Are Your Buyer Personas Data Overkill?

Information Overload by Jenny Chisnell

Information Overload by Jenny Chisnell

As the concept of buyer personas has crept into the conscious of both B2C and B2B Marketing, so has misguided representations of buyer personas become prevalent.  With many touted frameworks and processes being representative of buyer personas in name only.  These misrepresentations have also led to a tendency to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into crafting buyer personas.

For example, an organization I helped recently had previously utilized a framework, labeled buyer persona in name only, which consisted of a matrix of 15 plus categories.  Why do I say labeled in name only?  This approach of having 15 plus profile categories amounts to buyer profiling.  Yes, buyer profiling can be helpful for sales and marketing automation, for instance.  However, what it lacks is the ability to develop a deeper understanding of the buyer story, their goals, and their goal-directed behaviors behind ultimate purchase decisions.

Data Overload

A trend in the last few years has been the rise of an operations mentality and function within marketing.  While executing marketing has become more complicated, this does not provide a ticket to make marketing more complicated than it should be.  The notion of operations is implicit in science, systems, processes, analytics, and rules.

And, it can be obsessed with filling in neat little boxes and fields. 

What this has meant for buyer personas, in particular, is the rise of misguided tendencies to view buyer personas as an exercise in data gathering – that fit into neat little boxes or fields.  Enabling analytics and reports on profiling attributes and activities of buyers and customers as gleaned from a database.

When it comes to data on buyers and customers, the old saying “too much of a good thing” comes to mind.  Unknowingly, organizations can be afflicted by data creep and process creep as they enter a new era of collecting data on customers.  Amounting to severe data overload.  The trouble with severe data overload is the focus becomes on data collection as opposed to truly understanding insights that shape a story to be told about buyers and customers.  And, more importantly, truly informs on customer strategies.

I am afraid this can happen when companies are misguided in buyer personas, which are buyer personas in name only.  Again, the emphasis on in name only for buyer personas are not about buyer profiling data collection.

To Quantify Or Not?

An overarching influence is the urge to quantify anything and everything that is prevalent in business.  With the rise of Big Data, I doubt this urge will recede anytime soon.  This same urge is being applied to buyer personas.  Again, emphasis on in name only.  Confusing buyer personas as segmentation and profiling.  Looking to quantify buyer personas in as many slice and dice ways as possible.

An interesting irony can take place when it comes to the urge to quantify buyer personas.  Buyer personas were originated to offer qualitative (and personalized) understanding of buyer goals, their goal-directed behaviors, their thinking, emotions, and other qualitative drivers.  As a means to help inform overall customer strategy.  And, as you can guess, most qualitative insights do not fit into neat little boxes and fields.

The combination of matrix and quantification thinking can lead to some outlandish numbers.  In the case of the organization with 15 plus categories, they also perceived they needed five different buyer personas based on roles (common in buyer profiling yet incorrect for buyer persona development).  This amounted to trying to track a potential of 75 plus categories or fields.

Applying this quantifying approach to content development spun the numbers even higher.  They believed there were six stages to a buying process with the operational thinking that for each stage, each buyer role needed unique content.  If you do the math, they were looking at trying to develop 450 unique pieces of content!

Buyer Personas Lost In Data Overkill

What happens when buyer persona data collection overkill occurs?  An organization’s focus can shift to collecting a mountain of profiling data on buyers and customers.  Yet, losing sight of the ability to truly have a deeper understanding of the underlying goals, behaviors, and thinking influencing choices and decisions buyers make.

CMOs implementing a marketing operations approach today will need to be on guard for a runaway focus on buyer and customer data collection.  When this affliction is evident, many a CMO I have talked with recently expressed mounting frustration with how a mountain of data on their buyer personas (again – in name only) can tell them very little.  Especially regarding why buyers are making decisions on whether to choose their organization or not.

Astonishingly, a belief creeps in that even more data is needed!  Triggering an ongoing cycle of meetings, field building, data collecting, and reporting on buyer and customer data.  Lost in this cycle are any true buyer insights that can transform marketing.

Know The Difference Between Customer Segmentation, Buyer Profiling, and Buyer Personas

The importance of customer segmentation, buyer profiling, and marketing automation cannot be overstated.  It is equally important to recognize that applying an overzealous quantitative approach to buyer personas can do more harm than good.  Confusing collecting factual data on buyers as buyer persona development can, in fact, create greater marketing ineffectiveness.

Buyer personas, poorly created due to being confused with data collection profiling, undermines the credibility of buyer personas overall.  It behooves CMOs to recall that buyer personas were originally founded for this purpose:

To serve as research-based archetypal representations of buyer key goals, goal-directed behaviors, and attitudes, which informs overall customer strategies. 

If CMOs forget this important intent of buyer personas and confuse with operational buyer profiling, they will lose perhaps one of the most valuable decisions tools needed to devise customer-centric strategies.

(I like the following video primarily for two reasons.  One it asks a good question – Have digital marketers lost the human touch?  Second, it serves as a reminder that buyer profiling data can tell you what buyers did but such data cannot tell you why.)

Tony
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