When Marketing Personas Fail

Marketing personas are those fictional people with the clever names like Statistical Stephen at RapidMiner or Marketing Mary at HubSpot. Personas are formed through extensive quantative and qualitative research, and who represent the ideal prospects for your product.

Goofy names aside, complete getting alignment across your target personas and more broadly across your entire customer segmentation strategy is perhaps the single most important thing to get right at a growth tech company. But what often happens is that the whimsical personas created by marketing never really leave the PowerPoint slide they were created on, and aren’t truely embraced by the entire organization as they should be.

See if this complete fictitious scenario sounds familiar at your company…

Marketing is asked to update the core company personas, so they go out and do extensive customer research and come up with three primary personas the company should be targeting. They develop differentiated messaging for each that eloquently connects customer need back to the product. Playbooks are created, sales is enabled, and demand is generated. So far, so good.

But sales isn’t totally bought in. They watched the training session from marketing, and while they found some of the material and persona work to be helpful they have a quota to hit this quarter. So, they continue to go after prospects who don’t really fit the personas defined by marketing, perhaps brands they recognize, companies a rep has sold to in the past, or maybe the sales team is organized by verticals that are no longer a good fit. For whatever reason, sales isn’t fully aligned so they continue to chase a different set of targets than were identified by marketing.

Meanwhile, customer success was unfortunately not involved in the marketing persona definitions. Had they been, they would have pointed out a fatal flaw in the persona development: that one of the target personas has a high churn rate. The persona looks like a great fit from an customer acquisition perspective, but when you follow the persona through renewal and expansion, signing them up is just not worth the effort.

Finally, product and engineering continued to build product and shape the roadmap through entirely different conversations with sales, marketing, and customer success. They may even have their own persona definitions outside of marketing.

None of this happens at your company because you are fully aligned, right? Yeah, probably not.

As I mentioned before, I believe that getting alignment across the entire organization on customer segmentation is the single most important thing a tech company can do to scale. And the CMO needs to be the change agent that gets everyone — marketing, sales, product, engineering, customer success — on the same page, and keeps them there.

Brian Halligan of HubSpot tells a great story of misalignment and the resulting “optionality tax” paid by companies who aren’t fully aligned in the story of Mary Marketer.

In the early days of HubSpot, they sold to two primary personas: Owner Ollie, who represented HubSpot’s really small (< 10 employees) market segment and Mary Marketer, who represented someone in the marketing department of a larger SMB company.

For years at HubSpot we debated our target market persona. We had one camp that wanted to build our offering for Owner Ollie, a small business owner with less than 10 employees and no full time marketer. We had another camp that wanted to build our offering for Mary Marketer, a marketing manager who worked in a company between 10 and 1000 employees.

I was a HubSpot customer during the Owner Ollie days. The product was a jumbled mess of SEO and social tools with a touch of email marketing, landing pages, and reporting mixed-in. You could see there was massive potential, and the product was iterating fast. But still it was confusing to me, because as the CMO of a 250 person tech company at the time I had a much different set of needs than the owner of a plumbing supply store somewhere in the Midwest.

For HubSpot to thrive, they had to choose and eliminiate the optionality tax. And they chose Mary. Here’s how Brian Halligan describes the magic that came through focus:

By picking Mary, our marketers could now build content that attracted her and stopped watering our blog (and other assets) down with business owner content.

By this time, HubSpot already had an army of content creators, and now they were entirely focused on the needs of Mary. This let HubSpot distance themselves in the crowded space of content marketing best-practices.

By picking Mary, our sales reps only were rotated leads from companies between 10 and 1000 employees (lead scoring works, btw), honed their value proposition on how to help Mary grow, and largely forgot about Ollie.

Sales immediately got onboard with the Mary decision, simplying their qualification and narrowing their messaging approach.

By picking Mary, our product folks could laser focus on delighting Mary and stop splitting the baby on the UI and feature set they were building for both. If someone suggested an Ollie feature, they’d simply say “no” and move on — no more hand wringing.

The product team could focus on improving the user experience and addressing the feature gaps that prevented HubSpot from selling to more Mary’s.

And lastly because they were so focused on the needs of Mary, it led to a huge decrease in customer churn and got HubSpot over the magical 100% revenue retention number that is so important for high growth SaaS companies.

The Marketing Mary decision at HubSpot fully aligned marketing, sales, customer success and product. The results speak from themselves: every single metric went up through complete alignment and the focus that came with it:


So how do you get a company fully aligned and keep them there? It takes hard work. Personas aren’t a “one and done” activity. The can’t just exist in a PowerPoint slide or a printed picture that hangs on a wall. The CMO must constantly keep them updated and relentlessly focus on making sure the entire organization remains in agreement on the qualitative and quantatative measurements of what makes a good persona for your company.

This elevates the CMO into a much more strategic role in the organization, something Dave Kellogg from Host Analyics touches on in his post The Evolution of Marketing Thanks to SaaS.


Tomorrow, as more marketers will be measured on the health of the overall ARR pool, they will be focused on cost-effectively generating not just opportunities-that-close but opportunities that turn into the best long-term customers. (This quadrant helps you do just that.)

And that’s exactly where we need to be.

Here’s some additional reading the topic of segmentation and personas:

How to Design Marketing Campaigns: The Importance of Market Segmentation by Myk Pono

The Importance Of Segmentation For Your SaaS Startup by Tom Tunguz

%d bloggers like this: