Content Strategy

Developing Buyer Personas That Grow With Your Brand (And Your Audience)

By Lauren McMenemy on February 15, 2019

What's the first thing we all say about the best content strategies? They have audience at the center. Marketers develop buyer personas to better understand the brand's audience intimately, and then build a content strategy around the information needs of those personas.

It's all about the audience insights, and it's an approach that's worked like clockwork for years. But it's also one with a massive hidden issue: How do you know when your audience moves on if you don't revisit the personas on a regular basis?

Case in point, one of 2019's emerging early trends is digital detox-the act of divorcing your phone and trying to modify your online engagement habits. Many are proclaiming they've deleted social media apps from their phones as a step toward eliminating that constant need for connection. It seems if you're a brand that relies on social media to communicate with your audience, it might be time to rethink your strategy and take another look at your personas.

You need to keep up with how your audience feels about your brand, there's no other way of putting it. In 2017 research, global management consulting firm Accenture found that when customers are unhappy, they're much quicker to act: half quit doing business with a company immediately after a bad sales or marketing experience, while 25 percent took to social media to voice their displeasure. Additionally, more than half of unhappy customers start to engage with other companies. That's why it's more important than ever not to make choices based around outdated personas.

Developing Buyer Personas Based on Audience Insights

Let's face it, buyer personas aren't going away as a marketing tool, so let's take a minute to remind ourselves of this most basic of basics. As Rebecca Lee White wrote for marketing insight company TrackMaven, which joined forces with Skyword in late 2018, a buyer persona is "a research-based representation of the ideal buyer for a company, created in the form of a fictional person. They embody the behavioral characteristics of someone who needs your brand's product or service."

The marketing buyer persona incorporates information on demographics, locations, job roles, and interests, as well as their typical consumer behavior: what their challenges are, what they want to buy, how they think, and where they fit into the decision-making process.

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Image attribution: mentatdgt

Robust personas can help marketers to determine the type of content to produce, the best topics to focus on, the right tone and style to reach those buyers, and how to best deliver content to get their attention.

In order to get those insights when developing buyer personas, you need to conduct research, said White. Here are six ways to get the information you'll need:

1. Get feedback from your sales and customer success teams on the kind of buyer they've had the most success with.

2. Add forms to your website that include fields for important buyer persona information, which will help you gather more information about visitors and leads.

3. Look at your contact database and nurture stream to identify content consumption decisions and behaviors, and which types of content actually creates leads.

4. Create surveys for current and prospective customers.

5. Conduct interviews with your customers, prospects, or potential target audience about their view of your product, and discover the interests and needs that your product meets.

6. Use social media to pull data about your customers.

It's a Constantly-Evolving Landscape

Don't just create and forget. These personas will only be useful to you if you disseminate them across the business as a reference tool and keep them fresh and updated. Many content marketing leaders incorporate a sense check of personas into their annual strategy reviews, but in this marketing landscape that's constantly evolving, is an annual check really enough? Probably not.

Let's say you have a persona that looks like this: a millennial middle manager with responsibility for purchasing, who stays up-to-date on his industry through LinkedIn and Twitter. Now, let's say that millennial has seen the digital detox trend and decided to follow through. If your strategy has been to feed him information via social media, how are you going to reach him now? It's going to be much harder, so it will pay off big time to routinely diversify your distribution strategies to hit that valuable persona.

Marketers need to really listen to their audience, and not just create content that suits the brand's needs. So how can brands best keep pace and deliver the most relevant and accurate representations of their current customers, especially when an individual's needs can change so abruptly?

The Content Marketing Institute's own research notes that 90 percent of top performing B2B organizations put their audience's information needs first, and there's an increasing focus on the needs of buyers as human beings, rather than sales prospects. The best way to understand those needs is to conduct research, and better yet, to ask the customers directly.

Writes Jodi Harris for the Content Marketing Institute: "Once you have built your core personas, you'll likely be referring to them often-for years to come. The problem with this, though, is that you may rely on the information long after it's lost its relevance. For this reason, you should revisit your personas on a regular basis and update them as needed to make sure they remain in alignment with your current business goals and content marketing strategy, as well as reflect any opportunities that have emerged."

