The Problem With Personas

 In All Things Productivity, Blog, Sales Enablement

nebulous teamAt the dawn of this decade Eric Schmidt said “every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003”, shortly after that Eric’s company, Google, estimated that the Internet consisted of roughly five million terabytes of data. Yet, Google had indexed only about 200 terabytes of that data. That’s a lot of crawling, indexing, etc… but comprised only 0.004% of the whole Internet. Even more mind boggling is that IBM say the build out of the “Internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

Knowledge is growing faster than ever before, it’s being stored in more and more places, and no matter what way you look at it our world is going to continue to get more complex!


What complexity does to B2B sales

It’s really hard to figure out how to deal with the massive complexity of the selling environment today, where prospects expect messaging, collateral, and presentations, really everything they hear or see, to be tailored to their specific industry, geography, company size, solution needs, etc. This level of expectancy is a Big Deal and has far reaching ramifications. Consider that a McKinsey study found that ‘perceived sales experience’ was the second most important criteria among B2B buyers in determining the value of a vendor. Further, a study by CEB reveals that the sales experience is worth 53% of the buyer’s likelihood to be a loyal customer and brand advocate. In a world where B2B buyers see 80% of their sales engagements as being valueless, it is a major differentiator for your company to deliver a positive, value-based experience.

Personas and Complexity : Oil and Water

oil and waterIn some organizations sales and marketing leaders think about creating “personas” and giving rep’s “playbooks”. Personas and playbooks can be thought of as a kind of guided or prescriptive selling model. The idea is to proactively arm sales and marketing with a simplified view of the market so they aren’t forced to go hunting for the right stuff, or to create new thoughts/materials/ideas as they move through a sales cycle.

In sales and marketing, Personas are fictional characters created to represent the different user types that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way. Most persona efforts come up with 4 – 8 different characters and then set about trying to predict or prescribe what these people do and/or how they act.

I cringe when I hear marketers (particularly those selling enterprise software) try to simplify the world down to Marta, Paolo, Roberto, Lucia, and Arturo. Personas are too general a view of the world, these attempts at predicting characteristics will always be wrong and end up being a waste of marketing’s time, because when sales come across a prospect that doesn’t fit into a neat category they will discount everything else about the personas and stop using anything associated with them.

generic personas

Today’s reps operate in a highly complex selling environment characterized by an increasing number of stakeholders, consensus-based decision making, heightened competition, well-informed buyers, and a more sophisticated enterprise technology landscape. Given these changes, it has become impossible to predict every situation a rep might encounter. Yet, it is precisely this type of predictive and persona based selling approach that many of today’s marketing organizations adopt as they prescribe “approved content” and playbooks to their colleagues in sales.

Complexity is the “Product” of all selling variables

personas are just the tip of the icebergI’d like to highlight an example I read about recently that shines a light on one of the issues with a Persona-first based approach. In Jon Miller’s Clear and Complete Guide to ABM Megan Heuer, VP and Group Director, SiriusDecisions says “We see a lot of content still targeted at the top of the funnel for overly generic personas. This happens when marketers say, “We sell into 20 industries and we’ve got 5 different personas in each and 5 sales stages and we can’t develop content for all of them.” So people throw up their hands and write something for CIOs in general and call it thought leadership.”

Think about the complexity and the number of variables in even this understated go-to-market example. To really understand the size, or the number of possible sales variations, you need to calculate the Product of the three different inputs:

20 Industries * 5 Personas * 5 sales stages = 500 selling permutations

Megan didn’t even mention the number of products or services options this company offers.

Companies that adopt a prescriptive selling approach have charged marketing with an impossible task. Given the amount of variables involved in each selling situation reps may encounter, it is unrealistic, and ultimately futile, to task anyone with predicting the exact piece of content or persona needed for every situation. Consider the potential factors involved in any one deal:

  • Product type
  • Target
  • Industry
  • Geography
  • Decision-maker(s)
  • Legal and contractual requirements
  • Key stakeholders
  • Use case
  • Deal stage
  • Financial terms
  • Competitors

Once you understand the Product of all the inputs that go into a deal the permutations become infinite. And you don’t have to be IBM or GE to quickly get to infinite permutations. How can a marketer create personas for all these scenarios? It’s impossible.

Other criticism of personas

There are plenty of other opinions and studies about the flaws with personas. Steve Portigal has written on this subject. In terms of scientific logic, it has been argued that because personas are fictional, they have no clear relationship to real customer data and therefore cannot be considered scientific. Personas are also a “cloak” of customer centricity, but in reality they actually distance sales and marketing from engagement with real users, understanding their needs, and learning from real world situations.


snowflake uniqueNot everything we do today can be predicted. Sales and marketing processes, and our customers – the way they research and the way they buy – are becoming more and more complex. Sales cycles are less like uniform, assembly line widgets where each one is identical. Instead, they’re more like snowflakes where each is one unique.

Prospects complain that vendors don’t understand them as an individual. Only 21% of prospects say the communications they receive from the average vendor are relevant. If we all agree that the world is going to continue to get more complex and it’s going to become harder and harder to predict & prescribe then why waste resources trying to lock things down or simplifying the world into an unrealistic set of 6 buyers with generic names and stock headshots.

You have a mountain of corporate knowledge… don’t throw that knowledge away, don’t try to reduce the complexity of your world. Instead, match that incredibly valuable knowledge with your clients needs.


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