User Persona: Fad or Foundation

There is a lot to marketing strategy. At least, a lot if you care to dive into actual marketing. You have branding, positioning, messaging, targeting, segmenting, advertising, posting, listening, engaging, automating, watching, analysing and tweaking. Yeah, it can be a lot.

There are volumes written on each of these topics and at some point, you must stop and go - do all these actually work? Do I really need to go through these 100 exercises before I run my first ad campaign? Do I really need to spend that $25,000 on some branding agency that will send me a bunch of questions, stuff my already busy team into a room to do ‘deep diving’ exercises and finally send me some PDFs that I might never use?

You might decide that some of these elements are crucial, like say branding or targeting and advertising. You can’t reasonably go live without a logo and some basic branding work done and almost every start-up marketing is itching hit that launch campaign button. But there are other exercises that appear to be luxuries or good-to-have’s or in most cases, unnecessary.

Buyer personas top that list. If you’ve gotten a decent branding exercise done, you might have a doc named Middle Age Molly or Corporate Cindy hidden somewhere in a dusty corner of your cloud drive. It looked really nice and sparkly when you first got it, all the challenges and fears of the buyer spoke to you and you made a mental note to blog, post and solve all the problems of the buyer. And then life happened, Middle Age Molly founder her way to your cloud attic.

So the question - Do buyer personas work? Are they actually of any value and can they be used to drive actual marketing results?

The short answer - Yes and No.

Let’s start with the no. Most buyer personas don’t work. They don’t because they don’t really assist marketing. They might give some direction while building a content marketing strategy but that’s far as it goes. Listing down interest, fears, challenges, goals, influencers and social media habits can take you just so far. But they miss out on the biggest factor in marketing, they don’t tell you how to sell!

Buyer personas are meant to tell you how to sell. If they don’t they DO NOT assist your marketing.

Now for the yes. It is possible to build personas that won’t just contribute to your marketing efforts but will actually drive it. Infact, we believe that buyer personas are part of the foundation of any marketing plan. Let’s give you a peek into how we do it at fishHook.

Disclaimer - If you are at a buyer persona stage, we assume you know who your audience is. If not, ummm, start there.

Step 1 : Segmenting

To build these personas, you need to first segment your audience. Now there are several ways to go about this and you don’t need to pick just one. A solid marketing strategy takes into consideration several segmentation tactics. However, to start you can pick one.

Pro tip: If you are starting off, build about 3 - 5 segments. Two segments are too few unless you are catering you a very niche market and above 5 segments would be hard to practically use. As you get used to working systematically with segments, you will find ways to further segment your segments and improve your targeting.

Here are a few ways you can segment your audience -

  1. Demography - Some of the most common ways you can segment your audience is based on age, gender, income, education, ethnicity, marital status, education and occupation. Most buyer personas tend to start with one of these dimensions in splitting audiences.
  2. Geography - If your offering differ based on the geography of a place, this would be a good way to segment your audience.
  3. Product fit - Brands releasing products that cater to rather different audiences tend to consider this form of segmentation. It would be recommend to further segment the audience for each product to effectively market it.
  4. Funnel Stage - This is a personal favourite and surprisingly rare segmentation strategy. You segment audiences based on the stage of your marketing funnel they reside at. Your nurture strategy couldn’t possibly have the same messaging for users at the top and bottom of your funnel.

Step 2: Define basic demographics

Here you define the demographic values of your segment. It usually isn’t very hard to define these values, especially since most people segment based on demographic to start with.

A word of caution: Don’t purely base your buyer demographic on assumptions but use some form of listening to make an informed decision. Since you do know your audience, it’s fine to make certain assumptions but definitely pair it with some form of research. More on how to do that further down.

Step 3: Goals, challenges, fears, ambitions, motivations and influences

These dimensions feature on most buyer personas and even form the bedrock of most content marketing strategies. However, while useful, these factors aren’t sufficient to build a marketing strategy unless your product caters directly to a specific goal, challenge, fear or ambition the buyer has.

Good so far? Well, this is where most buyer personas end and subsequently fail to drive holistic marketing.

Here comes the good stuff.

Step 4: Identify triggers of engagement

This step involves identifying the change that needs to occur in a user’s life what would prompt them to engage with your service or product.

