This article is based on a podcast episode with Jim Kraus, the President of Buyer Persona Institute, for the CMO Convo podcast – listen below.


As a marketing and market research professional with a 30-year background, I've spent my career developing insights to help marketers, sales professionals, and product teams make better decisions by understanding the market, their customers, and their prospective buyers. 

Throughout my career, I've realized that buyer personas are a crucial component of effective marketing decision-making. However, I've also come to understand that the traditional approach to buyer personas often falls short. 

In this article, I'll share my thoughts on why it's time to rethink buyer personas and adopt a modern approach that delivers real results.

The pitfalls of demographic-based buyer personas 

Traditionally, when people think about buyer personas, they often focus on profiling a particular individual or role based on characteristics like age, education, priorities, and challenges. 

These fictional avatars are meant to represent a specific role within a buying decision, whether it's a consumer or business purchase. While this approach has been widely used, it has some significant limitations.

One of the key issues with demographic-based buyer personas is that they often fail to represent any single person within the category accurately. There's a concept called the "jaggedness principle," which illustrates this problem. In an experiment conducted in Australia, researchers surveyed all the women in the country to create a profile of the "average" Australian woman. 

Surprisingly, when they created that profile, not a single person in Australia matched it entirely. This highlights the fact that if you're looking at your buyer personas as your average customer, it's likely that the persona doesn't match anyone within your audience.

Not only that, demographic-based buyer personas often fail to provide actionable insights that can guide marketing and sales decisions effectively. They may describe characteristics of individuals, but they don't necessarily reveal what influences their buying decisions or what information they need at different stages of the buyer's journey

To create effective buyer personas, we need to shift our focus to the actual buying decision and the factors that influence it.

The power of decision-based buyer personas 

This brings us to the concept of modern, decision-based buyer personas. Instead of looking at individual characteristics, decision-based buyer personas provide insights into the actual buying decisions that people and organizations make. 

These buyer personas aim to help you understand how to best influence your target buyers, rather than just describing them as individuals.

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Five key components make up a decision-based buyer persona

1) Priority initiatives

Priority initiatives are the triggers that prompt prospective buyers to start looking for your product or service at a given moment. They could be events, needs, challenges, or pain points that drive them to take action.

For example, a company might decide to invest in a new CRM system because their current one is outdated and can't keep up with their growing customer base. Understanding these priority initiatives helps you tailor your messaging and content to meet the specific needs and concerns that are driving buyers to seek out a solution.

2) Success factors

Success factors are the key outcomes or benefits that buyers hope to achieve by investing in a solution like yours. These are the things that define success for them and justify the investment in their minds. 

For instance, a buyer might be looking for a CRM system that can streamline their sales process, improve customer retention, and provide better data insights. Understanding these success factors helps guide your marketing and sales efforts, from messaging to case studies and thought leadership content.

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3) Perceived barriers

This refers to the concerns, fears, and hesitations that buyers have when considering a purchase. These could be related to factors like cost, implementation complexity, potential disruption to existing processes, or uncertainty about ROI. 

Perceived barriers often lead buyers to eliminate certain options from consideration or to feel uneasy about moving forward with a particular provider. Understanding these barriers allows you to differentiate yourself by reacting to them proactively.

4) Decision criteria

Decision criteria are the key factors and questions that buyers consider when evaluating different options and making a final purchase decision. These could include things like specific product features, pricing and contract terms, vendor reputation and track record, level of customer support, and so on.

Anticipating and addressing these questions ensures that your marketing and sales efforts are focused on highlighting the aspects of your offering that’ll be most persuasive and differentiated in their eyes and can help establish trust and guide buyers toward a decision.

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5) Buyer's journey

The buyer's journey is the series of steps and stages that buyers go through as they move from initial awareness of a need or problem to making a final purchase decision. This typically includes stages like initial research, solution exploration, requirements definition, vendor evaluation, and final selection. 

When you map out the key activities, information sources, and decision influencers at each stage of the journey, you can create a more targeted and effective marketing and sales strategy that delivers the right messages and resources to buyers at the right times.

Decision-based buyer personas provide a foundation for crafting effective marketing and sales strategies by focusing on these five areas of insight. They help you understand what really matters to your buyers, what they need to feel confident in their decision, and how you can best influence them at different stages of their journey.

Gathering insights for modern buyer personas 

So, how do you go about creating decision-based buyer personas? The key is to talk to recent buyers who have made the same buying decision you're trying to influence within the past 6-12 months. These buyers don't necessarily have to be your current customers; in fact, it's best to include a mix of people who considered your offering but didn't select you, as well as those who may never have considered you at all.

When conducting buyer interviews, I recommend taking a journalistic approach. Start with a single scripted question, asking them to take you back to the day when they first decided they needed the product or service in question and to tell you what happened. 

From there, focus on understanding their full buying story, probing for details about how they came up with their initial list of options, how they narrowed down their choices, and what ultimately led them to make a final decision.

Aim to conduct 10-12 in-depth interviews for each buyer persona. You may be surprised by how much you can learn from just a dozen conversations. If you're targeting multiple distinct segments, consider creating separate buyer personas for each segment and conducting six to eight interviews per segment to identify commonalities and differences in their buying insights.

It's also important to note that buyer personas aren’t a one-time exercise. As markets evolve and new challenges emerge, it's essential to revisit and update your buyer personas periodically. 

The frequency of updates will depend on the dynamics of your specific market. In more stable markets, updating personas every few years may suffice, while rapidly changing markets may require more frequent updates.

Final thoughts

We operate in a competitive market, so marketers and CMOs need every advantage they can get to connect with their buyers effectively. 

Rethinking your approach to buyer personas and focusing on the insights that drive buying decisions enables you to develop a deeper understanding of what really matters to your buyers and craft strategies that resonate with them on a meaningful level.

I encourage you to start talking to recent buyers and gathering the insights you need to create decision-based buyer personas. The knowledge you gain will help you navigate the complexities of modern marketing with greater confidence and effectiveness.

About the author

As the President of Buyer Persona Institute, Jim Kraus has a 30-year background in marketing and market research, developing research and insights to help marketing, sales, and product professionals connect more meaningfully to their audiences.