When I first founded buyer persona development a dozen years ago, I used to get asked, “What is a buyer persona?” quite often. Nowadays, as I engage in conversations about buyer personas and buyer insights, I have to remind myself to ask what the person believes a buyer persona is.
Of late, there has been a rash of definitions added to the many, which has surfaced over the years. It is time to revisit the original definition of buyer personas and breakdown why it still matters.
The original definition established in 2002: What is a Buyer Persona?
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.)
As you can see here, this has nothing to do with profiling. And, it has everything to do with buying behavior.
I have highlighted the words who, what, how, and why – to emphasize we are seeking the story of buyers. This has evolved to highlight the added importance of where and when. Telling the story of buyers today takes the fundamental basics of qualitative storytelling: who, what, where, when, how, and why.
A Deeper Understanding
The purpose of researching and modeling buyer personas is to help us gain a deeper understanding of buyers and their buying behaviors. This helpful understanding aimed at informing decisions on marketing and sales strategies. Learning about the buyers of today involves learning about the new language of buyers. A deeper understanding also requires we develop a new robust vocabulary about buyers – expressed in everyday terms. This new vocabulary must be consistent as in any practice and discipline.
Breakdown of the Definition
With this in mind, let us breakdown the original and consistent definition of a buyer persona, which still matters, even more so, in the new digital age:
The primary foundation of buyer personas is the research of buying behaviors. It is neither a profiling nor a win/loss exercise. Much of the research principles are rooted in the origins of personas as well as in the social sciences. Buyer research involves the techniques of qualitative research, ethnographic research, business anthropology, and digital anthropology. Simply stated, a buyer persona cannot be defined unless it is research-based.
Archetypal (Modeled) Representation
Buyer personas are archetypes. And, archetypes are models of people and their behaviors. They represent patterns of behaviors. The use of labels such as fictional, examples, profile, and etc. is inappropriate since they do not convey what a buyer persona is: the research and modeling of buying behaviors. Thus, you do not “build buyer personas” – you model archetypes of buyers – or as we have called them – buyer personas.
Who Buyers Are
The focus is to identify and communicate archetypes of the people who represent your actual target buyers. Which can include several archetypes – influencer and buyer personas – on buying teams. This is not as straightforward as you may think. I have found in my qualitative research the target buyer and their buying team membership can often turn out to be very different than originally assumed.
What They Are Trying to Accomplish
This factual buyer intelligence can vary depending on industries and markets. The essence is to model the archetypal patterns of what buyers are trying to accomplish through their responsibilities, areas of focus, key initiatives, and strategies.
What Goals Drive Their Behavior
This is one of the biggest bricks in the foundation of buyer personas. Buyer personas should represent insight into goal-directed buying behaviors. Goals can be business as well as personal. In today’s fast emerging digital age, you are seeing business and personal goals melding together. This is one reason why qualitative research is so important. Goals are not usually as clear as they may seem.
How They Think
Here, we are after what we call mental models. Our goal is to identify a collective pattern of attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, motivations, and guiding principles. These are often not so obvious and unarticulated on the part of buyers. They can also represent the hidden reasons why buyers will not buy. This is where the value of 3rd party objective qualitative research really kicks-in to attain profound buyer insight.
How They Buy
We are looking for clues through the buying activities of our buyers. This can come through mapping activity-based buying processes and buying team interactions. This also includes deeply understanding the purchasing and procurement policies of organizations. Here, we look at how buyers use content and how it affects buying behavior.
Why They Make Buying Decisions
Getting at the core of “why” is the ultimate test. Like a concentric circle, buyers have many defense mechanisms in place making it difficult to achieve this core deep understanding. It takes the practice of skilled pattern recognition. This is where 3rd party qualitative expertise can be handy. Opening up buyer’s reluctance to share their inner “why” they otherwise may be unwilling to share with a selling organization directly.
Where They Buy
The explosion of multiple channels in the new digital age makes this more important to understand than a dozen years ago. Understanding how buyers wish to travel seamlessly through channels is emerging as a competitive difference maker. We want to know how this affects buying behavior.
When They Buy
Nurturing is beginning to mature as a concept. Potential buyers can be in the “not in the market” and “not ready to buy” category. Greater understanding of how buyers and influencers behave during these periods can make the difference between having a pipeline next year – or not.
Why This Definition Still Matters
This definition is central to the fundamentals of buyer persona development. Designed to help us make informed decisions on marketing and sales strategies. It still matters, even more so today, due to this one important reason: B2B buying behaviors continue to change at a rapid pace never before seen.
I welcome more discussions on this definition so please do reach out to me for further help. And, please do share widely. Your colleagues and I will appreciate it.
71 thoughts on “What is a Buyer Persona? Why the Original Definition Still Matters to B2B”
Your article is an excellent primer on buyer personas for those who have never been exposed to them. I admit to having mixed feelings abut personas though. I’ve seen B2B companies burn a lot of resources on creating high quality buyer persona documents that will only ever be referenced by the marketing staff – and not even very often by them.
The value I see in buyer personas is the research the team MUST go through to create them. It isn’t enough for marketing to sit around in a conference room, asking each other, “What does our buyer look like?” — and spend an hour on whether the buy should be called Sally or Sam. Marketers must get out into the field to really understand the buyer. In my experience, personas can also help prevent the buyer from looking like the last person sales spoke to. However, once a persona is established, marketing must realize that their persona will need to evolve as the market evolves or as they gather more complete information from additional time in the field and with sales.
Melissa, thank your for kind and very thoughtful comment. Much appreciated. The primer I offer, as a foundation, is designed to prevent the very thing you mention. Having buyer persona documents produced as profiles versus being the informing strategy guide they are meant to be. You highlight a downside when buyer personas are viewed incorrectly as a profiling exercise.
You are right in saying the research is paramount. Sitting around in a conference room is not research. What you speak of is an area I have focused on recently. Which is, the embedding of qualitative buyer persona research, buyer insights, and the communications platform of buyer personas into strategy, operations, and execution. This is the path to making buyer personas an evolving and iterative strategy efforts for marketing and the entire enterprise.
Thank you for using your excellent writing to hit the crux of the issue very well. Appreciate it!
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This is a very well summarized and simplified article. Many thanks, Tony.
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