Why customer personas may be an outdated marketing technique

customer personas

“When my head is in the typewriter the last thing on my mind is some imaginary reader. I don’t have an audience; I have a set of standards.”  – Don DeLillo

A few weeks ago here on {grow} I ran a piece by Rob Petersen explaining the value of working with “customer personas” to develop a content marketing plan. In fact, he provided 31 great ideas!

Customer personas are a centerpiece of many marketing strategies today but I wanted to provide an alternative perspective. I’d like you to think about this idea — Maybe to stand out in a world of malignant information density we need to throw out scripted content aimed at target personas and try to actually create content by humans, for humans. After all, aren’t our competitors creating content to cater to the same personas?

Personas may hurt, not help, content creation

Creating “personas” is a popular technique to provide focus and help a company develop a “voice” aimed at an ideal reader. I’m not saying that personas are without merit (especially when it comes to tech and developing user interfaces) but I would like you think critically and not go down this path just because a consultant or advertising agency tells you to do it.

If you believe that authentic, original, and human content is the best formula to attract an audience who will engage with you, then why would we ask a marketing professional to fake their way forward based on a script aimed at a theoretical personality?

Here’s an example of the problem.

The Persona Trap

I was recently working on a content strategy with a CMO of a medium-sized and fast-growing company. As I often do, I worked in collaboration with their advertising agency who was going to be handling the nuts and bolts of the execution.

I sat politely and quietly as the ad agency walked the CMO and her team through a painstaking process to develop buyer “personas” for targeted content. I knew I would not have to make an intervention because I could tell the CMO, an experienced industry veteran, was growing increasingly agitated as we entered the third hour of the process!

Finally, the dam burst.

“Why are we spending time on this?” she asked. “Are you telling me I don’t know my customers and can’t write about something that is relevant and interesting to them? I have worked in this business for over 30 years!”

I gave her a standing ovation in my mind.

She’s exactly right. If you know your business intimately — and every marketing leader should — manufacturing scripted content gets in the way of real customer connection.

I saw this same thing happen with a customer in Toronto. The president and founder of the company was handed a persona-based content development plan from an ad agency and was miserable. “I just can’t keep writing this way,” she said. “I’m bored out of my mind and it’s not working any way.”

I encouraged her to scrap the plan and write from her heart. Her first post, which recounted important business lessons she learned from The Grateful Dead, was the number one blog post in the company’s history. And more important, content creation became fun for her again. Her passion came alive and it shined through in her content.

The human imperative

As I explained in my Content Shock article, we’re in a period where the novelty of content marketing has worn off.  In an environment characterized by dramatically increasing levels of information and a limited ability to consume it, we have to do things differently — much differently — to stand out.

Here is something I am convinced about — over time, the most human companies will win. Showing our hearts, showing ourselves, showing our love of The Grateful Dead, is the opposite of what we expect from business leaders but it is the essential characteristic that draws us to them.

Be. More. Human.

How do you achieve this human connection by writing according to a script of what you BELIEVE people want to hear? Tear down those artificial walls and show yourself. This is not easy. This may not feel like the safe path forward. But it is what your customers want and crave.

If you are writing for a persona and your competitors are writing for a persona, how is this creating emotional connection and unique value? Being “you” is the only true source of originality you have.

If you know your customers intimately, don’t hide behind a cookie-cutter advertising plan. Consider scrapping the personas and meeting customers on their terms, with an open mind and an open heart.

Be. More. Human.  Agree?

Illustration from the Berlin Wall courtesy Flickr CC and Abhijeet Rane.

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  • Mark, This is an interesting post that I’m assuming will foster lots of debate from your community. 🙂

    I think the value of personas depends very heavily on what you’re trying to do, who’s doing the writing, and how effective the personas are. If the company’s founder who’s been very close to customers for 30 years is doing the writing and that person is an effective writer, then yes, personas are less valuable. That person is close enough to the audience to write effectively for them – able to deliver both relevance and strategic direction. He or she already knows far more than what a persona could tell them. But most marketing organizations don’ t have that person, they’re not that close to the customers, and they’re creating more content that just a blog.