To give you an example - someone looking to buy car insurance goes through that trigger every once a year, when their old policy expires and they need to renew. The renewal date acts as a trigger for engagement with an insurer or insurance aggregator.

In some cases, you could cause the very trigger that causes engagement based on the nature of your product. For example, a user might engage with a particular piece of clothing he/she might see on Instagram. While there isn’t a profound event that occurs in the users life that acts as the trigger, something as simple as seeing a post or an ad on Instagram can act as the trigger. It’s still important to identify triggers.

In some cases, the triggers aren’t straight forward but need to be created. For example in the case of a SAAS product that could truly simply the life of the buyer in a profound way, the trigger would education and getting the message across to the buyer. The buyer isn’t going to engage with a solution he/she doesn’t know exists.

In some cases, the buyer isn’t even aware of the existence of a problem, where again education plays the role trigger. Before Cloud truly took over the market, businesses never knew they could have integrated systems that didn’t depend of physical hardware and large setup. But today, we couldn’t imagine a world without seamless access to data being collected at various touchpoint of our business.

Step 5: Isolate barriers of engagement

While trigger are essential to initiating a purchase cycle, they don’t ensure purchase. It’s important to look deeply at why an ideal user might not engage with our product or service inspite of the need. It’s very easy to assume we have the best solution to the users problems and that they market will easily engage with our offerings. But that is rarely the case. We need to preemptively poke holes in our marketing, sales and even products/services to see if there might be any reason why the user doesn’t engage with us.

Some barriers of engagement could be price-point, lack of education of the offering, messaging, personality of the brand, buyer journey or even relevance.

The reason why this step is included as part of a buyer persona exercise is because brands tend to build one single approach to all their users. While somethings are persona agnostic and more brand focused, like the personality and the branding (which in my opinion should still be largely user focused), a lot of these factors need to be considered at a persona level.

If you have segmented your audience based on which stage of your marketing funnel they are at, you can’t possibly have the same messaging. You TOFU would require more educations, MOFU would require establishing credibility and adding value while BOFU would require more direct sales approaches like discounts, sales or curated offers.

Similarly, if you have segmented your funnel based on demographic that is related to purchase power, you couldn’t possibly be price agnostic. You will end up messing up the pricing for at least one of your audience. Which is why, considering these barriers at a persona level is crucial.

Step 6: Define your USP

While this quite a straight forward step that most brands do consider while positioning themselves, it’s again important to apply it at a persona level. There are several competitors in the market looking to serve your exact persona, and if you don’t have a good reason why that persona should engage with you over the other brands, you will lose out.

Take for example a brand in India that develops leather products. The range of products go from name tags, watch straps, phone cases and leather sleeves to bags, duffles and jackets. While the brand does cater to a general demographic overall, it can’t afford to just define it’s USPs at the brand level.

Since the price range of products are different, they have to cater for a variety of personas that could potentially be in different price brackets. One persona might be able to engage with a sleeve while another might engage with a jacket. These could end up being two very different demographics. The competitors that the brand has for products relevant to different personas will be different. The would be different players in the market cntergin to the audience falling in the sleeve category and different ones falling in the jacket category. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a user buying a leather jacket might not engage with a sleeve but it could mean someone buying a sleeve might not be able to afford a jacket.

Since competition could be different at a persona level, you also need to stand out at a persona level.

Step 7: Define buyer journey

This next one could appear to be a Herculean tasks to pull off but that’s what we at Fishhook are all about, going for the impossible.

Based on DATA, and I repeat DATA, a brand should define buyer journey’s at a persona level. It could very well be possible that different persona’s engage with a brand and purchase differently. If you buyer personas are segmented age-wise, you couldn’t possibly expect different age groups to engage with your brand in the same way. You might find a millennial would find your brand on Instagram. engage over messenger bot or WhatsApp and purchase via UPI while your older audience might find your via search, engage on email and purchase via CC. If your buyer journey isn’t done at a persona level, you could be making very large assumptions about the buying behaviour of your clients.

And that’s about it!

While on first sight, these extra persona steps might appear harmless, rest assured they will not be easy to define. But doing this might prove to be the difference between good and great.

Also unlike popular opinion, the buyer persona exercise isn’t a one time deal. It takes time collecting data, interpreting it to understand behaviour and testing to confirm hypothesis. And on that note, don’t be afraid to make hypothesises about your audience, but always test it out. Everything is just an opinion until proven with data.

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