The customer persona and why you get it wrong

Consultancy, Content, Other / October 2017

Phillip Maddick

Crafting a customer persona, or more likely a group of them, is one of the fundamental best practices in marketing. If you get inside your customers’ heads, as well as you can without having a real one-to-one relationship with them, then you’ll be able to better understand what they want, and create content, products, and services that meet their needs.

The problem is that persona marketing, while absolutely important and valuable, is often done wrong.

There are two critical problems we see most often with customer persona development. The first is confusing the customer persona with customer demographics, and the second is failing to understand that the needs of your customer personas are not static; they fluctuate as they move down the funnel. This second point is vital for any content marketing you’re carrying out, as understanding your customers’ search habits, the language they are using during their journey, and how this relates to the customer funnel should inform how you structure and serve up content.

 

Customer persona versus demographics

No doubt you’ve seen a lot of customer personas that look a bit like this:

  • Male
  • 35-45 years old
  • Homeowner
  • Married
  • 2 children
  • £45,000 per annum salary

What we have here isn’t a persona but demographic information. Doesn’t matter how much of a “life” you pile on top of these sorts of stats (more on that in a second) they never develop into anything beyond demographics, and that’s because they don’t tell you anything about the persona’s desires, concerns, motivation, challenges, or intent. These are crucial factors we need to know to build a customer persona that is useful.

Demographics have their uses, absolutely, and they form the basis of personas, but they can’t just be the be all and end all of the process of persona development.

You can’t call the above a customer persona by doing this:

“Let’s call this chap Andy. Better yet let’s give him a cute little nickname. We’ll call him Aspirational Andy, because we think Andy desires more from life. He’s a bit of a go-getter. He has a couple of foreign holidays a year. He’s probably saving to purchase a buy-to-let property. He plays golf (no doubt poorly). He wants to start his own business one day. He reads the Independent. He drives a BMW but only a 1 series. He’d love a 5 series though. He’s really going places is Andy.”

All you’ve done is given the demographic data a character. Now this sort of information, if it’s based on real data from actual customers, can be useful and help you work out your customer’s motivations. But if it is just an exercise in creative writing based on assumptions it adds nothing to the demographic data and won’t have much of an impact on the success of your marketing.

We’ll look at how you can get accurate information to build a useful persona later, but now let’s move onto the second major issue surrounding persona development.

 

Understanding the customer funnel

Let’s say you’ve got your customer persona written up. We’ll stick with Andy for now, as he seems like a nice guy. So you believe that Andy is one of your core target audiences, and you know a bit about him demographically and you’ve built up the details around him.

It’s time to start creating content and strategies that will engage and convert Andy into a purchasing, and hopefully loyal, customer. Yes?

No.

Because what Andy wants changes based on what stage of the journey he is at. When he’s at the top of the customer funnel what he is looking for, how he searches, and the kind of marketing he is receptive to is different to how it is when he is further down the funnel and close to purchase.

This isn’t revolutionary but it’s so easy to overlook.

Analysing your customer funnel and how your customers act at each stage is easier to see than ever with the range of analytic tools available. You’re able to see how people arrived to pages on your site, what they did there, whether they moved down the funnel, left and came back later, or bounced away and disappeared altogether. You can see what kind of content was being served up to them and how effective it was.

In short it’s possible to accurately build your customer funnel and map all kinds of information onto it to help inform your marketing activity. Understanding that Andy’s behaviour will change as he moves along the funnel is one small, but important component in this.

 

The key to a successful customer persona

So how can you engage in persona development that is effective? Here are some key points that can help:

  • Base them on fact. You have a lot of data available to you through your website and social media channels that can tell you a lot about customer behaviour, so use it. You also need to put the time into conducting interviews with customers, including existing, lapsed, and potential customers. This can be done via digital surveys or good old-fashioned telephone conversations if suitable.
  • Take the rough with the smooth. Talking to regular happy customers is nice, of course, but you also need to engage with and listen to those who bought once but never came back, those who came close to purchase but didn’t, and those who had a bad experience with your business in some way. This allows you to get inside the objections, blockers and issues customers experience. That way you can effectively target both potential customers and lapsed customers.
  • Focus on what matters. Does knowing, or guessing, what sport your personas like to indulge in matter to you? It may do depending on what you’re selling, but then it may not. Think very carefully about the kinds of information and level of detail you delve into. What you definitely need to know are things like the type of proposition that connects with them, what influences their decision-making, the platforms they engage with frequently, and so on. Additional details can help round out the picture and inform content marketing, but if you aren’t a food manufacturer then detailing customers’ preferred snacks is probably irrelevant.

Hopefully you can see that what really makes a customer persona effective is engaging with your customers. Finding out real information about real people is what makes for successful persona development. Basing them just on your perceptions of your customers, or broad generalisations about a group, won’t help improve your marketing.

The customer persona is important, and it’s important because it can help you get a clearer picture of your customers’ drivers. Remember people tend to make decisions that are driven by emotions (quite often subconscious ones), and they then post-rationalise the choice using selected facts that back up their decision. So basing your customer personas just on statistics isn’t effective because those statistics don’t tell you anything about why they made the choices they did.

If you need help with building up effective customer personas, understanding your customer funnel, or using data to inform your marketing then drop us a line.

 

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