How Creating an Imaginary Friend Can Make You a Better Writer

image of two women at a writing desk

Most kids ditch their imaginary friends along with their sippy cups and security blankets.

That’s a good thing, right?

Well, marketers have discovered a new benefit to finding (and keeping) those imaginary friends again.

One top advertising agency –- Organic in Detroit –- even gave its imaginary friends their own office space.

Why?

Because these fictional characters, or “personas,” make it much easier to make a deep connection with your writing and content marketing.

“Personas allow them to journey into a relational territory where they can understand on an emotional level the most important determinants of real consumers’ brand preferences and purchase decisions,” Dale Buss writes in Advertising Age, “And personas give marketers a meaningful shorthand for communicating with one another.”

I agree with Mr. Buss. If you’ll humor me for a moment, I want to translate some of that advertising-speak and show you how to create your own imaginary marketing persona … and how he or she can make you a better writer.

Craft your own persona

Creating a persona can help your writing better resonate with audiences -– and it doesn’t require having extra office space.

You only need a willingness to be creative.

Create your own persona by first envisioning your perfect reader.

Then, write down the bare facts: name, age, gender, income, education and marital status. Focus not only on demographics, but also personal details that help you identify with this person on a more intimate level.

You can even do a quick search on Google Images to find a photo that matches the persona. Don’t use stock photos –- you want someone who looks real. (Just don’t share it publically unless you have permission to use the photo.)

The idea here is to get as specific as you can about the appearance of your imaginary friend.

Dive deeper into your persona

Once you’ve filled in the basic facts, write a paragraph or two for each of the following categories:

  • Personal information Describe her as if she was standing in the same room. Write about her goals, her values, her likes and dislikes. Write about her biggest problems, and the things that keep her up at night.
  • Needs What are her needs? What problems does she hope that your writing will solve? How are these problems causing her pain and discomfort? What end result does she want, and what end result does she really need? Are they the same?
  • Influence Here’s where you lay out all the factors that go into her decision to take your advice. What influences her decision? How does she find out about your writing, and why does she remember it? What differentiates you, and why is that important to her?

So, who is your imaginary friend?

Click here to download a PDF that takes a look at what the completed persona from the example above might look like.

Then take the time to create your own persona page.

Once you’ve finished, hang it somewhere you can refer to it often. That way, you can apply your future writing to this persona, and get an idea of whether it will resonate with your target market.

How about you — think you’re too old (or too smart) to have an imaginary friend?

Or maybe you’ve used a persona and found it improved your writing and marketing.

Either way, let us know about it in the comments below.

About the Author: Kelly Kautz is a freelance copywriter who blogs about marketing for small business owners.

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Comments

  1. Quite often, I find I know someone in “real life” who fits a marketing persona.
    It’s a lot easier to get inside the head of someone you know than an imaginary friend – hell you can even talk to them and ask them questions!
    Good post though…

    • That’s a good one if you have it — a real flesh-and-blood customer who can be your persona makes it that much easier to imagine sitting across the table with her having coffee and talking about your topic.

      • I always like chats like this.

        There’s a lot to be said for something that’ ‘real’ and ‘tangible’ – at the same time, the most powerful things in life I find to be “imagination-born”. The most powerful demographic?

        Imagination-born.

  2. What a creative idea, Kelly! Similarly, it’s something I’ve actually tried to do with some writing I’ve done to help me better write in context … or in character. Creating an ‘imaginary friend’, or waht I prefer to call an alterego, is a much better option than engaging and wrestling with one’s ego, id, and superego – and their endless vying for position within the creative process.

  3. I love this! Thank you. When I was a manager working in an office, my Team and I created an imaginary assistant who occupied the cube right outside of my office. We came in on Monday mornings where everyone had a new story of their weekend adventure with Lola, the jet-setting Euro-Trash I had hired but couldn’t keep in her seat – the rumor was that someone was always in the bathroom with her helping her down from her hangover. The creativity kept my team on their toes, and also helped to build dynamics. As I journey into writing, I may need to reinvent Lola and speak to her as I write.
    Thank you so much for bringing me this fantastic memory and turning it to a writing tool!
    Heidi Lee

  4. Excellent Kelly. I can see how this will help me connect to the target. As well as help the audience the target represents connect back to my copy.

