September 16, 2019

Why Persona Marketing May Not Be Working for You

by Sam Beck

Marketers have heard that they need a separate persona for every slice of their target audience. But at what point are they diluting their brand or outright wasting money by over-segmenting their marketing? To answer these important questions, we interviewed our CEO, Drew Neisser. 

Q: Why do many marketers think more personas is better? Doesn’t one or two personas signal tighter product-market fit?

Drew: Creating personas starts with the best of intentions — gaining a better understanding of one’s best prospects is rarely a bad idea.  Add in the reality that B2B buying committees at large enterprises can exceed 11 distinct roles, it’s easy to see why marketers have doubled down on creating a broad range of personas.  The problem isn’t with the creation of these detailed profiles, they can be of some benefit, helping salespeople better understand the generalized needs of their targets. But even in this case, there are better sales intelligence tools out there that zero in on the individual level. For example, the app xIQ provides instant and remarkably accurate profiles on individuals based on publicly available data.

Q: So, personas aren’t the problem, it’s how they are being used?

Drew: Correct. Multiple personas often translate into multiple creative iterations of content and advertising across multiple channels.  Again, this seems like a good idea since who wouldn’t want to be hit with the most relevant message? But in reality, customizing your brand message across these target personas actually leads to a muddled perspective on your product/service when the buying committee convenes. Gartner research shows that the splintered approach actually decreases the odds of closing the deal by 2.2x.  Ultimately, CMOs and their content teams are far better off creating marketing that all ties back to a tightly focused brand story while creating tools that address the individualized needs of the key decision-makers.  CFOs are always going to want to understand the ROI of your product/service so you’ll always want to have an ROI calculator of some sort for these folks — just make sure to frame the results in the context of your overall story. 

Q: Generally speaking, how many personas is “too many”? Why do you think so?

Drew: Among the 110 B2B CMOs we surveyed earlier this year, more than half had more than 5 personas. Per my comments above, the issue isn’t necessarily how many personas you create, the issue is how these personas are typically getting used. Let’s take the case of the brand with just 5 personas. Thinking that each of these personas would respond better to content created with them in mind, this brand then cranks 5 different pieces of content each week across an average of 5 different channels (for example: LinkedIn, company blog, emails, sponsored content and paid ads) which means creating 25 different pieces of content per month.  That’s a lot of content that is needed to feed the content calendar beast, content that is cranked out to meet the schedule, content that is rarely distinctive let alone of value to the revered persona. Feeding the beast becomes the priority instead of creating content that is exceptional — given the explosion of content available nothing less than exceptional will actually cut through.   

Q: It seems like personas have risen in importance with marketing technology.

Drew: Exactly. Various marketing technologies have enabled real-time messaging on an individualized basis often determined using machine learning and/or artificial intelligence. In concept, it’s incredibly appealing. Theoretically relevant messages can be served up to every persona on your list at every point in the marketing journey. Sounds amazing. But I’m reminded of the David Ogilvy adage, “it’s only creative if it works.” In this case, it’s only amazing if it works.  Recent Forrester research suggests that marketers are wasting a whopping $19B on technology and could generate an additional $10B in sales by reallocating some of their martech dollars to awareness-driving activities like media spending and events.  If your spending one third or more of your budget on martech, it’s time to reevaluate your spending priorities. Don’t get caught up in the promise of machine-driven microtargeting. Don’t let personas distract you from the need for one big idea communicated in big and little ways.