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There’s a wonderful Mark Twain quote that goes like this “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

One of the most compelling aspects of buyer personas is their ability to identify the words that inspire buyers to take action. In a content marketing sea of buzzwords, jargon and “me too-ness”, marketers who can say something non-obvious and meaningful have a real competitive advantage.

island vacationHere’s an example. I recently arrived early for lunch with a business associate and noticed a Tommy Bahama store next door. Curious, I drifted in and immediately caught the eye of a salesperson who said, “I’ll be right with you, I’m with another guest right now.”

That’s brilliant. If you’re marketing a brand that wants to inspire buyers to spend north of $100 on a Hawaiian shirt, you need to change their mood. By training their sales people to say “guest” instead of “customer”, Tommy Bahama evokes the attitude of a carefree vacation where buyers might actually indulge in such an extravagance.

IBM is the source of a similar example. In 2002, when they bought Price Waterhouse Cooper’s consulting business, they made the deliberate decision to drop the term customers and start referring to clients. The logic? While customers engage in a single sales transaction, clients are involved in a much longer, strategic relationship.

A fascinating article on Salon last week talks about how language influences people’s perception of reality. Cognitive scientist Lena Boroditsky has conducted multiple experiments on words and the emotions they inspire. I thought this one was especially relevant:

“In a series of experiments by Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau, test subjects were asked to read short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city and answer questions about the city. The researchers then assessed how people answered the questions based on whether crime was described as a beast or a virus. In one study, 71 percent of the participants called for more enforcement when they read crime described as a beast. When the metaphor was changed to virus, the number dropped to 54 percent.”

Can you imagine achieving a 17% improvement by changing just one word?

While these examples are simple in the retelling, they all began with something that isn’t the least bit easy — choosing the words that will fundamentally alter their audience’s experience. One of the best reasons to build buyer personas is to uncover the insights that clarify those words, and make it possible to rally internal stakeholders around that decision even if it challenges cherished opinions.

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.

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.

I wish you a new year filled with joy, prosperity, and successful marketing initiatives. For those who want a roadmap, here are the ten rules from the Effective Product Marketing seminar restated in the form of resolutions. Perhaps one or more of these will inspire you.

1.    I will never confuse efforts with results.
2.    I will know who I am talking to before I attempt to communicate.
3.    I will create marketing tools and programs that influence a targeted buyer or customer persona.
4.    I will not confuse product positioning with program messaging and strategy.
5.    I will develop support for my go-to-market plans by giving management a business case for their investment.
6.    I will develop web content and collateral that drives buyers into and through the sales process.
7.    I will write benefits statements that are succinct answers to a buyer’s problems.
8.    I will give the salespeople clear insights into each persona’s priorities, supported by persona-specific messages and tools.
9.    I will integrate product-oriented programs into a single strategic campaign for each type of persona I need to influence.
10.  I will avoid the checklist marketing trap by doing the Gather, Focus, Assess, Measure and Improve steps.

The best way to get to know your buyers costs nothing and takes no effort whatsoever. Establish a news feed (Google offers one, for instance) based on the keywords you think matter to your buyers. Set your preferences to get a daily email  with links to any new web content and blogs published on that subject. If you notice that there is a lot of information you don’t want, refine the keywords until you see valuable results.

There is so much free, amazing information on the Web. Here’s one example I found today — a Ziff-Davis study that identifies the highest priority goals for CIOs in each of four areas: strategy, management, security and risk,  and technology. If you sell to senior IT people, this is good stuff —  free reports based on “thousands of interviews over the course of the last year.”

Let’s say you’re marketing knowledge management solutions. Check out the technology report and you’ll see that “improving the quality of our data” is one of the top IT priorities for 41% of the companies with revenues less than $100M, and only 25% of the companies with revenues over $1 billion. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the larger companies, but it does give you a way to estimate the size of your addressable market. Read on and you’ll see that your ability to “convert raw data into accurate and actionable analysis” is a priority for 56% of respondents, while only 37% of them said that “managers often doubt the accuracy and reliabiity of the information.” This is good information when you’re choosing messages.

