8 Cardinal Principles to use Personas Effectively in Marketing

Best practices to make personas an effective tool to guide marketing activities by increasing customer understanding and empathy

A version of this post was first published on the OpenView labs blog.

The recent focus on content marketing has brought increased attention to personas. They can be a very effective tool for guiding most marketing activities by increasing customer understanding and empathy. But, like with every tool, you must get the fundamentals right to get maximum value out of it.

Despite all the attention on personas, many marketers find the concept somewhat ambiguous or confuse it with segmentation. making effective use of personas in practice has been often ineffective. In this post you will learn 8 ideas or best practices, to help you make personas a key tool that increases the effectiveness of all your marketing activities.

The concept of personas is not new. It was developed in 1998 by Alan Cooper, who also invented Visual Basic, as a tool to help with software interaction design. In 2002, Tony Zambito developed the concept of buyer personas to focus on buyer behavior and to guide customer strategies.

I started using personas myself in 2004 to guide the global efforts of a Fortune 50 company in Redmond in a specific customer segment. A conversation with Tony Zambito a couple weeks back (he’s a great guy, by the way) at a Denver BMA event sparked this post.

1. Buyer personas must come from Marketing Strategy

Developing buyer personas is not just a step in a content marketing process. They are far more important than that. They should guide all marketing activities, not just content. If content marketers own the responsibility of defining personas in your organization, your marketing leadership has not done its job and your go-to-market efforts are in big trouble.

You see, personas are an attempt to humanize customer segments, to make them more personal. Deciding who should be your customers is a fundamental part of corporate strategy. The essence of strategy is to define what markets and customers you will serve and how you will build a competitive advantage.

Marketing leadership should be responsible for clearly defining their customer segments and buyer personas. You can’t be a good marketer  unless you know clearly who your customer is, why they buy, how they buy, who influences their decisions, what their buying criteria is, where they go for information, etc.

Understanding your customers is the source of value for marketing professionals to the organization. It is the core function, the #1 priority for marketers.

Developing personas helps you paint a more complete and more human portrait of your customers in ways that segmentation can’t. For example, marketing to the customer segment made of marketing leaders at medium to large companies does not give marketers (or content writers) the clarity you get when the segment is transformed into a persona: Joe, the VP of Marketing at Acme Corporation, which makes a variety of rockets and other devices to help Coyotes catch fast birds. Joe is far more personal than “marketing leaders at medium to large companies” and it is far easier to think about Joe evaluating and buying your products.

When building content, crafting a marketing campaign, or defining requirements for a new product, it is more effective to think about what will Joe think about your content and your products or how will Joe react to your messaging than using a ambiguous customer segment definition. That’s the role and power of personas.

2. Personas should be Institutional 

For a company to execute, it is important for all parts of it to understand the core of the company strategy (who is the customer, what is our competitive advantage). Therefore, it is important also that everyone in the company understands the personas that represent your buyers and users (not always the same).

Buyer personas should guide all customer activities, including most obviously marketing and sales. User personas should guide customer support, product development, and customer experience efforts. There is often an overlap between buyer and user personas.

The risk is that each team builds their own personas based on their independent understanding of who the customers and the users are. This often results in a bunch of potentially conflicting personas that become noise, and more importantly, a missed opportunity.

If you are, for example, selling CRM software, your buyer personas are likely to be the VP of Sales and someone in IT. Your user personas are likely to be individual salespeople and sales leadership, including the VP of Sales. Imagine how powerful it would be if everyone in the company understood these four personas deeply and if that understanding guided and improved every function in the company.

3. Personas are about focus

The purpose of defining customer segments is to provide clarity about who your customer is – and maybe more importantly – who is not. The value of focus is more often in helping guide what not to do. Personas express who the company should be trying to inform, influence, attract and please – they implicitly state who is not a target.

An organization that is trying to be all things for all people is likely to fail. Focus is a simple concept, but also one that is incredibly powerful.

Using the same example of the CRM software vendor, if the institution agreement is to focus on the defined four personas (sales managers, sales reps, VP of Sales and IT), the company is implicitly stating that they won’t make large investments to reach or please people in purchasing, marketing, finance, or event other roles in sales.

