Why The Differences Between Buyer Profiling and Buyer Personas Matters

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Tony Zambito

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#9: difference
#9: difference (Photo credit: giuvax)

Many marketing and sales executives agree the need to understand buyers today is greater than ever.  Markets and industries in B2B are still trying to figure out the impact of changing buying behaviors.  There is heightened attention in customer acquisition – mainly because it has become a guessing game.

What many executives are discovering is the search for understanding and insights into changing buying behaviors can be confusing and lead to dead ends.    One problematic area of confusion is the understanding and terminologies related to buyer profiling and buyer personas.  Oftentimes, used interchangeably as if these two vastly different concepts are one and the same.

Choosing The Right Approach

How B2B organizations approach understanding buyers can make a big difference.  During the past few years, we have seen a rise in the use of the term buyer personas.  However, it can be a major source of confusion.  This is true when you start mixing terminologies and referring to buyer profiles as buyer persona profiling.  Or calling any information related to profiling buyers – buyer personas.  Worse yet, I have seen Big Data terminology referring to buyer persona analytics.  To me, this is just getting carried way.

How do executives then make the right choices when it comes to understanding buyers?  In a recent conversation helping a marketing executive, this very dilemma was posed to me.  The dilemma sounds like this:

“Here’s what I am struggling with.  You read and hear a lot of information on buyer personas these days.  It is all over the map though.  In a lot of cases, I don’t see much difference from basic customer profiling that we get from our CRM and sales.  So, help me understand what am I missing here.”  Vice President, Marketing

I get this.  There is plenty of incorrect information floating around on buyer personas.  It seems anything or anyone related to content marketing has their own way of labeling buyer personas.  For marketing and sales executive, it very well could be the case of the more you read and listen, the more confused you are bound to get.

Bringing Clarity To The Differences

With the need to gain deep understanding of buyers today, choosing how to approach doing so is of importance.  Making the wrong choice can be a setback.  To make the right choice, having clarity on the differences is critical.  First, let us take a look at the reference chart:

Buyer profile versus buyer persona

What should be evident is buyer profiles have a broader focus on buying factors and processes.  They are also slanted towards target and account segmentation perspectives.  Obviously, a bent towards the traditional sales and product marketing approaches from the past few decades.   On the other hand, buyer personas have chartered new territories into buyer insights, buying behaviors, goals, situational context, attitudinal mental modeling, and emotional as well as personal values.

Perhaps the most important clarity to be gained is while buyer profiling has its place for understanding buyers, it is a reflection of highly commoditized business factors – not deep buyer insights.  Inadequate for understanding decision-making today heavily weighted towards brand experience and brand values.  Simply stated, B2B businesses will not be able to differentiate solely on the basis of understanding commoditized business factors.

Buyer Story Lines

One of the main purposes of buyer personas is to help businesses understand the story of buyers.  Delivering key insights into the buyer’s narrative and the impact on their goals, emotions, and personal values.  Without this understanding, B2B organizations will have a tough time telling their own story.  Their story will be out of context to their buyer’s story line.

When you have buyer profiles masquerading as buyer personas, this only hurts the ability of B2B businesses to tell their story.  They wind up messaging buyers on factors as oppose to connecting on compelling insights based story lines.  One mantra I have stated over the years and is worth repeating is – placing a picture on a buyer profile does not make it a buyer persona.  Sadly, this is what is occurring in many cases – causing confusion as the marketing executive above states.

There is plenty of evidence lately about the ineffectiveness of content marketing with upwards of 70% considered ineffective depending on which B2B marketing survey you read.  At the core is poor understanding of buyers; even after companies have indicated they invested in buyer personas.  I have personally been involved remedially with companies that have previously invested in buyer personas.   What is usually found is what were called buyer personas should have been classified as buyer profiles.

Why It Matters

A compelling downside to getting confused between the two is it results in a lot of noise for your buyers.  And, when it is too noisy, buyers will tune out.  Buyers today are inundated with non-differentiating content and messaging.  This is how buyers are reacting, according to a recent qualitative buyer interview I conducted:

“Look, I am a satisfied customer but I gotta tell you, I don’t read any of their stuff anymore.  It is just too much, doesn’t mean anything, and I don’t have time.  So, it just gets deleted in my mailbox.”  Senior Director

Now, I could wax eloquently on why the differences matter.  But, I think this basically makes the point.

Should B2B businesses do both buyer profiling and buyer persona development?  Absolutely.  What is important is to know is how each approach is designed for distinct purposes.  While buyer profiling helps with broader understanding of likely groupings or segments of buyers, buyer personas help us understand the deeper goals and personal values of buyers influencing purchase decisions.  And, as stated previously, helps us to understand the story of buyers.

Where confusion, noise, and downsides can occur is when buyer profiling is mistaken for buyer persona development.  With plenty at stake in today’s rapidly changing business climates, this is a mistake B2B marketing and sales executives can ill-afford to make.

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11 thoughts on “Why The Differences Between Buyer Profiling and Buyer Personas Matters”

  1. Hello Tony,

    Could you give an example, or point to an example, where the concepts are clearly delineated? I understand the value of pretty much everything you have to say, in not just this article, but in all your work. But I am a “visual” person and learn best when I can visual a concept in action.

    I really DO want to understand, at a very deep level, the difference between profiles and personas. I believe, with every fiber in my body, that sales and marketing starts here.

    So forgive me for being slow. I just really want to get this, completely, with such clarity that I can communicate it more effectively to my clients, and use if myself.

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  3. Hello Vincent,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. For years, various customer/buyer profiles have been created through sales methodology and training companies as well as CRM companies. You can see such in sales call plan templates and etc. They center on the profiling of a group of buyers at a functional level. For example, in many a good sales organizations, sales call planning involves knowing the strategic initiatives or priorities of buyers most common for a group – for example in your world – most law firms will have an initiative to modernize their office practice. The research tools of buyer personas have always been qualitative and focus in on the goals, personal values, situational, and attitudinal aspects of buyers. I noticed you booked a time with me so will be glad to help explore more with you.


  4. Hello Tony,

    Thank you so much for your response. I am actually very familiar with the profile model. I have experience selling for companies like Oracle and Peoplesoft. It is the comparison to the Buyer Persona that I would like to explore with you on Thursday. For example, for a Lawyer, a common buying process is fairly straight forward. But the Scenario Development is what I need a visual for. If I have a better understanding of the outcome, ie, what a Scenario looks like once developed, it will give me a better handle on how to develop it, or at least a path to learn the right way how to actually develop one.

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