The Problem With Buyer Personas

by Ken Mueller on June 11, 2013 · 19 comments

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Composite face  300dpi 251x300 The Problem With Buyer PersonasWhen my kids were younger, and they were misbehaving either by doing something they shouldn’t be or not doing what I asked them to do, I used to tease them by comparing them to their perfect brother, Hector.

If I asked my daughter to get me something, and she didn’t, I would respond,

Oh, wow. Hector would have gotten it for me right away.

If one of my boys got angry and threw a tantrum, I’d say,

Hector never gets angry. He’s perfect.

I have no idea where Hector came from, (or how I chose that name, for that matter). Usually the kids took this in stride and had fun with it, though one of my kids, who shall remain nameless, got very angry. VERY angry. He probably would have slit Hector’s throat in his sleep if he could have. Yes, I’m a bad father. I provoked my children to anger. But, I enjoyed it.

I told the kids that Hector was our perfect child. THE perfect child. He always did everything perfectly. Kinda like a cross between Mother Theresa and Gallant of “Goofus and Gallant” fame. Only…more perfect.

Obviously, Hector wasn’t real. There is no perfect child.

In the same way, there is no perfect customer. In the business and marketing world we often throw around a phrase that is part of the marketing and business process:

Buyer persona

According the Buyer Persona Institute (yes, there is such a thing), a buyer persona is:

Buyer personas are examples of the real buyers who influence or make decisions about the products, services or solutions you market. They are a tool that builds confidence in  strategies to persuade buyers to choose you rather than a competitor or the status quo.

It’s the person you want buying your products and services. Read any book on marketing of any sort, and creating your buyer persona is one of the first tasks you’ll always be given. Heck, there are even buyer persona templates you can use to help you with this task.

At it’s core, what this means is knowing your customers. And the only way you can get to know your customers is to do two things: observe their behavior and talk to them. Observing their behavior includes looking at the data. Do your research. How do they behave? What are they purchasing? When are they shopping? Activity on social media outlets, or lack thereof, is a good place to start. What are they saying about you? Listening online is key.

Talking to them allows you to better understand that data, and understand their feelings and opinions about your business. Did they have a good experience? Why or why not? Will they be back? What makes them want to tell others about you?

But remember, there is no perfect customer. Your buyer persona is merely a starting point based on aggregate data. Just because your persona might be a 35-year old mother, doesn’t mean a 75-year old grandfather won’t buy what you’re offering. Be prepared for anomalies. Expect the unexpected, as they say.

About eight or nine years ago I wandered into a Hot Topic store at a our mall, mostly out of curiosity, but also because I knew they sold music, some of which I happen to like (don’t judge!). I was clearly out of place: a 40-something gray hair with no piercings or tattoos, and decidedly not wearing the “uniform.” As I flipped through the CDs one of the employees, dressed all in black, with black hair, and rather large gauges in his ears. He looked at me and said:

“Can I help you sir? Looking for something for one of your kids?”

And though those were his words, all I heard was,

“Hey Pops, you do realize you’re out of your element, right? We don’t sell Michael Bolton here, but I’ll throw you a bone and help you out. You need a clue on what to buy your kids…or grandkids??”

My response:

“Nah, I’m OK. Just checking out your selection, and glad to see you have [rattled off names of a few bands]. I saw these guys play a few months ago. Oh, and the drummer in that band is a friend of mine.”

Crickets. The guy walked away confounded. In fact, I think he literally was scratching his head. He had no idea what to do with me, so he simply retreated.

Don’t be confounded. Be prepared. Understand that a buyer persona is a good thing to have, but is NOT your perfect customer. There is no such thing. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find even one customer that fits your buyer persona perfectly. All of your customers are different. Understand that there are plenty of exceptions to every rule. Don’t be so tied to your buyer persona that you miss out on other opportunities.

Don’t tell your customers how they should behave. And NEVER compare them to Hector. They won’t appreciate it.

Who is your ideal customer? Have you ever been surprised by the variety of customers who come through your door?

 The Problem With Buyer Personas
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18 comments
Ronald Dorhout Mees
Ronald Dorhout Mees

Good article! 'Who is your ideal customer?' is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Relevant ‘business terminology’ of the target group is used too little. Instead, a ‘one size fits all,’ traditional sales pitch waters down the conversation and becomes ineffective.  For technology sales it's essential. 

MikeRathfon
MikeRathfon

This furthers your point, but just last night we had a show that skewed heavily to a certain audience type. Not much surprises me when it comes to shows because people's music tastes are fairly unique and diverse, still I was surprised to see a number of people who were completely the opposite of who I expected to see in our room. 


jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

But you can't possibly effectively market without understanding -- intimately -- your ideal customer. 

Consumer behavior is largely predictable -- and even irrational and/or emotional purchases are accounted for through the math. Focusing on your ideal customer does not mean that you de facto exclude outliers. Quite the opposite, really. 

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douglaserice
douglaserice

I think that this involves a basic problem of statistics. When you're calculating the "average" of any sample, you are calculating a metric that is representative of the group as a whole but is not representative of any individual (unless by chance). The concept of a buyer persona, I think, is flawed on that point. You can't judge an individual based on the data you pull from the group. If you are going for "reach," it's good to know what your "typical buyer" is like. However, if you are using the data to structure your one-on-one conversations, you would be better off winging it than pigeon-holing the prospect to the "average" deduced from your entire sample.

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StaceyHood
StaceyHood

I agree with everything you said, Ken...even had the same thing happen to me at Hot Topic and another store, Buckle. The biggest thing about all of this, though...is that one can never prepare for what I can "human behavior". That means, a day where the dog made a mess of the house, their spouse left them, the kid was arrested, etc. Anything that can make an impact that is big enough to sway someone from not buying or whatever the function would be. So immediately, the knowledge of the buyer persona has changed. But on the other hand, it could be the opposite situation where the buyer is an emotional buyer.

KristinZas
KristinZas

Hector makes me laugh as an adult but I would have HATED him as a child.

For that matter, I'd still be mad if I got compared to Broomhilda, my husband's perfect wife. I'm competitive that way.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@MikeRathfon Happens to me all the time at the Chameleon. Me standing in line at a hardcore show. The looks I get!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@jasonkonopinski And that's the exact point I made, if you read properly, about understanding your ideal customer. And consumer behavior, by most accounts, is becoming less and less predictable. 

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@StaceyHood I think that's key. We prepare so much for the perfect situation, we never prepare for the perfect storm which throws everything into a tizzy.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

@douglaserice  @KenMueller Yes, ideally, they would align closely. If they don't, then some fine tuning in messaging or strategy may be in order.  

Sometimes audiences/customers emerge unexpectedly and you're quite right that businesses have to be willing (and able) to adjust to be inclusive of those new customer categories. 

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