We frequently talk about how buyer persona insights add value to sales, messaging and content, but how does that work in a company with more than a thousand marketers around the globe? Over the last two and a half years, we’ve had the opportunity to explore that challenge with SAP.
We started with a clear business objective – ensure that global campaigns would engage strategic audiences in targeted buying centers and be implemented effectively by any SAP marketer throughout the world.
In Spain, Germany, France, and each of the 188 countries where SAP supplies software, marketers work with finite budgets to achieve all of the same goals as any marketer. To simplify marketing and conserve funds they want to leverage these global campaigns, but they need to have confidence that they will drive results with their own country’s buyers.
You might think that our next step was to conduct buyer persona research in each of these regions. However, we were concerned about scalability and, more critically, knew that the differences among buyers in different parts of the world, while relevant for certain tactical activities, would be unlikely to affect the SAP core messaging and marketing content.
So we started by building personas and extracting insights based on interviews in North America. Then the global marketing team used them to guide development of campaign materials including email copy, infographics and videos.
The next step is where things really got interesting. For its demand generation campaigns, selected SAP marketers work together in a virtual team that includes participants with different functional responsibilities plus field marketers from key countries. In online meetings, we presented the buyer persona insights to each virtual team, fielding questions and comments about the findings. We gave the marketers in Latin America a chance to look at the personas and say “does that look like the kind of things we’re hearing in our part of the world?” The marketing teams had the opportunity to think about the buyers in their regions before they decided if the messaging resonated and which campaigns to build.
Over the next year, SAP will conduct quantitative research to validate the buyer persona insights in some of the countries, bolstering confidence in the insights and identifying regions where more qualitative research will be needed.
I’m thrilled to be speaking with Joan Sherlock, VP of Marketing for Worldwide Marketing Programs at SAP, at Content Marketing World this September 9th in Cleveland. We’ll talk about results of this program to date plus the exciting new ways that buyer personas will be used at SAP in the next year. We hope to see you there.
This disturbing data was reported in a recent ITSMA study. The sample size was relatively small and limited to the services marketing sector, but I’m seeing indicators that this is a widespread issue.
The problem seems to have little to do with the skills needed to leverage buyer personas. Instead, marketers appear to have latched onto a cookie-cutter format for presenting buyer personas, while missing the fact that building them requires unique research. Too many people are simply recycling existing data or pushing out surveys, which virtually ensures that their buyer personas won’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.
Simply put, these buyer personas lack the breadth and depth of insight that is needed to establish the persona as an authority on the decisions marketers need to make. So nothing changes.
An insight, by definition, reveals new information. It’s something you don’t already know. When I see people recommending that marketers build their buyer personas with readily available or insider data, my hackles rise.
Sure, surveys are a quick and easy way to do research, but it’s impossible to get new information from their multiple choice, question and answer format. They’re better suited for validating and quantifying existing knowledge, assumptions or trends.
Other people believe they can build buyer personas from information provided by their marketing automation solutions. These systems contain a lot of useful data about what actions buyers took (among other things), but they don’t reveal why, for example, the buyer responded to a particular marketing piece or sales offer, or what other information would lead that buyer to eliminate a competitor from consideration.
It’s only through a real-time dialogue, through listening to each buyer’s story and posing questions based on their answers, that you can ferret out new insights: What triggers the buyer’s engagement, his barriers to purchase, or which criteria the buyer uses to evaluate competing solutions – to name just a few of the insights that actionable buyer personas reveal.
Buyer personas based on surveys or existing data are built in an echo chamber where the same theses are endlessly repeated.
To make it easy to share buyer persona best practices with other marketers, we’ve created a new infographic. I’m hoping that people who see it will begin to understand the value of listening to buyers. We want marketers to realize that buyer personas are incomplete when they end with a profile of a person, and that deep buying insights require interviews with the real people they want to influence.
Once these insights are communicated through buyer personas, marketers will have no trouble putting them to work for effective content marketing, messaging, and sales enablement, to name just a few.
I hope you will attend my session at Content Marketing World, where I’ll share the stage with SAP marketing vice president Joan Sherlock. We’ll show you how SAP is using buyer personas to effectively influence a global audience of marketers and buyers. I look forward to seeing you and meeting you there.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Content Marketing World blog.
