This article originates from a presentation at the Product Marketing Summit in San Francisco, 2022.

Let’s start with a quick game of two truths and a lie. There are three statements below. All you need to do is figure out which one is the lie.

  1. Buyer persona is the same as buyer profile.
  2. Buyer journeys are not always linear.
  3. Personas are never static.

What do you think?

The lie is number one: a buyer persona is the same as a buyer profile. Well done if you got it right! This is one fundamental thing I want to leave with you today. Buyer personas and buyer profiles are two different things.

When we think about buyer profiles – your IT Ivans and your marketing Megans – we geek out about their demographics, their roles, and what a day in their lives looks like. Then all that information goes into a long, long document.

The buyer persona takes a fundamentally different approach. It’s not so much about the buyer’s role as it is about how they make the buying decision. What are the criteria? What is their journey? Zooming in on the buying aspect is key. While a buyer profile could be one-dimensional, the buyer persona looks at multiple attributes.

A real-life buying process

Let’s look at a real example of a buying process – with Pokémon cards.

My son is the buyer; his thought process is, “is this Pokémon card real or fake?” His cousin is the key influencer in the buying process; he’s always saying, “always buy your cards from a pack, not online!”

I’ll be honest: I still don't get it. The final stakeholders are me and my husband. Our role is to make sure that our son isn’t getting scammed. Then, on the vendor side, tons of amazing platforms personalize, hyper-personalize, and share ads and offers.

Title saying "of course personas are real!" then an image of Gayathri's son holding pokemon cards and a speech bubble that says "is this fake or real?" then an image of Gayathri's son and his cousin with a speech bubble that says "always buy from pack not online." Then an image of Gayathri and her husband which says "are kids getting scammed? Is trading even ok?" Next to these images are three screenshots of Pokemon cards from three online stores: Amazon, Target, and Best Buy.
Image courtesy of Gayathri and RingCentral

My point is that we see buying processes every day, and there are a bunch of different stakeholders involved, all with their own wants and needs.

Getting your buyer personas right

Coming back to the title of this article, are personas and segmentation overrated? No. Not at all. However, there is a delicate balance between doing it and overdoing it. I’m going to share my four top tips on how you can strike the right balance.

Tip one: Don't make your research rocket science

The first time I did buyer research, I took a 30-slide template and meticulously filled the whole thing in. What I should have done instead is have a conversation with a buyer about the things that matter to them. Lucky for us, the Buyer Persona Institute has created a simple framework that outlines the five fundamentals that you’ll want to discuss in an interview with a buyer:

  1. Priority initiatives: Why are they buying?
  2. Success factors: This goes beyond financial success; it could also be about personal success.
  3. Perceived barriers: These could include anything from a lack of alignment with the executive team to not being able to build a business case.
  4. Decision criteria: Perhaps your buyers are looking for the lowest-priced, best-rated, or easiest-to-use solution. It’s up to you to zoom in on the factors that have the biggest impact on their buying decision.
  5. Buyer journey: Make sure you understand the stakeholders involved and how decisions are being made.

While it’s important to focus on these fundamentals, I wouldn’t recommend that you go into an interview and start asking these questions right away. Start with some open questions and keep an open mind.

The same applies to the types of people that you interview. I used to make the mistake of only interviewing people from the finance and operations departments.

Instead, you want to flip that thinking on its head and talk to anyone involved in the buying decision. Look at all the people on the buying committees you deal with – you might be surprised by the range of roles.

Tip two: Research need not be expensive

One of the best pieces of advice on persona research I’ve ever heard is not to outsource it. Instead, you should listen to the buyers as much as you can and unearth their insights yourself.

At our organization, to keep research costs down, we look for existing opportunities to speak to buyers. If there's an annual conference, we’ll squeeze in 20 or 30 minutes for a chat.

If we’re conducting a case study, we’ll try to carve out an extra 15 minutes to understand the buyer’s behavior. In the current economic downturn, it’s a great way to keep up to date with what's going on from the buyer’s standpoint.

Tip three: Align your sales cycle to the buying cycle

Research, if not actioned, is a waste of everyone's time. There’s no point in producing reams of documents if nobody reads them.

