Finding Your Ideal Customer: A Step-by-Step Guide To Building A Pre-Launch Startup Buyer Persona
Know precisely who your best customer is — even when you don’t have customers yet
Before I met my husband, I tried my hand at online dating. I know, I know: ugh. It’s both an amazing accomplishment of the digital age and an awkward, humiliating ritual that modern-day singles are forced to undergo to meet people.
But now that I’m a copywriter who works with startups, I’ve discovered that my online dating days taught me a thing or two about digital marketing.
What does online dating have to do with content creation and digital marketing for startups?
Believe it or not, everything.
The Online Dating Paradox
The thing about online dating is in order for the process to work — in order for you to accomplish your goal, which is to find the most compatible person for your relationship needs (be those needs casual or long-term) — you have to know exactly who it is you’re looking for. Otherwise, the algorithms will have little to base their search upon besides superficial factors that have little to do with true compatibility.
The dating sites will come up with suggestions, sure, but the likelihood of those suggestions being a perfect fit for your needs become slimmer the less certain you are of your requirements for a perfect match. Thus the painful process of sifting through the profiles of people whose picture features a close-up of their abs, the weird-as-sh*t people posing with their guns (both the arm kind and the semi-automatic kind), and of course the profoundly poor spelling and lack of punctuation skills (major turn-off for a copywriter).
And once you’ve found The Right One, there’s no guarantee that you’re the right fit for them. After all, they may meet every parameter you’ve been seeking, but if your profile isn’t optimized to their needs, you may get overlooked in favor of the competition.
It’s a catch twenty-two mirrored in the world of startups, isn’t it? Like a member of a dating site, you’re looking for someone to fulfill a need you have in your life (in the case of a startup: money), but in order for you to find them and achieve fulfillment, you need to know who it is you’re looking for and what it is they’re seeking.
The Pickier You Are, The Better Your Results Will Be
Digital strategist Amy Webb shared her online dating experience in her TED Talk “How I Hacked Online Dating.” As a super-smart, left-brained data junky, Amy a) was having trouble finding a suitable mate using online dating services, and b) felt the need to reverse-engineer the algorithm so she could create a profile that would nab her ideal man.
So she did what any self-respecting growth hacker would do: she did some competitive intelligence, did A/B testing of profiles, and created a system for rating potential matches based on her own prerequisites for a potential mate. After posting her newly optimized profile, Amy received a flood of responses and finally met the man she would later marry. Here’s what she says:
“Well, as it turns out, there is an algorithm for love. It’s just not the ones that we’re being presented with online. In fact, it’s something that you write yourself. So whether you’re looking for a husband or a wife or you’re trying to find your passion or you’re trying to start a business, all you have to really do is figure out your own framework and play by your own rules, and feel free to be as picky as you want.”
So It Goes With Marketing
The pickier you are about who your perfect customer is, the more likely you’ll be to find them, and the more likely they’ll find you.
From a copywriting and content creation standpoint, the more in-depth your understanding of your target’s internal motivators, the easier it will be to persuade them to buy from you.
If it seems like a tall order to identify THE ONE for you and your business (especially if your business is a startup and hasn’t even begun the customer acquisition process), fear not. By the time you’re done with this post, you’ll know the questions you need to ask and where to go to find that elusive perfect match.
It’s Not About You (But At First It Kind Of Is)
Ever hear the old adage “you have to love yourself in order to love someone else”? Trite, but true. In life, and in business.
In order for you to find your ideal customer, you’re going to have to do some personal inventory so you can figure out your story as a brand and how it will intertwine with your customer’s story.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you prepare your search for your target customer (with thanks to Neil Patel’s Advanced Consulting program):
- What inspired me to start this business?
- What burning need or desire does my main product or service fulfill?
- What are the drawbacks to using my main product/service?
- How is my main product/service better than any other option out there, including doing nothing at all?
If you’re a startup founder, these are (hopefully) questions you’ve already answered for yourself as you seek funding. But it never hurts to revisit questions of origin and motivation as you seek to define and laser-focus your target.
One Isn’t a Lonely Number
Now that you’ve done some soul-searching, it’s time to do some soul-mate searching for your target customer.
Please note I’m using the singular form of “customer.” Trying to capture the attention of and inspire a group of anonymous individuals such as an “audience” or a “market” is like trying to take down an entire herd of antelopes with one arrow. No: the key to creating compelling content is to identify the one person whose story it will fit into.
Did I just say create content to fit into your customer’s story?
Yes, indeed: as a content creator, it’s your job to tell a (captivating, informative, entertaining) story and elicit a desired emotion that will convince someone to take action. But as a brand, your job is not to present information about yourself to a passive audience: your job is to play a role in your customers’ lives.
Your job is to share a story you think will help your customer complete their own journey.
Which means you and your brand are not the protagonists of the story.