There’s a wonderful Mark Twain quote that goes like this “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
One of the most compelling aspects of buyer personas is their ability to identify the words that inspire buyers to take action. In a content marketing sea of buzzwords, jargon and “me too-ness”, marketers who can say something non-obvious and meaningful have a real competitive advantage.
Here’s an example. I recently arrived early for lunch with a business associate and noticed a Tommy Bahama store next door. Curious, I drifted in and immediately caught the eye of a salesperson who said, “I’ll be right with you, I’m with another guest right now.”
That’s brilliant. If you’re marketing a brand that wants to inspire buyers to spend north of $100 on a Hawaiian shirt, you need to change their mood. By training their sales people to say “guest” instead of “customer”, Tommy Bahama evokes the attitude of a carefree vacation where buyers might actually indulge in such an extravagance.
IBM is the source of a similar example. In 2002, when they bought Price Waterhouse Cooper’s consulting business, they made the deliberate decision to drop the term customers and start referring to clients. The logic? While customers engage in a single sales transaction, clients are involved in a much longer, strategic relationship.
A fascinating article on Salon last week talks about how language influences people’s perception of reality. Cognitive scientist Lena Boroditsky has conducted multiple experiments on words and the emotions they inspire. I thought this one was especially relevant:
“In a series of experiments by Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city and answer questions about the city. The researchers then assessed how people answered the questions based on whether crime was described as a beast or a virus. In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read crime described as a beast. When the metaphor was changed to virus, the number dropped to 54 percent.”
Can you imagine achieving a 17% improvement by changing just one word?
While these examples are simple in the retelling, they all began with something that isn’t the least bit easy — choosing the words that will fundamentally alter their audience’s experience. One of the best reasons to build buyer personas is to uncover the insights that clarify those words, and make it possible to rally internal stakeholders around that decision even if it challenges cherished opinions.
This post is contributed by Gordana Stok, a Certified Practitioner of the Buyer Persona Institute methodology.
Last year I decided to learn how to develop buyer personas so that I could become a better content marketer. Having practiced the craft of content marketing for over a decade, I was no stranger at producing content that helps buyers to make a more informed and educated purchasing decision. And, until a year ago, I honestly thought that I was communicating value from the buyer’s perspective.
But when the value proposition that I had helped to create for one of my B2B clients was canned by their new VP of Sales and Marketing, I started to question the very process marketers use and the people who get involved. It wasn’t until I came across an ebook from Buyer Persona Institute that I truly understood the problem.
Like many marketing teams, we had reverse-engineered the product’s value based on its top features and unique selling points – not necessarily on what’s most important to buyers. So when the new VP challenged our value proposition, we couldn’t back up any of our claims with hard data. It became one person’s opinion versus another’s. And guess whose opinion won?
With the term “reverse-engineering” ringing loudly in my ears, I signed up for the Buyer Persona Institute Masterclass and became a Certified Practitioner of the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ methodology. Having now worked on buyer personas for several companies and interviewed dozens of decision-makers, here are the six most important and surprising things that I have learned so far.
1. You need to win both the hearts and minds of buyers – even in a complex B2B sale.
The first thing that surprised me is just how willing and eager buyers are to reveal details about their buying journey around a specific product – especially when there was a lot at stake for them and their organization. When asked the right questions, buyers will share both the cold hard facts and requirements that shaped their purchasing decision, as well as the doubts, fears, relief, confidence and joy they experienced as they went from status quo to successful implementation. When you hear senior business executives at multi-billion dollar organizations express such strong emotion, you realize you need to do more than just appeal to their intellect. You need to win both their hearts and minds.
2. You can capture a wealth of actionable insights conducting 30-minutes interviews with just 10 buyers.
I’m always amazed when I review the transcripts from the recorded interviews with buyers and I first bring all the quotes into Excel to analyze the data. Conducting 30-minute interviews with just 10 buyers can easily generate over 350 revealing quotes! The key, of course, is to carefully interpret each one, identify the most significant trends and select the strongest quotes to include in the final buyer persona. An art unto itself! The quotes that make the cut are those that provide new or thought provoking insights as well as enough details so that a clear plan of action can be taken. So unlike the “buyer personas” that are created based on generic, demographic data, the insights from interview-based personas provide a real competitive advantage.
