Getting to know your audience with Personas

Getting to know your audience is essential. Before you sell an app, or any product at all, you must figure out who your audience is. Everything you do hinges on your audience. The feature set that your app has, the look and feel, the design, the name, the marketing channels you use — everything depends on your audience. You can’t make any decisions when you don’t know who your audience is.

You need a structured way to think about your audience. If you are like most people, you only have a very vague idea about your audience. For example, I might say that the audience for Postico are PostgreSQL users who have a Mac. But I can’t go anywhere from here. This group is very large and diverse, and there’s nothing about “PostgreSQL users on a Mac” that helps me understand them or market to them. In order to reason about your audience, you need to split them into segments, and fill in as many details as you can.

Personas are a way to split your audience into segments. A Persona is an imaginary user that represents a part of your target audience. A Persona has a background, skills and needs. Personas make it easier to think about our audience, because we can think of them like a concrete person rather than an abstract audience. But most of all, Personas also allow us to reason about a diverse audience. Different Personas have different needs, and we no longer have to think about our audience as an amorphous blob of average users. You can give your Personas names, but you don’t have to.

Meet Kyle. Kyle is a web backend Ruby developer. He uses an ORM to talk to the database, doesn’t care too much about SQL, but occasionally wants to check the database to understand why a bug is happening. He works as part of a bigger team, so he doesn’t care about the details of running a database server, he just wants to use it. He likes Postico because he can use it productively right away without any training required.

The Kyle Persona is of course completely made up, but it allows me to think about my audience in a whole new way. Instead of thinking about my audience in an abstract way, I can think about Kyle. What would Kyle say about this feature? What’s holding him back from buying a license? How did Kyle learn about my app in the first place? How much would Kyle pay for my app?

But there’s also Karen. Karen is a growth hacker / business analyst at an ad tech company. She lives and breathes SQL. She connects to a data warehouse and performs elaborate queries in her neverending quest to squeeze yet a few more percentage points from some metric or another. Like Kyle, she doesn’t care about running the database server; there are people on her team that do that. She likes Postico because it doesn’t get in her way; there’s a decent editor for writing long SQL queries, and she can open multiple windows to run multiple long running queries at the same time.

Notice how these two Personas are very different: Karen loves SQL, but Kyle would rather just get back to writing Ruby. They use Postico for very different things. But there’s also significant overlap: Both of them value the clean and simple design of Postico. Neither of them have any need for database admin tools. I can use these insights to make actual decisions. I can reason how decisions will impact my audience by thinking about Kyle and Karen.

I have a few more Personas like those. These Personas represent my target audience. They are the people that I make Postico for. Now you might say that instead of Personas, I could think of real people that use my app. For every segment, I could pick an actual customer to represent it. But I think that in some ways, Personas are better than real people. For example, real people might object to me talking about them in blog posts. But real people also don’t tell me everything about their background, their eduction, or their problems with coworkers. With Personas I can just make up whatever I like. Some of my Personas are similar to real people, some of them are a mix of people, and some of them are entirely made up.

I try to make sure that most of my actual userbase is covered by one or more Personas. I want to know how any decisions I make affect my actual customers. But I also have Personas that represent users I’d like to have. These Personas don’t correspond to existing customers. Instead,  they represent future customers and potential new markets. I need these Personas so I can plan ahead. Rather than reacting to customer requests, I can be proactive and anticipate what customers might need, before they even know about it.

You can use Personas in every part of your business. I’ve come across the term “Persona” mostly in the field of user experience, but it is equally applicable to marketing, advertising, product design, pricing, etc. You can use Personas to find a good target audience, to determine which features to work on, to evaluate the visual design of your product and your corporate identity. You can use them to guide the pricing of your product, and your business model (ads? subscriptions? buy-once?). Should you offer phone support or is email the way to go? Think of your Personas, and you will know.

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