I have a love/hate relationship with buyer personas. For starters, the term “buyer” persona already puts the focus on a sale, rather than a relationship. For inbound marketing, we should be thinking in terms of “audience” personas. Who is going to be reading all this amazing stuff we create?

Whatever you choose to call them, personas play a critical role in developing effective inbound marketing strategies.

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Yes, you really do need audience personas

Who is your customer? Who are you marketing to? Personas help you answer these questions. They also help you avoid sandtrap answers like, “Everyone!” or “Moms.”

There are 85 million mothers in America. There’s no way your product is right for all of them. I buy Pampers. My sister buys Huggies. We’re different women with different parenting styles.

Bottom line: You can’t market to everyone. Not everyone needs your product. Your brand doesn’t speak to everyone. Saying that your marketing is geared toward “mothers” or “kids” or even “college kids” is just lazy. Figure out who your customer really is.

How do you do that? You ask them.

Personas need less creativity, more data

Some audience personas read more like creative writing exercises than marketing research. I love writing — I’m a published poet and have my own novel I keep meaning to finish, but when it comes to audience personas I think less is more. Stick with the information that matters, and that is fact-based.

B2B companies should start with their contacts database. Does your list skew toward a specific industry? What are the job titles most commonly associated with quality leads and customers? B2C companies can look at gender if one is specified, household income, number of family members in that household. Any data that indicates a trend in your contacts is good for your persona.

Love them or hate them, personas are everything when it comes to inbound marketing.

Dig into your analytics as well. If most of your emails are opened on a mobile device, then a mobile preference should be in your persona. If your Facebook blows up at night and on the weekends, add that social schedule to your persona.

The next step is to reach out with a customer survey. Ask them how they prefer to receive branded content and communications. What are their pain points? What are their interests?

Eventually, you want a list of information gleaned from research, analysis, and engagement with your customers. Remember, your audience personas are representations of your customers– not fictionalized customers, and not actual customers.

A name and a picture are nice, but more important is data like the following:

  • Role in the family (or organization)
  • Location
  • Age or birthday
  • Income range (or company value)
  • Goals
  • Challenges
  • Online behaviors
  • Shopping preferences
  • Communication preferences

Putting your personas to work

Now that you’ve developed awesome personas, it’s time to put them to work. A lot of inbound marketers create the persona, then never look at it again. Every decision you make as a marketer should start with, “Would my audience persona benefit from this? What would my audience persona say about this?”

Personas are your lighthouse, your compass, and your co-pilot. Literally everything you do as an inbound marketer should have a persona at its core. Your audience persona should be linked to email lists, blog posts, social campaigns, landing pages, premium content pieces and more.

Bottom line: You can’t market to everyone. Not everyone needs your product.

After a campaign launches and you review performance data, check back in on your persona. If an email campaign has abysmal click-through rates, go back to your persona and see if you missed the mark on answering their challenge.

Personas, just like the people they represent, should grow and change over time. Check in on your personas on a quarterly basis to make sure that they still accurately reflect your audience.

Personas are about more than marketing

There are two personas many companies forget to include in their research: employees and other internal stakeholders. Why are these two personas important for an inbound marketer?

Culture Carla
Authenticity is a huge part of effective marketing, and marketing can do a lot of heavy lifting for recruitment. Your company’s brand can be a powerful attraction (or deterrent!) for recruits. Put your persona-building power to work by creating a persona just for your talent recruitment and retention. This persona asks the question, “How will our current employees view us if we take this action? How would a future employee view us?”

Gatekeeper Gary
If you have to get every project approved by an internal stakeholder (or a team of them), you need a persona that helps you identify the pain points, challenges, and opportunities of that audience. Conduct an audience research survey on your internal stakeholders, develop pitches with their concerns in mind, and win the boardroom over.

Personas keep you thinking “people-first”

I love the technical side of marketing–lead scoring, email open rate analysis, landing page conversion reports. Yes, please! But, it’s important as marketers to remember than numbers are the result, not the goal. The goal is to help or delight our audience. Personas help us remember that great marketing is about people, not products.