Cutting a piece of paper seems like a simple enough task.
But for much of my childhood, I got anxiety every time I had to do it.
From the time I was in kindergarten, any piece of paper I cut looked a hot mess.
The problem? I’m left-handed. And most scissors are made for people to use their right hands to cut. So if you use “traditional” scissors with your left hand, your paper ends up looking like this:
As a kindergartener with perfectionist tendencies, I thought something was wrong with me. I avoided cutting whenever possible. And when that wasn’t an option, I learned how to cut with my right hand, so I wouldn’t feel so inadequate when working with scissors.
It wasn’t until I got to fifth grade that I discovered left-handed scissors existed. It was like a miracle. Finally, I could cut with the hand that felt most natural to me, without feeling like I belonged in a remedial class. I realized that I wasn’t the problem. I just hadn’t had the equipment needed to help me perform at my best.
Who do I blame for the years of scissors-induced trauma?
Sure, the marketers of these companies are an easy target. I could hurl accusations to them about their discriminatory practices, lack of empathy and insensitivity toward the 10% of the population who are left-handed. Hmph.
But the marketers are only a scapegoat of a bigger problem. The probable source of their disregard for left-handers was their buyer personas.
The personas that so many smart marketers live by caused them to make many qualified customers feel like they didn’t belong.
Inclusive Buyer Personas: The Foundation That Gives You the Keys to the Kingdom
Have you ever tried to buy a gift for someone you don’t know?
Over the holidays I went to a party where we did a white elephant gift exchange. A few hours before, I found myself aimlessly roaming around trying to find a cool gift a stranger would enjoy.
It’s hard buying gifts for people you don’t know very well. You end up finding something that is boring or generic enough so as not to offend anyone. But in trying to find a basic item, most of the time you end up forfeiting the opportunity to deliver a gift that the recipient will love.
Your business is like that. The products, services and experiences you deliver are like a gift you are giving the customers you serve. The better you know your customers, the better equipped you’ll be to give them gifts they’ll be excited about.
That’s why savvy marketers treat their customers like their good friends.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company Goop tripled their year-on-year revenue in 2017. Elise Loehnen, their Chief Content Officer, told me they attributed a large part of that growth to producing content and products for their readers who they view as their “friends”:
“So, that’s really what we focused on is talking to our readers the way that we would talk to our smartest friends and giving them all the context, all the information that they would need to feel like they’re making a great decision or a great purchase.”
Grammy-Award winning singer, actress and entrepreneur Rihanna thinks of her fans and customers the same way:
“I have this perception that my friends are the consumer.”
In real life, you don’t need a document that details everything you know about your friends to help you be a good friend to them. But in business, a document like this – also known as buyer personas – is essential. It provides a guidebook for you and everyone on your team for how to interact with your customers to keep them coming back to you.
Good buyer personas are detailed enough that they demonstrate that you know your customers as well as you know your best friend, especially as it relates to the problem you help them solve.
When your personas are done right, they help you attract the customers you want like a magnet.
They provide a roadmap that enables you to know exactly what to do throughout your customer journey, to draw your customers closer to you. In particular, buyer personas help you with the following:
One: Personas Drive Products
There’s no need to guess about what kinds of products your customers want to buy from you.
When you know them well and pay attention to what they say and do, over time what they need most will become obvious, much the way it does with you and your friends.
Sprinkles Bakery knows that their ideal customer has a dog. So they’ve introduced a product line of “pup packs” designed to delight both dog-owner customers and their beloved best friends.
The products you produce for your customers should be such a perfect match for them that they say, “Here, take my money!”
Two: Personas Drive Copy
Many of us use a different kind of lingo when we talk to our friends. It’s less formal. It’s rife with inside jokes that make it difficult for those who aren’t in our inner circle to follow along. The words we use with our friends deepen our bond.
A few years ago, I read Joanna’s post here on Copyhackers about time management. Every time I read it, I laugh out loud when I get to this part:
My mom wouldn’t get the joke. Many of my friends wouldn’t get the joke. But I get the joke. And that’s all that matters.
Joanna knew I would get this joke reference from 1998 because she knows me, her ideal reader and customer.
The way you talk to your customers is part of what makes them feel like they belong with you as well.
Thus your buyer personas should reflect the intimacy you have with them, that informs the way in which you communicate with each other, particularly in the copy you use along your customer journey.
Three: Personas Drive Photography
Business is about belonging. Effective marketing will signal to your ideal customers that they belong with you. They will feel like you see them, get them and designed your products, services and experiences to fit them perfectly.
When your buyer personas reflect your customer friends, it makes it easier for you to produce imagery that either is a reflection of who they are or who they aspire to be.
Nike’s mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. They define an athlete as “anyone with a body.” When you consider it that way, the imagery associated with who their ideal customers are could take on many forms and multiple personas.
