For our customers, there is no standard answer to the question 'who are you selling to?'.
When asked this question, we might get any reply, from ‘financial advisers’ to 'schools' to ‘knitters’. These are reasonable answers.
Generalised labels offer a stripped-back clarity that helps explain who you are to prospects. But there is a more precise, customer-centric way to target the right people for your business to sell to: customer personas.
Here, we explain the key things you need to know about buyer personas, as well as offering you guidance and resources to help you get started. It’s a big topic to cover, so don’t feel lost in a web of confusing articles and contradicting advice across the internet – we’ve put everything you need in one place.
Buyer personas are semi-fictional, generalised representations of your ideal customers. They help you understand your customers (and prospective customers) better, and make it easier for you to tailor content to the specific needs, behaviours and concerns of different groups. By identifying your buyer personas, and the ideal buyer profiles they belong to, you can stop wasting time targeting the wrong people and start focusing on finding prospects who are ready to work with you.
Is it any wonder so many businesses have launched unsuccessful marketing drives in the past, when they don’t know exactly who it is they’re talking to? As Impulse Creative recently discovered:
“70 percent of marketers lack a consistent or integrated content strategy.”
Buyer personas are your chance to create a laser-focused content strategy into your business. The strongest buyer personas are based on market research, as well as on insights you gather from your actual customer base (through surveys, interviews, etc). Depending on your business, you could have as few as one or two personas, or as many as 10 or 20. (Note: If you’re new to personas – start small! You can always develop more personas later if needed).
As Sam Kusinitz of HubSpot puts it:
"Buyer personas provide tremendous structure and insight for your company. A detailed buyer persona will help you determine where to focus your time, guide product development, and allow for alignment across the organisation. As a result, you will be able to attract the most valuable visitors, leads, and customers to your business."
Whereas a buyer persona is a representation of your ideal customer, a negative – or 'exclusionary' – persona is a representation of who you don’t want as a customer. Not creating them is one of the most common mistakes made by marketers.
They could include, for example:
It's just as valuable to understand the people you don't want to work with as it is to highlight the ones you do want to. Negative personas help you learn all sorts of things about the kind of customers you do want to be working with: what budget do businesses need to work with you? What values do they need to share with your business? What kind of traits do you want decision makers to possess? Will you work with people outside of you geographic area, country, continent?
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.”
We’ve all experienced early churn or customers who – given our chance again – we wouldn’t agree to work with. There are bad-fit customers for every business, but instead of sweeping them under the rug and vowing never to speak to them again, you can really benefit from finding out more from them. It can be awkward or uncomfortable to hear some of the things they struggled with, or to acknowledge you made a mistake in saying yes to them in the first place. But the information they provide you with will be so useful to building your personas, that for a short conversation, it’s definitely worth confronting those tricky topics and reaching out.
Knowing who to say no to strengthens your position, so see every unsuccessful phone call, email or social media exchange as a learning curve – understand what it is that made that person a negative persona, add it to your persona description and avoid them in future.
At the most basic level, personas allow you to personalise or target your marketing for different segments of your audience. For example, instead of sending the same lead-nurturing emails to everyone in your database, you can segment by buyer persona and tailor your messaging according to what you know about those different personas. Personas can help you quickly identify leads when you're taking sales calls and help prevent you from wasting time with the wrong, bad-fit customers.
If you take the time to create negative personas, you’ll have the added advantage of being able to segment out the “bad apples” from the rest of your contacts, which can help you achieve a lower cost-per-lead and cost-per-customer (and see higher sales productivity).
Simon Spyer, co-founder and insight partner at Conduit Data Services, explains:
“Personas are a tool that help you take a customer-centric approach to journey mapping: they help you to really define the tasks that your customers or prospects want to complete and their needs and pain points in doing so across the customer journey.
By understanding these needs and pain points, you can start to define the ‘moments of truth’ that really matter to your customers, where your business has a role to play and what you need to do to make this possible."
When combined with lifecycle stage (i.e. how far along someone is in your sales cycle), buyer personas also allow you to map out and create highly targeted content. This, in turn, leads to delighted customers, ensuring your client base only receives fabulous, useful, educational content from you – nothing that will only end up in their deleted folders. Without personas, all you are doing is firing content into the abyss of the internet in the hope that someone relevant might find it. Take control of the direction of your content and get your buyer personas engaging with it pronto.
Buyer personas are created through research, surveys and interviews of your target audience. That includes a mix of customers, prospects and those outside of your contact database who might align with your target audience.
Here are some practical methods for gathering the information you need to develop personas:
1. If you're a HubSpot customer, you can create and manage your personas within the Contacts tool.
2. Both HubSpot and non-HubSpot customers alike can use the tabs below in our 'Your own persona creation' section to help you organise your persona data to create a detailed profile.
3. Alternatively, if you're short on time, you can use ESM Inbound's 5-minute persona builder to get started with your own personas as quickly as possible.
Use the buttons below to browse the questions you need to be asking yourself in order to create a fully formed buyer persona for your business.
What’s their name?
Get creative! This is chance for you to give your persona a name which represents their role: Sandra Sales Executive, Holly HR, Ian IT Manager (we find a bit of alliteration goes a long way). Encourage your team to refer to your personas by their names to distinguish between them, and to ensure you treat them like real customers. Find out more.
What’s their background?
