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7 Reasons Buyer Personas Fail

by Stacy Bouchard | Jan 20, 2016 3:00:00 PM

failing_personas.jpgWhen I was a B2B marketer at a small manufacturing firm, I was tasked with creating buyer personas. It was actually my idea. I had been trying to improve our overall approach and had read a lot about creating buyer personas. I decided it was something our sales and marketing team needed to do to improve our results – and give us some structure.

In general, the team agreed that we should create them. However, when it came down to actually doing the work, I had a hard time getting the team members to participate. While the sales reps believed it was a good idea, they couldn’t seem to find time in their schedules to provide input. The director of sales thought it would be nice to have them but also didn’t prioritize them. The owner believed that creating buyer personas was a waste of time because he knew who our customers were without going through such an exercise.

So I attempted to create them on my own. It was very difficult and what I was actually able to create were really more like “shells” instead of real buyer personas. While the information was somewhat helpful, it didn’t have any impact.

Since joining Imagine, I’ve learned that my experience creating personas isn’t uncommon. Many organizations create the “shells” like I did. A name, a few bullets about demographics, a few details about their issues…and call it done…now we have personas.

At the end of the day, their personas didn’t have any impact either. Their personas failed to do what they could do when created and used effectively. It was easy for them (and me) to ask themselves was it really worth the effort – no matter how limited it was – to put them together?

The truth is buyer personas are very valuable. In fact, a recent study from Cintell called the “2016 Benchmark Study on Understanding B2B Buyers,” found that companies that exceed lead and revenue goals were 7.4X more likely to have and updated personas in the last 6 months than companies that miss these targets.

Think about that. Companies that are exceeding their goals are more likely to have personas than companies that are not exceeding those goals. While the study does not, in any way, say that buyer personas are the clear, easy way to success, it does indicate that it is definitely a characteristic of companies that have measured success.

From my own experience, having personas is not enough to realize the same success as the companies in the study. There are several reasons your personas can fail and it begins with your approach to creating them.

1. Your personas are not documented

The CEO of the small manufacturing company I was with argued that we didn’t need buyer personas because he knew who our customers were/are/should be. I do not doubt that he had accumulated a lot of very valuable information in his head about our buyer personas and he probably even shared it here and there. But if everyone in the company doesn’t have a clear understanding of who the buyers are, how can they succeed? It is not enough to have an idea about who they are. They must be documented.

2. Your buyer personas are not complete

Sure understanding the demographics of your buyer personas is important but it’s not the only thing you need to know. The people you are trying to be a hero to are a lot more than an age, a title and a degree. Spend the time to get to know them and understand what makes them tick and keeps them up at night.

3. Your personas were created in a vacuum

Marketing has a lot to offer when it comes to creating personas but so do sales reps, customer service reps and technical support…actually anyone who interacts with customers and prospects. Get input from the CEO and the Director of Sales but focus on the team members who have the most direct contact with prospects and customers.

In the Cintell study, one of the greatest challenges identified by marketers is getting the organization as a whole to value personas. The first step in making that happen is collaboration when creating them.

4. You think your personas are done

Perhaps the single, greatest reason for failure is approaching the creation of buyer personas as a one and done project. Personas are meant to be a living and breathing document. Things are constantly changing…market conditions, regulations, internal priorities…that means your personas are changing too.

Also, what you believe about your personas when you put them together may not be entirely true. It is important to adjust as you evaluate your marketing efforts. If you thought a certain issue was very important but no one downloads the whitepaper you create to help them address that issue, then it’s time to revisit your assumptions.

5. Your personas are in a file folder on your desk

What good is a document that is filed away where no one can see it? Or hidden in an obscure folder on your company’s server? It’s hard to keep them alive when they’re hidden. Share them with the entire organization. Review them often.

6. You haven’t identified the right personas

At Imagine, we have created primary, secondary and negative personas for ourselves. It is the same approach we take with clients.

The reality of B2B buying is that more than one person plays a role in the buying decision. It is just as important to know who the influencers are as it is to know who the main decision maker is. Account for the influencers by creating secondary personas for them. Our Buyer Persona Workbook provides more details on how to create them.

7. Your market-facing team doesn’t talk about buyer personas at least 3 times per day

As I was writing this post, I had a discussion with Doug about who I was really writing the post for – which persona and why would they care. This type of conversation is not unusual for us. Doug and I talk about our personas all of the time. They guide every decision we make.

It is important that all of the work you do to create your personas translates into your execution plan as well. Create a content map and tag your content to each persona. When creating your editorial calendar, create topics that relate to the issues you discovered your personas are facing.

Buyer personas are a valuable tool when created and used the right way. Invest the time and energy to make sure yours don’t fail.