3. Only a fraction of what’s important to buyers is typically addressed on a company’s website.
It goes without saying that when you hear buyers express their pain points and needs in their own words, along with the criteria they use to evaluate solution options and make their final purchasing decision, it becomes crystal clear what information they need and how to message them. What I’m repeatedly surprised by, however, is just how far off-course a company’s content can be without these insights. In my experience, only 20% to 40% of what buyers consider to be important is actually addressed on a company’s website. The good news for marketers is that buyer quotes can easily be turned into benefit statements and inspire topics for numerous content marketing pieces. As the President of Buyer Persona Institute, Adele Revella, likes to say, “The content practically writes itself”.
4. Buyers want more in-depth product information so the length of content isn’t as important as relevance and clarity.
Being a content marketer at heart who loves to build understanding and influence people’s views, this is one of my favorite findings from interviewing buyers. When researching solution options, buyers quickly scan a company’s website to determine whether it has a solution worth investigating, so content needs to be brief. But when buyers are seriously considering a solution, they want in-depth case studies, white papers and technical briefs that enable them to assess whether the solution will work in their environment and generate the expected results. Length of content during this phase in the buying journey is not as important as relevance and clarity. What’s more, you can’t possibly create a persuasive argument for purchasing your solution if your argument has holes or isn’t backed by credible data. So go ahead and increase the word count to make sure you’re not disqualified due to insufficient information or a weak argument.
5. Buyers want companies to make it easier for them to evaluate and compare competitive solution options and demonstrate ROI.
One of the questions that I love to ask buyers during interviews is “How could the companies that you considered have made the buying experience easier for you?” The top two responses from buyers, regardless of the product category, industry, size of the buyer’s organization or the buyer’s title, are “Make it easier for me to evaluate and compare competitive solution options” and “Help me to demonstrate the ROI to my executive team”.
The most common complaint buyers have is that it’s difficult to compare solution options because every company uses a different marketing term to mean the same thing. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Buyers want a company’s website to include a chart that compares their solution’s features with the competition’s using more neutral terms. Buyers realize that the chart will be skewed in favor of the company’s solution, but they still feel it’s a good starting point for evaluating solutions.
Furthermore, buyers need to demonstrate return on investment to their executive team in order to get final sign-off, so any information or tools that a company can provide is extremely helpful. This includes industry research reports that demonstrate the impact the solution category has on an organization’s business and ROI figures tailored specifically for their organization.
6. After experiencing the power of interview-based, buyer personas first-hand, I can’t imagine doing content marketing without it.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but I honestly don’t know how I managed to do content marketing effectively without buyer personas. My perspective has completely changed and I hope to never have to go back to guessing what messages will resonate with buyers or relying solely on the opinions of internal stakeholders. I realize that not all companies may be ready or willing to embark on a buyer persona project for a variety of reasons. But when I work with clients nowadays, my advice to them is this: You can’t know with absolute certainty what’s important to buyers and what information you need to persuade them to purchase your solution until you ask them.
I like to learn about marketing in unexpected places. The U.S. presidential campaigns are especially fascinating because they represent a “high consideration” decision where, like many B2B products, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until the deal is done and you “install the solution”.
This isn’t a political blog, but the parallels between political and solution marketing are compelling.
Consider the fact that the goal of every marketing campaign is to shape perception, and then watch closely as well-funded political marketing machines go to work to convince us that their candidate is an exact match for our expectations around policy and personality.
The majority of votes cast in the American system align candidates in a particular party, so the fraction remaining are referred to as “swing” or undecided voters. The 1996 Presidential elections were centered around a very specific kind of swing voter: the “soccer mom.”
“Soccer moms” were, in short, middle-income working mothers with little time in their day in between their careers and their families. Certainly there were many other personas in the voting ranks and many other swing voters. If you look hard enough, you’ll find references to NASCAR Dads, among others. But in 1996, the Clinton marketing team realized that soccer moms had the power to put their man in the nation’s most important office (or not). So they allocated a disproportionate share of their marketing to campaigns that persuade the soccer mom persona.
