What are buyer personas?

Portrait of John Hughes
By John Hughes

29 August 2016

Defining your buyer personas should be the first step when developing a marketing campaign. But what are they and why do you need them?

Defining your buyer personas should be the first step when developing a marketing campaign – and one of the most crucial ones as your marketing message and content should be targeted to your buyer persona’s needs.

But what exactly are buyer personas? In this article, we will have a closer look at what a buyer persona’s profile should include and how it differs from similar concepts, such as pen portraits.

What is the difference between buyer personas and pen portraits?

A pen portrait is a representation of your target customer, looking at things such as their likely age, gender, socio-economic grouping, interests and values.

Take Betty for example.

Imagine you are offering knitting material and workshops. You know that your typical customer, Betty, is likely to be between 60 and 70 years old, feminine, and most probably retired. She is very focused on her family and likes spending time with her grandchildren. In her spare time, she loves baking an knitting, and listens to audio books together with her husband.

This is what a full pen portrait for Betty would look like.

A pen drawing of a woman

Pen portraits are commonly used in marketing to help focus marketing activities on acquiring more customers who are like the pen portrait. The theory is that if you know what your typical customers are like, you know the kinds of people you need to attract to be your next customers.

This seems reasonable. Examine your own existing customer base. Compared to a random cross section of society, you almost certainly see some types of people much more than others.

This is exactly why pen portraits are useful. They help us understand what people we want to attract based on who we think will want to be our customers.

When it comes to inbound marketing, however, we don’t believe a pen portrait gives us enough information to go on.

Yes, we know the interests and values of an ideal prospect based on their pen portrait, but we don’t know where to engage with these people.

Inbound marketing relies on us having our content in the right place for our ideal customers to engage with.

This is where buyer personas come in. A buyer persona is in many ways like a pen portrait, but there are some critical additions.

What does a buyer persona’s profile include?

There are several points buyer personas include which aren’t covered by alternative concepts such as pen portraits.

Your new buyer persona profile of Betty will now look something like this.

A pen drawing of a woman surrounded by her thoughts on using Facebook, knitting activities, where to meet like-minded people and how she gets about

Let’s have a look at the different elements in more detail.

Watering holes

Firstly, buyer personas consider the concept of “watering holes”. Our buyer personas hang out somewhere online, but where? These places are the watering holes at which we will find them and be able to engage with them.

Traditional pen portraits consider things like which newspaper the customer might read, and this is similar admittedly, but a buyer persona considers the context of these places more.

Specifically, a buyer persona’s watering holes describe where the persona goes to do research, to learn new things, to get social proof, and to understand their own problems. This is much more specific a focus than “what newspaper does persona X read?”

In Betty’s case, our buyer persona doesn’t spend too much time online, but she checks Facebook daily to stay in touch with her family and friends. She sometimes posts useful art-craft or knitting related tips and pictures from family reunions.

Keyword searches

A buyer persona lists the kinds of keyword searches the persona might undertake that are relevant to your product or service. This indicates the kinds of search results your product or service must compete in to attract these people.

In our case, this would mean keywords such as “new knitting patterns”, “knitting meet ups”, or “which wool is best for knitting socks”.

Challenges and personal goals

A buyer persona considers pain points and challenges, as well as personal goals. What does the persona want to achieve? What is stopping them from doing so? What struggles do they have?

Betty is curious about new ideas for her hobby of knitting. She likes to surprise her family with self-made presents and is always looking for inspiration. With her family living their own lives though, she often feels quite lonely and is looking for a way to combine her hobby with an opportunity to socialise.


Furthermore, this concept identifies the objections a persona might have to buying your product or service, whether it is price, perceived value, misunderstanding the benefits, or whatever they might feel is negative about your service.

For Betty, it is likely to say that she is not too savvy with technology but likes to do a little bit of research online. She is more likely to look for things that have been recommended to her by someone as she doesn’t trust online sources too much. As Betty doesn’t have a car, she only likes to visit shops and places that are easily accessible by public transport.

Suitable content types

Moreover, the buyer persona considers the types and formats of content that a persona might be more likely to engage with. A persona who is rushed for time might not engage well with lengthy blog posts, for example.

Betty, for example, is likely to be a visual type: she might see a picture of something that falls into her interests and wants to find out more. How-to instructions and recipes are additional options.

Customer journey

Finally, and most importantly, a buyer persona helps begin the process of identifying the customer journey, and different engagement tactics for each stage of the customer journey.

In inbound marketing, buyer personas mesh well with the buyers’ journey, and content strategies should be built around meeting prospects on their terms and the right point in the buyers’ journey with the right content, addressing the right subject matter.

Betty is, in our case, already passionate about knitting and is looking for advanced tips and material. This is very different to another potential buyer persona, Katie, who might be in her 30s and has just discovered knitting. This buyer persona would need much more basic information and the content targeted to this persona would therefore differ completely.

How to develop your own buyer personas

All in all, there is nothing wrong with pen portraits in themselves, but they need to be developed further for content-based marketing methods like SEO, social media and inbound marketing.

Too often, businesses don’t take enough time to thoroughly identify and define their buyer personas, even though their whole content marketing strategy should build up on their right target audience’s needs and challenges.

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