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9 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Buyer Personas

9 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Buyer Personas Blog Feature

Jen Barrell

Content Trainer, 10+ Years of Content & Digital Marketing Strategy

January 9th, 2019 min read

The start to a new year brings so many opportunities. There are new goals to set for the quarter, fresh annual plans to create, and shiny strategies that have yet to be developed. It’s also a great time of year to refresh or create new buyer personas.

As your business and your buyers change, keeping a fresh set of buyer personas on deck is essential to being able to communicate with your audience over the coming year. But while you work your way through the process of choosing the right people to research, conducting your interviews, and releasing your creation in the wilds of your company, there are some certain pitfalls to avoid.

Here are 9 common mistakes to avoid when creating buyer personas:

Mistake #1. Basing your personas off assumptions

Any article devoted to personas worth its salt will tell you not to assume you know who your customer is and what she wants, but this is still the most common mistake when it comes to developing buyer personas.

 Buyer personas are semi-fictional characters who represent the ideal customer at any given organization. They aren’t based off who you wish they were or who you think they are—in other words, they aren’t purely fictional.

Your personas need to be based on real data, behaviors, and demographics learned through customer interviews and shared knowledge across your company.

That real data comes from interviews with who your ideal client might be (and keep reading to find out the best people to speak with) combined with the knowledge of your sales team, your services group, and those who have regular interaction with your customer community.

With the right data (that leads to the right messaging), you’ll be able to communicate with your prospects and customers in a much more "inboundy" way—demonstrating that you’re prioritizing what they care about over what you merely want to tell them.  

If you choose to use only your assumptions and not the actual facts, you risk missing out on the insights that will make a difference for your messaging and your overall relationships with the customers you’re trying to delight.

Mistake #2. Interviewing the wrong people

It might be easy to come up with a list of clients you know will talk with you, and most likely some of those people should be on your list. But your persona development can go sideways quickly if you’re not talking to the right people. Talking with the wrong people will certainly render less than ideal results.

The personas you are creating represent your ideal client. But exactly who is that?

This is where some soul-searching is involved. It’s up to you and your coworkers to define this: your ideal client is someone you want to sell to.

They might be someone who is pleasant to work with while also returning the largest ROI. Or they might be someone who does their homework and is extremely hands-off. Maybe you’ve had the best experiences with medium-sized accounts who like to be heavily involved.

Look at your list of clients and determine who is ideal and then find additional interviewees beyond your own existing clients, including lost accounts, past clients, and your competitors’ customers.

Talking to a wide range of people (while making sure they all fit your ideal) will give you a full reveal of what your “perfect match” clients think, how they feel, and what steps they take while making a purchase.

Mistake #3. Not interviewing enough people

Just as you want to avoid making general assumptions about your persona, it’s also unreasonable to expect that you’ll receive complete information from just one or two interviews.

By talking to between 3 and 8 people for each persona, you’ll be equipped with enough perspectives to find commonalities you can use to start building out a profile.

Mistake #4. Having too few or too many personas

Depending on the nature of your business and the types of people you serve, the question of how many buyer personas you need varies.

There’s no single answer to this question, but there are some guidelines to consider:

  • Do you serve multiple verticals? Businesses serving different industries should plan on creating a persona for each vertical.
  • Are you targeting multiple niches? You’ll be able to better tailor messaging by having a persona for each niche within the industry (or industries) you sell to.
  • Who are your best customers right now? Look for any similarities you can find within your best-producing customers. If specific industries, niches, or demographics can be easily grouped, then consider developing a persona for each.

But wait — what if you drill into your customer base and find the need for 10 personas? Is that too many?

Once you’re in the process of creating your persona bank, you’ll know if you’re stretching yourself too thin. Too many personas can be distracting. And, when you have a high number of personas, there might be so much overlapping and similar information between some of them that they end up not sounding different at all.

The best way to tackle this is to start by focusing on three very different personas. Once you’ve built these out, you’ll be able to see how different your messaging and campaigns will be to each of them. If you still feel that you need to build out the others at the same level of detail, then go ahead and do so.

Again, this is specific to your company, so there is no set number that works for everyone. Your “right” number of personas is the one that allows you to segment and message to the customers you want to have.

Mistake #5. Botching the interview

Now that you have your list of people to interview the true work can begin. But before you pick up the phone, there are a few things you can do to make sure your interview provides all the information you’ll need.

  • Keep your focus on who you’re talking to. Record the call and use the transcript for note-taking.

  • Have a complete list of questions to ask, but make sure the conversation flows. Use your question list as a guide, but don’t be afraid to go off-script — you may get more powerful insights from those off-the-cuff conversations than you would asking a line list of questions.

  • Check in with yourself to make sure you’re getting the information you need. Be prepared to pivot the conversation if necessary.

  • Stick to the time specified. Most persona interviews should last 15–30 minutes. Stay respectful of the interviewee’s time.

  • Have a backup plan. If you aren’t able to connect over the phone, then you might be able to have the interviewee fill out an online questionnaire. And if you can’t connect at all (or if your contact doesn’t want to participate), then be able to substitute them with a more willing participant.

Mistake #6. Creating personas in a marketing bubble

Your marketing team may be the driver behind creating your company’s new buyer personas, but that doesn’t mean they should go it alone.

The sales, customer service, and community engagement teams should be involved throughout the process. As the people who have the most exposure to your clients, they’ll be able to help you define who your ideal client is and determine which personas you should consider. They’re also your best resource for assistance in building a contact list for interviews.

It’s also helpful to talk with other customer-focused departments about their own expectations as to why people buy, what the buyer's journey is, and why they stay loyal to you. You can use this information as part of the profile you build — just make sure that your interview results confirm these assumptions.

Mistake #7. Overlooking the negative persona

For the same reason you profile your ideal customer — who you want to sell to — you’ll also want to create a negative persona, or someone who you’ll want to avoid as a future customer.

Build the negative persona after you’ve created your buyer personas and use it as the finishing touch to your persona suite.

This profile is created by identifying commonalities of problematic clients or prospects who didn’t close. This time, you can skip the interview and talk with sales and customer service to find out what the common traits were of clients who, for example, took a long time to close, didn’t work well with your team, generated low revenue or high acquisition costs, etc.

By developing a full negative persona, your organization can better identify prospects who aren’t the right fit and can cut them loose, saving you both time and money.

Mistake #8. Not including all the information you have

There’s so much information you’ll be collecting, it’d be a shame not to use it all.

Actually, it’s a mistake.

You can take your personas to the next level by adding the marketing messages, elevator pitch, and value prop custom fit for each profile. And since you have them on hand from all your interviews, make sure to add in each persona’s objectives and challenges in their roles.

A great way to humanize your personas (because they are, after all, semi-fictional) is to insert actual quotes into the profiles. This not only brings the persona to life, but it can lend credibility and authenticity to the overall project.

Mistake #9. Letting your personas sit on the shelf

While you might have a persona that represents the geriatric community, you don’t want your suite of buyer personas to get old.

Revisit your personas every 6 to 12 months to keep them fresh. Just as your business adapts and changes, so do your customers. What they think, where they research, what apps they use, how they buy, and what they expect from you and your industry evolves as fast as the seasons change.

Think of your buyer personas as a working project that can document the changing beliefs and journeys of your prospects and customers. With every refresh of your personas, you can measure it against the messaging you provide and change your content and your strategy to give your customers what they want.

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