A common misperception among communications professionals is that “what” is the most important element of any strategy. As in, “What’s the message?” “What are the key points?” “What are we trying to accomplish?” They’re all good questions, but they shouldn’t be the first ones you ask, or, answer.  You have to start with “who.” 

Who are you trying to reach? If you don’t know who your customer is then how in the world can you connect with them? So, before you write a message, craft a tweet, draft a byline, or record a video, know who.

One of the most effective tools for understanding who is the buyer persona.  Here are 4 tips to help you build a persona and answer, “Who?”

Do focus on what matters. Details matter when developing a buying persona, but don’t be ridiculous. Don’t waste precious time arguing over whether or not to name your persona Marc vs. Mac. Don’t worry about whether or not Mac owns a dog (unless you’re marketing pet-related products or services, in which case that information is critical). Do think about what Mac’s goals are – at work if you’re marketing business products, and at home if you’re marketing consumer products.

Don’t stop at the description. Ineffective buyer personas are those that end with the description of the target customer. It’s not enough to know that Mac is a man in his mid-30s, working in middle management, married with 2.5 kids and living in Colorado. Effective personas go beyond the who, what and where and answer the how and the why. How can your brand help Mac and why would Mac choose you? Effective buyer personas get inside your customer’s head.

Don’t fabricate your personas. Not every brand has budget set aside for market research and some brands are hindered in persona development by a lack of existing clients from which they can create personas. If that’s the case, reallocate some marketing dollars toward customer research. It will be more effective to do less marketing to the right targets rather than more marketing to the wrong audience. No customers? No problem. Hold focus groups. Sponsor surveys. Whether you have an extensive customer database or you’re just starting out, you have to talk to real people in order to develop an effective buyer persona.

But do start somewhere. If you’re at a startup and all you have tis a handful of family and friends who believe in your product and mission, that’s where you should begin. Find out what those people like, what their needs are, what their objections will be, and start building your persona one potential customer at a time.

Knowing who, makes answering what so much easier.