How to use storytelling to create buyer personas

Buyer personas are an important marketing tool. They put a human spin on customer research, and they give your sales and marketing teams important strategy direction. In a way, they’re a form of storytelling. Here’s how storytelling principles can help you create and strengthen your buyer personas.

What are buyer personas?

Chess pieces with bubbles overhead that say PERSONA, representing buyer personas

Although it depends, to some degree, on the size of your business and your industry, your company is most likely conducting some level of customer research. Gathering information about your audience’s wants and needs is crucial to the kind of customer insights that provide a platform for you to grow.

That’s a lot of customer data, though. And for sales and marketing teams, it’s harder to relate to a series of numbers on a spreadsheet than it is a fleshed-out personal profile. That’s where buyer personas come in. Personas synthesize all those customer details and the insights you’ve drawn from them, turning them into a fictional representation of a real customer segment. 

This representation usually has a name, demographic descriptors, and other details about their life and personality: their role at their organization, their hurdles and pain points, what factors influence their decision-making. 

Buyer personas humanize the thousands of details that make up your customer information. They allow your marketing and sales teams to put a face to the numbers, and put themselves in the buyer’s shoes. Personas free up your team to think about marketing and sales as relationships, and build on them accordingly. 

How are buyer personas different from customer segments?

Buyer personas and customer segments seem to have a lot in common. And while the concepts do overlap in a lot of ways, they are ultimately distinct from each other. Buyer personas build on the information provided by customer segmentation, adding context and strategy.

Customer segmentation is the process of dividing up your existing converted customer base into groups. These groups share features that clarify their relationship to your product, and what kind of value it provides to them. 

For example, if your product is photo editing software, one of your segments might be college students studying design. Another could be parents with young children. Different features of your software will appeal to each segment, depending on how they’re using it: the students may be more price-sensitive, while the parents value social media sharing.

Customer segmentation is descriptive—it’s a way of categorizing the audience you already have. Certain portions of that audience may be better suited to your product than others. If you plan to take your photo editing software in a more technical direction, the design students are likely to be better customers for you than the parents. 

So, as you strategize for the future, you naturally want to focus your marketing toward your ideal customers—the buyers who will get the most out of your product. To shape your marketing and sales strategies, you need to research their decision-making processes, their needs, the things they want most from a product like yours. 

Collect and structure those insights, and there you have it: a buyer persona.

Also Read: Should you hire a market research consultant?

Storytelling keeps the focus on what’s important.

Customer journey map of a curving road, showing stages: AWARENESS, INTEREST, PURCHASE, RETENTION, ADVOCACY

Humans love stories. Narratives are how our brain organizes much of its information, which is why we find stories easier to remember than lists of facts. We’re wired to listen to them, and wired to tell them. That’s why storytelling is such a powerful marketing tool.

A well-crafted story can inspire emotion or action. It can provide information, and it can be the way we talk to ourselves about our values. A story, when it speaks to people authentically, can be a rallying point for a shared human experience. Stories encourage empathy, and empathy is a key part of addressing your customers’ needs.

In that sense, buyer personas are already a form of storytelling. A good persona creates a narrative out of the data, a personality that a marketing team can build on when crafting a message. So, it stands to reason that viewing the process of developing personas through the lens of storytelling could provide some useful insights.

After all, the value of personas is to be able to model, and develop responses to, the buyer’s decision-making process. And what is the buyer’s journey, if not a narrative? 

Keeping the focus on that narrative also helps center the most important information you can include in your buyer persona: the decisions your prospective customers are making, and why they make them. 

The buying decision.

Separating your existing customers into segments can provide you with some marketing insights. But to understand how to effectively speak to your ideal customers, a little more digging is required.

In an appearance on the Business of Story podcast, Jim Kraus, president of the Buyer Persona Institute, talks in detail about the Institute’s storytelling approach to creating personas. The key information, for him, is not about an individual’s role at a business, or even about an individual themselves. It’s about the buying decision.

This idea ties back to the concept of an ideal customer profile. Marketing and sales resources are an investment, and the value your business receives from a conversion is the return on that investment. Your best prospects, then, are the ones where you can minimize your sales and marketing costs, and maximize the returns for your business.

Kraus argues that identifying these ideal prospects hinges on understanding buying decisions. As he describes the Institute’s process, the first step to creating buyer personas is defining which buying decisions you want your company to target, and which aren’t a match for your business.

With those details in place, you can begin to select some prospects for closer investigation, and rule out others. For example, let’s say your B2B strategy is to target prospects who are informed on their options and ready to move quickly. In that case, highly regulated or extremely hierarchical businesses may not be a good fit, since they could take years to make a decision.

But other prospects will be a closer match to your ideal customer profile. These are who you develop personas for, to guide your marketing and sales efforts. And, according to Kraus, investigating the details of how these prospects make decisions is crucial to creating an effective buyer persona for them.

Collecting information from ideal candidates.

A buying decision is a story. The buyer’s journey describes how a customer moves from A to B—from the status quo, to purchasing a product. It’s possible to assume or extrapolate any number of steps in that process. But it’s also possible, and even preferable, to just ask.

An ideal customer profile allows you to pinpoint prospects who fit your business model and the type of buying decision you’ve chosen to target. But even if they’re a great match for your business, some of these candidates may not choose to move forward with a purchase. Or, they may opt for a competing product. 

The nuances of how they made their decision are valuable information for you. If you have the opportunity to interview these kinds of candidates, the goal should be to capture as much of their decision-making process as possible, to inform your buyer personas. But instead of asking a bulleted list of questions, Kraus says, just let them tell you their story. 

Open-ended questions leave space for candidates to elaborate, especially when you can circle back to them later in the conversation. Even just asking a candidate to tell you more about something can draw out unexpected insights. And approaching the interview with a storytelling mindset can help you zero in on critical moments in the narrative—the kind that will help you create detailed buyer personas later.

Constructing a story.

Book open on a table with lights in the middle making it glow.

While every story is different, many narrative arcs share a general structure: exposition, followed by rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. It’s not always a one-to-one match, but the steps involved in a buying decision reflect some of these elements as well. Keeping them in mind can help you focus your customer research on the details that matter most.

Exposition. The status quo. This is how your candidate operated before they even considered a purchase. What were their pain points and needs? How did they work around those?

Rising action. The inciting incident. Something prompted your candidate to finally consider a purchase. What changed? Which avenues did they investigate and why? What considerations, like budget or timeline, were influencing their decision?

Climax. Defining the problem. Your candidate identified the parameters of their decision: must-haves and deal-breakers, the outcomes they hoped to achieve. What were those? What hurdles did they anticipate?

Falling action. Applying the rubric. Based on the criteria they’ve developed, your candidate narrowed down the field of options. When did they eliminate certain choices? Why?

Resolution. Making the purchase. Your candidate decided on an option and committed to it. Did the hurdles they anticipated materialize?

A storytelling mindset strengthens your buyer personas.

Whether you’re using a narrative framework to conduct customer research and interviews, or to expand on the finer points of the buyer persona you’ve already created, a storytelling mindset gives your buyer personas context and structure. 

When you construct your buyer persona around a decision-making story, you put the most important marketing guidance front and center for your team. You also embed it in a form that’s easy to internalize and build on. 

With strong buyer personas in your toolbox, your prospects will feel like you understand their needs and challenges—and that relationship is a solid foundation for your business to grow on.

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Megan Wells
Megan Wells
Megan is a content writer and strategist who loves to dig into the ways technology is changing consumers' relationships with brands.

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