8 Deadly Sins of Ineffective Buyer Personas

gerardo dada by

The recent focus on content marketing has brought increased attention to personas — and for good reason. They can be a very effective tool for guiding most marketing activities by increasing customer understanding and empathy. Like any tool, however, you must get the fundamentals right to get maximum value out of it.

As a general idea, the concept of personas is not new. It was developed in 1998 by Alan Cooper, who also invented Visual Basic, as a tool to help with software interaction design. In 2002, Tony Zambito developed the concept of buyer personas to focus on buyer behavior and corresponding customer strategies. I started using personas myself in 2004 to guide the global efforts of a Fortune 50 company in Redmond in a specific customer segment.

Despite increasingly widespread adoption, many companies still find the concept of personas to be ambiguous. Therefore, attempting to put them into practice is often ineffective. Specifically, I’ve seen eight critical mistakes that hold companies back from utilizing marketing personas as a key tool that increases the effectiveness of all of their marketing activities.

1) Not making buyer personas foundational components of the marketing strategy

Creating your company’s buyer personas is not just another step in a content marketing process. They are far more important than that. They should guide all marketing activities, not just content. If the responsibility of defining personas is falling to your content marketers your marketing leadership has not done its job, and it’s not a stretch to worry that your go-to-market efforts are in big trouble.

Understanding your customers is your marketing leadership’s #1 priority — its core function and source of value to the organization. Therefore, marketing leadership is directly responsible for clearly defining customer segments and building out personas.

You can’t be a good marketer unless you know clearly who your customer is, why they buy, how they buy, who influences their decisions, what their buying criteria is, where they go for information, etc. Developing personas helps you paint a more complete, fully conceptualized portrait of your customers in ways that simply segmenting them can’t. For example, Joe, the VP of Marketing at Acme Corporation, which makes a variety of rockets and other devices to help Coyotes catch fast birds” provides a far more personal foundation to build and work from than “marketing leaders at medium to large companies”.

When building content or launching a new campaign, it is more effective to think about how Joe will react than how an ambiguous customer segment will react. That’s the role and power of personas.

2) Not institutionalizing personas across the organization

For a company to execute, it is important for all parts of it to understand the core of the company strategy (who is the customer, what is our competitive advantage). Therefore, it is important that everyone in the company understands the personas that represent your buyers and users (not always the same).

Buyer personas should guide all customer activities, including most obviously marketing and sales. User personas should guide customer support, product development, and customer experience efforts. There is often an overlap between buyer and user personas.

The risk is that each team builds their own personas based on their independent understanding of who the customers and users are. This results in a bunch of potentially conflicting personas that become noise, and more importantly, a missed opportunity.

If you are, for example, selling CRM software, your buyer personas are likely to be the VP of Sales and someone in IT. Your user personas are likely to be individual salespeople and sales leadership, including the VP of Sales. Imagine how powerful it would be if everyone in the company understood these four personas deeply and if that understanding guided and improved every function in the company.

3) Lacking focus

The purpose of personas is to give everyone clarity about who your customer is and — just as important — who your customer is not. While they should indicate exactly who your company should be trying to inform, influence, attract, and please they should also make it clear who is not a target.

An organization that is trying to be all things for all people is likely to fail. Focus is a simple concept, but also one that is incredibly powerful.

Using the same example of the CRM software vendor, if the institution agreement is to focus on the four personas of sales managers, sales reps, the VP Sales, and IT, the company is implicitly stating they won’t be going out of their way trying to please people in purchasing, marketing, finance, or even other roles in sales.

4) Only taking into account the actual buyer

In almost every buying situation there is more than one stakeholder: there are users, influencers, approvers, and so on. This is not limited to B2B. The process of parents buying a car for their teenage daughter may include the teenager as the user, one parent as the approver, the other as the decision maker, and friends as influencers.

