The Big Problem with Marketing Personas

The difference between marketing that works and messages that miss can be as simple as bringing up a customer in your imagination. I like to insert a name of one of our readers at the top of each draft blog post and pretend I’m speaking directly to her.

But these kinds of imaginings only serve you when you know your customers well. That’s why I’m always happy to learn that a client has developed marketing personas or customer avatars. In the process of developing this customer persona, you are asked to think deeply about your audience — what their motivations are, their fears, their challenges — so you can create better marketing messages.

These marketing personas come in  handy when distractions disguised as opportunities come your way — you can think of them as a virtual focus group that you can run ideas past.

So what’s the problem with marketing personas?

Let me walk you through a hypothetical persona for a company I just made up, Intern Abroad. The mission of Intern Abroad is matching U.S.-based college students with internships in other countries.

Traditional marketing personas fail to give you new insight into your audience’s motivations. Here's how to fix it.

Not bad, right? Using this marketing persona, you might decide to schedule on-campus events or networking with marketing professors who could refer your program. If you wanted to reach Tiffany off-campus, perhaps by placing some keyword of Facebook ads, you might conclude that Tiffany is looking for “getting a job after college” or “finding funding to study abroad.”

But you could have figured that on your own — the traditional marketing persona fails to give you new insight into your audience’s motivations.

The problem with this marketing persona, and hundreds like them, is that it’s working at a superficial level.  Most customer personas simply record what you already know about your customer.

What that means is that, if you’re Intern Abroad, you’re going to be competing with every other company out there to get space in the job prep and study abroad discussions. And you’re probably going to say the same-old things to Tiffany that she hears from every other company out there. Internships make you more competitive. Interning abroad is even better.

In other words, your PR program is just scratching the surface of what you could achieve.

Go deeper. Ask, “What brings my customer to the point of decision?”

What is Tiffany typing into google when she’s up in the middle of the night? What’s her state of mind? What’s she hoping for, excited about, scared of? What’s the trigger that causes her to make up her mind to do an internship abroad?

Beyond the obvious, a student like Tiffany may be overwhelmed with the options. She might just give up on her dream, because it feels like there’s a lot of extra work to applying.

Or maybe she doesn’t want to give up her role on the student paper, and she’s looking specifically for positions where she can continue writing.

By telling yourself a story about Tiffany, you can start to see how her motivations, challenges and fears are complex, so you can address them individually.

Have you crafted a story for your audience? What are they looking for right before they stumble on your work?

How Do You Balance Short-Term Priorities And Long-Term Growth?

With deadlines looming, how do you manage to find the time to work on long-term priorities for your business?

This is a question all businesses grapple with, at every level of success. We see it all the time as we work with people on their PR, which for most organizations, is a long-term growth opportunity. Things like raising awareness, building reputation and being known for an idea or cause don’t happen overnight, and the success of a PR campaign isn’t measured the same way you might measure a list-building campaign.

A common trap many organizations fall into is prioritizing activities that are fast and easy to complete. With a long list of opportunities and to do’s in front of you, it’s easy to say yes to participating in a telesummit that may take up an hour or two of your time and say no to starting your podcast, which will require hours of learning and coordination time.

But which is a better use of your time?

Well, I can’t answer that for you. But what I can do is give you a better way to frame the question, so you can arrive at more strategic decisions when you’re pondering all the things you could possibly promote or create.


For most people we work with, the problem isn’t that you don’t know what your priorities should be. Your biggest obstacle as a business owner and as a leader is distraction — both your own distractions and those of your audience.

Being relentlessly focused on the legacy of your work is a way to tame the distractions and keep creating items of value.

Because here’s the thing. Every time you put something out that’s not building the legacy of your work, you’ve lost an opportunity to communicate something that you value.

You’ve probably heard the marketing adage that your customer needs to hear your message seven times before they remember it. According to the research on how we take in and recall information, that turns out to be based in fact. When your customer first learns a concept or discover something new, it gets stored in her short-term memory. It takes repetition to encode that new data or factoid into her long-term memory storage.

