I’m frequently asked for examples of buyer personas, but my clients never allow me to share their findings publicly. That’s because the insights they discover about their buyers are non-obvious and therefore the source of significant competitive advantage.
Orbitz is thrilled that they will now be able to promote pricier properties to the Mac buyer persona, eliminating the cheap stuff that isn’t relevant and providing easy access to the rooms they want. This will result in higher profits for Orbitz and a better customer experience for the Mac user.
But didn’t anyone say, “great job, marketing team, for gleaning this insight. Let’s make those changes to the search function right away and keep this under our hats, as we certainly don’t want Expedia or Kayak to copy us.”
The WSJ story set off a flurry of press coverage, including ABC’s Good Morning America and endless social media discussion. People are arguing about whether Mac users are profligate spenders and PC users are cheap. The privacy folks are concerned that this data was even available to Orbitz. And there was the obvious worry that Orbitz would mark up prices on a hotel if they see that the user is on a Mac. Here’s the company’s response as reported by MSNBC:
“If you carefully read the WSJ, it never says Orbitz charges Mac users more. Because we do not. This story grew out of our observation that Mac users tend to like 4-5 star hotels more than PC users. We make recommendations about hotels along a number of variables, i.e., traveling with or without children. Just as Mac users are willing to pay more for higher end computers, at Orbitz we have seen that Mac users are 40% more likely to book 4 or 5 star hotels as compared to Windows users. What we are doing is reflecting that insight in our recommendations. Our recommendation module has extremely high levels of consumer engagement, indicating that it is a feature that our users really appreciate.”
Good idea Orbitz. But I’d have advised you to keep this persona insight locked up in the same vault where Coke keeps their secret formula. I’m sure your competitors are happy for your help.
And I’m pleased to have a buyer persona success story that isn’t subject to my customers’ non-disclosure agreements.
When I hear about buyer personas built on input from the sales people, I think about all the times that I asked our reps why a customer chose us (or didn’t).
For deals we won, it was always some version of “I have a great relationship with the customer.” And when we lost, the story revolved around a competitor’s rep who had a prior relationship with the account, that our solution was too expensive, or because we were missing a key feature.
Go ask your reps. I bet you’ll get a similar response.
A recent LinkedIn discussion reminded me about a question-asking technique that was originally developed by Toyota. The methodology, now widely used in quality initiatives such as Six Sigma, is known as the “Five Why’s” because researchers determined that it took five tries to get to the root cause … the real answer to their question.
Here’s an example from a Wikipedia article on the Five Why’s:
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
You can see that the first answer was obvious and that the truly useful information only came after repeated questioning. This is one of the key reasons that surveys or structured interviews will confirm or invalidate existing assumptions but fail to reveal new insights.
Probing interviews require skill. Anyone would be incredibly annoyed by someone who, like a three-year-old child, responded to every answer by asking, “Why?”
And I’m not suggesting that you pursue this line of questioning with your sales people. The buyer hasn’t shared this level of detail with your rep and is unlikely to do so, especially when they didn’t choose you.
But if you ask the right way, buyers will open up to you, revealing facts they haven’t yet shared with anyone. When they give you information your competitors don’t know, your buyer insights are a source of competitive advantage. This is the real purpose (and value) of buyer personas.
I’m leading a deep-dive Buyer Persona Masterclass online workshop on May 10 for marketers who want to master these specialized buyer interviews. Workshop participants will learn unique approaches and practice the new skills in interactive role playing. We’re doing the class online, but trust me, this won’t be like any online workshop you’ve ever attended.
The key to buyer personas is to get beyond the obvious first answer about what matters to your buyers. Do you know the real reasons why your buyers choose you or your competitors, or decide to do nothing at all?
Enrollment is extremely limited. Register today to reserve your seat at my Buyer Persona Masterclass online workshop on May 10 from noon to 4 p.m. EDT.
I’ve always suspected that B2C marketers got far more respect than those of us in the B2B world. While well-marketed B2C products seemed to sell themselves, the sheer complexity of matching B2B products to a particular buyer’s needs appeared to position Sales as the permanent source of meaningful revenue results.
I’ll never forget a workshop I led many years ago – the marketers’ stunned reaction when a senior exec asked for proof that any of the company’s revenue was influenced by those in attendance.
Fortunately, I’m now seeing indicators that our days as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of sales and marketing are ending. And who can we thank for our elevated role and status? None other than the buyers as they change the rules about how they make decisions for even the most complex B2B solutions.
A recent report by Corporate Executive Board’s sales practice reported that B2B buyers are 57 percent of the way to a buying decision before they are willing to talk to a sales rep. It’s becoming clear that only a strategic and buyer-savvy marketing organization could be relevant to such independent buyers.
Here’s a case in point: I just had an interesting online dialogue with a sales rep who had recently lost two deals for a complex B2B solution because the buyers believed in the competitor’s approach.
“I have been in two different cycles this year already where the buyer was armed with a portfolio of misinformation and dug their feet in because their people researched it on social media and the Internet,” the sales rep wrote. “I didn’t care so much that we lost, what I cared about was the clients’ addiction to that information as if it were the truth.”
As an experienced sales rep, he had lost deals like this in the past, but always because the competitor’s sales rep got to the account first. In this case, the competitor’s marketing had been the source of success for those deals – quite an acknowledgement from a sales guy. I suspect he’s going to be talking to his marketing team about that.
Buyers are creating a huge opportunity for us to change the relationship between B2B sales and marketing. When buyers depended on our sales people for most of their information, we could communicate the basic benefits of our solutions, and then it was the sales rep’s job to discover each buyer’s specific needs and build the trusted relationship that would win the deal.
I’m working with marketers who are learning how to be the buyer experts. I’m watching as they gain deep insight into exactly which factors their buyers evaluate. I’m coaching them to leverage these insights to build highly segmented, relevant messaging.
And now I’ve got anecdotal evidence through this week’s online dialog that B2B marketers are generating leads that are 57% (or more) ready to buy their solutions.
Would you like to become a buyer expert and play a strategic role in your organization? Consider taking my first online public workshop, Buyer Persona Masterclass, on Thurs., March 29, 2012. My half-day workshop will give you the tools to become a buyer persona expert and plenty of hands-on experience.
Enrollment is extremely limited, so register today. I hope to “see” you there!
A recent engagement started with a familiar problem – the client wanted a single value proposition for a proposed suite of solutions that includes four existing products. The messaging would drive the development of their content marketing assets and help the sales people cross-sell the underlying products.
You’ve probably seen the default solution-level messaging: “We are the market-leading supplier of enterprise-wide, best-of-breed, integrated solutions for high-growth companies.”
Fortunately, marketers who are willing to accept that answer don’t seem to ask for my help. But the answer we did uncover was not what the client expected either.
How we approached the question
We talked to buyers who had recently evaluated each of the underlying products, including both wins and losses. Our agenda was to understand how the buyer evaluated each of the individual products, and how any single product purchase relates to the problems addressed by the other products.
As always, when we simply pick up the phone and have an agenda-driven, unscripted conversation with real buyers, we learn plenty. First, one of the four products was not even evaluated by the same buyer persona as the other three. And more critically, none of the buyers saw any meaningful connections or synergies among any of the products. In fact, buyers confirmed that they would never evaluate even two of the products as part of a single buying decision.
We now know that there simply isn’t a suite value proposition that will resonate with buyers. I see this as a success story. Why, you may ask?
The marketing team was planning to present the solution message at an upcoming sales kick-off. They can now redirect that presentation, forewarned that a solution approach isn’t going to get the reps anywhere. Instead, they can present their new insights about how to influence buying decisions for the underlying products.
This reminds me of another project where the buyer research confirmed that a soon-to-be-launched product was so ill-conceived that the company decided to kill it outright. Incredibly, the client thought that the findings were good news, saving them the embarrassment and cost of launching a product that was destined to fail.
Before any launch…
Here are a few takeaways to apply to your own buyer persona research, messaging and product launches. Before you develop a message or introduce a new product, you need to:
1. Interview the target buyers to understand their definition of the problem and how they relate to the proposed approach.
3. Develop a messaging strategy that addresses the buyers’ needs and objections.
What do you think? Is it possible that bad news is actually good news? I also welcome your tips and comments about developing messaging and buyer personas.
