By Anna Ritchie published April 18, 2013

3 Tips for Keeping Your Buyer Personas Fresh and Alive

fresh buyer personasRecently, I walked into a conference room and saw a simple tin can labeled “Assumptions.” The “swear jar” equivalent was empty, but the intent behind it was quite weighted by the question, How often do we, in our day-to-day roles, rely on assumptions to make decisions?

For example, how often do you find yourself referring to the marketing personas you built several years ago — buyer personas that were based on assumptions you once made about your audience and its buying habits? Now think about whether your company has the same goals, challenges, and position in the industry as you did then? The answer is most likely no.

Whether your content marketing program is targeted to B2B or B2C audiences, one thing will ring true when it comes to old assumptions: Your audience, like your strategy, could be undergoing its own continual shifts, evolutions, and transformations, as well. This can certainly affect the buy personas you have created in the past.

As one of the most vital elements in CMI’s Content Marketing Framework, developing both your internal and external audience buyer personas is critical to determining:

  • What kind of content you need to create
  • What tone, style, and delivery strategies (and more) you need to develop
  • What topics and targets you should focus on to help continually grow your business
  • Who needs to be “in the know” on your projects (both now, and in the future)

cmi framework-update personas

As discussed in the Framework, it’s important to regularly update your personas to reflect shifting audience trends, as well as to account for adjustments you are making to your overall business goals and strategies. So what are some things you can do to keep your profiles fresh, accurate and, for lack of a better term, “alive”?

1. Move your buyer personas from the strategy bin to the drawing board

One temptation marketers face is to immortalize their audience personas as the “end all, be all” of their current stage along the content marketing journey. However, as with anything you file away at the bottom of your to-do list, you run the risk that your personas may grow stagnant and stale while you are busy tending to more “high-priority” tasks.

The goal here should be to make buyer persona development a part of everything you do, day-in and day-out. As a recent article by Mark Evertz stated, it’s time to “put the person back in personas.”

Make it clear to your team that, while your audience personas can be mapped to different stages in your sales cycle, or to various types of content you are producing, they are serving little valuable purpose if they are static, inflexible, or automatically applied to every piece of content you create. And with this in mind, before you start your next content project, try going back to the drawing board with your personas, looking closely at whether each one still accurately reflects your target audience’s current life situation and purchasing needs.

For example, over the past 12 months, residents of certain Northeast regions of the U.S. have seen their fair share of weather-induced trauma. Though hurricanes and blizzards may be more common in other parts of the country, these regions were faced with natural disasters — and their itinerant dangers — that they’d never experienced before. As a result, many individuals — and businesses — were left with damaged property, long periods of power outages, and other unexpected situations to deal with.

Now, say you have created a B2B buyer persona for a small business owner. They are likely to have limited time and resources available to start with, but if they operate in the Northeast, they may now be faced with new worries about how to prepare financially, and physically, to rebuild, as well as to prepare their business for the possibility of future storms. Their current concerns may include looking for new insurance policies, implementing new employee safety procedures, storm preparation proceedings, and more.

That buyer persona’s stressors not only increased, but have shifted as well — perhaps closer to (or further away from) the services you provide. Unexpectedly, your well-crafted buyer personas may no longer apply, and now need to be updated to reflect these shifting priorities.

To do this, start by carefully considering how this persona’s needs have changed, and how you may want to adjust your messaging, content formats, and content delivery strategies, as a result. Ask yourself questions, like:

  • What content do I have that could help quell their growing concerns?
  • Is now really the right time to send that white paper, or is another form of outreach more appropriate?
  • Should I shift my content plan to include messaging that addresses those new stressors?
  • Considering all that has likely been added to their plates, would my audience members appreciate it if I were to provide shorter pieces of content that take up less of their time?

2. Prioritize direct conversations

Whether your target audience is internal or external will impact how often you should “check in” on their needs (e.g., internal changes of leadership, or external shifts in consumer buying behaviors). Regardless, it’s always important to take the time to talk to actual consumers — just as you probably did while creating the personas in the first place! Let those people know that you’re just as interested in learning what they may need now as you were when you last spoke with them.

I like to be very scheduled (so this might not work for everyone), so I typically create a calendar reminder every few months to “check in” with a representative of each of my buyer personas — whether it be via a quick chat or email, or by browsing through community comments and sentiment. This process generally takes me 15 to 30 minutes, tops.

