Why personas can be a bad idea for content marketing
Forget about Personas. Meet some real people.
Forget about Personas. Meet some real people.

As new disciplines emerge – like content marketing in the digital age – new jargon blossoms like wildflowers in a new meadow. Or sometimes like clods of cow shit.

Whichever category you put the term ‘Persona’ into (for me, it’s bovine-centric), you can’t deny that it’s won a permanent place in the B2B content marketing canon. “Don’t even think about doing content marketing without personas.” is Commandment Six last time I checked.

At Velocity, we’ve propagated the cult of the persona ourselves, with round-up blog posts and the occasional tirade about using personas properly. And yes, there’s a Persona section in the content marketing playbooks we create for our clients. But, to be honest, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with them. For two reasons:

  • I hate the term ‘Persona’ – You can’t just make a new, abstract word by adding an ‘a’ to the end of a perfectly good concrete word, especially if that perfectly good word means almost the same thing as the new a-enhanced word. If we allow that, we’ll soon be taking our virtual Dogas for imaginary Walkas.
  • If you need Personas, you’re not getting out enough – A tight little set of personas in your content marketing playbook might say you’ve diligently captured all those hours you’ve spent in contact with real customers and prospects. But more likely, it says you never really spent any time at all with customers and prospects. You just grabbed a photo from a stock library, invented a sensible-sounding name, and started riffing on his or her imagined wants and needs.

And that’s my real problem: if you have to invent imaginary prospects, you haven’t met enough real ones.

Part of our input when we start working with a new client is to talk to their customers. It’s an absolutely critical part of our process because it lets us hear how customers talk about the challenges they face and the solutions they seek. And it’s NEVER the same language as the client uses when they package up their story for us.

Once we’ve spoken to a few customers and prospects, these become our internalized personas. When I’m writing, I don’t write to a fictional character, I write to a real person. Having a clear picture of a real person in mind as I write makes my writing much, much better. (Right now, I’m picturing Barry Feldman).

“Objection! Not everyone who works in and around marketing can have personal discussions with customers and prospects. Personas are a great way to capture these interactions for everyone else.”

If that’s true, then go ahead, use personas. But ask yourself: “Why can’t everyone in and around marketing speak to real customers and prospects?” Isn’t it essential? At the very least, it’s critical for your writers and planners and strategists — the same people you write your persona documents for (and the people who tend to ignore them because they’re hollow).

The personas I’ve read often prove that very few people on the marketing team have actually met a customer – least of all the person who wrote the personas. If everyone meets customers as part of their jobs, they’re unlikely to refer to the personas. They won’t need to. If no one does, the best persona document in the world will only take them half way to the authentic understanding that leads to great content marketing.

So here’s a simple approach to the important work that personas are designed to simulate (or shortcut):

  • Meet real customers and prospects – Do it regularly. Take them for coffee. Pick up the phone. In the words of the immortal Kool & the Gang, “How you gonna boogie if you really don’t want to dance?” (Ignore the ‘by standing on the wall’ part — that always confused me).
  • Use their LinkedIn profile as your persona document– You’ll see how they think about themselves, where they went to school (if that matters), who they hang out with, what they share, what groups they belong to, who gave them a rousing recommendation, who they gave recommendations to… All great stuff (and self-updating).
    For a while, I played around with creating fake people on LinkedIn to make our personas more realistic. It was fun. But then it occurred to me: why create fictional prospects when LinkedIn is packed with real ones?
  • Supplement the profile with an email Q&A – Their LinkedIn profile won’t cover your own solution area in depth (which in itself is an important point: your top concerns aren’t their top concerns) So send them a list of questions about the issues and challenges that your solutions address. When new stuff comes up, shoot them a new question. Or pick up the phone.

This approach has two benefits: it forces you out from behind your strategy and out into the world your prospects live in; and it prevents the persona exercise from becoming a one-off, box-ticking exercise (“Personas? Done them. Next!”). Your personas will be living things not static templates.

I guess that brings me full circle: go ahead and create personas. It can never be a bad idea to start your content marketing by thinking about the people you’re addressing.  But if your nice, neat persona templates are acting as a substitute for real contact with real people, you’re doing yourself a disservice and your content will suffer for it.

Get your back up off the wall. I dare you.

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About the Author

Doug Kessler
Doug Kessler is co-founder and creative director of Velocity Partners, the London-based B2B content marketing agency. Doug has written a lot about content marketing including the B2B Marketing Manifesto, the B2B Content Strategy Checklist and Crap: Why the Biggest Threat to Content Marketing is Content Marketing.

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