Ideal Customer Profile or Sales Persona: When to Use, How They’re Different, & Why You Should Have Both

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Imagine you’re at the office and you overhear this conversation:

– The market’s changed, so we’ll need to tweak our ideal customer profile. You can take a look at Mark’s comments.

– Is that the doc Matt shared on Slack last week?

– No, that was the sales persona. You need the ICP.

– Oh… Understood.

Conversations like this aren’t uncommon. Although the ideal customer profile (ICP) and sales persona (also known as a buyer persona) are both staples for sales and marketing teams, it’s easy to confuse them, especially since they share similar goals. 

Knowing how to tell the difference is even more important in the age of AI marketing tools like AiSDR. ICP-driven and persona-driven campaigns enjoy a higher rate of conversion and engagement. 

We’ll run through the differences and similarities between ICPs and sales personas to clarify some of the confusion so that you can start using both of these powerful tools like a pro.

Ideal customer profile

An ideal customer profile (ICP) is a detailed description of the type of organization most likely to benefit from your product or service. 

An ICP serves as a roadmap for sales and marketing teams, guiding them to focus their efforts on high-value prospects. For example, if your product is intended for large corporations, the ICP clarifies the target employee count and budget that meets your requirements. This helps you narrow your efforts and prevent smaller companies from creeping in and burning resources.

An ICP typically includes the following characteristics:

  • Firmographics (company size, industry, geography, budget, revenue, etc.)
  • Behaviors (purchase frequency, average order value, preferred communication channels, decision-making processes, etc.)
  • Organization-level needs and challenges (expanding to a new market, restructuring, cost-cutting, etc.)

As can be seen, an ICP outlines an entire organization, not an individual. This is important to keep in mind if you’re operating primarily as a B2B service. The same can’t be said 100% for sales personas.

Sales persona 

In contrast to an ICP, a sales persona describes a person in detail. Even though it’s a fictional, data-driven representation of your ideal customer, it’s meant to guide your sales and marketing strategies. 

A sales persona typically includes the following:

  • Demographics (age, location, position, income level, etc.)
  • Behaviors (preferred social media, brand loyalty/switching intentions, decision-making processes)
  • Purchase motivation, needs, and pain points

Both ICPs and sales personas help you concentrate your sales and marketing efforts on prospects and leads who are most likely to become customers. But that’s not the only thing they have in common.

Similarities between ICPs and sales personas 

There are several characteristics that ICPs and sales personas share. This overlap is another big reason why many tend to use both terms interchangeably.

Customer-centric

ICPs and sales personas give insight into your customer, their needs, and their pains. By identifying and highlighting buyer traits and behaviors, your teams are better positioned to tailor inbound and outbound marketing strategies to address what your target customers are looking for.

This laser focus does have a major drawback – In essence, both ICPs and sales personas are simplified, generalized descriptions that are unable to reflect the diversity of real customers. 

As a result, not all of your prospects will match your ideal persona, but if you create a robust, accurate persona, many will. You can also mitigate this over-generalization by designing several personas for specific segments.

Data-driven

ICPs and sales personas are supposed to be crafted using real-world customer data. That means the more you know about your customers, the more accurate and effective your persona.

At the same time, developing an ICP and sales persona can prove tricky if you’re a startup without actual customers. 

Fortunately, you can satisfy the data dependency requirement by turning to industry-wide or competitor research to see who’s buying products or services similar to yours. Then, once you’ve sold your product and gained several customers, you can start fine-tuning your personas to match your customers.

Common goals

Both ICPs and sales personas serve the same overall purpose – To improve and fine-tune your sales and marketing strategies, inform your product development, and drive your business model. They put you in a better position to achieve more conversions, shorter sales cycles, and increased revenue.

Differences between ICPs and sales personas

Generally speaking, the biggest difference between an ICP and a sales persona is that an ICP describes an organization while a sales persona describes an individual.

Organization vs human focus

An ICP is company-centric. It defines the characteristics of a company that’s most likely to become your customer. An ICP won’t normally describe the characteristics of individual decision-makers within an organization. Instead, it focuses on features like company size, industry, location, and revenue.

Unlike an ICP, a sales persona is person-centric. It focuses on individual buyers or decision-makers within a company. While ICPs include organizational needs (e.g., a company needs a particular kind of software to comply with new legislation), sales personas dive into personal needs, preferences, or pain points. For example, an individual accountant looking for user-friendly software to streamline payroll operations has different needs from a large accounting firm.

There are occasions when they might be one and the same, such as single-member startups. In such cases, your startup ICP may be almost identical to the startup persona.

In most situations, you’ll use an ICP to describe the organization you want to target, then you’d create personas for each type of individual you want to target at the company.

Prospecting vs personalization

Sales teams use an ICP to help them identify the right organizations to approach so that resources are used efficiently. The closer a company reflects your ICP, the higher the probability they’ll be interested in your product. For this reason, accurate ICPs are particularly important in B2B sales and marketing.

On the other hand, sales personas are more useful for personalization than prospecting. While an ICP tells you what (“What kind of content — such as a demo, white paper, or landing page — should we create?”), a buyer persona tells you who you should write it for and the specific content to include. For example, a guide for startup founders will have a more informal and laid-back tone than a guide for corporate executives.

Account vs buyer targeting

Since ICPs provide guidance for which companies to approach, they’re ideal for account-level targeting. At the same time, sales personas enable buyer-level targeting. 

C-suite officers, department heads, and product teams at the same company all have different needs and considerations, which means you’ll need a separate sales persona for each one. But since they’re at the same company, the ICP will be the same. 

These differences are what make both ICPs and sales personas highly valuable tools for your business. ICPs enable quick lead qualification, while sales personas come in handy for fine-tuning and personalizing your sales tactics.

Create ICPs and sales personas for better sales performance

ICPs and sales personas play a key role in boosting and honing your sales and marketing strategies while enabling more efficient spend of your resources.

Even though creating ICPs and sales personas can be somewhat time and energy-intensive, the payoff is well worth it, particularly if you use marketing AI to help you out.

With AiSDR on your side, all you have to do is upload your ICPs, personas, and leads to create custom, tailored email campaigns and correspondence for each potential client.

Book a demo to see how AiSDR can craft persona-based, personalized messaging in seconds.

FAQ

When should I use an ideal customer profile instead of a sales persona?

Use an ideal customer profile when you’re looking at the big picture, like the kind of companies you want to target. Sales personas are more about the individual people at those companies. Think of it as knowing the right place to go to with the ideal customer profile, and then knowing who to contact once you’re there with the sales persona.

When should I use a sales persona instead of an ideal customer profile?

Use a sales persona when you already know where your customers work and you want to reach out to them, or when you’re mostly selling to individuals.

What are the key mistakes to avoid when creating ICPs and sales personas?

The first issue is over-relying on assumptions and guesswork. Instead, it’s better to stick to real data whenever possible. 

The second is being too vague. The more specific your persona or ICP, the better. 

Lastly, the third issue is the tendency to create the ICP or persona, then forget about them. For better performance, you need to update the documents as you gain more information.

What KPIs should I use to measure the effectiveness of my ICPs and sales personas?

Look at your conversion rates, customer acquisition costs, and customer lifetime value. These numbers will tell you if you’re hitting the mark or need to tweak your game plan.

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