A new process in the evolution of marketing persona development

By Scott Levine, VP, Strategy—February 12, 2014

What do you know about your buyer? Or, perhaps better questions that marketers should ask are: What don’t I know about my buyer? How can I learn as much as possible about them?

In Part One of this two-part series, I will introduce and explore The Modern Buyer’s 10-Stage Journey, which is the foundational structure that was used in the development of Progressive Persona Profiling, as Part Two will cover the Progressive Persona Profiling theory and practical applications.

Using marketing disciplines, such as segmentation and persona development, helps marketers better understand their buyer or prospect. Marketing strategists have been able to gain insights into their audience by segmentation. Segmentation is accomplished by defining criteria that segments or categorizes the audience by a single or set of variables: geographic, demographic, psychographic, generational, attitudinal, or simply traits that are specific to a product set or industry. Seeking trends within the segmented data provides information that leads to insights that marketers can leverage to better understand the buyer or prospect in order to position a product or service, craft a more relevant message, plan media buying or even plan an entire campaign.

Then came personas, which was a way to put a name and oftentimes a face on the voice of the customer. Alan Cooper, an American software designer and programmer, known best as the “Father of Visual Basic,” pioneered the use of personas as a practical interaction design tool in 1983.1 Cooper literally play acted the part of a project manager that he named “Kathy” while walking home on a golf course. He was pleased to discover that, even though some passersby were quizzical regarding his running two-person dialogue, this activity allowed him to effectively cut through complex design questions of functionality and interaction. By conversing with “Kathy,” he was able to pose questions that he believed his persona would ask, based on the profile contained within the persona he had developed.2

In 1993, the marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather presented “Customer Prints,” offering a different use for personas, other than software development, zeroing in on the marketing application of this philosophy of creating a fictional character based on data, logic and emotions that provided marketers with a clearer picture of who they are marketing to. By the year 2000, persona development and the use of personas to inform strategists had been largely adopted by most agencies and client-side marketers.

Today, personas are developed with a wealth of data unimaginable to those who first crafted these “voice of the customer” fictional characters decades ago. Yet, having had experience in conducting the research necessary to formulate personas, and actually writing dozens of them, KERN still felt that the concept of personas needed to evolve.

One of the biggest concerns that we had in using traditional personas was that they are stagnant, but buyers were not. There was no synergy between the stagnant persona and the ever-changing mindset that someone experiences as they travel through the buyer’s journey. The old tried-and-true buyer’s journey of awareness, consideration, inquiry, purchase and loyalty is also something that needed to evolve to truly capture the journey of today’s modern buyer.

In order to create a solution that addressed both the problem of a stagnant persona and an evolved modern buyer’s journey, we first set out to define a new modern buyer’s journey. Based on the rapidly changing human behavior patterns that occurred as a result of the convergence of faster connection speeds on both mobile and home devices, the accelerated adoption of online searching and sharing, and the proliferation of social networks and always-on communication abilities, KERN developed The Modern Buyer’s 10-Stage Journey.


The Modern Buyer’s 10-Stage Journey: Some may consider it presumptuous of us to define all buyer journeys for all products or services into these 10 stages. So let us begin by stating that this journey isn’t linear, and that many of these stages can be traversed in seconds or together in groups. Also, some stages, such as Stage 7: Social Research, can take place at every stage.

The more complex the service or solution, such as in large B2B marketing endeavors, the longer the buyer’s journey or buy-cycle will be. For demonstration purposes, let’s look at two distinctly different buyers with very different solutions. The first buyer is Harry, shopping at a supermarket with his wife. He falls victim to what used to be termed an “impulse buy” at the end cap of a supermarket aisle. The second buyer is Nicole, the CIO of a Fortune 500 technology company, who is responsible for the company’s IT infrastructure.

Stage 1: Distraction
Harry walks into a supermarket with his wife. She’s picking items off the shelf, and he notices a power screwdriver display on the end cap of an aisle. He stops to check it out.

Nicole is trying to find her group at an IT conference, but her cell phone battery just died. She borrows the phone of a colleague and notices that her colleague’s phone is several years old. She wonders to herself, “This phone must be five years old. Five years? That’s how old our servers are. I feel like this five-year-old phone is antiquated, so why don’t I feel the same about our server situation?”

Usually, the first brain function that allows a new thought into consideration is distraction. Perhaps it’s a story that you heard, an email that made you think, a product that a friend or coworker showed you. Or maybe you took a break to browse through the social channels and saw something that distracted you enough to make you recognize a need.

Stage 2: Recognize Need
Harry picks up the item and remembers that his power screwdriver wasn’t working well the last time he used it.

Nicole’s conference has ended, and after traveling, she’s back at her home office. She thinks again, “My servers are five years old. They’re not going to be very efficient working with our other newly planned technologies.”

