Using buyer personas to transform online marketing


For companies in the pharma sector struggling to become more 'patient-centric' and 'customer-centric' on social media, the creation of buyer personas can be transformative in helping to outline target customers and their needs, as well as enabling the marketing team to connect with clearly-defined characters.

If there's one challenge that drug companies, and the consultants, service providers and recruiters selling to them, face when marketing online, it is understanding their respective audiences. For drug companies, this is often framed as how to become more 'patient-centric' on social media. As patients have become more engaged with brands online, as care has become more personalised and the market has become more competitive, pharma companies have had to work out better ways to put patients at the centre of their marketing efforts.

While strides have clearly been made, it is an ongoing challenge.

Companies selling in to pharma, meanwhile, face the same difficulties as B2B companies in any other industry. They have to create content that appeals to their target market online, but many show a limited understanding of their clients' needs and perhaps have never even considered what these may be. Instead, too many companies prefer to post about their own internal appointments, achievements and appearances at conferences and trade shows, which are naturally of limited interest to the people they are trying to sell to.

The fact that many second- and third-tier pharma companies are even further behind on social media than Big Pharma has only exacerbated the problem, as their experience on every platform other than LinkedIn, their incentive to do 'Social' properly, and their returns, are all limited. And yet, understanding the audience remains the key to all successful marketing online. It is impossible to communicate meaningfully, let alone build valuable relationships, without a strong sense of what motivates and moves the other party to action.

How can both sets of pharma marketers develop a more sophisticated and useful sense of who their audiences are, and what material will really make a difference to them? There is a tool widely employed in other industries (particularly in the US), but rarely mentioned in the context of pharma marketing online, and that is buyer (or user) personas.

Personas are fictional representations of a company's target clients or ideal social media audience. They are more than just a quick profile; personas will have a name, a picture, a history, a family, a job, and the document (or sometimes video) bringing them to life will include the persona's 'thoughts' and 'feelings' on a variety of issues that might influence their relationship with your company.

"The point is to develop deep insights into what makes your target audience tick, and represent them in a way that is accessible to your team"


Good personas are not made up, but draw on market research, focus groups and client interviews, and additional insights from social media, existing data and your own key team members, depending on budget. The point is to develop deep insights into what makes your target audience tick, and represent them in a way that is accessible to your team.

Companies use personas to figure out what their strategy should be on social media to attract people just like them, and then refer to the personas regularly during the course of a campaign to ensure that the material they produce would appeal to them.

Why is this a useful exercise for companies in the pharma space?

1. It clarifies who you are targeting.

Many marketing programmes purporting to be audience- or customer-focused are often based on little more than guess work. Most companies, even some really big ones, think they know their target social media audience really well – but they are often wrong, basing their assumptions on outdated or incomplete information, or on outright suppositions. The process of creating buyer personas clarifies much of this.

By relying on facts, your marketing will be far more effective.

The knowledge gained through a good persona programme, incidentally, is far deeper than a simple segmentation of your audience, or what demographic information or sales data can tell you alone. Ideally, qualitative research is involved.

The emphasis is on psychological insights. For drugs companies, what are the deepest concerns and needs of the patient communities you want to reach? What are their top priorities?

And for those selling into pharma, what are the differences between clients who buy from you – and those who don't? What personal considerations might come into play? What parts of your service or product are most critical to them? Who else influences their decisions?

2. It maintains focus on the audience.

Social media teams who have personas integrated into their strategy, referring to them consistently, are more likely to keep their eye on the customer/patient ball.

3. It creates empathy with the audience.

Once you've done all the research into your audience, why not just compile it into a report? Why create a persona? Giving your target audience names, personalities and lives makes them real in a way that dry facts and figures never can be. Personas help marketers get into the heads of patients/clients, making them easier to visualise and plan for. Teams can relate to personas!

In marketing, as in public speaking, 'know your audience' is the number one rule. For companies throughout the pharma industry still struggling with this, personas could be transformative.



About the author:

Miriam Shaviv is director of content at Brainstorm Digital, a London-based agency which helps companies in pharma and healthcare find new business and clients through social media. You can reach her at

Closing thought: How clearly defined are your buyer personas?

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Linda Banks

2 September, 2014