It’s been ahotoffthepresslmost three years since I published The Buyer Persona Manifesto, and so much has changed.

In 2011, few marketers had even heard about buyer personas. That’s why I devoted a sizable portion of the book to explaining what a buyer persona is about and why they are important.

Fast forward to 2014 and buyer personas are in use or under development by 73% of B2B marketers who completed a recent survey by ITSMA.

The interest in buyer personas has exploded, but the need to understand them hasn’t changed. In fact, at the Buyer Persona Institute we hear from marketers every day who lost their way as they attempted to build or leverage this important tool.

So I decided to publish a Second Edition of The Buyer Persona Manifesto to clear the waters and lay down a proven foundation for using buyer personas to produce reliable, actionable results in marketing.

In this completely updated ebook, I talk about:

  • How to move beyond the buyer’s picture and capture her voice, focusing precisely on the narratives that are crucial to the marketing mission
  • How buyer personas differ based on the amount of consideration a buyer gives to the buying decision
  • How to avoid the traps of too many buyer personas that reveal too little in the way of insights
  • How to interview buyers, including who to interview and what to ask
  • How to put buyer personas to work for marketing and sales enablement

The one thing we didn’t change? All of our buyer persona resources, including this new ebook, our buyer persona templates, and the ebook I co-authored with Maribeth Ross: For Content Marketing, Let Your Buyers Be Your Guide, are still available absolutely free. And the ebook is published under a Creative Commons license to encourage everyone to share it with anyone who might benefit.

I believe that buyer personas are one of the most powerful resources in a marketer’s toolset. I want to make sure that every single person using them has the reaction that inspired the opening sentences of The Buyer Persona Manifesto:

“It’s almost like cheating, like getting the exam paper weeks before the final. Instead of guessing what matters, now I know… not only what the customer wants; I know how she goes about deciding. It’s fantastic!”

So please read, share, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to ask any questions you might have.

I was watching the first season of NBC’s drama Hannibal because people told me it was good. It is! It can be gruesome, but the psychological interplay between the two lead characters is fascinating.

While I was gettincrime scene photog sucked into the storyline, an unexpected thing happened. I realized that there is a very interesting parallel between buyer personas and a murder mystery — where everything quite literally depends on a detective’s ability to put together a picture of someone no one knows.

The show takes place before the popular Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon movies, before iconic serial killer Hannibal Lecter was captured.

On Hannibal, the hero is Will Graham, a very likable ex-FBI agent who is the perfect counterpoint to the cold, calculating Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Graham is called in to crime scenes to use his amazing empathetic abilities to profile the killers. With the accompaniment of a visual effect reminiscent of the pendulum of a clock, Graham rewinds time to inhabit the personas of these criminals.

So why am I writing about this TV show on my marketing blog? I can’t stop thinking about what a great marketer Will Graham would have made if he didn’t go into law enforcement.

When he’s at a crime scene, he doesn’t just note the facts. Many other investigators have been there before him and documented that information. Rather, we watch him really “be in the other guy’s experience.” He is able to empathize with his targets so deeply that he gets new information about what motivates and drives the killers.

He avoids the traps of focusing on the end result. He has the patience and resolve to evaluate each tiny clue through someone else’s eyes. He knows that success can only be achieved through intuition and empathy, that thinking like his target is the only way to identify him and achieve the ultimate goal.

Will’s next step is to visit someone who is similar to his target. What’s interesting about the show is that he doesn’t know it – at least not consciously. Hannibal Lecter is both Will’s therapist and a serial killer in his own right. Will doesn’t get “the answer” in his meetings with Lecter, but that doesn’t stop him either. He uses those conversations to further develop his personas, looking for any data points that he could evaluate from a new perspective. Then he chases down these leads, continuously enhancing and building a persona that represents the real killers.

Ultimately this process of accumulating and synthesizing information leads Will to the killers. Will confidently and clearly describes the age, appearance, and personality of these men and women. No one tells Will this information directly. He built their personas after investing himself in gathering as much data as possible and then thinking like his target audience. Faced with such a clear description, it’s often trivial to track down the perpetrator.

By the end of the first season, Will Graham has realized that an unlikely solution – Hannibal Lecter being a serial killer – is the correct one. This is a realization that no amount of traditional police work could have produced, but because of Will’s remarkable empathy and ability to listen, he arrives at it.

