Can Buyer Personas Ruin Content Marketing?

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing and Content Strategy

Are your buyer personas brand-centric or customer-centric?

Not long ago, Tom Webster published a blog, How Buyer Personas Could Ruin Your Content Marketing. In his article (which is a companion to a podcast he recorded with Mark Schaefer, he argues that a content strategy should be focused on attracting the right audience, which he differentiates from prospective buyers. According to Tom, buyer personas are only relevant in late stage marketing, so focusing your content on personas automatically makes it brand-centric instead of audience-centric.

I have a lot of respect for Tom and his work, but I disagree pretty strongly on a few points he makes.

Tom and I target different audiences. My response is specifically oriented to my target audience – marketers who represent companies selling technology to the financial services industry.

My arguments below might not be valid if you’re targeting a different audience. The arguments are also not relevant to media companies, for whom audience is the product, not the buyer. Tom’s example in his blog is a radio station. And in this case, the audience is definitely the product which advertisers are trying to reach. This is a very different use case for content.

Buyer-Persona Focused Content is Brand-Centric

According to Tom, if you’re crafting content designed for buyer personas, then your content is going to be brand-centered, “boring, tedious, and thoroughly not compelling for people who aren’t in the latter stages of the consumer journey.”

First, I completely agree that early stage content should NOT be brand-centric. It should be customer-centric ­— focused on the potential customer’s needs, goals, and aspirations. If your buyer personas are developed correctly, then you should understand the situations that buyers experience before they start thinking about buying. Your awareness-building content should focus on discussing those circumstances and pointing out the problems, shortcomings or possibilities. The content should focus on changing the way people think about their circumstances.

Buyer Personas are Based on Your Stuff

According to Tom, buyer personas are based on your products and services. In the podcast, he describes personas for “Outsourced Oliver” and “Spends-A-Lot Sammie.” I have to agree with him that these types of buyer personas are fluffy, limiting, and will make your content product- and company-centric.

But frankly, if you’re building buyer personas just based on the role in the buying process, you’re doing it wrong. Buyer personas shouldn’t be based on your stuff. They’re based on real people who have real needs, real jobs, and real headaches. They’re trying to make good decisions for their companies and for their own career success. They’re struggling to figure out how to solve complex problems. They’re trying to build consensus in large, diverse buying committees. If you’re focused only on the characteristics that drive them to close a deal with you, then you won’t have useful personas to leverage for your content.

Here’s a template for a buyer persona that gives you a much better view of the situations your buyers experience. But don’t just fill it out based on your opinions. Get out and interview real people who represent the various types of people involved in the decision process. And don’t just interview happy clients who have been using your products for years. Frankly, they no longer remember what they were dealing with before they bought.

Interview people who are currently in the buying process, those who just finished the decision (both recent wins and losses), and those who quit in the middle. Spend some time finding out what makes them tick, what aspects of their jobs make them crazy, what kind of problems they encountered and what kinds of information they need.

Then create composite persona sketches based on real people. Done right, your interviews themselves will become a rich source for content you can create that is directly relevant for that target persona, because it’s sourced directly from the personas.

You Should Focus on Building an Audience, not Buyers

Tom contrasts buyers from audience and argues that you should behave like and compete with the media companies to attract an audience, a small fraction of whom might eventually become customers.  He believes you should build content appealing to your audience, not your buyer personas. While I agree that buyers won’t be the only people reading your blog, I do believe that you need to consider their needs as a primary driver. In addition, you may target an audience of employees, existing customers, partners, and resellers.

But ultimately, the goal of creating content for a business blog is influencing business results. It might be fun to blog for an audience of like-minded people, but if it doesn’t have a positive impact on business, then I’d be hard-pressed to find the time or budget to build and sustain a blog.

The target audience should be your buyers, partners, customers, and target market. If you blog about issues and topics that these people want to learn about, and you contribute original thinking, then you’ll attract the right audience.

Content marketing is not just about getting attention, it’s about getting the right attention.