This is why leaders like Brene Brown and Pam Slim stay on message. Every time you communicate with an audience, you have a fresh opportunity to make an impression. To be effective at helping them create an association around your brand, or your name, it’s important to constantly reinforce the ideas you’d like them to recall.

When we ask people what they want their business to be known for, it can be intimidating. If you’re not quite sure, the following exercise (from a course we secretly developed and ran this summer!) is a helpful way to approach the question.

Call to mind a someone who knows you well, and who’s very familiar with your business. This person could be another business owner, a customer or a member of your mastermind group.

Now imagine s/he is about to introduce you to someone you’ve very much wanted to partner with. This could be anyone from a podcaster, book agent or organizer of an event you’d love to speak at.

In an ideal world, what would your friend say about you and your business in an introduction email?

In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey writes about beginning with the end in mind. He says that, in order to create a legacy, you must work to build that legacy through your actions and words every day.

Looking at your to do list, which items help you create that impression, that legacy, in the minds of your customers, colleagues and collaborators?

3 Things to do BEFORE You Start Your Media Outreach

Do you believe that you have to be big before you start to reach out to media?

Are you waiting to reach that magic number of email subscribers or to publish that book you’re writing?

Maybe you believe if you just continue developing great content, in time, media will eventually come to you.

The truth is these thoughts are holding you back from reaching hundreds, thousands, or millions of potential customers with your message.

You don’t need a big platform to go after media, and you’re letting opportunities slip by while you wait for media to come to you.

PR Isn't Just For Celebs


Whether it’s growing your email list, breaking into the speakers’ circuit, getting the attention of publishers or increasing revenue, media coverage can help you make it big. PR helps you by:

  • Reaching a mass audience with your message.
  • Increasing your visibility and chances of being “discovered.”
  • Lending credibility and an instant reputation boost. People will trust you.

And that’s just the tip of the iceburg.

So what do you need before you reach out to the media?

1.  A brand that wows. You don’t have to have reached millions of people or sold thousands of products, although that can’t hurt. What you need is a brand that people are attracted to and find value in. You are in business because you’ve found that your customer is looking for something that only you can provide. Asking how you are different than any other business will help you identify your wow.

2.  Professional-grade photography. 
First, photos can be used as a lure, much like a story hook. If an editor or reporter see the photos and visualize them in their magazine, blog or newspaper, they’ll want to learn more. Also, media have limited resources and very few, if any, photographers on staff. Providing photos to an outlet for their use will put you ahead of the pack.

Examples of photos you’ll want for stories include your products, your headshot for profile or expert articles, your studio for work space stories and so on. Make sure to get a variety of both horizontal and vertical photos. Vertically aligned photos can be used for magazine covers, and both will be an asset for most magazine, blog and newspaper layouts.

3.  A game plan for capturing customers. PR is not about ego. Getting coverage is not for the sake of seeing yourself in the paper. Media outreach is in support of your end goal. For that reason, it’s important that you already have a system in place to capitalize on the new attention your media placement brings your business.

A great example would be a campaign revolving around increasing your email list before a product launch. In this case, you would have to have an email optin on your website.

Bonus! Writing samples and/or videos. This is a bonus tip, because writing samples and videos aren’t a must. However, it’s usually helpful to have some sort of example of your work on hand. Don’t write something new just for this! The video doesn’t need to be polished.

A writing sample can be content you’ve written for your blog or videos of you taken with your iPhone. These are easy to share with media and give them an idea of how great an author you are or how fantastic you’ll look on camera.

PR is for the big and famous, sure. But it’s also for you, an opportunity to reach more people and your goals.

A single interview on NBC’s Today show would mean reaching nearly 5 million people. With a clear strategy and consistent messaging, a number of these opportunities will launch you from unknown to known and trusted by the masses almost instantly. The buck doesn’t stop there. You’ll capture new leads and leverage these one-time bursts of credibility with your current customers, building your brand (and potential for revenue) further.

Don’t wait to start your media outreach campaign and lose out on the opportunities you have today. Once you have photos on hand, a resonating brand and a plan for collecting leads, you’re ready to roll.