Intervention: Buyer Personas Are Not A Product Requirements Document

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Tony Zambito

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProduct centricity is still kicking dust up in the perfect storm of changing buyer behaviors and transforming digital technologies. The dust up so thick, most organizations believe they may be responding to this perfect storm, yet, everything they do does scream products.

A good case in point is what organizations believe they need to do or are told what to do with developing buyer personas. Unfortunately, companies are being misguided on the intent and methodology behind buyer persona development. Where the end game is still about pushing the product onto a target buyer.

Let me illustrate with a couple of the more over-used terms I have seen in poorly crafted buyer personas. The two closely related terms of “easy-to-use” and “user-friendly” are often miscasts as goals and labeled key buyer insights.   These terms are neither goals nor “aha” buyer insights. They are factors aligned with product requirements.

Product-Centric Buyer Personas

When this dilemma occurs, what you end up with are buyer personas, which read like a product requirements document. A bevy of bullet points and statements reflecting the “buyer’s” product needs. Zeroing in on specific product features and specifications.  Corporate speak galore as well.

Folks, you have to leave product centricity behind at some point. Buyer personas, as a methodology and practice, are designed to help organizations understand the goal-directed behaviors of buyers and how these goals and behaviors influence choice.   To move beyond hoisting products upon buyers without having the deep understanding of how you can help them. Treating buyer personas as a product requirements document with a picture on it only reinforces product centricity even more so!

Product Messaging

Here is the significant downside to buyer personas ending up reading like product requirements documents: you are guided towards content and messaging about your product. I can tell you, from conducting hundreds of buyer interviews over the past couple of years, buyers are not fooled. The stats bearing this point have not changed in the last two years either: surveys from the BMA, Forrester, Fortune, and others all find the same thing. Approximately 70% of buyers find corporate messaging to be irrelevant and untrustworthy.

Thus, when buyer personas are focused on the “product”, what you end up with is being part of the vicious cycle of endless product-related chatter clogging up your potential buyer’s mailbox.

Product And Buying Criteria Is Not Buyer Insight

Long ago, when I was heading up sales as well as marketing teams, the emphasis was on meeting the buying criteria of prospects. Typically, these would end up reading very much like product criteria. Today, I see buyer personas developed with this same approach. The end results being a read-out of buying criteria, which basically add up to product criteria. The same can be said when buyer personas are focused on KSFs (Key Success Factors) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) – you end up with factors and performance indicators related to products.

You can guess what took place on the sales side. Yep, it became all about how to handle the buyer’s objections. I know. I paid for “How to handle buyer objections” type of sales training. The question is for all you marketing folks is this: why is marketing doing what was a common practice in the 1980s and 1990s now in 2015? What you should get also is buyers are asking the same question.

A Funny Thing Happened

A funny thing happened on the way to the marketing forum. Somehow buyer persona development has been misconstrued to be representative of product requirements and sales intelligence documents accompanied by a picture. As opposed to the original intent of using qualitative and design research principles to understand buying behaviors and influences on goal-based choices. And, more importantly, a methodology designed to help unfold the human-story taking place in the world of buyers.

An Intervention Is Needed

The statistics on buyer personas, in a recent survey of 134 marketers I conducted, showed only 15% of marketers believed buyer personas were effective. Of those 15% who indicated they were effective, I am willing to bet they were not focused on products. The remaining 85% were doing the spinning wheel on product-centric buyer personas.

This needs to stop. Buyer persona development is about understanding goal-directed buying behaviors and the human story behind buyers attempting to fulfill their goals. It means understanding the human narrative of your buyer’s world. This is where marketing today must live. A world centered on fulfilling the role of helping people to accomplish their goals.

On Tuesday, April 28th, Ann Handley of MarketingProfs, Katie Martell of CINTELL, and myself are staging an Intervention. A conversational webcast, hosted by Business 2 Community, focused on how marketers need to develop a human-centered approach to marketing and establish sincere empathy with buyers. Making the end game one of helping buyers to fulfill their goals.

Join us for the How To Create Content For Human Beings: A B2B Marketing Intervention webcast beginning at 2pm ET here:

We are intervening because this needs to stop. Buyers want it to stop. You want it to stop. Let us make it stop together.