It was 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time on January 28, 1986. This would be my second day as an Account Executive at Regis McKenna, the PR firm that Apple, Intel and most of the successful technology companies at that time trusted for their positioning and marketing strategies. I had a bit of marketing experience from my prior tech company job, but frankly, I was filled with anticipation and nervous about working for a famous PR firm.
I was in a conference room with a few of my new colleagues, preparing to learn more about my first assignment: conducting buyer interviews as a foundation for positioning an upcoming Intel launch.
Before we started our meeting, we decided to watch the televised launch of the Challenger space shuttle. Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher and the first “regular person” to become an astronaut, was among the 7-person crew. Christa’s inclusion was a part of a 1984 presidential initiative to promote the importance of teachers, science, and the space program, which meant that millions of school children were watching as the doomed shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after take-off, killing everyone on board.
Social media and the Internet had not yet been invented, but 85 percent of Americans knew about the tragedy within the first hour. The president’s plan to promote science was shattered, and the shuttle program itself was on hold for 32 long months.
It would be years before I fully appreciated how much I had learned that first week on the job. The research into the cause of the Challenger disaster demonstrated that internal pressure can override reason, resulting in stupid, even fatal, mistakes. Over the decades I spent in executive marketing and consulting, I learned just how critical it is for internal experts to be recognized and appreciated for their knowledge, and how difficult it is to convince an organization that a popular idea is flawed.
I also learned that marketers are rarely the trusted resource for knowledge that can prevent otherwise successful products from crashing and burning. This has got to change.
The training I got at Regis McKenna during that week in 1986 never mentioned buyer personas. They trained me to conduct “internal and external audits,” a terrible name for a great idea that involved interviewing internal stakeholders to understand their strategy, followed by buyer interviews to understand their point of view. I learned that I could market even seriously obscure technology if I simply listened to both perspectives to find the spot where they intersected. I learned that no one in most companies is a buyer expert, and that only marketers can prevent companies from pursuing a plan that has a good chance of exploding seconds, weeks, even years, after takeoff.
The Regis McKenna experience gave me the confidence and courage, in 1987, to start my own PR and market research company. A few years later, I sold it and accepted a position as VP of Marketing for a company that wanted me to build a market for a seriously obscure new solution.
The story of how buyers led me to a successful strategy in my first role as a VP is where I started my new interview with Matt Grant, managing editor and host of MarketingProfs’s popular Marketing Smarts podcast series.
In my 31 minute interview with Matt Grant, we chat about:
- Part 1: Building a market for “seriously obscure” products (1:50)
- Part 2: How we identified the buyers who would be receptive (4:00)
- Part 3: A story about a product that was doomed to fail (12:15)
- Part 4: Ad Age says that Marketers get no respect, the future of Marketing (15:20)
- Part 5: What is unique about your approach to interviewing buyers (22:15)
- Part 6: Why your Buyer Persona Manifesto recommends radical change (27:16)
Link to ebook and workshop mentioned in the podcast.
I hope you’ll have a listen and enjoy!
If the button above does not work, you can listen to the
Marketing Smarts podcast
I’m excited to see more marketing agencies among our workshop attendees because by training just one agency to develop actionable buyer personas, we can help many more companies.
To get a sense of how agencies are leveraging buyer insights in the messaging, content marketing, advertising and campaigns they deliver for their clients, I interviewed recent Buyer Persona Institute graduate Julie Squires, CEO of Softscribe Inc. Her Atlanta branding, marketing and public relations agency serves clients in hospitality, travel, multifamily housing, and federal government and enterprise markets.
Q: How did you decide to build buyer personas for your agency clients?
Julie Squires: “I like to tell the story of Henri Matisse, who didn’t start painting until his late 20s when he was recovering from appendicitis. His first teacher looked at his work and told him, ‘You were born to simplify painting.’ We feel we were born to simplify marketing – that’s what we do for our clients. Our focus is to increase sales 20 percent to 25 percent through marketing. And buyer personas give us an effective process to do that.”
