“I have an appointment with a sales person tomorrow.” We were having a leisurely breakfast at our favorite café, and yet my husband’s tone was tortured, almost as if the subject was an upcoming root canal. “I can’t help it,” he said dismally. “I’ve gone as far as I can without talking to their sales guy.”

On our ride home, I realized that the buyers we interview for our mostly B2B persona studies have similar thoughts about their buying experiences. Although most of our clients sell technology or other business solutions, their buyers also avoid vendor interactions, especially with sales, for as long as possible. And like us, most have eliminated all but a few options by the time our clients know they’re looking.

This is just one of the reasons I cringe every time I read an article advising marketers to build buyer personas by interviewing their sales people or tracking the buyer’s digital footprint.  There are dozens of boats we could consider, but only one or two companies knows we were shopping for a boat like theirs. As we often discover during our B2B interviews, we didn’t complete forms on any websites or conduct a Google search, so there is no digital footprint for marketers to follow.

What else is similar? Since this is the first time we’ll buy this type of boat and we’ll have to live with the consequences for a long time, we don’t want to make a mistake. So, for the last few weeks, we’ve talked to as many locals and “friends of friends” as possible to learn from their experiences. We’ve listened intently, making note of which brands they purchased and why.

Taking their advice, we went to the websites for the boats they suggested, searching for details about the dozens of criteria we’ve established. Most websites didn’t provide the information we were seeking, so we checked those off our list. On YouTube we found one very helpful video from a guy who owns one of the boats we were considering, which moved it up in our rankings.

Every day I read articles advising marketers to focus on demographics such as age, gender or “a day-in-the-life” when they build their personas. But much younger friends recommended the boat we’ll buy and their daily lives don’t resemble ours in the least. What we have in common are the ways we’ll use this boat, which is why our concerns and questions are essentially the same.

If anyone wanted to understand my boat buyer persona, they’d need to interview me about my buying experience. Just knowing that I talked to my peers or visited websites is of little help, they need to know what information I was seeking and which answers allowed my husband and I to trust in our decision.

As my husband said this morning, we’ve “gone as far as we can” in our buyer’s journey without talking to a sales person. We’ve narrowed our options to three, and now my husband will meet with the rep for the one that looks best. I hope the salesperson is smart enough about our buyer persona to answer his questions.

Price matters, but we’re not considering the least expensive option and will pay a premium for this boat if it does check all the boxes. This won’t prevent my husband from negotiating for a good price though.

I can imagine the day that company’s marketers ask this rep to describe our buyer persona. He’ll undoubtedly describe our age, marital status, and concerns about price. Like most personas developed without buyer interviews, this won’t improve the company’s marketing effort and might even make it worse

April 23, 2018
Categories : B2B, Buyer Personas

I can’t blame marketers for avoiding the development of marketing plans, launch plans or any other version of a strategic plan. This apparently reasonable request usually requires countless hours of writing and revisions, only to be filed away in some dusty online folder.

The reason marketing plans don’t get implemented is that they are focused on what you want to achieve. In fact, countless articles and templates for marketing planning suggest that you start with your goals, obstacles, and objectives. While these are certainly critical components, I don’t see how marketers could possibly expect anything built around internal needs could withstand exposure to the pressures of new priorities, ideas and people.

What do your buyers want?

While marketers often try to include market data and audience profiles in their plans, if you look closely you’ll see the plan says nothing about what your buyers want to know during their journey or where they go for this information. Thus, the actual content of marketing deliverables is left to the imagination of the team that is doing the work. It should be no surprise that depending on where the work originates, the content differs dramatically. Even more costly is the team’s guesswork about how to deliver the content, which has much more to do with your preferences than the buyers’.

