Confusing Customer Segmentation, Buyer Profiling, and Buyer Personas Harms Marketing


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Confusion by Adam Gale

Confusion by Adam Gale

In the 15 years since originating the concept of buyer personas in 2001, there has been one issue that continues to plague fully understanding exactly where, how, and why buyer personas can be beneficial.  Compounding the issue today is the prevalent use of the term buyer persona to describe customer segmentation and buyer profiling efforts.   The issue I am referring to is the confusion that can surround distinguishing between customer segmentation, buyer profiling, and buyer personas today.

If you are a CMO or a marketer and you find yourself having a sudden realization that perhaps you are not quite sure of the differences, you will be in a lot of good company.  Depending on the source and what you read, well, it can get downright confusing indeed.

I believe, in part, the issue is fertilized by efforts to capitalize on the emerging popularity of the term buyer persona.  Which means CMOs and CSOs will need to be more discriminating about how they structure and organize their understanding of customers.  This is especially crucial as organizations continue to evolve in transforming their business model from product-centric to customer-centric models.

Customer Segmentation

On the surface, customer segmentation can be viewed as a fairly straight forward exercise.  In fact, it can be quite a complex effort for organizations to undertake.  Oftentimes, companies can lose sight of who exactly are their customers from a segmentation viewpoint.  Where views on which segments best represent ideal target customers can become muddied over a decade or more.

What separates customer segmentation from buyer profiling and buyer personas is the quantitative requirements associated with identifying specific groupings.  Suitable for classification of groups that can represent the buyers of specific types of products, services, and integrated solutions.  For example, accounting software designed for independent accountants who consult can include segments of independent accountants and accounting firms.  Obviously, you would not identify a segment group of personal fitness trainers to target.

From a classification standpoint, classifications can be related to:

  • Industries
  • Professions
  • Roles
  • Firmographics
  • Demographics

Where customer segmentation can get tricky is when there are relevant sub-groups of segments.  For instance, there may be sub-segments of accountants who specialize in healthcare while others specialize in financial services.

The value of customer segmentation is it can tell you where to point your marketing and messaging.  The right industries, professions, and roles from a quantitative perspective.  And, it can help gauge the size of a market opportunity.

Customer segmentation lacks in helping you to understand what preferences buyers may have, what they work on, how they engage in buying activities, what their purchasing history may be like, and what initiatives they work on.  This is where buyer profiling can be helpful.

Buyer Profiling

Buyer profiling can help organizations to understand the what and how of their buyers.  In industry segments, for instance, there are overarching priorities and initiatives common to industries.  Buyer profiling can also help with gaining perspective on what is the likely propensity to buy for certain types of organizations.

Buyer profiling is often another quantitative exercise for organizations.  With some qualitative aspects on a minor scale.  This can include the use of tracking from sales automation and marketing automation to keep honing in on the profile of buyers most likely to engage.  Buyer profiling can include:

  • Preferences (including content preferences)
  • Priorities and Initiatives
  • Purchase history and purchase patterns (including budgets)
  • Buying criteria and risk factors
  • Common challenges and pain points
  • Common triggers and events
  • Geographic data
  • Psychographic data
  • Buying processes and buyer journeys
  • Buying team structures

All of the above are oriented towards understanding the ideal customer and buyer profile for segments.  These became commonplace practices in sales well before digital capabilities.  The transformation to a digital marketplace now makes it important for marketing to understand the profiling of buyers.

This is the one area causing much of the existing confusion in marketing and sales today.  The growing popularity is causing marketing and sales departments, agencies, research firms, and consultants to use the terms buyer profile and buyer persona interchangeably, as well as, incorrectly.  I have read books, eBooks, articles, postings, whitepapers, and the likes about the topic of buyer personas.   Plenty have the prevalent use of the terms profile or profiling as identifying what buyer personas are.  And, mixing the terms through the nameing convention of buyer persona profile.  Often including the categories mentioned above as what goes into creating a buyer persona.  Similarly, we are seeing previously called profiling-based win/loss interviewing approaches now being called buyer persona research.

It is no wonder that many CMOs and marketers find themselves in a state of confusion when it comes to taking the right steps towards understanding their customers.  The data-driven movement is also compounding the matter of confusion.  There have been introductions of artificial intelligence firms intermixing the use of the term buyer profile with that of buyer persona.  Even offering “data-driven” buyer persona templates per se’.  While more precise A.I. can augment buyer profiling, they are not a substitute for buyer personas.  Far from it.

