The Problem With Buyer Personas

Article by | July 18, 2017 Positioning and Messaging

The goal of buyer personas is to create hyper-personalized marketing communications that resonate with your target audience. They should be a tool for empathy that allows you to think through interactions with a real live person in mind. 

So why aren’t they working?

Research shows that marketers don’t believe personas actually help them reach buyers. One survey found that just 15 percent of marketers judged their personas to be “very to significantly” effective. This means that most buyer personas, even if they are created, end up sitting on a shelf with only 44% of B2B marketers actually using personas.

Like any tool, personas can be used both correctly and incorrectly. At their best, they engender empathy by putting a human face to raw data — but they have a tendency to end up as surface-level caricatures that aren’t actually usable for marketers. Here are a few more reasons why your personas may not be painting an accurate picture of your buyer:

  • They are based on anecdotal data or small sample sets. It’s good to talk to a few of your clients and prospects to get an idea of what they need and who they are, but don’t make the mistake of taking their experience as representative of everyone’s.
  • They are created around the idea of an “ideal client.” Personas built in a board room around the idea of an “ideal customer” inherently bring in our personal biases, rather than allowing you to focus on the real customers you are serving. Remember: personas are a representation of the target market, not your ideal customer.
  • They are often way too general. These personas are the ones that describe your buyer as an “educated and tech-savvy urban professional” — which is basically everyone nowadays. When personas are this general, they simply can’t be used as a tool for decision-making.
  • They are based on demographics, not motivations. Traditional marketing personas are inherently limited by the data available and by the ability of the marketer to analyze it. They are often based on demographics (gender, age, location) rather than things like their motivations, behaviors, biases, interests.
  • They don’t leverage online behaviors. Name, title, and demographic alone aren’t enough anymore. You need to account for online behaviors, such as your buyers’ preferred sources for industry news, their buying motivation, and their social footprint. This will be key to efficiently targeting prospects in digital channels.

B2B buyers demand highly personalized digital experiences, so knowing who your buyer is (and what they want) is a non-negotiable. But how can you leverage buyer personas without running into some of the common mistakes listed above?

1. Focus on the Problem

Profiles devised by marketers in meeting rooms will never be able completely capture who your buyer is, but they can speak to the problem that they are trying to solve — and how your product can position them as the hero at their company. Personas need to be a representation of the marketplace by being reflective of market problems, rather than of the buyers themselves. Instead of putting more weight on the type of person you are appealing to, focus your persona-building around the specific problem you are solving and then hone in on the buyers in need of that solution.

2. Include Skills, Not Just Titles

If you’re using the LinkedIn ecosystem, for example, try targeting potential buyers by “skill” (it’s one of the many targeting functions available). As job titles morph and change, many people in an organization may have buying influence or usage of your product that doesn’t match their “official title.” Our accounts team frequently uses marketing tools like this to support our client initiatives. They find buyers by searching for skills that they tout that in their LinkedIn bios, but that aren’t necessarily reflected in their job titles.

3. Test Your Assumptions

Like any process, your assumptions need to be tested. Even problem-centric personas are not 100% accurate. You need to make sure that you have a process for updating your personas after launching them and ongoing. As you get a better understanding of the market problems and how your solution solves those, you can better assess the kinds of people it could help. It’s important that you continue to revise your personas over time because they can quickly become outdated or irrelevant.

4. Personalize Using Technology

Static personas are no longer effective. Consider how your personas will evolve and change with the market. How can they be predictive? New technology allows us to target different types of audiences more easily and more effectively. Dustin Callif and Sabri Sansoy with Team Watson and Stink Studios, for instance, integrate machine learning into the design process so that each touchpoint molds to the viewer. This campaign they created for Pinterest is an excellent example of highly-targeted, tech-enabled marketing campaigns based around the customer’s needs.

Once you’ve figured out what problems your buyers are trying to solve (and its relevance to their career trajectory), make that information easy for your team to access and act on. I like how MailChimp opted to fly their user personas at their headquarters. Whatever you choose, remember that personas should be used as a tool for building an empathetic, pragmatic marketing plan that addresses real market problems — only then will they really be effective.

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