A more rational and sustainable approach to planning begins with clarity about what affects your buyers’ decisions (and just as critically, what doesn’t matter to your buyer). It might feel like cheating, but what if you knew the buyers’ true story about everything they did, and every question they asked, as they went through their awareness, consideration and decision process? Now your marketing plan could be based on the information buyers are seeking and actual insight into how buyers decide that a competitor’s solution (or the status quo) is better suited to their needs.

Information your buyer needs to make a decision

To illustrate this potential, here is a mock-up of several different buyer’s journeys wrapped up into one. Note that we mixed up the findings from several personas to protect the intellectual property of the companies that invested in this research. So please don’t use this mock-up to guide your own planning, but this will give you a sense of the detail about your buyer’s informational needs that results from the proper research.

What your buyer does to make a decision

In this example, we have also combined results from several studies to illustrate the steps a buyer might take during their journey. You’ll note that unlike a lot of buyer journey examples you’ll find online, this one is about what the buyers do, not your marketing activities. Once you know where buyers go for trusted information and who influences their decisions, you’ll have the data you need to decide which marketing spend is most valuable and what deserves less attention.

Not knowing this information is costing you

Many marketers who wish they had deep buyer insights say it is difficult to justify the investment. If this is you, consider the very tangible costs of making stuff up as you go and failing to give buyers the useful information they are seeking during their journey. You’ll discover quite quickly, the costs are enormous for you, your sales team and your company’s bottom line.

For more recommendations, attend our virtual Buyer Persona Masterclass or read our book; Buyer Personas:  How to Gain Insight into Your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies and Win More Business (Wiley). If you are even more passionate on the subject, contact the Buyer Persona Institute directly so we can learn about your special circumstances and tell you how other marketers have solved the same challenges.

Across thousands of buyer interviews spanning dozens of industries, there is one aspect of almost every buyer’s journey that is pervasive and absolutely terrifying –

Almost no one can recall any marketing engagement that influenced their decision.

I don’t like to communicate bad news. But I cringe every time I see a graphic depicting an elaborate buyer’s journey that is utterly unrelated to anything a real buyer has ever told us.

Here are a few facts we’ve learned from studies of buyers who have recently engaged in a decision that required committee approval or considerable thought. When we ask them to walk us through their actual buyer’s journey, we hear:

  • Buyers describing major investments where the only providers they even considered were current vendors or those recommended by their peers.
  • While some buyers visit vendor websites, most are well along in their buyer’s journey by that time.
  • Although we occasionally hear mentions of touchpoints such as webinars, whitepapers or case studies, most buyers tell us that vendor content can’t be trusted.

As a career sales and marketing professional, I feel like we’re living in an echo chamber that continually reinforces our own ideas and methods. We’re reading content and listening to our peers, all of whom are invested in defining, clarifying and increasing the importance of marketing.

Sadly, popular myths about buyer personas have contributed to the problem. Directed to build personas through surveys, a few customer interviews or conversations with sales people, marketers have started to believe that this rudimentary approach is good enough.

Additionally, marketing automation feeds our delusion, counting every point of engagement and assigning meaning to the buyer’s progress. If you’ve fallen into this trap, imagine with me the hubris if Google Maps, tracking your path through a city, purported to know why you embarked on this journey and how you determined which destination to target. Data can’t tell us a thing about buyer motivations.

To clarify, we don’t work with extremely short/low consideration buying journeys, such as CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies. Based on my own experience buying consumer products online, I expect that buyers of those products could readily describe positive interactions with marketing. And I know that buyers who shop online reveal much about their intention and persona. But once these same buyer personas arrive at the office, or when they must make a high stakes personal buying decision, their engagement online and with sales teams represents a miniscule aspect of their journey.

If this article sounds all doom and gloom, consider what you could do to become the company that makes it easy for your buyers. What if you could align your sales and marketing efforts with the actual needs of your buyers? Could you divert some portion of your time and attention to hearing what buyers really think as they navigate the journey you want to influence? Is it time to understand which part of your company (or solution, product or service) story resonates with your buyers? Hint: If your story is based exclusively on what’s unique, new or made up in a conference room, I’ll lay you odds that it isn’t what your buyers want to hear.

This is the first of many upcoming blog posts from Steve Rankel, who joined our team last summer as COO. Steve is a 30-year veteran of marketing and sales, and an expert at decoding why customers buy, and transforming buying insights into actionable content strategy and content.

No matter your political persuasion, I think we can agree that recent events are contributing to increasing degrees of uncertainty and distraction for almost everyone.

As I write this, management teams, marketers, and agencies around the world are huddled in conference rooms asking the same question: “Okay, so what do we do now? How does this affect our content marketing strategy? What new content decisions do we need to make to more effectively market to our target audience – and ensure this new reality doesn’t affect this year’s metrics?”

And while those are good questions – there is one fundamental problem: they’re being asked of the wrong person.

That’s because there is no buyer, buyer representative, or buying insight in those meetings.

If you’re not asking this question of a buyer – someone whose MBO’s, reputation, 2017 bonus, and maybe job depends on the right choices about the kind of solutions you sell – then you’re going to get a bunch of opinions.

Making stuff up in a conference room, on a whiteboard, with smart people, as brilliant as it is, is just an educated guess.

Which is a common trap we see when content marketers “invent” their own fictional buyer persona.

A VP we interviewed recently explained a significant CapEx request he put in front of his CFO. The CFO said, “OK, I’ll approve this with your name on it. But if it doesn’t work, it’s your tombstone.”

What do you think that VP will share if you ask him? Opinions? Guesses? No. He’ll share war stories. Scars. Wounds. Emotions. REAL STUFF.

The world has become more confusing, complex, and distracting — for you and your buyers – to bet anything as important as your revenue, content strategy, sales training, maybe even your career, on a GUESS.

So you & I as marketers have several options:

  1. Involve your smartest people to invent a new content strategy on a whiteboard
  2. Keep guessing, but do it harder, and more earnestly
  3. Hold more meetings with your agency, to ask their opinion
  4. Meet with your analyst or research firm, to get their opinion
  5. Gather focus groups, and record their opinions
  6. Work your salesforce harder
  7. Generate MORE content in MORE formats – in the hopes that something sticks

OR we can go out into the market – interview buyers – and build actionable buyer personas that will reveal a content strategy and content marketing plan that matters to THEM.

(NOTE: I’m NOT talking about interviewing customers. They have a relationship with you. They have already aligned themselves with your firm. They think more like you than prospects do. You need to understand the buyers who HAVEN’T BOUGHT FROM YOU).

DECISION TIME: What will you do now? Will you increase the risks you face by relying on guesswork? Will you follow approaches like “Use a template to create a semi-fictional character representing your buyer,” and create content based on that?

Or, will you ask REAL BUYERS to tell you the truth about how they’re now approaching these decisions in 2017?

Go directly to the horses’ mouth. Your 2017 will be better for it.

People often ask us how they can tell if their buyer personas are accurate and actionable. In a recent survey we heard questions such as “How do I really know if my buyer personas are right? And, “How can I make sure they tell me what matters to buyers and prospects?”

The short answer is that buyer personas work when they reveal how buyers think about the buying decision you want to influence.

While many companies use interviews to source their buyer personas, most of those interviews are conducted with the company’s salespeople or customers. Instead of a factually correct representation of  their buyers, including those who prefer a competitor’s approach, these personas have a strong bias in favor of the company that develops them.

There is a pressing need to eliminate self-serving personas. It makes no sense to invest in describing only the ‘ideal’ buyers who are delighted by our story when those customers represent a small part of the market we need to influence.

Fortunately, the truth about real buyers is readily available through interviews with people who have recently evaluated for purchase a solution, product or service similar to yours.

Important point: this is not what most people mean when they talk about buyer personas, which would be more accurately labeled as buyer profiles in that they focus on describing people, not buying decisions. Even if these profiles are based on solid research and buyer interviews, they fall short of fulfilling our mission to know what we need to do and say to persuade buyers to choose us.

Asking yourself the following questions will guide you to more accurate buying insights:

    1. Did your buyers say it matters? If not, it’s a guess or an opinion.
    2. Less is more. In every persona segmentation study we’ve ever conducted, we’ve identified the need for fewer buyer personas than the client expected. Why? Because personas should only be segmented based on differences in HOW and WHY PEOPLE BUY – not your product lines, industries or job titles. If buyers are of like minds about the buying decision you want to influence, they will respond to the same sales and marketing activities. You are only making work for yourself by building multiple personas.For one client we looked at several of their major markets, and discovered three buyer personas—based NOT on market or industry, but on unique insights we uncovered about each buyer’s approach to this type of buying decision. A previous vendor had created dozens of personas, confusing everyone and virtually guaranteeing the persona work would sit on a shelf. Don’t get lured into demographic or product-based segmentation. You care about differences in your buyers’ thinking about a buying decision. Besides- who can market to 28 personas?
    3. Interview people who have recently been buyers. Find buyers who decided that the status quo had to go and it was time to change, and have invested time or money to solve the same problem. People act and think very differently than they think they will when budget is on the line, which is why so much ‘opinion’ research turns out to be misleading. The interviews that will give you real insights are conducted with people who have a true story to tell about what happened when they DID IT.
    4. Your first interview question is: “Take me back to the day when you decided (problem to solve) was important…” Then ask the person to tell you what was special about that day and why they didn’t act sooner. Spend five or ten minutes on this moment and you’ll know a lot about why and when buyers are receptive to hearing from you.
    5. Don’t work from a script—ask the buyer to tell you everything they did and thought about as they evaluated their options and made a decision. Whatever they tell you is something that was very important to them or they would have forgotten it by now.If you really listen and are interested in what the buyer has to say, you’ll be amazed at how engaged the buyer will get in telling their story and how much they’ll reveal. Leave your agenda behind. These are golden insights that you’re not going to find if you present your ideas—and God forbid, “Was it less important, highly important, somewhat important, shoot me” – like typical market research involves.
    6. Ten interviews may not seem like much, but unless you want to find differences between different segments of buyers, ten is enough. Whatever you hear in interview number 11, 17 or 26 won’t be worth the investment. If you are accustomed to surveys this might sound strange, but remember: you are looking for game-changing insights that a) the competition doesn’t now and b) you can exploit in your marketing and sales interactions – not charts and tables filled with data. If you need certainty, commission a quantitative study after the interviews to validate your findings.
    7. Your objective is to capture ACTUAL BUYER QUOTES and comments—not the opinions of your researchers, internal staff or agency. This is a big one. With traditional qualitative research, ethnographic studies and focus groups, you are paying for a research firm’s OPINIONS about what they heard. Your personas should reveal the buyers’ actual words summarized with headlines that reveal patterns across the interviews. We recommend organizing the quotes and headlines around the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ -- Priority Initiative, Success Factors, Perceived Barriers, Decision Criteria and Buyer’s Journey. Click here to see an example buyer persona.
If you follow these seven steps and go to the source for your buyer personas—actual buyers—no one will worry if you got them right.

danger trip hazardYou may have heard that buyer personas are a vital tool for salespeople, and wondered if you should feature them in an upcoming launch or sales kickoff.

The first point is that although personas can appear deceivingly simple to create, the most common paths used to to build them generates personas which are NOT valuable to salespeople.

It is a waste of time to assign a name and photo to obvious pain points, or to focus on personal details unrelated to the problems you address. For example, one client showed us personas that included information about their prospect’s recreational activities. Unless you’re selling exercise equipment, your reps don’t need to hear that the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is 45, married, and attends spin class three times a week. Yes, this make the CMO more human, but it does nothing to help your sales (or marketing) team frame a compelling argument for your data analytics solution.

