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.

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.

In case you’re looking to make your 2015 New Year’s resolutions a few days after the fact, here’s five your buyers want you to consider.

  1. I’ll find the time or budget to interview buyers and understand their mindset.
  2. I’ll bring the buyer’s perspective to our company’s internal discussions and decisions, replacing “I think” with “we’ve been listening to buyers and they think”.
  3. I’ll align with our salespeople by focusing on how we can work together to be helpful to buyers.
  4. I’ll ensure that our time and budget is allocated to creating content and resources that provide clear and useful information to buyers.
  5. I’ll stop making stuff up.

If this is too many to take on all at once, I highly recommend the final one, and that you’ll start with a plan to stop making up your buyer personas. Too many marketers are treating buyer personas as a creative exercise, with predictably disastrous results.

For example, we recently completed a buyer persona study for a company that had been delivering content to the executive buyer of their technology solution by focusing on its business benefits.

Here’s a verbatim quote from one of the buyers we interviewed:

“I’m looking for a level of detail that would need to be provided by an engineer. I’m not interested in a colorful brochure. I’m not interested in one that has been extensively wordsmithed. I’m just looking for a particular set of capabilities.”

In the next sentence, this executive described the capabilities he wanted in this type of solution. Then he talked about the perceived limitations of each of the solutions he had considered. He said that the business benefits were obvious, available from every vendor, and that marketing materials that focused on those points were useless.

This marketing team is not alone. Countless marketers have made similar mistakes by segmenting their buyer personas by job title and guessing about the content that will be useful to those people. It’s not that these marketers are wrong about the need to focus on business value, but it’s difficult if not impossible to guess about what it will take to persuade that executive that their solution is the best way to achieve a specific goal.

As I look towards the new year, I’m thrilled about the enthusiasm that marketers are showing for buyer personas. But I’m also alarmed about the long term prospect for buyer personas if marketers don’t realize that the purpose of buyer personas is to gain insight into the buyer’s mindset.

I hope that 2015 will be the year that marketers resolve to become buyer experts, and that my upcoming book from Wiley — Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into Your Customer’s Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business – will be an easy way for marketers to understand what’s required. The launch is scheduled for March, and the Kindle and hardcover editions are now available for pre-order here.

Buyer Personas You might have noticed that I haven’t published updates on this blog and that my presence on social media has been scarce over the last few months. I wish I could tell you that I’d been sailing the seas or lolling around on a beach somewhere, but in fact I’ve been heads down in my office and barely noticed the passing of spring or summer.

In March of 2015, John Wiley & Sons will publish the book that kept me locked away all these many months: Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customers Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business.

It’s an incredible honor to be published by one of the world’s leading presses for business professionals. And I’m thrilled that the foreword is by David Meerman Scott, international bestselling author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR and The New Rule of Sales and Service.

David had been bugging me to write this book for years and I knew that he was right. As the interest in buyer personas has gone global, there is enormous confusion about how to discover and utilize the insights they should reveal. The misdirection I find online and the questions we field in our daily client interactions consistently confirm the need for a definitive guide on this topic.

But the simple truth is, I don’t like to write. I’d rather interact with people. Put me in front of an audience and I’m never at a loss for words, but I’ll procrastinate forever on a writing assignment. When I forced myself to sit down and write a 256-page book, I learned a lot about myself.

Psychologists Katharine Briggs and Isabel Meyers have a great explanation for the difference between introverts and extroverts. They say an introvert is someone who gets energy from being alone and with that energy, they can then go be with people for a while. An extrovert, on the other hand, gets energy from being with people and uses that energy to handle being alone. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am definitely an extrovert.

Now I know why I get sleepy when I write, and why it’s always been easier for me to edit something written by others. When I’m editing someone else’s work, that’s almost like a stand-in for having a person in the room that I can engage with. I can see what I need to say to alter a perception or explain a concept that wasn’t clear. I understand what is already understood and how to avoid boring the person with information that might be interesting to me but irrelevant to my audience.

I learned a lot about myself by stepping out of my comfort zone to write this book, and even came to see how this aspect of my personality underlies my commitment to buyer personas as a method for marketing strategies. We don’t create buyer personas while sitting alone in a room. We talk to real people and we use the insights they give us to reflect on their actual needs, interests and concerns. With a persona as a stand-in for the buyers we need to influence, we know exactly what we need to do and say to engage those people, adjust their perceptions, and avoid boring them to tears.

While reflecting on these personal insights a week after submitting the manuscript, I decided to dedicate the book “to every marketer who questions the wisdom of making stuff up.”