You don’t want to make decisions based on any single data point, but spend a few minutes each day reading what’s published online, and you’ll start to see patterns that result in more effective  go-to-market strategies and optimze your PR, advertising, and marketing investments. No excuses now — listening to the market is far too easy and important.

As I was preparing my Mary’s free range turkey for the oven I saw this notice on the wrapper:

"Even the most experienced cooks get worried when it comes time to prepare the holiday turkey. To ease your worries, call Mary at 1-888-666-8244."

Then there’s the Butterball Turkey hotline, whose motherly agents have been featured on every national news broadcast I’ve seen in the last two days. How much would that advertising have cost?

I’m not worried about cooking my turkey, but I’m tempted to call these hotlines anyway just to thank them. These companies are thinking like their customer and executing a marketing campaign at a time and place that it will be really appreciated. Maybe it’s just the holiday mood or that I’m still recovering from the political ads of a few weeks ago, but it makes me kind of sentimental to know that a surrogate mom is just a phone call away.

While scanning the latest issue of Dwell Magazine this morning I saw an interesting CaesarStone sink that might work in our new bathroom. So I went to the advertised web page to find the "all-new Embellish collection". Nothing. I saw the CaeserStone in a store last week and they didn’t have this new kind. I really want more info. Hmmm. If it’s "all new" maybe there’s something in the "Latest News" tab. Nope. So I click on the "Products" tab. Still nothing about Embellish. I see that there’s a toll-free number in the ad, but it’s the weekend and tomorrow I’ve got other things to do.

I know how this happens. Launches are checklists of independent activities executed by people who rarely talk to each other. The agency people did some interesting creative and submitted the ad before the print deadline. Check. The web people built a page that shows the new product. Check.  If anyone at CaesarStone had been thinking about me, the target customer, they would have built a web landing page that took me through the next step in my process. Plus the company would have had at least one way of telling if their ad was effective.

What a waste, and yet so common. If I had a penny for every company that does "checklist" marketing, I would never have to look for an affordable sink.

I’m looking for support for a new rule that restricts marketers from using the trendy "solution marketing" term until they can demonstrate that they know what problems their buyers want to solve. I don’t know how this rule gets implemented, of course, but isn’t everyone tired of the idea that a solution is just an internally convenient combination of products and services? How many marketers have used Microsoft Word to perform a "Find and Replace" function, substituting "solution" for "product" and, presto, the company is selling solutions!

Microsoft made my list of companies vying for a place on the short list of solution marketers when I saw this article in Redmond’s Online Channel Partner last month. Apparently the company’s 2007 go-to-market campaigns will be "inspired by what businesses need to accomplish rather than what Microsoft wants to sell." The article is written in the voice of their partners, those who have had to make up their own messages about why a particular buyer persona would care about the company’s enterprise server applications or dynamic ERP solutions. Could it be that a company as big and successful as Microsoft has recognized the folly of messaging that is irrelevant to their buyers and confusing for their partners?

Microsoft’s new strategy is to target specific non-IT business roles, such as the project manager or customer service director, delivering fewer campaigns and well-researched talking points by persona. The reaction from the partners who have always had to develop their own tools to communicate with the market? The tone of the article suggests guarded optimism. Me too.

Websites are popping up to teach basic skills that I was sure everyone learned from Mom. I’m obviously wrong, because several very popular new sites are delivering videos on subjects like how to brush your teeth or use the shower. Wait, don’t rush to click through, the instructor for the shower video is the fully-clothed 79-year-old man who started the site, VideoJug, when he couldn’t remember how to change a flat tire. But don’t dismiss him as some crazy old coot either. How to fold a t-shirt in two seconds has been viewed 76,000 times.

This might be a real business. ViewDo is a similar site that went live in June and already counts Panasonic among their paid advertisers. Plus the story made page 1 of the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 15, 2006 (sorry, you can’t see the full article online unless you’re a subscriber).

Is there a moral to this story? If you’ve had trouble reaching buyers, remember that you are probably not the buyer persona. There are markets full of people who are nothing like you. Start thinking like your buyer persona and the ideas on how to market to them will be obvious. The personas who read the Journal may not need to learn how to boil an egg, but they do manage businesses that buy ads.

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