Buyer Personas Need to Die a Violent Death

Aug 16, 2021

Buyer personas don’t work. Or do they?

I came across this comparison between Prince Charles and Ozzy Osborne at a marketing conference, and it stuck with me ever since.

I even included it in Lesson #2 of my radical differentiation program Stand The F*ck Out:

Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne share similar demographics but have different buyer personas

If you were using what is traditionally being taught around buyer personas, you would think they’re the same person.

You’d even include them in the same customer segment. You’d talk to them the same way. You’d expect them to behave the same way. To think the same way.

Yet, you know that those two people can't be more different…

One of them is the heir apparent of the British Throne and the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II. The other goes by the nickname of “Prince of Darkness” and rose to prominence as the lead singer of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath.

Pop quiz…

Who would you focus on if you were selling rehab treatments? Who would you focus on if you were selling watercolor paintings?

You already know the answer.

And there lies the reason why traditional buyer personas need to die of a violent death: they’re useless in their current form because they’re full of demographics information that has nothing to do with the reasons why people buy your stuff.​

You can't stand out using traditional buyer personas as your foundation

Adele Revella, CEO of the Buyer Persona Institute, goes one step further:

“The old school approach to segmenting a market was around demographics, around data like age, and gender, and income levels.

If we’re doing a study for senior living, we care how old you are and probably even what gender you have.

If we’re selling a marketing automation solution, it’s absolutely ridiculous to care about your hobbies or how many kids you have.

Katelyn Bourgoin, CEO of Customer Camp and customer research expert, argues developing traditional buyer personas is basically guessing:

If you don't know what triggers people to buy, then you're probably just guessing way too much stuff. You're guessing about what channels to hang out in, you're guessing about what messaging is really going to be meaningful to your audience, you're guessing about what they want from your product so that you can actually fulfill the promise that you make in your marketing with your actual product.

So not knowing what's actually triggering customers to buy just kind of leaves you out in the dark. As marketers, we have limited budgets, limited time. You really want to make sure that you're pursuing the insights that are valuable and high opportunity, not just kind of chasing stock or trying all these different tactics hoping stuff will work.

We all feel really overwhelmed because it's just so much flying at us, and there's so much that we could be doing. So if you're not putting any upfront work to really understanding what motivates customers, then you're going to just try a bunch of stuff. It's not going to work. You're going to get deflated; you’re going to feel like you don't know what you're doing, like a fraud, like an imposter. When you don't do this first, even if you have really great knowledge of how to tactically do different marketing activities, you might not get the results, which will suck for you. And if you work for a team, it's going to suck for your team.”

Here's an example of how NOT to create a buyer persona

It comes from a blog post by HootSuite (one of the leading social media marketing platforms out there... #awkward) that ranks on the first page of Google for the search term “buyer persona.

The article starts with generic advice like “do thorough audience research,” followed by “identify customer pain points and goals.

Nothing outrageous for now.

But then it goes south pretty quickly.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Hootsuite blunders their recommendation for how to create an effective buyer persona

This type of advice makes marketers look bad in front of the C-Suite, Product Team, Sales Team…

None of this information will help you to motivate customers to buy.

None of this information will help you fight FOMO and know precisely where to invest your marketing budget.

None of this information will help you to attract more customers or increase revenue.

Three questions to formulate a buyer persona

“Three questions to rule them all,

Three questions to find them,

Three questions to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Anyway… Where was I?

Oh yes.

In the words of Seth Godin in his book This Is Marketing:

Seth Godin recommends creating a buyer persona by using psychographics instead of demographics

There are three psychographics that matter:

  • Triggers: What made your customers say, "I want to make progress in my life"? Why now?

  • Pains: What constraints or pains are stopping them from making progress?

  • Goals: What progress do they want to make in their life? What functional, social, or emotional goals do they want to reach?

You can turn those three items into a sentence:

When [triggers happen], I want to [solve pains] so I can [reach goals].

Let’s illustrate this with three examples:

Example #1:

I bought a $500 Shure SM7B microphone last year.

Louis Grenier explains buyer personas using his own microphone purchase as an example

When [listening to a Joe Rogan episode], I want to [have a voice that sounds like him and his guests] so I can [be perceived as a professional podcaster/course creator and feel better about myself].

Example #2:

One of my radical differentiation consulting clients sells organic shampoos to the Latina community:

When [the weather is warm and humid], I want to [control my long, frizzy hair] so I can [get on with my life and feel ready to go out to see my friends/family].

Example #3:

I used to work for Hotjar and did a lot of customer research (this information might have changed since then):

When [conversion rates have tanked after a website redesign], I want to [understand why] so I can [reach my targets, look good in front of my boss, and avoid being fired].

So simple.

So freaking powerful.

The next question to ask is then, “Who tends to experience those triggers, feel those pains, and want to reach those goals?

This is where you can add the right amount of demographics, firmographics, and geographics information that really matters.

6 steps to build buyer personas that are actually useful

Step 1: Reach out to your customers or folks who bought a similar product recently.

