Pursuing content marketing in earnest without having clear marketing personas in mind is a total waste of time. The first step in creating great content is knowing who that great content is for. Without that insight, you’re just making things up with the blind hope that someone, somewhere will come across what you’ve created and maybe like it.

Oftentimes, marketers (myself included) vet their ideas by asking, “Well, would I want to read it?” This is a mistake. Remember: Content marketing is about your audience—not you.

Yes, creating successful content marketing is about being empathetic and putting your audience first. And, yes, content marketing is about doing good work by building collaborative relationships.

But, ultimately, content marketing is about delivering the type of content your audience wants and needs to engage with, based on their aspirations or the problems they’re trying to solve.

Without a clear idea of who you’re trying to educate, engage, or inspire, creating meaningful or useful content (as defined by the audience) is pretty much impossible to do. If you’re not ready to think about your customers and solving their needs, you’re not ready for content marketing.

But if you’re committed to pursuing content marketing, creating marketing personas is the first step in building an effective content marketing strategy. Marketing personas make it easier for you and your team to identify the problems that your audience/target customers deal with. These problems then inform the subjects you should address in your content marketing.

What Is a Marketing Persona?

We refer to a marketing “persona” as a combination of someone’s character traits, attributes (e.g., age, demography, and geography), and psychographic information (what makes them tick). All of that combined serves as a representation of an actual human that you have or want to have as an audience member.

At Column Five, we base our marketing personas on real people we have done business with and have come to know and work with over the years. (This is definitely an ideal position to be in versus starting from scratch.)

Full disclosure: If you are just starting out and working through product-market fit, this will take some time, trial, and error. I recognize not everyone has the luxury of already having clients.

Why Are Marketing Personas So Important?

If you want to stand a chance of creating content that an audience finds useful, you need to be able to put yourself in your clients’ shoes.

Why? For two simple reasons:

  1. People are more receptive to what you have to say if they perceive you as someone who adds value to their life.
  1. It makes coming up with content ideas a lot easier, because it reduces the guesswork that generates wrong or irrelevant ideas.

4 Steps to Creating Marketing Personas

To help speed up your marketing persona process, here’s a link to our free and shareable Marketing Personas template spreadsheet to fill in as you go through the four steps. If you’re ready to move forward, here’s what to do.

Step 1: Herd the Cats

Make sure you get everyone who should be part of this activity in the same room (if possible). When we do this for a client, we tend to do it with a handful of people, ideally from the company we’re working with, as well as a few people on our end.

If you’re doing this for yourself and you aren’t working with an agency or don’t have a budget for this, feel free to include people from your team, your founder, etc.

The goal is to have different perspectives represented so that you stand a better chance of developing more well-rounded and thoughtful marketing personas.

Step 2: Hold the Phones

Block off an hour or 90 minutes, depending on how fast you move and how many personas you’re attempting to map.

A general rule of thumb is that it should take you about 20 to 30 minutes per persona (unless you work with a particularly argumentative or opinionated group). You can also ask that no one bring a laptop, so the team doesn’t have to deal with any unnecessary distraction.

Step 3: Brainstorm Your Marketing Persona Attributes

Treat this process like a brainstorming session. Have one person facilitate and ask the group each question, one by one. Try to answer them as thoroughly as possible, allowing everyone to chime in with their input.

Pay particular attention to the job-challenge questions in the template. These speak to the heart of what your audience members deal with on a regular day.

These questions also consider things like the problems they’re trying to solve, as well as the risks they’re attempting to mitigate.

We find that focusing on these ideas more heavily makes it easy to develop the high-level content ideas, whereas some of the other inputs, such as interests, hobbies, or age, are useful items to consider when developing tone, design aesthetic, etc.

How many marketing personas should you create? Start with three discrete personas.

When we did this for ourselves, we decided to go with people who could all work at the same organization, at different levels of seniority.

Note: There is no wrong or right way to do this. Your business and your goals should dictate your approach to how many marketing personas you want to create.

Let everyone offer ideas. Write everything down and refine as you go so that you have a succinct list of attributes for each question. For example, you might have three to five items for “fears,” whereas you might have a range for “age” (e.g., 35-45).

We find that it’s helpful to whiteboard this out first. This enables our team to stay focused and interact with each other in real time.

Step 4: Synthesize Everything

Once you get through the questions, you can go back and memorialize these in a Google Doc or Excel spreadsheet.

Review and confirm your marketing personas, then use them for brainstorming moving forward. Also make sure your team regularly reviews them before future ideation sessions.

Note: Some of the geographic or psychographic information may seem tedious or unnecessary for coming up with good content marketing ideas. But if those inputs help you better understand your audience, then the more information you have, the better and clearer your content will be.

Yes, This Is Time Well Spent

I know what you’re thinking …

“Yeah, this all sounds great, but we take our marketing directives from various departments.”

I’m not advocating that you don’t follow those directives; I’m just saying that you shouldn’t do only that. If you want to make compelling content, you need to know what your audience considers compelling.

Remember: The best way to get people to listen to what you’re trying to say is to first make yourself useful to them. You can do this by teaching them something new or creating something that they simply find interesting or entertaining.

If you lead with this type of content (instead of only what you’re tasked with communicating as a brand), people will be more receptive and attracted to your content.

Sure, it’s tempting to focus on a million other things when starting a content marketing initiative. It’s easy to get distracted handling things like your editorial calendar, content volume, cadence, email marketing, paid, social, paid social, search retargeting, etc. (Man, the list for this stuff is endless, isn’t it?)

But creating personas is time well spent. It only takes 60 minutes to develop three personas that will revolutionize your content strategy. Can you afford not to?

Want more hacks to help your content? Check out our fixes for content marketers’ biggest problems.