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The idea of a customer persona is an odd one, to say the least. In Dan Lyons’ hilarious account of working at Hubspot, he describes the CEO’s bizarre tactic of bringing a literal teddy bear to meetings; the teddy bear is named “Molly”, and is used to represent the company’s buyer personas. This stuffed animal is a combination of “Mary the Marketer” and “Ollie the Owner”– Hubspot’s two target personas. “People talk about her as if she really exists. ‘Mary is busy,’ Wingman will say. ‘She’s overworked and stressed out’…People also use Mary as an adjective, as in, ‘That’s really good Mary content,’ or ‘That’s an extremely Mary idea.’” Needless to say, this sounds insane. And yet, while we don’t all have Dan Lyons’ ability to ruthlessly point out our own ridiculousness, virtually every company out there has created a similarly silly personification of an imaginary person.

Though we shouldn’t have to explain why bringing a teddy bear to a meeting is silly, it’s worth delving into why buyer and customer personas are not helping your product.

It’s Time To Listen To Persons, Not Personas

As ThinkWithGoogle pointed out, these personas are typically based on psychographic profiles that are created through an excess of “time, money, and outdated data…[that] can take weeks—often months—of focus groups, which have their own limitations, like sample size or selection bias.”

Not to mention, these profiles have very little to do with your actual customers. Why? Because customers are dynamic. They’re living, changing, growing people, and their desires, preferences, and needs are also dynamic. Which is not to say that you should have a constantly evolving customer persona, but that you should base your selling, marketing, and product development based on what customers are saying, not what the teddy bear is saying.

The way to move a product and business forward is through creating it for what your customers want, not who they are. If you look at Tesla cars, their trajectory went from selling to an elite group of sports car enthusiasts, to a lower tier (but still wealthy) group of environmental enthusiasts, with the ultimate goal to democratize cars in general in a sharing economy. Each product iteration is based on what a long-term customer wants, not on selling more sports cars to more very wealthy sports car enthusiasts. If their buyer persona were to remain that, then they would lose their brand presence as an innovator in sustainable technology.

Which brings us to another point: your customers not only change individually, but change as a group based on your long-term vision. Airbnb, for instance, started at the height of the recession, with hosts who were for the most part middle aged homeowners while guests were generally under 30. Today, hosts range from 20’s to 70’s, and guests range from Kim Kardashian to, well, me. The persons to whom they were selling and building their product changed based on the company vision.

How To Build A Product For The Person

There are two things at play here: one, is garnering feedback from your actual customers to build a product that satisfies them, and the other is to build a product that will satisfy a different cohort of people who are not yet your customers.

The first is the easiest to take care of: you can solicit direct feedback via surveys in an app, via email, via phone, or as a popup. Or, you can garner indirect feedback by analyzing support tickets to view where your biggest issues are, and what customers are most dissatisfied with. Analysis of FAQs is a great way to gather indirect feedback: you can see which FAQs are the most viewed, which are viewed and then still result in a ticket being filed (which means that either the problem is too complex or the FAQ is poorly written), and you can have customer rate FAQs at the bottom of the page with a thumbs up or down to indicate if it solved their problem or not.

The second aspect of building a product for the person is designing a roadmap that outlines who your product should ultimately be for, and how and why they will use it. Tesla’s roadmap includes such high level aspects as climate control, overpopulation, and an increasingly popular sharing economy. Creating for this not-yet-customer shouldn’t be based on personas of the hypothetical customer, but rather analyses of a population as a whole, and segmentation and analysis of this population as they become your customers. For instance, when Tesla released a more affordable, less snazzy car, it was paramount that they gather feedback from their new cohort of customers.

The bottom line is that when you create buyer personas, whether or not they are based on your actual customers, you end up ignoring the vicissitudes of your company, product, and customer base. Kick out the teddy bear, and bring in the analytics.

Published September 15, 2016
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