Buyer Personas

What buyer profiling cannot help you with, buyer personas can.  What buyer profiling lacks is the ability to truly understand the goals, goal-directed behaviors, attitudes, emotions, interactions, situations, feelings, experiences, and points of views of buyers.  As mentioned in a previous article, these types of buyer insights do not fit neatly into a data field.  Nor can many of these types of buyer insights be derived solely from statistical and data-driven modeling.

In large part, personas were founded and based on a body of research related to goal theory and goal-directed behavioral studies.  Such research has been proven to show that behaviors, as well as choices and decisions, of people and teams are goal-directed.  The term goal is finding its way into being listed as a category for buyer profiles mistakenly called buyer personas.  However, there is little difference between the profiling of priorities and initiatives and goals in these types of profiles.

It is important for the term goals not to be used loosely.  For instance, there can be up to 6 or 7 types of goals simultaneously influencing buying behaviors, choices, and decisions.  Often misunderstood, studies show that people have difficulties in articulating goals and intended goals usually are not at the conscious surface level.  Thus the need for using skilled qualitative research to uncover implicit reasoning and thoughts.

Organizations who have gone beyond the surface level of common priorities and initiatives found in industries to understanding deeply recessed goals that direct choices and decisions have been able to transform their marketing significantly.

What separates buyer personas from buyer profiling is the qualitative research dependencies related to buyer insights research.  Qualitative research techniques pertaining to the use of contextual inquiry, usage observation, business anthropology, field observation, and ethnography are of immense importance.  A primary reason being that buyers often struggle to articulate qualitative reasoning, as well as, must overcome either conscious or unconscious resistance to sharing what is really on their minds.

What buyer personas are intended to do is offer insights into the buyer’s qualitative story.  Insights related to:

  • Specific influential types of goals
  • Specific goal-directed behaviors related to goal attainment
  • Mental models influencing thinking, world views, and ultimately choices
  • Attitudes, belief systems, perceptions, concerns and etc. influencing choices
  • Descriptive situational and buying scenarios (deeper and more descriptive than buyer’s journey or buying process)
  • Points of views that provide context to decisions
  • Interactions and experiences involved in choices and decisions

When buyer personas are truly understood and researched correctly, they can prove very beneficial to gaining deeper understanding beyond segmentation and profiling.  They are particularly apt for cutting across segments and profiles to create a centralized view of customers and buyers.  Making marketing and sales more effective, efficient, and resonating with its target customers and buyers.

Concentric View Of All Three

What can trip up CMOs and marketers, as well as, heads of sales today are when they receive advice that a buyer persona initiative can do it all for them.  This is where the “harms marketing” part begins.  This ill-advised approach can lead to focusing on the wrong buyers and executing marketing and sales messaging that basically falls on deaf ears.  Resulting in blown dollars devoted to marketing and messaging.

While hype can be good, it can also have consequential downsides.  Misguided use of the term buyer personas and the harm it can have on marketing and sales planning for an organization, as well as people involved, can be significant.

CMOs and CSOs today can work together on developing a three-dimensional view of customers and buyers in a concentric manner.  Using customer segmentation, buyer profiling, and buyer personas to get at the core of why buyers will make purchase decisions and what it will take to transform.

The transformation I speak of is that of making it abundantly clear and self-evident to buyers that accomplishing their goals is attainable and aligned with the company speaking to them.

(This video is interesting (entitled Why most people don’t get marketing) in that Professor Shari Worthington addresses myths associated with marketing.  When it comes to buyer personas, myths can be formed about their purpose and use.  It is hoped this article helps to dispel myths and provide clarity on the role buyer personas can play in marketing.)

If you need assistance with this issue, go to my So Helpful page and schedule time to talk!


Article by Tony Zambito

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Tony Zambito
Tony is the founder and leading authority in buyer insights for B2B Marketing and Sales. In 2001, Tony founded the concept of "buyer persona" and established the first buyer persona development methodology. This innovation has helped leading companies gain a deeper understanding of their buyers resulting in revenue performance. Tony has empowered Fortune 100 organizations with operationalizing buyer personas to communicate deep buyer insights that tell the story of their buyer. He holds a B.S. in Business and an M.B.A. in Marketing Management.


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