Business Myth: You Need a Client Avatar

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client avatar

client avatar

Welcome to Business Myths. Here’s the deal: We often hear business “truths” and accept them as true without stopping to question them. We’re chatting with solopreneurs and freelancers who have learned the hard way that these commonly accepted facts may not, in fact, always be true. In this case, Rachel Allen shares her (expert) take on why your client avatar is useless, and what you need to know to really resonate with your readers, instead.

Every industry has its must-have tools. And while those change pretty frequently in the fast-paced, online, small business world — “Webinars are the future! No, Periscope! No, Facebook Live!” — one that’s held steady since the beginning is the client avatar.

You know how it works: You sit down, sketch a stick figure, and write out whether they’re a cat person or a dog person, what they like to do on the weekends, and of course, what their favorite breakfast cereal is.

Just one problem…

When it comes down to it, you still have no idea what to say or how to sell to this person. Funny enough, knowing someone’s cereal preferences doesn’t help you communicate with them in a way that really resonates. Because, just like you, your business, and your brand, your clients are complicated. Multi-layered. And very, very human.

The truth is, most client avatars are absolutely useless.

They’re intended to give you a clear idea of who you’re working for, but they almost always give you a sanitized, surface-level, pod-person version of your audience. And you’re not working with pod people, you’re working with people people, those contradictory, irrational, gloriously-difficult-to-pin-down beings.

It was never about the breakfast cereal.

Client avatar exercises ask you questions about the surface level things in a person’s life as a way of getting at the deeper things about them. But somewhere along the way, the search for that soul-level stuff became conflated with the surface-level stuff — and we started thinking that knowing whether someone owns a cat or a dog can somehow give you insight into what they want, when very often people don’t even really consciously know it themselves.

Why client avatars don’t work

When you do a classic client avatar exercise, you’re primarily focusing on demographics — those quantifiable, external things about a person. But when people fall in love with branding, become a fan of your business, or make a decision to buy, they’re doing that from a place of identity, not logic, and certainly not demographic indicators.

...and that’s why you need psychographics

If you really want to get someone’s attention, develop a relationship with them, and make them want to buy from you, you need to approach them in a way that confirms their perception of their identity. (Which is such a powerful force that people will actually act against their self-interests rather than do something that goes against their identity. Homo economicus, you’re out.)

And to tap into a person’s identity, you need to get a sense of their psychographics — their beliefs, feelings, and assumptions, and why they have them.

Sounds great! So how do I figure all that stuff out?

It’s not as easy as going through a checklist, and there’s no foolproof, six-step template for it (see: “not pod people”).

But that doesn’t mean that you have to fly blind, trying out thing after thing until you finally hit on that magic combination of words and ideas that light your people up…because they’ll tell you, if you know how to listen.

Start with some empirical research

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in trying to figure your target market out is doing it in a vacuum — this guarantees that whatever you come up with is going to be biased towards your own perceptions. Instead of working from the inside out, starting with your own guesses about your clients and learning the hard way whether they’re right or not, start with some objectively verifiable data.

Find out where your people hang out, both online and offline, go there, and <em<listen

And by this, I mean where they actually spend their time. Not relatively general Facebook groups, not generic Twitter chats. Find places that are going to be incredibly specific to them because of their industry, their problems, or where their clients hang out — because chances are, you’ll find them there too, pitching.

Once you’re there, don’t fish for business, or post things like “Hey XYZ-type people, I’m doing some research on my client avatar, what are your problems?” Just listen to what’s being said both explicitly and implicitly, and track any topics you see coming up again and again. This is not a one afternoon thing — you want to do this for at least two weeks to gather enough data.

Once you have an idea of the lay of the land, analyze your repeat topics through three questions:

1. What is this really about?

Try to get below the surface and figure out what this topic is really about for your people. For instance, if you’re constantly seeing people post about wanting a VA, is it because they feel overwhelmed, or because all their business friends are getting one, or because they think they need a VA, when really they need an accountant? What’s the bottom line of both the reality and the belief behind this issue?

Knowing this will help you figure out the language you need to use to share your message and services with them, and makes a great starting point for an about page.

2. Where does it come from?

What beliefs, assumptions, and needs underlie these issues? Are they actually true? If so, where do those needs overlap with your message and your services?

This gives you insight into their beliefs, the chance to debunk false assumptions (and show off your expertise), and guidance on how to tap into your clients’ aspirations.

3. What are the stakes?

What happens to your people if they solve this issue? What happens if they don’t? What do their life and business look like next month if this issue persists? What about next year? And how do you fit into that equation?

Knowing this not only helps you focus on the things your people really need help with, it also gives you a starting point for talking about these issues in sales copy.

It all comes down to this

Genuinely effective business communication is a balancing act between your message and how your audience needs to hear it. To figure that out, you need to know your people inside and out.

It takes time. It’s not a simple process I can upsell you in a 45-minute webinar. But it’s worth it. Because ultimately, you don’t need a client avatar. You need a human-to-human relationship -- and there’s just no way to get that from a stick-figure sketch.

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Rachel Allen is the founder of Bolt from the Blue Copywriting, which helps small and brave business owners like you shake up the world one industry at a time with devastatingly incisive copy and content that gets right to the heart of who you are and makes your readers’ synapses sparkle. If you’re ready to kill your client avatar and start spreading your message in a way that really resonates, she’s got just the resource to help you do it.
  1. T. A. Somers says:

    Hi Rachel,

    I agree with you on the surface level that client avatars created in the abstract need to be abolished in the worst way!
    However, I think that client avatars, in general, are a tool that’s being misused by solo entrepreneurs and business moms everywhere.

    Client avatars should be created as a characteristic average that has been amassed from a sum of actual client interactions, not dreamed up in the sunny window of the local coffee shop.

    Now, I’m all for being a fly on the wall in social media groups and listening in to relevant discussions. You can also do this type of fact-finding on Quora, in forums or any number of other ways but it’s still second-person research until you’ve gone toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye with the customer themselves.

    There are emotions, stories, body language, and depth and richness to the psychographics that you can attain face to face or Skype to Skype with a client that simply cannot be replicated by any other method.

    I’m a huge advocate of telling people that unless you have gone out and spoken to 100 real people eyeball to eyeball, your job isn’t done yet; you don’t have enough information on which to build a client avatar that holds any water.

    Building client avatars in the abstract is a recipe for frustration and wasted time. Thanks for bringing this issue to the light Rachel!

    Yours respectfully, T. A.

  2. Amber says:

    What a great post. I’ve seen the avatar thing everywhere and was never really sure. This article was like an eye opener kind of validating a gut feeling I had already. Thank you for all you wrote!

    • Rachel says:

      Thanks Amber! And I’m so glad I could second your gut feeling — there’s nothing worse than wondering “Am I the only one who’s not getting this …. because this feels like craziness…”

  3. Great post…I’ve always thought this same thing, but so many people teach this. Love this perspective!

  4. Tanya says:

    Hi Rachel,

    Can I just say that first off – I love your writing style! It’s very clear and concise yet I can totally feel your personality coming thru! Secondly thanks so much for writing this article – it was so refreshing to read and helped to clarify better ways of getting to know my target audience – love it! I’m new to this site but I’m truly loving everyone’s articles – great info here!

  5. LOVE. Psychographics are the BEST. Pod people are NOT GOOD.

    • Rachel says:

      You ain’t lyin — pod people are creepy as hell, not to mention totally useless as models for connecting to actual humans. So glad it resonated with you!

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