Growth depends on users. Products don’t grow if people don’t use them.
So, whether you’re running a billboard or testing a new homepage, you need to be extremely specific about who you’re selling to.
Sometimes, we hear things from clients like “Our market is massive! Everyone will buy our product!”
Not true. Or at least, not yet.
Every company starts with a niche. Facebook started with Harvard students, then expanded to Ivy League students. Eventbrite started with tech bloggers. Tinder started with USC sororities.
(More great examples here.)
If you start by thinking you’re selling to the whole world, you’re going to waste a lot of time and money on people who won’t actually use you.
Instead, focus on the people who urgently need to use you. These people are called “target personas.”
Here are some target personas from past companies we’ve worked with.
Product: Small, high-quality preschools, housed in luxury apartments. Teachers live at school to reduce the cost.
Persona: Parents stuck on the waitlist for other high-quality preschools nearby.
Product: We buy and renew software for you.
Persona: Finance VPs at mid-sized tech companies who are actively hiring software procurement specialists and have failed to fill the role.
Product: A premarital couples therapy program.
Persona: Recently engaged couples who are experiencing issues in their relationship, but balking at the cost of a traditional couples therapist.
Product: Find engineering jobs that match your cultural values.
Persona: Engineers who are extremely burnt out at their current jobs and are actively searching for a new one.
There’s a theme in the examples above: intent. These people feel the problem, have an urgent need to solve it, and are ready to commit time or money to solve it.
They’re not just browsing; they’re actively experiencing the bad alternative. They feel pressure to find a solution.
A good exercise is to think in terms of google searches. If someone searches
places to travel in your 20s, they’re probably not buying plane tickets…yet. If they’re searching
nonstop flights from NYC to Montevideo, they’re ready to buy, so an airline would want to target these people first.
Here’s a ladder from low-intent to high-intent.
Focus on the high-intent people first. Good marketers target level 5, then expand to levels 4, 3, 2, etc. as needed.
Don’t focus on demographics. Focus on intent.
If you look at our example personas at the top, they should feel kind of wordy. That’s a good sign; it means we focused on people who might actually use the product.
Too many marketers trip up by focusing only on demographics in their personas. For example:
- Millenial moms
- Young professionals with money to spend
- Marketing VPs at Series B companies
These personas are too broad and don’t involve intent; they risk being level 1 or 2. Translation: these people won’t use you — or take a really long time to use you.
So, if you’re growing Peloton from scratch, you’d should be targeting millennial moms who work from home, own a bike, and are researching at-home workouts. (Or something similar.)
Be specific. And focus on intent.
If you want to drive the point home, read this letter from a marketer to his son. It was written in 1984, but the principles remain the same.
Potential to scale
As a growth marketer, you’ll need to keep the potential to scale in the back of your mind. Meaning: could there eventually be a lot of customers who fit my persona? Could you “scale”?
For example, if your product lets couples livestream their wedding using smartphones instead of fancy cameras, you might reach out to friends and family who are engaged and looking for a videographer (but sick of being quoted high prices).
What’s the problem with this? It’s low scale. You’ll tap out your network.
But if you run Google Ads to every couple on the planet searching for a videographer, that’s potentially high scale. Tons of people search for videographers on Google, not just your friends.
With Google Ads, there’s potential to scale: there’s a way to reach many couples that need videographers for their wedding.
In the early days of a startup, scale matters less than you think.
What really happens is, after you find a first group of users, you learn from them and discover strategies and adjacent personas you can then sell to.
Success story: Audm
We worked with Audm, an app that lets you listen to longform articles as if they were podcasts.
They first ran ads on Facebook to people on who subscribed to specific magazines (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc.). The ads called out their bad alternative: not reading articles because they didn’t have time.
These ads were profitable. But they tapped out quickly. Only so many people on Facebook subscribe to these magazines.
When the team looked at who used their app, they noticed a tiny fraction of users from Korea were super active.
They asked those users why they used the app.
It turned out these users were using the app to learn English. It was a much better learning experience than, say, Duolingo, because they could read along with an article while they listened to it, and it was more bite-sized than an audiobook.
So they launched an entirely new set of ads targeting Korea, pitching an easier way to learn English. Their user count doubled within months. This led to a clear playbook they could use to launch in other countries where people wanted to learn English.
Failure story: luxury grocery delivery
(Some details changed to protect the innocent.)
We worked with a massively-hyped company that did grocery delivery for high-end food. Think Amazon Fresh, but with cheese sourced from France, wine from Napa, pasta from southern Italy, etc.
The founder talked about how every foodie wanted their product, and they had 10,000+ people on their waitlist ready to go — mostly from a Product Hunt launch.
When they actually launched, those waitlist signups turned into…only a few actual customers. Like low double digits. And none of them stuck around.
What went wrong?