Q: How are personas helping you better serve your clients?
Julie: “Messaging is going micro and it’s going visual. If you only have six to eight words [to get a message across], how do you know you’re picking the right words? Buyer personas give us a way to break through the noise level. For us, they’re a discipline for grabbing hold of the voice of the customer. We hand-build this into persuasive messaging that captures the buyer’s attention.”
Q: Do you think marketers are getting too caught up with data, forgetting that marketing is both art and science?
Julie: “I do think we’re getting too algorithmically hypnotized. But we’re starting to see a swing back toward incorporating more of the human element and storytelling back into marketing in service of the business goals.”
Q: What did you do first after attending the buyer persona workshop?
Julie: Our team quickly completed 6-8 solid interviews for a client with buyers who made win or loss purchase decisions within the last 30-90 days. We found that we were able to tap into the voice of the customer at a visceral level and understand the essence of who the buyers are and what they want. Buyer personas are now embedded in our agency culture as part of our BEAM methodology – with the ‘b’ standing for buyer personas.”
Q: Do you think that buyer personas will help you win new business?
Julie: “Yes, it’s one way we’re getting new business…Our clients trust us to lead them into the next new, effective way to communicate to increase sales. So we’re seeing a lot of interest. And it’s already paying big dividends for our existing clients.”
Q: How have buyer personas helped your clients?
Julie: Here’s what’s cool. Our first buyer persona initiative resonated so well that our client rolled out the messaging in all their ads, trade show booth verbiage, and videos. At the sales meeting, everyone was enthusiastic and had confidence in the work [because it was based on real interviews with real buyers].”
Q: What advice would you give for others who are considering using buyer personas?
Julie: “Templates, e-Books, webinars and a wealth of other resources can help you get started. It’s a big procedural shift. You need to invest in training. Teach your team how to incorporate buyer personas into their marketing and PR processes. Also, it’s not enough to talk to in-house experts; interviews with real buyers are essential to gathering competitive and other insights you need to build effective sales-oriented messaging that gets results.”
I want to thank Julie Squires for participating in this interview and sharing her experience. If you have a success story about buyer personas, I’d like to hear from you.
When I ask B2B marketers about their personal priorities, they describe their desire to participate in strategic, high value decisions. Too often, this goal stands in stark contrast with their stories about a typical workday, toiling away with little more autonomy than a production-line factory worker.
No one questions that the finance department is best qualified to keep the books or that the engineers have the authority to build useful products. However, it seems like everyone has a better idea about how marketing should function. From content marketing to launch strategy and messaging, marketing tends to be everyone’s playground.
Why is this? The fundamental problem is that the marketing discipline lacks a perceived core competency: a unique strength that positions marketing as the respected authority on decisions within its own purview.
The Strategic Gap
Until we address this competency question, marketers cannot become the strategic resource that will contribute bottom-line benefits and deliver clear competitive advantages to the organization
In a new article for CMO.com, I offer my proposal for addressing the problem. In my view, the best way for marketers to bridge the gap is to build the necessary skills and knowledge to become buyer experts.
Just check out the invite list whenever executives meet to devise strategies to reach new markets, achieve difficult goals or overcome competitive obstacles. Does anyone at that meeting have the factual insights about how and why different buyers will respond (or not) to a given course of action?
Now imagine a different approach to the role of marketing. By talking to real buyers in 1:1 conversations, marketers would gather the critical insights that would make them among the company’s most valuable competitive assets. (For a brief summary of these buyer insights, see my “Five Rings of Customer Insight” in the July/August 2012 issue of Sales and Marketing Management.)
As a result, marketers would be the source of information to help inform many of the decisions at the highest levels of the company. After all, the buyer’s perspective should be at the heart of every business decision – from acquisitions to market expansion and product introductions. It’s also the missing link that would enable marketers to develop effective content and successful campaigns targeting the right buyers with the right messages.
This essential skill – which I teach in my buyer persona workshops and coaching – would help marketers finally close the competency gap, building the credibility and authority to gain a seat and a voice at the strategy table.
What do you think? How can marketers overcome the core competency gap? Please share your perspective with your colleagues here and on the CMO.com forum for my article What is Marketing’s Unique Core Competency?
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.
So I was astounded when the Wall Street Journal broke the story from travel-site Orbitz that Mac users spend 30% more per hotel night than PC/Windows users.
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.
Watching the Grammys last week, I was captivated by the acclaim for Adele, who dominated the night with six awards, including best song, best record and best album.
I love her music and was anxiously awaiting Adele’s post-surgery performance Sunday night. I was unprepared, however, for how surreal it would be to hear ‘my’ name spoken again and again, and under such auspicious circumstances!
But what really stood out was the contrast in the way Adele presents herself. Unlike my usual audio-only experience of her, it was easy to see so many other ways that she differs from the ‘typical’ star.
Am I the only one who thought her dress was a bit tacky? And while she is a beautiful woman, Adele lacks the movie-star attributes of Carrie Underwood or even the slimmed-down version of Jennifer Hudson (who knocked me out with her tribute to Whitney Houston).
The staging of Adele’s performance was unique, too. She just stood on the stage and sang, without all of the acrobatics and fancy staging that dominated performances by almost everyone else (Did you catch Katy Perry?).
In Adele’s acceptance of the biggest prize, the album of the year, she apologized for the “snot” as she wiped away her tears. Can you imagine Lady Gaga swiping her arm across her nose and making such a statement (note that Lady Gaga won nothing at last week’s Grammys!)
I’m hardly a music expert, but I see all “products” through a marketing lens, and I can’t help but think that Adele has absolutely nailed her buyer persona, and that a big part of her appeal is how well she has instinctively matched her presentation, and her story, to her target audience’s needs.
Every marketer knows that conflict and tension are central to engaging any audience. How could an Adele fan fail to notice when damaged vocal cords rendered her silent?
The tension grew as we waited to learn whether the surgery would work . . . whether her voice could possibly be as powerful afterwards. We’d seen enough press to anticipate a positive outcome, but still, when she sang on Sunday night, it was a thrill for all. No special effects needed.
Just as we were feeling some relief, we hear an announcement that we may lose her again, as she is thinking about taking the next few years “off” to focus on her personal life. Say it ain’t so, Adele!
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that anything about Adele’s story has been staged or contrived to win awards or sell music. I am certain that she is the genuine person she appears to be, in absolutely every respect.
But I do think that those of us who are marketing more banal products can learn from her.
1) Don’t take shortcuts. As I discuss in my e-book, The Buyer Persona Manifesto, it’s tempting to make stuff up about buyers. For example, it would be easy for us to guess that the music buyer persona is a 30-something who plays video games, multi-tasks constantly, and craves theatrics, staging and sex appeal along with his or her music. But Adele’s success tells us something very different is going on.
2) The power of story. However perfect your product, you need to build a story around it that resonates with your persona. Building conflict and scarcity into the story increases its appeal.
3) Be real. All buyers are craving authenticity and humanity. Could it be that we actually get more credibility with our target audiences when we don’t pretend to be perfect?
I’ll talk more about the secrets of building and applying buyer personas at my MarketingProfs online seminar this week. Please join me Feb. 23, 2012, at 12 p.m. EST (9 a.m. PST) for How to Build Personas that Persuade Buyers and Increase Sales.
Today David Meerman Scott launched his 8th book, “Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage.” I’ve just read it and am confident that it will be another huge success for David, who is best known for the bestseller “The New Rules of Marketing and PR”.
I first met David in 2005 when he was a relatively obscure marketing consultant. At the time I was leading the seminar I built for Pragmatic Marketing and we had recently won a very large contract. I was overwhelmed with too much work, so I put the word out that I was looking for someone who could take on a few classes. Jon Bachman suggested his friend David.