    Recently, I wrote something called “Targeting the Wild Stallion.” It’s about marketing services to those loner males with bad teeth. After reading your article I went back and gave the target the name “Doug.” Just in naming him my article changed for the better.

    Thanks! :D

  5. Awesome post Kelly! It’s undoubtedly true that conversations connect and just plain information does not. This is exactly what Eben Pagan also about as the ‘customer avatar’, which you have very creatively put it to form thru a PDF. Great post and a great idea for many to take home and start creating their ‘customer avatar’.

  6. I have used this technique unconsciously over the past 25 years. It was interesting to have it laid out in such a step-by-step fashion. I know this is valuable, and I intend to “formalize” my persona as a way to grow in my writing. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Luv the idea Kelly. Your imagination is a predictive creative faculty. You hold an image of something, and that something comes to pass. You can imagine your way into success, and if you use the tips mentioned, you will be able to better serve your audience, by picturing your way through all roadblocks. Thanks!

    RB

  8. that is really creative. a very different perspective and point of view to become a better blogger. thanks for sharing

  9. Thanks so much for this post! I had heard this before. I think this can be a tremendous help

    Mary

  10. Very interesting concept. I am definitely going to try this in some of my writing. Thank you!

  11. Hah!! Now I can tell my wife that I don’t need to go to the doctor when she sees me talking to my Imaginary friend.

  12. I think this is a great idea! The more you know about your ideal reader the more targeted your content/messaging can be. It’s very easy to forget exactly who you are writing for and sometimes your content misses the mark. Having this persona reading over your shoulder asking you “why would I care” can help keep you on track.

  13. It’s very important to be careful with this excercise. It absolutely works for finding voice and hitting typical emotional touchpoints. The problem comes in when this imaginary friend, complete with all her average and implied demographics and psychographics, suddenly morphs into the entire audience.

    Again, I’m not saying this isn’t worthwhile, but be EXTREMELY careful with assumptions you make about your target market.

    Because they’re probably wrong.

    • True. A couple grains of salt never hurt.

    • I agree, Andrew. To prevent this, I would recommend doing more than one persona, to make sure you’re representing different segments of your audience. It also helps when you base the information in your persona on actual market research and client interviews, if you can get them.

    • Agreed.

      I’ve personally fallen victim to assumptive writing in the past. It’s easy to think that just because X is true, then Y must be true when using techniques like these. He’s 22… so he must be computer savvy. She’s owns a boat… she must know how to swim. This is, of course, a trap.

      I’ve personally found it more valuable to write based on the actual data garnered from test campaigns. As I learn more about my market, I tailor in new angles in subsequent split tests. This avoids any inadvertent assumptions (since facts are driving writing decisions) while also making the copy more ‘personal’.

      Interesting read Kelly. Thanks for that.

      • It’s a great technique, as Andrew says, for improving your voice and hitting the emotional benefits. It is not a market research technique. :) You still need to watch the real buyers, not the imaginary ones, and observe what they do.

  14. Kelly, thanks for sharing a sample of this. The visual instantly made me realize that just having that stuck up on my bulletin board, a glance away, would be really helpful.

    Although having a real life person in mind, as Hadi suggested, is ideal, I think this exercise would be particularly useful for long term business development goals. As our business grows, often our ideal customer will evolve also so I think using this imaginary friend/customer idea to try to anticipate customer expectations and values could be helpful. Good one!

  15. Thanks for this Kelly. It really helps to have a focal point. The way you write will be different for the type of person for whom you are focusing in on. Have you ever done any demographic research into who reads your material and whether they come close to your imaginary persona?

    • Barry, depending on the project, I’ve used everything from personal experience to consumer focus groups. I love having lots of research at my fingertips, and focus groups (or interviews) are especially helpful for capturing someone’s authentic voice.You don’t always need lots of in-depth research to create a persona. But it rarely hurts.