After all, there are fewer differences between B2B and B2C than many people tend to believe. It really is all B2P — business to person. Whether you are selling to a corporate officer making a multi-million dollar purchase or a parent deciding what to buy for a party, decisions are complex, influenced by other people, subject to the same psychological biases, and more importantly, often made emotionally, then justified rationally.

5) Failing to capture emotion and situation

If the goal of personas is to help marketing teams feel empathy, it is necessary to capture how customers actually feel. What are their predispositions? What are the emotional needs they need to satisfy and the emotions and fears that guide their decision making process?

Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.

It is obvious customers don’t feel the same way all the time. Their feelings change based on their situation. Personas need to be defined based on the context of a specific situation or scenario. Tony Zambito suggests defining these scenarios as goals, which can then help you capture your buyers’ goal-directed behaviors.

Notice the difference between simply listing demographic stats (ex: an American couple with 2.5 kids, in their mid 30s or 40s, with a median income of at least $80K) and painted a situation or scenario (ex: Robert and Kathy, whose teenage daughter is starting to drive).

Scenarios (situations, context, and goals) should define personas. Emotions guide how marketers think about specific personas.

6) Not pulling from research and direct experience

The standard process of building customer segments and personas starts with a research project that often include surveys, interviews, other forms of research, lots of spreadsheets, cluster analysis, and other tools. If you really want to impress the boss you may even turn it into a big data project (even if you’re not really sure what that actually means).

Market research is a fantastic tool that I have used many times in my career. I would never suggest to a marketer they make any decisions without data. That said, data does have its limitations, as expressed in the Mirage of Data. Almost every research project is biased by the questions asked, by the sample of customers who responds, and by the biases in the research team.

I find personal experience and direct customer interaction is more powerful than research, alone. The best decisions are informed by both data and experience. More importantly, if a key goal of personas is to capture how people feel, most research tools do a very poor job at it.

When trying to understand a market (including when building personas), if you don’t have direct personal experience with the industry and buyers, it is important to work closely with someone who does. Research cannot drive empathy, only people can help.

7) Not making them actionable

When you are learning so much about your customers it is tempting to add all the knowledge you dig up to your personas. The result is often persona profiles that look like eye charts with full pages of details.

The risk is here is that with so much information the rest of your organization either won’t bother reading it, or simply won’t retain it. Too much data can kill a persona effort by overwhelming team members with details. So when creating your personas, be sure to prioritize. Is it really important that your buyers have 2.7 kids? Does it really help you to know their favorite TV shows?

Another risk is to create too many personas. Can your team really develop empathy for 18 different buyer personas? How much will they honestly be able to remember? How important is each individual persona really?

It’s all a balance between precision and conciseness/usefulness. Your goal should be to capture the information that is actionable.

What details will help a marketer make a better decision on the type of content they need to produce? Which information will help everyone in the company feel empathy for customers in relation to their buying process? What information does not really impact how we interact with customers?

8) Allowing them to become outdated

Your buyer personas must be kept up to date. They need to evolve, but only at the rate your buyers evolve, changing as your buyers’ situations, goals, and emotions change.

Here is an example of how Betty Crocker has updated its main buyer persona for the better part of a century:

Betty Crocker evolution

Summing Up

Personas are tools to help us develop empathy for our customers. They should be archetypes that represent the customer segments your organization targets, as defined by corporate and marketing strategy. A small number of buyer and user personas should be understood across the entire company. Personas need to capture context, goals, scenarios and emotions — any information that is actionable in focusing and guiding the actions of the company, including (but not being limited to) content marketing efforts.

Photo by: Enkhgerel Byambadorj

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VP, Product Marketing & Strategy

  • Great insights Gerardo. I’d add a 9th sin to this great list: “Not validating / measuring the effectiveness of the persona content.” Metrics need to be put into place to validate the persona content is resonating and driving prospects faster through through the funnel. Coincidentally I just posted a slideshare deck to my Linkedin profile on this topic yesterday. Check it out if interested.