5 ways to create superfluous buyer personas (or, how to avoid mistakes I made in my youth)

I can remember the first time I sat down to create a buyer persona. Those were the Halcyon days—summers in Rio, no gray hairs, I could run for 30 minutes without my left arm feeling numb…I was amped to get all that I learned on the page and start crafting the messaging strategy.

So I began my data-entry tasks. Who was this person? What are his needs, pain points, barriers, etc.? I combed through my notes and my memories. Oh, those long, sometimes boring conversations with marketers, salespeople, and other stakeholders who just wanted to vent to a copywriter on the company’s dime. But as I began filling out the persona profiles, I began to feel like something was off. I fought it. Ignored it.

Buyer Personas

“Get this done, Theo,” I said, out loud, to myself as I waited for the bus to arrive (much to the discomfort of the mother and her two children sitting next to me).
“Mommy, is he going to hurt us?”
“Be quiet, darling. We’re going to a better place.”

Fast forward. The days grew shorter, colder—Netflix started airing exclusive content. With a few persona profiles under my belt, I began to listen to that niggling inner voice “Hey, paisano. Something ain’t right!” (my inner voice draws from my Sicilian heritage).

I had done everything right. I interviewed client stakeholders, did my own independent research, and then made sure our client stakeholders signed off on my findings. But as we put programs into market, our audience wasn’t engaging as much as we’d hoped.

What were we missing?

It’s taken a few years to answer that question, but answered it we did. So sit back, relax, have your butler provide you with a glass of wine, slide the Maxell tape into the tape deck (thanks to persona work, I know this joke won’t resonate with younger Millennials), and let the following list of five tips wash over you like a Tears For Fears crescendo.

1. The Man in the High Castle:

Taking an inside-out approach to identifying personas

Nobody knows your products, services, and customers like your own company. Mining for these absolutely necessary nuggets of information and data are key to beginning the buyer-persona process. But this information is only the starting block. Sadly, in the interest of moving faster than they’ve earned the right to, many organizations stop here. The issue with this is, like it or not, your company has a myopic view of the world. It’s from the perspective, or vantage point, of your company’s unique realities. It’s only a view from within the castle walls—and there are peasants in the forest planning a siege. How will you know until they’re at the gates?

Approaching personas in this way means you box yourself into what your company already knows. Your personas won’t be insightful to your organization, and your messaging will perpetuate the status quo engagement in your marketing programs. An actionable buyer persona starts with what you already know, and then uses that as context to learn more about what your audience truly cares about.

2. Schrödinger’s Interview:

Over-relying on Sales to identify your target buyer personas
5 ways to create superfluous buyer personas  (or, how to avoid mistakes I made in my youth)

Let’s try an experiment. Ask your parents or older siblings this question: “What was I like before I was born?” Quantum physicists aside, no one will even attempt to answer this. That’s because you didn’t exist until, well…you did. The same concept applies to asking Sales about people who Marketing talks to upstream in the customer journey. There are two issues at play here:

  1. For many organizations, the Inquiry-to-MQL conversion rate is in the single digits. Marketing and Sales spend a ton of effort getting aligned around a shared definition of MQLs and SQLs. It’s a labor of love. When the system starts working correctly, you’ve essentially engineered it so that many salespeople only talk to the tiny percentage of leads that made it to the sales-handoff stage, and that’s the system functioning. Sales shouldn’t waste its time talking to people who aren’t anywhere close to being qualified. The upside is that Sales spends more quality time with higher quality leads. The downside is that Sales begins to lose the ability to identify the pain points of prospects who are earlier in their buyers’ journey.
  2. Granted, most Marketing and Sales groups share the responsibility of lead generation and prospecting. In that case, the norm is that Sales sources much of its own leads and talks to people at all stages of their buyers’ journey. Because Sales is trying to close nearly 100% of its contacts, it’s easy to define a lead exhibiting latent demand as a “bad lead” or “not a fit.” It’s a misdiagnosis, and the feedback loop routinely makes its way back to Marketing which impacts the quality of leads coming in. A potentially good lead who isn’t actively searching for your solution isn’t a “bad lead.” Latent demand isn’t a characteristic across a population; it’s a temporary condition that all prospects, at one point or another, share. So imagine the damage it does to your Marketing programs to weed out prospects that exhibit latent demand. It’s devastating, and it’s totally avoidable.

When attempting to create relevant buyer personas, use Sales input to get a snapshot of customers you’re closing given your value proposition and your current messaging strategy. Is your organization happy to continue only closing that small percentage of the addressable market? Likely not. Which brings us to #3.

3. Raise your hand if you already love me:

Over-relying on customer interviews
5 ways to create superfluous buyer personas  (or, how to avoid mistakes I made in my youth)

Customers are another great place to go for insights on your buyer personas. But that information must be put into the proper context. “What’s the proper context,” you ask? Customers may only represent the group for which your current marketing and sales tactics resonated. So if you want to continue the status quo, base your persona only on this group.

A successful buyer persona should allow you to expand your reach and create messaging that connects with a wider audience. But to achieve this, you have to talk to the wider audience—and that should center on prospects who are a great fit, but for some reason, choose not to buy what you’re selling (product-wise or messaging-wise).

4. The Tolstoy:

5 ways to create superfluous buyer personas  (or, how to avoid mistakes I made in my youth)
Creating complex persona profiles that include all you know about the audience

When I was less mature and thus happier in life, I remember buying a book of short stories written by Leo Tolstoy. About 89 pages into the first story, I put the book down. “Short” my ass, Leo. The same feeling applies to a shocking percentage of buyer personas. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You’ve seen those Tolstoy-esque tomes about Hank the HR Leader. So how do you avoid this? First, work backward from how you’ll need to apply the information you’re gathering. Then, condense the data down to the Raymond Carver version.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself,” said Hank, as he opened a piece of thought-leadership content from his Downloads folder. “To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone.”

5. The Blind Gatekeeper:

Allowing Sales to validate and have final say on your persona work

Didn’t I already cover this? In a way, yes. But this is a bigger point. One place organizations make mistakes is by doing great persona work, and then allowing a sales leader to put the brakes on it.
Why is Sales not buying it? We’ve been over that. Ultimately, you, as a marketer, need to own this project. You need to create actionable persona profiles that allow you to test your messaging, optimize it, and increase the number of quality, relevant leads in the sales pipeline. Once the leads are flowing, then go to Sales and talk through the quality of the leads—not before.

In the end, persona work is all just an exercise for marketers to go to market with their best hypotheses. The market, however, is the truth. It will tell you how well your hypotheses worked. And if you did enough homework, your optimization efforts will be manageable, your results will be incrementally better, and your organization will jump at the chance to develop more buyer personas in the future.

Want to chat about personas, discovery interviews, or quantum physics? Contact us today, and we’ll introduce you to our favorite cat.

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