Another important note is that the soccer mom was still very relevant to the outcome of the election in 2000. But by the 2004 Presidential elections, strategists knew that the “soccer mom” persona had changed. With the cataclysmic events of 2001, terrorism on American soil was a reality. Fears of anthrax in the mail and future attacks transformed the “soccer mom” into the “security mom.” These were still the same people, demographically – but their motivations and concerns were different. They were worried about the safety and security of their children in this newly scary world. And it would take entirely new messaging to reach them – messaging that the Bush campaign successfully delivered.
If you’re a B2B marketer who has been concerned about building buyer personas for every influencer you can think of, take a page from the political marketer’s lesson book. Focus on the buyer who is most likely to swing the vote your way, and don’t be surprised if she changes as a result of significant shifts in market, economic or political conditions.
One of the life experiences I credit most for teaching me about marketing was the five years I spent in sales. I came to that job in a roundabout way – a division of Wells Fargo Bank wanted a paperless office and asked me to make that happen. I knew nothing about technology (and ultimately failed to create paperless-ness) but I quickly fell in love with computers.
My boss at that company helped too, giving me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received. He told me “You’ve got to love the core business you’re in or you’ll never get ahead.” I hated the core business I was in (banking), so I cut bait and started trying to find a job as a salesperson in a technology company.
My first assignment was a sales “overlay” position that focused on winning more business from the current customer base. I loved it and grew revenue by 300%, but the reps weren’t happy that someone else was making money from their customers. Management didn’t want to irritate the reps, so they eliminated my position and offered me a job in marketing.
Fast forward ten years, and in another company I spent four years in charge of both sales and marketing teams.
So while I consider myself a marketer, those five years in sales helped me see that several aspects of the way we differentiate the two roles is illogical and costly.
1. Sales and marketing are both about persuasion. The sales person’s job is to persuade one buyer at a time, while the marketer’s job is to persuade markets full of buyers.
When I was in sales, it was marketing’s job to get a buyer to notice us, and then it was my job to persuade that buyer to choose us. This was a great division of labor, because it’s way more difficult to persuade a market full of buyers than one at a time. But today’s buyers have changed the rules, navigating 60% to 80% of their decision before they talk to a salesperson. Companies that haven’t made the shift to persuasive marketing risk elimination before the salespeople have a chance to do their job.
2. Salespeople have the opportunity, permission and training to listen to buyers before they build a strategy to persuade them. Marketers have none of these things.
As a sales rep, I learned to dedicate the first part of every sales call to listening to my buyer, gaining real insight into that account’s needs and expectations. Then it was my job to describe our solution in a way that established a perfect fit between that buyer’s needs and our product. Go tell sales management that you want their reps to stop listening to buyers before they sell to them, and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. But everyone expects marketers to do just that.
3. Sales people have to optimize their time to persuade buyers to buy now, but marketers have to optimize their investments to build pipeline for the future.
By the time I started running sales, I completely understood the importance of marketing. However, it wasn’t long before all of my time and attention shifted to the salespeople. Faced with the urgency of meeting this month’s numbers, our longer-term investments suffered. I learned that it’s really difficult to balance short and long term priorities, and that marketing metrics need to focus on results that impact the next quarter or next year, even if this seems less tangible.
4. While there are dozens of things that every good sales person learns about each buyer, the ability to be persuasive hinges on just 5 key insights.
When I decided to help marketers understand their buyer personas, I knew that many of the things I learned about buyers in sales only worked when I had the opportunity to build a strategy to persuade one buyer at a time. It was easy to see that tracking all of these distinctions about buyers would cause a lot of confusion and far too many different strategies. So I started thinking about what really helped me to be a persuasive sales rep, and that’s how the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ became the foundation of buyer personas.
5. Despite everything you’ve heard about price, the company that wins the buyer’s trust wins their business.
The solutions I had to sell were invariably more expensive than our competition. So we didn’t win on price. We competed for the buyer’s business by being the best listeners and using our insights to persuade buyers that we were best qualified to meet their expectations. Now that buyers can avoid sales contact for so long, a lot of that responsibility belongs to the marketing team.
