Buyer Personas Are NOT Customer Segments: What You Need to Know

Blog Post
March 28, 2017

Let’s pretend you’ve just moved homes. You probably expect to receive a few postcards from local retailers congratulating you on your new move and welcoming you to the neighborhood with a coupon for things like new dishes and towels. You’re a “new mover,” so that makes sense, right?

But what if you moved because a storm wiped out your home, or your family situation changed,  and now you’re downsizing to an apartment or temporary living? “Congratulations on your new home” doesn’t sound like the best message anymore, does it? Or what if you just got a big promotion at work and are moving to a significantly bigger home in a nicer neighborhood—do you want new towels, or would you be more interested in bigger ticket items like new furniture?

Your mindset, context and urgency for your path to purchase would be very different in these two examples. Furthermore, the items you might be interested in buying would be different, too.

This is an example of why traditional segmentations often get it wrong when trying to understand who a buyer is and how to engage with them in a relevant manner in the buyer’s journey.

Customer Segmentation vs. Buyer Personas

It is easy to confuse personas with the traditional segments we use to define groups of prospects and customers. They sound very similar. But customer experience practitioners need to clearly understand the differences between these powerful marketing tools and use them to their fullest advantage. These definitions should clarify the distinction between traditional segments and personas:

  • Customer segmentation is the practice of dividing a customer base into groups of individuals that are similar in specific ways relevant to marketing, such as age, gender, interests and spending habits. Customer segments help us at the campaign level and are used to select people to market to, or to define categories to put them in. A female buyer between the age of 30 and 40 who shops our category 6 times per year is an example of a customer segment.
  • A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers. When creating your buyer persona(s), consider including customer demographics, behavior patterns, motivations, and goals. The more detailed you are, the better. Buyer personas take into account the situation and role of the buyer and the job they are trying to do in the buyer journey. For example, a recent mover to a smaller place due to change in familial situation, looking to buy the basic necessities quickly without spending too much, is an example of a buyer persona.

Related content: how we build useful personas

The easiest way to keep them straight is that segments typically rely on demographics and transactional data as the defining characteristics to define one group vs. another. Personas take into account the real-time, real-life situation of the buyer. What is the person trying to accomplish right now? And what is their emotional state as they go through the buying process? Think about it as marketing in the moment.

We had a group in here the other day claiming that the buyer persona at a big box home improvement chain is those who repaint their house every year. That’s not a buying persona; that’s a segmentation. ~Frank Grillo, CMO, Harte Hanks

Put the Person Back in Personas

We are living in the Attention Economy, or what Forrester calls, the Age of the Customer. Forrester explains that “Today’s customers reward or punish companies based on a single experience — a single moment in time.” Going back to our “new mover” example, a recent divorcee would probably be pretty alienated by your direct mail piece that welcomes him/her to the neighborhood with a coupon for a cheery set of dishes. The consumer may be so alienated that he/she never wants to buy from you again.

This means that every interaction your brand has with a customer must deliver some value to the customer based on their reality. You just can’t do that with demographics-based segments. You must go further to be able to speak to each customer in the moment in which they are situated.

As an article by Mark Evertz states, it’s time to “put the person back in personas.” When you walk into a store and begin to browse, it’s likely that a salesperson will ask you a version of “How may I help you?” to figure out your individual situation and needs. He would be able to find out if you are furnishing a new home. If you’re budget-constrained or looking for top-of-the-line items. If you’re happy or sad. If you have never shopped for a set of pots before in your life but need something basic now. If you’re pressed for time or leisurely browsing. All of these things make you the buyer you are and make up your persona—and there’s no way to know them ahead of time. You must figure them out in the moment.

The associate would not only hear your verbal response; he would also see you lean in or cross your arms or shake your head. He would be able to adjust the conversation and his recommendations to your cues.

These human responses—both explicit and implicit cues—have not disappeared now that we operate in a more digital environment. They are still there, but we need to find them and pay attention to them to behave in a more human, relevant way with each customer interaction. THIS is the key data, the small data, that we need to uncover to drive our personas.

Bring the Human Back to Marketing

An understanding of the customer’s situation (rather than just demographics), layered with his or her current spot in the buyer’s journey, allows us to create messaging and content that actually delivers value to customers in the exact moment that they need it. In other words, understanding customers in this way allows us to interact in a more human manner—exactly what our customers are asking for.

Stay tuned for my next post on HOW to get at this contextual information you need for effective buyer personas.

Learn more about our approach to bringing human interaction back to marketing and developing useful personas.