It is now nearly fourteen years since the first-ever buyer persona development methodology was first created specifically for sales and marketing. For trivia and history buffs, Harcourt Education in 2002, a division of Reed Elsevier at the time, was the first organization to ever use research-based buyer personas for marketing and sales.
How far we have come and how far we have still to go.
Incorporating Survey Data
For the first time in this annual reflection of the State of Buyer Personas, this commentary will incorporate responses from a survey conducted this past October through December. The survey consisted of twenty-three questions on the use and understanding of buyer personas. I would personally like to thank the one hundred thirty nine (139) respondents who took the survey. I would also like to thank the individuals who identified themselves as either individual consultants or worked for ad/digital agencies for their understanding why the survey included this as a disqualification. My intent was to get as true an organizational usage and understanding perspective as possible.
Before commenting upon the State of Buyer Personas, highlights from the the survey results are presented:
- 71% said they were either somewhat familiar or familiar with buyer persona development with only 15% saying very familiar
- 57% did their first-ever buyer persona development initiative within the last two years
- Only 15% of the respondents relied on in-depth qualitative buyer interviews
- 85% of the respondent stated they were using buyer personas for content marketing and messaging while only 28% stated they were using for assessing market challenges and problems
- Only 15% of the respondents stated their buyer personas were very to significantly effective
- 60% stated they either did not receive any new insights or received only insights they had previously understood and only 14% stated they achieved a deeper understanding of buyers
- Nearly 80% of the respondents indicated they were confused about what buyer personas were, what were the differences between profiling and buyer personas, what were the essential elements of buyer persona development, and the role of qualitative research methods
- Nearly 60% indicated they were frustrated their buyer personas were based on typical product management and sales intelligence and did not result in the expected deeper understanding
- 60% stated they had no to very little understanding of what the best practices are for buyer persona development
As mentioned above, we have come so far, yet we still have far to go. What the results indicate is there is still confusion on the difference between buyer profiles commonly used in product management and sales for the past few decades and research-based buyer personas.
What we can learn from the above is the term buyer persona has certainly become more familiar. And, in the last two years, more companies are attempting to do their first ever buyer persona initiative. It is no coincidence the rise of content marketing mirrors this increase in familiarity with the term. The survey indicated 85% of the respondents were using buyer personas for content marketing and messaging. 80% of the respondents were from marketing. So certainly a marketing bent. 95% of the respondents were from B2B organizations. (Most pleasing was seeing 30% of the respondents were VP or LOB Leader levels with 40% Director level and above.)
This rise in familiarity has not come without a price however. It is certainly disappointing to see only 15% of the respondents believed their buyer persona initiatives were very effective or significantly effective. Other red flag types of observations to note:
- Almost an exact corollary is only 15% of the respondents used in-depth qualitative research – meaning nearly 85% relied on CRM or Marketing/Sales Automation, sales data and input, and win/loss oriented phone calls only
- Not surprisingly then, only 15% of the respondents believed they achieved insights, which were new, not-so-obvious, and significant
- A major issue continues: 80% of the respondents were confused about the difference between product management/sales intelligence type buyer profiling and buyer personas
- 60% saying they were frustrated about results as well as having very little understanding about best practices – this is a root problem of why buyer personas are ineffective
The most troublesome results, for me personally, was this one:
- Only 28% used buyer personas to develop future strategies or to identify the root cause related to a problem statement – most disappointing because this is the essential core of buyer personas!
So, where are we with buyer personas as we head into 2015? Here are a few commentary observations:
- We continue to have far too many articles and buyer persona training agendas, which are very much rooted in product management and sales oriented buyer profiling. Putting a new cover on an old book consisting of out-dated views on buying criteria, sales objections, buying processes, and risks does not make it new or accurate.
- One result of this survey did prove to be very encouraging. 14% indicated they were redoing their buyer personas – after they realized what they had were in fact buyer profiles. Which indicates recognition of the difference is seeping in.
- In a recent article on immersive research and experiences, mention was made about the fact we were beginning to see organizations value the use of immersive and in-depth qualitative research. The fact that 15% had, in fact, performed such is also encouraging. Still, far short of what it should be in order to truly have accurate and effective buyer personas.
- Frustration with buyer personas, for the most part, had to do with the level of insights. To get true value from buyer insights research and buyer personas, you need to use the right qualitative techniques and methods. It is no accident revealing insights are lacking when there is little understanding of best practices.
