An introduction to buyer personas

Are you on first-name terms with your buyer personas?

Do your marketing strategy meetings discuss ‘Jason’s’ likely reaction to the new launch, and why ‘Sharon’ is the target for the upcoming campaign?

Experienced buyer persona users understand a buyer persona’s power to generate great insight and high confidence in marketing and business decisions; transforming a marketer’s ability to impact buyer attitudes on solutions and brands.

Buyer personas can break down barriers between sales and marketing by enabling both groups to share a good understanding of what action is required to address buyer needs.

And, insight into the buying process helps each team visualize their revenue contribution at each stage in the purchase process.

As companies learn to appreciate personas’ ability to predict buyer behaviour with uncanny accuracy, marketers can find themselves awarded a place at the strategy table thanks to their insight on key issues influencing buyers which, in turn, determine the company’s future.

When all media channels answer the buyers’ exact questions in plain language, trust in that brand builds and competition melts away.

This ‘magic’ only happens when buyers see a brand offers a solution that perfectly fits their definition of a problem.

The buyer persona value proposition

Although the value proposition for buyer personas is well understood, confusion still exists about what to include and how to build them.

The concept is equally likely to be over-simplified or over-complicated.

Marketers know that personas have the capability to deliver access to incredibly actionable, unambiguous information on how to reach and motivate target buyers through example buyers that are both real and persuasive.

Deep accurate buyer insights guide marketers, enabling them to gain in decision-making confidence in nearly every aspect of marketing, from content to product design, lead generation to business strategy and sales enablement to segmentation.

There have been many retweets about ‘eight personas that sales people need’, ‘four consumer buyer personas’ and ‘six ways to build your personas simply by observing their online behavior’.

If only it were that easy.

To be effective, personas need to be defined by more than demographics - marketers ultimately need buyer personas that real and persuasive enough to allow internal stakeholders to be on first-name terms with each of them.

Creating effective buyer personas

Buyer personas are a tool and, like most tools, their attributes and the investment needed to create them vary dramatically depending on the marketing situation.

Always start the creation process with a specific goal that allows you to be practical about your investment.

It is important to impress stakeholders as quickly as possible to secure their support for the training and resources involved in broader persona implementation.

Planning your buyer persona initiative involves weighing up relevant insights and determining the required confidence level in persona performance.

Determine which buyer insights are relevant

The insights you include in your persona must be focused on a specific product, service or solution the buyer is considering.

It is highly unlikely that such insights will be the same for all your solutions.

Relevant insights vary according to the decisions you want to impact; for example:

  • Content placement – Where does the buyer looks for useful information about this category of solution?
  • Content creation and messaging – On what criteria will the buyer evaluate, how will that buyer measure success, what would interfere with their decision to buy from you?
  • Leads/demand generation – Which of several buying influencers has a priority initiative that could be satisfied by your solution? It often is not the economic buyer!
  • Sales enablement - Which buyer persona is most willing to meet with your sales rep (i.e. lead/demand generation)? What does each buyer persona need to learn at each stage of the buying process (i.e. message/content development)?
  • Marketing budgets or strategic planning - All of the above...

 Establish the required persona confidence level

It can be helpful to equate ‘confidence’ to the required ‘sharpness’ of the tool…….

The complete absence of a buyer persona means you are working with a very blunt instrument indeed - Making Stuff Up.

At the other extreme is a blade that’s been finely honed through extensive (expensive) qualitative and quantitative research on each one of the twenty or so buyers who impact every decision on every strategic marketing solution.

Deciding what confidence level you need in your persona is very much influenced by the level risk involved in making the wrong decision.

Focusing on a given decision allows the team to make the best choices on both insights and confidence.

 Start creating your personas

The general starting point for buyer persona creation is five-to-eight in-depth interviews with two or three different types of buyers.

These personas are typically key target segments in a critical launch or other important initiative where it is obvious that the old blunt tools are inadequate.

In especially critical or high risk decision making, the number of interviews should be expanded or a survey be used to validate the interview findings.

A final word of caution - “Move slowly”.