A quick talk on the phone and we struck up an agreement. For the next few months, David and I traveled and taught the seminar together. He frequently talked about his blog, but I was barely listening. The marketers in the seminar were not exactly engaged either. We had to work just to explain the concept and people fretted about whether it was a good idea for B2B marketers.
Then David released a little ebook entitled “The New Rules of PR”. Three months later, applying only his new rules to spread the word, more than 150,000 people had downloaded the book. A few months passed before Wiley Publishing asked David to write a “real” book that would expand on the ideas.
I thought that was very cool, but never anticipated the breakthrough that David was about to experience. A short six years later, The New Rules of Marketing and PR has sold over 250,000 copies, was recently released in its third edition, and is available in 25 languages. David is one of the industry’s leading keynote speakers, commanding a very impressive five-figure honorarium for a single hour’s work. CEOs and CMOs in the largest and most famous companies in the world meet with him and seek his advice.
And now David has published his 8th book, with another breakthrough idea that will soon be mainstream.
Watching David’s rise to fame and fortune has taught me a lot about the value of focus. In whatever topic they pursue, experts are always watching for a high-value issue that is not well-understood. Experts don’t wait around for anyone to tell them to solve the problem – they take the initiative before someone else can grab the opportunity.
Initially, the expert’s goal is to assimilate as much as they can from the information that already exists about their topic. This doesn’t seem to create more work for the emerging expert; it is simply a matter of prioritizing their thinking. Every activity is an opportunity to observe, to gain a fresh perspective or insight on the chosen subject. Every meeting is a chance to ask questions and listen. These people aren’t creating new ideas (yet), they are a central point of information for knowledge that is all around them but not aggregated, analyzed or appreciated.
Are you an expert on a topic that, in your company, is perceived to be both high value and rare? If you are in a tactical role, consider how much focus you have given to mastering a skill that can be readily outsourced or that few people respect. Or maybe you have devoted your energies to product expertise, which is more valued but certainly not unique.
Whether your company has identified the problem or not, it needs (and lacks) deep insight into the motivations, preferences and influences that drive buyers to choose your solutions, your competitors’, or to maintain the status quo. The role I call buyer persona expert describes a marketer who can articulate their target buyers’ priorities and perceptions with confidence and clarity. Is anyone in your company focused on this expertise? Can anyone predict, based on factual data, the likely outcome of a product or marketing strategy that has yet to be implemented?
David and his publisher know that his new book will be a huge success. David has so much focus on his buyer personas that winning is a foregone conclusion.
My friend David Meerman Scott has done it again — he's written another book that is perfectly aligned with the needs of his buyer persona. The new book is "World Wide Rave: Creating Triggers that Get Millions of People to Spread Your Ideas and Share Your Stories."
You probably know about "The New Rules of Marketing and PR," the book that David wrote two years ago. But you may not know that David's success as an acclaimed author and speaker all started with a short ebook that he made available through his blog. Over a hundred thousand people downloaded that ebook in a few short months — the beginnings of a World Wide Rave that caught the attention of a big publisher. That connection resulted in the print book that is now published in 22 languages.
Because David wrote content that connected with the needs of his buyers and made it freely available, they told each other about it. He didn't have to pay anyone to market the book. In fact, David's customers pay him to spread his ideas through keynotes that continuously grow his own World Wide Rave.
Best of all, David's success has made him a magnet for a continuous stream of new content and stories that resonate with his target buyers. David doesn't have to go out of his way to study his buyers or create content they want to share with each other, his immersion in the issues that resonate with his buyers ensures constant access to new material and ideas.
If you want to learn how to create content for social media sites and blogs that gets buyers raving about what they heard, check out his video. David knows this stuff — he lives it.
Working on a buyer persona for a chief information officer last week, my client listed the predictable pain points on the flip chart — shrinking budgets, conflicting priorities, legacy solutions that are difficult to integrate but costly to replace.
