In order for any business to be successful it has to understand its customers: their wants, needs, pain points, interests, and more. One way to do this is by crafting fictional representations of your audience.
These representations are known as buyer personas.
Buyer personas are an integral part not only of a marketing strategy but also a brand strategy. In this article, members from our team – President and CEO, Bo Bothe; Chairman, Jonathan Fisher, and Director of Brand Experience Cynthia Stipeche – explain why buyer personas are important and how business leaders can better understand their customers.
We address the following:
- What are buyer personas?
- Why are buyer personas important to brands?
- Who needs personas and why?
- How do personas impact brand and marketing strategy?
- Who is responsible for creating and revising personas?
- Where should companies start when developing personas?
Bo Bothe: I like to equate buyer personas to the idea of understanding, in generalities, what buyers or groups of buyers want and who they are: What is their persona? What do they like? What do they dislike? Where do they like to shop?
With buyer personas, you can tap into stories, messages, and different kinds of channels that might interest your audiences to get them involved with your brand.
Then on the branding side, from an affinity standpoint, buyer personas help you understand what types of people are going to be more interested in your product or service. These personas are useful to target a certain group of people and understand who's buying so that you can get them to purchase more.
Jonathan Fisher: I think there are two schools of thought. You can think of a buyer persona as:
- a fictional model of an ideal customer or,
- a real model of an ideal customer that's reverse-engineered from your data.
It depends on the school of thought that you come from, but generally, most people consider them to be a fictional representation of your ideal customer.
Cynthia Stipeche: Personas are a representation of your target audience. They are archetypes or averages of a specific customer or demographic you're aiming to attract.
Personas are built so that we can begin to develop empathy for our target audience. And the persona, true personas, should actually be based on research and data to help inform the development of this archetype. So personas are a representation of a hypothetical individual within your target audience.
Bo: I think understanding buyers — not just their behavior or what they care about, but what they value most — really helps. Not only does it help you design a campaign but it also helps you find the right messaging or product mix. When you start to understand who your buyers are, you can understand better how to craft your strategy. We take a pretty interesting look at brands: inside-out, mission drivers, vision, goals, voice, you name it.
Being able to understand your customers through personas can give you ideas on strategy. It helps to answer questions like, "What new products should we launch?" or, "How do I allocate my budget to respond to the buyers the right way?"
If personas show that your target audience only wants texts and chats, then you spend less money on phone calls, for example. So it can really drive business strategy on top of just the consumer strategy that companies usually use them for.
Jonathan: First and foremost, they help inform all the strategic planning. They also inform the actual activities, the calls-to-action, the information architecture, the nomenclature that you use for things like websites and apps, and other materials. They can also help focus your marketing initiatives, your marketing messages, and your channels.
Part of the persona is going to be describing what your customers' values and preferences are, not only for messaging and utilization of the product or service, but for the channels through which they consume media. So the younger persona may be more digitally savvy, and the older persona may be more traditional. That's going to affect your strategies for communications; what you say, how you behave, and how you deliver information to them.
Another reason they're important is that they make everything more efficient in the long run. You'll find customers faster, they'll pay more for your offering and they'll be more loyal. You're not having to convince them of something that you're not, and you're not attracting the wrong type of buyer.
Bo: Regardless of whether you're a B2B or B2C company, you need to understand your customers. And it isn't going to be one-size-fits-all. If you take this approach, you can fall into a rut where you end up basically speaking to the middle.
A good example of this is when they were designing the first cockpits for fighter jets, they designed it around the perfect person — an ideal physical specimen. But the problem was that there's no perfect person, so nobody was comfortable in the cockpit of the fighter jet. So you can simplify, but you need to understand that different people have different qualities.
A persona can be another organization too. If you're a B2B company selling medical software to hospitals and there are multiple stakeholders in each of those hospitals, the mistake you can make is saying that each of them are essentially the same. Yes, you do have to come up with your generalities to do basic things but the mistake is saying, "Well, procurement in Hospital A is the same as procurement in Hospital B." They may be completely different.