By launching on Product Hunt, this company went after the wrong persona: people on Product Hunt. Product Hunters like to sign up for new things that look cool, and all they had to do here was sign up for a free waitlist. They didn’t have to put down actual money for a deposit, which would have meant they were higher intent. That was poor signal.
It turns out that the type of people who sign up for waitlists are…the type of people who sign up for waitlists. Not people who actually use and love your product.
We see this story play out often.
If this company had started instead by targeting communities of foodies who spent hours finding custom food themselves, they probably would have found actual customers. (And, maybe, a path to other foodies.)
Success Story: Instagram
Instagram used to be a Foursquare clone called Burbn — an app with a map where you could tell friends where you were.
Not many people used it. But when they looked at the tiny pool of people who were using it a lot, they saw these people were using it almost entirely for the photo filters.
The team re-oriented the app to just focus on photos and filters, and it became the social media giant you know today.
This is one of the more famous stories in tech and you should know it as a growth marketer. We reference it on calls when we want to explain why scale isn’t as important as people think.
(Longer story here if interested.)
Founders and marketers are tempted to only test personas that can scale. It’s a good instinct, but if you target too broad a persona too early, you may not get any users — because the users are too low-intent.
It’s much better to find a small group of high-intent users, then branch out.
As a growth marketer, you should show your founders you’re thinking about the potential to scale, but you have to balance that with finding high-intent users.
Here are some ways you can pitch founders that you’re thinking about scale:
- “If we figure out how to sell in this city, we can run the same playbook in other cities across the country.”
- “If we figure out how to sell to this sales team, we can sell to other sales teams at other companies.”
- “If we figure out how to sell to this sales team, we can sell to customer success and marketing teams at the same company.”
- “If we get a few users who love us, we can ask them for introductions to larger communities they’re part of, and we’ll scale by sponsoring those.”
- “If we get a few users who love us, we can test different referral programs to get them to refer us to friends, who can refer us to their friends, etc.”
How personas get used
Personas are theoretical — they’re people you ideally want to reach in a perfect world. You can’t always reach them in practice.
For example, if you’re growing GoGoGrandparent (Uber for old people who struggle with tech), it would be amazing to find seniors who tried to use Uber on their phones and failed. But that’s hard to do. How do you know who installed the Uber app unless you’re Apple…or Uber?
In practice, personas affect how you target and how you sell.
When you run an acquisition channel, such as running an ad or posting to Twitter, you get access to specific audiences: people you can actually reach in real life.
Here’s what that looks like…
For Facebook ads
For LinkedIn ads
For Google Ads and content/SEO
For organic tweets
These channels only give you certain targeting information.
For example, with billboards, you might only get demographic information (average age, working/not working, median area income, etc.) about the area. Then, using that limited info, you’ll have to guess which targeting matches your persona best.
When picking channels to test, it’s best to work backwards from your persona to the channel. The closer the channel fits your customer, the more likely the channel will work.
For example, if you’re growing GoGoGrandparent, you might sponsor local bridge clubs…rather than trying to go viral on TikTok. If you’re targeting truckers, you might set up free snack stands at truck stops.
There’s a second way you use personas: selling. This means the words you write (copy) and the next steps you pitch (onboarding).
When you write copy to a persona, you filter out the audience members who aren’t a fit. This saves you time and money.
For example, say you’re running Google Ads for a Mac app. With Google, you pay every time someone clicks an ad, so you don’t want Windows users clicking. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t let you target Mac users.
The fix: write copy that screens out the wrong people.
Windows users get that the product isn’t for them, so they won’t click. That saves you money.
Similarly, if you’re selling gardening services to every homeowner in a neighborhood, don’t waste time on people who don’t have a garden, so make it clear you’re selling gardening services and not something vague like “home maintenance services”. That way, the wrong people won’t call you. Save yourself time.
This is particularly important for digital ads. As people click your ads, they “train” the ad algorithm to show your ad to more people like them. So, if you only serve Mac users and Windows users are clicking your ad, more Windows users will start seeing your ad. That’s a death spiral of expensive clicks. Avoid it by calling out personas in your copy.
Different personas want to use you differently.
For example, managers at big companies want to schedule demos. Developers want to play around immediately without speaking to a human. Employees without budgets expect free trials — so they can eventually pitch you to their bosses.
Tailor your first steps to the persona you’re selling to.
Different personas also expect different things from your product. Managers might care most about reporting, while employees might care most about the time-savings.
That means if a manager comes to your site, they should see reporting benefits first. If an employee comes to your site, they should see how they can save time first.
Companies build pages for specific personas as their marketing gets more sophisticated. For example, here are two pages for the same product targeting different personas. Notice how they highlight different things:
This idea doesn’t just apply to websites. If you walk into a clothing store, there are different departments for men, women, and kids. Signs let you self-select into the right section — so you only browse clothes you want.