Personas Are Great (Except When They Suck)

If you’ve worked in User Experience, Software Design, Product Engineering or Marketing, you may have heard the term “Persona.”

Whatever professional context you have for this term, it means relatively the same thing: to design something for a specific user in mind instead of general groups of people. In marketing, personas are used to target marketing programs to specific people.

Personas can be very effective for the designer to create something specific to solve a very real individual’s problem. It helps to personalize the experience for the end user. In fact, I recently presented on the topic of content marketing personalization where I argued that personalized content was the key to defining the core job of marketing: to build relationships at scale.

And I made sure to differentiate personalized content from personas. So, one of my points in the presentation: Marketing personas are great. Except when they suck! 

My request of all marketers is that we focus on things that real people are interested in. By focusing on the topics that matter to our audience, we can attract the right people. By focusing on the keywords they use, we can create the content that answers their questions. And that these topics and keywords and content types are more important that demographics.

Ok, so now before you start ranting or raving to disagree, let’s start with some basics:

What Is a Marketing Persona?

Marketing Personas are I actually like personas. And I know a handful of consultants who are really helping their clients create actionable insights and programs and plans based on a deeper understanding of their buyers. So, I’ll start with a definition from one of those, Adelle Revella

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.

Another great definition of personas comes from Tony Zambito, who uses this definition:

Buyer personas are research-based archetypal (modeled) representations of who buyers are, what they are trying to accomplish, what goals drive their behavior, how they think, how they buy, and why they make buying decisions.  (Today, I now include where they buy as well as when buyers decide to buy.)

And finally, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t refer to Ardath Albee who says:

Personas must be focused on what the buyer is trying to achieve.

Ardath suggests personas answer must these questions:

  • What’s important to them and what’s driving the change?
  • What’s impeding or speeding their need to change?
  • How do they go about change?
  • What do they need to know to embrace change?
  • Who do they turn to for advice or information?
  • What’s the value they visualize once they make a decision?
  • Who do they have to sell change to in order to get it?
  • What could cause the need for this change to lose priority?

The reason these folks know what they are doing is that they emphasize the need for actionability from the exercise of building buyer personas.

Unfortunately, there is a large group of consultants and agencies out there taking large sums of money from brands to produce personas that produce very little action, do not inform content planning or distribution. They tap into a well-intentioned idea in marketing to get to know and understand your buyer, without delivering on the real need: defining how to reach them with content they want or need.

So I hope you understand when I say that buyer personas are great except when they suck!

Why Are Marketing Personas Effective

Marketing Personas are effective because they focus and inspire marketing teams to deliver marketing content and campaigns that people actually want or need. I applaud any efforts to put customers first. Let’s look at the components of why marketing personas are effective.

Marketing Personas Instill Empathy

Empathy is such an important part of modern marketing that I even wrote a whole book about it, Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads To Bigger Profits and  Better Life.

The book was inspired by marketing that sucks, (mainly marketing) managers that sucked, and my experience on how using empathy in marketing delivers better marketing outcomes.

Empathy allows marketing people to walk a mile in their customer’s shoes. It allows us to feel their pain and it instills in us the desire to want to solve their problems.

Empathy is also the first step in design thinking which is a process I am a huge fan of mainly because, (you guessed it) it requires customer-focused thinking in order to design customer-focused solutions. In marketing, empathy forces us to create content that is focused on solving customer problems.

Marketing Personas Create Curiosity

A curious marketer emerges once we start to understand the questions, challenges and concerns of your target customer. It’s natural human instinct to want to solve those problems. We empathize and actually feel those pains ourselves. Self preservation kicks in and we want to “save” ourselves by solving the problem.

This curiosity often leads marketers to look at buyer intent data, try and understand the latest content marketing trends, utilize the most effective marketing research tools, and define better customer-centric solutions.

Resist The Temptation To Want to Promote

We’ve already shared that emotion beats promotion every time. Personas can allow us to further resist the temptation to tell the world how awesome we are and how much better our products are than our competition.