The assumption could be that they're the same, but the reality is, they have different missions, they have different values, they value different processes. So they may buy completely differently. If you want your product to truly fit in any hospital, you have to be really careful not to say, "Oh, well, all procurement is like this," or, "All hospital administrators are like this," or "All I.T. are like this." You have to understand the basics and then be able to move within the conversation.
Jonathan: Everybody should have either their ideal personas or the personas that they're striving for. And in some cases be able to compare that ideal persona to what they currently have.
Your current buyer is likely different than your competitor's buyer. And there's a reason for that. It's because the DNA of your organization is likely different than theirs and they are offering something that's likely different than what you're offering. So there is a clear distinction or reason those buyers are choosing to be different because they're choosing to act and select differently.
So if you're looking to grow organically or you're looking to attract clients who already subscribe toa particular mindset, then you can go out and replicate that experience. You can refine that experience for them and for others.
Cynthia: It's critical for your business to know who your customers are, and personas are a great way to tap into them. There's so much they can do for you, especially in terms of your customer experience.
If we begin to develop the experience, the structure, the content for a brand or company, and we don't have personas, then we're not really seeing the service or the site, through the eyes of the actual end-user. So when we develop a persona what we're really trying to do is to develop empathy for our audience. Personas help us ensure that we're really looking at it through customers' eyes.
Jonathan: One of the ways that we use customer personas and data is to help align operations within the organization and to help executive management in their strategic planning processes. So a lot of times executives go about strategic planning from an internal perspective, as opposed to a customer perspective. So when you have really well-defined customer personas, you know exactly what the value drivers of your audience are and from there you can develop a strategic plan to attack, improve, or close gaps depending upon where you are.
You can also use the data to make that whole operation performance process more efficient. You can fine-tune your operations, reduce inefficiencies, get everybody aligned on the process, and take all of the politics and bias out of it.
You can unexpectedly use them the wrong way too if you don't develop them the right way. Just knowing stuff about somebody doesn't necessarily make it actionable, and in some cases can make it actionable in the wrong way. So be careful what you ask, be careful how you ask it, and be careful what you assume in that process of building your buyer personas.
Cynthia: So when I'm developing strategies for a product or for content, I'm going to use personas as a way to ensure that I'm staying on target with the needs of that user or customer. If we've built our personas out the right way, they should be based on interviews with the target audience. They should never be based on any kind of random perception or baseless idea of who they might be.
In some cases, especially for B2B customers, it may be a little bit more difficult to develop full-fledged personas. So we dig into research or information from surveys to help inform the development of the persona.
Personas should be the ultimate outcome of lots of research and discovery. I think something that might surprise some of our clients is that once we establish personas, they're not one and done. I mean, it's just like real-world people. They change. Changes can come in any form like technology or even socioeconomic factors. This is all very organic and can change at a moment's notice. Like all things in life, you have to be flexible.
The bottom line is that personas are basically a way to stay on target. For any type of strategy or tactic you build out, you should look back to the persona and ask, "What are they looking for? What are they trying to achieve? How is that tied into those higher-level challenges? How can we help them achieve the desired end result?"
Bo: The entire organization needs to be involved in bits and pieces. In most cases, it makes the most sense for the marketing group to drive that. Sales could do it as well, but sales is trying to get customers to enter into transactions, whereas marketing might be looking more holistically at the organization. The thing is, a lot of people need to be consulted when you're developing your first personas: operations, sales support, each of those teams needs to be considered.
As far as revisiting them, I'd probably say they need to be revisited every year if not more regularly. As you look at your sales data, look at the personas you've developed. You might find that there's a new persona that you need to create because a new buyer has come on the scene or you might want to tweak an old one.