Katelyn Bourgoin again:

You want to talk to people who have recently decided to buy a new solution or switched from their old solution to your solution. They're going to have a really good memory of what actually led to the buying decision, which is really important because people are not databases.

You can't just get in there and ask them a bunch of questions and think that you're just going to pull up all the information. A lot of the things that we do in the day-to-day of how we make decisions are not that conscious to us.”

Avoid talking to people who haven’t invested money, time, or resources into solving the main problem you’re solving; they’re tire-kickers who will likely feed you wrong information.

Step 2: Ask this simple question and dig deep.

Here’s Adele Revella’s advice:

“The only scripted question I want you to ask them is this one:

Take me back to the day when you first decided that you needed to solve this kind of problem or achieve this kind of a goal. Not to buy my product, that’s not the day. We want to go back to the day when you thought it was urgent and compelling to spend money to solve a particular problem or achieve a goal. Just tell me what happened.’

The key to this interview is a conversation now. Without a script, we ask people to reflect back on that moment and to go as deep as they can into what changed at that moment.

In January, just about everybody wants to lose weight. We eat too much during the holidays and now it’s time to lose weight.

‘Take me back to the day when you first decided that you needed to lose 5 pounds or 10 pounds.’

People will talk about how they want to be in better shape, or they want to be healthier, or they want to look nicer.

But what we do after people give us that answer is we get them to go deep like, ‘Okay, why didn’t you do it sooner? What really changed to have you decide that now is the time to lose weight, or now is the time to secure your internet infrastructure, or now is the time to go on a big vacation or remodel your home?’

It’s really getting people to talk at length about what changed at that moment. And then just very gradually, walk them through every single thing they didn’t think about as they went through that real decision.

Step #3a: Paint the journey and find patterns.

Act like a journalist; uncover every single step that led your best customers to buy from you. Think about:

  • The solution(s) they were using before making that decision

  • The competitive alternatives they compared you to

  • The main reason why they chose to buy from you

  • Who influenced their decision

  • The channels they used throughout the process

Step #3b: Use your emotional intelligence.

Humans are complex creatures. They’ll never be able to tell you everything you need to know, especially for cheaper purchases that didn’t take months to research. Pay particular attention to the non-functional reasons people buy products, such as status.

Step #4: Find differences in the market to stand the f*ck out.

Don’t go overboard creating eight different customer persona profiles that don’t represent a competitive advantage. Adele Revella again:

“Now you get into the part where it’s really fascinating because now you can start to say,

‘Are there differences in the market where, if we went to market differently for different types of buyers, we could actually win more business?’

This is the only time you should worry about differences that you find.

If you see that there are some differences you’re finding; half the buyers think this, or even a third, or even 10% of the buyers think a particular way, now we can say, ‘Well, as a company, we’re going to be more competitive. We can actually beat our competitors and win more opportunities if we go start marketing to different people differently.’

The worst thing you can do is coming up with way too many personas just because there are differences. The only time you should care about the differences is if it represents a competitive advantage for your business”

Are there people who are more in pain than others? Who stays awake at night staring at the ceiling? Who has money to spend? Whom do you have access to? Who is underserved by direct competitors?

Step #5: Add a sprinkle of demo/firmo/geographics.

To go back to the examples I gave earlier…

  • Example #1: Microphone. Who cares a lot? Probably male podcasters between 20 and 35-year-old, using podcasting to grow their business.

  • Example #2: Organic shampoo. Who cares a lot? Latina women with long, curly hair, living in US states with warm, humid weather like California or Florida.

  • Example #3: Hotjar. Who cares a lot? Marketers working for big e-commerce companies with thousands of transactions per day.

Step #6: Build a response for every single insight you’ve found out.

This is how to close the loop between research, actions, and results for everyone in the company (not just marketers). Early in the journey, be where people experience their triggers. In the middle of the journey, answer objections and help them conquer their fears. Towards the end, do everything you can to help them reach the goal they really want to achieve.

Here’s Adele Revella one last time:

Think of these insights as something that your buyer is thinking about, and do it when they’re on your website or engaging with your salespeople or your marketing content. Every single one of those topics represents something that you should be building a response for.

What we talk about is getting your subject matter experts together, looking at those key insights, every one of them separately, and building an answer, and then making a commitment to build content around the ones where you really have something unique and valuable to say or even if it isn’t unique.

Just the fact that you alone understand that the buyer’s asking that question because you did these interviews and now you know that and that you’re providing straight, simple, clear answers to buyers who have that need, that concern, this alone is the way to differentiate your company.

To summarize

  • Traditional buyer personas that look like a dating profile need to die.

  • It's a form of bike-shedding which prevents you from influencing what needs to be influenced as marketers: more customers to buy, more often, for more money.

  • Start with psychographics AND THEN add a relevant layer of demo/firmo/geographics.

  • The most important question to ask yourself is, “Are there any differences in the market to take advantage of?

  • Build a response for every insight you’ve gathered throughout your research. This is the best way to make customer personas actionable for everyone (not just marketing).

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