How to Create Reader Personas That Actually Work as a Copywriter

In marketing, we often hear people talk about user personas. Sometimes also called ideal client avatars, these handy little tools give us a quick summary of what our core users might want at any given moment.

  • Building an app and not sure how to design a new feature? Consult your avatar
  • Writing an SEO piece and unsure which keywords to target? Ask your persona
  • Shooting a film and feeling hesitant about which production style to use? Run it by your ideal viewer avatar

As you can see, I’ve used a few words interchangeably there to describe the persona tool, but the general gist is this: personas can be an incredibly powerful way for you to connect with your readers as a copywriter. But first, let me deal with the most common, and largely unhelpful way, to use personas.

Down with demographics (how it’s usually done)

When I started working in marketing, user personas were really quite unhelpful. The team would create them anyway. We’d sit around dreaming up what “Sandra, 36 from London” might eat for dinner. We’d create elaborate profiles, complete with pictures and everything. Great! Then we’d never look at them again. I’ve spoken to many who’ve experienced similar situations.

The problem with this approach is that we gave too much gravitas to basic user demographics and our own imagination. Our persona was not rooted in reality and, somewhat ironically, this often threw up more questions than answers. A better way – a way to actually make your personas usable – is to base your profile on real life data and drill much more deeply into it.

How to create psychographic personas

It’s common to give avatars a name, a photo and a back story. And whilst this has merit, it is the tip of the iceberg. It is far more helpful to determine their characteristics and experiences so you can accurately capture and respond to them in your work. I’d happily never see another stock photo of a smiling middle-aged man again if it meant I could get my hands on a persona that was actually workable. To give you a clear idea of what I mean by this, here is the simple profile of the comms manager of a small charity, based on real data:

  • Joined the charity only several months ago
  • One of only a handful of full-time staff
  • Has decision-making influence but ultimately needs sign-off from the CEO or trustees

Now, on the face of it, this might look fairly bland. But in order to interrogate the psychographic profile of this person, we’ll need to contextualise her characteristics. Here’s what I mean:

  • Joined the charity only several months ago, so this means she’s still learning the ropes and getting to grips with past decisions. She might feel a little out of her depth.
  • One of only a handful of full-time staff, so this means that she probably shoulders a lot of responsibility. Though she has a core role, she finds herself working in other areas and is probably short on time.
  • Has decision-making influence but ultimately needs sign-off from the CEO or trustees, meaning that she must earn the trust of colleagues in order to make big changes.

Ahh, now this is interesting! By exploring the context of the persona, we suddenly have a deeper sense of what her days look like and how she might be feeling. By practising empathy, which this context supplies, we are then better-placed to craft messages that resonate. Let’s put it all together.

Putting user avatars into practice

Much energy is expended on useless personas. I know this because I’ve done it, seen it done and heard the experience of others. But when used well, personas can give you a massive advantage, not just from a business perspective but as a copywriter who bundles persona creation into their service. It’s truly a “value-add” service. Here’s what this persona might look like in a ready-to-use state:

Characteristic ContextPossible response
Joined the charity only several months agoStill learning the ropes and getting to grips with past decisions. Might feel a little out of their depth.Empathy – show that we understand their position, and that by engaging with us, we can boost their confidence.
One of a handful of full-time staffProbably shoulders a lot of responsibility. Though they might have a core role (i.e. comms manager) they find themselves working in other areas. Probably short on time.Offer bite-sized and specific advice, perhaps in a “summary” box.

Ask them to register for the  newsletter to keep abreast of the latest updates.

Has decision-making influence but ultimately needs sign-off from CEO or trusteesThey must earn the trust of colleagues in order to make big changes.Provide clear steps for acting on any advice or guidance we provide.

Include actual questions that decision-makers might ask about price, commitment and time.

Make them feel empowered.

The “possible response” column gives the writer a clear brief on how to reach this reader. If you’d like, you can slap a photograph on here as well and call it “Margaret”. But hopefully, by now you’ve learned that the substance and usefulness of the persona come from a deeper, contextual description of the avatar. Most personas start and end at the superficial, but with the knowledge I’ve shared here, hopefully, yours will offer so much more.

Summary

Copywriting clients often don’t know what they need. As a writer, you can muddle through with tone of voice guidelines and the personal opinions of the marketing manager on tap, but personas can dramatically improve your process and output. Along with improving the quality and relatability of your work, they can also introduce a level of objectivity that creative projects generally lack. Instead of hoping your client likes your work, you can literally point to your avatar and ask “does this piece resonate with this person?” If it does, you’re in business.

Continue Reading: 25 tips for writing the user experience

Matt SaundersAbout the Author

Matt Saunders is a writer, web designer and coach. He’s worked in the digital sector for over 15 years and supports freelancers and small business founders in their personal and professional growth. He coaches copywriters to help them build businesses they love and has written a free ebook to help freelancers do business on their own terms.