Why I don’t believe in ideal client avatars (or what problem are you solving?)

Jan 10, 2020 | Working a little differently

A few months ago I put an episode of The Apprentice on as I was cooking supper. I haven’t watched it in years, not since my flatmates and I became oddly obsessed with it during university, and after watching three seasons very intently the tasks started to feel a little repetitive. 

The episode I watched was one where they had to build and sell electric bikes. Frome Town Council have a couple that you can rent very cheaply from the bike shop at the end of my road, so in the less-wet months I quite often hire one to cycle along the disused railway line to Radstock. I always take great pleasure in overtaking the lycra-kitted cyclists who look confused as I whizz past them in my Birkenstocks and denim cut-offs, at least until they spot the battery pack (at which point they tut)! All of this is to say that I was interested in the task. 

Yet aside from reminding me to book a bike sometime soon, the candidates also demonstrated perfectly why I don’t really buy into the whole “ideal client avatar” thing. 

Deciding on who is your ideal client is a popular branding exercise, and one I often see different iterations of floating around the internet. I can see the sense behind it – it’s much easier to write content and copy when you know who you are talking to. And knowing how your ideal clients identify is useful when it comes to helping them see themselves in your copy. For instance if your clients or customers see themselves as creatives, or as someone who lives slow and seasonally, or hustlers, or minimalists, or ethical consumers, you can work this into your copy, making it easy for them to see that what you are offering is potentially something they would be interested in. 

Yet some take it one step further, advising you to build an avatar, and give your ideal client a name, occupation, marital status, pets etc. 

One of the teams on The Apprentice did just this, and named their avatar “Sophisticated Susan” (no, I’m not joking). They consistently referred to her throughout the task and in their pitch to industry executives. Yet aside from the fact that she was called Susan, was sophisticated, and I think had kids, they knew nothing else about her. She was useless (sorry Susan),  didn’t add anything to their brand or pitch, and you could see the exes smirking every time she was mentioned.

However, this team actually ended up winning the task, although in my mind in spite of rather than because of Sophisticated Susan. They won, I think, because their bike neatly solved a problem. It was an electric foldable bike, one of the first of its kind, and it solved the problem of wanting a bike that is both electric and easy to transport. I can see it’s value for someone who wants to cycle only part of their commute (because they live outside of London, for instance) and therefore needs to be able to take their bike on public transport the rest of the way. It would also fit in the boot of a car for those who wanted to drive to the beginning of their ride without having to bother with cycle racks. It was a great idea. 

This, I think, is a far more useful question to ask (as opposed to expending energy coming up with an alliterative moniker): what problem are you solving? The main reason I think this is so much more helpful is because I think ideal clients can be very restrictive. Sophisticated Susan might want a foldable electric bike (although actually I don’t think she does – she got a Peloton for Christmas) but so might Hipster Harry and Permanently Perky Polly. Susan might be married, have two kids and live in Surrey, whereas Harry might live in a converted warehouse in East London and moan to his friends over craft beer that none of his previous ex-girlfriends ever really understood him. 

To use myself as an example, my creative business mentoring clients all look very different on paper. They range in age from early twenties to late fifties, and live all over the UK and in America. Some are married and have partners supporting them while they build their own businesses, others are hustling every month to make rent. Some are introverts who struggle to put themselves out there, some are extroverts who find working on their own all day very draining. Yet they are united by two things: What they desire and what is getting in their way. What they desire is their own financially-sustainable creatively-fulfilling business, and what is getting in their way is a lack of support. And this is the problem that I solve.  

I think what we desire says a lot more about who we are as people rather than our demographic details. I could tell you that I’m 34, single, and live in Frome, Somerset and you wouldn’t really have any idea who I was. Whereas if I told you that I run by own creative business, and that I desire to own my own little cottage with a garden, and to one day grow as much of my own produce as possible (and maybe even have a cow called Molly) then you would get a much stronger sense of who I am. It is our desires that define us rather than our demographic.

So when it comes to thinking about who you want to work with or sell then I would suggest focusing on these three questions: 

1. How do they define themselves? 

2. What do they desire? 

3. What is standing in their way?

I promise you these three questions are far more useful than Sophisticated Susan will ever be.