While a good set of personas can provide a detailed picture of your target audience, knowing who should NOT be attracted to your marketing can be just as valuable.

There’s one hoary old marketing maxim that always holds true: Try to appeal to everyone and you’ll appeal to no one.

Of course, this is why marketers develop customer personas, allowing them to refine their strategies, campaigns and content to efficiently target those audiences more likely to connect, click and convert: that is, connect with your message, click on your link and convert into a sale. 

But this assumes that, once created, those personas don’t sit forgotten on the company’s shared drive, never to be referred to again. (I can’t tell you how often this has been my experience.)

And then there are those personas that are far too vague and generic to be of any practical use. They’re peppered with such unhelpful demographic information as “aged 18-65”, or contain a laundry list of job titles and other characteristics that bear little similarity to each other. They’re full of Barnum statements that, like the daily Horoscope, appear to describe specific behaviours or characteristics – wow, this is ME! – but actually apply to just about anyone with a pulse.

The usual justification for this kind of non-persona is that “almost anyone might be in the market for our product”. And that may be true. But it also completely misses the point of what customer personas are supposed to achieve.

However, there’s another reason why going after everyone is a bad idea – one that often goes unspoken in marketing circles because it seems so counterintuitive. 

You don’t necessarily want everyone as a customer.

Yes, you read that right. There are some customers you really don’t want to market to.

You don’t necessarily want everyone as a customer.

Dream and nightmare customers

You may have already created 3-5 personas that describe your typical customers and illustrate their primary use cases. These personas most likely represent the majority of your customer-base and are the routine lifeblood of your business.

But while each of these personas tell a useful story, there are other stories that also need telling.

The dream customer

A particularly useful persona would be one that describes your ideal or dream customer – representing the greatest potential value to the business. 

A dream customer might be effortless to convert, big spending, low maintenance, possibly even well-connected so that they’re effectively an unpaid influencer generating more high-quality leads for the brand. You definitely want more of these.

This is the positive persona. Not only might this persona help you to target and acquire more valuable customers, it may also provide clues to how you might nurture some of your existing-but-typical customers into dream clients with the right approach.

The nightmare customer

At the other end of the spectrum are those customers who represent the greatest potential headaches to your business. 

A nightmare customer might be difficult to please, big on complaints and generally stress-inducing. Or they might simply be high maintenance and low spending, tying up resources and monopolising attention while delivering a much lower return. Both are potentially damaging to your business. Depending on your business model you may have your own definition.

This is the negative persona.

Researching and documenting your negative persona reveals the characteristics and behaviours you might want to avoid appealing to in your marketing. The information may help you to further refine your other personas, reducing any overlap that might lead to your messaging and marketing campaigns inadvertently reaching and resonating with the wrong audience. 

Sharpening your target audience

One product that clearly illustrates the difference between these dream or positive personas and nightmare or negative personas would be car insurance. Anyone with a car needs car insurance, right? So that’s an incredibly wide and diverse group of potential customers. 

But a car insurance company doesn’t want to increase its share of all possible customers. It wants to increase its share of high value customers. Let the low value/high maintenance customers go somewhere else.

And what determines whether someone is a high value or low value car insurance customer? The likelihood of them making insurance claims.

I’m betting you’ve never seen an insurance advert targeting teenagers driving around in their first bomb of a car. You’ve probably never seen an insurance advert aimed at pizza delivery drivers either, rushing through traffic in all weathers and often at night to get your supreme vegelicious deluxe (hold the anchovies) to your door before the garlic bread goes cold. 

Both still need car insurance. Both would still be personas representative of potential buyers. But both also represent an increased risk to the insurance company. 

Instead, car insurance ads are full of older, experienced and careful drivers making claims for unfortunate accidents that don’t appear to be their fault. For instance, Youi adverts often showcase people qualifying for lower premiums because their car stays in the garage most of the week. Very low risk.

A classic example is this AAMI advert from 2009-10. The “What About Me” campaign poked fun at bad drivers – the negative personas – while celebrating drivers who never make a claim.

The advert even highlights that all of the drivers have car insurance – but the message is designed to resonate only with the brand’s ideal or positive persona – experienced, careful, responsible car owners.

Creating positive and negative personas

The first step to creating your personas is to consider your existing customer base. 

Who are your best customers? This might not be solely based on the size of their spend but also lifetime value, churn rate and the amount of effort it takes to keep them happy. 

Then crunch your data to identify your typical negative or nightmare customer. These are the clients that make you work harder for less gain. 

By analysing these nightmare customers, you may hopefully identify some common characteristics or predictors that differ from those of your dream customers. If so, you have the beginnings of your negative and positive personas.

For example, reviewing your complaint logs might reveal that most are related to the same industry or concern a particular use case – whereby you might want to avoid highlighting that use case in your future marketing. (You might also want to investigate why that particular use case isn’t delivering as expected.) 

Or you might discover that the majority of customers logging support calls share some of the same demographic characteristics – such as elderly users requiring regular time-consuming help to use your product or service.

I’m not saying that you should turn these customers away or even become biased against certain demographics in society. But what a negative persona allows you to do is reduce the chances of your marketing efforts attracting too many of these customers that might eventually eat into your bottom line.

If you can reduce the percentage of nightmare customers in your database while increasing the percentage of dream customers – through acquisition or by nurturing or educating your otherwise typical customers – your business will be much healthier as a result.