Gaining Traction With Content Marketing: How To Build Personas

Every year, the flood of content produced and distributed online only increases, making it harder and harder for any one brand to stand out. That is especially true for content strategies with an undefined (or loosely defined) target market.

shutterstock_137295242-personaeIf you don’t know exactly who you are writing for — including their needs, challenges, likes and dislikes — your content will only fade away into the noise.

Good content does not just come from throwing it all against the wall just to see what sticks. Great content resonates with very specific groups of people that react to it in very specific ways. An effective content marketing strategy must begin with those groups of readers squarely in your crosshairs.

Don’t Build Personas In Your Silo!

It’s important to remember that even if we are calling the process “content marketing strategy,” the end result is not simply a collection of “reader” personas that you hope will read and enjoy your content enough to come back again, share, etc. — these are (or should be) buyer personas that you are trying to convince to lay down the money for your product or service.

As content marketers, we are building personas in order to identify topics, trends, needs and interests of our target market that are triggers in the buying process. Sounds a lot like a buyer persona, no?

In reality, there should not be a difference between your reader personas and buyer personas. If your company has already developed a set of buyer personas, use them for content marketing. If you are in a content marketing or SEO role looking to build personas, step out of the digital marketing silo of the organization and engage stakeholders from every facet of the organization.

The personas you develop will prove valuable for many other departments, from product development to support. And the personas themselves will be considerably more robust and detailed with the variety of insight that the leaders in these departments can offer.

Sometimes, we digital marketers have a hard time letting ourselves learn from the not-so-digital veterans of an organization or industry. We forget that the old-fashioned, resident-expert product manager has a lot to offer, and his wife might have more industry knowledge than you just from the 25 years of stories he’s been bringing home. In addition, this could be the first time this product manager has seen detailed buyer personas, and they just might make him better at his job in return.

Finally, developing detailed buyer personas is a valuable opportunity for internal marketers and/or external agencies to engage with a wide range of internal stakeholders and provide them with a valuable tool (the personas themselves) in return.

People To Include

In general, the more the merrier, as long as you can still keep the discussions organized and on point (more on that later). Be sure to include the key decision makers in the discussion to help with buy-in. At the same time, involve team members with boots-on-the-ground experience in daily customer interactions who can provide accurate and up-to-date insights. Groups to consider:

  • Key stakeholders (upper management)
  • Product managers
  • People that interact with customers daily (sales, support, etc.)
  • Marketing team

Pro Tip For Agencies: Companies outsource a lot of content — writing, design and otherwise. However, keep in mind that very few companies rely exclusively on outsourced content.

Companies of all sizes rely on external partners to product content, but they do not see their content strategy as something that can be fully delegated to an outside group.

Internal stakeholders remain highly involved, engaged and interested in the content marketing process and its results (as well they should). When designing content marketing services and engagements, be sure to maintain a high level of interaction throughout the fulfillment process. Collaboratively developing personas together is a great way to do just that.

Brainstorming Sessions

In his extensive post, Personas: The Art and Science of Understanding the Person Behind the Visit, Mike King outlines in detail a number of strategies that can be used to build personas. The post is long, deep and potentially overwhelming in its breadth and detail; however, his outline of the affinity mapping/affinity diagramming process is easy to implement and is perhaps the best method for marketers to jump-start their persona development journey.

These brainstorming sessions should be held with all of the decision makers you have identified. Be sure to have a large white board and post-it notes in multiple colors available.

Can’t get everyone in the same room cheaply or easily? Use to create and share an online version of your brainstorming board. allows multiple simultaneous contributors, similar to Google Drive, making it easy for every participant to get their hands dirty.

Session 1: Needs Assumptions

The purpose of this first session is to identify as many needs as possible that your target market has: goals, activities or problems. Start by allowing at least 15 minutes for each person to write down as many needs as they can think of. If you are using, create a large box and instruct participants to place their needs directly on the board (to stay organized, be sure all needs are the same color post-it).

After needs have been written, go around the room and let each person share them one by one. Keep the needs that the group agrees are valid and discard those that are not. An easy way to do this is to ask the group to “2nd” and “3rd” the needs they agree are valid as they are shared.

If a need is given a “2nd” and a “3rd,” it’s considered valid and added to the board — if not, it is discarded. If using, the organizer can simply grab each need and ask for the group’s input. Validated needs are moved to the main work area while invalid ones are deleted.

After working through each person’s list of needs, invite everyone to stand up and begin grouping similar needs together. This can be a lot of fun watching on as each user moves items around the board in real time.


Example of a Needs Assumptions session.

Session 2: Attributes Assumptions

Format of the second session is the same as the first, except that this time you are brainstorming attributes: demographics and psychographics.

After validating the attributes your group has created, again invite everybody to group similar or related attributes together with the need groupings from the first session. Defined groups should begin to emerge.

Session 3: Factoids

In the third and final session, participants are asked to find verifiable bites of information to back up the assumptions identified in rounds 1 and 2. Data can come from internal sources such as customers surveys, or external sites or studies, even social media.

You might find some groups of assumptions have no data to back them up. That might mean the group itself does not exist as you thought, the assumptions have been poorly grouped, or the assumptions are simply not accurate.

Google’s Display Planner can help with this step, as it offers an enormous amount of market data.


Google’s Display Planner offers an enormous amount of market data. makes this step especially interesting with a variety of supported media types and rich snippets.

Guidelines For A Successful Brainstorming Session

  • No idea is a bad idea! Focus on adding ideas to the board, not taking them off.
  • Use easy collaboration tools that allow everybody to get their hands dirty. If using an online tool, provide a quick demonstration of basic features so the non-techies can dive in.
  • Provide clear guidelines (including those here).
  • Minimize distractions by maintaining a “parking lot” — unrelated ideas or discussions that come up which can be revisited later.

If using any online tool, encourage your team to become familiar with it before the meeting.

murally-practice1 practice gone awry.

Test, Measure, Refine & Test Again

Wrap up your findings into short, easy to consume descriptions of your key personas. Limit yourself to three to five personas and give each a memorable title and unique identifying image. Now it’s time to get to work!

Align your content efforts by targeting each of your content assets at one, maybe two personas. Then, measure the impact your content has within each persona via content marketing. If content does not perform as well as you would like, your content might need improving — or your persona might not be as accurate as you thought. Remember, people change, too.

Continue to tweak, update, add to and improve each of your personas regularly (at least every 6 months). Your first blog post may not resonate deeply with your newly minted personas, but each post you write should be more and more engaging as your knowledge of each persona deepens and expands.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Content Marketing | Content Marketing Column


About The Author: is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. His digital marketing career began in the non-profit world where he quickly realized the enormous opportunities that most companies were missing online. As CEO and founder of SEOperks, he has driven revenue improvement campaigns for sites ranging from and to small businesses, while also training digital agencies around the world.

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  • Justin Belmont

    The idea of brainstorming sessions to establish personas is really interesting. One of the main benefits of this, I think, is the range of feedback it could give, especially in smaller companies. When you want your company to grow, there can be a tendency to attempt to do it independently, but, as I’ve learned at Prose Media, collaboration is extremely powerful.

  • Nate Dame

    For sure! The risk is that the end result is based on assumptions, not facts. The group needs to be aware of this to not give their findings too much weight without validation. But the process itself is incredibly valuable to uncover information and to build momentum.


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