    But B2B personas need to be based on deep research, not just an internal brainstorming session. They MUST be based on interviews of customers, prospects, and lost deals. They need to focus on the issues, concerns, drivers and KPIs behind decisions – not whether the persona has a dog and was born in a city or small town. Well-conducted interviews consistently offer a goldmine of content ideas – content that is directly relevant to the target audience.

    But this supports your conclusion, which I fully agree with – get to know the customers and prospects so you CAN be more human.

  • There’s a significant difference between writing canned copy following a formula, and writing great copy based on understanding your target audience. This article dangerously ignores the often limited understanding of the vast majority of small businesses on formally defining their major audience(s) to team / agency members. While the CEO should write copy, it’s incredibly doubtful they will dedicate time to do so.

  • Kitty Kilian

    Of course. Persona’s are stifling.

  • I think your main point here is that content written just for a persona is usually b-o-r-i-n-g, and of course people should show their personality in their writing, but personas are important to consider, even when tying in the Grateful Dead, no? While your content should have your *touch*, it’s really for (and about) your audience.

    And even at the very base level, using personas allow you to scale. Many CMOs, CEOs, etc. have the most intimate knowledge of their user base, but they’re too busy operating the company to crank out content on their own.

    So yes… I agree that canned content often sucks and should be better, but for the average company, it’s dangerous notion throw out personas altogether.

  • Jake Coventry

    Totally agree. We create content for everyone and then let the audience decide what’s relevant to them.. by simply asking them.

  • There’s no authenticity in that approach, Mark. It’s akin to dating. If one pretends to be someone else in order to attract a certain mate type, then it will backfire eventually. Once the “target” discovers the facade, it’s game over.

    Businesses should write authentically and “humanly” to capture the customers that fit their philosophies, products, and services. And, besides… let’s not forget that content marketing is but one part of a multi-channel marketing mix and NOT the only one.

  • Mark, I love this post. In my opinion, personas are a great way to package up relevant insights about your audience. If you are working with contractors or bringing new people into the team, a persona can be a nice quick-start intro to the audience.

    But if you really know your audience, particularly if you are part of a small team (or team of one!), a persona is extra packaging that is more likely to get in the way or create a distraction than it is to be actually helpful.

    My takeaway: Insights into your audience are what really matter. Personas aren’t necessarily the best way to deliver that (and sadly, often don’t even deliver that).

  • Great points Mark. I’ve always felt Personas helped keep your content within the rails… were best used for folks that like to talk about lots of things or who were generalists.

    This meandering, while good content, always seems to make it harder for the company to rank on SEO. I also find these companies have a more difficult time explaining what they do via their website to a perspective customer.

    Conversely, those that use Personas to keep their content tightly focused seem to win those two races more easily.

    But if your content team naturally creates the right kind of focused content, then the persona exercise isn’t necessary. That content creator already knows the audience at a deep enough level to allow for great, tightly focused content.

    On a side note: why it would take 3 hours and a process to define a persona is beyond me so I too was giving the CMO a standing ovation.

  • You are so right on, Mark! In my industry (automotive) there are big companies who want to scale every damn thing. “Ooh, content! Let’s scale that!” and the dealers eat it up. Nobody thinks to tie the expense and effort back to a stated goal. Like you said, over time, the most human companies will win. There’s just too much content out there to scale your contribution. It all has to come from the heart…with passion.

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  • This post couldn’t be more timely. Really! I had a conversation today with a client in finance which I am trying to convince to show his team and internal culture among other things on social. And the words I used before seing your post were “you have to show your company is human!”

    Is so annoying to see that people/companies can do great things but are afraid and stick to the “safe” side. It comes with a price though, called anonymity or one of many!!!

    So, yes, I completely agree with you.

    Thank you for writing this!

  • Robert Burns

    Not all personas are created equal.

    Our persona development process is quite in-depth and yes, takes time. The persona process and development includes in-depth and “insightful” in person interviews with clients, prospective clients and even the prospects that didn’t do business with us. The interviews and the process provide valuable insights for the entire client/prospect’s pre-research/research, buying (or not buying) and decision lifecycle. This investment of time provides high value for us, not just for developing or sharing content at the right stage (and with influencers for ignition), but provides high value to our internal clients being the sales department.

