I once led a messaging workshop for a client. They were refocusing on a new audience, and it was crucial we got the details right.
So like a good marketer, I led them through the process of creating a client avatar.
(Not the blue people.)
For the newbies out there: A client avatar (or “customer persona”) is a profile of an imaginary person who represents your ideal client. It’s detailed. It’s comprehensive. And it’s there to help you get clear on exactly who you’re serving and how to talk to them.
So the client and I discussed the problems this avatar was facing, along with what he wanted from the client. Standard stuff.
But then we got to the part of fleshing him out as a human. Where did he live? San Francisco, maybe. What was his salary? We estimated a number. And then—how many kids did he have?
The energy died. How many kids? My client paused. “Does that matter?”
I’m embarrassed to say I was caught off guard. I regurgitated what I’d always learned: “Of course, it’s all just to help us make this avatar more real. So that your future service providers know who they’re talking to. ‘Number of kids’ is a standard consideration.”
But my answers fell flat. And that’s when I first started questioning this dogma of the client avatar.
Why do we use client avatars?
Somewhere along the way, it became common for marketers to create these personas as a way to clarify who, exactly, the company should be marketing to.
And they ARE useful. Knowing who you’re talking to is important—especially when you have a team that needs to be on the same page. And even as the content creator in your own business, it’s helpful to have a clear perspective on who you’re talking to and what you need to say to them.
But I think client avatars, as they’re popularized today, tend to focus on the wrong things. And in fact, they may cause more harm than good.
(Boo. Fight me.)
1. Client avatars are (often) dreamed up out of thin air
I mean, they shouldn’t be. Traditionally, client avatars are based on research. That’s awesome.
But I’m seeing a lot of new business owners sit around for hours, thinking through their ideal client, trying to get in their head…
Without ever interacting with one.
Now, you can occasionally get away with it if you happen to be helping clients with a problem you’ve experienced yourself. You know what it feels like to go through it.
But even then, you’re just one person with one set of experiences.
To really understand your ideal client, you need to have a larger sample size. Real customer research means interviewing multiple people in your audience, conducting surveys, and/or recording what they’re saying online (in Facebook groups, blog comments, etc.)
Otherwise, you’re not creating an avatar. You’re creating a character.
2. Client avatars bring your focus to the wrong things
Unfortunately, even if you get the research right, I’m convinced the actual premise of your one ideal client is fundamentally flawed.
Because when we’re describing this person in detail (even based on research!), we’re going to end up pulling in a lot of unnecessary details. Even harmful ones.
For example, it’s common to pick a stock photo of a real person to represent your avatar. So how do you choose what this person looks like?
It’s human nature to gravitate more toward people who look like us. They feel more familiar. That’s only natural.
But let’s play this out. If you’re white, you’re likely going to pick a picture of another white person as your avatar. That’s not inherently wrong.
However, if we remember that the whole point of an avatar is to attract more people like that one ideal person, it means you’re going to attract a whole lot of… well, white people. So while you might not be excluding clients with other skin colors, you’re not exactly promoting a diverse client base, either.
Yeah, this might sound a bit extreme. A client avatar is an internal tool, right? But the effects are real. The client avatar becomes a guiding light for your business. It influences the photos you choose on your website, where you look for potential clients, and the messages you put out. So let’s check in for a hot minute: Is your brand needlessly exclusionary?
And of course, there are some occurrences when the person’s appearance might matter. For example, you might sell a product specifically for people with a certain hair type. But in general, limiting your audience by appearance is arbitrary—and potentially harmful.
But appearance isn’t the only arbitrary aspect of an avatar
Let’s zoom out a bit. A traditional client avatar is all about describing someone in such detail that they become like a real person to you, right? But if you go that deep, you’re going to end up with a whole host of useless data points.
👉 You don’t always need to know how many kids someone has to sell them a coaching package.
👉 You also don’t always need to know your customer’s exact industry, if you serve people from lots of backgrounds. (More on this in a second.)
You can find out a lot of random facts about your audience. Will it help you write to them? Not always. And the wrong facts can be a distraction.
The best copywriting nails the key pain points, desires, and beliefs someone has. And guess what? You can know those things without knowing exactly what their life looks like. Because the truth is, two very different people can have similar motivations. And a hyper-specific avatar is going to draw your focus away from the data points that count.
3. Client avatars can push you to niche arbitrarily
Still with me? Because now, we’re diving into one of the most emotional topics in business: Finding your niche.[insert scary noises here]
Something I’ve noticed recently is a lot of women entrepreneurs who, when trying to determine their audience, say their ideal avatar is female—but actually enjoy taking on men and women clients equally.
Whoa. Hold up. Do you see the problem here?
The supposed goal of a traditional avatar is to narrow in on a certain person and write specifically for them. But if you’re focused on only one gender—when in reality you love working with both—you’re going to end up attracting primarily one gender for no reason. And that’s just silly.
In reality, there are different ways to niche. Yes, you can niche by audience—serving one group of people in a variety of ways. But you can also niche by offering—serving a wide variety of people in one key way. And if you’re in the second group, a narrow avatar is going to feel all wrong.
“But an avatar isn’t representative of your whole audience—just one ideal person!” you might be thinking.
That’s dandy. But again—who we focus on is who we end up attracting. Not necessarily in a woo way. Just fact.
So if gender (for instance) isn’t actually a factor in who you serve, why even make that part of the equation?
What I think a client avatar SHOULD focus on
Enough of the arbitrary factoids about this imaginary person. Let’s figure out what matters, and only worry about that.
What are those things? I recommend researching four key areas:
👉 Who they are (in a general sense)
You don’t need to start off with a well-defined niche, but you should have a general idea of who your service can help (and who you WANT to help). Do you work with small business owners? Busy moms? People who feel spiritually lost? Name your target audience. If you’re in your first year of business, I believe it’s A-okay to be fairly broad with this.
👉 Their pain points
What do they say their problems are (that you can feasibly solve)? What is the natural outcome if those problems continue?
👉 Their desires
What do they want their life to look like instead?
👉 Their beliefs
What fears or beliefs do they have about a solution like yours? What do they believe about themselves? And the clincher: What beliefs do they need to have about you, your service, and themselves in order to feel ready to buy?
If you focus on these key questions, you’ll learn all the details you need to know. And in that process, you might discover that their gender IS relevant. Or that their marital status or number of kids IS a key consideration. But you’ll know that they’re facts that are truly tied to the sales process—not arbitrary boxes to fill in a customer persona template.
The final caveat
I’m raging against the machine here, but the reality is you might get a lot of value out of a fully fleshed out avatar. And if that’s the case, I’m so glad you found something that works for you!
My hope, though, is to give the rest of you permission to break out of the box. You don’t have to create a perfectly templated avatar to be a good business owner. You’re allowed to spend time on only the pieces that are most important. In fact, it might be the smartest use of your time overall.
Your turn. Do you use a client avatar?
Have you found benefit from the comprehensive approach, or are you on board with a leaner one? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!