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Buyer and User Personas

buyer and user personas

What is the best car? What is the best movie? The answer: it depends. “Best” depends completely on the type of person involved. Personas define the ideal profile of a potential buyer or user. A soccer mom or dad, a college student, and a construction worker all have different needs and would choose a different product as “best.”

In developing products and creating market messages, product management must have clarity on the ideal user and buyer. The industry has adopted the term “persona” to refer to the ideal profiles of our customers.

In recent years, most product managers and product marketing managers have adopted the practice of creating personas to represent the types of people who buy and use their products. Personas are short descriptions or biographies of fictitious, archetypical customers. A persona definition provides clarity on your target for programming and for communication.

Sarah, the college student

One of my favorite illustrations is Sarah, the college student. She’s never not had a mobile phone; she’s never not had an ATM card; she’s never not had a computer; she’s never not had access to the Internet. In almost every way, Sarah is different from her college professors, who had none of these things when they attended college. Professors who understand this disparity can relate their topics to Sarah’s college experience instead of their own. The best professors connect with the students–the best marketers do, too. See the Beloit College Mindset List for more on today’s college students.

Sarah’s college requirements are much different than those of the “buyer,” Sarah’s Mom & Dad. The buyer wants a safe environment with a minimum of parties. Sarah probably wants more parties and fewer early-morning classes.

Smart product managers are creating innovative products that address specific problems of their personas, instead of just building a glob of features and hoping they will sell. The old “perfuming the pig” approach of marketing has failed, as no amount of perfume can overcome the stench of products that people don’t want. We cannot “create the need” for products people don’t want to buy.

The buyer persona helps us identify the right approach for reaching those who buy. Should we use twitter, blogs, webinars, trade shows, traditional advertising? The better question is “which of these reach our buyer personas?”

Should we include a book reader, music player, or currency converter? The better question is “which feature set satisfies the user persona?”

Many programmers mistake themselves as ideal programming targets. For that matter, so do many executives, sales people, and marketing people. Employees of your company are rarely good representatives of your customers. On embracing personas, one company realized that their developers of programming tools were not representative of their users of programming tools. While both sets of developers were using Java, the vendor programmers were vastly more advanced than the customer programmers.

A typical product usually has three to five personas, people who regularly buy, use and maintain the product. You must create a persona definition for each type including a name, age, sex, technology environment, education, and job scenario. We often add personal information such as “It was a good day because…” to provide additional context.

The persona concept helps product teams focus on the specific problems of a type of customer. And the concept helps product marketing managers connect with them when they’re ready to buy.

Robin, the Product Manager

What is the profile of a product manager? Based on thousands of customer experiences and armed with web stats from, we’ve created “Robin, the product manager.”

Robin is a product manager for an enterprise B2B vendor with a direct sales force. She manages all aspects of product management for three products. She is 35 years old with a college degree and some MBA classes. She earns over $100,000 a year and is eligible for a bonus based on company profit, product revenue, and personal quarterly goals. Robin is a power user of Microsoft Office. She runs Internet Explorer and Firefox on the latest version of Microsoft Windows. She has a reasonably new laptop running 1280×1024 resolution or higher. Using Microsoft Outlook, Robin sends and receives over 75 emails each day; she attends a dozen internal meetings each week. A good day is when no one from sales wants her to drop everything she’s doing to help them with a deal.

With this profile, a vendor targeting product management has some very clear requirements. They can program to a high screen resolution; they must accommodate a computer not always connected to the Internet; they can see that Robin is technically savvy and is likely to prefer a product based on the “tree” metaphor (in contrast to Sarah, who does not understand hierarchal filing). The power of the profile is that it also gives permission to ignore buyers that do not fit the profile. The vendor can safely ignore Netscape, Safari, and the other browsers; they can ignore Macintosh OSX Linux, and older versions of Windows. This is not a judgment of technology; these environments are simply not statistically relevant among product managers. Every product does NOT have to accommodate every possible environment; instead, products should support and leverage the most likely environment to delight our persona.

Persona documents are not a new idea for many development teams but personas are a rather new concept for marketing and product management professionals. In recent years, the success of using personas in focusing development effort has resulted in the use of personas in marketing communications.

Buyer personas extend the idea to profiling the various buying influences in a sale. A typical sale includes a decision maker or economic buyer plus multiple technology reviewers. Most large-ticket purchases also include user buyers on the evaluation team.

Personas Jon and Cheryl

Consider a Sales Force Automation (SFA) sale: the users are Jon, the account rep (someone who sells) and Cheryl, the director of a sales region (someone who manages sales people). These two personas will use the product on a daily basis. Both are involved in the selection of a SFA tool. But Jon and Cheryl have different product requirements and different listening needs. Both want to simplify status reporting. Cheryl is interested in consolidating all territory data; Jon is opposed to it. Neither Jon nor Cheryl will make the final buying decision but are likely to influence the decision maker. The decision maker (or economic buyer) is Peter, VP of Sales. In addition, the product must pass the technical evaluation for compliance, security, and technical fit, requiring yet another persona definition for the IT buyer.

You can see that market segments quickly become critical here. A persona’s technology profile is likely to be completely different by market segment. The standard computing platform in a telco is different than that in a bank. If we wish to succeed in becoming a successful vendor, we must build a product that creates loyal users by satisfying the needs of account reps and their management. But we must also meet the buying requirements of the decision maker and technology reviewers, or we’ll never get to the user personas.

Personas: an archetype

In our discussions of personas, we often get tripped up by the terms ‘archetype’ and ‘stereotype.’ They are so similar, can they be used interchangeably? My dictionary isn’t completely clear on the difference but my interpretation is:

  • an archetype is used to inform
  • a stereotype is used to demean

So, a persona is an archetype (but not a stereotype) for the ideal user and buyer of our products.

The titles and profiles of these personas are also likely to vary between market segments. In this example, the sales rep may be the same for each segment but the technical reviewer profile changes greatly depending on the size of the implementation. Define the personas for your primary market segment and then create variations based on additional segments if the persona differs greatly.

One vendor identified four typical buyer personas for a generic market segment but ultimately found 26 personas once market segments were taken in account. The IT buyer in a large car dealership is incredibly different than that of a small body shop. The large dealership has two or three full-time employees who manage the servers and the desktop computers; in the small body shop, the IT staff is likely to be the owner or the owner’s nephew.

Likewise, products designed in the U.S. assume a certain technology infrastructure that cannot be assumed in other countries. Rather than sell what we have to anyone we can, we should design products to fit perfectly into each persona’s environment.

Personas provide clarity about which we are trying reach through our communications and whom to satisfy with our product development. Successful products focus on the needs of Sarah, Robin, Jon, and Cheryl instead of “somebody somewhere” or “everybody everywhere.”

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