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Personas are worthless

Personas are worthless.

Yes, I’ve said it. But it’s a conditional statement. Personas are worthless until you bring them to life.

What I’ve found in my travels is that personas are done as one-time effort to satisfy a short-term need. Then they fall into the dregs of SharePoint, never to be found again.

And yet, they can be incredibly helpful tools at aligning an organization and driving empathy around the customer experience.

Here are the five most common persona pitfalls and ways to make personas a strategic, pivotal asset.

1) Personas are created with limited input. The workshops to create them are done by a siloed team rather than a cross-functional one. And worse, the participants don’t interact with these customers on a regular basis.

What do you need to do instead? Assemble a cross-functional team (sales, support, marketing, product, engineering, etc.) that includes customer advocates who serve on the front lines of your organization every day. Assemble them in small groups (3-5) and assign them to create version one of the persona that they know the most.

2) Personas aren’t validated with real data / real customers. No one has matched up the personas to the existing customer base to see:

a. How many of Persona X do we have?

b. Is this a good customer?

c. What’s his/her lifetime value?

d. What about Persona Y? (Same questions, and how does she differ from Persona X?)

The next step once a persona has been created is to match it up to your customer database. Check not only that you’ve got the demographics right. Review survey data. Call some customers.

A common mistake that I run into is that personas look an awful lot like the teams that created them or are focused on an ideal customer rather than the reality. One team crafted a set of personas with an average age of 40, but their average customer age was 55. Every customer went to the gym each morning, was friendly and outgoing, happily married, and had 2.5 kids. It’s important personas are grounded in reality, and real data.

3) Personas miss the point. Sure, they check the boxes of having a fictitious name, stock photo, demographics, goals and challenges. Perhaps they even have hobbies and preferences. But are they getting into the person’s mind and their heart? Do they know where the person feels deep trust and connection? Where does the persona spend her time? What does the person think, feel, say and do?

And for many years, I would have looked at that level of detail and been really impressed. You’ve got a much better understanding of the persona’s world and a tool to help be more empathetic to her experience.

BUT…. here’s what has been missing. We didn’t do the important, strategic work of defining how we can help her. First: What are her jobs to be done?

The jobs to be done theory (sometimes shortened to JTBD) was first introduced by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. Christensen asserts that people “hire” different products or services to do “jobs” they need to be done. In his book Competing Against Luck, he talks about V8 brand vegetable juice. This beverage was sold alongside other beverages. But what is V8’s competition? When we look at jobs to be done, it’s following mom’s advice and eating our servings of vegetables. The job isn’t quenching thirst, it’s replacing vegetables.

The JTBD framework should serve as a North Star, not only for personas, but for customer experience and innovation. This is a fantastic way to introduce it.

Next: Really dig into her needs and her wants, as it applies to your products or services. And again, validate this with your voice of customer program.

And finally, write an elevator pitch directly to the persona. Trash that generic inside-out company sales intro. Replace it with an outside-in, jobs to be done focused statement that immediately speaks to the customer you serve. And yes, a separate one for each persona.

4) Personas are buried in folders. Or in a desk drawer. They were used perhaps when the website was revamped, but then they disappeared. Or perhaps the marketing team uses a “buyer persona” but has not included the rest of the organization.

If we’ve made sure to do steps 1-3, then let’s unearth them. Spread the wealth. Make them come to life in the organization, both physically and digitally. Sure, some of it is cheesy. So what. If a six-foot tall cardboard cutout helps you remember to think of Carl, great. Welcome your personas into the organization as if you’re onboarding a new employee. Introduce them on Teams. Give them a Slack Channel. Create a scavenger hunt. A trivia game. Just keep dripping…

And now that you’ve made it this far, here’s the big news:

5) Personas are considered an endpoint, not a starting point. So yes, you have personas! Checked the box. Congrats. You’ve gotten to the starting line. Your organization now is better aligned, is more empathetic and is starting to take an outside-in approach. That’s a huge step forward. Where the impact comes from is how you now engage REAL customers. Moving from cardboard cutout Carl to finding Carl in the wild and learning from him is essential. Take back those learnings. Update the personas. Keep learning. Keep updating. It’s iterative. And it’s critical.

Did this trigger some ideas for you? Did it make you realize your personas have a long way to go? Great! I’d love to hear about it. Let’s connect over a video call, coffee walk, or surf session.

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