Maybe we should re-brand our Buyer Persona Masterclass as the Buyer Persona Detective Workshop.

March 7, 2014
Categories : Buyer Personas

People ask me why I decided to focus on buyer personas.

Easy. I like to impress people.

And it’s easier to impress people when you know what they want.

Woman with question marks on a blackboardVery early in my life, I learned that I could exceed expectations by figuring out what mattered most to the people around me. I learned how to ask good questions, and to listen intently to the way the person interacted with me about the topic.

People would often give me short answers that weren’t very helpful. But through persistence and interesting follow-up questions, I was able to learn the most amazing things.

This is the approach that landed me in the technology field more than 30 years ago. I had zero background in computers, but because I was genuinely interested, not only in how it worked but also why it was important to people, there was always someone willing to talk to me.

When I got into marketing, this simple approach began to pay big dividends.  By then I had learned that information that was easy to get wouldn’t set me apart from anyone else.  So I quickly observed that the best way to impress my boss, the salespeople, and a whole lot of other people was to make a positive impression on the buyers who were looking for solutions like ours.

No one told me that directly, mind you. In fact, the people I worked around didn’t even talk about our buyers. Every conversation was centered around our company’s products, strategies, or goals. We had endless meetings to evaluate options to talk about what we were doing and deliver that message to the market.

But no one ever talked about what the buyers wanted.

My colleagues would sometimes talk about “the market.” But this never seemed like a very useful conversation. “The market” seemed to consist of relatively meaningless statistics about the size of the companies or industries where our buyers worked.

Sometimes we’d hear what the analysts were saying about “the market,” which was mainly their perception about how we were doing compared to the competition. This led to discussions about how we could be better or different than the other companies.

None of this addressed my deeply-held conviction that success comes easiest to those who know what matters to real people. During our meetings, I’d ask questions like “what do the buyers want?”  and “if we make these changes, will the buyers care?”

I generally got blank stares.

But I persisted, because I knew that if I had these answers, I could use them to build strategies that worked for everyone. I knew that I had to find the place where our products, strategies and goals intersected with what the buyers actually wanted.

I started finding ways to talk directly to buyers. Since one of my key goals was leads and demand generation, I was extremely curious about why some buyers had suddenly decided to make it a priority to investigate a solution like ours.  So I found opportunities to talk to people who had recently bought our solutions.

I’d start the conversation by asking them about what happened on the day when they started looking for a solution like ours. After probing on that theme for a while, I’d get the buyers to tell me their whole story about what happened as they evaluated all of their options. I never accepted an easy, obvious answer. The process was one of digging around, looking for real insight.

I saw again and again that people want to engage in an open conversation about what matters most to them. I listened intently as people got caught up in the dialog and provided information I could have never thought to ask about.

It didn’t take long to see patterns in our buyers’ stories.  It didn’t take long to notice that some of the distinctions we’d had about market segments were largely irrelevant. And it didn’t take long before I could build and defend strategies and tactics that I knew would resonate with our buyers.

I know that this simple idea is the reason that three different companies asked me to serve as the executive responsible for their product management, marketing and sales teams. Through that experience, I saw the power of buyer personas to impact every one of these functions

So in 2001, when I built the product marketing workshop for Pragmatic Marketing, buyer personas were the organizing principle for the entire course. Over the next ten years, I traveled the world, attempting to cram everything I knew into two action-packed days. The feedback forms always told me that buyer personas were the most important part of the workshop.

In the emails that followed, I saw that people needed more guidance. I saw that conducting this type of interview didn’t come naturally to many people.

I realized that I had to build structure and training around the interviews or marketers would create buyer personas that were only skin deep. I noticed that larger companies needed help with the cultural and process issues that emerge when the buyer’s voice is a part of the workflow. And I saw that many companies preferred to have buyer personas built by people who were already experts.

Once again, I listened intently to what really matters to people and founded Buyer Persona Institute to answer that need. This gave us the opportunity to impress hundreds of clients, thousands of marketers, and countless buyers all over the world.

This cycle of listening and impressing buyers is the reason that we say that our sole aim at Buyer Persona Institute is enabling marketers to say: “This is what matters to our buyers. So here’s the plan.”