Content marketing software like Skyword360 empowers marketers to keep their strategy flexible, with the option to record and edit their audience or persona insights directly in the platform and adjust these specifications in real time. This way, you can optimize content assignments to reflect specific stages in your customer's journey.

Create a Real-Time Feedback Loop

"Audience intelligence isn't new," said Fiona Brennan of marketing support startup Indie Essentials. "But I do think people get comfortable in what they do and they make assumptions based on their knowledge, rather than asking their audience what they want."

Brennan uses the example of her time working in independent music companies. She got a sales report for a new release which showed one territory had bought significantly fewer records than expected. Instead of worrying about it or ignoring it, she called her contacts in that area.

"I called them up and asked them why because the fans of the band hadn't disappeared. If they weren't buying the records from us, then where and how were they buying them? And why weren't we selling them in that way? This is basic business sense: Know who your audience is, what they want, and how they want to get it."

A real-time feedback loop can help you keep on top of what your audience is doing as it moves through this ever-changing landscape. Brennan says knowing where your audience is hanging out online is "vital" to keeping track. "If you've been listening, you'll know when platform discontent is building," she said. "This is one of the many benefits of spending some time each day interacting with your audience online, rather than doing a post-and-run."

Audience Insights on Every Channel

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Image attribution: Søren Astrup Jørgensen

Social listening is the obvious way to keep in touch with your audience's needs, but it's not the only way. Jess Hodkinson, senior content strategist at Online PR Pixie, says your wider team is a good source of insight, too: "For example, speak to the sales team and see what patterns have emerged, and who is sticking around to inquire further. It's also worth doing (a) focus group and workshops with various internal stakeholders to get their input."

The Content Marketing Institute's research found around three out of four B2B content marketers seek feedback from sales and use website analytics to research their audience, while 65 percent use keyword research to find out what that audience is searching for online. Yet, just 42 percent of them say they have conversations with customers as part of their audience research-that means less than half of all marketers go directly to the source to find out what it needs.

The Role of Data Gathering and Analytics Tools

Hodkinson, like Brennan and most marketing influencers out there, advocates a test-and-learn approach to buyer personas-do the in-depth research when initially creating them, but then follow-up regularly with reassessment to ensure you're still on the right track. She said the importance of audience intelligence when creating strategies is often overlooked: "If you don't do the research first, then really, you don't know who you are talking to, and the whole process becomes a guessing game. Long-term, you won't get the return for the investment and time and effort."

Hodkinson continues: "It's important to measure and analyze results weekly or monthly. Accessing more data means we can be more accurate with our personas. Listen and understand customer needs and wants, where they spend time and even who they talk to."

With the help of a marketing analytics dashboard, marketing teams will be able to measure in real time the posts that audiences are responding to most across all of their various channels and platforms.

Data is key in helping you develop buyer personas, but it's also key when testing and reassessing those personas-and to know if the personas are converting. This world moves quickly, and to truly know that you're making content that speaks to your customers' needs and preferences, you need to be constantly having conversations with the real people involved.

The Audience Knows Best

Ongoing audience intelligence research can help you ensure you're not only on the right track with your content, but that you're keeping the information needs of your audience at the heart of your content strategy.

"When we're in the middle of working in our business, it is easy to forget to ask the most important person in the business what they think," said Brennan. "We should be asking and listening on a regular basis so we can adapt and grow as quickly as our customers' needs do," says Hodkinson.

With the right data gathering and analytics tools in place, you can create a truly robust understanding of who you're marketing to. And don't forget those real-time feedback loops! Conduct the all-important audience intelligence research on an ongoing basis to ensure your audience personas grow alongside both your audience and your brand.

Skyword360 technology enables marketers to put together a unified content strategy and ensure everyone, from the CMO to content creators, understands and follows it. Learn more here.

Featured image attribution: Raw Pixel


Lauren McMenemy

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.