Customer Personas: How to Activate for Success and Avoid Pitfalls

Customer Personas are extremely valuable tools worth your organization’s investment – when they’re wielded correctly. Without stakeholder understanding, a good persona can morph into an organizational albatross or gather dust on the shelf.

“Know Thy Customer.”

This is a business’s mantra, our creed, our first commandment. It is practically tattooed on our hearts. So when your organization is granted budget for customer persona work, it feels like the chance of a lifetime. Finally, we think, we will have the insights we need to get the whole team focused on unlocking our market. 

It’s usually a marketing or product team that leads the charge on understanding customers and bringing those customers to life with personas. And personas are a great tool for both groups – but there is an opportunity to use customer personas across all customer-facing functional areas, and across the customer lifecycle to really drive strategic value. 

When personas become a priority initiative, there can be some real excitement about having a tool to really deliver customer value. And people should be excited! As long as everyone is on the same page.

Customer Personas: A Primer

Before we reveal the ins and outs of responsible persona use, let’s review just what they are.

Personas are simplified representations of your customers that you can leverage to develop and deploy effective, targeted products and services. Do you want to know what your customers are doing, thinking and feeling? These tools bring needs-based insights to life via profiles (complete with pictures) that are necessary for building empathy for your target customers and ultimately tailored growth strategies across your business.

Personas are based on prioritized needs and buying behaviors, enabling engagement at scale without having to resort to generic positioning (or endlessly customized products) to get there.

For example: selecting a payment method when making purchases is a decision everyone makes daily. Consumers, businesses, governments – nearly all types of customers – are constantly determining how to pay for things.  And the choices are complex: Credit cards with points, fees, or interest rates; Cash – easy to understand, but can be lost, and involves physically managing it; ACH, checks, wire, and more choices are making themselves apparent every day; Virtual cards, cryptocurrencies, BNPL, short-term loans…the list goes on.

How does a business determine what motivates a customer to select different payment types, and then provide a message to that customer that conveys the value of their payment product? Does a customer value flexibility? Anonymous payments? Minimizing costs or even deriving revenue from payments? Making transactions easy? There are likely a few main decision drivers for customers, and there are likely a few core customer characteristics that can be grouped to form your dominant customer types.

Speaking to all these customers in equal measure and with the same message is not going to speak effectively to any of them. This is just one example where carefully developed customer personas can make a big difference.

Activating Personas for Success

When wielded responsibly, personas provide value to virtually every function of an organization.

If you did it right, you identified personas based on customer need and feedback – not just your company’s desires and internal assumptions. The best customer personas are built from the top down; they are built using first-person ethnography. The interviews you conduct and direct customer feedback you gather are made stronger by customer data.

So how do you activate these powerful tools to the greatest effect?

Success Factor #1: Educate stakeholders.

This is paramount. Without a fundamental understanding of what personas represent, it is incredibly easy for stakeholders to misuse them.

Lesson A: Customers within personas are not monolithic.

While the stock photo you choose to represent “Online Oliver” belongs to a certain demographic, this does not mean that all Online Oliver’s look or act exactly like him. On the whole, customers within a persona will show similar behaviors. It seems obvious, but it’s important to point out that there will be variations – and that personas are not necessarily demographic profiles.

Lesson B: Customers will move in and out of personas, may fall in between, or overlap a few.

Why? Because human beings are complex, and things change. This is where solid company data can really strengthen personas. A mobile provider may notice that many accounts have increased from one device to five. Have their customers grown their families? Do they use a variety of devices for different purposes? By incorporating data on actual buying behavior, you can see how personas are evolving, how customers in one persona progress into another, or even further segment personas to better deliver against their needs.

Lesson C: You should never use them to exclude customers.

Did you just roll your eyes a little? Again, this seems painfully obvious – but you’ll thank us when you’re in a meeting and someone says, “Our persona is Moms, we don’t talk to Dads.” We’ll come back to this.

Successful return on your persona investment begins with education and alignment. 

Success Factor #2: Separate users from influencers from decision-makers from payers.

These distinctions are crucial, and very difficult to see without the direct customer feedback and real-world observation that goes into persona development. For some products, the same individual may perform all of these roles. Lucky you! You have a single type of buyer to interview and understand.

