Does this sound familiar? The leadership team calls a meeting to discuss buyer personas. Everyone sits around the boardroom table, tossing out ideas about what the people who buy your products or services are like.
It’s not pulled out of thin air. Your head of sales reminds you about the big client you won in 2020—they’re a great new client! Your CEO cites a few long-standing client relationships and the similarities between them. Your CMO chimes in with observations about the clients who regularly attended your webinar series last year.
The meeting adjourns with directives for your CMO to create a slide deck about personas based on your discussions here today.
Not so fast. Do not pass go, do not open up that PowerPoint template. This is where we consistently see organizations go wrong in creating buyer personas. It’s not enough to rely on anecdotal evidence to build your personas. Individuals have blind spots and biases that influence their opinions about who their organization’s best customers are.
Instead, you need proof for your personas. And that proof comes in the form of customer data. When you create buyer personas backed by actual data about your customers, you build customer-centric personas that empower you to make meaningful marketing decisions and, in turn, attract more of the right kind of customers.
Why does this proof matter, and how do you gather it? Let’s explore.
What Makes a Great Buyer Persona?
At its core, a buyer persona is a representation of your best customer. Yes, it is a fictional amalgamation of your best customers, but it should not be based on fantasy.
The problem with these anecdotally-generated buyer personas is that they often tick off demographic or firmographic boxes without providing real insight into the “why” behind your customers’ purchasing decisions.
Take this example: You have two individuals. Both are 73-year-old British men. Both are wealthy and have a soft spot for sports cars and dogs. They both enjoy ski vacations in the Alps. If you were to consider only the demographics of these individuals, you’d say they’d likely make similar purchasing decisions.
But what if you learned that both Prince Charles of the British royal family and Ozzy Osbourne, Prince of Darkness, fit this demographic profile?
These two princes are demographically similar, but they are worlds apart in terms of their behaviors, attitudes, and values.
Great segmentation goes beyond surface-level facts and figures and considers the deeper motivations behind your best customers’ actions. It’s not about who buys from you, it’s about why they buy from you.
Avoiding the Demographic Trap
You now understand the dangers of relying solely on demographic or firmographic data. So what can you do to explore your ideal buyer’s mindset and uncover the true pain points that drive them to buy?
You need to actually speak with buyers. Conduct in-depth interviews with your best customers. The Pareto Principle dictates that 80 percent of an organization’s sales come from 20 percent of buyers. The people you want to speak with are those in that 20 percent.
These customer interviews are your chance to understand not just the facts and figures about your customers, but to uncover why they rely on your business to solve their problems. The Sterling Woods model for segmentation considers firmographics or demographics, but also looks at the values, attitudes, and behaviors of customers.
What mindset do your best customers have about your category? Which of your core values matter most to them? What sorts of behaviors do you see from your best customers when they interact with your brand?
We typically recommend partnering with a market research firm to conduct these interviews. There is an art and a science to the process, and gathering complete and accurate data from these interviews is a critical step in crafting meaningful buyer personas.
After you’ve conducted in-depth interviews with a dozen or so of your best customers, it’s time to write a quantitative customer survey. This survey should be based on your learnings from the interviews. Sending the survey to a wider swath of your customer base will allow you to validate findings from your interviews and zero in on the nuances of why people buy from you.
Creating Your Buyer Persona
Armed with your customer data from interviews and surveys, you are now ready to craft effective buyer personas.
Start with data as your foundation. You’ll need to apply machine learning techniques like k-means clustering to build statistically stable segments. Then it’s time to let the right side of the brain kick in.
Some marketing teams go all-out by creating personas with names, photos, and complete backstories. While this is certainly a fun way to flex your creative muscles, it can actually detract from the ultimate point of the exercise.
Introducing names and photos for fictional people can actually create biases in how you utilize your buyer personas.
Additionally, these types of personas often struggle to gain traction beyond the marketing department. They can come across as cheesy, subsequently causing colleagues in sales, IT, and other departments to have trouble embracing them.
Instead, create buyer personas that are anonymized, concise, and clear. Each buyer persona should be detailed, with demographic and psychographic data, but there’s no need to give the persona a life story dating back to childhood. Stick only to the facts that are relevant to why they purchase from your company.
These straightforward buyer personas are less likely to cause confusion when it comes to enacting business strategies to reach these segments. A great buyer persona will provide enough information to make informed decisions about how to reach your best customers while avoiding the fluff that detracts from actionable customer data.
How To Use Personas
Once you’ve done the heavy lifting of creating your data-informed buyer personas, you want to put them to good use! Well-crafted buyer personas don’t just help your marketing team; sales, product, and customer success teams can benefit from them as well.
Marketers should use buyer personas to craft targeted content. Write blogs that speak to the pain points of your various segments. Create segmented email marketing campaigns that send tailored messages to each persona. Build target audiences for your digital advertising campaigns and design ad campaigns for each segment.
Sales teams can use buyer personas to guide discussions and product demos. Sales professionals are at their best when they can speak to the pain points and concerns of their prospects. Thoughtful buyer personas provide insight into a prospect’s motivations and help anticipate potential objections.
When you understand the reasons your best customers rely on your business, you can create new products to address those primary needs. Product teams should tap into buyer personas when brainstorming how they can improve upon existing offerings or build out new ones.
Your customer success team can create scripts that address the root concerns your customers have about how your product or service can solve their problems. They can also proactively create content, such as explainer videos and product guides, that teach customers how to use the product features that address those foundational concerns.
Data-driven buyer personas have the power to change how your entire organization serves your customers. When you understand their motivations and mindset, each move you make works towards serving those underlying needs. Your business grows more efficient in delighting your customers, and it becomes easier for you to find ideal customers who love what you do. A carefully constructed buyer persona has the power to create positive results for years to come.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.
Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.
Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, two daughters, and black lab.