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The Myth of the Ideal Customer Avatar: Why Creating an ICA Can Limit Sales and Growth in Your Business (and What You Need to Do Instead)

When you hear the word “avatar,” do you think of James Cameron’s giant blue CGI creature?

Or do you know exactly who your ideal Customer Avatar is and use this knowledge to make strategic business decisions?

Let me backup for a second…

There are lots of different terms floating around like buyer persona, customer profile and Ideal Customer Avatar (ICA), just to name a few.

But they all essentially mean the same thing:

A short profile of a fictitious character who embodies your perfect customer — the person you are creating your business, content, products, programs and services for. 

Most marketing experts will say that a clearly defined Customer Avatar will help you create targeted marketing messages that attract perfect-match customers to your business. 

But if you’ve been following me for a while, you already know I’m not like most experts. 🙂 

Most Customer Avatars I’ve Seen Suck in One of Two Ways

I’ve been online since 2011 and I’ve worked with well over 5,000 students and clients on branding, marketing and building a successful business, and I’ve found that most Customer Avatars are either:

  1. Way too vague, or 
  2. Way too detailed

I’ve seen Customer Avatar worksheets that include a massive list of questions like… 

Where did your ideal customer grow up and go to school?

Who do they look up to?

What magazines do they read?

What are some of their lifestyle choices?

What’s their favorite movie?

Some worksheets include questions about what your ideal customer likes to do on weekends and whether they have pets. 

But if you’re not selling pet food or pet-related products, you don’t need to figure out if your ideal customer has 3 cats named Fluffy, Whiteface and Sir Lancelot. 🙂 

And if you’re not selling running shoes, does it really help you to know they love hiking in the mountains every other Saturday?

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Customer Avatars that are vague and “up in the air.” 

Phrases like “big dreamer” or “extremely independent” don’t give you the information you need to create targeted marketing messages, products or services that hit home and motivate your audience to reach for their wallets.

The truth is that when it comes to crafting powerful marketing messages and creating products and programs that sell, coming up with a Customer Avatar — at least the kind most people talk about — is simply not enough. 

At best, a traditional Customer Avatar will give you some clarity on who your perfect customer is. But, at worst, it can limit growth and sales in your business by restricting your target market because you’re focusing on one extremely specific type of customer or client.

That’s why I don’t waste time on Customer Avatar exercises in my trainings and programs.

Instead, I teach my students how to craft something far more powerful and effective: what I call Customer Vignettes. 

So What Is a “Customer Vignette”… and How Is It Different (and Way Better) than a Customer Avatar?

While the traditional Customer Avatar provides a whole range of real and imagined details about who your perfect customer is supposed to be…

Customer Vignettes are about taking a close look at your real life customers and clients and why they actually bought from you.

Or if you don’t have clients yet, talk to your ideal prospective customers about their challenges around your topic area.

You’ll quickly discover that the reasons they invested in you and your business (or are interested in investing) usually relates to specific emotional moments or life circumstances.

I named this approach “Customer Vignettes” after the photography technique of framing an image by blurring out the edges or placing a shape around the photo so it brings focus to the center of the image, where the subject usually is. 🙂

And here’s the main difference between Customer Vignettes and the traditional Customer Avatar…

Unlike the “be all end all” Avatar, which is just a single, definitive description of ONE person, Vignettes cover more than one type of customer.

This approach acknowledges that a perfect customer isn’t just one super specific person but a range of different kinds of people buying for different reasons. 

Ideally, you want to create 3-5 Customer Vignettes for your business. 

My students feel a huge sense of relief when they realize they don’t need to come up with ONE flawless Customer Avatar that they have to stick to no matter what.

Instead, they get to approach their target audience in a far more fluid and flexible way, and see their business for what it truly is… an interesting, complex and nuanced enterprise, serving different types of people with different reasons for buying.

To Give You an Idea of How Customer Vignettes Work, Here’s One of Ours at Live Your Message…

This Vignette is based on actual feedback from a real customer — Angelina —  who joined us in our Blue Sky Mentorship program (this is our one-of-a-kind 12-month experience that takes new and emerging entrepreneurs by the hand and helps them build a business that’s a perfect fit for their unique personality, strengths and vision).

Angelina wrote this after her experience in Blue Sky Mentorship: 

“As a single mom, I’d operated a successful business for more than a decade, allowing me to learn and be available for my children. When the market changed, I suddenly had to get a 9-to-5 job. While I did okay, my salary wasn’t enough so I started consulting on the side to meet my family’s financial needs. Working my business around my job, I was spending — on average — 16 hours per day, working, in the early morning and late night hours… often on weekends. My job not only capped my earnings with a salary ceiling, but the demands of the job also limited what I was able to do in my business. I was burning the candle at both ends… yet still struggling to get by.”

Angelina shares her “Why” for joining us in Blue Sky Mentorship in the last few lines when she says, “My job not only capped my earnings with a salary ceiling, but the demands of the job also limited what I was able to do in my business. I was burning the candle at both ends… yet still struggling to get by.” 

She was ready to let go of her struggle and chose to work with us in Mentorship to help her achieve her goal… and it worked! 

After trying a whole lot of ideas for a long time but failing to hit on the right one… Angelina finally nailed her niche!

And the best part? She made her first $10K in “what felt like overnight!”  

It happened just in time for Angelina because she was downsized and lost her 9-to-5 income a few months after she started with us in Mentorship. 

Okay, so let’s try on another LYM Customer Vignette for size.

