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Buyer personas do not exist: how to find the right target in a liquid society

In the daily battle of every marketing (or Digital Marketing) consultant/manager there always comes the time when it is necessary to deal with the definition of the target of a company or a specific product.

At one time we used to talk simply about target audiences, today things have become a bit complicated and the digital media scenario has given us new challenges in defining potential consumers to deliver our messages to promote our products /services.

The concept of “persona” was introduced for the first time by Alan Cooper in 2004, in the IT field, and since then has also been very successful in marketing, especially in digital marketing. In the end, it is an enrichment of the original concept of “target audience”, which in some way represents the broader container within which the concept of buyer persona fits.

But what exactly is a buyer persona?


What is a buyer persona?

A buyer persona is an ideal construction. It is a way to outline a portrait as close as possible to the reality of the type of consumer that could be interested in our product or service. If we stopped here, we would follow the definition of target audience and we would not have added anything.

Buyer personas, in reality, reach a level of sophistication such as to represent a sort of augmented ideal consumer. In fact, the basic concept of targets is enriched with details and indications that give us a very faithful portrait of what, presumably, could be the real buyer of our product.

To do this it is necessary to resort to insights that allow us to build the phases through which the purchase decision matures and which are collected thanks to the provision of detailed interviews with potential customers and analysis of competitors’ targets.

These insights allow you to:

  1. explain what the urgent problem or need has caused the person to look for a solution to his need;
  2. disclose the expectations that the buyer has towards the product or service he intends to buy also in relation to the problem that it will have to solve;
  3. motivate the possible barriers to the purchase against the different options that it finds on the market;
  4. manifest the criteria with which the potential customer decides to purchase one solution rather than another.

In other words, through the definition of the buyer personas we can be able to go beyond the mere demographic data and enrich the profile of our ideal client with sociographic, psychographic, behavioral and motivational details. Also managing to define the reference value system of our target (yes, because in the end we are always talking about targets).

Defining the boundaries of our buyer personas can allow us to understand much more about our consumer. We can understand:

  • what he thinks;
  • what he feels;
  • what worries him;
  • what he hopes;
  • his expectations;
  • his plans;
  • his beliefs.

As you can guess the concept of buyers personas allows us to greatly enrich our knowledge of our potential customers and puts us in a position to dominate every operational aspect linked to the so-called buyer journey.

But is all this really as extraordinary as it seems? What are the parameters within which all this target definition technique can still be valid?

To answer this question we must take a step back and understand how our society has changed and how, in parallel, our way of interacting with others and with consumer products has changed.

Liquid society shatters all borders

We live in a heterogeneous society, within which it is increasingly difficult to determine clear and defined boundaries, yet in marketing we continue to talk about defining this or that aspect of individuals.

In the past it was quite simple to be able to identify the peculiar characteristics of a group of individuals and it was equally obvious to assume that these characteristics would have remained unchanged for a long period of time.

Defining and analyzing a target was a complex operation, but not entirely impossible.

When in the last century the first scholars carried out the first researches on consumption and on buying behavior, they did it in a society that was, in many respects, quite stable.

As much as these studies remain very current, the fact remains that in the last few decades the borders of our Western contemporary society have become progressively more and more indeterminate, so much so as to make it extremely difficult to build a credible target.

Lifestyles become evanescent, undetermined. Consumers are no longer driven by contingent needs or necessity, but they are driven by desire, by dreams, by the realization of a status. Personalities are often contradictory and conflicting. You can be an environmentalist, even if you ride in SUVs and drink water in plastic bottles, there are smokers that are health fanatics, rich scruffy and poor who show off their latest smartphones. The twentieth-century definitions are hard to resist the blows that liquid modernity has inflicted on our comfort zones.

Unfortunately, with the peace of many, the concept of personas takes little account of these aspects. In post-modern society it is consumption itself that defines the consumer, who is increasingly individualistic, but at the same time eager to belong to new tribes but with completely uncertain boundaries. In the total disintegration of these boundaries, what is the point of talking about specific targets and buyer personas?

The problem is relevant both from an ontological (purely academic) point of view and from the point of view of marketers who must account for and explain the results of their strategies.

On the other hand, the concept of target is fundamental in defining other aspects of strategic planning, such as brand positioning. How can you give it up?

Centering the target is of vital importance and any mistake can be very expensive, both in terms of investments thrown away and in terms of results.

All companies need a target to sell their products or services to; just as Alessandro Manzoni needed to address his five readers to be able to imagine who he was telling his story, what his audience was, his ideal audience.

To create the right message it is essential to know who we are addressing and in what context. Otherwise we may find ourselves in the unpleasant condition of making a mistake in register and making our message less effective.

If consumers have become unseizable, elusive and indefinable because of the very nature of the society in which we live, then what is the point in talking about target and buyer personas?

Does it still make sense to talk about targets and buyer personas?

I will reveal the end of my reasoning, even before it collapses: yes, it still makes sense. But…

There’s a but.

Without prejudice to the goodness of the buyer personas as a target definition methodology and having emphasised some (not all) of the limits that this system brings with itself, it can be said that it is necessary to examine how it is possible to consider this way as valid to define the target and when instead it is completely superfluous.

In particular, I will take two extreme cases into account in order to make my reasoning clearer: a product/service of large consumption and product/service of niche.

In the first case, that of the product/service of large consumption, the effort to build an highly detailed profile of the potential client is almost useless. The why is explained soon.

The more the range of action of our product is expanded, the more the boundaries within which it is possible to encompass a potential ideal client become widespread and evanescent. There are too many variables involved, the sophistication of an inference of this kind becomes so complex that it makes every effort absolutely vain, meaningless. In this case, it would be much more useful to analyze the networks of relationships of our real customers and methodologies linked to Big Data.

In such a case we would surely find more benefit from a careful analysis of the target market and competitors, rather than an in-depth definition of our buyer personas.

Instead the speech, the niches are self-defined by nature and markets of this type are characterized by light entropy and low entry barriers.

The niches are extremely interesting because they are like a sort of photographic Safari in a reserve: all the consumers / customers you need are there, you just need to know where to look for them and take good pictures. It is precisely in this case that the definition of buyer personas can really be useful to you and can make sense.

Although the concepts expressed above remain valid even within a niche, having taken due methodological care, the analysis of the target could lead to good results.

The current consumer is attentive, shrewd, selective, autonomous and, to be reckoned with, extremely unfaithful to the brand. His identity is multifaceted and contradictory and his personality is more like a patchwork than a photographic portrait.

Being able to define this profile with a good degree of approximation is almost impossible. We must play with cunning and experience, be able to fully understand the nature of our market (segment) of reference and have clear the general strategies within which the company must make its own choices.

Having understood this, we can also venture into the definition of a specific ideal target (of a buyer personas), but we must pay close attention to these particular aspects linked to the changes in our society.

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Digital Strategist

Sono un professionista della Comunicazione e del Web Marketing. Lavoro nel mondo della comunicazione e della pubblicità dal 2003 e navigo in Rete da molto prima che diventasse quello che è oggi, quando i computer erano meno potenti di uno smartphone,... Learn more

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