I think it’s fair to say that when I was in sales, we had a lot more impact on the outcome of a deal than the reps I know today. And because this change is driven by buyers who have ready access to the information they think they need, this trend is unlikely to reverse itself. It’s time for marketers to gain the deep buyer insights that have always been the foundation of successful sales.
I was recently reminded of a very interesting experiment that two cognitive psychologists conducted in 1999. In it, they tasked a group of people with watching people pass basketballs around, counting how many times the people in the white shirts passed to one another. Here, you can try it yourself.
How many times did you count? It doesn’t really matter, because the experiment was about something else. At about 20 seconds into the clip, a person in a gorilla costume walks through the frame. When asked about the video afterwards, a full 50% of the participants said they had not even noticed the gorilla.
This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness,” and it’s fascinating. Our human brains are really good at focusing on specific things, but that is detrimental to our ability to see anything that we aren’t expecting. As I watched the video again, I started thinking about how this relates to marketing, and how marketers can miss big opportunities by focusing on small things.
We use the word “insights” a lot in our buyer persona work, and its important to differentiate “insights” from “information.” Companies can count lots of information about their buyers — from web metrics to survey data — but that information doesn’t equate to insight. Insight requires us to listen in a very specific way.
A recent Harvard Business Review story explains how our perceptions impact our ability to be objective. It explains that we color everything we observe based on our moods, attitudes and expectations. Researchers call this confirmation bias. When companies go looking for data that “validates” their conclusions, they can’t learn anything new about their buyers.
We built the 5 Rings of Buying Insight to help companies understand that we can’t – and don’t need to – pay attention to every tiny point of data. We wanted to have a framework that says “here are the 5 insights into your buyers’ expectations that tell you how to win their business.”
We can count passes all we want – and I’m not saying we should stop – but for buyer personas to make a difference, we need to be careful that our attention on easily counted data doesn’t make us miss something as critical as a gorilla in the room.
This Thursday, I’ll deliver an online seminar at Marketing Profs that I’m really excited about.
I’ve delivered countless presentations about the need for effective buyer personas, but this is the first time where I’ve got 90 minutes to focus on how to effectively use them.
The idea for this session came from a recent ITSMA survey where marketers were asked if they felt their buyer personas were being used effectively. The vast majority – 83% – answered “somewhat.”
That’s obviously not the response we want for a tool that can be incredibly powerful in the right hands. So how do we leverage these personas and the insights we gain from them to make a measurable difference in marketing ROI?
This Marketing Profs Pro Online Seminar focuses on three important aspects of the application of buyer personas.
The first is building your message and core value propositions. Finding the essential message of a marketing campaign is tough stuff. Delivering 15 to 20 words that compel a buyer to learn more is harder yet. Too many marketing groups opt for a summary approach – “We’re the market-leading provider of scalable flexible compatible enterprise greatness” – that doesn’t give a buyer anything they haven’t heard dozens of times before.
Once you have the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ for your persona, the most difficult part of the messaging effort is complete. Armed with this detailed list of your buyers’ expectations, it’s relatively easy to identify the engaging, actionable information that positions your solution as a perfect match for that buyer’s needs.
The second topic I’ll talk about on Thursday is building a solid content marketing strategy. Employing the 5 Rings of Buying Insight around each buyer should give you a list of 20 to 25 thoughts and concerns that the buyer has through the purchasing cycle. These are rich fodder for long-form content or multi-touch marketing – blog posts, white papers and other venues where you can address topics served up to you in your buyer’s own words.
And the third topic is sales enablement. We talked about this a bit in last week’s blog post, but this week’s presentation will give me a chance to talk about how buyer personas change the relationship between sales and marketing. I’ll focus on the buyer insights that motivate salespeople to follow new leads and land new customers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you should be doing to leverage your buyer personas, but it’s three things that should be at the top of your list.
I’ll be going into everything above in much more detail during Thursday’s online seminar. I hope to see you there.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’re well aware of the impact that properly-constructed buyer personas can have on sales and marketing. But – and this might seem strange – for best results, you don’t want to send your personas straight to the sales team.
