Product marketers know that personas are a powerful tool to bring your target buyer to life, make what you know about an audience actionable, and ensure organizational alignment.
Wouldn’t it be great (if not a little boring) if we knew that every company needed the exact same number of buyer personas – all with repeatable characteristics that would help us put people into meaningful groups? Turns out, that’s not how it works.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Persona benefits… and problems
- Real-world examples: how to choose a persona scheme that’s realistic for your organization
- How to right-size personas for your organization
Personas are full of benefits, but here are a few of my favorites
Personas help you avoid the trap of self-bias
When personas don’t exist, we tend to fill in the blanks with our own motivations, problems, and characteristics. With personas, the teams that create get out of their own heads and into the mindset of their target buyers and users.
Personas create buyer archetypes so that your target buyers become three-dimensional people
You know this is working when personas are present in the room, people in your company refer to the personas by name, and everyone openly considers if a message or feature speaks to the persona’s problem.
Personas create operational efficiency
Personas get knowledge out of the heads of a few people, and into the hands of many. They expose gaps and help ensure your organization is aligned with the target buyer and/or user.
The problem with too much of a good thing
OK, so you’ve heard all of that before, and you’re sold on personas. But here’s where the quest to understand your audience could compromise efficiency and effectiveness: archetypes aren’t going to cover everyone or everything about them.
We, humans, are singular, odd ducks. We have a lot of things about us that can make us similar to others, but most of our characteristics aren’t going to fit neatly into a persona archetype. It can be tempting - and fun - for product marketers to parse apart archetypes into as specific a persona as possible. What’s more, your target audience likely holds multiple potential personas.
Put those two things together, and you run the risk of creating too many personas, and along with them operational confusion, not efficiency.
How do you create a set of personas that work? Two stories
Personas at scale
Years ago, I worked at a SaaS company where we did a market segmentation study. The segment categories, though useful for strategy, were too broad to be actionable for the teams doing the work of building, marketing, selling, and supporting products or services.
In my time there, to that point, we had marketed to our small business prospects as a horizontal group, or through industry vertical segmentation. This research gave us an exciting opportunity to get more targeted in our messages and experiences.
Understanding the needs of small businesses and nonprofits was part of the company’s DNA - so we had a wealth of other research and Voice of Customer insights. We could have gone crazy with building out hyper-specific buyer personas.
How many buyer personas did we start with? We sketched out about four and made the call to build out two. This worked because, although we were B2B, we served small businesses.
When buying marketing software that starts around $20/mo, most small businesses don’t have the same buyer complexity as, say, enterprise organizations making a $50K+/year purchase.
Once we had our two, we treated them like working hypotheses and used in-person interviews to enhance and validate the two personas. Product marketing created messaging, positioning, and a point-of-view on the best offers for the persona, and we worked cross-functionally to build a testing plan to roll out the personas across channels.
This plan included the website, sales, and the early product and customer experience when we thought the personas would still have their “buyer” hats on.
The result was that we had a focused set of two distinct personas with different needs. Having just two meant we could easily communicate with the organization, and serve as a guidepost for building processes and meaningful experiences.
Could we have done more? Sure, but we likely would have lost out on clarity, focus, and speed. We gained a continuous feedback loop to refine the personas, the ability to take incremental steps to personalize the buying experience when it mattered, and experiences that drove trial and early customer success.
Now, that was for an organization at scale, what if you’re smaller?
Here’s the rub: being small or early-stage doesn’t always mean you have one type of buyer. Maybe you’re an enterprise marketing start-up and have multiple buyers, decision-makers, and influencers in any given sale.
Or, you work for a company that has a less considered purchase, but with multiple distinct types of buyers who require different messages, experiences, and variations of your product. What early-stage does typically mean is that you have fewer resources and systems in place to do the work than an organization at scale.
Personas at a founder-led start-up
Earlier this year, I worked with a solopreneur to create personas for their business. The founder focused on industry verticals to that point and wanted to build more effective marketing and offers. They cared about understanding and serving their audience, and shared extensive qualitative and quantitative research at the start of the project.
Our ultimate persona scheme centered around a person’s stage of career and psychographics, and we created three buyer personas. We easily could've created twice that based on who’s in the market, and who could benefit from their services.
Instead, we focused on the best targets for the business and then chose one. We then conducted a few interviews with potential buyers to validate and refine the persona. We aligned the messaging, top of funnel experience, and even updated the offers to target the primary persona.
Since the business addresses two distinct buyer groups, and the founder can support both lines of business, we executed on a second persona, though in very small and selective ways where it would have the most impact, primarily through a dedicated web page for the secondary persona.
With this simple structure in place, the founder could avoid the self-bias trap, work with distinct yet simple archetypes, and create more effective marketing across channels. They now speak to one primary persona vs. speaking to a broader group (and speaking to no one).
The Go-to-Market strategy is realistic for the resources of a solopreneur, and centers on the primary persona, with a path for discovery set up for the secondary persona, ready to be developed as the business grows.
In both of these cases, we had a two-persona solution, but the extent of execution, and how we weighted the personas, varied significantly.
How to right-size personas for your organization
Consider the complexity of the buying process or the breadth of the target audience/segment
Two things can quickly expand your number of personas: how many buyers are in the decision-making process, and the size of your target market (bigger markets = more persona archetypes).
If there are discrete personas critically involved in the buying process, you need to address them. Ask, “could a company purchase our products or services if any of these personas weren’t involved?” If the answer is yes, drop the non-critical personas.
And if the target market is big but the buying process is simple, prioritize personas by their estimated size in the market, projected financial and customer success metrics, readiness for purchase, or fit with your product or service. If you can’t create a distinct message, experience, or offer by persona, that’s a sign to start consolidating.
Get realistic about the resources you have
No one wants personas that sit on the shelf. Be realistic about your company’s resources and ability to execute. How many personas could your company support with positioning and messaging by persona, plus GTM strategies with persona-specific enablement materials, website experiences, sales conversations, offers, and more?
Consider how receptive the various teams in your company will be to using buyer personas, and your bandwidth for educating and advocating for their adoption.
If you have buyer personas in your organization today, and no one knows about or uses them, understand why – it might be due to education gaps, a lack of internal champions, or a realistic GTM strategy to roll them out.
Start small, build as you learn
Personas aren’t static. People and market conditions will change over time, and building a program that prioritizes learning will help you in the long run.
If you start with even one persona and successfully operationalize it, it'll be easier to rally the organization, build your understanding of your primary target, and optimize messages and experiences that'll get the persona to buy.
And once you effectively execute with the first, the second, third… or tenth will be a whole lot easier.
Want to learn more?
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By the end of the course, you'll be able to confidently:
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⬆️ Take your entire company’s product, marketing, sales, and customer-focused efforts to the next level.
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