One of the hardest parts of bringing our Buyer Persona model into practice actually comes after the project is completed.

We’ve accomplished so much with the client, working with them to build clear, actionable buyer personas, and the results are spectacular. We just can’t share them with anybody.

Needless to say, marketing departments like to keep their successes close to the vest to make sure that their competitors don’t hop on board. There’s nothing I’d like more than to trumpet from the rooftops how Client X or Client Y improved their marketing content or sales results using the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™, but iron-clad NDAs keep my mouth shut tight.

However, sometimes clients are so excited that they just can’t help talking.

Buyer Persona Masterclass alumni Samuel Williams, with his firm Aamplify, was contracted by Deloitte Private, the division of Deloitte Consulting that specializes in families and small businesses, to develop a marketing plan.

The firm started by interviewing people who had recently evaluated solutions like theirs, modeling the buyers’ decision to uncover clear, factual insights about how they compared Deloitte to its competitors.

When Deloitte saw the details that these personas revealed, it was easy to identify the targeted messaging and marketing content that would persuade their buyers to choose them. And it was simple to help the sales teams see how to tell those same powerful stories to their customers.

Don’t take my word for it – watch this video from Deloitte head of marketing and communications Cassandra Worrall about the whole process.

Strong stuff, right? Here’s a more in-depth case study from Aamplify with even more data.

One of the key takeaways from their buyer persona research was that buyers had three key motivations for coming to Deloitte:

1. Help leveraging global business development opportunities

2. Heavy lifting to help solve specific challenges

3. Technology solutions to improve business processes

Armed with these insights, Deloitte Private pushed that messaging front and center to their home page, giving their digital strategy a powerful, clear call to action.

The best way to judge the power of a marketing campaign is by real-world results, and Deloitte got them. Using the tools and interviewing skills they acquired by attending the Buyer Persona Masterclass, Aamplify gave their client exactly what they needed to connect with buyers without the guesswork.

Top 10 2014 Resolutions

Top Resolutions for 2014

I wonder if the companies that help us to get fit or organized realize just how lucky they are. They have the luxury of perfect timing, confident that once each year the clock will strike midnight, the ball will drop in New York’s Times Square and millions of people will suddenly be motivated to BUY NOW.

Those of us in B2B marketing can learn a lot from this extraordinary shift in buyer priorities. Consumer buyers have likely wanted to lose weight, quit smoking or clean up their messy closets for a long time. They have been the target of extensive marketing programs extolling the benefits of perfectly relevant products and services. Yet throughout the year, only a fraction of them invested the time or money to make that happen.

Then every year on January 1, approximately 45% of consumers* make a decision to adjust their priorities. Within a few short weeks, they’ll consume marketing content at an unprecedented rate and spend money on solutions that had been there all along.

Although B2B marketers will never experience anything like this dramatic shift in their buyers’ priorities, this annual event tells us a lot about why our marketing frequently inspires such a disappointing response rate. We can see that every buyer’s journey begins with a deep motivation to achieve a specific goal, and absent that commitment, they’re simply not listening.

Our buyer’s attention is almost always focused on priorities that we do not address. Then “something happens” and whammo!, solving this problem is suddenly at or near the top of the buyer’s priority list. This is the moment when that buyer will find the time, budget and political capital to solve the problem that we’ve been talking about for so long.

B2B marketers will never have the confidence of New Year’s Eve for market timing, but we can understand how the buyer’s internally driven circumstances impact their decision to consider the solutions we are marketing. This Priority Initiative insight (one of the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ for buyer personas) tells us what we need to do and say to look like a perfect match for whatever inspires that resolution to take action now.

Most marketers know very little about these triggers. They can talk about their solution’s pain points and benefits, statements that are usually reverse engineered based on the features and functions of their products or services. But very few companies can explain, in their buyer’s own words, why so many people choose to live with that pain. Nor can they say what is unique about the circumstances that drive buyers to resolve that pain.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop marketing to people who aren’t currently evaluating our category of solutions.  I’m saying that if at all possible, we need to learn how to do or say something that captures the attention of buyers whose priorities lie elsewhere. I’m also noting that achieving this outcome is more difficult and protracted than we would hope, and that our best chance to motivate any buyer is to understand what really triggers their peers to take action.