Nike has embraced that diversity of various personas with the photography on their Instagram page.
Your photography should communicate “you belong here” to your ideal customers.
Buyer Personas: The magnet that simultaneously attracts and repels
By their very nature, buyer personas help you exclude certain groups of customers. Not everyone can and should be your customer. The same way that everyone can’t be your friend.
But the excluding that you’re doing should be intentional. The challenge is this:
Far too many brands have personas that exclude large groups of customers, without their marketers even realizing it. It isn’t too difficult to understand why so much exclusion marketing happens.
It comes down to a scientific term known as homophily, which essentially goes like so:
“You’re just like me. You’ll fit in just fine here.”
The homophily principle says that “contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people.”
A group of researchers from the University of Arizona and Duke analyzed various studies of homophily over many decades. They published their findings in the paper, Birds of a Feather: Homophily In Social Networks. Here’s how they summarized their observations:
Similarity breeds connection. This principle—the homophily principle—structures network ties of every type, including marriage, friendship, work, advice, support, information transfer, exchange, co-membership, and other types of relationship. The result is that people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics. Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Homophily in race and ethnicity creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age, religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that order.
The authors went on to add:
“By interacting only with others who are like ourselves, anything that we experience as a result of our position gets reinforced. It comes to typify ‘people like us.’”
In other words, when marketers go through the process of doing their ideal customer research and creating their buyer personas, they are more likely to profile prospects that are more similar to them, rather than dissimilar.
While that similarity helps you to focus your efforts on a group of customers whom you have an inherent degree of familiarity with, it also causes you to leave out those groups of customers who have backgrounds and experiences that deviate from your own.
Thus, it isn’t a far leap to hypothesize that many of the marketers who worked on scissors when I was a kid didn’t have a ton of left-handed people in their world. As a result, their frame of reference for considering how to serve left-handed people was limited or non-existent.
If a restaurant owner, chef, or meeting organizer doesn’t have people with dietary restrictions in their inner circle, they are less likely to fully consider those who do have them when they’re creating their menu.
EDITOR’S INTERJECTION: How long did it take for restaurants and pubs to add hooks for handbags under their tables?
While many brands have gotten away with marketing to “people like us,” trends show that approach won’t be so effective in the future.
The makeup of the people we serve is changing in multiple ways. Here are some noteworthy demographic trends you should be aware of:
- This year, millennials are projected to overtake Baby Boomers as the largest generation
- At 35%, millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force
- 42% of US adults live without a spouse or partner
- 48% of Gen Z are from communities of color, making them the most racially and ethnically diverse generation
- Women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of households
- 23% of children live with a single mother
- One study showed 6 out of 10 US households had at least one person who restricts a food from their diet. The most common foods people in the study avoided were sugar and salt at 36% respectively, carbohydrates at 22%, dairy at 13%, lactose at 11%, and gluten at 10%
- 4.5% of adults in the U.S. identify as LGBT
- 31% of people around the world are Christian, 24% are Muslim, 16% are unaffiliated, and 15% are Hindu
- As of 2017, 40% of the US population is non-white. Hispanics or Latinos make up 18% of the population, Black or African-Americans 13%, Asian are 6%, and nearly 3% percent are mixed with two or more races
While demographics shouldn’t be the only consideration when constructing your buyer personas, it is important to note the impact these demographic characteristics have on the psychographics and behaviors of the people you are serving.
And if your marketing is targeted effectively to your ideal customer, but it excludes one of their friends, then you run the risk of losing out on multiple groups of customers.
For health reasons, I follow a gluten-free diet. Thankfully, when I go out to eat with my friends, they are very good about making sure we go to a restaurant that has plenty of options for me to eat. My friends go through this effort because they want to include me. They want me around and aren’t going to let my dietary restrictions get in the way of our quality time together. And if a restaurant works for them, but doesn’t work for me, we don’t go.
With all the various types of differences that exist, buyer personas that only focus on what has historically been considered “mainstream” could be signaling to a large number of potentially loyal customers that “this isn’t for you.”
Ade Hassan is the founder of Nubian Skin, a company that specializes in lingerie and hosiery for women of color. Here she is explaining to me how being told “this isn’t for you” one too many times compelled her to start her company.
For the visual learners like me, here’s what comes up on Amazon when you type in nude hosiery:
Here’s what those “nude” stockings look like on a woman of color like me (just to be sure we’re all on the same page – this ain’t cute!):
And here is the hosiery that Nubian Skin sells, with a range of nudes for women of color:
When your buyer personas exclude customers you didn’t intend to, those very customers go off in search of other companies who acknowledge their needs and serve them.
“You get a car! You get a car! And you get a car!”
