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How To Create Pen Portraits and Understand Your Target Audience

Pen portraits are a marketing technique for defining an audience. This is not just useful in marketing but any communication. We are not always writing to our friends and peers.

Before writing anything, an article, an advert, an email, you need to know who you are writing for and cater to their specific needs.

Pen portraits are one way to get a handle on your target audience by creating a fictitious character to enable you to speak directly to them. The more fleshed out and based on reality this gestalt reader is the more effective the tactic will be.

To create this pen portrait you simply have to imagine who they are, what they are like and what drives them. Keep adding and moulding to the picture until you are happy that you can almost hear them speak to you. Anything you create afterwards can be held up to scrutiny by this imaginary friend.

Some things you might consider are:

  • What are they called?
  • Who do they think they are?
  • Who are they really?
  • Who do they want to be?
  • Who do they like?
  • Who don’t they like?
  • Who is their peer group?
  • Who do they not identify with?
  • What are their beliefs?
  • Where do they live?
  • Where do they work?
  • Where do they learn?
  • Where do they want to be?
  • What are their needs?
  • How old are they?
  • How youthful do they act?
  • How conservative are they?
  • What are their driving ambitions?
  • What are their wants and needs?
  • What are their pleasures?
  • What are their pains?
  • What do they love?
  • What do they hate?

It’s all about empathy and serving the needs of your readers in the way they will most accept and benefit from. If we only ever do things how we would like and about things that interest us we can never grow into markets outside our own echo chamber.

Especially when writing commercially we do not always have the benefit of writing to people who are just like us. In these cases our creativity and imaginations are really put to the test and we almost must become chameleons. Pen portraits can help keep us on track.

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Comments

  1. Chris:

    This is very similar a technique that many software developers use when they design user interfaces.

    You’d think that by developing software or writing to a particular individual (that you’ve made up) would result in something that ends up missing the “real people”. It never does – it always targets them.

    I’ve found it to be immensely useful because as you said above, it keeps you on track. When you try to please everyone you please nobody. If I can mix metaphors here, it’s akin to trying to the entire dartboard instead of the bullseye.

    Thanks! Good post! I hadn’t thought that this technique could be applied to writing as well.

  2. Chris:

    This is very similar a technique that many software developers use when they design user interfaces.

    You’d think that by developing software or writing to a particular individual (that you’ve made up) would result in something that ends up missing the “real people”. It never does – it always targets them.

    I’ve found it to be immensely useful because as you said above, it keeps you on track. When you try to please everyone you please nobody. If I can mix metaphors here, it’s akin to trying to the entire dartboard instead of the bullseye.

    Thanks! Good post! I hadn’t thought that this technique could be applied to writing as well.

  3. Yeah I use pen portraits when developing use cases, although in that context they are “actors” I think. We would have “new user”, “experienced user” etc to make sure all needs were covered, worked very well.

  4. Yeah I use pen portraits when developing use cases, although in that context they are “actors” I think. We would have “new user”, “experienced user” etc to make sure all needs were covered, worked very well.

  5. Great article Chris. This is something that is overlooked by a large majority of the sites I visit.

    Too many companies focus on “Us” “Me” “I” which rarely will address anything you’ve mentioned above.

    A marketing class I took years ago had us write a 500 word sales presentation on our company. When we were done, he had us go back and replace any reference to “Us” with ‘You”.

    When you do that, it become painfully clear how self indulgent you’re being, not to mention the fact that you are not showing your target audience that you understand and relate to their needs and wants.

    I have concluded that when it comes down to it, nobody cares about you! They care that you understand them.

  6. Great article Chris. This is something that is overlooked by a large majority of the sites I visit.

    Too many companies focus on “Us” “Me” “I” which rarely will address anything you’ve mentioned above.

    A marketing class I took years ago had us write a 500 word sales presentation on our company. When we were done, he had us go back and replace any reference to “Us” with ‘You”.

    When you do that, it become painfully clear how self indulgent you’re being, not to mention the fact that you are not showing your target audience that you understand and relate to their needs and wants.

    I have concluded that when it comes down to it, nobody cares about you! They care that you understand them.