- As we see a rise in data-driven analytics, we have also seen a rise in articles claiming you can build buyer personas from data alone. Such as from SEO data or Google Analytics data. This could not be further from the truth and certainly would not advocate an organization doing such. Buyer insights research and buyer persona development is first and foremost a qualitative research undertaking.
- While I am happy to see the rise of buyer personas in the world of content marketing, I also believe they have been painted into an unintentional corner. Personas, in general, are best used when they are focused on shaping strategy and are helpful in fulfilling the mission of solving a problem statement. It is encouraging to see more marketing and sales leaders paying attention to moving buyer persona research out of the confines of just content and messaging and into the realm of helping to shape strategy – with a focus on gaining insights into real world buyer problems.
- At some point in the near future, we will need to do away with the term “buyer” prefacing the term personas. The global digital economy has radically changed concepts related to usage and buying in the business and consumer world. We are starting to see the blurring of long held lines, user and buyer for one. And, B2B and B2C for another. The alternative H2H was introduced last year by Bryan Kramer to offer a way for organizations to break the now challenging definitions of B2B or B2C and to think more human. Are we ready for H2H personas as a term? I am not certain but at some point we will need to redefine buyer personas to a newer reality.
In 2014, I had the good fortune of working closely with several innovative firms pushing the envelope on customer and buyer insights research as well as buyer persona development. Leading to new as well as enhanced methodologies to make buyer insights research and buyer persona development effective at shaping their future direction – as well as fulfilling promises to their customers. Here are a few advancements to look out for in 2015:
- As mentioned, we are seeing leaders embrace buyer insights research and buyer personas to help shape their strategies and get to root causes of challenges. Look for more emphasis in this area through immersive oriented in-depth qualitative research.
- Developing a common language and views around customers is taking prominence. Look for more companies to develop a “hub” of customer-centric views, insights, and intelligence serving more than just marketing and sales.
- Leaders are beginning to adopt strategic customer narrative thinking, which existing and new methods of buyer persona development lend themselves to creating a wholly new persona-based approach. Look for leaders who will want this capability to help their organization understand as well as enable effective communications about its buyers and customers.
- As mentioned in a recent article on buyer behavior, old views of buying processes and the buyer’s journey are collapsing. Look for leaders to want understanding of how the path to purchase and interactions among organizational teams are changing.
- We are entering a world whereby networked collaboration will become more commonplace. Look for leaders to seek expertise in digital ethnography and networked behavior analysis.
- Foundational to buyer insights research and buyer persona development are goal-directed methodologies as well as human-centered design thinking. Look for leaders to embrace human-centered marketing to revolutionalize their connections with buyers and customers – and to build more empathetic approaches to helping their buyers and customers.
As we look ahead to 2015 and beyond, there are five areas I will devote time to in helping to advance the cause of getting to know customers and buyers more deeply and empathetically:
- Continue to offer thirty minutes helpful calls to those seeking help with insights-based research and buyer persona development.
- I am quite concerned with the number of respondents (80%) confused about what buyer persona development is and best practices. In 2015, my hope is to answer requests to begin offering workshops and seminars on the proven as well as newer methodologies.
- Continue to work with innovative firms who are contributing towards new approaches to customer understanding, in which, buyer personas are only one component of an overall strategic narrative about buyers and customers. I am excited about the encouraging development and use of strategic customer narratives as well as the impact on holistic customer understanding it affords organizations.
- In 2014, I began work on the book The Guide To Buyer Persona Development: A Guide To True And Authentic Buyer Persona Development. Work continues and in the spirit of openness and transparency, albeit much slower than anticipated. Due to innovative developments working with outstanding organizations last year, I have taken a step back to ensure new innovative methodologies are incorporated.
- I am excited to be working in an advisory capacity with the start-up company Cintell. What they will offer is something I have longed for in helping organizations these past sixteen plus years in persona development. Which is – a common repository where all members of organizations can avail themselves of insights into their buyers and customers. Such a cloud-based technology offering will mean organizations can better ensure the consistent use of insights-based persona development as well as foster common views of buyers and customers.
One last data point from the survey: 72% of the respondents indicated they plan to use buyer insights research and buyer persona development in 2015 and beyond. To me, this data point is more than just about buyer personas. It is an indication personas in general will become part of the larger effort to achieve true customer-centricity. Even in the face of misfiring to get it right, the perseverance in pursuing customer-centricity remains strong. Thus, an exciting future lies ahead for us all. I cannot wait to see what it looks like!