Buyer personas are a powerful marketing tool. But like with any tool, their ability to help or hinder your business is only as good as 1) the inputs that go into it and 2) how you use it.
Even though far too many personas unintentionally exclude, there are plenty of smart marketers who’ve done an excellent job of using personas to include more of their ideal customers.Even though the homophily principle implies that many people are limited in their consideration of others because their circles are largely similar, there is other research that showcases the ways in which the homophily phenomenon can be overcome – ways that can help you be more inclusive in your marketing: openness and empathy.
A 2017 study of more than 12,000 British households found that the personality trait of openness caused respondents to be more likely to have friends who lived farther away, were of the opposite sex and were of another ethnicity.
Professors at the Universities of Iowa and Toronto authored a New York Times article where they argued that empathy is a choice:
“While we concede that the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself. Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.”
In it, they cited various research studies that show that empathy is lessened for people who are different from us, particularly those who are of different races, nationalities and creeds.
When you treat your customers as your friends, it becomes easier to make sure your friends are taken care of. Openness and empathy are woven into how you treat each other.
When you think of your customers and the relationship you have with them, the focus isn’t on how they are different and how that might inconvenience you. It’s on making sure that you do what you need to do to include them in whatever it is you’re doing.
It is important to note that inclusivity isn’t always about accommodating differences that may require a different approach to your products and services.
At times it’s just about refocusing your targeting efforts to welcome customers who could be loyalists to your brand, if introduced to your product and consistently engaged in a relevant manner.
The craft beer market is starting to embrace this concept. According to a New York Times report, the industry is looking beyond “young white dudes with beards” as a means to bolster slowing sales growth. As a result of their openness in recent years, the Brewers Association hired a diversity ambassador and has established a set of guidelines and resources to assist brewers in making their brands more inclusive. They are making progress as consumption of craft beer among women, African-American, Native American, and Hispanics are on the rise.
3 ways to know if your personas are a repellant for loyal customers
Your customers leave you clues that help you figure out whether or not they like what you’re doing. And because the topics of diversity, inclusion and belonging can still be touchy for folks, the good news is you can use cold hard data as your guide when it comes to assessing your brand.
Here are three sources to turn to for insight.
One: Evaluate if your customers are representative of the population
Ideally, your customers should be reflective of the population that fits within the demographic of your buyer persona. If 85% of your customers are women and 50% of the people who check all the boxes for the characteristics you describe in your persona are men, that’s a signal that something about your marketing doesn’t make men feel like they belong.
Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried used this approach to identify that the company needed to diversify their team. He penned an article that declared his company’s quest to become more representative of the customers they serve:
“Basecamp is approaching its 18th year in business, and for most of those years we’ve been mostly male and mostly white. We’re not proud of that.
We weren’t almost entirely male and white because we wanted to be. We simply kept doing what we’d always been doing: hiring people just like us. So we ended up with a lot of white guys.
I have nothing against white guys, but white guys don’t reflect the world at large or our customer base. I believe a company is at its best when it reflects those it serves. If you fill a room with 20 random employees and 20 random customers, an outside observer should have trouble telling them apart.”
When planning for the INBOUND conference in 2018, organizers noted that 65% of their attendees were female. So the team made a point to ensure that the speakers on the stage were representative of who would be in the audience.
Laura Moran, the Content & Talent Team Manager for the conference, told Forbes why they made representation a priority:
“We want to make sure that we’re putting together a lineup that is representative of the people who are coming, and anecdotally we’ve seen that if we make an effort to create diversity on the stages, we see more diversity in our attendees as well.”
When you put in the effort to make inclusion a priority, you’ll start to notice you’ll attract a broader number of customers.
Two: Note high attrition rates of specific groups of customers
Last year I worked with a marketing team at a pharmaceutical company on their African-American engagement strategy. As we were looking at the data, we recognized that, of all ethnic groups, African-Americans:
- had the lowest satisfaction with the product,
- stayed on it the least amount of time, and
- had the lowest emotional connection with the brand.
This data was telling because of this important point: African-Americans had a higher prevalence rate of the disease state the brand treated, in comparison to other patient populations. So why did African-Americans have higher rates of attrition?
After a quick look at their marketing, it was clear why. Few attempts had been made to serve the audience in a manner that was relevant to them. And when they did try, the attempts were superficial, which had the opposite impact of what the brand wanted.
As you look through data on your customers, assess whether or not there are certain customers who are more likely than others to stop using your products and services. It could be a clear signal that they don’t feel like they belong.
Three: Pay attention to customer feedback
Consider comments from frustrated customers a gift. The majority of unsatisfied customers will just leave without saying a word.
Sometimes the ones who do speak up will give you their feedback about inclusion in the form of public rebukes, like many conference goers have taken to doing when the speaker line-up isn’t representative.
And other times, they’ll give it to you directly to help you better serve them.