Jonathan: Right, I think that there are inputs in the process that can come from multiple departments. People that touch the customer, for example, through quality control, through customer support, they often have valuable insights. Sales have valuable insights, but marketing generally leads the initiative in most cases. HR may have some input into the process. Operations may have some input into the process because they've been testing them around the existing product quality control.
This again may lead to unforeseen benefits through the whole process of understanding what your audience cares about. You may find that your customers are super busy and don't have time to turn your product on or set it up. That subtlety may not have been noticed in the natural line of questions being developed for the current customer, because marketing may not have been thinking about improving the usability of the product or service. Marketing might have only been thinking about selling more widgets to the buyer so they might've been limited in their thought processes. By including others in the development, or at least the evaluation of personas you get a much more robust 360° process.
Cynthia: I would definitely say at least yearly. But the thing is, is that you should never be too far from your personas. Something that we've suggested to our clients in the past is to really hang on to the personas. Cause typically we'll look at personas for marketing plans and to develop other strategies as well.
It's important to note that just because the strategies or the execution might be complete doesn't mean that personas should go away. You always want to have them nearby. Because again, even as you're going back and looking at metrics and other key performance indicators, you want to make sure they're aligning with your personas.
If things aren't going quite right, we might want to go back and look at the personas for insight into what went wrong. Or there might be a change in the marketplace. Maybe there's a change with technology, and it could possibly affect the personas. So our recommendation is to always have them nearby.
When it comes to digital or web, persona development is typically done by somebody who's within your UX practice, and somebody who is experienced in doing research and discovery for the development of personas. Because there's a bunch of different ways that you can actually conduct the research to develop a persona.
But there are also a lot of marketing agencies and ad agencies who may not have an actual UX practice, where they have been developing personas. And you might get input from salespeople, you might get input from a brand manager or whomever. The tough part about doing that is that the persona ends up being developed by opinion and assumption, and not by actual information, data, and observations. So it can be a little tricky.
Bo: You need to do your market research. I think a startup should look externally to get as much data as they can on their audience. If you're bringing a new product to market, or you have an existing product and you want to adjust it, you need to take that market data. Look inside and say, "Who do we really want? Who do we believe, based on that, we should be selling to that's going to get us the best margin? What's going to delight them the most without us having to change our operations too much to make that work?"
So I think companies should go "outside-in" to start. And then very quickly go "inside-out" to say, "What do we believe this product's value is? And who do we believe it's valuable to?"
If you're not careful you can have situations where you launch a product, the market buys it, but then they ask for some new feature. Then you react and add a new feature and then the audience keeps asking for new features and you keep adding them and it becomes a cycle. At that point, you lose track of who your real audience is and where your real revenue and profit comes from. Then all of a sudden, you're bloated with tons of new features that really just fit for small subset groups or individual buyers. So you just have to be careful of that.
Jonathan: Start with your data. Do your research, like your firmographic or demographic type of data. Then go for your psychographic data, motivations, likes, dislikes, pain points, and communication preferences. Your research and how you conduct it are going to be pivotal, as this will be the basis from which you build your personas.
Cynthia: If you don't work with an agency that has a UX practice, you should seriously consider incorporating user experience and UX methodologies into your company. Because if you wing it, and they put in a major initiative or base it all on what the CEO or VP of Operations thinks, it'll be completely off.
And if it's a marketing group, they should probably consider hiring somebody who's actually an experienced UX professional, or have somebody on their team get trained on that. That way they understand how to build personas correctly.
A lot of things need to be taken into consideration while developing a persona. And if you make up a persona that doesn't fit, and you build all of these services around that, or update a product based on those assumptions, you are literally flushing millions of dollars down the toilet.
A Few Extra Insights
Hopefully, we've helped explain why buyer personas are important for any company. If you need help sorting through your personas, we'd love to chat. If you want to learn more about creating brand believers, identifying important customer metrics, mapping your value chain, or how to find multiplier customers, check out these resources: