Meet Elizabeth: a 27-year-old nurse who drives a Honda Civic, enjoys making TikToks, and spends most of her time with her beautiful 9-month-old baby.
Elizabeth desperately wants to make more time for herself, but struggles to find the balance between work and home responsibilities. She tries to give herself moments of self-care, but these moments are few and far between. Elizabeth needs a way to recharge, relax, and care for herself.
By this description, you know Elizabeth’s age, profession, gender, desires, struggles, and pain points. All of this information helps you place her in a category in your mind — but none of that information tells you why she buys your product.
Buyer personas typically include descriptions like Elizabeth’s, along with other demographics and personality information.
In the early days of customer segmentation, this would have been more than enough to inform marketing campaigns and product development. But with growing markets and increased consumer awareness, companies need to go beyond standard buyer personas to reach their audiences.
If we can apply what we’ve learned about how people make decisions, and how we as companies group people together, we’ll be able to reach customers like Elizabeth with empathetic solutions that help her, rather than stereotypical cure-alls that are easily overlooked.
Here, let’s dive into three myths of the buyer persona — and what you can do, instead.
Standard Buyer Personas Aren’t Enough
The first mention of audience segmentation was by Wendell Smith in 1956. Smith defined market segmentation as, “the adjustment of market offerings to consumer or user requirements.”
Smith knew that creating segments would lead to higher consumer/user satisfaction. But Smith’s idea of segmentation was years before we had a clear understanding of psychology, behavioral economics, unconscious bias, and deeper knowledge about how to provide consumer satisfaction.
Since Smith’s discussion on segmentation, we’ve had major discoveries in the way people think, rationalize, and categorize others. Daniel Kahneman and Amos’ Tversky’s 1974 research paper A Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases revealed the way people process information, and are influenced. And Clayton Christensen first shared his jobs-to-be-done theory in 2003.
Both of these studies on human behavior, purchasing, and thinking have made a lasting impact on the way we create ad copy, price products, introduce call-to-actions, and influence many other marketing activities — but have yet to influence our way of creating buyer personas.
Using the lessons from Kahneman, Tversky, and Christensen, there are three myths of the standard buyer persona that could be detrimental to your marketing and customer relations. Let’s dive into those, now.
Myth #1: Your Buyer Persona Needs a Name
We’ve all seen the old advice to give your persona a name that is memorable. Names like Sally Sales Girl and Mary the Marketer will bring your persona to life and create a more concrete persona in your mind and marketing — or so we’re told.
Fact: Naming your buyer persona introduces bias.
The problem with giving your buyer personas a fake name is that you could introduce bias into your marketing.
Introducing naming bias in your marketing means that consciously you’ve determined a particular person as your best customer. That’s good! The problem is you might also unintentionally exclude people who could be a good fit for your product but may not resemble the person you envisioned. And that’s bad.
If Elizabeth is your best fit customer, then you’re more likely to seek out customers who meet your unconscious idea of who Elizabeth is, rather than seek out customers who actually use your product or service.
Studies show that when someone has an easier-to-pronounce name, they are judged more favorably than someone with a harder-to-pronounce name. And while most studies on unconscious name bias focus on resumes and job applications, we can apply those lessons to buyer personas, as well.
Ease of pronunciation varies depending on where you live or what language you speak. But remember, a name that sounds familiar to you might not sound familiar to your audience.
Solution: Name personas based on segmentation data.
When we create buyer personas, we’re grouping a large number of people into one category. Instead of naming your personas after a person, try naming them after the traits they share.
Do the majority of these best-fit customers enjoy soccer? Great! Name them ‘The Soccer Players.’ Or maybe they’re using your product to free-up time in their scheduling processes. Wonderful — let’s call them the Free Timers.
Naming this group of people according to their segment, or their need, helps to eliminate any bias that could exist.
This helps focus buyer personas on the category of people you’re serving, not just one pretend person.
Myth Two: Your Buyer Persona Needs a Photo to Make Them More Relatable and Realistic
Most buyer personas have a stock photo on the first page. I’ve even heard of companies using cardboard cutouts of buyer personas in their office.
