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FutureNow Article
Monday, Jan. 21, 2008

Creating Personas 101

By Holly Buchanan
January 21st, 2008

Rand with personas for SEOmozWant to take a stab at creating personas for your business? If so, you really should check out the most recent installment of SEOmoz “Whiteboard Friday” screencast.

In this 20-minute tutorial, Ian Lurie of Portent Interactive and SEOmoz founder Rand Fishkin discuss how to create simple customer personas and use them to boost the performance and relevance of your website.

As anyone who’s read Waiting for Your Cat to Bark may know, we have quite a bit of experience adapting the customer experience to fit the needs of personas — and I’ll share some more ideas for how to create them in a moment — but first…

Take a moment to watch Ian and Rand’s wonderful crash course on personas:

Ian’s first step is to “Brainstorm 7 to 10 people.” If you’d like some ideas on how to do that brainstorming, here are some specific steps you can take to get started.

Ian’s 3rd step is to measure and research. At Future Now we call that “uncovery” and it’s absolutely key to your success. Successful uncovery plus personas is how you go from knowledge to understanding.Ian’s 4th step is writing out the personas’ stories — usually 500 to 700 words — including who they are, demographics, and psychographics. (If you need some help with the psychographics part, read about the four personality temperaments; a great starting point for understanding how people make buying decisions and how they’re viewing your website.

Avoiding Stereotypes

In Ian’s 4th step, the issue of stereotyping comes up. Stereotypes are incredibly harmful to personas. Why, if stereotypes are based on common attributes shared by a group, how can that be all that bad? Well, stereotypes keep you from digging past a few surface-level facts to truly understand the real person. They are a shortcut used by people to try to understand those who are different from them. This shortcut prevents you from having real empathy for that person, especially since the majority of stereotypes are negative. Ian seems to send some (understandably) mixed signals on this point. On one hand, he explains that it’s not so cut-and-dry as it may seem. Meanwhile, he recommends giving the personas funny nicknames (like “Ian The Angst-ridden”) to help us remember their core motivations. Although this does help you get inside their heads, be careful that the qualities you lump onto your personas don’t end up causing new, unintended stereotypes just from the name you give them. But Ian’s right; it’s not as simple as it seems.

(NOTE: Ian and Brian Bond can discuss these finer points in their upcoming panel discussion on personas at the Search Marketing Expo in Santa Clara. In the meantime, here are a couple more ways to get started with personas.)

Personas are powerful. Sure, some people claim they’re useless because they are artificial, not real people. But here’s the thing: Not everyone thinks or behaves like you do. (Yes, I hear the echoes of “Duh!” reverberating from your monitors right now, but how many times have you had an argument with a client or colleague because they want to run a commercial, create copy, or add functionality that they like. Personas give you a framework to have informed discussions about who your customers are, how they behave, and what they want.

Personas allow you to have empathy for customers who aren’t like you. Besides, if they don’t work, you can always fire them.

Finally, Ian’s 7th step is perhaps the most important: TEST your assumptions! Personas give you a framework for not only seeing what people do on your website, but for understanding why they do it. Think about it. You may run a test to see what happened, but do you really understand why? That’s where personas can really yield fantastic results.

P.S. If your personas aren’t working as well as you’d like, we can always help you optimize them.

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Comments (15)

  1. Hi Holly,

    Thanks for the summary – you said it better than I did :)

    I think firing personas is a very important point. Exclusionary personas – folks you don’t want – are nearly as important as focal personas.

    It’s important that, when marketing-by-committee takes hold, you have those exclusionary personas front-and-center to keep everyone on track.


  2. [...] was reading this piece by Holly Buchanan on creating personas when I realized this is a huge stumbling block for [...]

  3. [...] more information about creating personas, check out Creating Personas 101. « Customer Seduction [...]

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  6. I would image that a persona inspired this page on Skype… entitle “Convince Your Boss to Use Skype at Work”

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  12. I’m wondering if persona development could be applied to an telecom order fulfillment process, and if so, then are the steps any different? For instance, I’m not sure if 7-Test would apply – the order fulfillment process is not on the Web.


  13. [...] Great article on the right way to use personas in developing your marketing strategy [...]

  14. [...] customer avatars, or personas should be created. A video by Ian Lurie of Portent Interactive and SEOmoz founder Rand Fishkin demonstrates how to do this [...]

  15. [...] Contextual Design to personas. Ian Lurie provides a very good 20 minute introduction to personas in this SEO MOZ whiteboard Friday. I use a modified version of Karen Holtzblatt’s form; this template was developed by Todd [...]

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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