Believing that buyer personas and target audiences are the same is a common mistake in today's marketing world. Even though related they are two different pillars to create a holistic customer centric strategy within the organization. In fact, target audiences are a basic, superficial approach to categorize audiences of customers whereas well defined personas allow marketers to get a proper understanding of who the customers really are. One could say: "Personas are archetypes of customer within a target audience or simplified, target audience is the wrapping, personas are the actual content."

But let us have a closer look.

The definition of target audiences and buyer personas

Target audience definition

Target audience may be defined pretty quickly based on internal data providing a very broad overview of a company's customer base. They offer companies a first guidance for product development, marketing and sales.
A target audience usually includes demographic and psychographic traits.
A quickly defined target audience could be for instance middle aged men, high income, based in the US.
This information could quickly be gathered by simply looking at your product characteristics - e.g. High-end sustainable briefcases/messenger bags for men with a classic design.
Some companies put more effort in defining the target audience which means that the differentiation to actual personas decreases. But again, this is dependent on one's personal definition of the two. As you will see below the first five demographic traits are separated with a line. Further down it will be explained why.

Demographic Traits

  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 28-60 years old
  • Location: United States/Canada
  • Income: 80 - 140k
  • Education: University degree
  • Occupation: Lawyer
  • Relationship Status: Single

Physiographic Traits

  • Interests: Travel, Fashion, Business
  • Lifestyle: fast moving, career driven
  • Values: Success, Power, hard work
  • Personality: direct, conservative
  • Activities: Gym, Reading, Travel

The first five demographic traits are easily defined because they are obvious based on the product. Example briefcases/messenger bags: The Briefcases/messenger bags are used by men, due to the classic design they better suit middle aged to the older generation and due to the high price it required a substantial income to be able to afford them. In order to get a well paid job you usually need to have a University degree- easy right?
However, all additional demographic and especially physiographic traits require a deeper understanding of the customer base. Surveys, social listening, customer feedback or customer profiles help to gather these information.
Therefore, by doing the research you automatically move into the process of persona creation. Within that process, you might realize that a certain amount of handbags/messenger bags are actually purchased by the younger generation driven by trend or other market conditions and/or given to them as a Christmas or Birthday gift from affluent parents - suddenly a whole new target audience is created.

Marketing or buyer persona definition

Personas are the breakdown of a company’s customer target audience, representing archetypes of customers within the target audience with clearly defined characteristics and differences. They allow product development, marketing and sales to alter the communications and the product itself to meet the exact demands of the customers. Buyer persona creation is basically the process of turning a anonymous customer into a real person that you feel you know for ages. Apart from his name, his face, or what he does in life you really understand how that person feels and what he thinks. This allows you to empathize with the customer and address his needs in a targeted fashion.
Even though a persona includes demographic traits as well the idea is to create a story behind the customer in order to feel the client rather than just see him.
Let us take the physiographic traits “running” (activities) and career driven (lifestyle) as an example. Rather than just listing the traits create a story such as:
Ray Runner, 45 years old, wakes up at 5:45 every morning in order to prepare himself for the day and to enjoy the quiet mornings when everybody else is still asleep. He puts on his sport shoes, leaves the house and starts his 5k run. He enjoys listening to classical music to focus his mind and to plan his day.

Holistic view

To underline the importance of clear defined personas, let us look closer at the use case for the handbags. Imagine you are a producer of high end, classic, sustainable handbags for women. You have a solid customer base and been in the market for over 15 years. In order to expand the product range you are planning to create handbags/messenger bags for men now.. So who are your new customers?
It is pretty obvious that you:

Target men Due to the high price of the handbags/messenger bags, the customer needs to have a substantial income
You want to focus on the US and Canada
Due to the classic look of the handbags it better suits middle-aged/older business men rather than the young generation that prefers big names and flashy designs over quality or factors like sustainability.
Now ask yourself - does this allow you to create a proper marketing plan and sales strategy? To help you answer the question, let us have a look at the size of the facebook audience reflecting these characteristics.

You end up with roughly 5.5 million potential clients for such a niche product just in the US and Canada. Without burning through a lot of money it will not be possible to reach and address the different needs of the potential customer to convince them of the product. Needless to say, preferences, interests or way of life differ drastically from a 28 year of to a 55 year old.
In order to create a proper marketing plan and sales strategy you need to get a better grip of the prospects within the target audience. Problem is, without following a data driven approach all other characteristics such as detailed demographics, needs, interests, tasks, fears, triggers and emotions are just guesswork. This is always dangerous because the assumptions are often driven by personal preferences, feelings or experience.
Assumption based personas will narrow down the target audience but might cause misguidance for marketing and sales, simply because they are wrong and thereby do more harm than good.
Challenge is, in order to create proper personas , a significant investment in resources is required. In case the executive level gives you the task to create personas but is not willing to provide you with the adequate resources, it is time to educate them on the danger false personas may cause.

Top down vs. bottom up approach

It is common that companies first define a target audience and then create personas within the target audience. This might be a logical thing to do but bears the risk to exclude customer audiences that are not so obvious at the first glance. When creating a target audience you basically create a box, and the personas need to fit in that box, no matter what.
One often gets the advice: “Look at your customer base and it will be easy to create personas accordingly”. That is problem because you will miss to think outside the box you created in the beginning. You potentially miss whole target audiences by doing that simply because certain target audiences are not yet reflected in your current customer base.
In a perfect world, all the different personas for your product should form the target audience not the other way around.

Summing up, well defined target audiences and buyer personas are key for every corporation that is striving for customer centricity which is essential for being successful in today's highly competitive markets. However, make sure you use the right approach, educate your colleagues about the goals and outcome and do not base your analysis on gut feeling or own preferences. Look at the data you have, if you do not have enough own data, find public available data you can base your personas on. Do not create the "box" too early and try to think outside of it.