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90% of buyer personas are ignored.

Well, I made the number up… but I bet it’s not too far off.

Back in 2012, ‘Marketing Mary’ buyer personas were all the rage. Where did our customers go on holiday? What books do they read? What brand of car do they drive?

Full of creative information… but lacking anything useful.

And here we are, in 2021, and I think most startups are still stuck in the past.

Why does this happen? Why are personas fluffy pictograms of faux customers, when we have tons of data and insight at our fingertips? Why are buyer personas ‘built’ through internal workshops, rather than ‘discovered’ through qualitative interview and quantitative survey research?

Maybe we just don’t know what a good persona explainer should do, let alone what a good persona explainer should look like.

What is the goal of a buyer persona?

Buyer personas are designed to help your internal teams build an understanding of the types of people they will interact with in the market.

They need to do just three things.

1: Represent the stakeholders actually involved in the buying journey

The sales and marketing process is a science as much as it is an art. It’s a process. Every time someone recognizes a need and looks for a solution, they will be following a reasonably well-travelled path within a small number of variances. It’s not rocket science.

So your buyer personas need to cover the people who are actually involved, and understand what role they play.

2: Provide a shortcut to easily recognize and understand the person

Personas need to easily identifiable – ideally on face value or with some simple deduction. The people who will actually use buyer personas (like your sales reps or field marketers) will need to recognize the persona through quick pattern matching: job titles, functions, industries, budget sizes, etc. They won’t have time to address a flowchart just to determine which sub-persona a prospect belongs to.

And then they need information that helps them understand them. Not just enough to know them – like their job title and responsibilities – but to understand what makes them tick. Are they an innovator, power hungry for promotion? Maybe they’re more likely to be risk-averse and prefer stability to change? What scares them, worries them, excites them?

When reviewing buyer personas, I ask myself these three questions to sense check my understanding:

  • Who are you?

  • What do you do?

  • Why do you do it?

If I can answer these and believe in the answers, then I feel close to understanding and empathizing with the customer.

3: Provide information that helps tailor the marketing and sales approach

This doesn’t mean list off all the resources a persona might be interested in. Someone using your persona docs is there for a reason: they want help to tailor their interactions with that persona.

So don’t just leave them high and dry. Give them what they want: how should they adapt the proposition to this persona? What should they call out and highlight… and what should they put to the back-burner?

Key elements of good buyer personas

With these goals in mind, what should a buyer persona that actually fulfills these goals look like?

  • Demographics: Location, Title, Function, Reports to, Experience, Role in buying process, Other defining characteristics

  • Firmographics: Number of employees, Revenue, Funding, Industry/Vertical, Other defining characteristics

  • Psychographics: Adoption tendencies, Introvert/Extrovert, Personality traits (innovator, maintainer, etc)

  • Jobs: common responsibilities and activities your customer does as part of their day-to-day

  • Gains: their personal, professional, or business goals they want to achieve

  • Pains: marks of failure and frustrations the customer must avoid

  • Triggers: motivations that encourage them to solve their problem and switch away from their current solution

  • Value messaging: using the value nugget framework, detail the features, benefits, and overall value of our product to this persona

How should you research buyer personas?

It’s possible to do buyer personas really quickly – but it’s also easy to spend tons of time and not have anything useful to show for it.

I’d recommend three stages to your persona research process. These steps take your internal knowledge and expertise, validate at a small scale, and then learn about bigger patterns that may exist.

Firstly, jot down your internal thinking. I use a customer empathy map exercise for this:

  • Who are these people? What common attributes (job title, team, years of experience, for example), unite them?

  • What do they think, hear, see/do, and feel about the world and your problem area?

  • What are their goals, and what pains do they have?

If you’re following the process detailed in my post linked above, you’ll go through a round of review that highlights areas of agreement, disagreement, and things you still need to learn.

Next, hold your research interviews. Your internal work will have given you enough insight around the key problem areas you’re solving to frame the conversation.

Use my 19 customer development question template to interview customers across five categories:

  1. Segmentation – who they are

  2. Problem discovery – what broad challenges do they have?

  3. Problem validation – what do they think of the problem we’re solving?

  4. Product discovery – what do they think would solve their problems, and how?

  5. Product validation – what do they think of our product and would it work for them?

Lastly (if you can) validate your research insights with a quantitative survey. This is useful if cost-effective and if you need to understand the variance of any variables within the persona.