With so much emphasis on the buyer’s journey, it’s interesting that marketers seem to know the least about the very first step. Insightful buyer personas tell marketers exactly what drives their buyers’ resolve, clarifying the marketing activities that will capture a disproportionate share of that buyer’s attention and business.

For nearly a dDoes Marketing Matterecade, I developed and led a marketing workshop for Pragmatic Marketing, the leader in training courses for B2B product managers and marketers.  I wrote this article for the Fall issue of Pragmatic Marketer Magazine, released yesterday in celebration of the company’s 20th anniversary.

It was the second day of a Pragmatic Marketing course I was teaching, when a senior director’s question sucked the oxygen out of the room: “How do I know that anything would change if I eliminated the marketing organization?”

While Tom’s harsh words and choice of forum stunned me, his question did not. I’ve worked with enough CEOs and participated in enough reorganizations, budget cuts and executive transitions to know that only slightly less-threatening versions of this question are commonplace. And easy answers don’t cut it.

Metrics Can’t Answer The Real Question

Many marketers have been asked to explain how much incremental revenue they generate. They are asked how much less they could spend without taking a revenue hit. Or if higher levels of spending would improve results.

There is little evidence that B2B marketers of complex solutions will ever have definitive answers to any of these questions.

Sure, we can report that a webinar was attended by someone who later downloaded a white paper and then purchased our solution. However, I’d like to have a nickel for every time the marketing impact is unknown because the salesperson was calling on that account for years.

When a company meets its revenue and profitability goals, senior management generally seems willing to adhere to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule. Most budget requests are approved, and the marketing team operates with relatively little interference.

But miss a few revenue or profit targets and marketing will quickly find itself in the spotlight. This is the moment when someone will start wondering if we could do better, or if a new team and reporting structure would fix things.

Part of the Problem or of the Solution?

Many of the metrics we track have unintended consequences when we report them to other departments. What should stakeholders conclude about our role and value, if they only see the output and measures of our production activities?

Is it possible that the strategic role of marketing is being subverted by the way we interact with our stakeholders?

I’m not suggesting that marketing leads, content and sales tools aren’t important. And I’m certainly not recommending that we discontinue our efforts to track results. Performance metrics help us to refine countless strategies and tactics.

What I am saying is that we need to balance the way we interact with stakeholders, focusing in equal measures on our strategic and tactical contribution.

This begins when we subtly shift the conversation in meetings, presentations and hallways away from project charts and deliverables. It requires marketers to become the source of information about what markets full of buyers are saying about how, when and why they choose solutions like ours.

Consider your company’s perception of marketing ROI if your head was filled with buyer conversations of strategic value to your stakeholders:

  • Which buyers will be receptive to your new marketing strategy, and why?
  • For those who aren’t, why not? What would engage these types of buyers?
  • Why do some buyers prefer X competitor?
  • What role does each potential target in the buyer’s organization play in the decision? Which are most likely to choose us and why?

If you scanned these bullet points, rather than contemplating their meaning, note the emphasis on the “why” aspect of each of these questions.

Most companies believe they know what the market needs, but few can predict the path to achieving the goals they imagine.

Marketers Are Missing Buying Insights

In recent years, buyer personas have gained popularity as a tool to improve a marketer’s focus on buyers. Today more than half of B2B marketers report that they have developed buyer personas.

Yet, few of these marketers have enough confidence in their perception of the buyer to define, defend and deliver strategies that don’t conform with the internal perspective. So companies make decisions based on inadequate information about the market’s receptivity, and marketers are on the hook to persuade buyers who don’t care. In other instances, perfectly good products fail because the company didn’t identify and communicate with buyers who have the need.

There is a lot of confusion about the content of buyer personas and how to ensure that they uncover compelling insights.

Some marketers fall into the trap of only collecting knowledge about the buyers internally. This has some value but doesn’t prepare the marketer to persuade the same stakeholders who contributed the information.

Others retain expensive third parties to deliver a lovely set of PowerPoint slides or posters that are soon put away and forgotten. One marketer spent more than $100K on her buyer personas. When she contacted me for advice about how to leverage them, I was horrified that they described little more than the buyer’s role and priorities—information readily available to her competitors with just a few hours of research on LinkedIn.

