Are Buyer Personas A Waste Of Time?

In 2014, you’d better understand your audience before you start marketing. In this era of preference marketing, buyers are in control. When online information became ubiquitous, the customer suddenly didn’t have to simply accept what marketing delivered; she now had choices. To win her business, we need to create a connection that goes well beyond a transactional relationship.

To me, that’s the rationale behind content marketing: instead of an organization broadcasting inward-focused messages, it must deliver value to the marketplace in order to create the customer connection.

Typically, that means creating “news you can use.” And that has led many of us to embrace the construction of buyer personas in order to better understand what the audience can use. Buyer personas are in-depth examinations of who our customers are, what drives their decision-making, and how we can move those levers. This can be pretty sophisticated stuff, combining psychology and technology to replace gut instinct. Fortune 500 companies have entire teams working on this.

But it might just be a complete waste of time.

That’s the fact-based opinion of the folks at 48Bricks, an ad tech company whose guiding principle is that you simply can’t figure out your customers.  “The premise of trying to model consumer behavior based on massive amounts of data does not work,” co-founder and CEO Michael Jaschke told me.

Whoa.

Jaschke is especially appalled by the amount of spending on online display ads: an estimated $22 billion this year, with an average click-through rate of 0.2%. That’s a lot of wasted money, and seems to be a demonstration that marketers (that’s you and me) really don’t understand our audience (uh-oh).

Here’s the reality that 48Bricks is getting at: While marketers have traditionally approached the audience by trying to make it as homogenous a group as possible, pinpointing similarities across the audience, that’s no longer good enough. Today, the technology exists to create a far more personalized experience for the customer -- and the customer knows and expects this.

So what are you supposed to do? Should you scrap the effort to build buyer personas? Or should you ignore 48Bricks’ numbers and forge ahead with building personas?

Give up? Here’s my advice: Build personas. But don’t go crazy. As Jaschke says (and I agree), massive amounts of data won’t solve the problem. So digging deeper and deeper into the buyer data you’ve accumulated will be a waste of time. However, I’d argue that you need to make some effort to understand your audience. You need to have a reasonable approximation of how they behave and what they’re looking for. Seasoned marketers with a basic understanding of buyer psychology should be able to create this framework.

So spend a day with your content team talking about how your customers buy, why they buy, and why they don’t buy. Get input from sales on what the audience is looking for. Create an understanding of the buyer’s journey.  This will help to create an orientation toward the audience for your team.

And it won’t -- and shouldn’t -- take a team of people months to complete.

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3 comments about "Are Buyer Personas A Waste Of Time?".
  1. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , April 20, 2014 at 5:48 a.m.
    +1 for "Build personas. But don’t go crazy". Also, and this is the important bit, you need to A:B test your logic, to see which assumptions you make have value and which do not.
  2. Brock Butler from Proscape , April 21, 2014 at 9:09 a.m.
    Great post. Pete, I like the idea of A:B testing the logic behind the personas.
  3. Bret Kinsella from Act with Edge , April 23, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.
    Jaschke is either wrong or misunderstood. You should build personas. They can really help not only your targeting but to guide your editorial calendar. Otherwise you won't know who you are serving and will quickly go astray. You can't target without a profile of some sort. Without targeting your hit rate will be even worse than the poor numbers listed. +1 from me as well on the don't go crazy. Try it, test it, let it run for awhile and refine it based on data.