You can do this through survey platforms that offer their own audience panels like Pollfish – just don’t forget to ask rigorous screening questions.

You’ll want to ask specific questions that give you insights into elements that may differ significantly, or are less clear on a small scale. Are your product marketer personas aligned under product orgs or marketing orgs? Is there a patterns that exists with that answer and their key metric goals? Who in their team makes the final buying decision, and are they responsible for the success of the buying function, or not?

Discover personas, don’t create them

I learnt these lessons the hard way.

I’ve written and talked about a product launch where we followed all the best practices, and the launch completely failed. Part of that was a huge oversight in our personas.

We thought there were just two – Sienna, a growth-minded customer experience leader, and Gary, a technical IT support desk manager. We built our experience around these – aspirational messaging that talked to their departmental visions, and pricing that aligned with their needs.

Of course we had done the research interviews and had lots of internal workshops to build them out. Our mistake was creating these personas from wishful thinking. They did exist in the market… but they were were rare unicorns.

After we emerged from the failed launch, we took a step back. We re-evaluated our customer and prospect base. Instead of two, we found five more discrete personas that we could serve in much more detail with the same effort.

We sense-checked with research interviews, making sure we understood what they were looking for and how they could gain value from our product. We ran a quantitative survey that not only let us know what their preferred features (and therefore pains/gains were), but their willingness to pay as well.

After implementing these new five personas across our marketing and sales journey, from content to pricing, we saw conversions rise, revenue increase, and more engagement as a whole.

All we did was discover the personas that already existed in the market, and we built our go-to-market strategy around them.

Simple enough, in hindsight.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on how to craft a persona that actually helps, based on research, and support your internal teams with the right information.

The more focus (clarity, as well as attention) you have on your prospects, the more confidence you’ll build. And focus + confidence = momentum.

Thanks for reading! Let me know what you thought – find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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11 Replies to “Buyer personas are discovered, not created”

  1. […] I saw this tweet and it really resonated with me. Something I preach about – practically too much – is the importance of building your GTM around your customers. Whether that’s positioning, marketing channels, product strategy, the sales pitch… everything should be built from a core understanding of your customer’s jobs, pains, gains, and triggers. […]

  2. […] Good copywriting is not just wordsmithing. It’s communicating almost anything in a way that resonates with your customer and drives them to take action. Even more reason to develop strong evidence by discovering your buyer personas. […]

  3. […] Buyer personas are discovered, not created […]

  4. […] sharing my post on how Buyer Personas are Created, Not Discovered, Cody tweeted above, it got me thinking – are the colleagues we build personas for actually […]

  5. […] our customer’s jobs, pains, gains, and triggers […]

  6. […] Sharing this (from Adrienne, Queen of Buyer Personas!)as a reminder: don’t build positioning based on assumptions, and don’t make up personas out of thin air. Buyer personas are discovered, not created. […]

  7. […] written before about how buyer personas are discovered, not created – go read that post now if you haven’t […]

  8. […] “Why are personas fluffy pictograms of faux customers, when we have tons of data and insight at our fingertips? Why are buyer personas ‘built’ through internal workshops, rather than ‘discovered’ through qualitative interview and quantitative survey research?” – James Dornan-Pipe, product marketing consultant [via Building Momentum] […]

  9. […] “Why are personas fluffy pictograms of fake clients, when we have now tons of knowledge and perception at our fingertips? Why are purchaser personas ‘constructed’ by means of inner workshops, slightly than ‘found’ by means of qualitative interview and quantitative survey analysis?” – James Dornan-Pipe, product advertising guide [via Building Momentum] […]

  10. […] “Why are personas fluffy pictograms of fake prospects, when we have now tons of knowledge and perception at our fingertips? Why are purchaser personas ‘constructed’ by inner workshops, relatively than ‘found’ by qualitative interview and quantitative survey analysis?” – James Dornan-Pipe, product advertising marketing consultant [via Building Momentum] […]

  11. […] “Why are personas fluffy pictograms of fake clients, when we’ve got tons of knowledge and perception at our fingertips? Why are purchaser personas ‘constructed’ via inner workshops, reasonably than ‘found’ via qualitative interview and quantitative survey analysis?” – James Dornan-Pipe, product advertising guide [via Building Momentum] […]

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