Create marketing personas in 20 minutes using role reversal interviews

Assuming you are just familiar with the basics of using personas for marketing purposes, you might as well became a bit discouraged by the time and hassle that it takes to create them. This is where the role reversal interview method comes handy. 

While I was a graduate student, I used to write a self-help column for a glossy magazine. Each time before I started writing, I spent about half an hour daydreaming about Betty who was an imaginary twenty-something, hairdresser, a reader of the magazine. I only started to write when I felt like I was in the mood to do so. Without the slightest idea of marketing or design, I was using a persona. 

A role-reversal interview is a really quick and fun way to create proto-personas. The technique is borrowed from Jacob Moreno’s psychodrama, a therapeutical action method, which uses dramatization and role playing (among others) to help clients gain new insights into their lives. With a little twist, we will now gain insights into our customers’ lives. 

You will get the most out of the role reversal interview

  • if you are the only marketer or part of a small marketing team within an organization – and don’t have the resources to conduct a six hour persona workshop.
  • if you are a marketing consultant working with a very small company and again don’t have the resources for a complete workshop. (As it was with our story about the SolutionSurfers.)
  • as part of a larger (persona) workshop to make the whole event more colorful and fun. 

Creating a Proto-Persona with a Role-Reversal Interview

There are dozens of beautiful methods and tools out there for creating marketing proto-personas, aiming for empathy towards the client.  Still, all are using questions and stories about the customer to figure out the most about  their lives, motivation, needs etc. This is where role reversal interview technique is different: here, persona workshop participants don’t think about customers, but actually think as customers by getting in their shoes, behaving, and talking like them while playing the role of them in a short buyer interview. 

Here is the structure of such an interview:

1. Instructions for the excercise

Since this method requires some (role) playing fun, which might not be very usual in business environment, the facilitator should create the space and atmosphere with some motivational instructions. First, choose the persona you want to investigate and have the person who will play the role of that persona. 

It is always nice to create some new physical arrangement for an interview like this. For example, you can make a stage by separating two chairs from the group- one chair for yourself and the other for the person playing the role. The instruction goes like this:

Our goal is now to research our personas in depth to get to know their motivations, needs, ambitions, hardships, their habits – and their lives. I will be the market researcher and you will be the persona, our twentysomething single citywoman. (Tell them everything you know about the persona up to that point to help them warmup for the role.) I will ask questions about you and you will answer them as the persona, in Singular 1. 

If you have a specific customer or customer case in mind, I encourage you to use it, but it is not a must. You will recognize that you have valid answers for some of the questions – based on your experience or data -, but several details are to be improvised based on fantasy or gut feeling. Don’t think too much about your answers, just say what pops into your mind. For example, I definitely will ask for the persona’s name: just tell a name, don’t worry, nothing is set in stone, we can adjust everything later. Everything is clear? Can we start?

2. Warmup for the role / role interview

In psychodrama, there is a continuum describing the immersion into roleplay. One can play the role without any empathy (role taking) and with real immersion (role creating). Of course the goal here is to help the protagonist (the one who is playing the persona) to get playful, spontaneous and to really act, feel, and think like the imaginary character. Real immersion brings the best insights (and is the source of serious fun).

Good morning Ms! How are you? 

Thank you so much for your time and effort to participate in our research as a client of XY company. I will ask you a few questions about yourself and your thoughts about the product, but it really won’t take more than 20 minutes. If there are any uncomfortable questions, just tell me to skip those. I hope this interview will not only be useful for us, but enjoyable for you too. Do you have any questions about this? Can we start?

If she has questions now, consider it a good sign because it shows that she has already started to feel and create the role. How she behaves is already useful info regarding the personality of the persona. 

To start, I will ask you some simple and short questions about you. 

Here comes a list of short, fast Q&A, mostly about demographic information. Name, address, family status, living conditions, workplace, position, maybe some working history etc. 

Although you’re just searching for basic data, you can also make this part conversational. If she says she is living in Ohio, you might chip in and say “Oh! It is such a nice place, I lived there for five years!” Or if she has four kids, don’t hesitate to say ‘Wow, four kids?! And if you have time for a conversational interview like this. You gotta know something: If you want her to play, create the atmosphere by being playful yourself. 

The faster and more natural the answer comes, the better your interviewee takes (plays or creates) the role. If you feel she needs more help, you can always ask some more warm up questions, like: 

  • What are you doing, how was your day before we met?
  • Describe yourself in three words / sentences. Tell me your best skills and some areas you’d like to improve in. 

3. The customer interview

Here you can ask questions as if you are in a real interview, including: 

General questions:

  • Tell us about your day! What’s a typical day like for you?
  • What do you like in your work / life? What are your hardships or pain points? Can you tell me an example?
  • What skills do you think you need to be outstanding in your job / field?
  • How do you see yourself in five years? What do you want to accomplish? What are your short term goals?

Questions connected to your business:

  • What do you know about X (the product or service) in general?
  • How do you know about our business? How was your first connection to us?
  • What do you think about our product? Tell me three words to describe it! What does it mean for you?
  • How do you get new information? How do you learn? What media you use? 