It took me a long time to understand that it is our natural instinct to want to promote our company’s products. We think it is what we should do. We are told it is what our manager expects of us. But we all know that behind every bad piece of marketing is an executive who asked us to do it. (This is my favorite content marketing quote!)

Marketing Personas Inspire Creativity

Now that we have empathy for our target customer, the curiosity to solve their problem, the ability to resists our desire to promote our products, we are free to think of all the new and creative ways we can deliver on the needs of our customers. This is why actionable marketing personas work.

Buyer Personas That Suck

Here’s a few visual examples I have seen that represent everything that is wrong with marketing personas that don’t work:

Source: Buffer
Source: Buffer

In my personalized content marketing presentation, I used some fictitious examples of buyer personas that suck. While I made these examples up, I promise you that I have seen plenty of million dollar personas that look just like this:

This is “Business Decision Maker Bob.” He has a wife, two kids, drives a red sports car and likes to spend his weekend playing golf.

This is “Technical Tom.” He’s very detailed-oriented. Tom doesn’t like surprises and appreciates being well-informed before making a decision. An introvert, Tom has adjusted the settings on his browser.

Finally, we have Social Savvy Sally. She’s always chatting up her friends. She is also kind of a big deal on Instagram.

These types of personas suck because they don’t really help any brand to connect with their target audience. They suck because they lack any kind of actionability.

The problem with Personas: Actionability

I hear all the time from brand marketers who are being advised by their agencies to conduct “mood board” sessions and to brainstorm on the names of their personas.
Source: Pinterest
Many of these campaign-based initiatives simply fail to identify the key components of they buyer persona that you can define your content marketing plan.
My advice is always that “Personas are great, as long as they don’t suck.”

7 Steps to Defining Actionable Marketing Personas

  1. What content your target customers use?
  2. What topics, they are interested in?
  3. What types or formats of content they prefer?
  4. Which channels they use?
  5. For which stage of the buyer journey
  6. What keywords do they use to search?
  7. What actual questions do they ask?

The answers to these questions can help inform content production and delivery where the goal should be to become a destination of insights for your target personas.

I also caution brands against having more than maybe two personas and focus more on the various topics your primary persona is interested in.  Once you start publishing on the primary topics of your key persona, you can build out content that addresses the secondary ones.

Great Marketing Gets Results

I have gotten into some heated debates on this topic of marketing personas. Great marketing comes from customer insights. You don’t need a mood board or a customer avatar.

I believe the reason for the passion on this topic is the desire by some old school marketing folks to hold on to traditional campaign ideas (and their budgets) that you only get one shot at making a good impression. They think you hire a fancy ad agency, create some bullshit persona, define your “big idea” (which usually sounds something like we’re awesome!) and blast it out.

The fact is that in today’s world, we have a very short memory and even shorter attention spans. The best headline right now is the one I click. And the brands I trust for news and information are the ones that deliver it consistently and are finding new customers for less money than many spend on just the personas that suck.

These are the brands doing marketing that delivers results. And it’s called content marketing.

Personas are still very much important in today’s content-driven world.

But don’t take my word on it. Test these ideas out. And I know you’ll find that a steady, consistent and regular cadence of content is what separates the winners from those who struggle to connect with their audience.

Today’s brands need to create continuous content that their target audience wants. Not only because that’s how we browse the web today (the customer perspective) but also because that approach is what yields results from a business perspective.

Are you fighting against personas that suck in your organization?

This is a common roadblock we see, so you are not alone. I am happy to jump on a call with anyone at any time to help raise some of the questions that might lead to better outcomes for your business.

Bonus: More Content Marketing Snark

This article is one of a series of snarky content marketing posts I wrote to vent my frustrations at the world of marketing that sucks. For some additional rants, check out:

Looking for more traffic to your website with weekly blog articles, a full-year content plan, and monthly reporting? Set up a quick call, so we can get started today.

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

21 thoughts on “Personas Are Great (Except When They Suck)

  1. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for tackling an issue out there that affect many marketers. And, thanks for hitting on the money grab some consultants and agencies are practicing – with very little knowledge of exactly what is required to research and develop informing buyer personas. Thanks for also including the original definition of buyer personas when I founded the concept nearly 13 years ago. I agree within the context of content marketing – actionability is the key. However, in the context of an overall business and marketing strategy, buyer personas must be informing first. They should help organizations to be informed about not only who represents their best, as well as ideal customers – but also – guide important strategies in marketing, sales, and services. Both informing and actionability are derived from an important principle – buyer personas are a representation of goal-directed buying behaviors and not functional factors-based profiling. And, this is where the money grab is taking place – delivering nothing resembling the true core intent of buyer personas. Thanks Michael for tackling this head on!

    Tony Zambito
    Founder of Buyer Personas

    1. Thanks Tony, I completely agree with you. Based on how you defined “informing” as guiding important business strategies, I would even argue that falls under the category of being actionable, just more strategic in nature.

      I appreciate the contribution you and others have made in this space. I needed to write this rant while also continuing to emphasize my deep belief that effective personas are really important. I hope I straddled that line.

  2. Good Job, Michael.
    They say the genome would take 100,000 scientists working for 100,000 years to document.
    Remarkable how Marketing Gurus knock out a Buyer Persona in about 20 minutes! :))

  3. Agree! Have seen million dollar personas developed so detailed for every potential pocket of the audience base. At the end of the day, my solution or service has to solve a real (not perceived) problem for the buyer and keep it simple and actionable.

  4. Thanks for this ‘rant’ Michael. You’re speaking about a topic and concern that’s of high relevance and interest to us at Quarry (

    We collaborated with Tony Zambito and Angela Quail (both formerly of Goal Centric) in the recent past, and have been designing and building personas for clients since the mid-2000s. And, while we’re thrilled with the increasing proliferation of personas use throughout companies across North America, we’re also troubled–like you–about a pattern of personas being built according to a cookie cutter approach, absent depth, validity and careful strategic or tactical application in mind. These, to us, are root causes for their lack of actionability.

    Because many early adopters have been burned by personas that lacked actionability, we agree it’s critically important to get the message out that ‘not all personas are created equal’.

    We have observed–and promote this professional viewpoint–that personas that fulfill their potential–and prove actionable and valuable–have 3 notable qualities to them:
    1. Alignment – they are directed by stakeholder interests, steered by project goals that have been pre-articulated, and have their funding and degree of rigour calibrated to their intended scope of application
    2. Depth – they start with a focus on customer goals and experiences, not industry products and competitors; and they use primary research (qual, quant or both) with customers/target users to displace internal views of “the customer” that may be outdated, misplaced or biased by a product-centric perspective or conventional “wisdom”. Plus, they represent the “Differences that make a difference” between customers with respect to the particular field of experience that is being studied.
    3. Utility – they are structured and ‘packaged’ in a way that services the intended decision-making processes (e.g. content marketing, website design, social media engagement, sales conversations, product design) and they are viewed as inputs to a creative, imagination-driven process (e.g. writing, designing, planning) as opposed to the final deliverable that’s supposed to have discrete, black and white answers.

    There’s a need for this topic–and the related best practices vs. watch-outs–to become more widely known so that marketers can discern when they’re set-up to produce personas that are actionable and effective versus when they’re following a process that is likely to result in personas that suck.

    Thanks again for raising this important topic.

  5. This discussion on “actionability” can benefit from a distinction between “tactical” actionability and “strategic” actionability. And here’s the question that needs to be asked: Can “Great” personas (as described here) suck too? Suppose functional groups like marketing, sales, and product development all work with customer definitions that originate in a categorization optimized for their own productivity needs. (This happens frequently). The quality of “tactical” actionability could be uniformly high, and the marketplace impact could be low. If on the other hand, these customer definitions are both tuned for tactical actionability, and also integrated around a shared core framework of strategic segmentation insight then there is a much better prospect of building brand engagement through a coherent set of experiences in which a targeted cohort of customers can see their values and goals reflected.
    Starting with the quality of the persona, as opposed to the quality of the strategic segmentation insight framework, is approaching the issue from the wrong end. Tactical actionability is a necessary, but insufficient condition for really connecting with customers in the long run.

