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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.

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.

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.

This post is contributed by Gordana Stok, a Certified Practitioner of the Buyer Persona Institute methodology.

Last year I decided to learn how to develop buyer personas so that I could become a better content marketer. Having practiced the craft of content marketing for over a decade, I was no stranger at producing content that helps buyers to make a more informed and educated purchasing decision. And, until a year ago, I honestly thought that I was communicating value from the buyer’s perspective.

But when the value proposition that I had helped to create for one of my B2B clients was canned by their new VP of Sales and Marketing, I started to question the very process marketers use and the people who get involved. It wasn’t until I came across an ebook from Buyer Persona Institute that I truly understood the problem.

Like many marketing teams, we had reverse-engineered the product’s value based on its top features and unique selling points – not necessarily on what’s most important to buyers.  So when the new VP challenged our value proposition, we couldn’t back up any of our claims with hard data. It became one person’s opinion versus another’s. And guess whose opinion won?

With the term “reverse-engineering” ringing loudly in my ears, I signed up for the Buyer Persona Institute Masterclass and became a Certified Practitioner of the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ methodology. Having now worked on buyer personas for several companies and interviewed dozens of decision-makers, here are the six most important and surprising things that I have learned so far.

Untitled attachment 000551. You need to win both the hearts and minds of buyers – even in a complex B2B sale.

The first thing that surprised me is just how willing and eager buyers are to reveal details about their buying journey around a specific product – especially when there was a lot at stake for them and their organization. When asked the right questions, buyers will share both the cold hard facts and requirements that shaped their purchasing decision, as well as the doubts, fears, relief, confidence and joy they experienced as they went from status quo to successful implementation. When you hear senior business executives at multi-billion dollar organizations express such strong emotion, you realize you need to do more than just appeal to their intellect. You need to win both their hearts and minds.

2. You can capture a wealth of actionable insights conducting 30-minutes interviews with just 10 buyers.

I’m always amazed when I review the transcripts from the recorded interviews with buyers and I first bring all the quotes into Excel to analyze the data. Conducting 30-minute interviews with just 10 buyers can easily generate over 350 revealing quotes! The key, of course, is to carefully interpret each one, identify the most significant trends and select the strongest quotes to include in the final buyer persona. An art unto itself!  The quotes that make the cut are those that provide new or thought provoking insights as well as enough details so that a clear plan of action can be taken. So unlike the “buyer personas” that are created based on generic, demographic data, the insights from interview-based personas provide a real competitive advantage.

3. Only a fraction of what’s important to buyers is typically addressed on a company’s website.
It goes without saying that when you hear buyers express their pain points and needs in their own words, along with the criteria they use to evaluate solution options and make their final purchasing decision, it becomes crystal clear what information they need and how to message them. What I’m repeatedly surprised by, however, is just how far off-course a company’s content can be without these insights. In my experience, only 20% to 40% of what buyers consider to be important is actually addressed on a company’s website. The good news for marketers is that buyer quotes can easily be turned into benefit statements and inspire topics for numerous content marketing pieces. As the President of Buyer Persona Institute, Adele Revella, likes to say, “The content practically writes itself”.

4. Buyers want more in-depth product information so the length of content isn’t as important as relevance and clarity.

Being a content marketer at heart who loves to build understanding and influence people’s views, this is one of my favorite findings from interviewing buyers. When researching solution options, buyers quickly scan a company’s website to determine whether it has a solution worth investigating, so content needs to be brief. But when buyers are seriously considering a solution, they want in-depth case studies, white papers and technical briefs that enable them to assess whether the solution will work in their environment and generate the expected results. Length of content during this phase in the buying journey is not as important as relevance and clarity. What’s more, you can’t possibly create a persuasive argument for purchasing your solution if your argument has holes or isn’t backed by credible data. So go ahead and increase the word count to make sure you’re not disqualified due to insufficient information or a weak argument.

5. Buyers want companies to make it easier for them to evaluate and compare competitive solution options and demonstrate ROI.

One of the questions that I love to ask buyers during interviews is “How could the companies that you considered have made the buying experience easier for you?” The top two responses from buyers, regardless of the product category, industry, size of the buyer’s organization or the buyer’s title, are “Make it easier for me to evaluate and compare competitive solution options” and “Help me to demonstrate the ROI to my executive team”.

The most common complaint buyers have is that it’s difficult to compare solution options because every company uses a different marketing term to mean the same thing. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Buyers want a company’s website to include a chart that compares their solution’s features with the competition’s using more neutral terms. Buyers realize that the chart will be skewed in favor of the company’s solution, but they still feel it’s a good starting point for evaluating solutions.

Furthermore, buyers need to demonstrate return on investment to their executive team in order to get final sign-off, so any information or tools that a company can provide is extremely helpful. This includes industry research reports that demonstrate the impact the solution category has on an organization’s business and ROI figures tailored specifically for their organization.

6. After experiencing the power of interview-based, buyer personas first-hand, I can’t imagine doing content marketing without it.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but I honestly don’t know how I managed to do content marketing effectively without buyer personas. My perspective has completely changed and I hope to never have to go back to guessing what messages will resonate with buyers or relying solely on the opinions of internal stakeholders.  I realize that not all companies may be ready or willing to embark on a buyer persona project for a variety of reasons. But when I work with clients nowadays, my advice to them is this:  You can’t know with absolute certainty what’s important to buyers and what information you need to persuade them to purchase your solution until you ask them.

I was recently reminded of a very interesting experiment that two cognitive psychologists conducted in 1999. In it, they tasked a group of people with watching people pass basketballs around, counting how many times the people in the white shirts passed to one another. Here, you can try it yourself.

How many times did you count? It doesn’t really matter, because the experiment was about something else. At about 20 seconds into the clip, a person in a gorilla costume walks through the frame. When asked about the video afterwards, a full 50% of the participants said they had not even noticed the gorilla.

This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness,” and it’s fascinating. Our human brains are really good at focusing on specific things, but that is detrimental to our ability to see anything that we aren’t expecting. As I watched the video again, I started thinking about how this relates to marketing, and how marketers can miss big opportunities by focusing on small things.

We use the word “insights” a lot in our buyer persona work, and its important to differentiate “insights” from “information.” Companies can count lots of information about their buyers — from web metrics to survey data — but that information doesn’t equate to insight. Insight requires us to listen in a very specific way.

A recent Harvard Business Review story explains how our perceptions impact our ability to be objective. It explains that we color everything we observe based on our moods, attitudes and expectations. Researchers call this confirmation bias. When companies go looking for data that “validates” their conclusions, they can’t learn anything new about their buyers.

We built the 5 Rings of Buying Insight to help companies understand that we can’t – and don’t need to – pay attention to every tiny point of data. We wanted to have a framework that says “here are the 5 insights into your buyers’ expectations that tell you how to win their business.”

We can count passes all we want – and I’m not saying we should stop – but for buyer personas to make a difference, we need to be careful that our attention on easily counted data doesn’t make us miss something as critical as a gorilla in the room.

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