The purple squirrel of personas is the ideal customer whose buying needs and issues happen to exactly match your company’s capabilities and offering.

In the employment recruiting industry, there’s an expression about hunting the “purple squirrel” – the ideal candidate who has the exact qualifications, experience and education that match the job position’s requirements. After being hired, this person could step into the job right away, fit in with the company culture and deliver immediate value to the business. As you can imagine, the purple squirrel is rare – and might not even exist, given the complexity and subjectivity of human nature and organizational culture.

In a recent workshop on audience-centric marketing, I led a client team in defining the target buyer personas for their business line. First, we established a shared understanding of key persona attributes. For persona knowledge to be a valuable input into marketing strategy and deliverables, you first must aggregate the target persona around job role, and then define the persona’s buying needs, initiatives and challenges, level of buying engagement, content preferences and watering holes. With everyone using the same persona framework and template, we broke the group into teams and assigned target personas at the executive, management and operational level.

Purple Squirrel

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So, where does the purple squirrel come in? This colorful creature reared its head early in the exercise, as teams described the elusive perfect persona. The purple squirrel of personas is the ideal customer whose buying needs and issues happen to exactly match your company’s capabilities and offering. Their initiatives and challenges can be addressed with all of your product’s features and they will realize all the solution benefits that you tout.

We know that this perfect persona is impossible to find, but we start thinking about this customer when we project our internal views on what we think the buying audience is experiencing or would want. For example, consider offerings around business mobility or data analytics. A chief mobility strategist or chief data scientist would be ideal persona roles, and engaging with them would be nirvana for the vendors selling those offerings. But in real life, the number of people in these roles is probably very limited. In nascent business or technology areas, not many organizations are mature enough to have the exact functional roles who represent the ideal persona.

So, workshop participants were told to not waste time on the purple squirrel persona, but instead to identify target personas that are real and exist in significant numbers. To continue with the examples of business mobility and data analytics, heads of technology or IT might deal with mobility and data issues, even if these are not their primary areas of focus. At an operational level, an IT manager might not have responsibility for the organization’s overall digital strategy, but he or she is struggling to overcome related challenges every day.

The lesson of the purple squirrel is to be careful about defining an ideal persona that doesn’t exist or is rare. Focus on what’s real in the marketplace. If executive strategists are few, focus on the numerous tacticians and line-of-business folks trying to get the best results every day. What are their struggles, and how can you help them?

Once you understand these real personas, you can avoid messaging over their head about a theoretical ideal state, and instead create messaging that explains how you can help them today – and partner with them to make progress as the market evolves.