This July marks the 13th year since the first drafting of the concept and methodology of buyer persona development. Notably, in the last three years, we have seen an increase in awareness of buyer personas. Coinciding with the rise in content marketing, marketers seek to use buyer personas to help guide content strategies and tactics. With this rise in awareness also come pitfalls in having buyer personas steer marketing efforts in the wrong direction.
I raise this point due to the proliferation of content on buyer personas over the past few years. Some helpful but the majority, in my opinion, are steering companies the wrong way. For marketers, it creates confusion mixed with redundancy as they attempt to filter the stream of content coming at them regarding buyer personas.
Is It Easy Or Hard To Do?
Before looking at five reasons, it is important to note the old adage of: if it looks or sounds too good to be true, it usually is. There is much content out there on buyer personas I would put in this category. Making it seem like it is an easy 1, 2, 3 and voila! You have buyer personas. Gaining insights on buyers and using buyer personas to tell their story is hard work. It takes sound use of resources, talent, and the right level of qualitative research know-how to produce value in buyer personas.
Heading In The Wrong Direction
Sometimes, as in many things in business and life in general, knowing what not to do is helpful in making sure you do something right. With this in mind, I would like to share a few reasons why buyer personas, if not done right, could steer your marketing efforts in the wrong direction:
1. Input Comes Solely From Sales and Account Management Teams
This can be like a knee-jerk reaction. Quickly jumping to the conclusion inside sales, field sales, and account management teams are filled with rich descriptions of customers. I am sure this can be true – for the wrong reason. Usually, we can be regaled by elaborate war stories from the field about customers. With much talk about battles won and lost. You see – this is the focus of sales. To win business – not in-depth qualitative research to understand behaviors and attitudinal influences.
Do not get me wrong here on this point. Sales can provide extremely valuable input. They should be part of the buyer persona development process. The point here is not to rely solely on input from sales and do no qualitative research.
2. Making Buyer Personas A Win/Loss Exercise – Even If You Don’t Call It Such
One action, which could get you heading in the wrong direction, is talking only to recent buyers and those who said no. Buyer persona development is about understanding the goals and behaviors of people. Thus, limiting your understanding to just this area and turning your efforts into win/loss sales research efforts could have you missing out on very valuable insights. I have also echoed on this point many times over in the past dozen years – recent buyers are elated so you have skewed positive input. Losses, while they can provide valuable input, are often skewed towards protection and not divulging too much. A very consistent pattern over the past dozen years in conducting hundreds of buyer interviews is this: when I have tapped into previous win/loss interviews, where lost accounts claimed the company was a close second, this was not true the majority of time.
3. Focusing On Sales Intelligence
One area where sales can be helpful is in sharing sales intelligence they have gathered over the years. In B2B sales, high performing teams are adept at getting down the basics related to sales intelligence. These include intelligence on typical as well as emerging strategic initiatives, the typical 4 or 5 buying criteria factors used in an industry, product or service performance requirements, risk factors, and what constitutes a typical buying process. Where things can take a wrong turn is if marketing performs research, which proves to be redundant – or – if sales intelligence research becomes a substitution for qualitative buyer research. This factor combined with the above creates a vortex of inertia turning buyer persona development into a sales intelligence research project.
4. Treating Buyer Personas as Market Segmentation
Often times, marketing and sales departments involved in a buyer persona development initiative can unknowingly turn their efforts into a segmentation exercise. Where, much of the effort is focused on the description. Sweating bullets on items such as age, gender, demographics, psychographics, firmographics, and all things related to segmentation. When this happens, companies never reach the deeper layers of insights into buyer behaviors, goals, values, attitudes, contextual situations, and mental models, which have powerful influences in shaping the how and why of buying.
5. No Focus On Context
Buyer personas are designed to help us understand archetypal behaviors, activities, mental models, and contextual situations in which buyers are attempting to accomplish specific goals. Foundational to buyer persona development has been and still is scenario analysis and creation. Without this focus, buyer personas become buyer profiles with pretty pictures on them. Yes, the picture will come with the before mentioned degree of sales intelligence but devoid of the crucial context needed to truly achieve a deeper understanding of customers and buyers.
What can happen is several of the reasons noted above are in play at the same time. Resulting in buyer personas, which are more glorified profiles than personas. In helping several organizations recently with conversations on their disappointments, the above reasons were traced back to why there was only nominal perceived value in the resulting buyer personas.
Sales-Centric and Product-Centric
What the reasons noted above can do is steer a company into the direction of creating magnified sales-centric and product-centric lenses, which they use to view customers and buyers. Causing them to miss out on crucial opportunities in developing innovative marketing frameworks enabling deep connection with buyers. More importantly, missing out on major shifts about to happen in buying behaviors. With these shifts usually come new emerging buyer goals about to become powerful influences.
By the time they are discovered, it may be too late and an organization spends years attempting to catch up.