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Why (most) buyer personas don’t work

Digital Marketing

Whether you’re trying to sell bath tiles to consumers, or laboratory vacuum chambers to NASA, you’re always told to start at the same place.

Know your audience.

Or, if you’re into the new Inbound Marketing stuff, know your buyer persona.

On the face of it, knowing your audience and creating buyer personas makes sense.

After all, how can you sell anything, or create an audience for your content, if you don’t know who you’re targeting?

And marketing teams will spend hours agonising over them to come up with these Marketing Mary and Finance Director Dorothy characters.

But there’s usually a pretty common problem with most buyer personas.

They focus on the wrong things, so they don’t work.

It’s why you end up with personas which focus on job titles and personal characteristics.

“Marketing Mary is a university graduate, she’s 30 and enjoys soy lattes while travelling on the Northern line to get to work for 8:30am. The first thing she does is check emails before catching up on industry news and prepping for the morning budget meeting.”

That sounds like a spoof.

But trust me, I’ve seen buyer personas pretty close to that.

So, to make sure you’re creating buyer personas that actually work, we’ll run through the main problems with the way they’re put together, and help you focus on the right things.

But first.

 

What is a buyer persona?

A buyer persona is a semi fictional representation of your ideal customer based on research – according to HubSpot.

Essentially, it’s who you’re trying to sell to.

If you do them properly, buyer personas can give you some great insight into your leads and customers.

You can understand how they work.

What problems they have trying to do their jobs.

Which services or products they need to help make their lives easier.

What process they go through to choose a new supplier.

Where they go for information on news and products during the buying process.

Buyer personas done properly act as the compass to your content marketing strategy.

They inform everything.

From keyword research, to the types of content you need to create, to the types of promotion you use to get your information in front of them.

 

Why aren’t my buyer personas working?

So, if buyer personas tell you all this useful information, why aren’t the ones you or your marketing agency came up with actually working?

Probably, because you’ve been following the “best practice” advice you’ve been getting which, like most best practice principles, has been wrong for ages.

The biggest problem with the old way of doing buyer personas, is they were way too generic to give you any actual insights.

For a start, to bunch your audience into a one group is ridiculous.

Saying your ideal buyer is a marketing manager doesn’t tell you anything.

It doesn’t tell you what they do day to day.

It doesn’t tell you how they work.

And it doesn’t tell you what their biggest challenges are.

A big failing in most buyer personas, is you let your own assumptions get in the way.

Because you work in marketing, you assume your problems and challenges are the same as everyone else.

Or that every tech startup founder is a t-shirt and jeans wearing, chai tea sipping millennial.

They’re not.

 

Focus on challenges, not job titles

So, instead of focusing on job titles and personal traits, focus on the challenges people might be trying to overcome.

Let’s say you’re selling accounting software.

Now Alan in accounting might want to buy new accounting software to move the process more digital – he’s finally got fed up of looking through filing cabinets.

So for Alan your marketing is focused on accounting software for improving efficiency.

But Joanne who runs the company is only interested in accounting software that makes it easier to understand reporting so she can plan the future of the business.

And that changes the messaging.

If you base your buyer personas on assumptions that the only people interested in accounting software is the accounting team, you’re missing a big opportunity to grow your target audience and sales potential.

But if you focus on understanding the challenges the different people looking for your services are trying to overcome, you can be way more effective with your marketing.

 

Stop using assumptions in your buyer persona

If you reread HubSpot’s definition of a buyer persona, you’ll notice a key phrase:

“Based on research”.

This is key.

Too many buyer personas are based on guesswork, when you should be interviewing your current customers.

Remember, your current customers are experiencing the challenges you’re helping people overcome.

And they’ve actually chosen you as their supplier.

So they’re an ideal resource to help you understand challenges, the process they went through to find the right product or service and, importantly, why they chose you.

Don’t fall into the trap of only using your sales and marketing teams to come up with who they think your ideal customer is.

That’s a sure way to end up with inaccurate buyer personas.

 

Use your buyer personas

This is the biggest sin of the way buyer personas are created.

You go through the process of having buyer persona workshops.

You interview your customers, compile your data, fill in the gaps with your educated guesses and have your persona documents.

Then you put them away and never use them again.

Too often, buyer personas are viewed as a checkbox task.

You do them to say you’ve done them.

But your buyer personas should be a live document.

You should use them to guide your content creation today, and continue building on them as you get more data and feedback.

Business moves quickly.

So the problems your personas have today, might not be the same in a year or two.

If you never go back to your personas, they’ll quickly become useless.

Your buyer personas are an important part of any SEO content strategy.

To see how they fit in to your wider marketing activity, read our complete guide to SEO content strategy here.

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