    As for internal resources with the legacy information referred
    to in your blog, yes they could provide very valuable insights as well, however getting the information direct from the client/prospect interviews provides additional, “non filtered or non-biased” feedback and insights. In my experience, the availability of internal knowledge resources that have the detail of information referred to is very limited and inconsistent.

    Our process is very “human”; we’re meeting face-to-face with our clients and future clients, discussing their observations, issues, challenges, opportunities, interests and vision from the beginning of their lifecycle to the end. I get very positive feedback from these interviews.

    In addition to the persona external interviews, I also include internal client interviews as well, those resources who have the legacy information you detailed in your blog post, this information also provides value and can fill in gaps or additional insights, so the process doesn’t have to be binary, as in persona vs. no personas, but a hybrid of both.

  • This may be an unpopular comment, judging by what has gone before, but I think personas are getting an unfair bashing here. They are a great way to understand your audience, and therefore to write for them. If you already understand your audience don’t bother with personas – simple. But personas are absolutely not there to stifle you.

    It’s always good to look at it from a ‘real life’ perspective. You attend a wedding party and talk to your friend who’s getting married, the bride’s mother and the vicar. You talk differently to each but you are not being false: you’re being polite. Now if you send someone into this milieu without the understanding of how to talk to these people (which in your case is instinctive) they would appreciate a little coaching. And personas are a pretty neat way of doing it. The trick is to manage the persona development process in such a way that this knowledge of the different customer types becomes instinctive, understood. Then you can write – naturally, fluently, intelligently and in your own voice.

    I agree that over-complicated (or unnecessary) personas can become a time-sink, a barrier to quality and a pain in the a***. But they do have a place if used correctly…

  • I’m with John here. Just like any construct / tool, personas are only useful when they enable you to do your best work.

    The argument against their use is solid, but it is true for any number of things — keyword research, over-reliance on metrics, etc.

  • Ardath Albee

    I’d like to respectfully disagree, Mark. As with everything, there are well done and poorly done personas. I’m not sure where you got the idea that a persona’s job was to create scripted content. Although I do find the examples in your post scary. Likely the result of an agency that doesn’t really understand them but is offering them up as a service because of the attention they’re getting.

    That’s the last thing a persona should do. Done well, personas are freeing, providing relevant insights that actually help to create valuable conversations between the people in one company with the people in another. In other words – personas done well and used properly should ensure that the content companies create is not only human, but interesting, relevant and creating curiosity and interest that enables a move from status quo. Personas should also inform the development of content that helps the members of a buying committee have the conversations with each other that help to gain agreement for change.

    I’m not sure why content informed by personas is being labeled as boring or formulaic. It certainly shouldn’t be. And if marketers are blaming personas for that, then that is the issue and something they can change. How a persona is interpreted and used is a process that is developed based on the insights derived from personas, not dictated by them. There are lots of creative and HUMAN ways to do this.

  • Really interesting post Mark. In my experience personas have been replaced at the top of the funnel with keyword research and social listening. But, when it comes to the middle of the funnel I think they are incredibly important. I’ve never been a big fan as I tend to focus on top of funnel content, but for a product marketer I think personas are essential to guiding prospects through the rest of the journey/ funnel.

  • True buyer persona driven content and ‘being human’ are not mutually exclusive. To @ardathalbee:disqus ‘s point, the VAST majority of buyer persona establishment is either being approached from a trad. agency perspective (to your point Mark) or from a perceived buying role perspective which is incredibly one-dimensional. As someone who has a tenancy to write from an (accused) overly emotional and humanistic point of view I can tell you that writing from my own point of view does not attract the true breadth of customer universe we desire to work with. To attract those target buyers we have to develop, and continually (every FQ) revisit target personas and ensure we are speaking (even at the linguistic preference level) of those target buyers. My latest persona round took over 3 months, 2 predictive analytic companies, one PHD research psychologist and a lot of effort. That’s what it takes to create personas that are actually rooted in data and are reliable. We divulge the process here – which is a piece of content I would have never thought to create without knowing that 2 of my buyer profiles really need it: http://www.slideshare.net/jgray211/4-steps-to-cloning-your-best-customers

  • love the analogy Elaine – so true!!

  • Adele Revella

    Mark it’s clear that you are among the countless people who have encountered the stupid version of personas, where people build fake or ideal personas by writing down what they know in a template, adding a picture, and expecting something meaningful to happen.

