The trouble with customer avatars

“I know what we have to do,” said Dave when he started his business.

His two partners looked at him.

“We have to create a customer avatar”.

The others looked at him with blank expressions.

He filled them in.

“A profile of our ideal client”.

“But we haven’t got any clients.”

“Well, we’ll just have to make one up”.

And so they did — they downloaded an avatar template from the internet and filled in all the details.

They used it in their marketing, but no-one came.

And the business folded.

That slightly too ideal client

In her book Find The Right Message, Jennifer Havice points out the danger of inventing customer avatars.

She was working local non-profit retail store market itself online. It resold donated items that all seemed in excellent condition, and the people in the store seemed to be mainly locals looking to support the larger organisation.

“So I was a bit startled when I found out who the marketing team identified as their ideal customer. The persona they described amounted to a woman in her fifties living in the highest rent district in town with discriminating tastes that leaned far closer to Tiffany’s than Target. “Is this who shops in the store?” I asked. “Not really. Except we do have quite a few volunteers who buy things,” one of them said”.

There’s little point in having an avatar that doesn’t actually exist.

There’s a problem with demographics

Is that it reduces people down to labels. As a sixty-something idealist with a penchant for wacky music, foreign literature, films and football, I don’t fit into many labels. I suspect you would as well.

I’ve said a lot in the past that you should get as granular as possible with an avatar. I was wrong.

You absolutely must have a customer avatar if you have more than one product, the more, the merrier. Aston Martin has 73. But be smart about them. There is no one right way to do this.

Traditionally, customer avatars are described in great detail because they must appear as real people. Getting too granular can throw us off as well.

I’ve employed the services in the past of women who say their target audience is women. So are they working with me? And why do they enjoy it (they do, they told me)? Awkward.

You also don’t need to know your customer’s exact industry if you serve people from many backgrounds.

A good avatar requires research to avoid coming up with people that don’t exist or are a complete mismatch.

But what are they thinking?

Copywriters constantly work to track out pain points, desires and beliefs; we need to get under people’s skin and find out what they think. We write for one person, but for example, focusing on one gender that will not work for many industries. Sometimes that one person is described with broader brush strokes than others.

But we don’t always need the intimate details of people’s lives to do this. For most businesses, whether your avatar has two or three kids matters little.

The important things about an avatar are attitudes and values, not whether they have two kids or three.

Their worldview is what defines them.

This is what’s important

So demographics are and have never been, enough. Turn the curtain back on the labels, and we see people’s actions, what they do in their daily lives and what they think.

“Nature versus nurture “is one of the oldest debates in science. Are we pre-wired and pre-conditioned to do things (do we fit into labels) or are we directed by our thoughts and experiences?

Ask yourself these questions.

Who are they?

You’re allowed to do demographics here but don’t go overboard if your industry doesn’t require it. For example, the number of kids may be significant for a mortgage advisor, but if you’re selling business coaching programmes, it’s less so.

What are their problems?

If you’re in business, you solve a problem. Otherwise, you haven’t got a business.

The trick then is identifying those problems and aligning your products and services to them.

Don’t try to guess; that will cost you money.
Ask your customers what pains them when they come on board or send them a survey after you’ve finished working with them. Hang around in groups and forums and get to know them. Look at review sites, Reddit (if you feel brave) or read Amazon book reviews, you’ll be amazed at how candid people are.

What do they want?

What do they want from life? Again, no guesswork unless you have direct experience. Research baby, research.

What do they believe?

What do they believe about themselves, the world and products like yours? Research on this should be easy.

Closing statement

I’ve changed my mind on this (I know, I know), I used to think detailed customer avatars were essential.

But only idiots never change their minds.

Be careful about those details because they could throw you off track.

Now it’s down to you; what about you?

Of course, I have a workbook you can download here. There’s only a little bit on demographics.

Originally published at on September 22, 2020.



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Mike Garner

Mike Garner

Copywriter, London exile interested in human communication and targeting your ideal client. Lived in France 20 years. Get emails at