As we begin a new decade, it is amazing to think how the term buyer persona has become part of the lexicon of business language. I am often asked by clients, colleagues, friends, and family – where did the idea or the term buyer persona come from? Like most watershed moments in life, there is an origin that exists which can sometimes get lost in the timeline of progress. In the use of the term buyer persona, I believe such is the case.
Before a focus on the origin of the term and concept, it is important to grapple with how we have reached this point. The term and concept has grown through actual work on the part of leading edge organizations and some terrific writing as well as teaching on the topic of buyer personas. The origins of buyer personas resides with one man and one man only – Alan Cooper. Alan is considered and revered by many as the founding father of personas and their use for the interaction design of digital products and mediums. I had the privilege of working with Alan Cooper, through his esteemed Cooper Interaction Design firm (now called Cooper), and to watch the birth of as well as learn firsthand about personas. In March of 1999, Alan published his highly acclaimed first edition of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, a provocative look at how software programmers and engineers were in charge of designing products and services that were by and large – non-user friendly. It is in this book that Alan first describes the use of personas to design very user friendly digital products. On page 135 of this landmark book, Alan begins to point out that personas are “user personas and not buyer personas” when referencing the use of personas in the design of digital products. Essentially making the case personas should be used to design for the user as opposed for the buyer. Hence, we can mark the exact origin of the term buyer persona in the annals of modern business history.
I was fixated on that passage line. Being a student of Peter Drucker, I asked the important question Mr. Drucker stated must be solved at reaching sound decisions – why not? As in -why not create buyer personas? As a former Vice President of Sales and Marketing for three organizations, I couldn’t help but think – now if I only had information, via personas on buying customers, what successes could we have achieved? This was a gravitational pull on my thinking in the time I helped out at Alan’s design firm. This also served as the genesis to ponder the “why not” question with full force. (A little known footnote to this story happened in 2000-2001. Both Pragmatic Marketing and Forrester Research solicited from several people at Cooper, including myself and Alan, information on personas. Personas have become a staple component of Pragmatic Marketing’s course offerings while Forrester has used personas extensively in its web design analysis offerings.)
After the dot com bust that took place in the early 2000’s as well as the after affects of 9/11, Cooper Interaction Design was not immune to the need to scale back considerably and go into survival mode. They have survived to this date and are the preeminent design firm in the country in my humble opinion. In 2002, I formed the firm Goal Centric, stumbled out of the gate, ruffled some feathers inadvertently, and then found footing. We’ve crossed the great divide so to peak – from user persona methodology to carving out a specific methodology related to buyer personas. It has taken some courageous organizations, such as FedEx, HP, and Reed Elsevier, to be pioneers evolving buyer personas into a strategic component of sales and marketing planning. We’ve come a long way in answering the question – why not buyer personas?
I have purposely used the above titled heading out of respect for Alan’s definitive article The Origin of Personas written in August of 2003. Although I haven’t spoken to him in several years, I hope he will not mind being called the Grand Daddy of all personas. His invention was brilliant and all those using personas today should pay homage to the man who started it all. We would not be able to utilize the concept of personas had it not been for Alan Cooper giving us its origins and the basic persona building structure.