You may want to compile the data you gather into a dynamic document (like a Google Drive spreadsheet) to keep track of these conversations and note any shifts you observe, as I have done in the sample chart, below:

buyer persona chart

You may also want to “check in” on your listening posts to characterize current community sentiment surrounding your business — and the factors that may be affecting that sentiment. For example, I recently noticed that a normally active, engaged member of one of my social communities hadn’t posted in a while. I asked myself why? Did her job situation change? Was she no longer using Facebook? Had she become disgruntled with the company that the community focused on? Was this an isolated incident, or were other community members also dropping out of the conversation?

Executing a quick community poll is one way you can gain insight into the reasons for shifts that you observe, and there are many other tactics you can use, as well. Regardless of your chosen method, be sure to craft your inquiry to gather the data that will be most essential to your buyer persona development efforts. Ask simple questions, such as “What kind of information are you looking for from us here?” or “How often are you likely to check in on our page?” or “What are your top concerns right now as a buyer?” If you do this regularly enough, you’ll likely notice that the answers have shifted over time, and it’s these shifts that should be informing your persona updates.

3. Visualize your audience (and keep those mental pictures updated!)

A while back, Barbra Gago wrote a post for CMI — 4 Questions Answered about Buyer Personas — in which she shared an excellent tip for adding a human touch to your personas:  

“To help people relate to your personas, add images, and give names to your buyer profiles. Assigning a name to the persona helps everyone on the team think of this buyer as a real person, not just a piece of business.”

buyer personas-names and faces

Image credit: Bigstock

Her ideas for putting a “face” to your buyer personas — and for keeping those faces top-of-mind throughout your day-to-day operations — really struck a chord with me. Try to find a way to visually display photos of members of your audience, so that you can look at them as you develop your content. For example, consider posting pictures on a shared office corkboard or a cubicle wall in your workspace; or place them in a photo gallery that can be used as a screensaver on your computer. Seeing these faces as you work will remind you that not all of your audience members are alike; and that each one can be affected by changes that will impact the content you should deliver to them.

Another tip? Use photos of actual audience members, if possible. Take snapshots or screenshots of your community members, or of existing buyers (first asking for their permission, of course) and post them in a prominent place in your workspace. These can, and will, serve as a constant reminder that your personas aren’t just fictional composites — they represent real people for whom you are creating your content.

So how about you? What are you doing to ensure your audience personas are kept up to date? And what ideas do you have for making them a living, breathing part of your content processes? I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

For more guidance on keeping your content strategies such as buyer personas as fresh, accurate and updated as possible, check out “Managing Content Marketing” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Anna Ritchie

Anna Ritchie is a marketing and communications practitioner, focusing on social media, content marketing and Online Community management.You can follow her on Twitter @apritchie.

Other posts by Anna Ritchie

  • http://twitter.com/jess_dewell Jessica Dewell

    Make new customer personas each year. That way current influences (direct and indirect) allow a brand new look at what opportunities exist. Most of the time people don’t like to change, so the original character customers revisited also offer an opportunity to watch target market segments grow and change as they age.

  • http://www.buyerology.com/ Tony Zambito

    Hello Anna,

    A quick note to compliment you on a well written description of keeping buyer personas fresh. You also refer to visiting assumptions, which is a principle I first introduced when originating buyer personas in 2002. Over the past few years I have advocated for businesses to keep up on refreshing their buyer personas. Buyer behaviors are changing ever so rapidly so it is a necessity. I like the way you have made this applicable for the small business owner as well. Among the clutter of poorly written or hyped for publicity posts on buyer personas, it is nice to see a genuinely thought out post on a topic I care deeply about. Thank you, Tony Zambito

  • http://twitter.com/buyerpersona Adele Revella

    Thanks for talking about assumptions, Anna, as many marketers are building buyer personas around these obvious characteristics of their buyers … attributes that anyone could guess and therefore have little value. I see this as the biggest reason that buyer personas are built and then forgotten … those personas never helped enough to justify further investment.

    Your recommendation to prioritize direct conversations with actual buyers is critical, as this is the marketer’s chance to get beyond generic data about their buyer, uncovering insights that the company’s competitors don’t have about their target buyers, and getting to deep insights about how and why buyers choose among their options.

    For the you offered about the persona who wants to drive traffic to her website, the direct conversation would allow the marketer, for instance, to find out what the buyer had already attempted and what the buyer had concluded from that experience. Without this information, the marketer might develop content about an approach that their buyer had already discarded as ineffective.

    When marketers learn how to have these useful conversations with their buyers, the insights are so astounding that it is easy to find an hour a month to talk to one more buyer.