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6 Careless Mistakes That Lead to Inaccurate Buyer Personas

persona-outlineCreating a buyer persona is easy -- heck, you probably already have a picture in your head of your company's ideal customer. But creating an accurate buyer persona is hard. And creating a few different buyer personas -- which almost every business will need to do -- and deciding which ones to prioritize is even harder.

As one college professor liked to tell me, the best way to succeed is to anticipate your mistakes. This applies to everything from love to marketing (which happen to share some eerie similarities). With that in mind, here are some common mistakes to anticipate before you start to craft your buyer personas:

1) Relying on Anecdotal Evidence From Your Team

For marketers, it's incredibly easy to rely on your team for research when creating buyer personas. Ask the accounts team what current customers are saying, ask the sales team what they're hearing from prospective customers, have the interns do some online research, and call it a day, right?

Not so fast.

For starters, your current customers aren't always the best example of the person who would buy your product today; the pain points of yesteryear aren't the pain points of 2014. And the pain points of current customers are different than those of someone who's never worked with you before. While your accounts team should definitely be finding out as much as they can about your current customers' challenges, that information shouldn't necessarily be dictating your buyer personas.

If you can convince them to work it into their conversations, have your sales reps ask potential buyers questions like, "How did you hear about us?" and "Out of curiosity, why did you choose us over X competitor?" The more information you have, the better, but remember that not all sales reps are likely to dig for the kind of in-depth insights that you need. Instead, you need to get out there and conduct intensive interviews.

2) Asking the Wrong Questions

Since creating a buyer persona is all about crafting an archetype of the types of people who would choose your product, it can be pretty easy to fall down a rabbit hole of irrelevant questions: Where did they go to school? How do they dress? Do they like yogurt?

When I was a poor, young journalist moonlighting as a consultant in the ad world, I found this blog post by Adele Revella, author of The Buyer Persona Manifesto, extremely helpful. These are the five insights she suggests pursuing, and I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Priority initiatives: What are the three to five problems or objects that your buyer persona dedicates time, budget, and political capital to?
  • Success factors: What are the tangible or intangible metrics or rewards that the buyer associates with success, such as “grow revenue by X” or a promotion?
  • Perceived barriers: What factors could prompt the buyer to question whether your company and its solution can help with achieving his or her success factors? This is when you begin to uncover unseen factors, such as competing interests, politics, or prior experiences with your company or a similar company.
  • Buying process: What process does this persona follow in exploring and selecting a solution that can overcome the perceived barriers and achieve their success factors?
  • Decision criteria: What aspects of each product will the buyer assess in evaluating the alternative solutions available? To be useful, the decision criteria should include insights both from buyers who chose a competitor and those who decide not to buy a solution at all.

3) Only Talking to Recent Buyers

People who just bought your product are definitely pleasant to talk to; they're excited and happy and optimistic about your company. Plus, you probably have carte blanche to take them out for drinks. But the people who chose your competitor instead are arguably even more valuable. After all, they are recent buyers -- it's just that they just didn't buy from you. And as a bonus, you can steal some great competitive insights from those conversations.

You also don't want to just talk to people at the bottom of the funnel. Prospects in the beginning or middle of their purchase journey are incredibly valuable to talk to, as well. After all, as a marketer, reaching top and middle funnel folks is the name of the game.

4) Not Talking to Enough People

A good buyer persona interview requires a substantial, in-depth conversation, but convincing someone to sit down with you for 20-30 minutes isn't always easy. That leads a lot of marketers to say "Screw it" and rely on a small sample size.

Get a statistically significant amount of data by sweetening the pot. Gift cards work well.

5) Letting Your Persona Photo Drive Your Insights

Once you've started to craft your buyer personas, it's definitely helpful to mine stock photo sites to put a face to a persona -- it just helps keep your team on the same page. However, it's also deceptively easy to start making things up about your buyer persona based off that stock photo; after all, good marketers are good storytellers, and it's easy to start telling yourself stories about the face you're staring at all day long.

Before choosing a face for your buyer persona, be sure to really flesh out your persona in writing, and return to that text often throughout the process.

6) Creating Too Many Buyer Personas

Creating dozens of buyer personas is another tempting fruit in the buyer persona garden; it just feels like you're being more focused and specific! But usually, you simply don't need a buyer persona for every potential job title or industry vertical. The distinguishing characteristics are quite often trivial at best and fictional at worst.

Instead, group buyers based on the analysis you glean from your interviews; you'll end up with a clear picture of the handful of people you can target to take your business to the next level.

What common buyer persona mistakes do you think marketers should watch out for? Share them in the comments for the greater good!

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