What’s their job, education and career path? Maybe they’re a Head of Human Resources who has worked at the same company for 10 years. She might have entered as a business studies graduate and worked her way up the ladder from HR associate. What’s their typical family life like? Perhaps she’s married with two school-aged children.
What demographics do they fit into?
These are the groups we are all familiar with – age, gender, location and income. Your persona might be a female aged between 35-45. She might live in the suburbs of a major city like London or Manchester and, between her and her partner, bring in a combined household income of over £100,000. Find out more.
What identifiers do they have?
What are some personality traits? What makes them tick? Being Head of HR, she probably keeps a calm demeanour, making her approachable to colleagues. She has an assistant she works closely with to screen phone calls and prefers marketing collateral to be sent to her via post or printed by her assistant so she can process it.
What are their watering holes?
These are the places your persona already searches for solutions to their pain points. They might be a member of several Facebook groups for HR professionals. She also subscribes to the BambooHR blog which comes to her work email address twice a week, and she seeks out HR Solutions knowledge-base articles through Google. Be specific – name the groups, publications and websites that she uses. Find out more.
What are their primary professional goals?
What are their direct responsibilities in their job role? There might be certain professional standards they have to pass in order to meet the targets set out in their annual review – what are these? What drives them at work? Will they get a bonus or salary raise if they pass their targets? They might get a promotion or role change – dig into what matters to them professionally.
What are their secondary professional goals?
Who else are they responsible for in their job? What are the wider targets of their business? How are they expected to help colleagues? How are they expected to show they are working towards company goals? To invest in the business, they’ll want to keep employees happy and turnover low. Whatever decisions they make about your product or service will affect a lot more people than just themselves.
What are their personal goals?
What do they spend their time doing outside of work hours? Are their personal goals driven by family, friends or individual achievements? They might love physical activities, pushing themselves to succeed. They might see a perfect day as one where they read a book and don’t leave the house! Probe into these questions: this is ultimately what they work so hard for and gives their life meaning.
What challenges do they face?
Are there protocols in their workplace which make change difficult? Are they reluctant to introduce a new system because their team already has a heavy workload? Is time a barrier? Or money? If they decide to find a solution for their pain points – whether that’s your product or someone else’s – what are the forces against making it happen?
What can you do to help?
If your persona’s key pain point is difficulty in managing all their data in one place – list that as the first thing your product does. Directly offer your help to target their needs. Find out what their challenges are and directly cater to them, explaining what your product does to eliminate their problems. Then help them start seeing the other benefits of your product or service. Find out more.
What are their main pain points?
Each day, they are missing something in their life that would make their job easier – that’s how they’ve found you. What are these pain points? What severity are they: general annoyances or catastrophic fears? Are they driven by easing their own life, the lives of their team, or external fear that the business might be in trouble? Find out more.
What might they say to you about their goals?
"I want to avoid upheaval with implementing a new tool; it needs to be as smooth and undisruptive as possible."
"The data needs to show positive results within six months, that your product is helping us improve our sales."
Ask them specifically for their targets and you can build these into your own goals with them. Make everything solutions driven, tailored specifically to their targets.
What might they say to you about their challenges?
"It’s been difficult getting company-wide adoption of new technologies in the past."
"I don’t have time to train new employees on a million different databases and platforms."
You may not be the first business who has tried to help them with a solution: if they’ve worked with a company who let them down before, they’ll be extra sensitive about their challenges, and more reluctant to trust a new service or product.
What are some common objections?
What are the most likely answers they will give you not to work with you? It’s unlikely a business will say “yes, when can we start?” on your first call with them: you need to be prepared to counter their objections, or offer solutions ahead of them expressing their concerns. These are often money, time and energy related so be prepared with your answers.
What will happen if they don’t find a solution?
What’s the alternative to finding a solution? Will their business’ efficiency be damaged? Might they go out of business? Or will they just have to put up with an inconvenience for longer? If their job or business is at stake, they will be in more of a hurry to rectify the problem – this urgency might be a double-edged sword for you as it means they will be keen to get started, but desperate to see quick results. Find out more.
How should you describe your solution to your persona?
They might not know the exact tool they need to fix their problems – they might not even know your product exists! You need to start with the problem and work backwards: what problem are they typing into Google? If they don’t know the solution they’re looking for, they will stick to keywords associated with their pain points: start with these and describe your solution accordingly.
What’s their most urgent need?
Having identified their pain points, you now need to evaluate and rank them. Which is the most essential to solve first? You also need to consider how long it will take to show results for each pain point: if their most troubling problem is going to take three months to get results for, start tackling another smaller one simultaneously. This way you can be solving the bigger issue in the background, while also providing a solution to a lesser problem. Find out more.
Which channel are they most likely to listen to?
What’s the best way to speak to your persona? From your research, you’ll have worked out if they prefer email over using a direct messenger platform, or maybe a phone conversation instead of email? You need to work out the best ways to talk to your persona – it’s not just what you say, but the medium you use to communicate.
How soon can you help them? Your persona will be keen to know how soon your product will start showing results. What kind of actions can you take to display your worth quickly? Are there some quick wins you can implement while the bigger projects are being established in the background. Find out more.
What’s your elevator pitch?
Make it simple, clean and short: “We give you an intuitive database that integrates with your existing software and platforms, plus lifetime training to help new employees get up to speed quickly.” You need to get used to outlining your product or service fast so your persona can process the information and consider you as a viable option. Find out more.
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