Content Strategy

ICPs: Great in Theory, Broken in Practice

Jimmy Daly
August 11, 2021

All work seems to trend towards complexity. When people face burnout on the job, it’s often because simple tasks evolve to be complex, but the work’s value doesn’t increase.

It happens all the time in content marketing. We measure data points that don’t need measuring. We build complex funnels that don’t get us any closer to acquiring more customers. We fret over style guides that don’t make our work more interesting to readers. The more of this we do, the less satisfaction we derive from work and the faster we burn out.

I’ve found this to be true in every ideal customer profile/buyer persona exercise that I’ve ever participated in. What starts as a journey to deeply understand the reader veers off into corporate jargon and lifeless Powerpoint slides faster than you say, “Molly the manager is a mid-career product marketer looking to improve her team’s efficiency.”

Why does this happen?

In the context of ICPs, it happens because marketers are pretty detached from their customers. ICP exercises feel more comfortable than talking directly to customers every day. We know how to research and iterate and present, but this is mostly busywork. It’s just this kind of thing that turns a meaningful project into a dreary slog.

I surveyed the Slack community about ICPs are here are some snippets from the results:

  • How can a room of people who never interact with customers create ICPs?
  • They're the typical thing a semi-clueless higher-up will bug you with because they read about it somewhere. "We need personas. Why don't we use personas?”
  • I love them in theory. I'd also love it if they were more "alive," with data to support them. (I.e., Personas as living/breathing dashboards.) But in my experience, they're either a joke, something to hide behind, or both.

To be clear, I love ICPs in theory too. But ICPs are broken for several reasons. Customers evolve quickly. You can’t average them out without ignoring important outliers. Fictionalizing real people downplays their very real challenges. The very idea of an ICP—that a bunch of people from different backgrounds and with different skills and challenges are boiled down to a single persona—just doesn’t make sense. Are there a few common characteristics among your best customers? Sure, but you have to get comfortable with the inherent fluidity of the people you write for and sell to.

The solution is pretty simple. Rather than conducting a one-off ICP exercise then passing it along to anyone who writes for your company, I recommend establishing ongoing communication with your customers. So yes, I’m offering the most obvious marketing advice ever given (talk to your customers!), but more than that, I’m suggesting that you make it:

  • easy
  • accessible
  • frequent, and
  • expected

This gives your marketing team ongoing intel, but it’s also the simplest solution to a simple problem. It reduces busywork and keeps everyone focused on the important things.

Here are a few things that I think are better than ICP exercises to get to know your customers:

Create a  customer “Lunch and Learn” program

Marketing teams get very little face-to-face time with customers, but it shouldn’t be that way.  When I worked at QuickBooks, we had access to a new customer every week. The company would fly customers to its Mountain View headquarters on Thursdays. They got to stay in a nice hotel, enjoy a few days off, and in return, spend a day at the office so we could pick their brains. Employees could book a time to talk about anything—prototyping a new feature, getting feedback on a commercial, how often they really spoke to their bookkeeper, etc. It was hugely valuable and could easily be repeated at much smaller companies.

To start, ask a customer to make themselves available for a one-hour “lunch and learn.” Send them some good food and swag and ask them to hang out on a Zoom call for an hour. Your team can come and meet them, ask questions, get feedback, etc. Make it fun for the customer—they should feel like a celebrity for an hour—and make it fun for your team too. You may need to facilitate the first few to make sure everyone is comfortable getting on a call with people they don’t know. You’ll get the hang of it, though, and before you know it, your team will start defaulting to asking customers for direct feedback. If a question comes up in a team meeting and you can’t answer it, tell your team to ask it in the next customer call.

Over time, you might consider making these weekly sessions or even visiting customers on-site to spend more time together.

Become the customer for a day

In the early days of Animalz, founder Walter Chen made us use every product that our customers sold. Some were easy enough to adopt—an email app, a to-do list tool—but others required quite a bit of effort.

In one case, my then-coworker Jan Erik-Asplund wanted to run some Facebook Ads to learn how to use Adespresso (a Facebook Ad optimization SaaS tool). He created a series of t-shirts and then used Adespresso to run Facebook ads to sell them. He documented the experience in a four-part content series and learned all about the product in the process. He became the ICP and gained a deep understanding of all the things that Adespresso’s customers face.

Who cares if he’s a “Late 20’s male with an online business.” What about ad spend and conversation rates? Was his copy any good? Did he set up the Facebook pixel correctly on his Shopify site? And why hasn’t the designer gotten back to him with the latest ad art? There are so many things about Jan’s daily work that inform the content he could benefit from.

I recommend asking each person on your content team to run a similar exercise. Creating t-shirts to sell online is fun. Making an API call, setting up a database, or writing a few lines of SQL are more difficult for the non-technical among us. But there’s no other way to understand the customer—you have to become them, even if just for a day. So give your team a block of time to dive in and maybe some budget too. Ask that they complete one straightforward task that every customer will also do.

They’ll also gain some subject matter expertise, and that hands-on knowledge is far more valuable than any ICP document. You can’t know the customer if you don’t know the subject matter. Be the customer, know the customer!

Develop a great relationship with sales

I’ve talked about this over and over again, so I’ll summarize my own experience briefly. I spent years creating content based on keyword research, persona documents and style guides. When I got the chance to do sales at Animalz, my eyes were opened. I’d been missing this critical component—actually speaking directly to prospective customers—for my entire career. I didn’t really know them, and I didn’t really know their problems. No amount of documentation or research could have fixed this.

I built our content strategy around this idea—we called it bottom of the funnel thought leadership—and it (1) helped us develop a great content brand and (2) drove more leads than we could handle.

There are so many easy ways to integrate your work with a sales team. To start, I recommend reading Dave Kellogg’s article, Marketing Exists to Make Sales Easier. I would never have believed this until I had the chance to run both sales and marketing at Animalz. Now I believe it in my bones.

You should be meeting with your sales team at least once a month. Your whole team should have access to Gong, Chorus or any other tools to record sales calls. You should be pitching the sales team on content ideas, always looking for ways to make their lives easier. Start with low-hanging fruit like case studies, customer stories and product updates. Then help create better email sequences, update your content with terminology you hear on sales calls and look for patterns in different customer types or industries that indicate the need for new content.

Over time, it will probably make sense to codify your learnings in ICP documents. Having spent time talking directly to customers, spending time in their shoes and understanding the nuances of the sales process, you’ll be well-positioned to create something valuable for the whole team.

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