If you’ve worked in User Experience, Software Design, Product Engineering or Marketing, you may have heard the term “Persona.”
Whatever professional context you have for this term, it means relatively the same thing: to design something for a specific user in mind instead of general groups of people. In marketing, personas are used to target marketing programs to specific people.
Personas can be very effective for the designer to create something specific to solve a very real individual’s problem. It helps to personalize the experience for the end user. In fact, I recently presented on the topic of content marketing personalization where I argued that personalized content was the key to defining the core job of marketing: to build relationships at scale.
And I made sure to differentiate personalized content from personas. So, one of my points in the presentation: Marketing personas are great. Except when they suck!
My request of all marketers is that we focus on things that real people are interested in. By focusing on the topics that matter to our audience, we can attract the right people. By focusing on the keywords they use, we can create the content that answers their questions. And that these topics and keywords and content types are more important that demographics.
Ok, so now before you start ranting or raving to disagree, let’s start with some basics:
What Is a Marketing Persona?
Marketing Personas are I actually like personas. And I know a handful of consultants who are really helping their clients create actionable insights and programs and plans based on a deeper understanding of their buyers. So, I’ll start with a definition from one of those, Adelle Revella
Buyer personas are examples of the real buyers who influence or make decisions about the products, services or solutions you market. They are a tool that builds confidence in strategies to persuade buyers to choose you rather than a competitor or the status quo.
Another great definition of personas comes from Tony Zambito, who uses this definition:
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.)
And finally, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t refer to Ardath Albee who says:
Personas must be focused on what the buyer is trying to achieve.
Ardath suggests personas answer must these questions:
- What’s important to them and what’s driving the change?
- What’s impeding or speeding their need to change?
- How do they go about change?
- What do they need to know to embrace change?
- Who do they turn to for advice or information?
- What’s the value they visualize once they make a decision?
- Who do they have to sell change to in order to get it?
- What could cause the need for this change to lose priority?
The reason these folks know what they are doing is that they emphasize the need for actionability from the exercise of building buyer personas.
Unfortunately, there is a large group of consultants and agencies out there taking large sums of money from brands to produce personas that produce very little action, do not inform content planning or distribution. They tap into a well-intentioned idea in marketing to get to know and understand your buyer, without delivering on the real need: defining how to reach them with content they want or need.
So I hope you understand when I say that buyer personas are great except when they suck!
Why Are Marketing Personas Effective
Marketing Personas are effective because they focus and inspire marketing teams to deliver marketing content and campaigns that people actually want or need. I applaud any efforts to put customers first. Let’s look at the components of why marketing personas are effective.
Marketing Personas Instill Empathy
Empathy is such an important part of modern marketing that I even wrote a whole book about it, Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads To Bigger Profits and Better Life.
The book was inspired by marketing that sucks, (mainly marketing) managers that sucked, and my experience on how using empathy in marketing delivers better marketing outcomes.
Empathy allows marketing people to walk a mile in their customer’s shoes. It allows us to feel their pain and it instills in us the desire to want to solve their problems.
Empathy is also the first step in design thinking which is a process I am a huge fan of mainly because, (you guessed it) it requires customer-focused thinking in order to design customer-focused solutions. In marketing, empathy forces us to create content that is focused on solving customer problems.
Marketing Personas Create Curiosity
A curious marketer emerges once we start to understand the questions, challenges and concerns of your target customer. It’s natural human instinct to want to solve those problems. We empathize and actually feel those pains ourselves. Self preservation kicks in and we want to “save” ourselves by solving the problem.
This curiosity often leads marketers to look at buyer intent data, try and understand the latest content marketing trends, utilize the most effective marketing research tools, and define better customer-centric solutions.
Resist The Temptation To Want to Promote
We’ve already shared that emotion beats promotion every time. Personas can allow us to further resist the temptation to tell the world how awesome we are and how much better our products are than our competition.
It took me a long time to understand that it is our natural instinct to want to promote our company’s products. We think it is what we should do. We are told it is what our manager expects of us. But we all know that behind every bad piece of marketing is an executive who asked us to do it. (This is my favorite content marketing quote!)
Marketing Personas Inspire Creativity
Now that we have empathy for our target customer, the curiosity to solve their problem, the ability to resists our desire to promote our products, we are free to think of all the new and creative ways we can deliver on the needs of our customers. This is why actionable marketing personas work.
Buyer Personas That Suck
Here’s a few visual examples I have seen that represent everything that is wrong with marketing personas that don’t work:
In my personalized content marketing presentation, I used some fictitious examples of buyer personas that suck. While I made these examples up, I promise you that I have seen plenty of million dollar personas that look just like this:
This is “Business Decision Maker Bob.” He has a wife, two kids, drives a red sports car and likes to spend his weekend playing golf.
This is “Technical Tom.” He’s very detailed-oriented. Tom doesn’t like surprises and appreciates being well-informed before making a decision. An introvert, Tom has adjusted the settings on his browser.
Finally, we have Social Savvy Sally. She’s always chatting up her friends. She is also kind of a big deal on Instagram.
These types of personas suck because they don’t really help any brand to connect with their target audience. They suck because they lack any kind of actionability.
The problem with Personas: Actionability
7 Steps to Defining Actionable Marketing Personas
- What content your target customers use?
- What topics, they are interested in?
- What types or formats of content they prefer?
- Which channels they use?
- For which stage of the buyer journey
- What keywords do they use to search?
- What actual questions do they ask?
The answers to these questions can help inform content production and delivery where the goal should be to become a destination of insights for your target personas.
I also caution brands against having more than maybe two personas and focus more on the various topics your primary persona is interested in. Once you start publishing on the primary topics of your key persona, you can build out content that addresses the secondary ones.
Great Marketing Gets Results
I have gotten into some heated debates on this topic of marketing personas. Great marketing comes from customer insights. You don’t need a mood board or a customer avatar.
I believe the reason for the passion on this topic is the desire by some old school marketing folks to hold on to traditional campaign ideas (and their budgets) that you only get one shot at making a good impression. They think you hire a fancy ad agency, create some bullshit persona, define your “big idea” (which usually sounds something like we’re awesome!) and blast it out.
The fact is that in today’s world, we have a very short memory and even shorter attention spans. The best headline right now is the one I click. And the brands I trust for news and information are the ones that deliver it consistently and are finding new customers for less money than many spend on just the personas that suck.
These are the brands doing marketing that delivers results. And it’s called content marketing.
Personas are still very much important in today’s content-driven world.
But don’t take my word on it. Test these ideas out. And I know you’ll find that a steady, consistent and regular cadence of content is what separates the winners from those who struggle to connect with their audience.
Today’s brands need to create continuous content that their target audience wants. Not only because that’s how we browse the web today (the customer perspective) but also because that approach is what yields results from a business perspective.
Are you fighting against personas that suck in your organization?
This is a common roadblock we see, so you are not alone. I am happy to jump on a call with anyone at any time to help raise some of the questions that might lead to better outcomes for your business.
Bonus: More Content Marketing Snark
- CEOs Will No Longer Accept Marketing That Doesn’t Work
- Marketing Has Marketing Problem
- Banners Have 99 Problems But a Click Ain’t One
- Hey Marketers: An Inquiry Is Not A Lead
- Why Marketing Directors Are Miserable