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Audience personas sketch life into marketing

by Suzette Garvey

Audience personas move beyond segmenting what's complex and serve as a visual tool for greater understanding. They describe customers who share similar characteristics. They help marketers better understand how to serve fellow human beings. While one-on-one conversations between brand leaders and customers would be ideal, individual conversations won’t fully represent all customers. Human behavior has so many variables, motivators and needs. Therefore, audience personas remain among the most insightful and scalable tools for building empathy, understanding and genuine connection between brands and their customers. Audience personas are instrumental toward humanizing marketing.

Creating authenticity and consistency

Why does marketing need humanizing? Consider a fiction writer’s best practice of building character sketches. The author creates a framework for each character’s personality so they remain somewhat consistent from scene to scene. A character’s authenticity and consistency makes them feel more real to readers.

I recall the first time I saw audience personas while touring a highly respected, national health care organization’s marketing department. As soon as I set eyes on the wall of personas, I was drawn in by the thoughtfulness of marketing insight. Because I enjoy writing fiction on the side, I was encouraged by the detail of each audience description. I scanned the snippets of audience motivators and challenges, proud that industry leaders in my profession would pursue something so artful, so authentic. In that moment, I felt connected to the people that their brand diligently served. With their audience personas outlined, other brand employees — and even outside marketing strategists and creative professionals — could share in that understanding for unified messaging according to each audience group.

Building an audience persona

Most brand organizations have an idea of which audience groups they would like to attract. However, they should be prepared to discover new audience types based upon research.

Whenever possible, gather input for audience personas from multiple sources: customer surveys and other feedback mechanisms, department leaders, social media and CRM data, industry research, and in-depth interviews with either loyal brand ambassadors (from customers to vendors) or leaders from potential audience groups.

When collecting, sorting, and refining data for audience personas, brand marketing leadership should detail the customer’s perspective on these elements:

  • Which defining attributes have the greatest commonalities to create an audience group or type (e.g. Millennials, business-to-business customers, avid athletes, empty nesters)
  • Attributes and means relating to daily home life and career
  • Goals, motivators and challenges within the home and work environments, according to each phase of the customer journey
  • What a brand brings to the relationship
  • Relevant points of appreciation and engagement for a brand’s industry and specific product or service
  • Which messaging markers and communication channels are most effective with an audience type, while still remaining on-brand with foundational core messaging

I recently read an article noting how marketing has long been focused upon esteem, the fourth layer of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Due to Covid-19 challenges, there's a potential we'll all be more focused on the blessings and stewardship of our basic needs, in addition to our social needs of family, friendship and connection.


Get creative when designing audience personas. Combine the necessary data with imagery, color and quotes. I've provided a visual reference here, as well as downloadable files to give you a design head start.

Download the Keynote file.
Download the PowerPoint file.

A manageable number of audience personas

Marketing industry opinions are inconsistent on how many audience personas a brand needs. However, two factors suggest limiting personas to about ten.

  • If audience personas are built to humanize marketing through more authentic and consistent connections with audience groups, parallel that with the average human’s capacity for up to six close friendships.
  • Based on the average human’s working memory of processing five to nine chunks of information, a marketing team could reasonably manage five to nine audience personas effectively, per business unit.

After all, audience personas are about maintaining relationships; brands can’t be all things to all people.

So, while “Zoe Green Gen Z” doesn’t reflect every incredibly unique young woman in her audience group, she should be a thoughtful representation that helps a brand get to know her better with each passing day. Zoe doesn’t stay the same over the years either — a brand must stay in touch with her and her persona. Customers can sense when brand representatives and leadership put a customer first. Building audience personas is an essential step forward.

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