What Buyer-Expert Marketers Should Know

The value of buyer personas is directly proportional to the quality of insights about how, when and why buyers choose solutions like yours.

If your buyer persona simply recasts obvious and readily available information such as industry, job title and responsibilities, then this is a very low-value effort.

To change the conversation about the value of marketing, buyer personas need to be the result of in-depth, unscripted conversations with actual buyers. Fewer than 10 well-executed interviews can lead to five compelling insights:

Priorities. What happens to make this investment a priority for this type of buyer? Don’t confuse this insight with pain points, because many or most of your target buyers have this pain and still aren’t looking for a solution like yours. Your buyer personas should tell you what drives some buyers to address the pain, while others remain satisfied with the status quo.

Success factors. This tells you what results or outcomes the buyer expects as a result of purchasing a solution like yours. Success factors resemble benefits, but when you hear them from recent buyers you will have a shorter list that is far more specific and compelling than anything you can reverse engineer based on the capabilities of your solution.

Perceived barriers. I often refer to this as the “bad news” insight, because it tells you exactly why this buyer would be unlikely to purchase your solution. Barriers could relate to prior attempts to solve the problem, negative (and even inaccurate) perceptions about the suitability of your product or company, or  internal resistance from other departments or personas.

Buyer’s journey. This identifies the stages your buyers pass through to evaluate their options, eliminate contenders and choose one solution. It specifies the stages when this buyer persona will be pivotal to keeping your solution under consideration and when other personas will be more critical. You’ll be completely clear about when and why social media, content marketing, sales engagement and other resources have the most impact—and what you can do to improve your efforts.

Decision criteria. The final insight reveals the three to five capabilities that have the most impact on this buyer. Decision criteria frequently include specific features or attributes of the implementation or company. Pricing (or value calculations) can also be relevant to these decision criteria. This insight is critical for sales enablement, because it identifies which buyers will be concerned about specific features and why.

The Marketing Credibility Problem Is Expensive

While Tom’s question may have never been spoken in your presence, the hand-wringing about the merits of marketing take a toll on every one of us. There are even those who predict the demise of marketing as a profession.

I can’t imagine that marketing will ever disappear, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that we are not positioned to deliver the value that B2B companies truly need.

Too many really smart marketers toil away in organizations where they operate with little more autonomy than factory production workers.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if financial statements were subjected to as many reviews as your most recent messaging document. Could engineering ever deliver a new product, if its role and management team were redefined every 18 months?

The endless debate about the value of marketing ultimately interferes with our goal of building the value of marketing. This needs to stop, and buyer personas give you a lot more power to rewrite the rules than you may have known. When will you begin?

Download a PDF of Pragmatic Marketer Magazine

It’s been seven years since I started The Buyer Persona Blog, and I am pleased to publish our very first guest post. I hope you enjoy these recommendations from Irakli Beselidze, CEO of Premier SV in Russia, presenter of Marketing Guru TV show, and now a Certified Practitioner of Buyer Persona Institute.

target segmentsIt’s rash to conclude that the concept of target audience is a meaningful tool for building a marketing strategy. Just because someone is a member of a socio-demographic group doesn’t mean they’ll buy your products. People buy because they want to improve something about their lives, or their business, with the help of your solution, and you need to know how they think about that.

Have you ever woken up with the idea that you belong to a particular target audience, and must consume marketing messages no less than three times a week in order to decide which product to purchase? Absolutely not! People focus on how to solve their current problems, and they don’t want to be distracted by anything that doesn’t help them make a good decision.

While developing a marketing strategy, it’s crucially important to understand what problems people think they will solve by using your product and what communication context unites them during their decision-making process. To identify and provide a structured description of the context a person delves into during the buying process, Premier SV conducts qualitative research on buyers. The result is a detailed description: a buyer persona. It’s these personas that should serve as the basis for developing a communication strategy.

Here are six situations where buyer personas are a much better tool than a target audience that is determined by socio-demographic characteristics.

1.    Your products aren’t spontaneously purchased within 10 minutes of discovery. Your buyers prefer to evaluate all possible options because the consequences of making the wrong decision are costly.

If we are dealing with a high-consideration purchase, branding based on knowledge of your target audience and spontaneous brand awareness are no guarantee buyers will choose you. Often, these consumers will ignore your slogans and advertising messages to rely on objective reviews from your former clients, their friends and coworkers.