Imagine that you’re at a party with a group of acquaintances and the woman standing next to you announces her weekend plans – she’ll be painting her apartment. Which of the following would you be most likely to ask:
A: What color did you choose?
B: How did you choose the color?
C:There are great apartments for rent right now. Have you thought about moving?
Answers vary on this selection (more on that later). But it’s clear that the question needs to follow the woman’s lead, that we would never script our conversation in advance of the social interaction. Imagine the confused, annoyed or bored response from this woman if we asked “so what do you think about that new play that just opened?”
Most people are perplexed when I ask them to conduct unscripted buyer persona interviews. These are the same people who will happily show up in any social situation, listen for threads of topics that others find engaging, and guide the conversation to mutually relevant topics.
Why not take this same approach with buyer interviews?
While it is definitely more taxing to develop questions in real time, the pressure to do so keeps us listening intently. And each time we base a question on a point that the buyer has recently made, our rapport with the other person builds. The buyer might even tell me, a perfect stranger, something he hasn’t told anyone else.
Pre-defined questions can only address topics that we found interesting before we started listening to the buyer. Worse yet, we are unlikely to learn anything new, having missed the opportunity to probe deeply on an interesting point..
This approach is especially critical for win/loss interviews. We need to get buyers talking at length about their decision criteria and process. We aren’t going to discover any actionable insights by writing down the buyer’s short answer — that we lost the deal on price and features, or won it because our sales rep is such a great guy. We need much deeper insights into how and why the company made this decision.
For instance, if the buyer told us that one of the triggers for this decision was that our solution was easiest to use, we might follow up by asking the buyer to describe what, specifically, they found to be easy. Or we might ask what level of user would find it easy to use, and what training they expected that user to need. Another line of questioning might reveal details about how they assessed the solution’s ease-of-use.
Returning to your interaction at the party, if you selected question A (what color will she paint her apartment), you have just learned that your new acquaintance likes light yellow, which might be interesting if you are selecting colors of paint to carry in your store, or what colors to feature in a marketing campaign for paint.
Question B (how did she choose the color?) is a great follow-up question, or likely your best first question, as this should trigger a story about the way this person thinks and makes decisions. This question will probably get you the answer to the color too.
Question C (did you know there are some great apartments for rent?) is changing the subject, a terrible technique when you need to build rapport, and one of the major reasons that interviews should never be scripted.
Unless you’re marketing home improvement products, you shouldn’t care about anyone’s choice of paint – buyer’s decision processes vary dramatically based on the products, services and solutions they’re considering. But we want to have an agenda, perhaps three-to-five topics that we hope to explore, and not a structured questionnaire, if we want buyers to tell us what really persuades them to make decisions about our category of solutions.
James’ email question was logical – “This is a solution that hasn’t changed much in years, and the market is really mature. So we know a lot about how our buyers think. Is there a simplified way to make sure that our messaging is on target?”
I replied by asking about the top three criteria that buyers evaluate while choosing this type of solution. James answered quickly — ease of use, market leadership, and cost.
A quick check of their competitors’ websites told me that each was focused on their market leading solutions, fabulous user experience (backed by customer quotes or case studies) and cost savings.
In a follow-up phone call James confirmed that discounting is a big issue for their sales people. I had expected this answer. When products and technologies are new, companies become accustomed to competing on unique features, functions and benefits. But almost every product eventually runs out of room to add capabilities that really matter to new buyers. Unless the company can find a premium-price position, the sales people will struggle for every deal through hand-to-hand combat and discounting.
It’s likely that nothing in the past has prepared this company to choose a strategic approach:
I didn’t write about this aspect of the case study that’s featured in my ebook, but as competitors copied our offering in the software escrow market, delivering the same solution for half the price, we raised our prices. A larger market allowed us to increase our marketing investment, and premium pricing was an important part of our strategy to own the position as the market’s most trusted solution.
Here are a few of the insights that would give us a chance to identify a premium-price position for James’ solution.
If ease-of-use is important,
I’d be looking for similar insights on the other points – what level of cost savings does the buyer expect . . . how did the buyer assess the cost performance of each of the options?
James happens to work for the market leader in this category, so he might be tempted to just check that box. But this answer often masks the buyer’s concerns about the consequences of choosing a solution that doesn’t work. What exactly does this buyer see as reasons that she might not achieve the benefits she seeks (the Perceived Barriers insight)?