    This is patently absurd and I applaud your indignation. But what if buyer personas revealed insights into how and why different types of buyers make the buying decision we want to influence? What if we stopped focusing on demographics and built additional buyer personas only when we had evidence, based on real buyer interviews, that some buyers need different messages and content before they’ll choose us?

    We had lengthy, unscripted conversations with more than 400 people last year, asking them to tell us what worked and what didn’t as they went through the recent high-consideration buying decision our clients wanted to influence. There were exceptions, but an overwhelming majority were frustrated with their inability to get useful information from their sales and marketing interactions. So they largely ignored us, turning to their peers and prior experience to select the companies they’d even contact.

    We’ve got a lot of work to do, and sitting in a room for three hours writing stuff down isn’t going to get us there. You’re absolutely right.

  • Julie_Schwartz

    Well said! You so eloquently put into words what I was thinking as I read the post.

  • Irakli Beselidze

    Creating relevant messaging for you potential buyers is much easier if you have your Buyer Personas in your mind. Under Buyer Personas I mean detailed description of Five Rings of buying Insight. For example: if we are talking about content marketing strategy, the first insight – Priority Initiative gives a bunch of very human and useful ideas for blog posts about the event that triggers certain kind of buyer to initiate the buying process. If you exactly know what initiates the process and with which search queries prospect starts his research in Google you can create a very spicific content no one has created yet. It gives you almost anfair advantage against competition, because potential costomer will start his journey with your product! And if you know the second insight – Success Factors you will have a good chance to create direct association between your product and buyers’ ideal solution. You can do that with just 40% of correctly created Buyer Personas. I have spoken to 15 clients before and after Buyer Persona research. None of them had structured description of buyers’ decision making process. They saw only a part of the picture and were trying to generate ideas on how to do better against competiton, but they were never focused on the buyers’ context. The main benefit of Buyer Personas is that in 4 weeks you know the buyers of your Clients’ company better than the business owner, so you can brief any content manager what to write about. Humanity is just a content format not the targeting case.

  • Ardath Albee

    Thanks, Julie!

  • Hmm, I think the idea that customer personas are outdated is a little bit of a leap, but I understand what you’re trying to say Mark. The three-hour process of the marketing persona analysis seems a little over the top and definitely over the top, brand managers don’t really like being told who their target audience is – that’s a silly thing to do.

    I think the key is to let the client know that you understand who their target audience is, and that your messaging has been created with them in mind so that you’re on the same page. That’s all they need to know.

    The rest needs to be based on insights and research. Perhaps the client doesn’t know how their TA responds on digital platforms and what their social behaviour is like, maybe that’s what needs to be addressed by us more.

  • I agree with Avtar. While we are moving towards a 1-to-1, real-time digital world, marketers still need to identify differentiated groups [personas] to allow the organization to define, quantify, and value groups to determine where they are and are not successful.

    Beyond strategic applications, personas are also useful for sales and marketing applications. Even if we totally personalize a communication, we can still use personas to identify probably products of interest and formats we can use to best engage the market. For example, many companies are now dynamically building their websites based on their knowledge of you…and others similar to you. [persona segment]

    While I agree with Mark that there may be companies who don’t benefit from personas, they do have a very useful place in marketing. For most, we need some type of segmentation to develop high engagement content…which we can then personalize. They do have place in strategic and tactical marketing applications for most businesses. Perhaps we do need to educate businesses on the power & uses of personas combined with real-time data.

  • Point taken that the personas can be restrictive–I hadn’t thought of it that way–but at the same time, couldn’t a persona feature the characteristic of “enjoys content written from the heart”? It seems to me that your criticism applies to poorly created personas, not personas overall.

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  • Thanks for sharing your wisdome Candyce.

  • Well … it was a short article. So you could argue that I ignored a lot of things : ) But my point is to provide an alternative perspective that personas may hurt, not help content creation and I stand by that notion. I am grateful for your dissent sir. Thank you.

  • Thanks for commenting Kitty.

  • I went out of my way to suggest that personas are still useful and did not suggest throwing them out altogether. I’m sorry if you interpreted it that way. Thanks for the comment Lacy.

  • Thanks Jake.

  • Very true. Well said Elaine.