Holding Out for a Hero
Your customer is the protagonist, or — to get all Joseph Campbell on you — the Hero. Your brand exists to help the Hero in his or her journey.
But here’s the cool, creative part where you get to call the shots: as the brand storyteller, it’s up to you to define what your Hero’s characteristics are.
That’s right: you get to decide who you want to do business with. Isn’t that liberating? Instead of desperately trying to be the perfect match for anyone and everyone (as many businesses mistakenly attempt to do — thus coming off as generic and colorless and…yawn…), you just need to keep on doing you (as defined in the questions above) and send the call out for Heroes whose journey you want to be a part of.
Building Your Hero Character Sheet
Calling all geeks: it’s time to break out your 20-sided die and your D&D skills. It’s time to build a character.
Ask any RPG player of any game, from Warcraft (I’m dating myself — do people still play World of Warcraft?) to my all time favorite, Fallout (post-apocalyptic wasteland action FTW): before you start playing the game, you have to fill out a character sheet with their gender, race (or species), physical attributes, fighting skills, special powers, etc.
In the marketing world, we call such a list of characteristics a Buyer Persona. But as a copywriter, I want to go deeper into my target’s psyche — beyond the external persona and into his or her internal motivators.
As a business, it’s up to you to find the real-life customer that fits those characteristics so you can sell your product or service to them. So how do you decide on what the ideal characteristics are for the hero of your brand story? How do you fill out that Customer Profile?
Through a combination of spycraft, psychology, and imagination.
The first elements of your Customer Profile are the external factors: the things about your customer’s life that aren’t likely to change any time soon. It’s easy to get real-world information on such factors by taking a peek at who’s going to your competitor for the same service or product you offer.
Who’s Your Competitor’s Customer?
The first thing you need to do is identify the top competitors in your niche. That’s super easy: just do a quick Google search for your main product or service. Here’s what comes up when I Google the niche for one of my clients, a small company that makes modular travel backpacks:
Okay: as you can see from the screenshot above, we have 5 top search results to examine. For now, let’s weed out the non-niche players like REI & eBags since they offer such a huge range of products, each with its own target customer. We’ll take a look at the paid ads at the top and the fifth result.
From looking at the paid ads’ websites, I can see that they offer more than just backpacks, but they have very different target customers.
The first brand, Cotopaxi, features footage of people outdoors, getting (fashionably) sweaty and dirty. They have the terms “Quest,” “Impact,” and “Explore” in their navigation menu. So the Hero in their brand story is the adventurous type. Take a look at their About page:
So now we know even more about their brand Hero: he or she cares about world poverty and wants to do something about it. They know exactly who they want to star in their brand story.
Now let’s take a look at the next paid result, Herschel.
Totally different Hero in this story, right? While the Cotopaxi Hero isn’t afraid to get his or hands dirty saving the world from poverty, the Herschel Hero is a sophisticated model of urban fashion and taste. Above all, this customer cares about the beauty and craftsmanship of the built world: both in the architectural details of their city and in their clothing.
Finally, let’s take a look at the top competitor in the organic results, Tortuga. Again, I dismissed REI and eBags because they’re eCommerce portals for multiple brands, and we just want to look at specialty brand websites for the sake of this comparison.
It’s clear who the Tortuga travel backpack is for: a traveler (duh). Specifically, a savvy frequent traveler who wants to save money and time by carrying one bag without having to check multiple pieces of luggage at the airport.
We also know what publications their customer reads: Conde Nast Traveler and Entrepreneur. So this Hero is a worldly professional: someone who needs to look polished in their various work and leisure scenarios.
Based on the origin story featured on the landing page, we also know what their customer’s motivation is for buying: this traveler fears getting stuck with the inappropriate bag for whatever journey they’re embarking upon. The Tortuga customer fears being inconvenienced and looking bad.
So if those are their fears, what do they love? They love travel. They love seeing the world. But more than anything, they love feeling like they’re in control, even when they’re out of their element.
And Tortuga very wisely plays on their fears with their sales copy, but plays on their passions with their content.
See? They have a blog specifically devoted to packing tips for perfectionist travelers:
And THIS is how they’ve climbed their way to the top of the search results: because they’ve created a richly informative blog with expertly crafted articles that not only provide tips for travelers, but also provide emotional insights about the experience of traveling. In other words, they tell stories that a perfection-oriented traveler can relate to.
The emotional hook is what keeps people like their target customer returning to their site as a resource — and eventually, when it’s time for these people to buy a carry-on bag, no doubt they will seriously consider purchasing a Tortuga backpack.
OK, so even though it took me about an hour (including kid-terruptions) to pull together these images for three websites, it should only take about 15 minutes to take a glance at your competitor’s sites and get a feel for who their target customer is.
But we don’t want to just get a feel. We want to probe.
I feel gross just typing that.
