Buyer Personas are Great (Except When They Suck)

Buyer Personas are Great (Except When They Suck)

by Michael Brenner

6 minute read

I recently presented at a Content Marketing conference on the topic of content marketing personalization. I argued that personalized content was the key to defining the core job of marketing: to build relationships at scale.

And I made sure to differentiate personalized content from personas. So, one of my points in the presentation: Buyer Personas are great. Except when they suck! 

Before you start ranting or raving, let’s start with some basics:

What is a buyer persona?

I actually like buyer personas. And I know a handful of consultants who are really helping their clients create actionable insights and programs and plans based on a deeper understanding of their buyers. So, I’ll start with a definition from one of those, Adelle Revella:

“Buyer personas are examples of the real buyers who influence or make decisions about the products, services or solutions you market. They are a tool that builds confidence in  strategies to persuade buyers to choose you rather than a competitor or the status quo.”

Another great definition of personas comes from Tony Zambito, who uses this definition:

“Buyer personas are research-based archetypal (modeled) representations of who buyers are, what they are trying to accomplish, what goals drive their behavior, how they think, how they buy, and why they make buying decisions.  (Today, I now include where they buy as well as when buyers decide to buy.)”

And finally, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t refer to Ardath Albee who says that personas must be focused on what the buyer is trying to achieve. She suggests personas answer these questions:

  • What’s important to them and what’s driving the change?
  • What’s impeding or speeding their need to change?
  • How do they go about change?
  • What do they need to know to embrace change?
  • Who do they turn to for advice or information?
  • What’s the value they visualize once they make a decision?
  • Who do they have to sell change to in order to get it?
  • What could cause the need for this change to lose priority?

The reason these folks know what they are doing is that they emphasize the need for actionability from the exercise of building buyer personas.

Unfortunately, there is a large group of consultants and agencies out there taking large sums of money from brands to produce personas that produce very little action, and do not inform content planning or distribution. They tap into a well-intentioned idea in marketing to get to know and understand your buyer, without delivering on the real need: defining how to reach them with content they want or need.

So I hope you understand when I say that buyer personas are great except when they suck!

Buyer personas that suck

In my personalized content marketing presentation, I used some fictitious examples of buyer personas that suck. While I made these examples up, I promise you that I have seen plenty of million dollar personas that look just like this:
bad buyer persona
This is “Business Decision Maker Bob.” He has a wife, two kids, drives a red sports car and likes to spend his weekend playing golf.
bad buyer persona

This is “Technical Tom.” He’s very detailed-oriented. Tom doesn’t like surprises and appreciates being well-informed before making a decision. An introvert, Tom has adjusted the settings on his browser.
bad buyer persona

Finally, we have “Social Savvy Sally.” She’s always chatting up her friends. She is also kind of a big deal on Instagram.

Now, Buffer is one of my favorite blogs. When researching this post, I found their complete guide to personas, and unfortunately their template fails to cover the main issue with personas that suck: actionability. These types of personas suck because they don’t really help any brand to connect with their target audience.

The problem with buyer personas: actionability

I hear all the time from brand marketers who are being advised by their agencies to conduct “mood board” sessions and to brainstorm on the names of their personas. Many of these campaign-based initiatives simply fail to identify the key components of they buyer persona that you can use to define your content marketing plan.
My advice is always that “Personas are great, as long as they don’t suck.” I suggest brands define:
  • What content your target customers use,
  • What topics, they are interested in
  • What types or formats of content they prefer
  • Which channels they use
  • For each stage of the buyer journey
  • Define the keywords they use to search
  • And finally, the actual questions they ask

The answers to these questions can help inform content production and delivery where the goal should be to become a destination of insights for your target personas.

I also caution brands against having more than maybe two personas and focus more on the various topics your primary persona is interested in.  Once you start publishing on the primary topics of your key persona, you can build out content that addresses the secondary ones.

If you believe that the future of marketing looks more like publishing and less like advertising, then check out publisher sites as great examples of the importance of focusing on topics.

Great marketing gets results

I have gotten into some heated debates on this topic. I believe the reason for the passion is the desire by some to hold on to traditional campaign ideas that you only get one shot at making a good impression.

The fact is that in today’s world, we have a very short memory and even shorter attention spans. The best headline right now is the one I click. The brands I trust for news and information are the ones that deliver it consistently. That’s content marketing.

But don’t take my word on it – test these ideas out. I know you’ll find that a steady, consistent and regular cadence of content is what separates the winners from those who struggle to connect with their audience. Today’s brands need to create continuous content marketing that their target audience wants. Not only because that’s how we browse the web today (the customer perspective) but also because that approach is what yields results from a business perspective.

Are you fighting against personas that suck in your organization?

This is a common roadblock we see, so you are not alone. I am happy to jump on a call with anyone at any time to help raise some of the questions that might lead to better outcomes for your business.

Please follow me on TwitterLinkedInFacebook and Google+ for regular updates. Michael Brenner is Head of Strategy at NewsCred. This post originally appeared on his blog.