  16. When I’m writing about something complicated, I often envision my mom…who still doesn’t quite know how to use a computer. I imagine having a conversation with her about the product or service I’m writing about at the time. Even though she is not necessarily representative of my target audience, it forces me to step back and break things down into simple, bite-sized bits. I can then add in more descriptive terms based on the audience I am trying to reach.

  17. Interesting post, Kelly! Creating personas is a very useful device to help you target your writing “to” your audience and not “at” them. I agree with Brandon and Sonia that it is essential to base these personas on real people and supplement your imaginary friends with actual humans to avoid making unfounded assumptions. That’s a trap a lot of people continue to fall into. I’m not too sure about providing office space for all my imaginary friends though…might get a little crowded in there…

  18. This might sound weird but I just try to put myself in the shoes of someone who is really interested in my topic when I write, which is usually me. Most of us can tell when we just wrote something extraordinarily interesting or something that is just plain junk. So I guess my imaginary friend would have to be myself. Of course I am real, but a little imagination goes a long way when writing any blog post.

  19. This reminds me of participatory-design + testing.

    To create MacPaint for example, they’d sit someone down infront of a powered down computer, blank screen, and have them Imagine creating art on the screen with a keyboard and mouse.

    The power of imagination delivered incredible feedback in record time.

    :)

  20. This was extremely helpful, especially the pdf example. I can picture my imaginery persona perfectly. And like someone said above, she does resemble a few people that i know who have the same needs/challenges right now. I’m going to put this to the test.

  21. Fifteen years ago, my daughter gave me a litle clown that I have sitting on my monitor. My clown and I talked so often that I became a damn good ventriloquist which gives me plenty to write about since I now create dialogue routines for me and my characters.

  22. Hey Kelly,
    Such a great article and so timely! You must have ESP! I have just recently started delving into personas as I write my business plan for my new online business. My business is aimed at helping others create their own business plans and one of our key features will be building personas. Its not enough to put yourself in your personas, or your mom, or your dad. You really have to try and get inside your customers head and find out what motivates them. Thanks again!

  23. Great article, I had heard of this technique before, but I think you really hashed out some of the details and nuances to it

  24. This is also known as an alter-ego. How many times have you wished you could be like someone else? The same would apply here.

  25. I think having imaginary friend can also help our psyche as well. Often times, it can help us to get through the day when things seem to be very rough or not going that well for us. But the creativity and other aspects of the imaginary friend can also go a long way towards helping us to be able to improve our own writing.

  26. Great post, Kelly! Creating an imaginary friend could definitely be an effective strategy. Of course, if you’re not a writer, it could be an indication you need to go back on those meds….

  27. This is a great idea. As a writer, I have always tried to keep the consumers in mind that I’m writing for but that can only go so far. It takes a lot of work, but this seems like it could help provide more of a visual representation of who you’re writing for. Thanks for the share, I’ll be trying it out pretty soon.

  28. This is a fact i have always known,its so much easier to write with this in mind.Good post.

  29. Beautifully written piece! And, for once, I am way ahead of the curve. I am not a writer yet my alter ego Fantastic Fabiola (the one with the bee hive do from Ohio, not the scantily clad beauty from out west) has been my creative muse for years.

  30. I like the idea of an imaginary persona, you’ve got my wheels churning now. Thanks for unleashing the creativity, now implementing it ~ that’s another thing.

  31. Very cool post!

    It seems like this post is geared towards copywriting, but it works equally well for fiction. The thinking goes that we should write for one person. Why not create that ideal person, the one who is going to laugh at every joke, nod his head at every truism, and flip breathlessly through your book, sitting on the edge of her seat?

    Sometimes I can think of a real person I know who fits the bill. Other times, I mash a few folks together: Laura’s inquisitive nature, Brian’s ability to locate and revel in the tiniest details, Snapper’s beautifully foul mouth. Different characters or plot points are geared to the different personality traits while keeping things more or less consistent.

    Anyway, thanks for a terrific post.

  32. I kind of do this already. When I write my marketing for freelance creatives posts, I keep three very specific people in mind: my fiction writer friend, my comic artist friend, and my great-grandmother who has limited experience with the internet. This way, I’m speaking to a creative person who might not have all of the knowledge I do about blogs and Twitter.