These aren’t the real issues for Sam, I said. He’s been living with these problems for years – why would he be motivated to talk to you now? We explored the more personal side of this issue for Sam – could his job or career be compromised by sticking with the status quo? Which aspects of this decision look riskiest to Sam? What, exactly, is at stake if he makes a decision to go with your solution and it doesn’t work out?
I kept asking for deeper insight into Sam’s resistance to their solution. Sam knows about products such as yours, I said, so this isn’t about the obvious problems. Let’s talk about his attitudes and what it would it take to change those perceptions.
After a bit of discussion, my client said, “I get it! Buyer personas are about ‘stake-in-the-heart’ marketing.” A bit violent, I thought, but the people in the room suddenly understood that capturing the same old “pain-points” in their buyer persona renders it meaningless.
I’ve never seen a more interesting example of stake-in-the-heart marketing than this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. I confess that as a marketer I am predisposed to see the election through the lens of effective campaign strategy, but think about it. Can you see that the proposed answers to the country’s problems (health care, the economy, terrorism) are the candidate’s “feature-benefits,” crafted into messages that target different persona pain points? Do the differences in their plans fully account for your decision? Are their solutions new enough to explain the record numbers of people voting in the primaries? Or could it be that these candidates have managed to communicate on an entirely different level, and to audiences who are seeking something more?
With rare exceptions, the technology solutions I hear about each week are a lot like politicians – the differences between competing features and benefits aren’t enough to drive most people to take action. Plus buyers know that technology (and political) solutions are more difficult to implement than anyone wants to admit. Marketing needs to get personal if we want to convince buyers that our solutions can be trusted get the job done, come what may.
Marketers interested in online marketing, thought leadership and PR need to check out the recently announced Pragmatic Marketing seminar, the New Rules of Marketing. The seminar is led by David Meerman Scott, noted author and one of my favorite marketing experts. If you are looking for ways to reach your buyers directly using blogs, viral marketing, podcasts, video, search engine marketing and online thought-leadership, get yourself registered soon. David’s book, the New Rules of Marketing and PR, is leading Amazon’s charts in the marketing category, and he’s using the New Rules to get the word out about this seminar. So I’m expecting that these workshops (available in locations throughout the U.S. will be selling out rapidly.
I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that a marketer’s primary job is to develop buyer personas and think like the customer. Why is this so hard? Because personas are not included in anyone’s job description. Nope, marketing is measured by how much stuff it produces and so that’s what it does – developing endless data sheets, demos and presentations that talk about the product. Inevitably this manic activity misses the point — that marketing is meant to motivate a buying influencer to take the next step in the decision process, and that we can’t motivate people we don’t know.
My two cents — tech companies would save a bunch of time and money and be considerably more effective if it were someone’s job to think like the customer and build buyer personas. With clarity about each influencer’s buying criteria, product management and marketing communications would know which words inspire positive action and which are neutral or even negative.
I found an article in today’s Seattle Times about word choices in real estate advertising and thought this might resonate, as most of us have bought or sold a house. Have you ever seen a print ad where the seller described himself as "motivated"? According to research on 20,000 Canadian home listings over 4 years, buyers are not impressed. In fact homes advertised with this word stayed on the market 15 percent longer and sold for 4 percent less than the benchmark. Words that were "superficially positive" such as "clean" or "quiet" had "zero or even a negative correlation with prices." I wonder how our target personas respond to pronouncements about our flexible, robust, interoperable solutions. Or a perennial favorite, that the company is the market leader.
If you happen to be selling a house, read the Seattle Times article to learn more about words that work, especially if your house is in Canada. One of the frequently overlooked aspects of buyer personas is that people don’t hear words the same way throughout the world. A Canadian advertising agency chose the word "brilliant" to describe a tech solution developed by a British company. The company loved it, but the target buyers, Americans, didn’t get it at all.
If you’re talking to someone you don’t know, you are not communicating.