Here’s Ade Hassan again from Nubian Skin talking about how she discovered her brand was leaving out an entire segment of customers.
How to build inclusive buyer personas (that attract more of the customers you want)
After going through and assessing whether or not your brand is excluding customers you don’t intend to, the fix is quite simple:
Construct buyer personas that are more inclusive. (HubSpot has this handy tool for creating personas.)
Here are four steps to help you create personas that include the customers you want to serve, and intentionally excludes of the ones you don’t.
One: Make a list of all the different types of people who have the problem your business solves
Let’s say you have a SaaS tool that you’re preparing to launch. Once you’ve got a handle on the behavioral and psychographic characteristics of the customers you want to serve, next identify the demographic differences that could be present among the people who could benefit from your service.
Here’s a sample list:
- Sexual orientation
- Education level
- Family status
- Marital status
- Socioeconomic status
- Physical disability
- Dietary restrictions
Having a full view of all the ways your customers could have differences can help you assess whether or not those differences impact their ability to use your product or connect with your brand effectively.
Two: Intentionally declare who you want to exclude
You can’t serve everyone. Nor should you. So as you’re going through figuring out who your brand is for, take some time to get clear about who you don’t want to serve, while thinking with openness and empathy. For that SaaS product, perhaps you’ll choose only to serve customers who have proficiency in English or your native language.
Note that just because you decide to exclude a group of customers at one point in time doesn’t mean you can’t serve them in the future. When I first started coming to Argentina in 2014, I had to adjust to the businesses that did not serve customers unless they paid with cash. Now some of those same businesses accept credit cards, but only those that come from Argentine banks.
Three: Evaluate if you need to create multiple personas
Plenty of brands operate with multiple buyer personas. As you determine the various customers you want your brand to serve, assess whether or not you’ll need to craft multiples.
As you go through your list of ways your customers are different, it may become clear that there are certain customers in which you’ll have to tailor your approach to serve them effectively.
A simple way to figure out whether or not you need a separate persona for a particular customer group is by asking the following question:
“How would our execution of marketing to our persona change if this person was [fill in a demographic difference].”
For that SaaS product, if you wanted to reach millennials, the channels you use to reach your customers may need to be different than the ones you would use to reach Baby Boomers or even Gen X. The cultural references in your copy or the testimonials you use may need to be adjusted.
Sometimes the answer isn’t an entirely new persona; it’s just making slight tweaks in your existing promotions to be more inclusive. For instance, some companies have opted for gender-neutral iconography, like the animals Google uses within Docs.
And on his website, there’s an option for people to go to a Spanish version of his site.
Back to that SaaS product as an example, you may find that although you have chosen to serve an English speaking audience, they still may be located in countries around the world that have differences that need to be considered.
- the use of a 24-hour clock vs. a 12-hour one,
- the way dates are written in the numerical form (is January 6 written as 1/6/2019 or 6/1/2019?),
- time zones,
- holiday support schedules, and
- measuring and weight systems – they all matter.
These are all nuances you can be solve for, with proper forethought.
Four: Identify whether focusing your efforts on one group of customers can help you win a larger group
I’m all for the efficient use of resources. And for many brands on a tight budget, creating separate marketing campaigns for multiple personas isn’t something they can do at the moment.
One way the some brands have gotten around this problem is by identifying certain groups as their lead customers for a campaign.
Several brands – including Ford, General Mills and McDonald’s – have at times made African-Americans their lead consumer.
Here’s the former CMO of General Mills explaining to Advertising Age why this approach made sense for them:
“My advice to marketers seeking to connect with African-American consumers is to think of them as lead consumers to influence your market. You can start to market their ideas to the general market; they can influence an entire campaign if you get close to them. Although they represent 12 to 13% of consumers, their influence on consumption can be much bigger than that. You can do brand campaigns with African-Americans at their heart that can drive the entire business.”
An additional reason on why this approach works well is that the groups that get ignored with mainstream marketing appreciate it when brands take the time to speak to them directly.
Michael Smith, the Senior Vice President and General Manager at Scripps Network, which has brands such as The Food Network and HGTV, gave this insight:
“According to research we have seen over the years, if you make something with an all-White cast, a White audience won’t notice it. But a minority audience will notice it… And if you make something that has a significant presence of minority characters or a minority host, White audiences don’t notice that either. … But audience members of color will really feel good about it.”
It’s time for your business to start making some new friends:
how will you move forward with inclusive buyer personas?
Your growth depends on inclusive buyer personas, strategically created. Your relevance depends on it.
And the customers who have the problem your business solves are waiting for you to show up.
Your marketing either includes or excludes. There is no in between.
Be intentional about declaring the customers you don’t want to serve. Then get busy figuring out how to be a good friend to the ones you do. Especially the ones who aren’t quite like you.