But most of the time – particularly with high-stakes purchases like health care, but even with uncomplicated products like ketchup – there are multiple players at work from consideration to purchase.

Your users will prioritize different features from your payers or your researchers. They will consume different media, respond to different messages, and ultimately need different value delivered from you. With customer personas front and center throughout the organization, you can ensure their needs are consistently represented.

Success Factor #3: (Re)Prioritize investments based on customer needs.

A common misconception about customer personas is that they are “a marketing thing.” Clearly, customers are the reason companies exist, and matter to every part of an organization. But as most of us know, internal goals and insular perspectives can sometimes push customers out of focus, and lead to pet projects that are out of step with the ultimate goal of delivering customer (and therefore shareholder) value.

Personas, as easy-to-digest profiles of your customers and their needs, can be used cross-functionally to guide and justify changes in priorities. Imagine making business decisions backed by real customer data. While marketing and product groups tend to initiate persona projects (where their utility is obvious), leaders of all stripes can leverage them to rally support for customer-oriented product and service initiatives that may be less visible/popular or redirect funds and staff toward initiatives that better deliver against what your customers want.

A long-running product development effort that is mismatched with customer needs can lead to higher costs for less payoff in the long run. With widely adopted and well-understood personas, your company can avoid such “money pits” and put its assets to better use.

Avoiding Persona Pitfalls

So now you know a bit about what personas are and how to use them wisely. But how do you keep it that way? How do you prevent your investment in personas from being devalued? Keep an ear out for four common ways that personas go bad.

Pitfall #1: Never exclude customers based on targeted personas.

We mentioned this face-palmer before, but I’ve been in the rooms where it happened. Your personas, if done well, should target a large percentage of your customer population. If your value proposition or marketing messaging resounds with someone – no matter whom- you accommodate them.

Pitfall #2: Beware of oversimplification.

Sometimes organizations are so worried about losing potential customer types via personas that they insist their personas need to cover 100% of their customers. If your company is an industry giant, that’s likely to be everyone on the planet. We previously mentioned the danger of leaning on customer demographics rather than needs and buying behavior. I once witnessed a persona model based on age and binary gender. The same message was directed equally across each “persona,” even though the market was heavily weighted toward one group. By genericizing their personas, they left a lot of business on the table and wasted a lot of money.

Pitfall #3: Avoid quantitatively driven personas.

People are not merely collections of data points. It bears repeating: the best customer personas begin with interviewing real customers. The worst personas begin with spreadsheets.

In another real-life example, a firm created personas based entirely on a (very time and money intensive) data modeling project. When Marketing Strategy asked “Can we see the dominant characteristics of each customer group?” the #2 characteristic was “mobile phone serial number.” This is a curiosity that could maybe be explained by something like “serial numbers are sequentially assigned, which correlates with older phones in service”, or “different manufacturers use different serial numbers,” but this was not true; this was a really random coincidence.  And it was used to identify and target customers for marketing offers. 

Starting with quantitative data is most likely to end in more data – not true insight.  By contrast, interviews often reveal insights and opportunities to harness quantitative data.

Pitfall #4: Don’t merely pay them lip service.

Again, a potential forehead-slapper, but I’ve seen it too many times. After all the effort you put into building personas, why let them collect dust? Personas are more than just pretty pictures, and not an end in themselves.  They make nice posters – but don’t forget to use them to win business.

The Bottom Line

Like many tools, personas can be used in lots of different ways. They can be a central platform to align and prioritize customer touchpoints across a business. And they can be a tactical exercise that can drive real results at smaller scales.

Whatever you do, don’t just create the personas for your business. Activate them.

Gavin Wassung contributed to this article.

Further Advisory helps companies across industries match the right customer experience strategies with the products and service offerings those companies provide. From customer personas to journeys to market analysis, we make strategy become a reality.

About the author


  • Sean Gilligan

    Sean has spent his career focused on customer interactions – across sales, marketing, and customer service. In various engagements he has developed customer strategy, designed process, organization, and technology solutions to enable those strategies.

  • Erin Catalina

    Erin has over 15 years of progressive experience in digital marketing, combining brand strategy and both analytical and technical skills to drive measurable business results for a variety of Fortune 500 Retail, CPG, and B2B companies.

From Strategy to Reality®

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