2.    Your target audience includes a lot of people who are not a potential customer.

If only 1 out of 10 people in your target audience needs your solution, while the other 9 aren’t prospects, it means you simply waste 90% of your efforts and resources. Though you may increase your brand awareness among your target audience and eventually increase sales, it’ll be impossible to identify if this is the direct result of your marketing campaign.

3.    Your marketing activities are repetitive and very similar to your competitors.

Since companies in direct competition have the same target audience, it’s unlikely that they’ll have distinctive strategies for marketing campaigns. The result can be intense competition of creative ideas which aren’t relevant to the buyers’ context, but are just focused on framing the solution in new and exciting ways. This might not seem bad, but the further you are from the buyer’s context, the less likely the buyer will understand you and your messaging. Your marketing should be specific, clear and concise, and focus on how you’ll solve your buyers’ real problem.

4.    You’re not exactly sure what people need to hear to choose you.

Messaging for target audience and buyer personas are different as in the first case you’re talking about the product while in the second case – about solving a problem. For example, a well-known slogan created by Premier SV for Herschi-Cola’s target audience of 10-20 year olds was “Herschi-Cola – the taste of victory.” While clever, it doesn’t reveal any particular reason for buyers to choose it. The same goes for the slogan “Always Coca-Cola” – it is just a way to show the value of the product, without paying attention to the context of its purchase. That’s why the winner in these messages’ battle will be the one with a bigger media budget.

Premier SV has decided not to participate in these competitions anymore. After analyzing Onduline’s buyer persona, we’ve transformed the slogan for their roofing materials and male target audience of 30-55 year olds from “Doesn’t rust, doesn’t leak, doesn’t make noise” to “Onduline – easy roof repair”. We’ve stressed the core value for buyers – the simplicity of solving the problem of a leaky roof as it stacks up to other options.

5.    You’re not sure if you’ve chosen the right communication channels.

It’s difficult to find a brand that’s 100% sure their chosen media plan is the best, even if their marketing campaign is already in place. The reason why we’re unsure can be connected to an inability to understand how communication channels affect a consumer’s decision to buy a product. Traditional effectiveness metrics only reveal the number of contacts within your target audience, but no one understands how these contacts transform into an interest in a product or sales.

You won’t have these problems with buyer personas, because they uncover the sources of buyers’ decisions at each stage of the buying cycle, and identify the particular sources of information that influenced the decision.

6.    Your target audience is mixed, or decisions are made by a group of people belonging to different socio-demographic groups.

The classic example of this situation appeared in Premier SV when we were researching buyers for the latest model of Toyota RAV4.  We found that in most cases, both men and women contributed to the final decision to purchase the car. Additionally, in most cases both parties had equal weight in the buying process, but opposite evaluation criteria. What should be done in cases like these? Since Toyota is focused on traditional marketing methods, they decided to concentrate on male buyers. Typically, men and women use different sources of information and perceive the RAV4’s merits differently, so they decided to ignore the section of their target audience which wasn’t perceived as important.

B2B brands can also encounter the need to target 5-6 people with varying job titles, who work in different departments and all influence the decision-making process. Curious how to solve this problem?

Give up the idea of using your target audience as a tool for identifying decision makers, and start studying buyer personas. This will help you identify their roles in the decision-making process, evaluation criteria and many other factors that help buyers differentiate you from others and assure them that your product will make their life better.

Each year consumers become more savvy and sophisticated in making purchase decisions. To continue influencing them efficiently, you need to better study their behavior in the process of buying your product. Buyer personas are a step forward in this direction. When you research your buyer’s decisions, you’ll understand your buyers and create more effective marketing communications.

Has your company already interviewed buyers to build buyer personas? What was the most challenging part? Please share your ideas with us.

BattleIn the last month, I had a chance to deliver sessions about insightful buyer personas at two of my favorite conferences, Content Marketing World and Marketing Profs’ B2B Marketing Forum.

After each event, marketers peppered me with questions. The biggest concern? How to convince their client or in-house executives about the importance of deep buyer insights.

If you’re dealing with this issue, too, I suggest that you begin with a comparison of sales and marketing. After all, sales people have the opportunity, executive support and skills training to know their buyers before they speak.

