By: Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software The power of the imagination is immense. As children, we loved to play as fictional characters, and as adults, we can channel that same imagination towards business to envision a customer persona. As a business owner, personas allow you channel your customers’ wants and needs to improving your business. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers. Imagine what questions, concerns, or possible needs that they may be looking for from your business. You can do this by creating a persona, or depending on your business size and maturity, multiple personas. With these personas, you can gain valuable insight into your customers, build meaningful relationships with your customers, build better products, deliver better services, and make sure that you are serving your customers as well as possible. Your product teams want to focus on building personas that will help them develop better products. Your marketing teams need to build personas that help them hone their marketing message and reach the right target. Sometimes a persona can be both for product development and marketing, but each team should go through the process of creating their own using the following process. A persona essentially is the creation a “real” person that represents your typical customer. Giving a persona as much of a backstory as possible helps make sure you and your employees understand that persona, and build better products and services for them, and market to the right target. Ready to amp up business and step into your buyer’s and user’s shoes? Here are five ways you can create the most effective persona and improve your business in the process: 1. Survey Your Existing Customers. If you aren’t already doing so, email, call, and talk to your existing customers. Gauge their thoughts, wants, needs on your business and your products. Pick their brain during conversations at checkout - even if it seems like friendly banter. Their insight will go a long way towards developing a persona, and figuring out what makes your customers tick, and incorporating it into your business. 2. Get Out of the Building. Secretly shop your competitors. Talk to their customer service agents and salespeople. If they have a brick-and-mortar shop, go visit it and secretly shop the actual store. Ask questions and engage with the other customers. By actually experiencing the competitors whole process - from marketing, to shopping experience, to actual product or service - you will learn a lot about how they market to their customers, and you may even gain insights as to what persona they are targeting. 3. Research Online. In addition to expanding your scope outside of the building, expand it even further by using the internet. A variety of resources are at your fingertips. Forums like Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Quora can give you different perspectives on a variety of topics by allowing you to post questions and get answers directly from their online communities. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter allow you to get feedback in real-time, while media publications and online news sites will keep you well-informed. Track what your customers say about you online, and how the products and services in your industry are sold, talked about, and represented through various online media. What do your customers say about you? Do they respond when you post questions online through various social media sites? Do they like you to post funny things or serious things? What gets the most reactions from your customers? Are they all asking for a certain thing to be added to your product/service portfolio? Use the same methods to understand your competitors. Is there a certain voice a competitor always uses to talk to customers? Can you tell who the target customers are for your competitors by looking at their ads, twitter feed, or facebook page? 4. Analyze Your Data. With all this information that you’ve accumulated, what do you do now? Organize all your notes and observations, and see what persona it builds. You want to consolidate all the information that you have gathered about your customers in a matrix of customer attributes. Then, build your persona out of the most common attributes you see across all the customers you have talked to. For product purposes, you are looking to build the persona for the most common customer. Who is actually using the product? This allows you to understand what features they need, want, and use. For a marketing person, you want to think about whether your “ideal” customer differs from the one that is actually buying your product, and then you want to figure out whether you want to market to the “ideal” or the “actual” customer. You may want to do both. 5. Share Internally. Once you have developed a persona and an overall strategy for your business, share it with the rest of your company, even outside of the management team. By sharing it with the entire company, it will communicate to everyone the company’s target audience, their traits and characteristics, and what makes them chose your business over your competitors. The staff can keep this persona in mind going forward on future projects, such as for social media, in how they speak with customers, or talk about possible product changes. Creating a product and marketing persona provides you with valuable information on your target audience. Not only will you and your company visibly see what that looks like in terms of age, gender, educational background, hobbies, etc., but you'll be able to approach them with a successful strategy specifically tailored for them. You may actually be surprised what you uncover from your own research and observations. Your perfect persona may not contain the traits that you had originally considered. Take everything into account, and let yourself be surprised by what you discover. The insight that you will gain far exceeds the expectations that you’ll have going into it. Sabrina Parsons is CEO of Palo Alto Software, @mommyceo.