While I admire the effort to bring to life a category of people, assigning one picture or person to represent a large group of people lays a foundation for bias in your marketing.
Fact: Your buyer persona doesn’t need a face to be realistic.
The buyer persona’s picture most likely represents who you believe your ideal customer looks like, but it’s not likely a good determination of your entire audience. If you’ve given your Elizabeth persona a picture of a middle-aged white female, and 100% of your audience isn’t middle-aged, white, and female, you’ve inaccurately portrayed your audience.
When we give our personas a stock photo it could introduce racial, gender, or beauty bias. These kinds of biases are so ingrained in our minds that we follow bias patterns even if we don’t logically believe the bias to be true.
This phenomenon is known as the bias blind spot. Studies show that 95% of cognition happens below the threshold of conscious thought. Meaning, you may not be racist, misogynistic, or ageist, but there are patterns ingrained in your mind that influence your decision-making whether you realize it or not.
A Google Image search when searching for ‘Buyer Personas’ blatantly shows the issue with assigning pictures to buyer personas. There’s not a lot of diversity in these images, and that lack of diversity hurts a company’s growth.
A 2019 survey by the Female Quotient, Ipsos, and Google found “64% of people surveyed said they took some sort of action after seeing an ad that they considered to be diverse or inclusive. Those numbers increase for Latinx+ (85%), Black (79%), Asian/Pacific Islander (79%), LGBTQ (85%), millennial (77%), and teen (76%) consumers.”
Solution: Forget the photo.
Leave the stock photo out of your buyer personas. This isn’t going to harm or hurt any of your marketing efforts and functions. It will be a step toward eliminating unconscious bias. Instead of using a stock photo, get straight to the crucial information.
You may have the urge to add a cartoon character, but that doesn’t alleviate the problem. Skip the pictures altogether, and get straight to the information that will help you resonate, reach, and sell to your customers.
This is the first step in acknowledging that your customers look like a wide variety of races, genders, shapes, and sizes.
When your marketing better represents your audience, your product, messaging, and communications will resonate more clearly.
Myth Three: Buyer Personas Should Describe Character Traits
Most B2B buyer personas are created to inform marketing teams and executives on who their customers are and keep promotional efforts consistent, but limiting buyer personas to only character traits, demographics, and socio-graphic information limits your audience and ability to reach the right people in the right way.
Fact: Buyer personas should tell you why people buy a product or service.
The best way to resonate with your audience is to understand them and empathize with their pain points. Understanding your audience begins with how you build and segment your buyer personas.
If you’re segmenting your audience based on attributes such as brands they like, habits they have, or job titles, then you are grouping people together based on fleeting attributes.
For instance, say our persona example, Elizabeth, changes jobs, moves to a new city, or changes any trait about her life. As a result, you might unnecessarily shift Elizabeth out of your customer demographic. She loves your product, and would still buy your product, but now you’re no longer invested in marketing to her segment.
Solution: Segment according to the job-to-be-done.
Instead of building your personas around demographics and character traits, base your personas on what your customers have hired your product/service to do for them.
For example, Elizabeth is a mom, loves long baths, and buys Suave deodorant. The reason she buys Suave has nothing to do with her age, job title, or love of baths. She buys Suave because she’s used it for years, loves the smell, and the way it makes her feel. She is ‘hiring’ Suave deodorant to keep her feeling and smelling great.
Clayton Christensen was the first person to discuss the concept of people hiring products and services for a particular job.
Combining the emotional psychographic information of buyer personas with a jobs-to-be-done approach will help to inform your marketing efforts and open up your market in a way that allows you to serve all kinds of people. According to Christensen, “Companies that develop offerings centered on jobs, instead of customer attributes and buying behaviors, can excel in the market and avoid disruption.”
The Best Buyer Personas Will be the Tool that Grows Your Business
It’s time buyer personas caught up with our knowledge of how people think, behave, and purchase. When undertaking your next buyer persona project, ditch the fake name and picture, and focus on what your customers hire your product to do for them.
Your marketing deliverables will be more inclusive to a wider audience, while still being narrowly focused and empathetic. Creating better buyer personas will lay a foundation of better marketing practices that resonates with your audience and grows your business.