No Fiction. Facts.

Far from fictitious or idealistic portraits, buyer personas need to be built on well-researched insights into the actual priorities, success factors, and decision criteria that factor into your buyer’s decision to solve the problem you address.

Before you deliver buyer personas to your sales team, make sure you consider these three points:

  1. Ensure Success for that First Sales Interaction

Many personas are built around job titles, with additional notes such as whether that role is risk adverse or tech savvy. This is a start, but not nearly enough to help your salesperson know how to engage this buyer in a first meeting.

Does your persona include specifics on the drivers that cause buyers to reject the status quo and begin to evaluate solutions like yours?  Your reps need to know which buyers are receptive, which are not, and most critically, which company or individual dynamics predict a willingness to change.

These insights also tell you which roles you should target. In a recent study, our client learned that their preferred buyers — those looking for higher-priced quality & guarantees of performance – were least involved in day-to-day operations, which everyone naturally assumed was where the high quality pitch would work. Totally new, totally fresh, this was an insight they were NOT expecting until we interviewed real buyers

By the way: this is what sales reps already LOOK AND LISTEN for when reading the web, watching the news or reading a company’s news releases. The more you can arm reps with KEY INSIGHTS they can use to fine-tune their “sales radars,” the faster they will find real opportunities and weed out time-wasters who just have time to talk.

This approach creates “wedges” to crack open opportunities that a product or ROI pitch simply cannot. Your reps will love these insights as they leave “less informed” competitors in the dust.

  1. Win/Loss Can Only Tell You So Much: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

While you may have heard that features or price are high on the list of reasons that buyers don’t choose you, unscripted, “safe” conversations with real buyers prove that these are only a small part of the story. There’s a LOT more to these decisions that buyers are not revealing to sales reps during the sales process, or to whomever is conducting the follow-on win/loss interview.

These unexpressed objections are CRITICAL because they allow your salespeople to address objections your competitors will never discover.

One of the primary objectives for buyer personas is to anticipate the buyer’s questions, and the answers they hope to hear, as they research options, weigh alternatives, and make a selection.

Every rep can tell you story after story of the “deal that almost was,” where everything looked just right and then: NOTHING. The prospect went dark, the deal went cold, it just wasn’t time.

It’s not the things you expect that can kill a deal, it’s the ones you don’t anticipate. Buying insight interviews prove that even the most informed companies have, at most, 90% of the facts about what matters to their buyers.  The missing 10% is slowing down your entire sales pipeline.

  1. Use Buying Insights to Build Synergy between Marketing and Sales Teams

Despite big investments in marketing automation, lead scoring, and shared goals, when you listen to buyers, you’ll hear that sales and marketing efforts remain largely disconnected.

Buyers are frustrated and lose trust in a company when the answers they need aren’t readily available. No one cares whether sales or marketing is at fault – if a buyer perceives the disconnect between themselves and the company, you’ve just added ANOTHER obstacle to the sale.

It helps to start with the understanding that sales people persuade one buyer at a time, while marketing persuades markets full of buyers.  Now conversations between sales and marketing can focus on the perceptions that exist and what the teams can do, separately and jointly, to educate the market and persuade buyers that you have a solution that is a perfect match for the buyer’s expectations.

The goal should be meaningful sales and marketing plays that aren’t based on simple buyer profiles or obvious pain sheets. Instead, your activities are built on facts that aren’t easy to discover, creating a competitive advantage that will be much more sustainable than a price reduction or feature enhancement.

Properly researched buyer personas are far more than a clever way to dramatize WHO “might” be the person involved in a buying decision plus their personality, pains and objectives. To be valuable to sales, they need to provide new insights about how, when and why buyers choose products or services like yours – the very insights salespeople wish they had to close a deal.

In our upcoming webinar series, we will explain how effective buying insights are uncovered using interviews that involve a completely unscripted dialog between an interviewer and real buyers. You’ll see how skills much like a journalist’s uncover the practical, emotional and rational stories related by people who have recently spent money to solve the same problem you address. For more information on interviewing skills, custom buyer persona studies and upcoming webinars, visit www.buyerpersona.com or email info@buyerpersona.com.

I am fascinated by a recent Gartner study about the journey of 700 enterprise buyers across the U.S., EMEA, Brazil, India and China. According to a recent interview with Hank Barnes, Research Vice President at Gartner, the study focused on four areas:

  • During the buying process, what types of activities and information do you use, independent of the firm you are evaluating?
  • What type of content do you use from the provider itself?
  • What marketing activities get your attention?
  • What are you expecting from sales interactions?

Thebuyers journey findings? Buyers spend only 32% of their journey interacting with supplier-side content or sales people. Two thirds of the buyer’s journey is devoted to internal assessments, peer networking, and the recommendations of external experts.

According to Barnes, buyers “have access to all this stuff from vendors, but making sense of it, interpreting it, understanding that they have the right stuff is where they’re really struggling.”

This data quantifies exactly what we hear every day in our buyer persona interviews. And as a career sales and marketing professional, I am amazed that every company hasn’t realized that filling this void could be the best way to gain a competitive advantage.

In an article I wrote for CMO.com a few months ago, I related our experience interviewing buyers who say that marketing materials do nothing to help them make a decision, as competing solutions relate the same obvious benefits rather than useful information. The buyers’ experience with sales people is mostly a continuation of this theme, as sales arrives with the same marketing message rather than the critical details that help buyers gain confidence in their decision.

We know that many marketers are trying to explain the value of interviewing buyers to understand their needs and expectations. Maybe now that we have a report stating that vendors are privy to only 1/3 of the buyer’s journey, we can make it clear that it doesn’t work to build buyer personas by culling information from salespeople and marketing automation solutions. We’re seeing a very small part of the decision we need to influence.

A few days ago, Mark Schaefer published an article entitled “Why customer personas may be an outdated marketing technique.” In it he argues that every competitor is marketing to the same people, so if marketers rely on obvious data about their customers to guide their content, they’ll all come to the same conclusion and deliver the same useless content. I agree.

He goes on to relate a story about sitting with a CEO client while her agency asked questions in a persona template. Mark was trying to manage his frustration when the CEO stopped this ridiculous conversation, thank goodness.

The rush to build buyer personas is resulting in too many experiences just like Mark’s. If we don’t stop this insanity and get real about what’s involved in building and relying upon insights into buying decisions, influential stakeholders like Mark (and your CMO) will draw this same conclusion.

Buyers created the need for audience marketing

Let’s stop to remember why audience and content marketing first became vital initiatives. You have probably heard that today’s self-educated buyers are, on average, 60% of the way to a buying decision before they talk to our sales people.

Before the buyers messed this up, it was marketing’s job to build awareness with cleverly crafted and placed messaging about the benefits of our solutions. When buyers needed more information they’d contact us and we’d send in our sales experts, people who had been trained to discover the goals, concerns and purchase criteria for that buying decision. The reps would use these insights to position their solution as a perfect fit for that buyer and win the business.

Once buyers decided to keep salespeople at arms length until they had narrowed the field to just two or three solutions, audience marketing was supposed to keep us on the buyer’s list for as long as it took to get our sales people into the account.

Marketers underestimate the changes buyers have imposed

Few companies understood the magnitude of the responsibilities these buyers had imposed upon marketing. But it did make sense to “know your customer,” so marketers began to rely upon familiar approaches such as surveys, scripted interviews and agency partners to complete profiles for each job title or role who might influence the purchase. By some counts, 80% of marketers will have these templates completed by the end of this year.

But try to find a marketer who says that the purpose of audience marketing is to understand the buying decision so well that they know which questions buyers will ask, the answers they want to hear, and can create content that explains the capabilities that align with that buyer’s expectations.

It’s clear that the agency marketer Mark Schaefer met didn’t know that useful buyer personas require direct interviews with recent evaluators of a similar solution, or that they feature verbatim quotes to tell you, in the buyers’ own words, what triggers their decision to initiate this type of purchase, which outcomes they anticipate, their barriers to purchase, and the criteria they use to weigh their options.

If we don’t get this right, buyers will take things into their own hands

Yes, our goal is to know our buyers, but the knowledge we’re capturing in buyer personas is misguided and rarely used for anything at all.

Now that we have the mandate and automation to deliver content throughout the buying cycle, marketers need to know how to deliver more than the appetizer-grade, benefits-oriented messaging that was always meant for the top of the funnel. It’s time to deliver the beef, the main course that will help the buyer make an educated decision about whether we are the best qualified company to address their problem.

When we fail, buyers rely on their peers, consultants and employee’s prior experiences to decide which options they should consider. At that point, anything can happen.

This isn’t idle speculation. Over the course of the last year we had lengthy, unscripted conversations with 419 buyers who had recently evaluated our client’s high consideration solutions. It wasn’t fun to report back that we are losing deals, at least in part, because buyers couldn’t get the information they needed from their sales and marketing interactions.

We can change this outcome, but first we must realize that we have big shoes to fill. Salespeople have a much better chance of convincing one buyer at a time, but the buyers we interview don’t seem likely to make this any easier for us.

I was saddened by Radio Shack’s recent bankruptcy filing. Its convenient stores and helpful staff are easy to find in any city I’m visiting. There is even a store in the tiny community where I live.

Radio Shack logoRadio Shack’s 60-year rise and fall is a case study in what happens when a company’s vision isn’t balanced by insight into its customer’s expectations.

When Charles Tandy bought a small-time chain of nine stores in 1963, advances in technology and automation pointed to a future where we would all enjoy lives of leisure, freed of the need to spend eight hours a day at the office. Radio Shack would become a place for tinkerers and hobbyists with lots of free time and a desire to explore the brave new world of technology.

Radio Shack employees were drawn from the same pool of hobbyists, so they were ideally suited to engage shoppers with enthusiasm and knowledge. By the mid-1970s, the citizens band radio craze had made the company incredibly profitable. At it’s peak, the company had 7,000 stores.

But as we all know, technology didn’t give us more free time. In fact, in 1979 the average American worker was on the job for 1687 hours a year. By 2007, that number had ballooned to 1868 hours – adding more than a month of extra work hours every year.

We can only speculate about what might have happened had Radio Shack focused on its origins when it jumped into the personal computer market in 1977 with the TRS-80. This was a time when computers were often assembled from kits, but Tandy chose to sell his pre-assembled in one box. Radio Shack had found success marketing to “do-it-yourselfers,” so why would they not continue to do so with their computers? It’s hard to say, but the TRS-80 is now barely a footnote in computing history, and marked the beginning of the decline for the corporation.

Over the next few decades, the company flailed about, expanding their product selections to focus more on consumer electronics and launching a mail-order catalog business. Their ability to solve a unique problem for their buyers continued to deteriorate, as there were plenty of other players in the consumer electronics space, and the Internet quickly made mail-order catalogs obsolete. Attempts to launch a “big box” electronics chain failed, and the company sold off the electronics manufacturers that made their house brands to focus on third-party products, with disastrous results.

By 2011, stock prices had fallen from $24.33 to $2.53 a share, and in January the company announced they were filing for bankruptcy.

Radio Shack is only one of many market leaders who lost their way as their vision came face-to-face with customer expectations. Similar failures to understand their target buyer and deliver on their specific needs have defeated behemoth companies like Unisys, Digital Equipment Corporation and countless others.