Have your list of questions (from general to specific) ready, but don’t cling to the ‘proper’, premade order. Remember that an interview is not a mechanic list of questions, but rather a casual, playful chat. This also stands for the way you word your questions. ‘What media you use?’ is rarely the appropriate form. Instead the interviewee will mention something about Facebook at some point. Than you might say: ‘So you use Facebook for getting new information about X. How do you do this? What other sources do you have?’ 

It’s also OK if you leave some questions unasked: even if you spend a significant amount of time preparing those questions, you have to be ready to let some of them go. Focus on the interviewee (instead of your own questions) and just go with the flow. 

It is always nice to close with these:

  • Is there anything else I haven’t ask, but you consider important?
  • Is there anything you want to ask? 

4. Leaving the role

After saying thank you and wishing all the best for the persona, you have to take the person out from the role by saying something like: 

Thank you, Real name, you can be yourself again. 

If you marked the roleplaying with some altered physical arrangement, now you can disassemble it, eg. ask the roleplayer to go back to her seat. After some optional discussion, you can go on with another role player and next persona chosen.


  1. My client / workmates / participants are not actors. This is a very unusual and difficult task for them. 

You will be surprised by how well your colleagues will play! Trust them and expect some hidden talents to unfold. On the other hand, pretending to be empathetic can truly be hard sometimes. But my experience is that people know their clients way better than you would think. If nothing works, simple role taking without real immersion can go a long way too. 

2. I am not a psychologist and don’t have any experience with psychodrama or therapy. Isn’t using a therapeutic method dangerous?

A role-reversal interview is not therapy, just a tool borrowed from a therapeutical system. Unless you make participants playing their mother’s or significant other’s role, it is very unlikely that you will run into something that you cannot handle. Dynamic style and accurate, strong-minded instructions will also help to avoid any misunderstandings. 

3. Okay, we’ll do this. How is this useful for us?

If you are not convinced about using personas, read the suggested articles below. 

Role reversal interview technique is a simple, quick and fun tool for creating a persona. You can do it in no more than 20 minutes with only one person. If there are no more people available to participate in the role-playing in person, you can still do it remotely through a call or a video call. It can work as a stand-alone tool, but it can also be embedded or transferred into more complex inquiries, like: 

  • conducting a group interview with several participants playing the different personas at the same time. Imagine what can happen if they start to interact with each other!
  • asking participants to collect questions, planning the interview or even to conduct it. 
  • your idea here.

You can always get closer to your clients (personas) just by thinking about them in a focused way; regardless of the method you use. Like the glossy fan Betty who became just like a friend to me as time went by. With the role-reversal interview technique, you can exceed thinking _about_ your fictitious clients: you can actually meet, or even _be_ them. You will become friends with them and never forget them. What is empathy if not this?

List of useful resources on personas





Ten years ago I was writing a self-help column for a glossy magazine. Each time, before I started writing, I spent about half an hour with daydreaming about Betty, an imaginary girl, just to get myself in the mood. Betty was twentyeight, living in a small city with her parents, working as a hairdresser and had occasional quarrels with his same-aged boyfriend. She was working hard to move to her the capital and have her own flat. She didn’t have much money, but liked to dress nice and look good. She loved theatre and sometimes even travelled long hours just to see the newest, coolest plays. And of course she was a big fan of the magazine I was writing for. 

After daydreaming about Betty, I always grabbed the last edition of the magazine and tried to skim it with her eyes, think and feel what she would and put myself in her shoes a bit. Only than I started to write. 

Without the slightest idea of marketing or desing, I was using a persona. Here is why you should use one too. 

What is a persona?

It is a specific representation of the target group’s main characteristics. It is a detailed embodyment of your customer or user group. It is a real fictious person with dreams to be fulfilled or problems to solve – of course with the help of your service or product. 

You can distinguish between different types of personas based on their functions and sophisitication.

  • A marketing (buyer) persona focuses on demographics, distribution channels, motivations, needs and other things connected to the way the person will meet and pay for your product / service. There is usually 1:1 correlation between target groups and personas: one persona per target group is just fine. 
  • A design (user) persona is about the user journey: how and why people think, feel and behave while using your product / service. 
  • The most sophisticated and useful personas are based on or refined by real research data. 
  • Without hard data, you can rely on your (or your team’s) experiences, observations and intuition. Educated guesses like these are called proto-personas.

In this post, we are dealing with marketing proto-personas. 

Why use personas? (Even if they are proto)

Briefly: If you want to say something meaningful, you have to know your audience. But knowing them is not enough for great communication. You also have to feel what they feel and be passionate about solving their problems or improving their lives. So you need real empathy, and maybe a bit of love and respect. (Since it is very hard to feel honest empathy towards someone you hate or despise.)

And this is where personas really shine and are very different from good old target groups. Back at my glossy days it would have been really hard to talk to a group of ‘young, C2/DE status women’. They were so strange and different from me. Betty was also different, but as time went by, she slowly became like an imaginary friend of mine. You can’t love a faceless crowd, but you can love Betty and Joe and Susan. Personas help to think about your target audiences as real humans – which they are.

Of course using theories backed up with data is always better than just using theories. Sometimes you are already gathering data, but you want to start your project as fast as you can. And sometimes – because the lack of time, money or other resources – you are and will be short of any data, so educated guess is all you have. These are the times when using a proto-persona comes in handy.