Does it make sense that marketers would have none of these?

Think about how you could discuss these points with your resistant stakeholders:

  • Would anyone ever question the need for a sales rep to listen carefully to a prospective buyer before formulating an account strategy?
  • And which is more difficult, developing a plan to persuade one buyer at a time (the salesperson’s job) or building a strategy to persuade a market full of buyers (marketing’s job)? (Note: If the answer to this question isn’t instantly obvious, replace “buyer” with “voter” and suggest that they think like a politician.)

It isn’t logical that companies readily encourage sales to invest “as needed” for buyer discovery on a single deal, while marketers struggle to allocate a few hours for the buyer interviews that would benefit every aspect of their marketing strategy.

Plus it isn’t clear how marketers are supposed to already know how to conduct a probing buyer interview. Everyone fully appreciates that a sales rep’s listening and probing skills improve substantially when they have a proven framework and effective training.

Sometimes I’ll hear that the pushback originates with the company’s belief that they know their buyers. This is a bit more challenging, because people don’t know what they don’t know.

When this is the issue, I use our 5 Rings of Buying Insight for buyer personas to query stakeholders about their knowledge of their buyers:

1. Priority Initiative:  At the moment when a buyer starts looking for a solution such as this one, what triggers that search? And what is different about the buyers who are looking for this solution and those who are not?

Don’t accept a simple “pain point” answer to this question. Everyone has pain but they’re not all shopping for your solution. We want to know what business triggers or events justify the company’s investment in this type of solution.

2. Success Factors:  What does this type of buyer expect to be different if they invest in this solution? In the buyer’s words, what will the result look like?

If you hear an obvious answer (for example: we’ll grow the business, reduce operating costs, be more efficient, etc.), probe to see if anyone can tell you anything insightful about that result. For example, which part of their business will grow? Why can’t they achieve this growth without our solution? How much growth does the buyer expect?

3. Perceived Barriers: Why do some buyers believe that a solution that addresses this issue isn’t necessary? And what causes some buyers to choose a competitor’s solution instead?

Don’t accept easy answers. Buyers make decisions based on value and trust, not price and features. Ask follow-up questions to find places where your stakeholder is missing details. This insight is often one of the most surprising parts of the buyer persona.

4. Buyer’s Journey: When buyers start looking for this type of solution, what do they do first to evaluate all of their options? And then, what do they do to narrow their options and choose one? What resources do they trust? Which buyers are critical to the decision to include or exclude us each time they narrow their options?

5. Decision Criteria: Which attributes of our solution or company do buyers evaluate? Which are nice to have and which do buyers consider essential?

Listen carefully for jargon answers. If someone says that buyers choose your solution because it is easy to use, or because you are the industry leader or provide the best customer service, probe for details. What does the buyer expect to be easy to use? For whom should it be easy to use? How much training does the buyer expect to invest in before it is easy? How do buyers determine that our solution is easiest to use?

It may also help to show your stakeholders the example buyer persona that is now available on our new website here. Many people confuse relatively useless buyer profiles with the truly valuable information in these buyer personas, so once they see the depth of information you will discover, they should be more supportive.

A word of caution:  Feel free to use these ideas to talk to your clients or internal stakeholders, but please do not interview your buyers using this post as a script. These questions are far too direct and put too much of the emphasis on you. Buyer interviews should ask people to provide candid feedback about what worked and what didn’t as they evaluated a solution like yours. This should be an engaging and non-confrontational experience that results in surprising information that buyers have not shared with anyone. To guide these conversations, you’ll need to know how to lead an unscripted, agenda-driven interview that probes on every response, because the buyer’s first answer to any question will be obvious data that isn’t insightful. You can learn more about how to interview your buyers here.

I hope you will try out these ideas on your clients or internal stakeholders and let me know how it goes. If they are still resistant, tell me what they said and I’ll follow up with another post.

Given the big investments that companies make in content marketing, you’d think that buyers would be impressed. You’d also expect that company executives would be enthusiastic about marketing results. Yet, marketers continue to struggle for budget, and buyers regularly tell us that vendor-supplied information isn’t helpful.

I’m talking about a solution to this dilemma during my presentation at this year’s Content Marketing World, which will rock the Cleveland Convention Center September 9-12. Thanks go to the “godfather of content marketing” Joe Pulizzi for inviting me back for a second year.