  7. @Chris
    They are indeed called actors…anyone (or anything) that interacts with a system through a use case

    I like the subtlety between who people think they are and who they actually are. So true. We all like to delude ourselves from time to time…

  8. @Chris
    They are indeed called actors…anyone (or anything) that interacts with a system through a use case

    I like the subtlety between who people think they are and who they actually are. So true. We all like to delude ourselves from time to time…

  9. Excellent point. Writing posts about making money can attract traffic, but one also has to know why people are looking for such posts and what kind of information they usually like to read.

    Wow, you should use those “things” as a list and write a post on each describing different examples and techniques in detail. :)

    Pen Portraits can help the customers/readers/audience more as the advertisers/bloggers can know what people actually need and want.

  10. Excellent point. Writing posts about making money can attract traffic, but one also has to know why people are looking for such posts and what kind of information they usually like to read.

    Wow, you should use those “things” as a list and write a post on each describing different examples and techniques in detail. :)

    Pen Portraits can help the customers/readers/audience more as the advertisers/bloggers can know what people actually need and want.

  11. Absolutely, knowing your audience is key to getting advertising deals. I think if I did each as a separate post I might lose some readers to sleep? ;)

  12. Absolutely, knowing your audience is key to getting advertising deals. I think if I did each as a separate post I might lose some readers to sleep? ;)

  13. Heh. You might, and you might also give some readers useful things to read while they stay up all night like owls looking for some good information to quench their thirst. ;)

  14. Heh. You might, and you might also give some readers useful things to read while they stay up all night like owls looking for some good information to quench their thirst. ;)

  15. I am a real beginner at this and reading your blogs is pushing me inexorably towards joining the world of bloggers. This has been one of the most rewarding of the series that I have read thus far, one could go so far as to say inspirational…

  16. I am a real beginner at this and reading your blogs is pushing me inexorably towards joining the world of bloggers. This has been one of the most rewarding of the series that I have read thus far, one could go so far as to say inspirational…

  17. You might add: How informed are they? If writing for audiences of varying levels of familiarity with your topic, you’ll need to address those with the least amount of knowledge.

  18. You might add: How informed are they? If writing for audiences of varying levels of familiarity with your topic, you’ll need to address those with the least amount of knowledge.

  19. @Bes – I might revisit this, there is a lot still that can be discussed

    @Craig – Cool, thanks :)

    @Mark – Yes, definitely I wrote about that earlier

  20. @Bes – I might revisit this, there is a lot still that can be discussed

    @Craig – Cool, thanks :)

    @Mark – Yes, definitely I wrote about that earlier

  21. Oh, the art of pleasing your readers. And here I thought I as a blogger I would write whatever I wanted. Turns out I linger on every suggestion and carefully rewrite/rethink before posting to accommodate for my readers interest.

    Well worth it and enjoyable nonetheless.

  22. Oh, the art of pleasing your readers. And here I thought I as a blogger I would write whatever I wanted. Turns out I linger on every suggestion and carefully rewrite/rethink before posting to accommodate for my readers interest.

    Well worth it and enjoyable nonetheless.

  23. Chris,

    This list is great. My problem is that I do not understand the way to go about doing what you suggest. I have a blog on blogspot just because I figured out how to set it up but I don’t understand linking, tags or all these different blog hosts. I am a writer and my blogs usually deal with some aspect of writing, publishing and marketing and I would like to connect with people interested in these topics but I am internet illiterate. I read lists like yours and get paralyzed by my ignorance of how to physically complete the tasks noted. Is there a dummies guide to blogging that would address these issues? Thanks so much for taking the time to help novice bloggers.

  24. Chris,

    This list is great. My problem is that I do not understand the way to go about doing what you suggest. I have a blog on blogspot just because I figured out how to set it up but I don’t understand linking, tags or all these different blog hosts. I am a writer and my blogs usually deal with some aspect of writing, publishing and marketing and I would like to connect with people interested in these topics but I am internet illiterate. I read lists like yours and get paralyzed by my ignorance of how to physically complete the tasks noted. Is there a dummies guide to blogging that would address these issues? Thanks so much for taking the time to help novice bloggers.

  25. This post is really not about blogging but it is a technique useful for any activity where you have a target audience – use paper and a pencil, post-it notes or a whiteboard if you need. The key is to understand everything you can about your audience, who/what they are about, where they are alike and where they differ

  26. This post is really not about blogging but it is a technique useful for any activity where you have a target audience – use paper and a pencil, post-it notes or a whiteboard if you need. The key is to understand everything you can about your audience, who/what they are about, where they are alike and where they differ