Audience research can be complex, expensive, and take months of preparation to get actionable results.
Daunted by the task, it’s no surprise that many — especially those at early-stage startups — completely skip this step. Customer research can sometimes be misunderstood as a drain on valuable time or considered time that could instead be spent on marketing campaigns that deliver quick results.
Based on this misunderstanding, founders often skip market research and forge ahead using assumptions, and likely biased, insights from the most recent conversation they had with an early adopter.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just because in-depth audience research is costly – in both time and money – doesn’t mean that the only alternative is no research at all.
Ask any marketing or sales professional, they’ll all tell you the same thing: “You can’t sell something if you don’t know who you’re selling to.”
Customer research is even more important when building a new product or service. The more you know about your target audience’s needs and challenges, the better your solution will be.
Central personas align teams across the business, providing focus and a shared sense of purpose as the business scales. Research-based personas are crucial to any business — they guide product design, inform messaging, and help refine marketing and sales strategies.
In this post, we’ll share a few approaches to building initial buyer personas using publicly available (and free) resources in just a few working days. Creating a foundational persona requires no budget and minimal time.
And the result is outsized – an ideal customer profile helps align product, marketing, and sales teams by giving them something (someone) tangible to rally behind.
If you’re looking for a more in-depth guide to collecting valuable user research and using those insights to drive impactful results, check out our User Insights for Product Decisions program.
About The Authors
Alvin is a seasoned growth marketer with 10+ years experience leading performance marketing efforts at Airbnb, Upwork, and Spotify--to name a few. In 2020, he founded a growth marketing agency, Ads by Alvin. He focuses on driving ROI at scale by infusing creative and innovative approaches into cost-effective digital marketing strategies.Learn More
Before joining Reforge as an Operator in Residence, Kevin led brand and product marketing teams at high-growth startups like Upwork and Workrise. He began his career in nonprofit education, first as a classroom teacher and then with charter school networks, scaling marketing and operations to fuel growth.Learn More
Creating Effective Buyer Personas
Across our careers, we’ve seen a wide range of buyer persona frameworks. They vary in depth and detail, but they all have a few things in common.
Effective buyer personas include:
- Who they are: What are their basic demographic indicators like age, location, occupation? What things are they interested in?
- What they want: What problems do they face that your product or service can help solve? What goals do they want to achieve?
- Where they spend their money: How are they currently solving these problems?
- What their barriers are: Are they frustrated with their current solution? Are there switching costs to move to your product/service?
One of the most comprehensive ways to get this information and understand your target buyer is by conducting focus groups — though focus groups can be expensive and take months to plan and execute. From building discussion frameworks to finding a facility and sourcing participants, they take time and money. Though we’re not here to dissuade you from conducting focus groups and in-depth analyses. Instead, we believe there’s a time and place for when to consider a focus group.
For example, before reaching product market fit, you’re likely targeting a few buyer personas. According to Reforge expert Behzod Sirjani, who created our User Insights for Product Decisions program, you may even have a single buyer persona for a while. Hear more from Behzod in the clip below.
Thankfully companies post-product market fit can often find target buyers in the places they’re already spending their time. Meanwhile for earlier stage organizations, you can skip some of the time-consuming and expensive audience research for now.
Through YouTube comments, Reddit discussions, and Facebook groups, you have an opportunity to be a fly on the wall, listening to ongoing discussions that can help inform your initial buyer personas.
These public forums are full of honest and unbiased feedback that can quickly be used to build an amazing buyer persona.
All for the best price: free.
Uncovering Insights in Existing Conversations
As marketing consultants, we’ve seen the same problems come up time and time again when startups skip buyer personas and jump straight into marketing programs. This shortcut results in:
- Misalignment on who to target and what to say to them
- Disjointed customer journey and unnecessary churn
- Wasted meeting time on debating knee-jerk decisions
But all of these problems can be avoided. Below is a quick-and-dirty guide to finding the information you need to build a foundational buyer persona.
Investing just a few hours will provide a clearer picture of who your product is for and how to capture their attention.
The following three steps will help you build and refine a foundational buyer persona through public information and existing conversations taking place on the web.
