Why traditional personas are terrible (and how to make them better)

Marketers spend countless amounts of time and budget on quests to build the perfect buyer personas. Traditionally, buyer personas are created to understand more about the people buying your products, in order to make better decisions about content development, media strategy, and the holy grail – product development. Yet, marketers are frequently left scratching their heads when the product manager doesn’t give their slides more than just a passing glance, and their work is left to sit on the shelf. This post is an effort to dissect what’s wrong with the current way of creating buyer personas, and how to make them better.

Traditional buyer personas
Every marketer has seen the “buyer personas” that look something like this:


They are meant to give you a view into the inspirations and challenges of the person who is hypothetically buying your product. But this tells you…. What exactly? This would be great info if you happened to bump into “Marketing Mary” at a coffee shop, to ask her how her 2 kids are, how her job at her mid-sized company is going, and to hear her complain that “there’s not enough time in the day!” But what strategic product development decisions could you really make from this?

The traditional approach

The reality of personas is that they are a great way for marketers to pat themselves on the back with a deliverable (I’m guilty of this too- I have led many a personas project with surface-level outputs). However, the approach to creating personas is all wrong. In a typical personas project, a marketer or marketing team will identify the roles of people buying (or using) their product – from a service like Salesforce – and then proceed to contact those people via interviews or surveys.

The problem isn’t in wanting to create the personas or in the contact methods – it’s the actual questions that are being asked. Most personas questions focus around surface level questions – such as demographics and company stats. Some go a little deeper, by digging into challenges and what they like about your existing product (where more “patting on the back” comes in) but they aren’t uncovering any real insights.

How to make better personas: look at the true motivations and competitors

Creating better personas is possible – but it will take a change of perspective. 3 of the biggest changes you can make to your personas project to get better results is understanding their motivation, truly understanding their competitor set, and talking to churned customers.

Step 1: Uncover their motivation
My introduction to creating better personas came about accidentally during a research project I was doing utilizing the “Jobs to be done” framework. The premise of the framework is simple: People don’t hire your company just to have your company as a line item on their invoice, they have hired you to do a specific JOB. Take a drill – you don’t “hire” a quarter-inch drill just to have a new tool on your mantle, you hire it to create a quarter inch hole.

The Jobs to Be Done methodology was originally created by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. Here’s a great 5 minute video from a presentation he gave if you’re interested in learning more. Recently, the bay-area based company Intercom has done a great job of using this framework as well – and even wrote a book on it. The reason I’m bringing this framework into the personas conversation is that it really helped hone in on one simple question: What motivated you to buy? Out of all the research questions you can ask, understanding why your customers bought (or didn’t buy) is the crucial question.

  • When I ran this project for a client the results were very illuminating. We were able to define 4 very different customer segments based on their motivations to buy – and that drove everything. Without giving anything away about the company, here are the different motivations we found for the same product:
    Brand awareness
    Looking good to their boss
    Easy to use

Going into the project, the team I was working with hypothesized that everyone would care about ROI only. From this research, we were able to create different messaging strategies and marketing campaigns for each.

Step 2: Uncover the real competitors

One often-overlooked part about persona development is really understanding who the competitors are. Companies get so hyper-focused on who their direct competitors are that they miss who their customers are really giving share of wallet to.

For example, working with small business customers at Google AdWords, the micro-view is that the biggest competitor in that space is other digital advertising providers – like Facebook. However, you need to look at the entire share of voice of where potential customers could be spending their money on marketing. For small businesses, things like signage, or print advertising, local radio spots – all of those things are really competitors to digital marketing. Understanding that can put you in the potential customers’ shoes in a much more compelling way.

Step 3: Talk to churned customers

Above I mentioned that a key missing question is “What motivated you to buy?” – asking this to churned customers, and uncovering where you fell short – can be eye opening. Run your questionnaire to churned customers in the same way that you would run it with existing customers – but be sure to probe. Sometimes this turns into a feature request show, but often it’s much deeper than that. They likely hired your product for something that it fell short on – and this is something for you to uncover.

At the end of all this research, you will still net out with a neat slide based on your findings — but the results will be so much deeper.

Other thoughts on how to create better personas? Leave a comment or get in touch.

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