Close Encounters of the Digital Kind
Ok, let’s shake that off.
The point is: we need to get the facts on who is actually visiting our competitors’ website. This is when we turn to our friend Alexa.
For this bit of ninja work, you’re going to need to sign up for a free trial of Alexa’s competitive intelligence tool, but it’s well worth the bit of extra email you’ll get.
Once you’re signed up, log into Alexa and type in the URL of one of your top competitors.
If you scroll down past the traffic metrics, you’ll find a section with Audience Demographics & Geography. That’s what you want to take a look at.
Here you’ll find almost everything you need to know about the external factors of your competitors’ target customer:
- Educational Level
- If they browse the web from work or from home
- If they have a family
- Their ethnicity
Pay attention to the points on the graphs that are significantly higher than average: that tells you the company is doing something to attract people with a specific characteristic.
For example, if you take a look at Cotopaxi’s demographics, you’ll see that their audience has a higher-than-average amount of graduate degrees. This makes sense: Cotopaxi’s brand is based on a socially-conscious mission, and people who have more education have higher rates of volunteerism.
Also, notice that all the brands skew high for female, white audiences, but Herschel Supply is the only one that also shows a significant amount of other ethnicities. Considering that Herschel is positioning itself more as a fashion brand for everyday urban use, and urban areas have more diverse populations, this makes sense as well.
Something else of note: Tortuga is the only brand whose users visit their website from a home computer as opposed to work. And if you take a look at the average income, it skews pretty low at $0-$30K.
So what does this tell us? That Toruga’s a favorite brand of unemployed women? Doubtful, with a $299.00 price tag for the Tortuga Travel Backpack.
No, the answer is found in the top keywords (if you scroll back up the Alexa results page):
Ooooohhh…so lots of Airbnb users (meaning travelers on a budget and/or digital nomads) are coming to the Tortuga site.
When you Google “sites like Airbnb” you find this as the first result:
So a blog post was the #1 doorway through which Tortuga’s target customer entered the online storefront. And Tortuga’s clever marketing team keeps track of such things, because when you click on the search result link, check out what awaits you:
This little side-route off the main competitive intelligence trail has taught us something very important: the best thing you can steal from your competition is insight and inspiration.
Based on the initial observations, demographic data and keyword results, our picture of Tortuga’s customer is now laser-focused, and Tortuga is playing an integral role in her story:
Imagine a female world traveler. She’s traveling solo, which makes her feel slightly vulnerable in terms of safety. Based on her income data, we know she’s also low on cash — chances are she’s a travel blogger or other such digital nomad that doesn’t make much money, and what little she makes goes back into travel expenses.
She’s worldly enough to know great travel gear when she sees it — and as a constant traveler, the more efficient and organized the system, the better. If there’s anything she’s willing to put her hard-earned cash into, it’s a reliable travel bag that she can live out of.
Our traveler just went to the Airbnb website to reserve lodging at her next destination and has made an unnerving discovery: a festival she’s on her way to has every available apartment in town booked. She needs help, quick, before she drops down from broke and homeless-by-choice to just plain broke and homeless.
Tortuga knows what role it’s going to play in this story: the Beacon. Using super-helpful content that reflects empathy for her situation, Tortuga will guide the lost pilgrim to safety and shelter. And when this errant nomad heads back out to seek her next destination, she’ll be equipped with a Tortuga bag. Better yet, she’ll write an article about it on her travel blog and tell the world about a brand that’s there to help her and others of her ilk.
Steal It and Make Something New
So what do we do with this competitive intelligence? We learn and differentiate ourselves.
- Pay attention to what’s similar about all of the competitors’ customers (i.e. female, professional, 30’s, no kids, white).
- Decide what the common need is (i.e. an everyday, stylish backpack that can work for professional travel as well as sightseeing)
- Fill in the gaps that aren’t represented: that’s our target customer. (i.e. males, families, minorities)
Now we can do one of two things:
a) We could try to create yet another brand story that appeals to kid-less white women in their 30’s, or
b) We could dare to tell different story, with a new protagonist.
Guess which one I’m thinking.
Yep! Let’s go the contrary route and see what we get.
It’s time to channel your inner nerd and rejoice, because it’s spreadsheet time. I’ve created a Customer Profile Worksheet. Go ahead and download it and we’ll fill it out together:
The External Factors
The first section describes all of the external characteristics about our target customer — the things he can’t change about himself unless he were to undergo a major transition.
If we fill in the gaps that my client’s competitors have, we know the following things about our target customer:
- Gender: Male (because everyone else is targeting women)
- Age: mid-30’s (because we want our customer old enough to afford a high-end travel backpack but active enough to need it)
- Profession: IT Consultant (frequent business traveler)
- Family status: Married with kids
- Ethnicity: South Asian (because it’s 2018 and it’s time we have a non-white Hero, FFS.)
