Are your buyer personas saying more about the marketing team than about the buyer?
It can be difficult to wade through all of the insights that marketers collect on their customers. Buyer personas are a tool to give customer profiles a human face. They synthesize all of the observations, insights, and data into a fictionalized character sketch.
Buyer personas can be useful shorthand to marketing teams. They can serve as a simple filter to evaluate marketing creative, tactics, and executions.
But buyer personas are usually more art than science. Marketers frequently project their own assumptions, stereotypes, and biases into the profiles.
Sometimes buyer personas border on the ridiculous. Deciding whether an ERP software buyer persona should own a Jack Russell Terrier or a Golden Retriever may help the buyer persona feel more complete but doesn’t give any insight on how to reach actual customers. I’ve sat through marketing meetings that spent far too much time debating minutia like whether Cynthia or Sarah would be a more quintessential name for a buyer persona.
Ultimately, buyer personas are only as useful as the decisions they help you to make.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to most effectively use buyer personas in marketing.
11 CommentsJoin the Discussion
Elena Pavloff says
It’s not easy to turn data into a story. As a result the royal we tends to default to parts of personas that feel more like a story, when we really should be looking at how the consumer relates to/is impacted by media and marketing.
Ralph Poldervaart (Persona Company), Amsterdam says
Hi Tom, totally agree!! Your cartoon is spot on. I see this happening in organizations all the time and marketers concluding that persona’s do not work. Persona’s are often built in a way that lacks proper research and in which it does not not cover all relevant aspects of the buyer profile. I have done research on ‘persona building blocks’, maybe it’s helpful in this discussion: http://www.slideshare.net/ralph_poldervaart/how-to-build-a-persona
Love your work!
Dave Vranicar says
Tom, I think the effective use of buyer personas varies for B2B and B2C sales and marketing. I focus on B2B, so that’s what I’ll talk about here.
What’s important for B2B is not the demographic traits of the buyer, but rather her interests, needs, wants, beliefs, feelings, and behavior in making a buying decision. If you know these things, you can make pretty good judgments about how to create content that will be both useful to her and helpful to advancing your sale. You’ll be able to write effective copy.
But buyer personas are only one of three helpful lens or perspectives to develop on your buyers. Another is the buyer scenario. And a third is the concept of Jobs to Be Done.
Kristin Zhivago introduces the idea of buyer scenarios in her great book “Roadmap to Revenue.” With a buyer scenario, the important information is not “who” is buying, but rather “how” your customers are buying. A buyer scenario is a specific path to purchase.
Here’s one possible path or scenario: A manager with a need assigns a junior “scout” to research possible solutions online. The scout searches social media and Google. S/he then comes up with a short list of eight possible solution vendors. The scout turns the short list over to the manager, who looks for online reviews or checks the vendor’s offerings against industry analysts. The manager then contacts the remaining four vendors and asks for a phone call.
Any complex B2B product might involve from two to five or more buyer scenarios. If you don’t cover all the most likely scenarios, you will lose sales.
The concept of Jobs to Be Done comes from Clayton Christiansen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. He says customers don’t buy products or services. They “hire” them to perform a job. For example, they don’t buy a power drill. They hire a method for producing holes. It’s very important to understand the real jobs a customer is hiring your product or service to perform.
In this context, buyer personas are still important but they are only one of several important things you must understand about your B2B buyers.
Kristin Zhivago says
David is right. Personas miss the point. The point is the moment of need and how the buyer goes about meeting that need – and what information the buyer needs at each point in the process of meeting that need. And, even in B2B situations, this process happens very quickly online. We can’t afford to distract the buyer with anything other than the answer to that question and the logical next step.
Joe Hage says
When I hear “buyer persona,” I also hear “expensive agency nonsense.”
Suzanne Pecore says
I have one “old” story to provide a flip side to this. This was the late 80s/early 90s, so well before the idea of personas. I was working on a project trying to develop a new frozen entree line, doing the usual sensory and consumer testing, with mixed success. We were being very diligent about using our testing to address all of our consumer question, and trying hard NOT to project our own opinions onto the product. But I distinctly remember the day we were describing the target consumer (basically the buyer persona) – working mom, enough income to afford our product, pressed for time, etc. As we went down the checklist, I realized I fit the profile exactly. And it dawned on me that I would NEVER buy the product we were developing. In this case, a little projecting of my own image provided some much needed grounding for the project team.
Thanks Tom, from my viewpoint (South Africa), buyer personas are a thumb suck at best and entirely misleading in the large. Very seldom are they researched behavioural or emotional insights that help you develop creative ideas or use to generate a robust buyer journey.
Rishi M says
I have experienced Persona rollouts in two ways. The first was driven by a top consultancy that rhymes with money. The outside-in approach was well-researched and beautifully produced. The problem was the internal teams required to execute the personas felt left out of the process and the business objectives were unclear. The result – nothing was measured or managed. Classic disconnect between well-intentioned leadership and front line forces. The second time was developed bottoms up starting with WHY. With WHY established, the teams needed to make decisions based on the Persona contributed to the HOW. Leadership was informed last.
Richard Warland says
In my opinion, Buyer Persona contradicts another area of marketing science, broadly described as CRM and more specifically known as Targeted Marketing.
In my book, best practice targeting involves a segment of one, whereas Buyer Persona attempts to describe a large group of people as if they were one!
Tessa Stuart says
Recently I met a new marketing manager at a start-up food business and she shared her Buyer Persona with me. I’d seen shoppers buying their food product in the aisles in Tesco and they didn’t match her description in any way. There can be real dangers in assuming certain buyer personas – i.e. upscale, urban, young, as you can skew your marketing to those idealised customers and neglect the real customers out there.
From an inBound or content marketing perspective (B2B) it’s a pretty fair assumption that if any landing page or CTA isn’t working well it’s because the buyer personas have not been developed enough or the positioning of the company/product isn’t correct…
I think the phrase “persona” gets a bad press – a bit like Social Media optimisation a few years ago – a lot of marketing teams think they’ve got their personas nailed… but they haven’t – they need to talk to the sales guys and girls more!!
Personas are based around problems and pain points – not demographics or job titles…