In 2016, we will mark the fifteenth year since buyer personas were first introduced. The journey, however, continues towards professionals and organizations gaining a true understanding of what buyer persona development entails.
What is clear is buyer personas are now entering the mainstream of dialogue when it comes to overall customer understanding.
Incorporating Survey Data
I wish to thank the (124) respondents of the State of Buyer Personas 2016 Survey for taking the time to complete the survey. While there may have been redundancy in previous surveys, this particular survey is devoted to understanding the best practices associated with buyer persona development.
Before commenting upon the State of Buyer Personas 2016 in general, highlights from the survey results are presented:
- 72% said they were either familiar or very familiar with buyer persona development – this is a significant jump from the previous year
- Nearly 60% did their first-ever buyer persona development initiative within the last two years – a similar result to the previous year
- 27% of the respondents relied on in-depth qualitative buyer interviews – a jump from 15% previously
- 72% of the respondent stated they were using buyer personas for content marketing and messaging while 45% stated they were using for assessing market challenges and problems, as well as, address overall marketing strategy – an increase from 28% the previous year
- Nearly 30% of the respondents stated their buyer personas were very to significantly effective – this is double from the previous year
- 45% stated they were able to achieve deeper understanding of buyers in unexpected ways while the remaining 55% believed they engaged in buyer profiling and confirmed previous foundational understanding already possessed
- 80% of the respondents indicated the primary purpose for buyer personas were to support marketing campaigns and content marketing
- Nearly 70% of the respondents indicated they were confused about what buyer personas were, what were the differences between buyer profiling and buyer personas, what were the essential elements of buyer persona development, and the role of qualitative research methods – this is a decrease from 80% the previous year
- Nearly 60% indicated they were frustrated their buyer personas were based on typical product management and sales intelligence factors and did not result in the expected deeper understanding – this is the same result from the previous year
- Only 30% of the respondents acknowledged goals and goal-directed behaviors as the understood foundations of buyer persona development- this is an increase from 14% from the previous year
Some of the results and changes from the previous year are encouraging. We are seeing more recognition for the essential use of qualitative buyer research and the importance of goals, as well as, goal-directed behaviors to understanding buyers via buyer persona development.
Important Correlations Uncovered
While buyer personas are becoming more familiar, this familiarity is predominantly within the function of marketing and in certain specialized areas of marketing. As mentioned previously, buyer personas are being slotted in the silos of campaigns, content marketing, and messaging. As indicated by over 70% of the respondents. 80% of the respondents were from B2B organizations. And, 80% of the respondents were from marketing. The remaining is split between sales enablement and corporate strategy.
The struggle with buyer persona development being viewed as effective continues. The encouraging sign, however, is to see more respondents indicate that they were effective. One significant corollary can be found as related to improved effectiveness. While effectiveness jumped from 15% to 30%, so did the acknowledgment that goals and goal-directed behaviors were at the heart of buyer persona development. This jumped from 14% to 30% as well.
These indicators also correlate to this jump: the percentage indicating they used in-depth qualitative buyer research increased to nearly 30% (27%) from 15% of the previous year. The strong correlation here is effectiveness with buyer personas are tied to the use of in-depth qualitative buyer research to understand buyer goals and their goal-directed behaviors. This is certainly a validating result business leaders in marketing, sales, and service operations should take away from this survey.
So, where are we with buyer personas as we head into 2016? Here are a few commentary observations:
- My concern echoed last year regarding the inaccuracies and poor guidance showing up in articles, books, webinars, and guides continues to be troublesome. Their focus on common buyer profiling found in sales and product management are steering people and organizations in the wrong direction.
- It is very encouraging to see the growing recognition given to the need for in-depth qualitative research and the focus on goals. While there is still a long way to go on this point, it is nevertheless encouraging to see.
- Frustration remains high. In part due to an interesting correlation. As the degree of bad advice increases, so does frustration. One-way business leaders can minimize frustration with buyer persona effectiveness is to perform a litmus test of sorts. Which is – verify if their buyer persona development efforts are adhering to the best practices of researching the goals and goal-directed behaviors of their buyers and customers.
- In order to achieve the insights business leaders may seek from such efforts as buyer persona development, it will need to expand and break through the silo of content marketing and messaging. The irony here is when buyer persona development first originated, it had a home in marketing and sales strategy development before being enclosed in the silo of messaging and campaigns. Again, a correlation to effectiveness as well.
- Organizations continue to struggle with how to incorporate the use of big-data analytics into the qualitative nature of buyer persona development. Leaders should take care in over-emphasizing big-data analytics at the expense of qualitative research.
In the years 2014 to 2015, we are seeing growing interests on the part of the C-Suite to gain in-depth overall customer understanding. With CEOs making customer understanding an important part of their agendas, as indicated by studies/surveys conducted by IBM and others. Here are a few advancements to look out for in 2016:
- Buyer persona development begins to make the return to strategy development and released from the confines of strictly campaigns and content marketing. As customer understanding makes it way to the agenda of the C-Suite, concepts, such as buyer personas, will undergo greater consideration.
- The use of immersive in-depth qualitative research will continue to grow as organizations become more adept at distinguishing between buyer profiling and buyer personas.
- We will see a rise in leaders focusing on understanding the goals, behaviors, concerns, and perceptual attitudes of buyers as they relate to decisions and brand. I am happy to see this growing recognition. (It is also interesting to see consultants, claiming expertise and previously advising that these were not the elements of buyer personas, now singing a different tune.) Meaning business leaders should seek expertise in qualitative buyer research and use of goal-directed processes. As mentioned above, this correlation to effectiveness is a primary reason to do so.
- The over emphasis on the buyer’s journey will begin to diminish as leaders in marketing and sales recognize the need for goal-directed understanding on how and why decisions are truly derived. This inability to get at the heart of decision-making is a fundamental weakness of generic-based buyer’s journey perspectives.
As we look ahead to 2016 and beyond, there are are several areas offering new directions related to buyer personas:
- As leaders begin to see the strategic value of buyer insights, more guidance will be needed on how to make use of the insights to inform and shape overall customer strategy
- We will see a rush to develop cloud-based platforms to manage the number of personas within organizations and make them visible enterprise-wide. (Disclaimer: I serve as an advisor to Cintell, such a start-up in this area.) Organizations should take care as to how these can be deployed and made useful. Additionally, we are seeing several of these start-ups created by individuals with little to no experience in actual buyer persona development. Thus lacking in understanding of how to execute on understanding buyer goals and goal-directed behaviors. Business leaders will need to assess the value as well as the integrity of proposed platforms.
- The “one and done” approach to buyer persona development will give way to consistency in monitoring overall customer understanding. This should not be confused with the inadequate perspective given to the idea of how often buyer personas should be “refreshed”. A “refresh” approach and mentality are still inadequate for building overall customer understanding into the DNA of organizations. External factors, on a global scale, are happening daily, which impact customer understanding as a whole.
As I close, the question to answer is: what is the state of buyer personas as we head into 2016? I believe it is an encouraging healthy state. More executive leaders are recognizing that buyer personas must be supported by an in-depth qualitative understanding of customers. Not just by quantitative means alone.
I am also encouraged to see the growth in adopting the important perspective of understanding the goals and goal-directed behaviors of buyers. And, how such understanding leads to effective buyer personas resulting in higher performing overall customer strategies. This is a welcome development for this correlation, mentioned several times through this commentary, is at the heart of buyer personas. Without it, the heartbeat of buyer personas as an integral part of informing and shaping customer strategy will fade. I am more hopeful today that it will not.