I don’t usually recommend that companies kick-off a buyer persona initiative by focusing on mature products. It takes skill to get buyers to disclose this information, and the company’s internal stakeholders are likely to resist new strategies for core products or markets they have long dominated.
But James saw the potential of this option, as well as the other dismal paths, and is taking on the challenge. I’m anticipating new insights that are both unexpected and clear.
How are you managing the positioning challenge for mature products?
Am I the only one who has noticed that the typical short (<25 word) marketing statement communicates almost nothing of value?
If the product is really simple, this isn’t much of an issue. I have one client who enables third-parties to build apps around their core solutions. Think iPhone apps, but my client publishes 35% of the world’s scientific research data. When someone created a Genome Finder app and said that it “views and analyzes sequence data of genes,” I was happy. That’s what the app does, all it does, and this information is helpful to the buyer persona.
But the typical B2B product solves a myriad of problems, has a long list of features / benefits, and buyers really want to get some useful information from us. Meanwhile we’re focused on other priorities such as:
Note that the priority to engage or persuade the buyer isn’t even on this list. While this would logically be the first priority, internal pressures generally weigh so heavily on the messaging process that the addition of another variable is entirely unwelcome.
So short messages usually devolve into safe summaries that neither impress nor inflame. Here are two examples I found on the web this week (from two, very large, very successful vendors for this type of solution):
Vendor #1: The ___ system delivers productivity for your people, offers flexibility for your business, and works with existing IT investments.
Vendor #2: Our ____ solutions have been tailored to fit your industry business processes, your customer strategies, and your success criteria.
I suspect that writing these statements involved countless rewrites and internal reviews by dozens of well-paid people. Then the company spent additional money buying Google ads for these products. And these were the first words I read when I clicked on the ads.
Look at these statements from the buyer’s perspective, and tell me if you learned anything at all. These companies had 25 words to try to gain our attention and convince us to take the next step, and this is the best they could do? If only they’d taken the time to understand what was important to us before they wrote the first draft, it might have been their final draft.
Many people ask me how many interviews they should conduct for buyer personas. There are too many dependencies for a simple answer. But I’d happily trade three-to-five highly insightful discussions for several dozen templates filled with data every competitor knows at a glance. If we need high confidence, we can easily quantify the prevalence of the insights with a survey.
Interaction with the participants in last week’s Discovering Persona Insights workshop reminded me that this issue is deeply misunderstood. People seem to think that the goal is to get as many buyers as possible to answer every question on the template.
Here’s how that works out. The interviewer is concerned that the allotted 20 or 30 minutes is barely enough time, so when the buyer says . . .
. . . we chose you because you are the market leader, had the best price, or because your sales person was responsive
. . . we eliminated you from consideration because your product was too expensive, or because it was missing feature “X”
. . . the interviewer simply records the response in the appropriate section of the template, and asks the next question.
The problem is that this buyer just gave us the same throw-away answer she gave the sales rep. This does nothing to inform our marketing strategy. Plus our willingness to keep this interview skin-deep does nothing to engage the buyer in sharing what really happened. I bet she’s reading her email, unwilling to give us more than a fraction of her attention.
This type of interview will capture what the buyer concluded, but that’s all. To create a useful connection between the buyer persona and a product we want to market to them, we also need to capture how buyers arrived at their conclusions, and why the buyer ranked that issue so highly.
A buyer who has rapport with the interviewer and is fully engaged in the conversation will talk for five-to-ten minutes about just one aspect of the decision. When that happens, we know the buyer cares passionately about this topic, which is valuable information in and of itself. And if the interviewer knows how to ask the right follow-up question, the buyer will reveal information that is frankly startling.
On one call we might find a buyer who talks at length about how the competitor’s preferred capability would impact their business, or the trade-offs they made when they chose the less expensive option.
Another buyer will talk in detail about the pain they experienced evaluating each solution’s functionality, how other stakeholders impacted the outcome, and their attitudes towards the final decision.
If we can make the interview truly interesting for buyers, a conversation that was scheduled for 20-minutes is still in progress after as much as an hour. These buyers appreciate that the company was interested in hearing their version of the story. And we have just gained the insights that will literally transform everything we do.
