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How buyer personas can lead your marketing astray and how to fix them

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Recently we wrote an article on understanding your target market through the use of audience personas, and while personas can help with your marketing you should use them with caution.

Here are some of the most common problems you will face when using buyer personas in your marketing:

Buyer Personas are based on stereotypes

One of the main problems with buyer personas we find is they are often based on stereotypes. Typically you sit in a room with a marketing team coming up with our ideal user and the problems they face. It's not long before we create personas based on stereotypes rather than data.

To some businesses, having a persona "Director David" who makes $xxx,xxx a year, drives a BMW and plays golf on the weekend may be useful, but in reality, the above persona is based on a stereotype which is likely to be inaccurate.

Stereotypes based on job titles can be misleading and unhelpful when it comes to your marketing campaigns. Instead, you could look to create personas based on needs.

If you provide web design services, using the job title approach you may target the IT manager, but you are missing out many employees at a company who would also benefit from a new website.

For instance, what about John in sales who could use a new website that makes it easier for him to upload landing pages to generate more inbound leads, or Sarah the copywriter who finds it impossible to update the existing content on the website as it's too slow and crashes all the time. It wouldn't make sense to ignore these people in your marketing because they may have more pain points than the IT manager who thinks the website is fine.

Using a need-based persona approach will involve more people and identify the problems that they have which will lead to better content creation.

Often Inaccurate

Obtaining actionable data from customers is time-consuming and expensive, because of this, companies don't choose to collect this data and go to the next best thing in their eyes which usually is the sales team.

The problem with going to the sales team for answers is the sales teams goal isn't to find every single problem that the customer has, it's to find possibly one of them and then use that to hook the prospect in on the sale. The sales team often come into the process late and may have missed every touchpoint beforehand so you are often left with inaccurate data.

Customers also deal with different departments before purchasing and it's common for these departments not to collaborate, which leads to missing data which could be useful in your marketing campaign.

When data is missing companies tend to fill in that data with stereotypes as mentioned in the first section of this post. One B2B study was carried that found 84% of the participant's buyer personas were built on assumptions rather than accurate data. Another study showed that only 15% of respondents used qualitative research to build their personas.

From the two studies mentioned it's clear to see that there is a problem when it comes to collecting accurate data for your personas.

Limited sample size

Another problem with using a persona is that your sample size is limited which leads to the information being provided is skewed.

Personas are based on existing customers and their problems, but this excludes potential customers who have yet to buy from you. Marketing only to the same type of customer could lead to your business losing out on a bigger market share.

As a new business, it will take time to realise who your best customers are and if you only have a few to choose from you could be focusing all of your efforts around the wrong type of client.

Too many personas

The main reason for creating personas in business is that you want your marketing to speak to your ideal client in a way that will move them closer to a sale.

Companies can create too many personas and the marketing team are left with the impossible job of creating content for all of these different types of perfect customers. When this happens the personas either get ignored or the marketing team get lost and end up creating content to try to please everyone. This process then becomes a huge mess and doesn't help the business or its customers.

Non-human

It's easy to say you're targeting David the CEO with your marketing, but "CEO's" or "Directors" are not personas they are job titles and you will find that no two CEOs are the same. A job title and fictitious name are not good enough, people are more than a title and giving a person a title without more detail is one way of making your personas flat and non-human.

Manufactured personas are hard for your staff to understand and this makes your job of marketing to them more difficult.  When creating your personas you need to create them with enough detail that makes them human while still being backed on the data that you have collected.

Out of date

New businesses can pivot if they notice that their original idea for their business isn't working as well as they would like, in this pivot, your buyer personas can become out of date and new personas will need to be drawn up again.

Even if your business doesn't go through a drastic pivot you will often find your personas becoming out of date as you grow as a business.

A business will need to keep their personas updated as their business grows otherwise the information collected will become out of date and their marketing efforts which are based on these personas will attract the wrong type of customers.

If you target businesses with a revenue of 1 to 2 million in year one but are now working with companies 10 million + in revenue in year 5 your content marketing efforts are going to attract the wrong leads if you fail to update your personas.

How can we get the best use of buyer personas?

Buyer personas are useful when used correctly and to be used correctly they need to be based on actual data collected from first-hand market research from your existing customers.

A data-backed buyer persona will help you understand your target audience and will allow you to create an effective way of communicating with them through your inbound content marketing efforts.

No buyer persona is going to be perfect and ultimately assumptions will have to be made, however, these assumptions should be kept to a minimum where possible.

Finally, the data collected to create your personas should be relevant. Finding out if your "CEO persona" has a dog or a cat probably won't be relevant if your product cuts down on costs when hiring new staff.

Once you have gone through all of this effort to create an accurate persona you will need to keep it updated and you will also need to make sure that it is being used.

About the Author: David Jones is the head of content creation at FirewallTechnical.com a small business in Ottawa Canada that provides managed IT services to small business owners.

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