(Note that I haven’t mentioned geography, but this can also play a major part in defining a target customer. In the previous Alexa searches, all three competitors are based in the US, but my client’s company is based in Switzerland. So let’s make our target customer English-speaking, but from outside the US. )
6. Nationality: British
As an IT consultant for manufacturers throughout Asia, Nigel Pathman flies nearly every month from his home in Camden Town, London to various locations in the East. He’s been married for seven years and he and his wife have two young girls, ages 3 and 5. Because Nigel’s elderly parents live in London, and Nigel is an only child, he feels obligated to stay in the UK instead of uprooting his family and moving to Asia.
Just from the external factors, we can understand why our customer would want a versatile travel backpack, right? He’s always on the road, and not just on a quick flight to, say, Majorca on holiday. Nigel here takes hours-long flights to Taipei and Karachi — the kinds of flights that have two or three connections. He needs a bag to live out of on these trips — one that he can carry easily across terminals and take straight from the airport to a client’s office without looking like he’s checking into a hotel…or a hostel, for that matter.
A Matter of Taste
While the External Factors alone may make a peachy-keen customer persona, it’s not good enough. Nigel has plenty of options out there — why would he pick our travel backpack over, say the Tortuga or the Herschel?
Because our backpack design and brand voice suits his taste profile.
Nigel’s a cool guy. He likes things clean, simple, and functional. He’s a sci-fi fan, so if something has a futuristic feel to it, all the better. But he’s not all style and no substance: Nigel’s an amateur photographer and uses his camera to capture moments of beauty on his travels.
These are the details that will dictate the style and tone of our content. Since Nigel is a fan of minimalism and photography, it’s important that any content we produce, both on our website and on social media, reflects that by featuring uncluttered, simple graphics and gorgeous photography of travel settings.
Okay, so now we understand what Nigel likes to surround himself with. Can we stop here?
Because we’re not just selling a backpack to a frequent business traveler; we also want Nigel to become a part of a community of brand advocates. We want him to follow us on Twitter and share our content to his Facebook friends. We want him to write a testimonial on his favorite travel forum. We need him to feel connected with our band, which means we need to fulfill an emotional need for him.
What’s His Motivation?
Let’s take a look at his Internal Factors.
Nigel is your classic extrovert. He adores meeting new people in his travels and strives to leave a good impression wherever he goes. The last thing he would want to do is inconvenience or disappoint anyone, so it’s important that he be on-time for meetings. Which is why transferring his items from one bag to another while he’s on the road can be disastrous: he has to check into his hotel room, leave his carry-on roller bag there, grab his laptop case, make sure his important documents are in a safe spot, and then get to a meeting at a client’s office. In some Asian cities, getting from one part of town to another can take hours, depending on the traffic. It would save him tons of time and panic and frustration to just be able to walk off the plane and go straight to his client without having the hassle of trading out his bags.
Here’s the core of Nigel’s story: he strives to win the admiration of his friends, and his worst fear is to let them down by being late or failing to keep a promise.
So how can we help him avoid that scenario?
We create a role for ourselves within the context of his story.
Introducing SLICKS (my client), a modular travel backpack designed to transform to match any scenario: work, play, or on the move. Its timeless Swiss design is elegant enough for business travel, yet just sporty enough for Nigel to get away with a day of sightseeing in a tropical locale. Better yet, it converts into a briefcase or a messenger bag so Nigel can look professional for his clients straight off the plane and then trendy when he goes out for drinks after his meeting.
No stopping at the hotel first, no frantic bag changes in the airport, just stress-free travel.
Just like our target customer, our brand is a character with external factors, taste, and internal factors.
In this story, SLICKS acts as an expert travel companion and slightly quirky friend who is obsessed with keeping things efficient and organized. SLICKS is there to make Nigel’s many journeys more enjoyable and less stressful.
Knowing the role SLICKS plays in the life of its target customer helped me as a copywriter to create a Kickstarter campaign, blog post ideas, lead magnets, and countless other forms of content that will drive Nigel through the SLICKS sales funnel.
But it all starts with a story.
It always does.
The final thing we need to figure out: after creating the target customer’s story, where can we find the Real Nigel telling his tale of travel woe? Where do we promote our content?
Follow the Tribe
Nigel’s a business traveler and a fan of great design, so we just have to go where discerning frequent flyers — well, frequent. And since we’ve filled out a nuanced character story for our target customer, we know we have a friendly, relatable, human brand voice with fantastic positioning that will call like a siren song to the millions of Nigels out there wrestling with their luggage and their frantic lives.
Ready to find your match? Download a FREE target buyer persona worksheet and set your perfect customer within your sights using competitive intelligence tools and some good old-fashioned psychology. The customer of your dreams will be a blog post or landing page away.
(This piece originally was published on the WordWeaver Freelance blog)