When it comes to the time you spend on buyer personas, you want to spend 20% on research and the remaining 80% on activation – that's where the value lies.

The goal is to align your sales cycle with the buying cycle you’ve uncovered. Let’s look at some practical steps to make that happen.

In my company, we've done activation workshops. They’re a great way of rallying people from multiple facets of the organization around the core value proposition. You want to share where the buyer’s need is, where your product’s strengths are, and highlight the intersection.

From a marketing standpoint, you want to hit the right buyers with the right campaign strategy. You don't want to target people who are not going to be in the buying process; instead, you should prioritize the primary buyer.

From a content perspective, you're looking at the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel. You want to have educational content that resonates with the buyer's needs at each stage.

Sales strategies and playbooks are critical too. We thought about every stage of the buyer journey and mapped our sales journey to it. It's an elaborate process, but it's worth the time.

From there, you can really spoon-feed sales by having plays and strategies for every stage of the sales cycle. Try to bake in whatever sales methodology your company uses to make sure your sales folks take full advantage of these strategies.

You’ll also need to rethink your sales and competitive intelligence assets. For instance, we had to change the way we positioned our competitive strengths to IT specialists versus operations managers because they each have different needs and priorities.

Finally, think big! How can the insights you’ve gleaned from your persona research impact the company’s business strategy?

Our buyer data was invaluable in helping us put forward the case that our company should take a platform route and focus more on developers.

Tip four: Don't sweat updating your personas

Continuously and incrementally updating your personas whenever you have the opportunity to speak with a buyer is a much better strategy than approaching your updates as a mega project. You don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel every quarter.

Getting segmentation right

Now let’s connect the dots and jump into segmentation. I’m going to talk you through my top tips for effectively segmenting your buyers.

Tip one: Choose attributes that matter

We've come a long way since the days of focusing exclusively on the number of employees and total revenue as a way to segment our audiences. These days, we should be thinking more about aspects like use cases, number of user seats, and complexity.

Even though some of the banking software companies I’ve worked with are smaller, their use cases are often much more complex than larger organizations’ – that’s something we need to take into account.

Tip two: Segmentation can’t be siloed

You need to align segmentation across the company. Good segmentation does not start and end with sales. However, sales is the first team you want to segment your audience for. If sales aren’t involved, nobody's gonna care.

Next, you want to turn to marketing; the segments your sales team are targeting need to align with their personas and demand strategies.

On the other side of the equation, support is extremely critical as you go into segmentation. In our focus on signing deals, we tend to lose sight of this, but especially in large complex enterprise B2B products, delivering seamless implementation support is crucial, so you need support packages and models that are aligned with your segments.

Of course, we have to invite product to the segmentation party too. Ideally, you’ll have distinct products for each segment. This, along with the segments you define for your sales team, is one of the most critical pieces of the segmentation puzzle.

To avoid endlessly iterating and duplicating the same information, you may also want to look at a shared service model. This would encompass segments for your pre-sales teams, finance, legal, and any other departments that could benefit. From a resourcing standpoint, this is going to be much easier to scale.

Tip three: Only change your segments if buying patterns change

When there's consolidation in the market or people are trying to buy adjacent products, it may be time to change the way you look at your segments. However, in my corporate life, I’ve seen segments shift on the basis of more internal changes. That’s best avoided. Focus on what’s happening with your buyers, not within your own teams.

Tip four: Don’t rush to evolve your segments

It’s easy to get carried away with segmentation and rush to introduce new regions and verticals. I think it's important to really look at where the market is going and how your company is evolving, rather than just hyper-segmenting for the sake of it. It might not make sense to do vertical segmentation at this point.

Tip five: Make sure you understand each segment’s buying process

Now it’s time to bring your segmentation and personas together – this is where the magic happens.

It can be extremely valuable to do buyer persona analysis by segment. The differences in buying patterns are often huge. An obvious example is companies with a low market share versus those with a high market share. In the former, people just go online and buy stuff; in the latter, there’s usually a highly sophisticated sales process with multiple committees making decisions.

Final thoughts

With that, I'm going to wrap things up with these three reminders:

  1. Don’t overthink it.
  2. Keep it real.
  3. Make it actionable.