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Buyer Personas for eCommerce Customer Research

A buyer persona (aka user persona, customer persona) is an avatar that represents your target customers. For ecommerce businesses especially, having a thoroughly fleshed out buyer persona is vitally important, because you need to understand their entire psychology to create and sell your products effectively.

Bonus Material: <checklist-2>51 Questions to Help Define User Personas<checklist-2>

Do you know who your target customers are?

What do they like, where do they live, how do they consume information?

A buyer persona (aka user persona, customer persona) is an avatar that represents your target customers. The persona answers the questions: 

  • Who is my ideal customer
  • What do they want, in life, at work, at home? 
  • What do they need? 
  • What are they trying to accomplish? 
  • What goals drive their behavior? 
  • What are they looking for that I can provide?

Without these answers, you won’t achieve product-market fit.

For ecommerce businesses especially, having a thoroughly fleshed out buyer persona is vitally important, because you need to understand their entire psychology to create and sell your products effectively.

Say you sell swimsuits.

You know your users are looking for a “black swimsuit” because those are the keywords they’ve used to search for a product. That’s what they say they “want.”

But if you have a fleshed-out buyer persona, you know that they want a black one-piece swimsuit that stands out on the white beaches of Cancun over Spring Break.

Or, they want a black one-piece swimsuit that’s retro and makes them feel like a Hollywood movie star of yesteryear.

Those are two very different audiences, with very different needs. But on the surface – they both want a black swimsuit.

Buyer personas are the foundation of every product you develop, every marketing campaign you create, and every word, image and color on your website. 

“But I already know what my customer wants!” Sure you do. But does every person in your company have an equally crystal-clear picture of your target customer?

Try asking every person in your company to write down who they think your target customer is, what our target customer wants, and what that target customer needs.

Without a buyer persona to refer to, you’ll get as many answers as you have employees.

Buyer personas are to product and marketing efforts. And, even after the product, website and marketing are “finished,” you’ll need them again to optimize all of the above with A/B testing.

Let’s lay this foundation right.

The best way to create buyer personas

The best way to create buyer personas – buyer personas that will give you actionable insights you can use immediately to make your product, website, and marketing more effective –, is to begin with a lot of research.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is the first, and most important, step of the buyer persona research process, because this is where you actually speak with your real customers (or ideal prospects, if you use a survey or interview tool that gives you access to more people). 

This is also the scariest part of the process, because it’s where your beliefs about what you really know about your target customer are tested.

Let the evidence speak for itself.

With any method you choose for your qualitative research, cover the following areas:

  • Behavioral drivers: What do they want to achieve, why, and how they found your business in the first place?
  • Concerns: What worries them? What information would they need to not be worried about purchasing your product?
  • Expectations: What expectations are they coming in with? What experience do they hope to have with your brand?

More optimization strategists are leaning away from building personas out of purely demographic information. 

As optimization strategist Dr. Fio Dossetto says, “I find that personas built around ‘standard’ data points, such as gender, age, etc. are usually very limited, and I’d much rather go for a behavioral approach which then allows me to think about practical, actionable solutions and recommendations.” 

He’s not alone in using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to uncover behavioral patterns and underlying motivations.

Qualitative research tools:

Surveys

  • SurveyMonkey: best if you have an existing user base to ask (and it’s free, unless you want to survey their consumer panel).
  • AYTM (Ask Your Target Market): lets you create surveys to send to both your own list and the AYTM panel of 4.5 million people (you choose targeting criteria).
  • Instantly: offers similar services with variations on how many people are in their panels, and how specific you can be with your targeting criteria.
  • Qualaroo: creates a single-question survey that pops up on your site at a designated time. Best if you want to know why someone is leaving a product page or purchase page.

Best practices for successful surveys:

  • Ask the easiest questions first.
  • Group questions on the same topic together (to avoid confusion).
  • If you’re asking a more involved question, place it towards the middle.
  • Ask the most personal questions at the end.
  • Be brief: only ask the most important questions and always give them the option to respond freely, in their own words.

Be careful not to create questions that lead to biased answers. For example:

“What do you like about ______?” pushes for a positive answer, when the truthful answer might be an emphatic “nothing! Ugh!”

Include questions like:

  • “What made you realize you needed a product like ours?”
  • “How does this product make your life better?”
  • “What do you wish you could find – or find more of?”
  • “Did you have any hesitations or worries about the product before you bought it?” Followed up with: “What were they?”

Include a question that tells you about their personality, such as hobbies, pets, etc.

Interviews

  • Email, phone or Zoom: these don’t have to be high-tech if you have users willing to speak with you.
  • GutCheck lets you conduct 30-minute video interviews with its 3.5 million U.S. members. Choose age, income, and other criteria to make sure you’re talking to the right people.

