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The Maturation of Buyer Personas and Their Role In Marketing

Date published: June 04, 2015
Last updated: June 4, 2015

The year 2002 marked the first time a research-based buyer persona was ever used for marketing and sales. In the 13 years between that landmark and the 2015 State of Buyer Personas survey, the use, acceptance, and understanding of buyer personas have surged beyond what anyone in 2002 was likely to have imagined.

And yet, marketing departments across the world are still not getting nearly as much as they could be getting out of the buyer persona concept.

Dominance In B2B Marketing

Of the 85 percent of content marketing and messaging professionals who use buyer personas, a full 80 percent were from the world of marketing. Of those, 95 percent use the strategy for B2B marketing. Well over half of all respondents, however — 57 percent — only created their first buyer persona within the last two years. That means that it took nearly a decade after the arrival of the first buyer persona for the technique to even begin to draw mainstream acceptance — and that acceptance has come almost exclusively from B2B marketing.

Qualitative Research & Persona Success

A major flood of acceptance over the last two years does not, however, mean that marketers are reaping a sudden whirlwind of benefits — just 15 percent said they found the concept to be "significantly effective." Sixty percent, in fact, said that they didn't learn anything new at all from buyer personas or just relearned what they already knew.

But for anyone watching closely, the percentage of success stories — 15 percent — was too close to another related percentage to be a coincidence: the number of respondents who used in-depth, qualitative research was also a meager 15 percent.

Could it be that qualitative research equals success in buyer personas?

The answer is evident in the fact that the 80 percent who were confused about what buyer personas were, also reported being unsure of the role of qualitative research methods. The takeaway has to be, then, that a good grasp on qualitative research — not just standard demographics — is crucial to understanding and implementing buyer personas.

Data Alone Is Not Enough

What this all means is that data — like the kind gathered from SEO and Google Analytics — is not enough. A company can do all the right things. But if qualitative research isn't the foundation of their buyer personas, they're still not going to be looking at their audiences as three-dimensional people. Instead, they're going to be collecting scattered data and building fragmented, incomplete personas. No one should be surprised when that doesn't work.

The Next Phase Of Marketing Personas

The first evolution was from obscurity to mainstream acceptance — or at least recognition. Next came widespread attempts that weren't backed up by the qualitative research necessary for success, which is where things seem to be right now. The next evolution will hopefully be a shift away from personas being pigeonholed as a supplemental marketing technique, and instead a positioning of personas at the head of the strategy-shaping table.

In 2002, the world contained exactly one marketing persona. Fast-forward 13 years and more than four out of five marketers are using personas as part of their strategy. But many still aren't getting as much as they could from the technique. The fact is, although buyer personas are no longer a mystery, they are also not fully understood by the overwhelming majority of marketers who don't recognize the direct connection between qualitative research and persona success.

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