will afford you the chance to really niche down your marketing and really measure what works for you.

Live example: Podcast Websites’ emotional triggers

At Podcast Websites, our base avatar is always Amy.

But we know that sometimes, Amy is service driven because she’s been burned in the past; sometimes, Amy is driven my simplicity in a platform choice because she’s worried about the learning curve of a new system.

So, we created a sub-set of emotionally tailored avatar strap-lines that we use for different applications:

Type Strap-line Aspirational Podcast Websites: Powering Passionate People “Ronseal” — Direct & Explanatory Podcast Websites: All in One Peace of Mind Solution led Podcast Websites: Where Technology is the Easy Part Podcast Websites: Taking Care of the Tech Podcast Websites: Making it Simple Brand Personality Podcast Websites: Talk Hard Podcast Websites: Not Your Dad’s Podcasting Platform Podcast Websites: Where it All Comes Together Podcast Websites: Where the Technology Fits the Person Podcast Websites: Do It Your Way Podcast Websites: Putting People First

This type of sub-avatar is always there to provide you with a specific marketing message when creating campaigns that appeal to people with different emotional triggers.

The base values remain the same, but by offering different campaign messaging, perhaps in conjunction with a retargeting ad campaign, for example, you can easily close off any barriers to purchase by playing to each specific emotional trigger.

It’s a powerful move that really helps you to understand what works and what doesn’t in your marketing.

Avatar layer #3: Customer journey evolution

Perhaps the most rewarding reason to develop your avatar over and above your base avatar is when a prospect moves to being a paying customer of yours and, albeit less rewardingly, if they ever decide to stop paying you.

Again, the values and aspirations of the person are the same, but their needs change and evolve as they change and evolve.

In the example of Amy, the stages that she may go through with Podcast Websites are:

  1. Pre-member / prospect — primarily focussed on learning whether we’re the best fit for her podcast.
  2. Almost-member — been on a one-to-one call or joined us on a webinar, very close to signing up for membership.
  3. New member — Amy has just joined.
  4. Experienced member — confident with the technology, looking to really kick things up a notch and grow.
  5. Worried — something isn’t right, there’s a concern from Amy.
  6. Lapsed — Amy has canceled her membership.

The last example is a rarity, but when planning your business it’s vital to understand the evolution of a customer throughout the whole lifecycle of their interaction with your business, regardless of how much you don’t want certain parts of that evolution to happen.

In each of the cases above, Amy is still Amy. She’s still value led, looks for guidance from her peer group and likely responds best to emails after 7:30pm, but Amy has grown from a beginner podcaster to an accomplished producer and her needs have grown, too.

The content, language and messaging that we serve Amy should be tailored through that entire lifecycle because it’s our job to be both empathetic to Amy’s current status, and to be pro-active in helping her.

By creating sub-avatars based on the evolution of a customer and their progression through your sales process, you can anticipate new needs and develop new solutions to help with those needs.

You can also spot potential issues and nip them in the bud quickly and easily, or you can create initiatives that are aimed at helping that user through the parts of the process that you know they’ll need a hand with.

For example, new Podcast Websites members are always invited to a personal one-to-one call with me.

Why?

Because I know that as they evolve from a pre-member to a new member, the very first thing they’ll need to know is where to start.

Although content in the platform is there to support that, what is better than a personal walkthrough and a bespoke “Here’s where you should start”?

As a new member, Amy will receive content that helps her in her current state.

Remember, Amy values being part of a community and when creating your avatar, you must account for changes in state within your customer’s life.

*The case for completely separate base avatars

There are instances, particularly as your business and customer base grows, whereby you will need to create completely independent base avatars.

This primarily applies to businesses with multiple products across a range of audience types and as such, isn’t a topic for today.

I mention this for one simple reason: when you spot an opportunity, have done your due diligence and decide to pull the trigger, if that opportunity doesn’t appeal to your current avatar set, do not fear creating a whole new base avatar for that new opportunity.

That is business growth through diversification and it’s a great problem to have.

Crafting your first avatar / customer persona, to conclude

Creating an avatar isn’t a science, it’s an art. You’re making assumptions that result in a well-rounded representation of your ideal customer.

As such, don’t get hung up on the minutiae but instead focus on giving yourself the clarity that you need to keep yourself generating products, services and content for the people who matter to you and to your business.

Don’t forget, the more you expect from yourself, the more you WILL excel!


Originally published at exex.link on August 31, 2016.