This blog was first published in August 2019 and was last updated in February 2020.
In this blog, we tackle the real elephant in the room: buyer personas - highlighting what businesses do wrong and how to correct those mistakes.
In the Inbound Marketing world, every campaign or content plan should start with buyer personas. After all, buyer personas enable us to understand who we are trying to market and sell to. Without them, we would be running campaigns and creating content with no idea of who they are for.
But while buyer personas are and can be incredibly useful, for years they have been used incorrectly and inefficiently. Instead of carefully analyzing their target market to understand the individual wants and needs of potential prospects, many just create buyer personas based on the job titles.
In this blog, I’m going to talk about the problems with buyer persona development right now, as well as what can be done to fix them. There’s also a really helpful video from Guy Washer, our Consulting Director, at the end of the blog which discusses researching and building buyer personas the right way.
But before I dive into buyer personas and their problems - it's probably worth explaining what a buyer persona is.
What is a buyer persona?
A buyer persona is - according to our good friends at HubSpot - a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer. It's based on market research, actual data about your existing customers, and a few (educated) assumptions.
Buyer personas help you understand your target audience - from their business objectives and challenges to how they measure success and their day-to-day role(s). Using them, you can start to create high-quality, problem-focused content that helps your ideal customers.
We've put together a detailed blog on the topic of buyer personas and why they are important - you can check it out here or you can watch the video below.
They're a core part of your content strategy (but if you know all of this already and just need a content strategy guide then you may want to read this).
So now that you have a good idea of what buyer personas are and how they can be used - what are the common mistakes marketers make when it comes to creating them and how do these mistakes cause problems?
The first problem:
Buyer personas are rooted in stereotypes
Ninety-nine percent of the buyer personas we come across are stereotypes: Marketing Mary, Salesman Sam, Director Dan, we’ve seen them all. In fact, we were guilty of doing it ourselves. Our last round of buyer personas included someone called Founder Frank for heaven’s sake.
So, rather than focusing on the behavior and needs of the people they are meant to represent, buyer personas (nowadays) rely on job titles and blanket assumptions. Just because someone is a start-up founder, that doesn’t mean they are a millennial, hoody-wearing 24-year-old called Scott.
For example, if you provide HR software, with the current approach your target audience is suddenly only those in HR looking to implement a new HR system. What about those in that same company that also want a new system, but don’t belong to HR?
For instance – Barbara in Marketing may want an HR system implemented so that she can track her holiday allocation; James in Customer Service may want an HR system implemented so that he can raise concerns regarding customer behavior; and Martin the founder of the company may want a new system just to improve the HR function overall. Everyone will have their own reasons and wants, so it doesn’t make sense to disregard them.
Taking all of this into account, personas should be objective/challenge based, as opposed to job function or responsibility based. For example, one buyer persona could be: “The person who wants to implement an HR system”. Of course, this might encompass more people – but you’ll get a better understanding of why those people need an HR system. It’ll also help you to create more personalized content.
Also, by focusing on the objective/challenge of your personas, you open up more opportunities to upsell and cross-sell products and services. Rather than attempting to persuade a client to buy something they don't necessarily need, you identify the bottlenecks within their business and present them with a viable solution.
The second problem:
Once they’re created, they don’t get used
More worrying than buyer personas being stereotypes is the fact that once they are created, they’re never used again.
Companies usually do everything right: they bring together different departments to brainstorm, ask questions to segment their target audience, and use data to validate assertions.
But after compiling all of the information into a nice template, they stick their buyer personas somewhere (sometimes on the wall) and forget about them.
Again, we were guilty of this ourselves in the past. We would run all the workshops, developing really comprehensive personas – the kind you could send to anyone and they would be like “wow” – but not use them.
And then we would wonder why our content wasn’t resonating as much as we’d like.
I’ll let you in on a secret: buyer personas aren’t just for show. The hard work you put into creating them can translate into real results for your business. You just have to remember to use them.
At every point of your marketing and sales activity, you need to be thinking about the end user – your customer – who is more or less represented by the information you put into your personas.
If you’ve done your personas right (and if you’re using existing data and customers) you should be able to attract the right people to your website.
A good way to ensure your buyer personas are front-of-mind is to print them out and stick them on the wall. Also, rather than pages and pages of information on who you want to market and sell to (which people will most likely ignore or fall asleep reading) try to condense your personas down to the most salient information.
