Marketing Question: To Persona or Not to Persona

Different Points of View regarding Personas 

Persona men

I just finished reading a post on {grow}, Mark Schaefer’s blog, questioning the value of Buyer Personas as a viable marketing technique.

His premise was that Personas may have had its day in the sun given that content is clogging the internet and it is more difficult to stand out.  Besides, Schaefer asks, aren’t your competitors targeting the same Persona?

As further support for his argument to toss Personas to the curb, Schaefer describes a scene where an ad agency (responsible for creative execution) and a CMO were working on creating a Buyer Persona.  The CMO became increasingly frustrated during the exercise and finally exploded with…

“Why are we spending time on this?” she asked. “Are you telling me I don’t know my customers and can’t write about something that is relevant and interesting to them? I have worked in this business for over 30 years!”

I gave her a standing ovation in my mind, says Schaefer. 


I could not disagree more.  Rather than giving the client a standing “O”, the mental expletives going off in my brain would have been more like,

OMG, here’s another client who thinks they know their customers

Before I explain why my reaction would be the exact opposite of Schaefer’s, I should make clear that I am a {grow} fan.  I’m a frequent reader of the blog and do find time listen to the podcasts.  In that process, I’ve come to admire Mark Schaefer.

I just don’t agree with him about Personas.

Let’s begin with the purpose of a Persona.

Personas Serve Many Purposes

What the client and perhaps Schaefer don’t realize is a Persona has a multi-faceted purpose.  It is not just for the CMO – nor should the CMO be the only or primary source of Persona input.  Ultimately, a Persona is for everyone inside and outside the company, like the ad agency.

Many of whom have NOT in the industry for 30 years

This is particularly true for the ad agency.  Before it can select the right images, craft compelling copy, strengthen or build from scratch a strong company image, it has to synthesize the customer.  You don’t do that out of thin air.  You do that with a strong ‘sense’ of who the company is servicing.  That ‘sense’ comes from tapping into the brains of those who do know the customer.

The agency needs to know who they are trying to attract.  See the image below.  Both are women, let’s say in their early 30’s, yet they are on opposite sides of the plant.

Which is your Persona?

Which is your Persona

How about those inside the company?   Does Customer Service, all of the sales representatives, the new hires, do all of the company staff understands who they are serving?

The answer?  Probably not.

How do I know?

My Experience Tells Me So

I’ve been on both sides of Schaefer’s scenario.  I’ve been a client and I’ve been in those agency meetings trying to extract information from clients about their customers.

If Schaefer thinks it is painful for the client, he should be in the agency shoes.  It can be absolutely excruciating.  Think surgery without anesthetic.

If you talk to 10 people within one company, you might walk away with 10 dissimilar audience profiles.  Yet, there are a few rare companies where the audience profile is highly targeted and with each interview, you gain new insight.

Eventually, what many agencies do – the smarter agencies – is ignore – or at a minimum, supplement the clients’ perceptions through secondary and/or primary research data.  They will use their own personal interviews with customers and with others in the industry.

At the end of the day, it is often the ad agency that really knows the customer – far better than the client.

Why not depend on the client’s input? 

There are several reasons.

1.  Often the client who has been in the industry for 30 years believes they know the customers when they really don’t.  While they’ve been climbing the corporate ladder, the customer has evolved.  Sometimes, subtly, other times dramatically. Too often the client hasn’t kept tabs on it.

Typically, clients don’t realize these shifts have occurred until late in the game when they begin to see erosion in sales.

2.  Industry specialists become jaded over time.  Its human nature, but it tends to cloud their perceptions of their customers.

More times than I like to recall, I hear the identical same story from clients – many in totally different industries.  I cringe every time I hear:

All the customer cares about is a cheap price… a deal… a bargain.

This is a clear sign to me that the client really doesn’t know their customers like they think they do.

Yes customers care about price, more so in commodity industries than in non-commodities, but they also care about a host of other factors. Convenience, style, stellar customer service, guarantees, reliability, etc. are just a few of the more compelling factors that come to mind.

The underlying intent of the Persona is to get inside the mind of the customer…not stand on the outside looking in.

It’s not just how they commute that matters.  It’s about what that commuting style tells you about what your customer values.

It’s not just where they are in their life cycle.  It is what their life cycle tells you about what they are most likely thinking about at this stage of their life.

It’s not just which social media platform they use. It is what they do or don’t do on the platform and what it tells you about what gets their attention.

3.  Clients have difficulties getting a bird’s-eye perspective of the market and of their customers. They spend their days in the weeds of their business.  The result is what the client thinks matters to a customer, may not cross a customers’ mind, let alone motivate them to take a desired action.

Be. More. Human. 

Schaefer suggests that in lieu of the Persona, business owners should “be more human”.

He points to a president of a company who was given a persona-based content development plan.  The complaint was:

“I just can’t keep writing this way. I’m bored out of my mind and it’s not working any way.”

Schaefer encouraged her to scrap the plan.  Write from her heart.  She took his advice and apparently created the #1 blog post in the company’s history.

Apparently, the lesson was that creating content had become more enjoyable for the president and it was evident in her writing, thereby getting noticed.

What Schaefer doesn’t share and perhaps no one knows is the net impact of the post.

Did it create sales?

Did it hit a home run with the “right” people?

Did these people sign-up for a newsletter, a white paper or for more entertaining posts?

It could also be that the “persona-based content plan” was totally wrong.  Just because someone creates a Persona doesn’t mean it is worth anything.

Perhaps it was a Persona created based upon the sole input of the president…one who thought they really knew their customers, but maybe didn’t?

If your car isn’t running correctly, you don’t throw away the car.  You go to a mechanic who can fix it.  If a Persona isn’t working then it is either in the implementation or the Persona is missing some critical insights.

Marketing – excuse me – “good” marketing has always been and should always be human.  It doesn’t matter if it is this decade or the last 5.  It is only by being human that you will be able to talk to and reach the right people.

What about Content Glut?

What about it?

This is nothing new.  Cutting through the clutter has always been a marketing challenge.  It was true in newspapers, radio, TV and now online.

Contrary to Schaefer’s argument that we should toss the Persona technique because of content glut, I would argue that it is precisely because of the glut that we need highly tuned Personas.  It is the only way to cut through all of the clutter.

How else will your would-be customers identify and select you as someone they want to know more about?

Bottom Line

I’ve grown weary and cranky about people who think that just because the marketing ball game has been expanded online and globally that this gives us permission to be self-indulgent about marketing.

I can almost hear people with a heavy Spanish accent (from Treasure of the Sierra Madre) say:

Rules?  We don’t need no stinking rules!

Effective marketing will never be about the client.  It will always be about speaking to your specific audience in a way that touches them and makes them turn their head in your direction.

To make that happen, you’re going to need a well-crafted Persona.  Period.

You can find out more about Persona’s by reading this post.  You’ll also find a quick worksheet on that page to help get you started.

If you’d like to read Mark Schaefer’s Post:  Why customer Personas May be Outdated Marketing Technique

Sheila Hibbard

Sheila Hibbard takes the fluff, hype and confusion out of marketing and social media. She provides small business owners with straight forward, no nonsense marketing guidance and techniques that produce results based on her 35 plus years in advertising, communications, research, strategic planning and social media. Author of Marketing Online Made Simple - WHO.

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