There’s one more step, and it’s crucial, because sales people are one of the primary beneficiaries of the deep insights you’ve uncovered. A misstep has consequences that can cast your persona initiative in a less than favorable light.
Remember that an insightful buyer persona talks about what buyers want from solutions like yours. Sometimes buyers want something your solution can’t deliver. Or the buyers may describe expectations where you need to give some thought to your response.
Here’s an example – say “easy to use” is an important part of your persona’s decision criteria. From the interviews that we conducted with real buyers, we know that buyers who say “easy to use” want it to “work just like other programs I use, so I won’t need any additional training.”
But your product might not work just like these other programs. It might need additional training. So Marketing would work with involved departments to make the training something that can be minimized – say with a 30-minute video that will bring users up to speed simply and effectively.
Now Sales can address “ease-of-use” with a direct, factual response that keeps the company honest. “It’s just a 30-minute video.”
When Marketing communicates buyer expectations without describing the appropriate response, it can lead to a lot of counterproductive behavior, including that classic move where Sales makes things up to impress the buyer. Or Sales may avoid following up on your leads, feeling defeated because they can’t deliver on every expectation.
Marketers also need to remember that sales people are trained to treat every buyer as unique. Talk about buyer personas and you could spend your time defending the entire concept of an example buyer, distracting everyone from the powerful insights you’ve uncovered and how your salespeople can leverage that knowledge in their sales calls.
Sales people are reluctant to follow up on leads when they don’t have experience with a particular solution and buyer. Understandably, they’re concerned about what questions might arise or how the competitors might derail their sale. With buyer personas, we can give them advance warning – here is the type of buyer that you’ll be talking to at every step in the sale. These are the expectations that each person will bring to the table. And, best of all, here are the resources you need to address those expectations and close the sale.
Keep your personas in marketing, but by all means communicate the insights you’ve uncovered and your strategies to address them.
One of the most important decisions a marketer needs to make is segmentation – how to determine the essential differences between customer groups and effectively market to them.
Companies use lots of criteria to define these segments – industry, company size, and geography are the most common. If you’re one of the many who have attempted to add buyer personas to these segments, you’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to see how you can to market to all of them.
Sales is lucky. They can identify the needs of one account and tailor the story accordingly. And it’s a lot easier to sell to one person than a group.
So the natural instinct for marketers is to segment more and more in an effort to shape messaging and content for the needs of different buyers.
But that’s a very expensive and ineffective strategy. Here’s a client case that makes the point very clearly.
The building construction group of Caterpillar hired us to create buyer personas for customers of their compact and small Cat® equipment. In our early discussions, they identified five industry segments that they wanted to research – residential and commercial construction, concrete construction, agriculture, landscape and snow & ice removal.
We counseled them that assigning buyer personas to those five market segments would result in way too many niches to effectively market to. So we set out to to determine the essential differences in their buying decisions.
We conducted interviews with Caterpillar customers using the framework in the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ to understand who, when and why buyers in each of these segments evaluated their equipment.
At the end of our research, what we found is that Caterpillar had only two types of buyer personas that they needed to target, and industry was not relevant to the segmentation.
One was what we’ll call a “high-information” buyer. These buyers wanted the see a long list of the specifications of the equipment in a format that made it easy to compare different models of machines, including the competitors’.
The other was a “results-oriented” buyer. They had a specific task that they wanted to do and wanted rapid access to guidance on which machine would meet that need.
These two personas were common across all five of Caterpillar’s market segments. No matter what the buyers were using the product for, the key distinction between Caterpillar’s strategies to persuade them is based on their need for detailed information or specific functionality, full stop.
It’s important to note that we didn’t recommend that Caterpillar completely abandon their traditional segmentation. Caterpillar still produces marketing materials for each of these industries. But deep insights into their buyer’s expectations for purchasing their equipment eliminated the need to invest in too many marketing activities, streamlining their content marketing and SEO strategy at a lower than anticipated cost.
For another example, we just published three slides to help you think about whether the buyer persona on our website should be one or two buyer personas.
When you’re segmenting your market, buyer personas should simplify and reduce the number of ways you need to tell your story. If you’re not seeing that outcome, you’re placing too much emphasis on differences in who buys and not enough on how, when and why they buy.