Don’t Do Personas for Personas’ Sake

Formed by combining demographic attributes with preferences, personas embody a type of buyer. A frequent misconception I see as an analyst is when companies presume they should do personas simply because personas are a best practice. So, they embark on a project to create some personas and post them to a server thinking their goal was accomplished, never touching them again. This is a big mistake.

Persona exercises are a means to an end; they are not a deliverable in and of themselves. A completed persona template should feed messaging development, campaign strategy and become a core component of the market requirements document (MRD) for innovation strategy.

In addition, avoid making the personas too esoteric or over-designing them to the point that they distract from the core content. The focus should be on capturing individual customer knowledge to build up customer subject matter expertise and develop more customer-centric campaigns, messaging and innovation.

So much of today’s sales content goes unused because it’s generic, lacks relevance and delivers lightweight or vague value statements that don’t resonate with buyers. Leverage personas to display comprehension of a customer segment that enables the shaping of powerful messaging and useful content. The more thorough your understanding of the buyer, the more meaningful the messaging you create will be.

Product strategists will be among the biggest beneficiaries. Understanding buyer personas is a best practice to ensure that a new offering’s discovery and design process is founded not only on the needs of the end user, but also on those of the buyer. When leveraged properly, buyer personas are a key driver of customer-centric innovation.

About the Author

Marisa Kopec is Vice President and Group Director, Go-to-Market, at SiriusDecisions. She leads SiriusDecisions’ Portfolio Marketing, Strategic Communications, and Product Management services. Follow Marisa on Twitter @Marisa_Kopec


9 Comments

  • Adele Revella, 13th May 2012 at 6:11 pm

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    This is such important advice. I too see marketers jumping on the buyer persona bandwagon, too focused on what the persona deliverable looks like rather than how the insights support messaging, sales enablement, and marketing content. Thanks for the great post.

  • Marisa Kopec, 14th May 2012 at 1:07 am

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    Thanks Adele. I appreciate the comment! I couldn’t agree with you more!

  • Ardath Albee, 15th May 2012 at 2:50 pm

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    I agree. A persona should be a working tool. The other thing I’m seeing more is that B2B marketers create personas without enough distinction between them to justify the effort of additional content development when the messages, priorities and preferences aren’t distinct. Marketers need to make sure there is a reason to develop a persona, rather than just going through the motions because, as you say, it’s a “best practice.”

  • Dale Berkebile, 13th June 2012 at 11:37 am

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    It is a funny thing. I have been hearing rumblings of buyer personas for some time now. Although from a high level the idea sounds great the implementation has been our biggest reason for not jumping on this best practice. Before we can offer the develop buyer personas for clients we need to develop a way to effectively apply the persona once we have it. I have partners who swear by them, but I have never seen them truly applied to the marketing and sales messaging and delivered results. My point is the buzz is going on all around, but I would agree most are doing it to have another check-off on their to-do list. I have read some of the stuff bot Adele and Ardath have been working on and these two seem to be the best examples I have run across of truly understanding how to use buyer personas. Great article!

  • Glen Drummond, 1st August 2012 at 10:18 am

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    In the best cases, personas infuse strategic customer insight in the organizational culture and align assumptions and actions across organizational disciplines. And obviously, any day you can get imaginary people to do real work for you is a good day. Here’s a watch-out though… If you combine a more powerful delivery vehicle with a payload of dated or unexamined assumptions about the customer, you may be working against the innovation agenda, not for it. For instance, the differences that make a strategic difference between customers might have once been demographic, but are no longer. That question will depend on contextual factors like the maturity of your industry, the strategic biases of your competitors, and your own strategic goals. For organizations interested in “white-space” or “blue ocean” innovation, sorting customers by “preference” (if that is to be understood as explicitly articulated preferences) is also fraught with challenges – since it’s hard for people to accurately describe their preferences with respect to something that does not yet exist. The answer to these conundrums rests in paying appropriate attention to the strategic insight methodology that sits beneath the personas. In short – personas can be a powerful vehicle for conveying strategic segmentation insight…just as long as they are not used as a substitute for it.

  • Marisa Kopec, 2nd August 2012 at 2:06 am

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    Great insights Glen. Thank you for sharing a pitfall to avoid. Appreciate it!

  • Marisa Kopec, 2nd August 2012 at 2:08 am

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    Dale – Thanks for your comment. We actually are seeing some great results from persona-based marketing, from shorter sales cycles, to higher campaign response rates and overall better marketing and sales alignment. Completely understand it’s hard work, but we are seeing the efforts pay off for b-to-b organizations, so I can share with you, they think it’s been worth it.

  • Marisa Kopec, 2nd August 2012 at 2:09 am

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    Thanks Ardath, completely agree.

  • Kevin Avery, 14th November 2013 at 9:01 am

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    What a breath of fresh air, Marisa. Personas almost overnight became a product marketing mania at my Fortune100 company about 18 months ago. We fund consultants at alarming rates, and I suspect what emerges based on our proclivity for shortcuts is a misshapen monstrosity, so I won’t hang this on the consultants. If personas help inform product development (isn’t this a new spin on ideal customer profiles?), great. But when product marketing starts talking to sellers about it, there’s a different bar. Unless tightly connected to actual sales engagement, it’s just a new way for marketing to waste time and money . To be fair, in that light their persona work is no more ineffective than the other things that occupy their time.

    Rule #1 is “it’s waste unless it helps us sell more”, so personas or otherwise, marketing should apply a *sales usage context* litmus test. By which I mean:
    1. How does what they’re producing help a seller with a milestone challenge? How, (in tactical detail, not 10,000 foot theory) does a seller use the asset?
    2. Which milestone (e.g. target, engage/enroll, validate) is it designed to help traverse?
    And since the seller doesn’t magically materialize in front of the intended victim, there has to be continuity, linkage between the marketing deliverables.
    3. How did the seller get herself to the point of leveraging the marketing content and where will she be heading on the wings of using the current asset?

    To give Sales its fair share of accountability, it’s tremendously difficult for those supporting Sales if there’s no consistent execution framework. That’s the job of Sales leadership to impose, and it’s almost universally absent or at best incomplete (full of holes, and not BABY swiss).


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