  • I really appreciate you adding your voice on this Eric because I think a marketer in your situation is precisely who I had in mind when I wrote this article. Thanks for the validation.

  • You bring up some interesting points here Tom and I would like to tease out the point you make about personas aiding in SEO. In a roundabout way, you support my point.

    I recently wrote a piece describing how SEO, like personas, can get in the way of content creation. SEO also has its place but by definition, if you are playing the SEO game and tuning into common keywords, you are probably not creating the best possible content. I think the same goes for personas. There is a place, sure. But they can also be an obstacle. The SEO-content relationship article is here: SEO and Content: Can SEO drive “viral?” http://www.businessesgrow.com/2015/01/14/seo-and-content/

  • Thanks for keying in on that point Kath!

  • Thanks and good luck with your client Corina!

  • Just partial dissent Mark. 🙂 Of course, the number of CEOs writing copy in any organization is limited. However, marketing teams, creatives, etc still need that briefing in order to understand the target audience clearly.

  • Well, you describe a great process for creating personas. And I’m sure they are useful to you and to the client. I don’t dispute that. But does it ultimately create better content? Exceptional content? Is it content that earns attention or checks a box. That’s the point of my article.

  • First I have to point out to the uninitiated that the above commenter is an exceptionally skilled marketer! I think I would certainly feel safe with personas in your hands John. : ) Thanks for the excellent commentary.

    Let’s stick with the vicar example. You’re not speaking to him, but writing to him in a weekly blog post. You’ve done your research and know that there are five main themes of interest to this vicar. So it makes great sense to pump those themes.

    Your competitor is also writing for vicars. They have a great marketing team and, through due diligence, have also created a persona and predictictably came up with the same five themes.

    So it becomes a zero sum game. Both companies are creating great content aimed at five vicar-sensitive themes. That’s the first issue. There is no competitive advantage in creating content that follows the same script that your competitor has. You are only going to stand out if you create your own script.

    Second, it is highly unlikely that the five themes you discover will be relevant in a year, a month, maybe even a week. The world changes, lives change, even churches change. If you are only using a script to guide your content, you potentially exclude the issues that are meaningful that day.

    I am merely showing that personas can inhibit content creation, the point of the article. I do not think they would ever inhibit you because you rock.

  • I’m so happy you contributed to the discussion Ardath. You are certainly the Queen of the Persona so it means a lot to me that you took the time to comment.

    I have been in marketing roles for more than 30 years. If a marketer who worked for me told me that she needed to create personas to “providing relevant insights that create conversations between the people in one company with the people in another” I would think that she is not doing her job. This is what marketing is ALL about. It is what it has ALWAYS been about. If somebody said they needed an outside consultant to develop personas in order to conduct a meaningful conversation I would first say — “go visit your customer!”

    I know this is simplifying things (especially in a a complex company with global constituents) but I do honestly believe that if a marketer is depending on a persona to understand their customer, they might be in the wrong line of work. The dialogue and insight needs to be constant. There is no such thing as a persona — only people with ever-changing needs. At the end of the day, connecting with an emotional bond between people is what still drives business, especially in B2B. The company that does that best will win.

    Also, as I mentioned in the comment to John Bottom below, he (and you) are exceptional marketers, experienced professionals who can see beyond a simple persona and I do believe that hiring somebody like you can provide some element of competitive advantage. But more likely a persona developed by company A is going to look the same as a persona developed by Company B. Is that helping your content stand out or hurting it?

    I know you work with customers far beyond this stage but my point is that being constricted by a content script aimed at an ideal customer personality will limit content creativity at companies and in fact it is, as my examples illustrate.

    My concern is that some (who obviously have not hired you) are becoming too reliant on this crutch.

    Thanks again for the dissent and the wonderful and thought-provoking comments Ardath!

  • Very interesting perspective. I like the way you lined that up. I think I can buy into that, especially in large companies. Great observation. Thanks Jason!

  • This is true Ben. And I have written about all of those things, too. : )

  • This is a great comment Justin and I agree with your points. However, I did geta little stuck on “writing from my own point of view does not attract the true breadth of customer universe we desire to work with.”

