Originally published Oct 19, 2017. Updated September 24, 2019.
Read any inbound marketing blog or article and it’ll tell you to start any new initiative with, first, your goal(s) and then, second, your buyer personas.
Why is that? Because personas are at the heart of content. Developing buyer personas must directs not only what you write about but also the format in which it is presented, the frequency of that content, and where it is promoted. Buyer personas allow you to target and attract the right people to your website like sweet-smelling pheromones.
But you have to do it right. Thus, we bring you the top seven mistakes that we’ve seen in developing personas when working with companies of all shapes and sizes over our 10 years in business:
Top Seven Mistakes to Avoid When Developing Buyer Personas
Confusing Preferences with Personas
Not Doing Interviews
Having Too Few or Too Many Personas
Basing Personas on Roles Instead of Pain Points
Setting It and Forgetting It
Creating Personas and Then Not Using Them
Mistake #1: Making Assumptions
The first three mistakes that marketers often make in buyer persona development go together.
When creating buyer personas for the first time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions—our audience is only 13- to 18-year-olds in suburban areas, for example. This may be based on anecdotal information (a salesperson’s opinion), your “gut,” or perhaps a customer survey from five years ago. But how do you know if those assumptions are accurate?
Mistake #2: Confusing Preferences with Personas
Which brings us to mistake #2 in developing buyer personas: mixing up preferences with personas. Just because you prefer to create e-books instead of white papers does not mean that is how your target audience consumes content. Similarly, your sales team may want to talk to the IT Director, but the person with the purse strings is actually the CISO—your content needs to target the latter regardless of preferences. Consider how your personas want to you to deliver content and help them through their buyer’s journey.
Mistake #3: Not Doing Interviews
And mistakes #1 and #2 really tie back to the most common issue we see at SmartBug: not doing interviews. The only way to be sure you aren’t making assumptions or just including preferences in your persona development is to conduct interviews with your ideal customers. If you have an existing client base, this is a great place to start.
Need help on what to ask them? Start here: 55 Questions to Ask When Developing Buyer Personas.
If you are moving into a new market (and/or a new audience), it will be more difficult to conduct interviews. First, see if your company has a partner that has access to this new audience and would be willing to assist you in setting up some calls. Second is to tap your network (hello, LinkedIn) and see if you have someone you know (or a friend of a friend) who is willing to chat. Finally, if all else fails, you can base personas on market research; however, this should be a last resort.
Mistake #4: Having Too Few or Too Many Personas
Different companies will need a different number of personas depending on the number of products, marketing maturity, industries served, and other factors. If you’re developing personas for the first time, we often recommend starting with three. More than that will divide your early efforts into too many pieces, and you may be unable to see results.
That being said, after your organization has been on the inbound train for a while, you may discover that you’re ready to branch out into influencer personas and maybe even micro personas to further segment your content. But as you add more personas, don’t make mistake #5.
Mistake #5: Basing Personas on Roles Instead of Pain Points
For maximum effectiveness, buyer personas should be created based on pain points, not roles. This is perhaps the second-most common error we see at SmartBug: buyer personas solely segmented by job description.
Now, sometimes different roles do mean different pain points (and thus, buyer personas). However, when conducting your interviews, listen and think about what each person is struggling with and categorize according to that.
Mistake #6: Setting It and Forgetting It
While creating buyer personas is one of the tasks for beginning an inbound marketing program, this activity is not a “set it and forget it” type of initiative.
- Your buyer personas might be wrong. Yes, you did your interviews and vetted with the team, but you might find after blogging for three or four months that you need to do more research or that you missed the mark slightly.
- You’ve figured out that you need more personas or that you need to collapse some. (See mistake #4.)
- Your business changes over time. You may not be going after the same market next year or targeting the same audience in two years.
- People change over time. Buyer personas should evolve over time as you learn more about your target audience and as their preferences change. For example, social media shifts may mean that your persona is now spending more time on Who’s It instead of What’s That.
Make it a point to review your personas either every six months or yearly to make sure they are accurate, fresh, and on point.
Mistake #7: Creating Personas and Then Not Using Them
Finally, personas are a core part of inbound marketing for a reason. They must be the basis of every piece of content you produce—from e-books and blogs to webinars and podcasts—because they allow you as a marketer to segment your audience and target content to each person’s pain points.
So creating them and then not using them is just silly. If you find yourself in this boat, ask yourself why. Are you getting pushback from your team to produce “x” type of content? Have you communicated to your team the importance of buyer personas and what yours are? Are your buyer personas the wrong ones? Try to dig into the issue so that you can rectify it ASAP.
I leave you with a quote from Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into Your Customer's Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business by Adele Revella: “Effective messaging emerges at the intersection of what your buyers want to hear and what you want to say.”
Buyer personas are what gets us there. Buyer personas are absolutely crucial to inbound marketing efforts—be sure to set yours up correctly to prime your content for success.