The changes that cause large, successful companies to fail are rarely sudden, which is why they are so easy to dismiss and also why they are so disturbing. Like Radio Shack, most companies have many opportunities to adjust their strategies to align with their buyers’ needs. Radio Shack might well have survived had they maintained their focus on their audience of electronics hobbyists and adjusted their strategies accordingly. Instead, they pursued a “me too” strategy that stripped them of their purpose, steadily reducing their unique product offerings to sell mobile phones and consumer gear that could be purchased anywhere. The hobbyists went elsewhere, and in the end, Radio Shack couldn’t serve any buyer better than some other store could.

It’s too late for Radio Shack, but it doesn’t have to be too late for your company. If you’re developing strategies without understanding your customer’s expectations, consider the possibility that you might be missing facts that will be retold in a story like this.

And beware of the online tools that help you build buyer personas without interviewing real buyers. As the people at Radio Shack can attest, it is incredibly dangerous to recycle your internal mis-perceptions into a new template and rely on your own hopes and vision.

P.S. My new book “Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insights into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business” (Wiley) is now shipping.

I just made an important buying decision. Since Wiley will release my first book on March 9, I wanted to hire a PR firm to do the launch right. I started out the way most buyers do when they initiate a “high consideration” buying decision. I asked my peers for recommendations.

I had phone conversations with three of the agencies they suggested, talked about my book, and received written proposals from all them. They each had good ideas, and I realized that the choice wasn’t going to be easy.

Then my buyer’s journey was disrupted by another buying influencer (something that happens frequently in high consideration decisions). In this case, it was my publisher, John Wiley & Sons, who suggested that I consider one of the firms they had worked with before. I was frustrated to be back at the beginning of a process I had hoped to complete by then.

The interesting thing about selecting an agency to launch my book is that they all do, essentially, the same thing. They contact media, try to get coverage, and help with positioning and messaging for the launch. And of course they are all smart enough to know that they can’t promise results. No one can assure me that the Wall Street Journal, Forbes or any of the other publications I hope to reach will actually interview me or write about my book.

I found myself in the same situation as the buyers we interview every day, relying on the same resources to make a significant investment in a service that is difficult to evaluate. And if I made the wrong choice, I was going to spend a lot of money and miss a big opportunity.

Wiley initially sent me a list of 20 or so agencies to consider, but after a bit of pleading they narrowed it to three. So I visited the agency’s websites.

The first firm had a site that was hyper-focused on their successes in the eBook market, with plenty of detailed case studies from satisfied authors. But I’m not publishing an eBook (although there will be an electronic edition). So that focus turned me off, despite their obvious competence.

The second firm’s site was professional, but generic. The authors and books they’d launched were impressive, but they looked a lot like the other agencies I was already considering.

But when I rthought leaderseached the homepage for the third company, Stern + Associates, my attitude changed in an instant. Right there, in larger text than their company name, was a simple message that spoke directly to me — “We build thought leaders.”

My motivation for writing my book wasn’t to “sell a lot of books,” although that would be nice. I wanted to change the conversation about buyer personas and end the confusion with buyer profiles. I wanted every buyer persona to feature the buying insights that help marketers make better decisions. I wanted to lay a foundation for marketers to become the buyer experts their companies trust to help them win more business.

From my first visit to the Stern home page, through the sales call that followed, I heard about thought leadership. I knew that I had found an agency that understood my motivations and could help me achieve them. My choice was suddenly clear and I was more willing to invest in the budget they suggested.

Stern didn’t use buyer personas to design their messaging or website. It’s clear that their focus on thought leadership is part of their core business strategy and that it was simply fortunate that Wiley referred me to a firm that was a direct match for my needs.

But this story about my buying decision is the precise reason that companies need to break free of the generic messaging that sounds the same for every competitor. It’s the reason that persona interviews must probe for the insights that identify an exact match between our solutions and a buyer’s needs.

We want every buyer to find the solution they’re seeking, and every marketer to know how to make that happen. That’s why I wrote Buyer Personas.



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