This one’s about Jesse, who was building an author-centric publishing company and his goal was to publish 250 books by the time he hit 40 so he wouldn’t have to work again.

Jesse joined our Next Level Mentorship program which is for entrepreneurs who are making money and have some momentum, but aren’t where they want to be yet.  

In his own words:

“I joined Mentorship when I first started building my publishing company. I had released a couple of books that were successful but I couldn’t see how to build a business that supported ME as well as the authors and entrepreneurs I love to work with.

I enrolled in Mentorship because I had learned so much from Marisa’s videos, trainings and summits and I admired the branding and design of her work. She pays attention to the details. Marisa always over-delivers and continues to innovate in ways that are both inspiring and instructional — a total Game-Changer.” 

Jesse’s “Why” for joining our Next Level Mentorship program is clear… he talks about it straight through from start to finish 🙂

Because of that clarity Jesse got awesome results during his time with us and in the years that followed. He’s now taken his business across the half-million dollar mark and he has over 100 books under contract that he’s published and distributes.

This last Vignette is also based on a real customer — Richard — and it includes an emotional moment.

Richard started out as an Experience Product Masterclass student and later moved on to our Next Level Mentorship program for 2 full years 🙂

In his own words:

“I’m 62. I taught graduate level project management for 10 years before retiring… and I’m not ready to stop! My wife told me not to retire from… but to retire to something that I want to do. My mentors are gone so it’s up to me to pass on what they taught me.

Over the last few years I learned about online courses and realized I could keep teaching — for as long as I want. I joined the Experience Product Masterclass to make project management fun, engaging and accessible — because I’m passionate about it. It doesn’t need to be so dry, serious or boring. I take what I teach very seriously but I don’t take myself seriously. I like to work hard and play hard too.” 

Richard clearly shares his “Why” when he says, “I joined the Experience Product Masterclass to make project management fun, engaging and accessible — because I’m passionate about it.”

The emotional moment or life circumstance is where he says, “My wife told me not to retire from… but to retire to something that I want to do. My mentors are gone so it’s up to me to pass on what they taught me.”

This reveals the Richard’s deeper desires and motivations and it gives meaning to why he’d want to join EPM and later the Next Level Mentorship program.

Creating Customer Vignettes is Not About Putting Your Customer’s Life Under a Microscope

We have no idea if Angelina prefers cats over dogs and what her favorite flavor of ice-cream is. And we have no clue if Richard is dreaming of spending December in Hawaii — that would be too specific and unrelated to what I’m teaching in the Mentorship program.

And there are no vague, baffling phrases like “high achiever” or “dedicated dad” which would be 100% unhelpful when I sit down to create marketing material like emails, blog posts or social media messages for the program. 

As I said, don’t stop at just ONE Vignette for your business.

Create a range of Vignettes, at the very least one for each of your products or services and ideally one for each kind of customer. 

I hope this post gets you excited about creating your very first Customer Vignette!

And here’s something that’ll help you get started:

Go ahead and think about your perfect customer. This could be someone you’ve loved working with in the past or someone you’d love to work with in the future. 

Now consider this person through the lens of a Customer Vignette.

Why would they want to buy from you? What’s an emotional moment or experience that would drive them to invest in one of your products or services?

If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask someone who knows you and your business! 

Join the conversation and share your “a-has” in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you 🙂

Love it? Hate it? Let me know...

  1. Raquel Deville

    Thank you! So much.

    I’ve spent so many hours and I wasted possible “avatars” so much time trying to building my ICA. Never really finished it, started in 2013 and got over it in 2018 with your wonderful Experience Product Masterclass. Happily for me I’ve found you.

    Reply ·
    1. Marisa Murgatroyd

      Thanks so much Raquel! So happy to hear the Experience Product Masterclass has helped you in your journey! 🙂

      Reply ·
  2. Mary

    Oh my God! I am so in love with you right now Marrisa This was exactly what i was discussing with a mentee and i was already creating content around this to share because i have been there. Doing the ICA thing got me paralyzed for decades.. Until now i found a better approach. And reading yours throws more light on what i have. I called it finding your voice…

    Reply ·
    1. Marisa Murgatroyd

      Lol thanks Mary! And yes, I totally agree. Feel free to share this article with your mentee as well <3

      Reply ·
  3. Marlys Arnold

    Thanks for spotlighting a different perspective on this, Marisa! I’ve never understood why determining how many kids/pets/cars my customers have or where they go on vacation has anything to do with selling trade show consulting or training. But defining what inspires them to invest in my training and/or consulting for their upcoming trade shows … that makes far more sense for what I’m selling!

    Reply ·
    1. Marisa Murgatroyd

      So glad you enjoyed it Marlys! Couldn’t agree more 🙂

      Reply ·
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About the Author Marisa Murgatroyd

Marisa is the founder of Live Your Message, where she turns entrepreneurs into Online Superheroes, and the creator of Start With You where she helps people just like you to discover the business they're meant to build, not just the business they can build. At 4’11 and a quarter, she’s called the shortest woman in marketing — and that doesn’t stop her from having huge ideas. She’s the “go to” brand builder for industry luminaries and heavyweights such as Justin Livingston, Callan Rush, Danny Iny, Alexis Neely and Susan Peirce Thompson. Marisa helps entrepreneurs create a business that is authentic and aligned with who they are, to empower them to turn up the dial on their “inner superhero”, so they can be the superhero to their tribe, as well as in their own lives.

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