    I understand that perspective. But it also opens an opportunity for somebody. What if a competitor (I don’t know your industry so bear with me) didn’t care about appealing to a broad perspective. Instead, they care about connecting to a sub-group that aligns with their narrower view and perspective? They could certainly engender loyalty and simoly be themselves.

    The example that comes to mind is Gary Vaynerchuk. I have met CEOs who loathe him. I have met CEOs that love him. Gary doesn’t need everyone to love him to be successful. His point of differentiation is his (raw) humanity. This personal authenticity created incredible loyalty among his fans. I guarantee you that Gary does not have a list of personas in front of him.

    ANy way, you do make outstanding points and I wanted to play devil’s advocate with you. Thanks for obliging me!

  • That’s not creating a persona. That’s basic customer research by getting out there and listening (good job!). You found problems and you’re addressing them. That’s what every marketer should be doing constantly!

  • This appears to me like a sneaky ad for Adele’s book and I don’t allow those shenanigans around here but I will let it go because you seemed to have put a lot of effort into the comment.

    I just have to say one thing. If you have a marketing team who was “never focused on the buyer’s context” you don’t need a persona. You need a new marketing team. I mean can we get real around here? You are suggesting Band-Aids for stupid marketing people. I guess there is a business model there.

  • In this case, are you using the persona to educate you, or the client? Are you doing demographic research (good) or creating personas which become boundaries for content (possibly bad)? I think we are comparing apples and oranges, perhaps?

  • Educating ourselves to show to the client that we understand who their customers are and that we’ve thought about the strategy / approach based on that.

    And yes, demographic research. Gathering insights on their buying patterns / behaviours / likes / dislikes – things like that, just to get started somewhere. Makes sense?

  • Randy, I know there is a useful place for personas. Here is what I wrote:

    “Creating “personas” is a popular technique to provide focus and help a company develop a “voice” aimed at an ideal reader. I’m not saying that personas are without merit (especially when it comes to tech and developing user interfaces) but I would like you think critically and not go down this path just because a consultant or advertising agency tells you to do it.”

    Specifically, what are you disagreeing with? Are you saying that creating personas never poses a potential inhibition for content creation? And are we in a 1-1 real time world or a world where we market to groups? You said both so you contradict yourself. If the former is true, personas seem less useful, right?

  • I am not criticizing personas overall. I am suggesting, through real examples, how personas (poorly done or otherwise) may inhibit the creation of meaningful content that stands out in an increasingly information-dense world.

  • I’m not sure where we disagree then. Of course you need customer research and insights. Constantly. That’s different than locking it in as “Procurement Agent Sally” who is a 35 year old single mom with an associate degree and an affinity for podcasts” … now go write your content. One of the themes in this stream is that people are using customer research and data-gathering synonomously with “creating personas.” I don’t blend them together.

  • So let me get this straight. For a marketing team to write content for their own customers, they need to hire an outside agency to tell them what their customers want to hear. I would fire the marketing team.

    I guess I’m old fashioned. I think marketing and sales professionals should know their customers. They should be practically living with them.

    I realize that is an over-simplistic response. I’m not saying there is not a role for personas. But I also see a theme in this comment stream where people are substituting this for real customer connection.

  • Adele Revella

    Ever since I started the buyer persona blog in 2006 I have insisted that personas focus first on buying decisions and then the people who make them. We use the label buyer “profile” to describe what you encountered and buyer persona to include both the buyer profile and the 5 Rings of Buying Insight. Given all of the confusion around this topic, I’m starting to think that we need a new name for what I’ve been talking about for the last decade …

  • I don’t think any marketer just goes down a path because a consultant or advertising agency tell them to do it and I agree there must be more than just a persona to be an effective marketing. But outdated? I think personas have their uses in creating products and in the general direction of content development. After that, individualized information is best in a real-time marketing environment. However, even there, knowing the general characteristics of an individual is useful. My point is not to contradict anything. I believe a company uses both personas and individual data today to develop engagement. Both are relevant and both are required today. It isn’t an either-or situation from my perspective. Interesting blog.

  • I think many, many marketers go down a path because that is what a consultant says. And yes, the concept of personas, in some cases, is outdated. In a world of incredible information density we have no choice but to find ways to get our content to cut through. Many marketers are not even aware of how big this problem is and may not realize that persona-driven content may not be enough any more. So in that respect (and only that respect) the concept may be out-dated.