Step 1: Investigate Competitor Personas
Before you can find information on your target audience, you need some basic demographics to guide your search. There are two free tools that can give you a quick lay of the land: Google Search and Similarweb.
Google Search is a go-to resource for getting quick answers to most questions – for folks both personally and professionally. To get a sense of who is thinking about products and services in your category, start with a quick search.
Enter a few simple descriptions of what your product does and use the search results to identify competitors or complementary brands. You can also compile a list of competitor URLs and rank them by relevance, if possible.
Tips for using Google Search:
- Start with a broad search. Try 2-3 phrases that describe the core function of your product to get a sense of other brands in the space. For example, searching for a “note-taking mobile app” will return a range of businesses in the space. Be sure to look at both paid search ads and organic results.
- Explore the top 3-5 businesses that tend to come up across a few of your broad search terms. Click on a few of the links (both ads and organic results) to get a sense of how closely these brands stack up to your product or service. The most relevant options are the ones to use in the next step.
Similarweb provides a free service to help you understand the demographic dimensions of your target audience. Enter competitor URLs into the search box on the home page and scan results for insights into age, gender, location, sites they frequent, interests, and more. Repeat this step for a few competitors and document the trends you’re finding.
Step 2: Listen to Online Communities
Once you have a general idea of demographics, you can visit online communities where your target audience spends time. By listening in to conversations, you can glean a lot of information about problems your target audience faces, and how existing solutions are working (or not working) from user-to-user interactions on these platforms.
RedditandYouTubeare two public places where your target market has likely already come together as a community to learn, discuss, and debate topics around common interests.
Reddit, in particular, has both breadth and depth of inputs. We tend to use this platform to triangulate trends based on unbiased, anonymous comments and discussion threads.
A few tips when digging into Reddit:
- Find relevant subreddits by using the same Google search terms from above, but add “reddit” at the end of the search query. Click on a few of the Reddit links to open up the subreddit conversations.
- Scan subreddits to orient yourself. The anonymous nature of these comments helps surface unfiltered thoughts, questions, and concerns of your target audience.
- Take note of trends. More often than not, subreddits begin to get repetitive after the first few comments. These trends tend to indicate topics that most frequently come to mind and can help inform your buyer persona.
- Look for the most popular contributions through upvotes by other community members. You can sort responses by upvotes to get a quantitative sense of how important particular angles of the conversation are to this audience.
- We usually repeat this process with 4 or 5 of the most popular subreddits to help validate and iterate on the trends we’re noticing.
- Use a site like Subreddit Stats to find adjacent topics that are important to your target audience. You can enter the original subreddit thread and see other topics subscribers are also participating in.
YouTube, the second largest search engine on the internet, is also a great tool to help you further validate trends and get an additional color to layer into your buyer persona. In addition to comment threads, you get the added benefit of video content that can help you understand your audience through tone of voice, word choice, editing sophistication, etc.
You can approach YouTube with a similar process to Reddit, with a few adjustments:
- Find relevant videos by pasting your original search terms into the search bar. Open up the top 2-3 videos that appear in search results.
- Use views and comment volume to identify the most relevant and popular content.
- Watch the video and note the way the creator is talking about the topic, the problems they face, and how this fits into their lives. Pay attention to nuances like tone (are they excited or frustrated) and word choice (how do they articulate their thoughts) to get a sense of how this audience naturally discusses this topic.
- After you’ve watched the video, parse through the comments to find new insights or validate trends you’ve gathered from Reddit and Google Search.
Now that you have deeper insights, take some time to capture these in your foundational buyer persona. We like to use the four categories mentioned above to organize our findings:
- Who they are
- What they want
- Where they spend their money
- What their barriers are
Step 3: Validate Your Assumptions
By now, you should have sufficient information to develop a baseline persona by just investing an hour or two. With this information, you’ve likely started to form some hypotheses to inform your marketing and product roadmaps.
Yes, you can start to move ahead with the information on hand, but you can also leverage this approach to quickly and inexpensively validate your hypotheses.
Reddit is largely text and image-based and anyone can post or comment. With little effort, you can engage directly with the community by creating posts and replying to comments that roll in.
The anonymous nature of Reddit is conducive to high response rates and honest unfiltered answers. Depending on the size of your community’s subreddit, you might quickly see a high volume of engagement on your topic.
