creating buyer personas

Creating and maintaining buyer personas has been an important task in every role I’ve held as a marketer. Why is that? Personas–when built and used correctly–are a very effective way to channel real empathy for your buyers. That empathy makes it easier to drive winning strategies across the customer lifecycle through campaigns, content, nurture paths, account plans, and sales collateral.

They also happen to be one of the things I speak with our customers about most frequently–hence this blog post! So, whether you’re looking to create your first persona or double-check your approach, here are four things that can limit the impact of your personas:

Mistake #1: Your Personas Were Made in a Vacuum

Have you spoken with your personas lately? No, I’m not talking about some kind of weird, talking-to-a-PDF kind of activity. I mean, have you interviewed the people who would correspond to each persona’s defining factors, specifically to validate that persona? From what I’ve observed, this is one of the most common mistakes when it comes to creating personas.

These “lab grown” personas stem from assuming you know your personas well enough without external validation. Maybe because your organization is pretty open and you have good proximity to prospects and customers. Or maybe you’ve lived in the persona’s shoes yourself (this is a big one–it’s something I struggle with here at Marketo). Lived experiences are valuable, but me, myself and I is a limited and biased sample. Customer and prospect pools are inherently exclusionary.

Luckily, it’s easier to fix than you think: send out some emails and set up some 30-minute interviews. Start with a handful of people–a mix of customers, prospects, and total strangers who look like your persona–and ask them about the details your persona documents. Pro tip: It can be tough to find willing strangers to interview, but a combo of colleagues’ networks, LinkedIn InMails, and $50 Amazon gift cards will get you anywhere.

Mistake #2: You Aren’t Sharing

Hey there, persona hoarder. I see you. You made that great persona and you’re using it to drive your messaging and marketing programs, aren’t you? But have you walked your demand generation team through the persona they’re creating nurture programs for? What about sales or customer success? Have you printed it out so they can tape it to the inside their decks like a Leonardo DiCaprio poster circa 1997? (Always an option.)

Your customer-facing colleagues need to exercise those empathy muscles to do their jobs well. If you aren’t sharing your fresh, validated persona knowledge, they’re going to make it up as they go. So, train and retrain on buyer personas often. Ensure they’re easy to find among your internal content resources and welcome questions, contributions, and ideas from folks who deal with these people each and every day. Personas should make us all better at what we do.

Mistake #3: You’re Fixating on Cute–Not Helpful–Details

A lot of marketers characterize their personas with photos or names. To be clear, those details can be a good thing. It helps humanize a generalized portrait of your buyer and makes it easier for folks on your team to use a persona as a reference point. For example, “Would Emily the Email Specialist want to read this blog post? What tone would she respond to?” The problem I have is when those details run amok.

Emily has a French Bulldog. She drives a Jeep Liberty. She only reads People Magazine when she gets her hair done.

Really? Do those details help your team make better decisions about how to reach Emily? Maybe, if you sell dog sweaters or hair products. Otherwise, elevate your persona details to focus on what will drive business outcomes and catch yourself before you get carried away on the nitty gritty when it doesn’t.

Mistake #4: Your Persona Is Frozen in Time

This is an easy one: update your personas! Revisit them every quarter or two, especially if they’re critical personas like a budget holder or key decision-maker. Yes, we’re busy as marketers, but if your personas haven’t been touched since they were researched during the last Winter Olympics, your hopelessly out-of-date Rip Van Persona might not be helpful anymore. In fact, it may be causing more harm than good–buyers’ challenges, goals, and trusted resources can evolve rapidly in the digital age.

Want to learn more about creating and maintaining personas? I share these tips and a few other persona perspectives in a recent Marketo Live interview with the delightful Ellen Gomes.