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Marketing 360® Blog

Buyer Persona for Small Businesses (Are They Effective for Digital Marketing?)

Post By Scott Yoder | Design & Branding | Sales Tips

One of the biggest challenges in rolling out and marketing a new product is that you never really know what people will spend money on until they actually spend it.  You make plans, predictions, and assumption about how that moment will play out, but those aren’t facts.

And the fact is that people are downright mercurial when it comes to spending money.  They’ll look and act like the perfect buyer…and never break out their credit card.  Yet someone else may seem to appear out of left field and spontaneously buy your product.

It’s difficult to predict what digital consumers will do based only on assumed demographics.  Which leads to an important question.  Is it worth it today to create buyer personas?  You know, those fictional, generalized characters we learned to develop in marketing classes – decades ago.  Something like this:

buyer persona example

So you sell small SUVs.  Does any of this help you create marketing material?  What are you assuming?  He drives to work.  He has a phone.  Reads reviews.  He wants a car with good gas mileage and enough room for his family.  He plays drop-in hockey.  His image is a stock photo…

There is a dry predictability to this document.  They give the persona a face and a name, but the lifesyle info is so perfunctory it’s hard to imagine a targeted marketing campaign coming out of this.

With today’s diverse digital consumers, we have to do better.

The Empty Chair

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is known for having an empty chair at the conference table during meetings.   This chair is occupied by the most important person at the meeting: the customer.

The empty chair is a kind of buyer persona.  It’s a representation that brings the customer into the conversation and ensures their needs are a focus.

However, they don’t create a fictional character with a name and demographics.  Of course, given the wide range of shoppers on Amazon, it would be hard to focus on a single demographic, but there is a more important point.

Jeff Bezos knows it:

“There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.  Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.”

The empty chair is not there to focus on what they think customers want.  It’s there to stimulate ideas so they can invent on the customer’s behalf.  At Amazon, the goal is to understand what customers want before they know they want it.  They assume people will become dissatisfied with what’s adequate, so they seek to delight them with the unexpected.

Amazon doesn’t do this by creating static buyer personas.  They do it by being relentlessly customer-focused in their approach.

For instance, early on many people thought including user-generated product reviews was a mistake.  Amazon’s job, they said, was to sell products, and negative reviews would make that harder to do.

But Bezos countered with his customer-centric dogma:

“We don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.”

This is a person who understands the digital consumer.  It’s not about the product, it’s about the shopping experience.

A brilliant insight, backed by unequaled results in eCommerce.

Emotion Detector

Take another look at Kyle Fisher, the buyer persona.  What’s missing?

We know what motivates people to buy is not the features of a product, but the rather the benefits derived from using it.  We know that buying triggers are more emotional than rational.

Consumers do not make rational decisions based on all the available information.  They are not motivated to purchase by a product’s functional utility alone.

Instead, the buying process is influenced by irrational biases and emotions.  Consumers will analyze features, but then buy something they think will give them higher status.

Kyle says he wants a car with room for his family and good gas mileage.  In reality, he wants something better than what his buddy on the hockey team just bought.  In fact, it’s entirely likely that he’s bored to death by his 90 mile a day commute and is entering his so-called mid-life crisis.

He says he’s looking for Ford Escape Hybrid.  But he desires a Mustang.  Do you think the marketers who created that persona might lose Kyle’s sale to this ad?

buyer persona car ad

Getting to Know You

We recently consulted with two business startups planning to market in their respective local areas.

The first person we spoke to read the same marketing book as the people who created Kyle Fisher.  He knows his ideal customer, and he wants to base his marketing strategy on a single, detailed buyer persona.  He intuitively knows who loves his product, so all he needs to do is outline the persona as a point of reference.

The second business owner looked at this approach, but she wasn’t so sure.  She had a few general ideas about the types of people who would be interested in her offer but felt she was short on details.

She decided she wanted to create a few social media channels, including a Facebook Group, Instagram page and a series of Pinterest boards to interact on social media.  We noted for her that on Facebook Groups she’d be able to get solid demographic data on the participants.

She also said she planned to attend several MeetUp groups in her area where she could meet local business people and find out – first hand – what people wanted.

Last, she planned to set up several tactics, including email marketing and eliciting online reviews, so she could get feedback from her actual customers.

She didn’t want to just create a fictional persona.  She wanted to know what her customers actually thought, cared about, and responded to.

We had a pretty immediate idea of who was heading in the right direction.

Are Buyer Personas Worth It in the Digital Age?

Buyer personas have always had a certain working usefulness.  It doesn’t hurt to envision who you think your ideal client is and then assign them characteristics and demographic details.

However, in the digital era, there are so many methods for connecting with real people and gathering data that just creating a persona is a lazy short-cut that relies far too much on assumption.

There is no more useful information in marketing than knowing what real people actually think and feel.  Instead of guessing at responses, you run tests to actually find out.

In fact, learning more about your target audience is one of the primary goals of social media marketing.  No other marketing channels let you interact with people in the way you can with social media.  As you discover what’s trending and what people react to, you gain key insights that inform your marketing strategy.

Furthermore, social media (in particular Facebook) offers unprecedented levels of demographic and psychographic data on consumer audiences.  Why guess at this data when you can access and apply it on the platform, then learn from actual campaigns?

The point here is that there is no reason, in the digital era, that a buyer persona must be fictional.  It’s far more effective to use the opportunities at your disposal to find out what actual people think than to hypothesize as marketers did in the past.

In fact, as Amazon knows, you can even get ahead of consumer needs.  It’s possible to gain enough insight into consumer behavior and personalize marketing material so that you have a strong sense of what people want – before they know they want it.  You’ll see the tends coming and be ahead of the adoption curve.  When you can do this accurately, you gain big advantages over your competition.

The marketers who created Kyle Fisher have a static sense of what product features are of interest to him.  They have a cursory sense of his personal, professional and family life.

But they don’t know what motivates him, and they certainly don’t know what excites him.  They can’t predict what his objections will be, nor can they foresee what will delay his purchase decision.

Worst of all, they have no feel for his personality.  This is a profile created by a statistician – a spreadsheet maker – when what they need is one created by a behavioral psychologist.

In marketing, you have to make many assumptions, including about how people will react to your offer.  But don’t use assumption when you could get actual insight.

The most dangerous guesses are on how people respond emotionally to your offering.

Use personas as a useful – but minor – guiding tool.

The best way to sell people is to get the know them in real life.  Today, that very much includes their digital life.