Stage 3: Search for Solutions
Harry sees that the item is marked on sale for $19.95. He pulls out his cell phone and searches power screwdrivers on

Nicole searches on Google, looking for the type of servers she currently has. She reads reviews about other servers, downloads white papers, views a few dozen videos and reads comparison reviews.

Stage 4: Seek Vendor Solutions
Harry pulls up the five best sellers on the website, one of which is on display before him on the supermarket shelf. He reads the benefits of a different brand.

After a few weeks of research, Nicole meets with her executive team, asks their opinions on servers and receives several strong opinions. The team discusses their specific needs and forms a task force to investigate possible vendors that could provide the best solution.

Stage 5: Evaluate Solutions
Harry believes that the benefits of the other brand seem to be about the same as the screwdriver in the store.

Nicole’s task force reports back to the team with information regarding the vendors and their solutions for servers. The team narrows it down to two choices. Arrangements are made to have representatives of each of the two vendors come on-site to provide a demonstration, after which the team will meet again to determine their top choice.

Stage 6: Justify Solutions
Harry realizes that the screwdriver on the store’s shelf is being offered at a good price and that he won’t need to drive anywhere else or buy it online. Heck, he could be using it this afternoon!

Nicole and her executive team have met with their internal teams, their integration partners and several of their directors. They have prepared a document that justifies their selection to the C-suite.

The logical and emotional rationalizations of the purchase recommendation for a given vendor and solution arrive at Stage 6. Here is where a buyer must justify the purchase to the other decision-makers and influencers. Since, in business, people want to feel they are making logical, well-thought-out, non-emotional decisions, the facts about performance, speeds, successes, easy startup, support and satisfaction after purchase all start to be important in the decision process. However, at the same time, the human factor of personal preference, trust from interactions and trust from a company’s reputation and references. There is a saying: “We all buy emotionally, but justify logically.” It is why luxury brands can sell some cars (Mercedes) that do the same thing as another car (Hyundai) yet cost five times the price.

Stage 7: Social Research
Harry wonders what the reviews on this brand of screwdriver are, so he checks a few social review sites. Most people seem very happy with it.

Nicole and her team have checked social sites, industry sites and review sites, and have spoken with countless colleagues, both current and former, to research and inform the decision during each and every stage of their buyer’s journey.

Stage 7 is not really a destination. For the modern buyer, social research is an ongoing iterative process happening throughout the journey. We call it a stage because it makes it clear to marketers that they need to focus energy and effort on their social strategy. Specifically, how their social strategy is going to support all the other stages of the buyer’s journey to purchase and, at the same time, bring light to the fact that post-purchase social feedback is CRITICAL to the support of new-customer selling. Thus, Stage 7 sets up the focus on the content strategy to be used for social media, fueled by customer feedback and accessed by potential buyers within their social communities.

Stage 8: Cost Analysis
Harry looks up the price on (This process has become known as “showrooming.”) The supermarket is charging a dollar more than, but charges a shipping fee.

Nicole and her team have done their homework. They have provided a complete cost analysis and projections on return on investment in a detailed spreadsheet that they presented to the C-suite. After several weeks, they have received approval to move forward with the purchase.

Stage 9: Purchase
Harry places the screwdriver in the shopping cart, pays for it with his groceries and takes it home.

Nicole’s team works with the procurement division of their company to onboard the vendor, after which they can issue a purchase order. Then, they can make arrangements to introduce the new servers into their workflow, which is a carefully calculated process necessary to minimize downtime.

Stage 10: Evaluate Decision
Harry is very happy with the performance of the power screwdriver when he uses it later that afternoon. If Harry is so inclined, he may even write a review about it online.

Nicole’s company has installed and is operating the new servers, with which they are pleased. The deployment didn’t take as long as they anticipated, and now they are positioned to inform their colleagues at other companies about their experience.

Stage 10 is an often overlooked and neglected stage by the marketer. In this stage, the prospect has now turned into a customer or client. Marketing communications include all customer experience pieces, such as onboarding, customer service, upsell, cross-sell, fostering brand, product advocacy and, ultimately, building brand evangelists.

The modern buyer’s journey will be unique to each buyer for a product brand or service and the time needed to travel the journey can be years, months or minutes, as illustrated in the examples of Harry and Nicole. Harry’s complete journey took less than five or 10 minutes, while Nicole’s journey may take a year or two to fully complete.

After developing The Modern Buyer’s 10-Stage Journey, it became clear to us that traditional stagnant personas are no longer valid and we needed to provide an evolution of the persona philosophy to map the modern buyer’s journey. There is a different thought process for buyers as they move through the journey. Nicole wasn’t thinking about new servers when she was distracted; therefore, a persona describing Nicole in that specific stage isn’t valid for the entire buyer’s journey, nor is the snapshot of Nicole in any of the other nine stages.

Therefore, we have developed an evolution of persona development that we call Progressive Persona Profiling, which I will discuss in detail in Part Two. So please come back to read more in March!

1 Wikipedia: Alan Cooper:
2 The Origin of Personas: Alan Cooper:

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