The Most Common Mistakes with Customer Personas

Most marketing consultants know that most marketers create personas that don't work. Here are the five most common customer persona challenges.

First, most are limited to customer archetypes and demographic data. But demographic data is pretty much worthless when crafting relevant and personalized messaging, offers or other engagement content. That's why most personas are a one-time marketing exercise that fails to advance marketing and sales goals, gets ignored by the sales force and results in a waste of time.

However, when personas include the right mix of psychographic, behavioral and firmographic data they do aid more effective marketing communications and sales conversations.

Determining that mix of customer intelligence requires market research and customer conversations. From my experience in creating customer personas, I've found the most powerful combination of persona characteristics to be based upon the customers goals, obstacles and frustrations, within the context of acquiring, using and replacing whatever it is that your company sells. Below is a screen shot of a customer persona I created for a client in the software technology industry.

Persona CMO

The second limitation of personas is identifying customer archetype data, but not providing guidance to your customer facing staff. That's why the above persona characteristics include two columns – one for customer behaviors and a corresponding for staff guidance. Guidance helps ensure every employee responds consistently with the most proven responses.

The third common mistake is creating too many personas or personas for each customer contact type or role. The number needed will be determined by your market research, which will identify the number of unique insights attributed to buyer or customer types. Remember, insights are the end goal for personas, so the number of unique insights – relative to the company's products or services – will determine the number of personas needed to better acquire and retain customers.

Creating multiple personas which share the majority of insights does not add value. If the market research finds that the VP of Sales and the CMO share the bulk of insights then you don't need a persona for each. Too few personas result in overly broad communication and fail to deliver the relevancy and personalization to engage. To many create duplication, confusion and a lack of focus. From my experience in developing personas for clients I typically find four to six personas will cover all necessary customer insights.

The fourth error is not supplementing personas with insights. This is the costliest error, and the single biggest reason personas fail to gain traction with the sales force. Insights vary by industry and customer. However, I have found the highest value insights answer five key questions for each persona.

  1. Change event. What compels the buyer to make a change from the status quo? What is the impetus or triggering event?
  2. Purchase process. What's the buyers purchase process?
  3. Purchase obstacles. What prevents the buyer from completing a purchase?
  4. Decision criteria. What are the buyers top decision-making criteria?
  5. Top benefits. What benefits does the buyer expect from the new product or solution?

Below is an insights profile record that I've embedded in both Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Salesforce CRM systems. Integrating the persona and insights data with the CRM system makes the data actionable by the sales team and customer facing staff.

Persona CMO Insights

For companies with unique lines of business or divergent products, insights may need be categorized by product and purchase cycle phase. This doesn't increase the number of personas but illustrates how insights shift for each stage in their purchase process.

The fifth mistake is failing to evolve insights once the customer is acquired. Buyer insights are the beginning, not the end, of the customer persona record. Just as buyer insights are critical in acquiring new customers, customer insights are essential in growing customer share and retaining customers. Social media graphs provide a particularly rich source for meaningful customer profiles.

Customer insights will include things like customer communication preferences (based on opt-in or engagement history), customer concerns (based on customer service cases or email text analytics), customer interests (based on digital footprints highlighting content consumption or opportunity scores), recommended content (based on customer interests or purchase history) and next-best-offer or next-best-action recommendations (based on usage patterns or machine learning algorithms). These are the insights that enable improved customer relationships and customer retention.

The Point is This

Good personas tell a story. They resist the temptation to become data intensive profile pages, and instead focus on the most salient points that drive an engagement narrative.

Personas backed with the right insights are powerful tools for better engaging, converting and retaining customers. They identify the highest fit customers, enable the most precise messaging and value propositions, and help shift focus from broad customer segments you could sell to, to highly focused customers you should sell to.