Forget Personas

Here's a much better way for defining your ideal customer profile

If you were a marketer at a mattress company, when is the best time to run an infomercial?

How about at 2am in the morning when people can’t sleep!

You don’t need a persona with dozens of attributes, just a single (causal) attribute that raises the odds of someone buying.

Personas or avatars make sense when you have a growing business with many different types of customer segments.

But personas are overkill at the early stages of a product and can be outright harmful.

Here’s why:

  • Until product/market fit, you don’t need multiple customer segments but a single early adopter or beachhead customer segment.
  • Most personas tend to be heavier on demographics, but psychographics (customer behavior) matter more (causal).
  • Most personas have too many attributes, making targeting more expensive and shrinking your addressable market size.

The real danger with personas for an early-stage product is going too narrow, actually finding customers, and ending up on a small hill — a local maxima trap.

For example, let’s assume I define a startup founder using the “two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley” stereotype. If I go looking, I’ll find entrepreneurs that meet these criteria, and if I don’t bother looking any further, I’ll miss the much larger global market (mountain) of entrepreneurs!

The art of customer segmentation isn’t chasing after the most distinguishing traits but the smallest number of characteristics that cause people to buy or act.

How do you do this? Instead of guessing at a bunch of attributes, start with the one distinguishing trait that all early adopters have.

Can you guess what that is?

Answer: A switching trigger.

All early adopters should have taken action toward solving a problem or getting a job done. That's their tell.

A switching trigger (or inciting action) changes something in their world (causing an old way to break) and prompts them to look for a new way.

This can be caused by

  • a bad experience with an existing alternative,
  • a change in circumstance,
  • an awareness event.

In the mattress example above, “2 am when people can’t sleep” is a bad experience switching trigger.

Can you think of other switching triggers that could cause someone to consider buying a new mattress?

  • When someone goes from being single to in a relationship (change in circumstance)
  • When someone buys their first house (change in circumstance)
  • When someone visits a sleep center (awareness event)

Notice that none of these have demographical attributes, yet they are pretty actionable.

Demographics can be important but hopefully, you’re convinced by now that going overboard on demographics without evidence can be quite costly.

Rather than simply layering on attributes, here’s a more foolproof way of identifying your ideal customer profile

  1. Identify a handful of switching triggers,
  2. Interview anyone who has experienced these triggers and taken action,
  3. Patterns emerge quickly. Use that to build your ideal customer profile.

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