  • Profile, persona, 5 rings of insight … Yes. I’m lost. Any number over three and generally you lose me. : )

    What you described in your first comment is what I used to call customer research. Life was simpler then. I suppose 5 RIngs sells better. I hope there is a Hobbit involved in there somewhere with all those rings? The Hobbit Sales System (c). You may license that from me at very little cost. No need to thank me. : )

  • I suspect we’re talking about the same thing Mark. I’m not saying that at all.

  • Kudos on having sparked such a lively discussion, too! Did you have any idea you’d get so many strong reactions to this post?

  • Oh sure. When you the question marketing dogma you’re bound to get backlash. But if it needs to be said, it needs to be said.

  • Mark,
    Most marketing organizations have more than one person on the team. While I agree with you that it is essential for marketing to actually get out and talk to customers, it is impractical to expect everyone on the team to do this. For example, if someone new joins the team two weeks after a persona interview has been completed, then asking the client to do another interview would be unwise.

    So I see personas as a way to document and share insights throughout the team — including external agencies, internal marketing staff, sales, and anyone else who touches the customer. This won’t be helpful if it’s a 1-page template. But if there is a depth of research and interview-based insight, it supports all of these teams.

    That said, I do agree with you that personas need to evolve constantly. Marketing needs to be in contact with new customers consistently throughout the year. Buyer personas are not a “one and done” process.

    But I do see them as fundamental to a marketing strategy.

  • Mark,
    Well done on sparking this discussion 🙂

    You’ve done a great job of calling out the crap (which was described well in your blog post) while also calling for marketers to get real about the need for customer insight.

  • Robert Burns

    Thanks Mark, I understand your point. To answer your question, “Yes” however, I’m always looking for ways to optimize our content, your article (and the email discussion thread) gave me additional insight and ways to improve my process. My goal is “exceptional content”, I’ve tried the internal seasoned “SME” path, similar to the one you referred to in your article, the results did not provide content that would have been “exceptional”, whereby the content within my detailed process did/does, but that doesn’t mean all seasoned SME insight/input isn’t valuable or effective. We could have the best content process that creates exceptional content and then find that we don’t have anyone of influence that can share or “ignite” that exceptional content. There are many moving parts beyond the theme and discussions in this thread. This article and discussion was very valuable to me. Thanks for the article and getting this discussion going, I believe everyone learned from it.

  • Thank you Mark. With small steps we´re getting there! 🙂

  • Todd Lyden

    Mark, love you to death but I think you are logging an empty complaint.
    There are MANY newer businesses that don’t think in personas nor think of their audience, period.
    The examples you gave were experienced folks who’ve been around the block.
    For someone who has not “done content” this is a new idea… and sadly, we all know there are more (especially mom and pop small business) who don’t have this down… this isn’t saying that human component should be a part, but they need to have the client/audience in mind.
    My bigger question gets to what Maddie Grant has been talking for years about humanizing online.

  • Irakli Beselidze

    Thank you for apreciating my efforts, Mark! Please let me put some more effort to substantiate my opinion.
    In the above comment I tried to explain that Buyer Persona research is the effective way to describe buyers’ context and no other research will give you an exact model of your customers’ behaviour. There is no other way to get that kind of actionable insights that explain why the market goes the way it is and what to do to make it better.
    For example: recently we’ve been conducting a Buyer Persona research for a top National TV-Channel. They spend millions of dollars every year on any kind of marketing research available on the market. The reason to hire me was simple: they just couldn’t understand why similar programms in the same timeslots produce different ratings and shares. After TV-viewer persona was done they just put all their data (we didn’t have the access to) into the model of ther viewers’ behaviour and many things become clear and easy to understand. They applied our recommendations for programming changes and just in 3 months increased their share by 66%!

  • Mark, absolutely. I think that’s the overall message here – when you do something, have a reason. Gary V is a great example. He set out to be contrary to the status quo and he does that very well. Therefore I would argue that many of his personas are open to a contrarian view of the world. I don’t believe personas operate in the ways marketers traditionally hold to be true. A persona is psychological makeup of the buyer – the difficulty is translating those psychological elements to measurable actions we can leverage.