I’ve seen companies that try to accomplish too much too quickly. Personas can drive significant changes in culture, process and training and these changes evolve naturally in companies that right-size their initial investments.

Share your thoughts

  • My concern is more practical. The use of Personas in the digital area has become so ubiquitous that nobody really digs very deep into the provenance of the statistical data that gave rise to the personas

    I have sat in many meeting over the years where the methodology of Personas where the key basis of digital projects. Only do I find out afterwards that the marketers based the personas on ‘experience and observation’ of their client and the clients aspirational target audience rather than any real statistically gleaned basis. i.e they ‘made it up’

    This is highly subjective and based on aspiration rather than fact. Self-delusion can only follow for all involved in the project because of buy-in into the original idea.

    I am a technologist and have worked extensively the last year with enterprise heuristic personalisation engines -that generates dynamic content for things as diverse as landing pages, page content to product recommendations and is based solely on real-time observed user interaction, page engagement and navigation intent.

    The heuristic systems gather a lot of behaviour data and gathered buyer profiles (anonymous). Not once has a marketer taken me up on the offer for them to analyse the data to inform campaigns.

    Personas are static; people are anything but. Just because she clicked on a home improvement story today doesn’t mean she’s got a hammer in her hand every time she visits the site. Enterprise commerce clients want the adaptive web that is intent-driven to optimise sales. It uses personas and past histories, but isn’t beholden to them; what’s most important is what’s happening right now with buyer intent.

    I still believe using Personas, properly researched and statistically backed up is a fantastic planning tool – however unfortunately in 10 years I have not once seen it been done diligently.

    • I agree with many of your comments Colin, especially that the popularity of personas has caused a lot of sloppy work. There are even some popular books that make it sound like personas are always made up. That makes me crazy.

      I’m working with a practical approach that marketers can use to build well- researched personas that are not the least bit static, but based on continuous inquiry into the buyer’s real experience. I’ve been doing this work for decades, but this is a very new area for most marketers, and many will need training and coaching before they can understand the distinctions, participate in the research, and take advantage of the resulting insights. That’s exactly why I founded Buyer Persona Institute.

      I hope you won’t give up on this idea Colin, and that you will join me in helping marketers discover the potential. I’m sure you agree that the status quo is no solution either, that without access to the buyer’s perspective, marketers have no choice but to make stuff up, at great expense to all involved. I’d love to talk if you want to contact me directly.

    • Anonymous commented on February 13, 2012

      Are personas worthwhile? Thanks for sharing your experience here Colin. This is a common argument against personas not being worthwhile, but I don’t think it holds-up well if you compare it to the alternative – I still see many sites which are product-centred rather than customer-centred because the design/build agency hasn’t considered the range of users, their needs and how the company positions their offer to them.

      For this reason I’m a big advocate of them still. I find on training courses that the majority of marketers aren’t aware of them, but the ones that are are generally in favour, but do point out they’re not a panacea – you have to research them well, ensure the personas don’t get in the way of the main users journeys (many have moved away from explicit home page personas for this reason) and make sure they match to business goals.

  • Personas in marketing have always caused me some concern, as these are based on a personal interpretation of market research and your educated guess as to how a person would react to this. As a result, they must be flawed as they are already tainted with a personal bias. So, personas or not – but either way, you are still making stuff up.

    • Thanks for the comment Twushi, but the buyer personas I am talking about do not involve interpretations or educated guesses about how a person(a) would react to what I’m trying to market to them.

      In fact, the research involves direct conversations with recent buyers to understand how they engage in the buying process for a particular product, service or solution.
      I call this part of the buyer persona the “Product Persona Connection” and consider it to be the most important part of the persona.

      Based on unscripted, qualitative interviews with real buyers, I’m capturing the “Five Rings of Insight” for a specific buying decision — Priority Initiative (that triggered the search), Success Factors (for this category of solution), Perceived Barriers (to solving this problem), Buying Process, and Decision Criteria.

      I share your concern about any approach to buyer personas that does not include the Product Persona Connection, so thanks again for submitting this comment.

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