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Buyer Personas Are Useless and Fluffy

As a consultant, there are some recurring conversations we have with almost every client and a discussion about the existence and merit of buyer personas is almost always one of those conversations.

Here’s how it usually goes:

Consultant: “Do you have buyer personas”?

Ninety percent of clients: “We have them, but we don’t know if they’re accurate.”

Consultant: “How did you create them?”

Client: “We downloaded a buyer persona template as a guide and interviewed our sales team. They probably aren’t as accurate as they could be.”

Consultant: “How do you use them today?”

Client: “Sometimes we use them in email, but we need to do more with them.”

With this common conversation in mind, can you see the reason behind my pessimistic headline? When buyer personas are half-heartedly created and used minimally without strategic direction, they are useless or even ‘fluffy.’

But I don’t actually believe they are either of these things when they are:

  1. Created with a sound methodology.
  2. Operationalized (in other words, they don’t merely live in a PPT on someone’s desktop).

Buyer Persona Reality

The unfortunate reality is, I’ve only run into a handful of instances where a company met both of those points. Usually, companies have either invested a ton of money into creating strong personas but they aren’t using them throughout their business, or they have created personas based on their gut and are using them in a few areas of their business (but not all).

This leads us to the buyer persona maturity model.

Buyer Persona Maturity Model

After thousands of client engagements, my fellow consultants and I came up with a buyer persona maturity curve.

LMD-Persona

Let’s dive a little deeper into each stage of the maturity model.

Foundational

In the foundational maturity stage, your company does not have buyer personas. I’ve seen scenarios where a company’s messaging is like the Wild Wild West—marketing is saying one thing, and sales is saying the complete opposite. I’ve seen others where marketing and sales are aligned on what they are saying, but they’ve never evaluated if those messages are actually working. Whether you fall into those categories or somewhere in between, your buyer persona stage is foundational if you do not have documented, consistent personas.

Developing

In the developing model, a company has documented personas but they aren’t certain the personas are accurate. I’ll often hear, “Our sales team knows the market better than anyone, so we work with them to craft messages.” While this is a great place to start, you could be missing a big piece of the pie as there are often buyers lingering in the perimeter of our sales team’s line of sight. The good news is that you’ve created personas and shared them, so you at least understand their importance and have a willingness to improve them and integrate them.

Established

In the established model, a company knows their buyer personas are accurate, but they aren’t actually using them to their full potential. This happens a lot in enterprise organizations where departments tend to be more siloed. The marketing team will commission a project with a strategic agency to inform messaging, but the personas never find their way outside the marketing department.

Worse yet, a department commissions buyer persona work but then doesn’t do anything with that work in their own department.

Optimized

In an optimized model, a company has accurate buyer personas and those personas are being used to their full potential. Not only does everyone in the company believe in the personas, but every department is also using them. The marketing team uses them to inform what channels to prioritize. Their website, email campaigns, online ads, social messages and beyond are all tailored for the personas. The sales team uses the personas to customize their scripts and collect information relevant to that persona. Customer success uses personas to craft their email messages, tone, and upsells. These companies are few and far between—in fact, I’ve only witnessed one company that fell into this maturity stage.

How do I Improve My Organization’s Buyer Persona Maturity?

Understanding where you are at and where you want to go is always the first step.

We’re in the Foundational or Developing Stages

If you’re in the foundational or developing stages, the first thing you should do, is think about what questions you have about your buyers. Write those down and then look at the data you have available. Do you have enough data points to answer your questions? Is the data accurate? What format is it in? CRM serves as a great place to start, but it might not be enough.

For example, most clients aren’t capturing things like “tone” or “preferred communication channels.” These are things that will have to come from interviews with sales, existing customers or some other form of primary or secondary research. We may also need to use exploratory factor analysis to make assumptions based on observable characteristics. If someone is in scrubs and is wearing a stethoscope, you might assume they are a doctor, for example.

If you don’t have a data scientist on staff, I highly recommend hiring an agency (shameless plug) to help you with this process. After all, investing in truly understanding your audience can have positive influences on all areas of your marketing strategy, from how you invest in campaigns to how you score leads.

We’re in the Established Stage

If you’re in the established stage, the first thing you should do is write down how you’re using your personas today and how you want to use them in the future.

Here’s a short list of ways I’ve seen clients use personas:

  • Data collection strategy
  • Channel analysis
  • Email marketing and nurture
  • Lead scoring
  • Lead routing
  • Sales scripts
  • Social media messaging
  • Website personalization
  • Audience building in online advertising platforms
  • Traditional advertising messages/creative

The list goes on.

Now, review your personas again. Does the information in your personas help you become more effective in the areas you wrote down? If not, your personas may not be as robust as you thought. If they do, then get to cracking! I recommend collaborating with colleagues in sales and customer success to get their ideas too.

We’re in the Optimized Stage

Congratulations! You’re one of the few companies in this stage. You should revisit your personas once a year to ensure they are still relevant and aligned to your organizational goals. For example, if most of your clientele was in the SaaS space, but you’ve identified a new market in medical devices, you may need to add a persona to the mix.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below on how you use personas or reach out on Twitter at @jamiekirmess or @myleadmd.

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