I’m building my CMW presentation around a buyer persona for a marketer who is considering an email marketing solution.  Many people have asked me for an example buyer persona and I’ve always regretted that I had to say no. I fully understand, however, why our clients will never allow us to share their competitive insights.

So I decided to develop this persona for an imaginary company, and could use two or three more volunteers for the interviews. If you have evaluated an email marketing solution within the last six months and can spare 30 minutes to be interviewed about that decision before August 27, please contact me. It’s fun and you’ll get to hear how we conduct buyer persona interviews.

At CMW, I will explain how marketers can become a strategic resource by changing the conversation with buyers and internal stakeholders. I’ll explain the 5 Rings of Buying Insight for the example persona and show everyone how I would use those insights to drive a competitive content strategy. I’ll also talk about how to show up as a buyer expert at planning and sales meetings, and how this small step repositions marketers as a high-value strategic asset.

I’ve decided to keep the example buyer persona secret until after Content Marketing World. But shortly thereafter, I’ll publish it here on my blog for those who cannot attend.

Want a preview of the conference? TopRank Online Marketing recently published this wonderful ebook – Content Marketing Rocks! 36 Tips from Rock Star Brands and Marketers. Thank you, Lee Odden, for including my quote (on page 27).

If you will be at Content Marketing World this year, please email me or contact me through the conference app. I don’t want to miss seeing you there!

Are you wondering whether you should build your own buyer personas or turn to third-party researchers for these insights? Since we have considerable experience in both roles — conducting buyer research and leading workshops for marketers who want to do their own research — we have a unique perspective about the short and long-term results that each approach delivers.

I thought you might find it useful, therefore, to see an unbiased overview of the considerations that factor into the buy vs. build decision. First, the four trade-offs:

There are also three myths associated with the “buy or build buyer personas” decision that I want to debunk :

Myth #1. Buyers won’t talk to or disclose the complete truth to the company’s marketers or their consultants.  This is a falsehood that is perpetuated when people attempt to conduct interviews without the benefit of training or a properly structured methodology.

If you don’t ask the questions correctly, it is true that buyers will either withhold information or deliver misleading answers. But buyers will readily share the unvarnished truth with anyone who uses the right approach and was not involved in the sales process. (I’ve also heard people say that buyers will only talk to someone from within the company and won’t reveal anything to third parties. This is equally false, and I find it interesting that opposite versions of this myth co-exist).

Myth #2. Extensive training is needed before you can conduct this type of research. While some research objectives require professionals with significant experience, marketers of high consideration solutions need only a few hours of training to learn how conduct the interviews that reveal buyer persona insights.

We have seen hundreds of marketers learn how to gain surprising insights and eliminate bias through an unscripted conversation about how, when and why recent buyers have compared their options to make the decision the marketer wants to influence. They just needed a structure and training that focuses on in-depth probing to uncover insights that buyers have not yet shared with anyone.

When marketers need buyer persona insights for very low consideration solutions, or for the rare situation where nothing similar exists in the market, we always recommend our professional researchers.

Myth #3. You need to interview a lot of people and marketers don’t have the bandwidth. Buyer persona insights are usually discovered through a relatively small number of one-on-one interviews that average 30 minutes each.

Revealing buying insights generally emerge from as few as six interviews, given that the focus is on the buyers’ decision to choose a particular category of solution. We typically recommend eight interviews before compiling any results, and have occasionally seen the need for ten if the solution category is not well defined. But more than ten is rarely needed or even helpful. If the buyer persona insights will guide a highly strategic decision, we recommend a follow-on quantitative survey with a larger sample to confirm results and solidify the persona’s credibility with key stakeholders.

Are you ready to hear about the One Ideal Option?

Clients sometimes ask us to research an urgently needed buyer persona, with concurrent training for their marketers through our live team workshops or our online masterclass so they can conduct their own buyer interviews.  We then welcome these newly trained marketers to listen in and follow along as we develop and deliver the first buyer persona. This builds the marketing team’s confidence in their new skills while addressing the need for answers to urgent or especially strategic questions.

Since many companies do not have the circumstances or budget to justify a blended approach, I hope that this post has helped you to determine the best option for your needs. I look forward to hearing your comments and questions.



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