The benefit of Reddit here is that users only subscribe to subreddits that they find relevant to their interests and goals, so there’s a high likelihood of relevant engagement instead of noise from more general internet forums.
Note: Reddit offers ‘promoted posts’ to help boost engagement but we haven’t seen a significant ROI on paid posts vs. organic engagement.
Facebook Groups provide slightly different benefits than Reddit. Instead of anonymous engagement, Facebook user profiles are attached to their engagement. We’ve found that this often, but definitely not always, encourages participants to be a bit more thoughtful about their responses and contributions.
You can join relevant public groups and post questions around your hypotheses to see how community members engage with specific topics.
We’ve found that Facebook Groups can be helpful in informing messaging development since users are a bit more thoughtful about the words they use on this forum. It’s important to note that finding groups can be hit-or-miss based on the mix of public and private settings on the platform.
Case Study: Foundational Audience Research in 2 Days
Now that we’ve given an overview of how to investigate, listen, and validate your foundational persona, we’ll share a quick case study to see how these three steps can be used to inform the four dimensions of your buyer persona.
The Situation: A B2C company in the sustainability space was getting ready to launch a product that was poised to turn the ‘home composting’ category on its head.
They were trying to identify customer problems that would inform their product positioning to drive product sales. And in the near term, they were also trying to identify an investment strategy for paid search terms.
In less than two full working days, we were able to build a foundational buyer persona and create a creative testing roadmap to highlight the top customer pain points. In this particular example, the company conducted Steps 1 and 2 and plans to validate their insights, which is Step 3 in this process, as a fast-follow.
Step 1: Investigate Competitors
Our first step was to use Google Search to identify competitors in the space. We used ‘home composter’ as the search term and found a few competitors that had enough of an online presence to use for the rest of our audience research: Pela Lomi, Reencle, and Vitamix Foodcycler.
There were several variations of the search term we might have used, but ‘home composter’ was the most descriptive and direct language that rose to the top during product development.
We then went to Similarweb to find the demographics and audience interests of our competitor audiences. These insights would be the starting point for our client’s initial social media advertising campaign.
For example, we typed ‘pela.earth’ (Pela Lomi’s URL) into the Similarweb’s search field, which returned:
- Audience is 45% male and 55% female
- Largest age group of visitors are 25-34 year-olds
- The top 3 interest categories are: news, shopping, and finance
With just a few simple search terms, we were able to identify our competitors and get an understanding of who these companies were targeting.
Step 2: Listen In
Armed with those insights, we jumped over to Reddit to understand how these competitor audiences were actually talking about the topic of home composting.
Unsurprisingly, people had some strong opinions.
From these discussion threads, we uncovered a few trends about the audience:
- They have already started experimenting with home composting.
- They’re curious about how to improve because their current composting setup isn’t meeting their needs.
- They tend to have limited space in their kitchens.
We also used YouTube to better understand the tone of the conversation around home composting and specific words and phrases that the audience was using. The biggest learning from that exercise was that the conversation tends to be informative. This information reinforced our earlier insight that the audience is curious.
We also saw a lot of evidence of skepticism in the comments section for one of the existing leaders in the space.
From there, we built a foundational persona for the creative team to develop a testing roadmap for paid ads.
In under two business days, we were able to build a foundational persona with no additional research costs. Here’s what it looked like:
Getting Started With Minimal Investment
We don’t want to diminish the value of comprehensive market research to understand your target personas, but these activities can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take months to complete.
We also know that most early-stage startups are continually making tradeoffs to get the best ROI from their existing budgets.
Behzod has stated that it’s important to really understand how much time is wasted when you might only be a little bit more confident in your decisions. And most of the time, it’s better to think about the incremental value of spending all that time doing deep market research.
The good news is that you can conduct preliminary audience research using a handful of free tools and by listening to ongoing conversations on different social channels.
In just a few hours, you’ll be able to get a high-level read on your audience including what they care about and what problems they’re trying to solve.
Investing a day or two upfront will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls of skipping audience research altogether. And over time, you can continue to build your understanding of your audience and invest in in-depth market research as additional resources come available.