Why Personas Fail

February 28, 2015
There’s plenty of fervor around the need for buyer personas; so why do some fail to deliver real value?

From where I sit, we have entered a new phase in the evolution of buyer persona maturity in marketing– or maybe this has been the phase we’ve been stuck in ever since the phrase “buyer persona” was first coined years ago, first in the design movements of the 90’s, and later into marketing and sales.

Today, you can find over 500,000 search results on the topic, most supporting the need for buyer personas as a foundational component of effective marketing. Ask an industry thought leader, and you will hear similar validation, “personas are more important than ever” and “know your buyer first.” In fact, 73% of companies currently use, or plan to use, buyer personas (ITSMA).

But there is a very sobering gap between the perceived value of buyer personas and the actual, realized value.

85% of companies aren’t using buyer personas correctly, according to the same survey. This gap is what the next phase of buyer persona maturity is all about. In reality, organizations are struggling to realize value from buyer personas as they relate to a complex sales and marketing process. Why is this the case?

Personas fail:

1. When they are little more than a demographic profile.

Our definition of a buyer persona may actually be the root cause for their failure.

There is a sharp difference between demographic segmentation (“CIOs and companies with over 5,000 employees in the manufacturing industry”) and in-depth buyer personas that represent a comprehensive view of the characteristics, attributes, motivations, and interests of these segments.

Buyer personas should seek to understand our targets as humans – how they make decisions, what drives their actions, how they behave.

“Personas fail when they turn out to be a rehash of previously established sales intelligence, and offer little guidance on how to humanize a brand, as well as content.” – Tony Zambito

2. When they are kept in the dark.

It’s 10am. Do you know where your personas are?

At the recent Content2Conversion conference, Erin Provey of SiriusDecisions described the current format of buyer personas, “I’ve literally seen binders on desks with pages of persona insights, qualitative and quantitative insights that cost thousands of dollars to produce.”

Buyer personas, in theory, are highly useful strategy documents. Why then are they so hard to find, trapped in PDFs and Powerpoints at the bottom of a desk drawer, or at best, maybe on the company intranet?

Personas should be made available throughout the business, referenced quickly and easily to guide the direction of marketing, sales, and product decisions.

3. When they are not updated.

The million-dollar question for many marketers is, “when was the last time you updated your buyer personas?”

Unfortunately the response often comes back in the form of years.

Personas are often not refreshed until a new regime change comes in. But if this is the case, you may miss the inevitable changes in that occur within fast-moving industries, whether regulatory (new compliance laws) economic (hard times in specific industries), or demographic (new or retiring buyers).

What’s worse, without refreshing personas on an ongoing basis, you may miss critical new influencers that emerge in the buying process. This information can be found in your CRM, happening in real-time in your marketing automation system, understood anecdotally in your sales pit, or revealed in primary persona interviews.

4. When they’re created in a bubble.

The process of creating strong personas involves three things that may terrify you:

  1. Interviews with real buyers (gasp!)
  2. Collaboration with other departments (say it ain’t so!)
  3. Challenges to your beliefs or deep-rooted assumptions (Nooo!)

I know. Take a deep breath. It will be okay.

There is no silver bullet for buyer personas. To get it right involves time-consuming interviews with real people, and an examination of the results with an open mind. This takes up bandwidth, may shift and pivot strategy, and – yes – calls for collaboration with other teams in the company.

A surefire way to create personas that don’t work is to do so in a conference room, doors shut, without involving other departments or speaking with real buyers.

5. When there’s no buy-in.

I recently heard personas were “emotionally adopted” by marketers. This rings true as the majority of B2B marketers predict their #1 responsibility in 2016 will be understanding buyers.

But other functions of the business all have skin in this game, and should reach consensus on the format, composition and expected use of personas. After all, “the only way personas add value is if the people who use them internalize them.” – Erin Provey, SiriusDecisions

When seeking to achieve buy-in, even the phrase can turn people off. “I have had clients say that we have to call it a buying center or we won’t get buy-in from the rest of the teams. Or we have to call it a profile, or something else. They get stuck in the semantics of it.” – Ardath Albee in a CMI interview.

6. When they do not translate to tactics.

Buyer personas that can not guide real-world strategy are fundamentally useless. They may look nice on the wall of your cubicle, but what value do they really provide? Personas should not be approached as a checklist item and filed away once completed. Instead, consider personas as “active tools” – objects that inform marketing strategy.

In our new eBook with Ardath Albee, we define what makes personas active tools.

Personas should:

  • Serve as a tool that can be referenced easily to help guide the development of relevant marketing programs
  • Point to specific topics of content as related to priorities defined as important to the persona
  • Reveal the circumstances of what could derail the detail (or the championing of the deal)
  • Be unique from all other personas to indicate a truly definable market segment
  • Identify a market segment that your marketing programs can reach and engage, as well as the means (channels, messages, formats) for doing so
  • Build a storyline across the continuum of the buying process that enables mapping content to needs and priorities at different points of decision making
  • Help marketers understand how emotions and empathy play in solving the specific problem or for reaching a key objective

Personas developed with this level of depth will serve as the foundation for content strategy developed to engage, create purposeful intent, and motivate them to buy. It’s pretty clear that a one-page profile with a few demographic details and descriptive adjectives won’t do the job.

7. When they don’t account for the buying committee.

B2B buying decisions are made by committee – multiple individuals working together to reach consensus. IDC found that an average of 7 buyers are involved in a B2B technology purchase decision.

Your persona development should reveal the dynamic among this committee, especially what information each member needs to share with each other as it relates to different perspectives. Targeting only the elusive “decision maker” disregards the way business people actually buy – collaboratively.

8. When they contain useless information.

In a B2B environment, the fact that a persona may drive a minivan and prefer The Bachelor over Shark Tank really doesn’t serve to inform a salesperson’s call strategy, a marketer’s email campaign, or a product manager’s roadmap.

Now, B2B personas that contain these details may have been done so in an attempt to humanize the persona, the spirit of which should be celebrated!

But this type of detail is extraneous. There are better ways to humanize a buyer in a way that is relevant to our day to day job responsibilities – and it starts with empathy. Read more about this in our post “5 Signs You Don’t Know Your B2B Customer

The excitement and fervor around buyer personas and the unfortunate execution gap are only amplified by the emergence of marketing technology designed to automate the lead management lifecycle, even predict future behaviors. These tools only make a lack of buyer understanding all the more obvious, by exposing poorly targeted efforts to a greater audience.

It’s more important now, more than ever, to get personas right. Our only chance of realizing true value from marketing automation and content marketing, and successfully selling to an ever-empowered buyer, is to fully understand their needs and preferences from the start.

Further reading:


But don’t take my word for it. Find out how to create buyer personas as active tools, in our new eBook featuring Ardath Albee, “The Intelligent Guide to Buyer Personas.”


  • The 9 key components of a persona
  • How to design personas as active tools
  • 8 ways to use buyer personas
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