5 classic mistakes businesses make when creating customer personas

Customer personas are nothing new – they’ve been around for a while, but there’s nothing wrong with re-visiting them and making sure you’re targeting your customers in the best way possible. And even though they’ve been around a while, that doesn’t mean everyone has them, is doing them well or using them properly.

We speak to people all the time who are new to customer personas, or need some guidance to re-programme the way they’re using theirs: that’s okay! We all have to do this; at ESM Inbound, we revisit our personas regularly. We have made them a compulsory part of our content-writing process and they’re really helping us create focused, targeted content that reaches the right people. It takes time to really know and use your personas properly – we’re here to dispel some of the myths to help you forge a smoother journey, targeting the people who really want to work with you.

Mistake 1: Too many personas

It can be tempting to create a persona for every possible individual personality type you sell to in your business. You can get carried away with gender, job role, age, family and a plethora of other factors which, it’s easy to assume, means they’re totally different personas from one another. But stop there! With too many personas, there won't be a clear definition between them all; this will make it really hard for you to actually attract, engage, convert, and delight any of them.

Chances are, many of your customers actually overlap in their buying habits and pain points. Analyse the data based on your most successful customers, and you will start to see the points that clearly define each persona. The whole idea of creating personas is to ensure you’re designing experiences that each group can relate to. If you try to divide similar customers down using over-granular criteria, you’ll end up missing all of them, instead of hitting anyone in your marketing efforts. You’ll also be much more likely to neglect whole personas entirely; it’s not many businesses who can effectively publish content directed at ten different groups of customers, simultaneously, at each stage of the buyer’s journey.

A tip from Siobhán McGinty at HubSpot:

“Be ruthless when creating your personas. If you don't have enough information on a particular persona, remove it. In fact, don't be afraid to add or remove personas over time.”

Mistake 2: Being overly ambitious

It’s easy to get a bit too “blue-sky thinking” when building your personas, creating the perfect, utopian persona instead of what you actually have. Being aspirational is one thing, but creating overly ambitious personas that you wish you had, rather than actually sell to already, won’t serve any purpose. Try to stay realistic and honest with yourself. They might be flawed (who isn’t?) and may come with various difficult behaviours or pain points that are challenging for your business to solve, but you need to describe the person you are currently serving the needs of, not a dream persona that doesn’t exist.

One exercise could be to define a persona you wish to sell to in the future: this is being aspirational. But it needs to be clear to all concerned that this is a journey. Keep this persona safely out of the way until you have the resources to target them properly – and do a good job of it. In the meantime, focus on delighting the customers already buying from you.

A tip from Siobhán McGinty at HubSpot:

“Rather than relying on internal opinions and beliefs to guide your personas, allow your personas to be data-driven. Dig into your CRM, look for trends, and survey your current or past customers.”

Mistake 3: Not prioritising negative personas

We’ve all been there – we can all think of previous customers who we never want to work with again. This can be for all sorts of reasons such as:

  • They may not have enough budget to work with your service/product
  • They may be too inexperienced (students, new graduates or people who’ve recently had a career change)
  • They may be inflexible, difficult to work with or resistant to change
  • They may be bad communicators and impossible to get hold of
  • They may be far too expensive to acquire as a customer.

It’s well worth creating a negative buyer persona to help you avoid these kinds of customers. It may seem a strange exercise to focus on what you don’t want for your business, but ultimately it will save you investing time, money and energy in the wrong people. By establishing BANT and working out if your prospect is a qualified lead, or asking clients what could have been improved in the first weeks or months of working with you, you can save your business from a wealth of problems later on.

A tip from Siobhán McGinty at HubSpot:

“A great place to start for your negative personas is by interviewing a sample of customers who closed, but they had a very low average sale price. You could also speak with some customers with low customer satisfaction scores, which might be an indication they were never really a proper fit for your company.”

Mistake 4: Oversimplifying demographics

When you hear the word ‘demographics’, it’s likely your brain turns straight to information such as age, gender, job title and salary. In society, we are constantly divided into groups using these characteristics – and, of course, they play a part in creating your personas. But these basic descriptions of a person do not create thorough and effect buyer personas. It is not the information that should differentiate your personas – it’s far more useful to identify people's’ habits, thoughts, actions and feelings. An old-fashioned persona might look like this:

  • Female
  • 35-50 years old
  • Urban location
  • University educated
  • high-salary role.

It’s far more useful (and interesting) to your business to think about factors such as:

  • What does your persona do for a living?
  • How does their day look?
  • Do they commute – how?
  • Which media do they consume?
  • What are their fears and pain points?
  • What challenges do they face?
  • How do they define success?

Finding patterns within the answers to these questions will enable you to cater your sales process, content offering and even your product/service itself, towards your ideal market. This information should dictate how you interact with your audience. For example: if your persona is a manager in central Manchester, she may find vast sections of her day are taken up in meetings – therefore, sending mobile-optimised emails before work and after work only, when she’s likely to be on her phone as she commutes, will suit her.

A tip from Siobhán McGinty at HubSpot:

“Prioritise understanding what your persona's typical day looks likes, and use that as the core of your document... accurately profile persona challenges, desires, and daily life.”

Mistake 5: Not getting started

In the immortal words of J.R.R.Tolkien, “It's the job that's never started as takes longest to finish.” The time it takes to do personas well, can be off putting when getting started. To make it a more manageable task, it should never be only one person’s job to build your business’ personas: it takes collaboration and data from all areas of your business. Personas being the responsibility of everyone also helps create a positive company culture where everyone’s input is not only respected, but needed to succeed.

It’s easy to assume persona development is an enormous job – something no marketer or sales team can fit around their everyday workload. But persona development really doesn’t take that long – to get started, you don’t need to go into great detail and can add points as you go; no persona is complete and should regularly be added to as your customer knowledge becomes even more fleshed out. Keep at the forefront of your mind what a great tool these personas are going to be to your business and thus, how investing time now will benefit you later. Personas are the key to your company’s growth and if that’s not worth investing time and resources in, then what is?

A tip from Siobhán McGinty at HubSpot:

“Thoroughly researching your buyer personas should include everything from speaking to your sales team to speaking with your current customers (long-term and new) to researching current marketing trends to diving into your analytics.”

These mistakes are common, so go easy on yourself if you find yourself falling into these traps. But by being self aware and watching out for persona misuse, you’ll be able to quickly remedy any issues and set yourself back on track to using your personas as the business-growing tool they really are.

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