How To Think Like Your Customer

It’s what every marketer grows up hearing.  It’s what every product manager focuses on.  It’s what every SEO needs to learn to do.  In fairness, it’s not just the SEOs that need to do this, it’s everyone who works at any business that runs a website.
It’s also extremely hard to get right.

We’re talking about thinking like your customer.

As with so many things, getting oriented to thinking this way is helped greatly with a plan.  Let’s look at a three-step process that can help align your mind and get you on the right path.  Think of this as Lumosity-lite for Webmasters.


This one is pretty obvious to most webmasters and SEOs.  You’re already heads-down in analytics for 28 hours a day anyway.  But tilt that thinking cap Vanilla Ice-style and start watching the products and services being purchased.  The backtrack to see the pathways those sales followed, though your site, to reach the product.  Building a view of how each product impacts the pathways visitors follow within your site is step one.  Step two is assigning personas to those groups following similar pathways.


From an early age we learn that “pretending” is fun.  As we get older we learn that all that pretending we did as kids helped our minds develop and learn problem solving skills.  Then, at some point along the growth curve we slowly but surely stop pretending.  While maturity is great, we’re going back to the sandbox here because building personas is all about pretending.  If you don’t like that analogy, think of it as walking a mile is someone else’s shoes.

By building a persona, or multiple personas, that accurately represent the most common consumers of your content, you can begin to predict how they will interact with your site when you make changes, add content, expand or move things around.

These personas will also help you understand very critical points about your audience:

– Age
– Sex
– Income
– Location
– Socio-economic levels
– Interests
– Aspirations
– Motivational triggers
…and so on.

Creating personas is an exercise in building a representation for your “average” visitor.  In most cases, you’ll have multiple “average visitors”, but the goal is the same in each instance: Understand your customer at a deeper level.

For example, by knowing that in January, 18 – 34 year old females on the West Coast tend to start planning vacations in the fall, you can start planning your content and advertising programs.  This information can help you select which sites to advertise on and what keywords to focus paid search campaigns around.  It’ll help you understand that suggestion works better than a heavy sales pitch.  Or that a 10% discount is enough to make a sale.  It’ll help you understand which locales those travelers might look towards.  It can help you suggest options those shoppers might not think of (equal payments for that fancy vacation between now and the trip, for example).

Creating personas isn’t simple work, but can be highly rewarding to your efforts.  You’ll need to gather demographic data and cross reference that with your our data, internal surveys, etc.

Don’t feel weird about giving your persona’s names and talking about them as if they were real people.  They are real people.  They are your real customers, just bundled together in a way that showcases common patterns of behavior.


Basing your site design, build and update work on scenarios is a great opportunity.  Building new features fits this model as well.  By thinking of the scenario that the feature fits into, you can avoid tunnel vision when planning work at the feature level only.  It’ll show you where the feature fits into the overall scenario and use case, as well as identifying other potential use-cases you might not immediately think of when planning a new feature.

You do need to approach things thoughtfully, however.  Too many times work on a site is feature focused.  “If we build this feature, it’ll do_________ and people will love us!”  Then you scope the feature, cost the work, assign resources, plan the work points, build it, test it, launch it and watch the results.

That’s a lot of input into one idea.  And what if, after launching that feature, you discover an obvious gap now exists. You launch the feature only to realize a new opportunity exists, created by the feature that will now take more months to capitalize on.  Or worse, is now blocked because of the new feature’s technical implementation.

Here are some basic things to wrap your head around when engaging in scenario-based planning:

– Always remember – YOU are not the customer.  Use your personas as the customer.

– Focus on the big picture first and sort out details later.  Focus on the whole, not the parts at this point.

– Think end-to-end.  Start at the beginning of the scenario and think through to a logical conclusion, noting all steps along the way.

– Remind yourself that the best way to do something isn’t already out there.  There is always room for improvement.

– Empower actual brainstorming.  No ideas are bad during brainstorming.  Capture them all and explore the most promising.  Encourage this by enlisting non-standard people to input during brainstorming.  Look beyond just your team.  Include other employees, focus groups, etc.

– Pin this to the wall: DO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR FIRST GOOD IDEA  Keep digging to see what other ideas come forward.  The best idea might be a combination of an awesome idea and an OK idea.  Each alone holding their own place, but when combined, they punch above their weight class.

– When you’ve identified opportunities, start filling in the details right down to the smallest one.  This is tedious, but investing time here makes for a much better product when launched.

– Take a break.  Literally walk away from the project for a few days to let the idea marinate.  The flavor will change and you may see immediate improvements you can recommend.  If not, and it still looks good, you’re ready to go.

– You can’t do everything, but you can do a few things very well.  Keep this in mind and regularly ask if you’re trying to accomplish too many things during your planning.  Great plans often fail because execution was harder than expected.

– Finally, everyone needs to remember that this work is a team effort.  There should be no broken hearts because an idea was left on the whiteboard.  You’re on the team and when the product launches, the team wins.

Between creating personas and engaging in scenario based planning, you can make a big impact on the success of your website.  During all of this, you’ll naturally encounter road blocks.  A great idea that’s not technically possible to execute.  A non-team player.  Time constraints and more.  Don’t sweat it.   It never hurts to do fewer things, but to do them better.

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