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In the past few years “buyer personas” have become a standard marketing tool or concept. Unfortunately for many, they have become another “box to check” on the ever-growing list of things marketers must do … often without much to show for the effort. So … are personas a real asset to marketers or just another faux marketing fad?

Are Personas Real or Fake?

This makes us wonder if there are any examples of personas that really have made a difference. Are there personas that have unveiled new insights or explained prospect behavior beyond the obvious or redirected marketing activities in a way that would not have otherwise happened?

Let me share a story about real marketer managing a real product where you would not think a persona would add anything useful, but … well, let’s read on …

Tell Me a Real Persona Story!

It was a dark and stormy meeting … at least for the marketing director at this large, well-known (unnamed) security software company. You see, this marketer was just given the assignment to launch the latest version of enterprise-level security software specifically designed for small and medium businesses (SMB).

Naturally, she and her team had just identified all the new features of Version 11 and highlighted how this would solve problems that Version 10 couldn’t touch. Thank God for Version 11! So now it was time to gear up for the launch …

Except that incremental growth for new versions had pretty much stalled in recent years. And growth was needed for this flagship product!

So they considered checking with their persona to see how their messaging resonated before they put the big bucks (and their reputations) behind it.

On the surface, this seemed like an unnecessary delay. This company had practically invented the category, they had been selling to SMB for years, and, OMG, this is Version Eleven!!

Seriously―what did they need to “figure out” about this? Why not just identify the top three new features, tell them it’s enterprise-grade, and get going?!?

But … that’s exactly what the marketing managers for the previous versions had done and results had not been stellar. It was decided to do a little persona research to find out how SMB decision-makers actually made decisions about security software.

So, they conducted about a dozen (not a hundred!) in-depth exploratory interviews (not quantitative surveys) with carefully-selected individual prospects (not focus groups). This approach yielded lots of insights from relatively quick and inexpensive research effort.

And What Was the Real Story?

First, they discovered that the last thing their prospects really wanted to know about was the cool new features of Version 11! The more they heard about features they did not really understand―or want to understand―the more fud they felt. All they needed―or wanted―to know was that this software had been updated and improved nearly a dozen times, so it was certainly good enough for them.

In fact, they were not excited about getting enterprise-level security for their SMB. Instead, they were worried that something that large and complex would overwhelm their small IT infrastructure. They wanted reassurance that the software would let them operate as usual. More was not more … less was more!

In sum, the persona research revealed that the original, logical, and even obvious marketing strategy would have actually suppressed response! And applying this persona insight had the impact of greatly improving marketplace response … and their careers! Now that’s real!

So Why Did This Persona Make a Difference?

One small but large point about this story … notice that the impact on the business came not from simply “doing” a persona, but from how they did it.

  • First, they challenged their assumptions―even though they seemed well-founded―and applied new learning to yield new outcomes.
  • Then they conducted real research with real prospects―they did not sit in a conference room and “make up” a persona from their assumptions.
  • They explored how prospects thought in an open-ended manner―they did not survey pre-identified questions on how many people said X or Y.
  • They made sure to understand the context and process for buying any security software, not just what they liked about this version.

Got More?

It turns out, this isn’t the only story about personas that pack a punch. There are lots more. In fact, we are putting together a series of a dozen difference makers … just in case you (or your team) needs some fact-based inspiration.