“No honey, we are not going to buy a new boat.” That’s what the fisherman’s wife said when her husband revealed his great idea.
“We already have a boat” she argued, “And we’ll be retiring in a few years. If we bought a vacation cabin now it would be a great investment in our future.”
Meanwhile, the two largest boat manufacturers were developing the marketing plans that would launch their new models. The economy was tough but the high end of the market was doing OK. Winning in that segment was essential to their revenue goals.
One company’s product marketers felt great about their strategy – the newest boats in their line-up were equipped with major advances in satellite-based navigational electronics. Fishermen would surely be impressed by their well-differentiated benefits – find the best fishing spots, catch the most fish, win every tournament with on-board access to graphically displayed weather, current and tidal conditions.
A second company’s strategy was built around an equally impressive differentiator — speed in rough seas. Every fisherman has experienced ugly weather with no practical way to reach the spot where the fish are biting. Speed and stability represent conflicting challenges for hull designers, but this company’s engineers had a new design that really worked. Flash videos and other marketing tactics clearly communicated the benefit of catching more fish and winning the biggest prizes, supported by points about the boat’s speed and agility.
Want to guess which company dominated sales that year?
Neither. In fact both market leaders fell short of their goals when a scrappy little company identified the key insight for this persona – a fisherman isn’t going to buy a boat in this price range unless his wife wants it too.
The company didn’t ignore the fisherman. The company’s marketing materials and sales people were well equipped with messaging that their boat was the best way to catch the biggest fish in any kind of weather. But the critical insight was that the fisherman’s wife was an uncontested, unaddressed influencer over the buying process.
So the company’s marketers and sales people turned on the charm. In marketing materials and boat shows, the wife is invited to see a fully-equipped galley with lacquered teak finishes, Corian countertops and a microwave/convection oven. The table is set for a candlelight dinner. It’s impossible to miss the spacious sleeping berth, a large “head” with shower, a hanging closet, and a diesel heater that will keep her warm during those winter fishing expeditions.
And here comes the closer — there’s another sleeping berth for the grandchildren who will want to visit every weekend once they see this boat!
“When can we take delivery?” says the fisherman’s wife.
This is a B2C example, but B2B marketers make the same mistake. Competitors fight for the attention of the same buyer persona, promising virtually identical benefits that are reverse-engineered based on their unique product capabilities. It’s the rare marketer whose competitive strategies are grounded in deep insights about their buyers, and it’s surprisingly common that the underdog company with the smallest marketing budget is the one to pull it off.
That’s my answer when people ask me how many buyer personas they need. It probably isn’t satisfying when I answer a question with another question, especially when the expected answer is a number — three, five, ten or whatever.
But I always caution that most companies create far too many buyer personas.
The marketers I meet are incredibly enthusiastic about buyer personas – who wouldn’t love to have deep insight into how buyers think. But a little restraint is needed. It’s counter-productive to create more buyer personas than the company can support with differentiated marketing activities.
I suggest listing the job titles of each of the personas that influence the decision to buy and then ranking their importance. This can be accomplished by considering the extent to which each type of buyer is:
The tendency to create too many buyer personas starts when people simply layer them on top of their current view that messages, sales tools and campaigns need to be built for each product, service or solution. In large companies I’ve found product marketers working on personas for their products, service or solution marketers reproducing the effort for their solutions, and industry or regional marketers who are wondering how they fit into the puzzle.
The biggest payback from buyer personas occurs when the company starts with the most important buyers, and then assigns a single owner for each, regardless of what the company hopes to market or sell to them. These companies create a collaborative home (such as a wiki or Sharepoint site) and encourage people throughout the company to post their observations of real buyers. The owner has the final say about what is included in the persona, but the opportunity to contribute to the effort is distributed across the company.
I’m working with companies where it is standard operating procedure for marketers to rely on personas to see the problem and solution through their buyers’ eyes. These personas are the organizing principle for decisions about whom to target and how to build relevant messaging, content, campaigns, and sales tools. Many of these companies have the senior management buy-in to quickly adopt this culture, and the results are astonishing.
For those who lack top-down support, try using the ideas above to prioritize and create the fewest possible personas. Then rely on them to:
It won’t be long before someone notices the difference and asks you how you pulled it off.