Guide to Personas are Dead, Long Live Problems

The mighty Persona. A mythical figure us marketers are told about on day one, a beloved character of every marketing framework, but also a magical creature no one has ever seen. We are obsessed with Personas. We believe that the better we know our target buyer and user, the more likely we are to get them to purchase and adopt our product.

And that’s true - but it shouldn’t be the starting point of marketing strategies. Rather, we should start with use cases and problems, and leverage Personas only as a way to enrich and implement this problem-first approach.

Let’s look at the why and how to in this blog.

The four reasons why you should start with problems and not Personas

1. You may be missing the market

Focusing on a particular Persona without analysing the problem at large may lead you to a wrong market altogether.

If you assume that the target market of a cigar company are cigar smokers, you’ll be wrong. Custom Tobacco catered towards cigar smokers but they were getting barely any orders. Two key insights helped them pivot: (1) cigar smokers were extremely brand conscious and loyal; and (2) the orders that they were getting came from gift givers and event planners. Turns out their target audience were not the smokers, but people buying cigars for them as a gift. This completely changed how Custom Tobacco was developing and marketing cigars.

“Not only were we not solving a problem for [cigar smokers], but if a problem did exist, we would not be the solution.”

Adam Mendler, Founder of Custom Tobacco

2. The only thing Personas may have in common is their problem

Another issue with Personas is that sometimes, the problem they want to solve may be the only trait they share.

My dad has had the same haircut since he was born - a buzz cut that, at first, his mum, and now my mum could whip out in five minutes. Yet, he has been using my hair ties.

My dad still proudly proclaims he fits into his wedding trousers 35 years on. But his age and waist are growing in unison. He doesn’t really fit into his wedding trousers, but he cleverly uses a hair tie to make the waist of the trousers more elastic.

Demographically, we are very different, my dad and I. Yet we have a common need: to tie something together.

“While your customers do come in all shapes and sizes and across all different verticals and all types of industries, the one thing they do have in common is the job they need to get done.”

Matt Hodges, Former VP of Commercial Product Strategy, Intercom

From a marketing perspective, it is very hard to develop impactful messaging that would speak to both my dad and me unless it focuses on the trait we have in common: our need.

3. Personas don’t help you expand, problems do

If you are looking to expand, focusing on problems will get you further than focusing on Personas.

Paid channels are a key strategy to acquire new customers. The best performing approach of paid channels is lookalike audiences - taking your existing audiences and users as a model of acquiring new ones. While this may get you net new customers, you are still fishing in the same waters, and eventually, you will hit the shore with nowhere to expand.

On the other hand, going down the path of problems and use cases will get you further. Let’s use Splitwise as an example. The original use case of Splitwise was to enable flatmates to split bills easily. To expand, Splitwise started analysing other markets and potential users who may also need to split bills. They ended up expanding to travel companions. Quite different from the original Personas, but very similar in terms of the problem they were facing.

4. Personas don’t think demographically

One of the Personas we are using is “Budget Owner,” anyone in charge of a budget, however big or small. One of my marketing colleagues is a perfect incarnation of that Persona. Until she told me “I don’t consider myself a Budget Owner, it sounds a lot more senior than what my role is.” This was eye-opening - using the term in our messaging could actually detract the very people I want to target! Once I started describing the challenges and goals this Persona has, she self-identified as a “Budget Owner”.

This extends to how Personas look for the product. You don’t Google: “A white-collar 40-year old man who loves camping is looking for a fishing rod"—> you would Google “Fishing rod to catch cods.”

Develop a problem-based GtM enriched by Personas

A more successful approach follows four phases:

  • Identify the problem you are solving using the Jobs to Be Done framework;
  • Determine Personas with these problems and segment the ones you want to focus on;
  • Build your GtM strategy by focusing on the problem you are solving;
  • Leverage Personas to make your GtM targeted towards the right acquisition tactics and messaging
Your prospect is not a person with characteristics. Your prospect is a person with a problem. The characteristics of that person do not matter, except insofar as they drive a particular type of problem.

Nils Davis, product management consultant, for ProductBoard

In the rest of this blog, I’d love to focus on the first step, i.e., how to define the problems and needs, by using the Jobs to Be Done (“JTBD”) framework.

The framework has been around for a while but mainly used by product managers and designers. Marketers haven’t embraced the JTBD to the degree it deserves - it is powerful for product positioning and informing GtM strategies.

There are three key parts to it: the job to be done, a desired outcome statement, and analysis of unmet needs. Let’s look at each in turn.

Jobs to Be Done

The name Jobs to Be Done may sound foreign to you, but I bet that the phrase “Customers don’t want a drill, they want a hole in the wall” will ring a bell. That goes to the heart of the concept: a user hires a product or a service for a specific “Job”, i.e. to achieve a specific goal.

JTBD is a framework for mapping out your customers’ needs and the goals they want to accomplish. By shifting focus away from the product to the customer need, the JTBD framework unlocks new opportunities for innovation and disruption.

A JTBD is defined at two levels:

Job to Be Done Statement

At the high level, we start with an overall statement of what the user is trying to accomplish, describing the context, the job, and the ideal outcome.

For example: When I leave my bike unattended (context), I want to be sure no one will steal it (job), so that I can relax (outcome).

The outcome can be emotional (I want to feel a certain way), social (I want to be perceived a certain way) or functional (e.g., I need it faster or cheaper than currently possible).

The statement is solution-agnostic - note it is NOT “When I leave my bike unattended, I want to lock it with a bike lock, so that I can relax.” Rather, we are focusing on the goal - that the bike is not stolen - which leads to innovation around the goal, theft prevention in this particular case.


Job Map

At the second, detailed level, we create a Job Map, i.e., we break the Job to Be Done into eight distinct steps and activities a user has to complete to achieve their goal (a detailed explanation can be found here).


Desired Outcome Statement

The JTBD and each step within the Job Map can be accompanied by multiple Desired Outcome Statements, describing what the user sees as a measure of success.

There’s a formula to structuring the Desired Outcome Statement because it has to be measurable: Direction of improvement (e.g., minimize, increase) + Performance metric (e.g., time, likelihood) + Outcome + Context of the outcome (see Tony Ulwick’s post).

For example: “Reduce the number of items I have to carry around to protect my bike when I leave it unattended.”


Unmet Needs

Once we have mapped the JTBD and desired outcomes, we can understand where the opportunities lie, and where existing solutions are underserving customers. We can simply uncover this by asking customers two questions: “How important is this for you?”, and “To what degree are you satisfied with the existing solutions?”

Bringing it all together in your marketing strategy

The various aspects of the JTBD gives you the answers to your key questions around positioning and GtM. Now you know what the customer is trying to solve, what matters to them, and whether existing solutions and alternatives are sufficiently meeting their needs. For example, using this methodology, Coloplast found that most of the underserved needs for its wound care products related to preventing healing complications - while competitors focused on the speed of healing. This differentiation led to a quick double-digit growth.

Additional resources

  • See how Intercom leveraged JTBD framework across it marketing
  • Read more on how to develop your JTBD here or here