Your persona marketing approach is losing sales

I admit it; my title is a bit sensational (although you are reading this right now, so maybe it did the job). So let me say upfront: creating marketing personas is fundamentally useful. They can be especially valuable when you’re defining new customer pools and updating your go-to-market messages. Here are the two critical reasons why I’ve always created them before launching campaigns.

To make sure that my marketing message, materials, and model align with the customers I’m trying to reach. I know this is marketing 101, but I’ve personally found creating personas to be a good way to get all members of the marketing team aligned around the same goal. As many of you know, this can be more challenging than it seems. Personas are a great way to facilitate this process.

To make sure management is in full agreement on the audience and ideal prospects we are targeting. Too many times a campaign gets underway, creative built, ad placements lined up and then at the eleventh-hour management looks at it and says… “Well, how is that message going to attract blue-eyed dolphins with striped fins from Kansas?” At this point you either scrap the plan or run a campaign that you know isn’t going to deliver on the results management expects. A persona discussion before campaign planning is a way to get out ahead of the issue and limit last-minute changes to the plan.

So now that I’ve established that I’m not a “persona hata” I can move on to where personas fall down.  Personas fail when marketers use them as an excuse to ONLY use demographics in their targeting. Not only is this an ineffective way to target – but it’s also a misrepresentation of what a persona should be. Specifically:

  • Persona marketing becomes “title” marketing. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen campaigns fail due to the simple fact that marketers, sales executives, or management put too many restrictions on their target audience. The most common example of this is extreme title filtering.

    Think of your current employer. How different is their title structure compared to your previous company? How about responsibilities? In some companies, it takes 20 years of experience to become a manager, in other businesses you can be a VP practically out of college. Extremely narrow title marketing does not work because of these significant differences between organizational structures.

    If you only limit your campaigns to targeting titles, I guarantee you’re leaving business on the table. I’m not saying you don’t need to focus the campaigns you run, but in my experience, extreme title filtering is not an approach that generally works. Too many opportunities fall into the hands of your competitors who are more than willing to chase them.One exercise I recommend is to go into Salesforce (or any other tool you use) and pull the last 25 closed sales. Follow the path to how they came into the system, who was involved in the meetings, and eventually who signed off on the deal. I guarantee that you’ll see a broad range of titles and roles participating in the process. Whenever I hear “We can only sell to X” (X being an extremely specific title), I know the marketing, sales or business leaders have not run this exercise.
  • Persona/demographic marketing is not behavioral marketing. Let’s be honest, in the best case scenario; your personas are still highly educated guesses. Today marketing teams have access to more behavioral data than some of us even thought was possible. This is why persona marketing can be used to help shape your message, but should not be the only way you construct your lead generation campaigns.  Imagine you are trying to sell high-end engagement rings online and you have two ways to approach a potential lead generation campaign.
  • Option 1: Persona-based approach. First, let’s define a potential buyer. A man, aged 25-35, income of $100,000-$150,000, college educated and a management title. Your first step here would be to seek out data sources, lists, publications, billboards, TV shows and anything else to target this prospect. You could even hold some list/data providers only to send you people who fit these strict criteria. From there you would start your campaign and market to this extremely targeted imaginary buyer.
  • Option 2: Behavior-based approach. Instead of defining the buyer, let’s look strictly at behavioral data. Imagine if you could target a group of prospects who visited Tiffany’s engagement ring pages and clicked on rings that were over $30,000, had recently been on TripAdvisor looking at best spots for proposing, read specific articles on The Knot about buying expensive engagement rings and signed up for 2 mailing lists for local engagement ring brokers.  Which one would you choose? The bottom line is we all have to adapt and use the technology and data available to us today to create sales.  Sometimes the customers we “think” will buy from us, are not always the customers who actually will. Why limit your marketing outreach to an imagined prospect when you can leverage data to point you to the real opportunities?

I believe creating marketing personas is a necessary undertaking for all marketing teams to explore, whether you’re a startup trying to define your first customer target, or a dinosaur trying to break into new markets. It’s when personas are misused that the problems begin.  

Personas are not supposed to be demographic selections on a lead generation menu. Personas are meant to be segments of your audience — groups that are motivated by the same problems and respond to the same value propositions.  When we turn our personas into hyper-focused demographic criteria, we miss more opportunities than we gain. With all of us trying to prove ROI for every dollar we spend, sometimes we forget about the lost deals (because we didn’t even know they existed). A quote from an old mentor of mine sums this up the best…

Sales should be about focus, but marketing still needs to be about scale.”

When we build out our marketing persona playbook, let’s remember that we need to find a balance between targeting the right prospects and limiting our opportunities. Sometimes brown-eyed dolphins from Kansas will buy from us too.

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