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About a dozen years ago, I became involved with personas through fate by meeting Alan Cooper, at the time he just finished his landmark book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, and becoming enamored with personas as a process to build more user friendly products. I learned and watched in awe from the wonderful collective group of pioneers from those early heady days in using personas at Cooper Design – people like Kim Goodwin, Robert Riemann, David Fore, Wayne Greenwood, and Dave Cronin. Along with Alan Cooper, these folks are the real forerunners of personas back in the late ‘90’s. This group included Carol Christie who was instrumental in landing some of the first batch of design projects back then that involved the use of personas.
As an individual with a background in marketing and sales, I began to think of how this could be a process to help make informed decisions not just about users but also buyers. A little known fact is that it was Alan Cooper who first coined the phrase buyer personas in his book to differentiate from user personas as well as to highlight that products should be designed for users and not buyers. While spending time at Cooper Design, the phrase stuck around my head like a gnat that just wouldn’t go away. After first adjusting the process to adapt to the rising presence of the Dot.com boom; next came the turbulent fall from the Dot.com bust. Cooper barely survived the bust - and I am glad it did. I wound up on a path afterward searching for a way to make buyer personas a reality.
Flash forward to the present day nine years later, I believe that buyer personas in general and as a marketing and sales process is at a critical juncture needing significant change. I am seeing this need firsthand as well as reflecting back on these nine years of what worked then but may not work in the future. Just as personas needed to change from a process aimed squarely at software design to incorporate the Web, buyer personas as a process must now undergo reinvention to be applicable to the Social Age. The future of buyer persona research and its processes are social as the social buyer becomes a prominent as well as permanent fixture in the new social age.
What Buyer Personas Never Were and Should Not Be In The Future
Buyer personas has suffered from the malady of being characterized incorrectly more often than not. The starting point for organizations to understand how buyer personas in the future will be social is first addressing myths and misconceptions. Let's look at a few:
- Buyer personas are not a buyer profile, a demographic profile, a psychographic profile, a market segment profile, a sales profile, a market research profile, a customer survey profile, or a focus group profile. The latest trendy term of content marketing has even resulted in buyer personas being characterized as content profiles. The point is that buyer personas are not profiles. Personas in general were never intended as such.
- Another misconception is that buyer personas are role personas. This myth has resulted in many organizations building buyer personas that mirror the roles they typically market and sell to. They amount to glorified buyer profiles that do not possess revealing insights that shape marketing or sales strategy. Oftentimes, buyer personas, when researched correctly, can be role agnostic.
- Closely associated with the myth that buyer personas are role persona descriptors is that they describe what a buyer does as opposed to what goals buyers have difficulty articulating. Thus, you see buyer personas built that amount to not only a role description but also accompanied by a litany of tasks performed, responsibilities, and background information. In many ways, like a job description.
- The source for building buyer personas oftentimes leads to the above misconceptions. If buyer personas are based on internal sales and marketing customer data only they will offer little value. This holds true for surveying methods associated with traditional market research, customer surveys, and focus group methods. Some companies have made valiant attempts to do requisite qualitative field interviews with customers however utilized internal personnel not trained or skilled in ethnographic or anthropological techniques to conduct them adequately. These interviews becoming more relevant to Voice of the Customer oriented programs.
In order to peer into the future, it is important to leave behind the misconceptions about buyer personas. Only then will social buyer personas be able to play an integral part of the transformation taking place in the social age.
Next: The Future of Buyer Personas is Social - Part 2