On this week's Marketing Companion, my co-host Mark Schaefer and I tackle a grab-bag of topics with our usual verve and panache, including one of my not-so-private pet peeves, the current thinking on "buyer personas" in content marketing. Anyone who has seen me speak over the past year or so has probably figured out that I take a dim view towards much of the received wisdom about personas currently in favor with content marketers, and in light of my spontaneous rant on the podcast, I thought this would be a good time to spell out exactly what I think buyer personas are good for, and what they are not.
First, a thought exercise. I'm going to make some statements; you agree or disagree. Ready?
- If you are pursuing a content marketing strategy, then distributing that content is at least as important as creating it.
- If that is the case, then your "competition" in distributing your content marketing is not your direct product competitor, but Buzzfeed, Viralnova, Business Insider, The Onion, and your Aunt Ida. In short, anyone else vying for the attention of the eyeballs you are trying to capture.
- Those competitors (besides Aunt Ida, who has a strategic moat) are in the business of attracting audience. This makes them media companies.
- If you are going to create and distribute content so compelling that can wedge its way into an audience's otherwise daily diet of cat videos, the best/worst things ever, and things-that-happened-next-that-one-wouldn't-believe, then you, too, must think and act like a media company.
- If you are going to think like a media content, then you need to begin with an audience strategy, not a content strategy.
The latter statement has been the core of my public speaking engagements for the past year or so, and may be the most contentious, perhaps, with content marketers, who typically don't think about audience. How do I know this? Because much of the prevailing best practices I've seen about creating content marketing start with buyer personas. Buyers are not the same things as an audience. Case in point--are you reading this right now? Are you now, or likely ever to be, one of my customers? Statistically, of course not. You are my audience. A small percentage of you might convert into buyers, and sure--I've got some additional content for you that is designed to help you through the sales process. And yes, buyer personas are good for that--as a tool to generate sales collateral. But as a tool for demand creation, or (I hesitate to say) to create content that either entertains, challenges, or otherwise attracts an audience? Not so much.
Here's what buyer personas, no matter how many you create, all have in common: they are all based on your stuff. Product-centered content is very helpful in the latter stages of the consumer journey. It's also really boring, tedious, and thoroughly not compelling for people who aren't in the latter stages of the consumer journey. Like 99% of you, reading this blog (though I'm happy to sell any of you some research. Operators are standing by.)
If you are crafting content designed for "Outsource Oliver," "Spends-a-lot-Sam," "Activist Amy" or any other fakey-town people, you are writing brand-centered content, not audience-centered content. Long before you craft that content, you need to understand your audience, and your audience is NOT your "buyer." For that, you need an audience strategy, not a "content" strategy, which I would define simply as figuring out which people could be your customers --based on what they believe, value, think and feel -- and why they would be.
I'm fairly new to the field of content marketing (and we ALL are, yes?) but I've been providing audience strategy and audience research to media companies for two decades, and I can tell you this: media companies do not start their content creation process with buyer personas. They start with audience segments. Buyer personas might come in to play, but they are about Step 8 in the process. Only with a sound audience strategy, based on what you know about your audience (as I've defined it above) can you be assured that your buyer personas are on the mark, and that your content is based upon their stuff, and not your stuff. In other words, if your content creation process begins with what you need to say about your stuff, it is by definition not audience-centric content, no matter how spiffy your personas might be.
I realize this is potentially provocative for some, and I do invite discussion in the comments below. Again, I am not saying that buyer personas are bad, or wrong. I am merely stating that beginning the content creation process with "buyer personas" is a great way to make your product marketing director happy, but a terrible way to attract an audience the way that your media company competitors are. And if you are relying on a content marketing strategy, guess what? You're a media company.
Let me leave you with an example that I hope makes this distinction crystal clear. A number of years ago I provided audience research for a floundering New York City country music radio station, whose goal was to attract an audience of Women, 25-54. The station had nearly a million listeners, but we believed we could attract and retain a much larger audience by doing something a little different with the content.
Now, had we started with buyer personas, we might have dissected what we were doing on the air for content, and divided our "audience" into "Traditional Country Lovers," "Weekend Hat-n-Boot-scooters," "Crappy Line Dancers" and "Garthies" or some such. In other words, we would have looked at our "buyers" and repackaged our country music. That might have given us some incremental gains, but it certainly doesn't fit my definition of a strategy based around attracting an audience--which, again, is a strategy that defines which people that could be your customers --based on what they believe, value, think and feel -- and why they would be.
Instead, we did some work to determine what made Women, 25-54, in NYC tick. What were their hopes? Their dreams? How did they want to feel? What we learned was that this was a period in New York's history in which people started to feel good about the city again, and also good about going out. Times Square was cleaned up, and beginning to resemble the Vegas-cum-Disneyland that it does today, and not the crime-ridden outdoor brothel it used to resemble.
We asked them what they remembered about their best moments in NYC--what they remembered about going out when they were younger, and what they missed. We learned that what these women wanted was to relive those days--to feel good, to go out (even aspirationally) and to have a similar experience to those days, which in New York were defined by disco and Studio 54. They wanted to dance, or at least hear dance music that triggered those positive feelings. So, that's exactly what we gave them--we started with figuring out the audience's "why," and then moved to the "what," which was content research (in this specific instance, music research).
We relaunched this country station as a dance music station, and it debuted in the top 3 with women 25-54 and stayed there for many, many years.
Here is your brain-teaser of the day: did we change the product?
The answer is no. The product remained exactly the same--the efficient delivery of women 25-54, to advertisers who desired to reach them with targeted messages. The content we used to attract that audience changed, and changed dramatically, but we were reaching many of the same women, and many more joined the station as new audience.
Had we started with "buyer personas," we would have just played the same country records in a different order.
Buyer personas help you write useful, helpful content, and that will get you far. But "useful" and "helpful" are table stakes for the content strategist. The real path to an audience is writing content that does one of three things:
- Comes from true subject matter expertise (and not content marketing expertise)
Buyers are but a small part of the universe you need to understand in order to write that kind of content. So use personas, but do the work to truly identify their place in your audience.
Do you need buyer personas? They are a good idea, of course. They help you write FAQs and other sales support content. But they are not the path to compelling, sharable content that cuts above the din. And if you dive right into buyer personas without first understanding your potential audience, and why they might gravitate to your content, you risk writing some craptastic content indeed, and missing opportunities to attract and develop audience that you might not have even realized.
Oh, do listen to The Marketing Companion, if you haven't checked it out yet. We promise every show will be intelligent, provocative, and funny. This week's is a good place to start!
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