For example, you could have a single sheet of A4 on each persona. Each sheet could have that persona's business challenges, goals, metrics for success, and what they do on a day-to-day basis. This will give everyone in your team an at-a-glance summary of the people you want to market and sell to - and will also enable them to create the right kind of content to attract your ideal buyers.
P.S. Make sure you avoid these mistakes when you're creating your content, too.
The third problem:
They are all made up
Though the best practice is to interview customers and prospects to obtain useful, actionable data, most companies don’t.
For many, the first port of call is the sales team - after all, who better to ask than those who speak to prospects and customers all the time? However, you can't just rely on the information from your sales team and this is because you'll end up with an incomplete view of those you want to market to.
Your salespeople are typically only involved in the later stages of the buyer's journey so often they'll only be able to provide some information. Moreover, buyers who don't trust your salespeople will be reluctant to reveal information out of fear of it being used to manipulate them into buying something they don't need.
The next port of call is then the product team - they're the ones selling the products and services so they know exactly what prospects and customers want, right? Not exactly. Your product and service experts are once again only active at certain stages of the buyer journey. They will know the problems the product/service solves but how does the customer get to that point? How do buyers identify the problems they have?
As a result, buyer personas are often based on assumptions, making them inaccurate and not representative of the people that businesses are trying to target! There’s no point in creating buyer personas if you don’t actually interview customers and prospects to get the data you need.
Also, even if you’ve got information stored in your CRM – you can't rely on that alone to build a complete picture of your ideal buyers.
Speaking to your sales team, and product and service experts and using the information in your CRM is important - it all helps build a persona profile. Just don't stop there.
To get a better idea of who you want to target, you have to interview your current customers and conduct market research. They're both far more effective when it comes to building accurate and current profiles of your potential customers. These projects might be costly, but the return on investment through more successful sales far outweighs the cost.
Want to take a more strategic and data-driven approach to buyer persona creation? Just watch the video below, featuring Guy Washer, our Consulting Director at The B2B Marketing Lab, to find out how!
We’re not exempt from any of this.
We’ve made mistakes just like any other business, but what’s important is that we’ve learned from them. Here's what we used to do:
We would sit around a desk, invite our teams – marketing, sales, and customer service – and start brainstorming buyer personas. Rather than pull up the data we had, we would make assumptions about our target audience, including their problems and behavior.
After going through the effort of building detailed personas, we would just put all the information in a document, make the document pretty, and then just save it somewhere. We probably have about three or four different buyer persona documents.
Because we didn’t interview customers or prospects, our buyer personas would often miss the mark, and be purely what we thought was the right answer.
So what have we learned?
Learning from our mistakes has taught us to...
We base our buyer personas on actual data. This enables us to create high-quality, targeted content. (Want to find out how to create great content for your website? Click here).
No more leaving buyer personas on our Google Drive. We take ours out and use them to inform content creation.
Better to hear from the people you market and sell to right now. By interviewing our customers, we can uncover business challenges and pain points right away.
Other mistakes marketers make
1) Worrying about unimportant details
If you're spending time thinking about whether your persona has a cat or dog or if they should be a man or woman then you're focusing on the wrong things.
As much as we all love cats and dogs, that doesn't really have much of an impact on your marketing activity. Similarly, whether they're a man or a woman won't change their job function and the challenges it comes with.
It doesn't even matter what picture you assign to your persona's profile. Honestly, who cares? The purpose of your personas.
2) Developing too many personas
It's important to segment your audience and allocate them to different personas but try not to create too many.
Remember, you have to create content for these personas and that content needs to address all of the challenges those personas have. Imagine you had 20 different personas and had to create content for each of them. It just wouldn't work.
With this in mind, try to consolidate your buyer personas where possible. Only create more if you absolutely need to or if you believe there are potential audiences not covered by what you already have.
3) Not using negative personas
Just as you want to identify who you want to work with, you should also take steps to identify who you don't want to work with.
Pursuing bad-fit customers can cost you a considerable amount of time and money. These customers might not have the budget for your product or service or they simply might not share your values. Either way, you don't want to waste time marketing and selling to these people.
Don't neglect your buyer personas!
Buyer personas are the foundation of your marketing and sales activity. If you want to reach the right people, increase website visits, convert leads, and secure new business, you need to start with them and not neglect them.