    1. Hi Glen, I get what you are saying. Start strategically with segmentation across the business? Absolutely agree. I think my rant was specific to personas built for marketing that don’t actually inform the communications framework. But you are right, there is a strategic opportunity as well that Tony also infers to below.

  6. Great article! I’ve also seen many personas developed that are fun to read, but don’t provide any insight or action. I believe part of this disconnect is due to the fact that marketing is creating personas without really engaging with the customer or sales team. What tips do you have for developing a great buyer persona?

    1. Hi Stacey,

      I think you answered the question. Ask your customers and sales teams. Use the questions Ardath proposes and include the ones i mentioned as well. What topics are they interested in, what channels do they use, what formats do they like. Those are the detauls you need to understand how to create content that connects with our audience.

  7. Great post, Michael! I could not agree more. Personas are often too generic when developed without a clear goal in mind as to its purpose. I have seen marketers try to leverage these pre-built personas for personalization, lead generation, etc. As we know and you have rightly pointed out, they are simply not actionable as these generic personas are not focused on what the buyer is trying to achieve. Thanks for raising this key point!

    1. Thanks Sudeshna, was just talking today about this exact issue. We often forget the use cases that drive product need and making sure our products meet those needs. It’s easy to get caught up in expensive art projects.

  8. Hi Michael,
    Fantastic article that simply nailed it!
    A point I’d like to raise are personas for the transactional sale vs the longer, involved buying process. This can also be thought of as B2C vs B2B although lines cross.
    I find that some of my clients that ask us to develop personas and map the buying cycle have a predisposition of the classical B2C persona which often includes the sexy elements such as gender, income, personality type and favourite Starbucks flavour. This often occurs when experienced marketers from CPG or other industries with transactional products move to a company with a B2B focus. When I ask them how this information will help them develop content or inform and prepare their sales and marketing teams, the silence is deafening.

    1. Thanks David,

      I really appreciate your support. And you raise a great point. Even in the transactional sale, we live in a world where brand matters less and less. Ads are tuned out more and more. But consumer in transactional sales and longer decision journeys have demonstrated (in metrics) and stated (in surveys) that the brands who help them the most, are the ones we chose over the alternatives.

      That is why I believe we just need to help people, in marketing, in business, in non-profits. Make that the focus. Make that real and the business will win more customers than the promotional alternatives focusing on mood boards and fictitious names.

  9. Completely agree! 99% of the time brands use a self-referential sales funnel and virtually useless demographic data to define the purchase journey from their point of view and craft personas. Both should focus on your customers, as you say their needs, challenges, goals, etc. as well as online and offline platform and content preferences, to gain actionable insights that can inform any strategic plan.

  10. You hit the nail on the head – it comes down to actionability. Personas built at the company or individual level are only as good as they are actionable. Arguably, there are only a few offerings (consultants and software providers) that are able to accomplish this to actually improve B2B marketing and sales efforts.

  11. Love the idea of starting with one primary persona and nailing it. I’ve been very surprised by B2B companies who I thought had fairly sophisticated marketing engines refer to the “hundreds” of personas that they are trying to microtarget through complex nurturing programs. No wonder it can seem overwhelming to those who are just getting started. Your approach seems much more reasonable and likely to succeed. And I question whether those complex approaches are actually working well enough to be cost effective.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I have seen it in action and let me tell you it is UGLY. Unfortunately I think it becomes a check list for some marketers and agencies and they lose site of what really matters, delivering value to your target audience, starting with a topic of conversation bigger than your product or service and then earning attention and trust.

  12. Another of many egregious oversights: not identifying the data to acquire about personas. In a data-driven decision world, content is a means of acquiring data about viewers. Most organizations don’t have a clear list of data they need about their audiences, let alone at a persona level. We’ve moved way beyond “digital body language” here. The inability to align content with data to acquire is a major reason content fails to perform as well as desired.

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