I’m grateful to the many clients and colleagues whose questions and stories kept my energy flowing so that I could meet Wiley’s deadline. By showing me how real marketers were employing my methodology and finding success with it, you helped me to dig deep and tell the whole story. I hope that it is helpful to many marketers and look forward to the next step in our journey together.

I’ll tell you more about Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customers Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business in the coming months. You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.

globe arrowsWe frequently talk about how buyer persona insights add value to sales, messaging and content, but how does that work in a company with more than a thousand marketers around the globe? Over the last two and a half years, we’ve had the opportunity to explore that challenge with SAP.

We started with a clear business objective – ensure that global campaigns would engage strategic audiences in targeted buying centers and be implemented effectively by any SAP marketer throughout the world.

In Spain, Germany, France, and each of the 188 countries where SAP supplies software, marketers work with finite budgets to achieve all of the same goals as any marketer. To simplify marketing and conserve funds they want to leverage these global campaigns, but they need to have confidence that they will drive results with their own country’s buyers.

You might think that our next step was to conduct buyer persona research in each of these regions. However, we were concerned about scalability and, more critically, knew that the differences among buyers in different parts of the world, while relevant for certain tactical activities, would be unlikely to affect the SAP core messaging and marketing content.

So we started by building personas and extracting insights based on interviews in North America. Then the global marketing team used them to guide development of campaign materials including email copy, infographics and videos.

The next step is where things really got interesting. For its demand generation campaigns, selected SAP marketers work together in a virtual team that includes participants with different functional responsibilities plus field marketers from key countries. In online meetings, we presented the buyer persona insights to each virtual team, fielding questions and comments about the findings. We gave the marketers in Latin America a chance to look at the personas and say “does that look like the kind of things we’re hearing in our part of the world?” The marketing teams had the opportunity to think about the buyers in their regions before they decided if the messaging resonated and which campaigns to build.

Over the next year, SAP will conduct quantitative research to validate the buyer persona insights in some of the countries, bolstering confidence in the insights and identifying regions where more qualitative research will be needed.

I’m thrilled to be speaking with Joan Sherlock, VP of Marketing for Worldwide Marketing Programs at SAP, at Content Marketing World this September 9th in Cleveland. We’ll talk about results of this program to date plus the exciting new ways that buyer personas will be used at SAP in the next year. We hope to see you there.

This disturbing data was reported in a recent ITSMA study. The sample size was relatively small and limited to the services marketing sector, but I’m seeing indicators that this is a widespread issue.

The problem seems to have little to do with the skills needed to leverage buyer personas. Instead, marketers appear to have latched onto a cookie-cutter format for presenting buyer personas, while missing the fact that building them requires unique research. Too many people are simply recycling existing data or pushing out surveys, which virtually ensures that their buyer personas won’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

Simply put, these buyer personas lack the breadth and depth of insight that is needed to establish the persona as an authority on the decisions marketers need to make. So nothing changes.

An insight, by definition, reveals new information. It’s something you don’t already know. When I see people recommending that marketers build their buyer personas with readily available or insider data, my hackles rise.

Sure, surveys are a quick and easy way to do research, but it’s impossible to get new information from their multiple choice, question and answer format. They’re better suited for validating and quantifying existing knowledge, assumptions or trends.

Other people believe they can build buyer personas from information provided by their marketing automation solutions. These systems contain a lot of useful data about what actions buyers took (among other things), but they don’t reveal why, for example, the buyer responded to a particular marketing piece or sales offer, or what other information would lead that buyer to eliminate a competitor from consideration.

It’s only through a real-time dialogue, through listening to each buyer’s story and posing questions based on their answers, that you can ferret out new insights: What triggers the buyer’s engagement, his barriers to purchase, or which criteria the buyer uses to evaluate competing solutions – to name just a few of the insights that actionable buyer personas reveal.

Buyer personas based on surveys or existing data are built in an echo chamber where the same theses are endlessly repeated.

To make it easy to share buyer persona best practices with other marketers, we’ve created a new infographic. I’m hoping that people who see it will begin to understand the value of listening to buyers. We want marketers to realize that buyer personas are incomplete when they end with a profile of a person, and that deep buying insights require interviews with the real people they want to influence.

Once these insights are communicated through buyer personas, marketers will have no trouble putting them to work for effective content marketing, messaging, and sales enablement, to name just a few.

I hope you will attend my session at Content Marketing World, where I’ll share the stage with SAP marketing vice president Joan Sherlock. We’ll show you how SAP is using buyer personas to effectively influence a global audience of marketers and buyers. I look forward to seeing you and meeting you there.

Note:  This post originally appeared on the Content Marketing World blog.

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.



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