4. Buyer personas must include more than the actual buyer.

In almost every buying situation there is more than one stakeholder: there are users, influencers, stakeholders, approvers, and so on. This is not limited to B2B. The process of parents buying a car for their teenage daughter may include the the teenager as the user, one parent may be the approver while another one is a decision maker, and friends are influencers.

After all, there are fewer differences between B2B and B2C than most people believe. It is all really about B2P – business to person. Whether you are selling to a corporate officer making a multi-million dollar purchase or you are 20 something trying to decide what clothes to bring for a party, decisions are complex, influenced by other people, subject to the same psychological biases, and more importantly, often made emotionally, and then justified rationally.

Missing the influencers or the right person who really makes the buying decisions in your segmentation may lead to the wrong personas, which will negatively impact the effectiveness of all the marketing efforts guided by them.

5. Personas must capture emotion and situation.

If the goal of personas is to help marketing teams feel empathy, it is necessary to capture how customers really feel. It important to understand their predispositions, the emotional needs that they need to satisfy and the emotions and fears that guide their decision making process.

Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.

It is obvious that customers don’t feel the same way all the time. Their feelings change based on their situation. Personas need to be defined based on the context of a specific situation or scenario. Tony Zambito suggests defining these scenarios as goals: he suggests the most important aspect of personas is to capture their goal-directed behaviors.

Imagine you are a car manufacturer working on a new campaign. We already stated that marketing to Robert and Kathy, a couple in their early 40s with a daughter named Julia is far more powerful than thinking about marketing to an american couple with 2.5 kids, in their mid 30s or 40s, with a median income of at least $80K.  However, the most important aspect of this personas, Robert and Kathy, is they are in the process of buying a car for their teenage daughter who is starting to drive.

Scenarios (situations, context and goals) should define personas. The emotions they experience Emotions guide how marketers think about specific personas.

6. Personas should be built from research and experience.

The standard process of building customer segments and personas starts with a research project that often include surveys, interviews, other forms of research, lots of spreadsheets, cluster analysis and other tools. You may even turn it into a big data project if you want to impress the boss (even if you are not really sure what Big Data really means). Of course, I am just making fun of the buzzword.

Market research is a fantastic tool that I have used many times in my career. I would never suggest to a marketer they make any decisions without data. And yet, it is important to understand its limitations, as expressed in the Mirage of Data.  Almost every research project is biased by the questions asked, by the sample of customers who responds and by the biases in the research team.

I find personal experience and direct customer interaction is more powerful than research alone. The best decisions are informed by both data and experience. More importantly, if a key goal of personas is to capture how people feel, most research tools do a very poor job at it.

When trying to understand a market (including when building personas), if you don’t have direct personal experience with the industry and buyers, it is important to work closely with someone who does. Research cannot drive empathy, only people can help.

7 Personas must be actionable

When you are learning so much about your customers it is tempting to add all the knowledge you are gaining to your persona definitions. The result is often persona profiles that look like eye charts with full pages of details.

The risk here is that with so much information the rest of your  organization either won’t read the personas at all, or won’t be able to remember much of it. Too much data can kill a persona effort by overwhelming marketers with unnecessary details. Is it really important that your buyers have 2.7 kids? does it really help you to know their favorite TV shows? Will it change the way you market to them if you knew their favorite color is blue?

Another risk is to create too many personas. Can your team really develop empathy for 18 different buying personas? how much will they be able to remember? how important is the role for those buyers really?

It’s all in a balance between precision and conciseness/usefulness. your goal should be to capture the information that is actionable.

What details will help a marketer make a better decision on the type of content they need to produce? Which details will help everyone in the company feel empathy for customers in a specific situation, in relation to their buying process? What information does not really impact how we interact with customers?

8. Personas must evolve – but not too fast.


Your buyer personas must be kept up to date. They need to evolve, but only at the rate your customers change. Personas must evolve at the rate your buyers evolve, as their situations, goals, and emotions change.

A good example of persona evolution is Betty Crocker and how they updated their main buyer persona for the better part of a century:

Personas evolve


Personas are tools to help us develop empathy for our customers. They should be archetypes that represent the customer segments your organization targets, as defined by corporate and marketing strategy. A small number of buyer and user personas, should be understood across the entire company. Personas need to capture context, goals, scenarios and emotions – any information that is actionable in focusing and guiding the actions of the company, including (but not limited to) content marketing efforts.