  • Love you back : )

    One of the coolest thing about my job is that I get a wide exposure to what is going on out there through a diverse client base as well as interaction with hundreds of grad-level students activley working in the field. When I start to hear a common rumbling, it is usually time for a blog post commentary, and that is the case with this subject, especially when it come to persona-generated content.

    Your point is well taken about the businesses who are not customer-centric and I am grateful for it. If a business has no idea who their customer is (are they still in business?) then a persona may be a good place to start.

    But there is also a trend of over-selling customer personas (as people also oversell SEO, content marketing, etc of course) and I thought it was time for a rational perspective. Thanks very much for your comment sir.

  • Well said.

  • Very good point Candyce. Thank you.

  • Thank you. I appreciate the time you have put into the discussion.

  • I think you make a very good point here Rob. Certainly any strategy has to be in the context of the company culture. That is so true.

  • Yeah, it was late at night when I was responding to that. Don’t want to delete but the comment was too flippant. Thanks for your patience with me Randy : )

  • Hello and Good morning Mark. I’ll try to get back to my initial impression… I was saying I believe that persona development is smart. Not needed when a product/service is mature (which I believe is your point) except to educate a new team or team member (internal or external), but at the initial stages, still quite valuable.

  • It has indeed been an interesting debate. I think we’re all underlining a general need for authenticity wherever possible – whilst also living in the real world where it’s not always possible. And if, in that real world, you have less-than-completely-knowledgeable people creating your online content, you need to take whatever steps to give them a chance. Maybe then, a zero-sum game is something of a result compared to the pig’s ear they would make of it without guidance!

    These are such interesting times. This discussion would have been baffling/unnecessary/mysterious only 7-8 years ago. Cheers all

  • So true.

  • I work at a large, federated nonprofit organization with 700+ employees in 50 states and hundreds of thousands of constituents–donors, volunteers, staff, board members, children who are the recipients of our services and their extended families (not to mention alumni), medical professionals, medical students and the list goes on. We’ve just embarked upon a project to create personas for a handful of these segments. I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

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  • Making sure your personas serve you well can often boil down to the process that goes into researching and building them.

    Marketers with the best skills know exactly how they do and don’t intend to use their personas for messaging over time, and they make sure that this perspective informs the scope of work for persona development.

    Here’s a blog post I recently wrote on this very topic: http://www.lean-labs.com/blog/how-to-optimize-your-buyer-persona-research-process

  • It sounds like that would be a very useful starting point! Good luck!

  • Thanks for sharing Ben.

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  • Andrea Guzmán Siu

    Mark, after reading your comments I think that what the post is really about is personas being overused. Because when everybody is doing it, then you lose your competitive advantage.

    Was that your point?

  • Yes. I am trying to get people to think critically about this in the context of the current competitive environment.

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  • Nicole Desourdis

    I agree with this so much. Personas are great for zeroing in on your target, however can create offensive generalizations in a nation where a growing population is easily offended. We are more of an individualistic culture and don’t necesarilly like being grouped together. Personas can also leave out a huge potential market. A broader group that frequently changes and evolves is key.

  • Thanks for the insight Nicole.

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  • Very interesting post! What about, when it comes to dynamic website personalization or even email marketing. Surely you want to have several persona’s defined (by their behaviour rather than demographics) so that you can make the messages, images and content more relevant to them?

  • Wendy Kiana Kelly

    You know what? I am a huge huge huge fan of knowing your audience, but i very much agree with what you wrote here.
    I think the process can be super enlightening for some business owners, who still think that “everyone” is their customer. And if content is stagnant and not hitting the mark, well, perhaps it’s because you don’t know how to speak to your audience.
    But at the same time, doing busy work just so a “content strategist” can feel special and needed 🙂 is ridiculous.
    In my opinion, it’s all about results.

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  • Ricardo Morales Massin

    I`ve been learning and reading up on Buyer (customer) Personas. I think of them as very useful tools. What I got from this article is that when you already have a deep insight with your audience you already have what the persona gives you. Then the tool becomes redundant.
    In that instance, maybe people like the frustrated managers and presidents in the article can help shape the personas, so other not so experienced members of the team can have a more accurate depicition of the target.

  • Amen to that Wendy.

  • That’s a great idea. Thanks for sharing.

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