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Buyer Personas: Should you study Buyers, Customers, or Potentials?

Buyer personas have become critical to many organizations in the past few years - every business is encouraged to codify their optimal buyers’ roles, traits, and behaviours into profiles to help unify marketing and sales’ targeting techniques. For all the power that Personas promise, though, they often fail because they are usually too boring and generic, and don’t reflect the real grit of a buyer or user’s needs. This problem arises because we fail to do the gritty work of discovery, and the best way to do that by interviewing and observing our buyers (wins and losses) and potential buyers (those in the target market who haven’t bought.)


It's important to study buyers, customers, and potentials


Despite how common personas have become, developing them is still a tricky business. It’s important that personas contain the right information to help target the right people - but how do you know which information matters?

Just the other day we were asked a question about how win/loss analyses might give insight into the persona-crafting process. The client wanted to know if, when crafting buyer personas, they should stick to wins and losses, or cast a wider net. Is it wise to focus on buyers who have definitively shown an interest in their product or should they also speak to potentials? The answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above, but choosing who to speak to, and when, is the topic of this article – but even potentials aren’t enough. Unless you also talk to your buyer, you’re never going to get a full picture of what works and what doesn’t.

The Potential of Potentials

Potentials are a critical lens for examining your personas, especially if your product is still developing a market identity. Of course, if you’re new on the scene and have yet to build-up a portfolio of wins and losses, then practically everyone in your target market is a potential. But even if your product is maturing, there’s still a lot you can learn from potential buyers. Too often companies can get complacent about the market they serve. They know what they are doing works where they are doing it, and they forget about looking farther afield. Such complacency can lead to a host of problems. They might overfocus on a single segment of the market, missing out on other opportunities, and put themselves at greater risk should a competitor arrive on the scene with a better solution.

Fear Complacency

The more mature the segment is, the less your company needs to worry about potentials – you know your market and have mitigated the risk that the unexpected might cut you off at the knees. But even mature products can afford to give potentials the occasional glance. Ignoring potential buyers is ignoring a source of potential revenue – it’s leaving money on the table.

Avoiding that ‘segmentation complacency’ doesn’t end with occasionally examining potentials. As we often stress, it’s important to continually look at wins - even if you’re retaining your customers. There’s always a danger that what you think works isn’t actually what’s working. You might believe that A is what’s winning-over your customers, not knowing that it’s actually B – and one-day, after you stop doing B, you also stop winning. When you’re flush with the victory of multiple wins, everything can start going wrong if you stop paying attention to what you’re doing right.

Remember to Listen

If you want your personas to be effective, they need to reflect the real reasons why a customer is likely to buy, not just all the reasons why they might not. There’s more to winning than avoiding the pitfalls of losses. Here’s where win/loss analysis steps to the forefront in crafting personas. Sales people may not know why they win any more than they know why they lose. You can hope they do, but the only way to know for sure is to talk to, and really understand, your buyer.

By talking to your buyers, you’ll get a clearer, more candid picture of your wins. This aids not only with the information your personas, but also helps narrow the field for those potentials. ‘We know for a fact that these elements help us win’ easily leads to the corollary ‘these similar elements might help us win in the future.’ Knowing why you have won is just as important as knowing how you might win in the future. Talking to the buyer is as effective when crafting a persona as it is when making any other kind of study about your market segmentation.

This is a long answer to a simple question, but it’s an answer we think is important. A cavalier approach to your buyer personas will result in a substandard product. By casting a wide net – considering potentials, looking at wins as much as losses, and really listening to each buyer – you’ll find yourself with deeper, more flexible, more useful personas than you had previously.

When you next examine your buyer personas, ask yourself if your current personas are representative of your target market, and to what extent. It might be time to start talking to your buyers.

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