Best practices for insightful interviews:

  • Focus on a few key questions, like the ones recommended for surveys above.
  • Talk about real past situations.
  • Focus your questions on their problems and desires, and not on your product.
  • Listen more than you talk, and either record the call or take excellent notes.
  • Follow up with a thank you via email, and invite the interviewee to share further thoughts if they have them.

One good way to get users to volunteer for surveys or interviews is to offer gift certificates in exchange for their time. This info is invaluable, so spending some money up front will be rewarded.

Segmentation

As you gather your qualitative responses, start segmenting them based on what they have in common. Even characteristics that feel tangential, like their hobbies or favorite colors, whether or not they own a dog. And, of course, there’s the basic demographic information like age, gender, household income, education level and geographic location.

From here, we can begin to form a persona for each segment. To make each persona actionable, include:

  • What they care about (values).
  • What they are concerned about.
  • What emotions and needs drive their behavior.
  • What are their obstacles to purchasing.
  • What their expectations are from a purchasing experience.

Notice we haven’t talked about adding a picture, a name, or a lengthy backstory. You can do these things, and it may help you to visualize your ideal customer in a more complete way. But the focus here is on actionable insights.

<download-checklist-2>Download 51 Questions to Help Define User Personas<download-checklist-2>

Quantitative research

Quantitative research is the numbers side of the persona construction, because you need to know which segment actually delivers the highest revenue and lifetime value.

The two big questions to ask before beginning quantitative research are:

  • How are you tracking customers?
  • What type of segmentation system makes the most sense for your goals?

Google Analytics offers advanced segmentation features that let you create segments around average revenue per user, transactions per user, new versus repeat customers and frequent customers.

Using this information, you can quickly pull reports that reveal the segments with the highest odds of making a purchase (and repeat purchases).

The Audience tab will be your home base for most of this research. You’ll find your basic demographic information, like age and gender under Demographics: Overview. Click on Age, and you’ll see what numbers are associated with different age groups (sessions, time spent on site, pages visited, etc.). You’ll also see which age range converts most and produces the most revenue. Repeat the process for Gender.

Now, Google Analytics has access to even more information, like interests. But it’s a convoluted process to find this report. Click on one of the genders (the one that shows the highest revenue is generally the best place to start), and you’ll see an “Other Categories” report.

Look for the word “Other” in blue and click it to change to “Affinity Categories,” and click the green box that appears in the dropdown.

Here you’ll actually be able to see what your age (or gender) segment is interested in, including hobbies and media preferences.

Now, for e-commerce Google Analytics users, you can explore segments by other dimensions, like Product, Product Category, Product Brand or SKU to see the demographics behind your purchasing audience.

Quantitative data offers a lot of information, but without the qualitative research behind it, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of underlying motivations. You need both to create a fully functional persona.

Once you have your quantitative data and know which segments are the most lucrative, overlay that information on top of your qualitative data, and meet the real people behind those purchase decisions.

Now you can complete your persona.

What a fully functional buyer persona looks like? 

Base the following on what an ideal customer looks like for one of your customer segments.

An ideal customer is one who loves your product, is loyal to your brand, has a problem you’re uniquely able to solve, and is willing to pay (and refer their friends).

  • Name
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Favorite product
  • Cares most about
  • Worries about
  • Wishes they had
  • Loves you because
  • Is motivated by
  • Expects you to
  • They're delighted when you…

Add information that might inform your marketing decisions, product development priorities and website design: favorite magazines can inform art direction, tracking can tell you which parts of the purchase process become obstacles.

Use all of that information.

Now, not every conversion specialist is a fan of buyer personas – but they all use them in one way or another. Conversion Copywriter Joanna Wiebe, for example, says she isn’t a “persona fan,” but says “we write for our ‘one reader’ and get to know that reader well. It’s not a persona, per se.” 

Whatever system you use, the most important thing is to understand your target customer, and convey that understanding to everyone in your company in the clearest possible way.

Once you have your buyer persona – it’s time to optimize for them

When you have identified your target segments, you can then comb through your quantitative data and find which segments tend to gravitate towards certain products, which get lost or abandon carts, and where they run into trouble that bounces them off of your site (and onto a competitor’s!).

Now it’s time for Heuristic analysis – this is when you review your ad campaigns, landing pages, website pages, and sales process to make sure everything is tailored to your personas.

Along with this analysis is the technical analysis, where you make sure everything in your sales funnel is functioning the way it should be. Sometimes the conversion problem is as simple as a broken link.

At the end of this process, you’ll understand your customers in a deeper, more actionable way than you ever have before.

You’ll also have a model for how to track them and measure how well you’re tailoring your experience to the persona you want.

And from there, the world of optimization is your oyster.

Let the A/B testing begin.

<download-checklist-2>Download 51 Questions to Help Define User Personas<download-checklist-2>

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