Virtually nonexistent 10 years ago, marketing personas are widely used today. But few marketers are seeing optimal value from this powerful marketing tool.
If you believe in the value of being a customer-centric organization, it will come as no surprise to you that marketing personas can transform your marketing performance. According to a 2016 Cintell study, companies that exceed their lead and revenue goals are more than twice as likely to create personas and use those personas for demand generation than companies that miss their goals.
Personas help you collect and synthesize meaningful information about your customers so that you can understand them better and communicate with them more effectively. But creating personas takes time—and lots of it. A Nielsen Norman study found that companies took between 72.5 and 102.5 hours to develop well-researched personas. For that amount of effort, personas should deliver a measurable lift to your marketing efforts.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, according to research by ITSMA, as many as 85% of marketers don’t see their personas as effective.
Where are they going wrong?
Personas are one of the first things we ask to see when we begin working with a new client, so over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to examine many personas—the good, the bad, and the just-plain-flimsy. Based on our observations, when personas don’t deliver real insight or value, it’s likely to be for one of these five reasons.
Reason 1: You didn’t go deep enough.
We’ve seen more than a few personas that include little more than a stock photo, a title, an age range, and a few firmographic details dressed up with some colorful but entirely irrelevant details about the car the person drives and the hobbies they enjoy.
There’s nothing wrong with adding a name, a photo, and various lifestyle elements to a persona, but the real insight comes from the research you conduct to uncover the fears, aspirations, and business realities of your ideal customer. A persona is there to help you engage your target market more effectively by defining the KPIs they are responsible for, the daily challenges they face, the limits of their authority, their career aspirations and professional interests, and the communication channels they prefer. Building a good persona requires you to go beyond the surface and create a three-dimensional customer model that enables you to communicate effectively and authentically.
Building a good persona requires you to go beyond the surface.
Reason 2: You didn’t talk to customers.
Personas are often developed using input from the sales and marketing teams, and those perspectives are definitely important. But once your internal teams have contributed that customer information, it needs to be validated before you can confidently use it to guide your marketing strategy.
Your company is an echo chamber, and the customer insights you collect internally will always be influenced to some degree by untested organizational assumptions and biases. For example, if your software product offers the highest levels of security, but doesn’t compare as favorably for usability, you may find that the persona you develop internally turns out to be someone who cares more about data protection than ease of use. But talk to a real customer, and you may find that security isn’t at the top of the list after all.
Validating your personas is—hands down—the single best way to elevate the value they deliver to your marketing and sales efforts. This process involves conducting structured interviews with your customers so that you can test the assumptions you’ve made about them and fill the inevitable gaps in your knowledge.
Reason 3: You didn’t talk to prospects.
Customers are a valuable resource in developing personas, but for a truly well-rounded example, you’ll want to talk to prospects as well. Prospects are people who are an ideal fit for your solution, but who have yet to interact with your company. In fact, they may never have even heard of you, and may not even be actively searching for the type of solution you offer.
Prospects are a valuable source of insight because they reveal the blind spots and misconceptions that might be swirling around your customers’ minds in the very earliest stages of the funnel. Once your customers have completed their buyer journey, they are more informed and knowledgeable, which means they no longer represent that top-of-funnel mindset.
Reason 4: You only included decision-makers.
Marketing and sales can become preoccupied with reaching the executive role whose decision makes or breaks the deal, which means that this is the first (and sometimes only) persona to be developed.
While it’s important to understand that decision maker’s mindset, there are many other important roles in the buying process. These include the initiator of the search for a solution and the gatekeeper who has the power to nix it long before it lands on the decision maker’s desk.
If you don’t spend time building personas for these roles, you’ll be out of sync with the needs and priorities of the people you need to engage and persuade long before that decision-maker becomes part of the buying conversation.
Reason 5: You were too solution-centric.
Personas exist to help marketers promote products and services, so understanding how your customers view those solutions and defining the challenges those solutions address is a big part of the persona-building process.
But it’s not the only part. The customer experience is much bigger and broader than that, and your personas should capture that wider perspective. Put another way, a persona should show you how you fit into the customer’s world, not how the customer fits into your world.
That’s why, as part of our persona-building process here at DemandLab, we always begin customer and prospect interviews by asking surprisingly broad questions such as, “What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your role?” They may not be challenges that your product can solve, but it’s still important to know about them. Understanding the broader context that your customers operate in can help you fine-tune your product positioning and frequently provides valuable ideas for top-of-funnel thought leadership.
For example, when we developed personas for a B2B fintech client, we discovered that managing talent was a big challenge facing many of their prospects. While their software doesn’t solve talent issues, they have valuable insight to share about the data literacy skills required by today’s financial workforce. That gives them a way to engage their market effectively at the earliest stages of awareness.
Building personas that generate ROI
Personas are an indispensable part of an effective, customer-centric approach to marketing and sales. But not all personas are created equal, and with so many bad ones floating around, it’s no wonder some marketers have become skeptical. If you’re interested in learning how to create a persona that’s capable of measurably improving your marketing efforts, download The Definitive Guide to Marketing Personas, an ebook that shows you how to research, interview, and structure an effective persona.
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