6 Clues You Got Buyer Personas Wrong


Hint: Their affinity for Shark Tank is probably irrelevant.

Contributed by Katie Martell

Buyer Personas are a big deal in most product marketing circles.  You can find over 500,000 search results on the topic, most supporting the need for buyer personas as a foundational component of effective product marketing. You’ll hear industry experts, consultants, and industry pros alike advocating their adoption. In fact, 73% of companies currently use, or plan to use, buyer personas (ITSMA).

It’s too bad that, all too often, they don’t live up to the hype.

Don’t get me wrong. Buyer Personas are absolutely one of the most important go-to-market tools that a product marketer can have. Unfortunately, they’re frequently not created in a way that adds any real insight. (That’s not my opinion: 85% of companies aren’t using buyer personas correctly, according to the same ITSMA survey.)

If you’re wondering why those Buyer Personas you created aren’t quite helping, here are six red flags that might explain why:

1. Your Personas are little more than a demographic profile.

Our definition of a buyer persona may actually be the root cause for their failure.

There is a sharp difference between demographic segmentation (“CIOs and companies with over 5,000 employees in the manufacturing industry”) and in-depth buyer personas that represent a comprehensive view of the characteristics, attributes, motivations, and interests of these segments.

Buyer personas should seek to understand our targets as humans – how they make decisions, what drives their actions, how they behave.

2. You’re keeping them to yourself.

It’s 10am. Do you know where your personas are?

At the recent Content2Conversion conference, Erin Provey of SiriusDecisions described the current format of buyer personas, “I’ve literally seen binders on desks with pages of persona insights, qualitative and quantitative insights that cost thousands of dollars to produce.”

Buyer personas, in theory, are highly useful strategy documents. Why then are they so hard to find, trapped in PDFs and Powerpoints at the bottom of a desk drawer, or at best, maybe on the company intranet?

Personas should be made available throughout the business, referenced quickly and easily to guide the direction of marketing, sales, and product decisions.

3. You let them gather dust.

The million-dollar question for many product people is, “when was the last time you updated your buyer personas?”

Unfortunately the response often comes back in the form of years.

Personas are often not refreshed until a new regime change comes in. But if this is the case, you may miss the inevitable changes in that occur within fast-moving industries, whether regulatory (new compliance laws) economic (hard times in specific industries), or demographic (new or retiring buyers).

What’s worse, without refreshing personas on an ongoing basis, you may miss critical new influencers that emerge in the buying process. This information can be found in your CRM, happening in real-time in your marketing automation system, understood anecdotally in your sales pit, or revealed in primary persona interviews. 

4. You never actually talked to a buyer.

This might just be the biggest faux pas on the list. The process of creating strong personas should actually look like this:

  1. Interviews with real buyers (gasp!)
  2. Collaboration with other departments (say it ain’t so!)
  3. Challenges to your beliefs or deep-rooted assumptions (Nooo!)

I know. Take a deep breath. It will be okay.

There is no silver bullet for buyer personas. To get it right involves time-consuming interviews with real people, and an examination of the results with an open mind. This takes up bandwidth, may shift and pivot strategy, and – yes – calls for collaboration with other teams in the company.

A surefire way to create personas that don’t work is to do so in a conference room, doors shut, without involving other departments or speaking with real buyers.

5. You aren’t consulting them to make tactical decisions.

Buyer personas that cannot guide real-world strategy are fundamentally useless. They may look nice on the wall of your cubicle, but what value do they really provide? Personas should not be approached as a checklist item and filed away once completed. Instead, consider personas as “active tools” – objects that inform marketing strategy.

In an eBook I recently worked on (with the brilliant Ardath Albee), we laid out some pointers for getting tactical with personas. Feel free to check it out.

6. You focused on a lot of useless detail.

I’ve seen a lot of product and marketing pros dive quickly into minutia with personas. But if for example you sell B2B conferencing software, the fact that a persona may drive a minivan and prefer The Bachelor over Shark Tank really doesn’t serve to inform a salesperson’s call strategy, a marketer’s email campaign, or a product manager’s roadmap.

Now, B2B personas that contain these details may have been created in an attempt to humanize the persona, the spirit of which should be celebrated!

But this type of detail is extraneous. There are better ways to humanize a buyer in a way that is relevant to our day to day job responsibilities – and it starts with empathy.

Anything I missed? Share your Buyer Persona thoughts in the comments.

KatieMartellKatie Martell is the Co-Founder and CMO of Cintell, a cloud-based customer intelligence platform that enables companies to better understand their buyers, and board member of the American Marketing Association Boston Chapter, where she serves as VP of Content Strategy. Follow her on Twitter at @KatieMartell



Persona photo by Nicholas Nova on Flickr commons, used with permission.

One thought on “6 Clues You Got Buyer Personas Wrong

  1. Great insights, Katie. And I agree, failing to interview actual customers is the biggest (and most common) sin. You might think it’s lack of time, but the truth is many folks don’t feel comfortable doing customer interviews. For tips on handling these challenging conversations, check out this article I collaborated on with my friend Neil Baron: http://www.fastcompany.com/3016940/how-to-be-a-success-at-everything/zen-and-the-art-of-constructive-conversations.


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