Why Is Describing Buyer Personas So Difficult?

Tien-Anh Nguyen

January 20, 2014

Why Is Describing Buyer Personas So Difficult?

Conducting buyer research is hard, but communicating the resulting insights can be even more challenging.

Doing market research is always a lot of hard work, but when we execute buyer research projects for our portfolio companies, what we find even more challenging is putting the insights into practice. Buyer research results in qualitative information (such as the needs of buyers, their preferences, and how they buy) through a process of interpretation and synthesis. The insights are therefore inherently less quantitatively definite than, say, insights on market size, market growth trends, or insight on marketing conversion rates, or campaigns ROI.
Thus, insights on buyers are also closer to generalized trends that are still are subject to infinite variations from buyers in theory to buyers in reality. The qualitative nature of buyer research thus makes it hard to communicate the essence of the insights and makes those insights more liable to misinterpretation.
Let’s say we take on a simple, supposedly well-defined market research output — the buyer personas. The fact is that simply delivering a flat, boiler plate buyer persona based on a standard buyer definition scheme of “technical buyer” vs. “economic buyer,” or “IT” vs. “business owner” will no longer suffice. Buyer personas for modern business marketing are multi-faceted and impossible to communicate using the standard, tried and true formats that marketers are so used to. Let’s examine the factors that are causing this complication.

3 Reasons Why Creating Accurate, Reliable Buyer Personas is Complicated

1) Buyers are much harder to please now

The explosion of content marketing over the last few years has given buyers access to a dizzying number of tools and information sources to educate themselves about their needs, the most up-to-date technologies to address those needs, and how vendors differentiate themselves from each other. As a result, the bar for capturing buyers’ interest has been raised — they simply will not settle for standard content and messaging. If they aren’t getting unique information that is specific to their needs they are quickly going to continue searching elsewhere.
Buyers are also more skeptical of marketing messages and sales pitches. After all, they have been bombarded with advertising, and they can now verify many vendors’ claims with other information sources — through third party reviews and comments on social networks or Internet forums, for example.
As the role of IT in modern business becomes more expansive and critical, we are also finding that buyers are no longer playing a one-dimensional role. An IT Director can be both an economic buyer and a technology evaluator, given his technical background and the P&L responsibility. With the maturity of business technology, business line leaders now increasingly have exposure and experience in IT and can be just as savvy and demanding about technical matters as technology leaders.
Lastly, buyers today live in a plugged-in world where there is more and more blending of the personal and professional. Buyers are constantly trying to navigate their way through the 24/7 flood of information they are being inundated with, whether at work, at home, or in transit. This makes them even more discriminating regarding the content that they consume, the information that they value, and what they decide to tune out.
In some ways, buyers also expect IT vendors to communicate with them in a more personal, direct way and understand them as individuals, rather as generic roles defined by their titles and professional responsibilities. That means buyer personas need to really capture the whole new personal side of the buyers, something that is not easily defined in business goals, buying criteria, or buying process.

2) Different internal target audiences utilize buyer personas in different ways

Marketers are often assumed to be responsible for developing buyer personas, and hence they often determine the format, content, focus, and level of details that the personas are then shared and communicated with. But the fact is they are just one of the many end users of that information.
Other teams may want the same information packaged in different formats. Even within the marketing team, there will be differences in the ways the demand generation team, the public relations team, the marketing strategy teams, or the content marketing team utilizes the defined buyer personas.
For example, we find that in our portfolio, the demand generation teams typically look for information on an individual buyer’s role and responsibility in the organization, his or her specific pain points, preferred communication channels etc., and they will want them written down in very structured, detailed formats. In contrast, the content teams can actually use a single paragraph description of the buyer persona, as described in our recently released It Takes a Content Factory! ebook.
When it comes to other functional teams, such as sales and services, the divergence can be even more pronounced. We often find that salespeople, because they interact the most directly with buyers, have a very personal and intuitive understanding of the buyers’ needs and behaviors. They tend to think of buyer personas as bare-bones templates on which they add their own personal experience and perspectives. To them, what is most important is the understanding of the “typical buyer” rather than the abstract, formulated “personas” that marketing often produces.
Of course, there can also be a difference between how inside sales and field sales teams like to access and use buyer personas. After all, one group is in-house and focuses on high-volume activities, while the other is on the road and spends a lot of time on a limited number of prospects.

3) It is hard to package everything together and still make the personas relatable

Because all of the reasons above, the process of developing and communicating buyer personas can become a complex undertaking, especially if you want to ensure that each group of target audiences gets the optimal form of output. The resulting insights can be very rich, but also multifaceted, and they can quickly become overwhelming to put together, let alone become adopted across the whole organization.
One particular challenge is to make the personas “stick” with the target audience — that is, make the description of the buyers truly “come to life” to the intended users, so they can internalize the most salient aspects of that description and relate to the personas the way they would relate to an individual. Giving real names to the personas is a good tactic that is still effective, but getting the right delivery format, visual design, and emphasis is also very important if you want to make your buyer personas documents as user-friendly as possible.
Lastly, successfully creating and driving adoption of buyer personas is not a one-off project. It requires constant advocacy and reinforcement. Teams should feel that the personas they are using are always up to date and are constantly refined based on market feedback and on how they are being used. That is how you can create a growing sense of confidence across the organization about using a common set of buyer personas, even if those same personas are delivered and used in slightly different formats for each of the teams.

Tien-Anh Nguyen

Chief Business Officer at UserTesting

Tien Anh joined UserTesting in 2015 after extensive financial and strategic experiences at OpenView, where he was an investor and advisor to a global portfolio of fast-growing enterprise SaaS companies. Until 2021, he led the Finance, IT, and Business Intelligence team as CFO of UserTesting. He currently leads initiatives for long term growth investments as Chief Business Officer at UserTesting.