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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.

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.

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.

soccer momI like to learn about marketing in unexpected places. The U.S. presidential campaigns are especially fascinating because they represent a “high consideration” decision where, like many B2B products, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until the deal is done and you “install the solution”.

This isn’t a political blog, but the parallels between political and solution marketing are compelling.

Consider the fact that the goal of every marketing campaign is to shape perception, and  then watch closely as well-funded political marketing machines go to work to convince us that their candidate is an exact match for our expectations around policy and personality.

The majority of votes cast in the American system align candidates in a particular party, so the fraction remaining are referred to as “swing” or undecided voters. The 1996 Presidential elections were centered around a very specific kind of swing voter: the “soccer mom.”

“Soccer moms” were, in short, middle-income working mothers with little time in their day in between their careers and their families. Certainly there were many other personas in the voting ranks and many other swing voters. If you look hard enough, you’ll find references to NASCAR Dads, among others. But in 1996, the Clinton marketing team realized that soccer moms had the power to put their man in the nation’s most important office (or not). So they allocated a disproportionate share of their marketing to campaigns that persuade the soccer mom persona.

Another important note is that the soccer mom was still very relevant to the outcome of the election in 2000. But by the 2004 Presidential elections, strategists knew that the “soccer mom” persona had changed. With the cataclysmic events of 2001, terrorism on American soil was a reality. Fears of anthrax in the mail and future attacks transformed the “soccer mom” into the “security mom.” These were still the same people, demographically – but their motivations and concerns were different. They were worried about the safety and security of their children in this newly scary world. And it would take entirely new messaging to reach them – messaging that the Bush campaign successfully delivered.

If you’re a B2B marketer who has been concerned about building buyer personas for every influencer you can think of, take a page from the political marketer’s  lesson book. Focus on the buyer who is most likely to swing the vote your way, and don’t be surprised if she changes as a result of significant shifts in market, economic or political conditions.

Spotlight on 5One of the life experiences I credit most for teaching me about marketing was the five years I spent in sales. I came to that job in a roundabout way – a division of Wells Fargo Bank wanted a paperless office and asked me to make that happen. I knew nothing about technology (and ultimately failed to create paperless-ness) but I quickly fell in love with computers.

My boss at that company helped too, giving me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received. He told me “You’ve got to love the core business you’re in or you’ll never get ahead.” I hated the core business I was in (banking), so I cut bait and started trying to find a job as a salesperson in a technology company.

My first assignment was a sales “overlay” position that focused on winning more business from the current customer base. I loved it and grew revenue by 300%, but the reps weren’t happy that someone else was making money from their customers. Management didn’t want to irritate the reps, so they eliminated my position and offered me a job in marketing.

Fast forward ten years, and in another company I spent four years in charge of both sales and marketing teams.

So while I consider myself a marketer, those five years in sales helped me see that several aspects of the way we differentiate the two roles is illogical and costly.

Consider this:

1. Sales and marketing are both about persuasion. The sales person’s job is to persuade one buyer at a time, while the marketer’s job is to persuade markets full of buyers.

When I was in sales, it was marketing’s job to get a buyer to notice us, and then it was my job to persuade that buyer to choose us. This was a great division of labor, because it’s way more difficult to persuade a market full of buyers than one at a time. But today’s buyers have changed the rules, navigating 60% to 80% of their decision before they talk to a salesperson. Companies that haven’t made the shift to persuasive marketing risk elimination before the salespeople have a chance to do their job.

2. Salespeople have the opportunity, permission and training to listen to buyers before they build a strategy to persuade them. Marketers have none of these things.

As a sales rep, I learned to dedicate the first part of every sales call to listening to my buyer, gaining real insight into that account’s needs and expectations. Then it was my job to describe our solution in a way that established a perfect fit between that buyer’s needs and our product. Go tell sales management that you want their reps to stop listening to buyers before they sell to them, and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. But everyone expects marketers to do just that.

3. Sales people have to optimize their time to persuade buyers to buy now, but marketers have to optimize their investments to build pipeline for the future.

By the time I started running sales, I completely understood the importance of marketing.  However, it wasn’t long before all of my time and attention shifted to the salespeople. Faced with the urgency of meeting this month’s numbers, our longer-term investments suffered. I learned that it’s really difficult to balance short and long term priorities, and that marketing metrics need to focus on results that impact the next quarter or next year, even if this seems less tangible.

4.  While there are dozens of things that every good sales person learns about each buyer, the ability to be persuasive hinges on just 5 key insights.

When I decided to help marketers understand their buyer personas, I knew that many of the things I learned about buyers in sales only worked when I had the opportunity to build a strategy to persuade one buyer at a time. It was easy to see that tracking all of these distinctions about buyers would cause a lot of confusion and far too many different strategies. So I started thinking about what really helped me to be a persuasive sales rep, and that’s how the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™ became the foundation of buyer personas.

5.  Despite everything you’ve heard about price, the company that wins the buyer’s trust wins their business.

The solutions I had to sell were invariably more expensive than our competition. So we didn’t win on price. We competed for the buyer’s business by being the best listeners and using our insights to persuade buyers that we were best qualified to meet their expectations. Now that buyers can avoid sales contact for so long, a lot of that responsibility belongs to the marketing team.

I think it’s fair to say that when I was in sales, we had a lot more impact on the outcome of a deal than the reps I know today. And because this change is driven by buyers who have ready access to the information they think they need, this trend is unlikely to reverse itself. It’s time for marketers to gain the deep buyer insights that have always been the foundation of successful sales.

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.

It’s been ahotoffthepresslmost three years since I published The Buyer Persona Manifesto, and so much has changed.

In 2011, few marketers had even heard about buyer personas. That’s why I devoted a sizable portion of the book to explaining what a buyer persona is about and why they are important.

Fast forward to 2014 and buyer personas are in use or under development by 73% of B2B marketers who completed a recent survey by ITSMA.

The interest in buyer personas has exploded, but the need to understand them hasn’t changed. In fact, at the Buyer Persona Institute we hear from marketers every day who lost their way as they attempted to build or leverage this important tool.

So I decided to publish a Second Edition of The Buyer Persona Manifesto to clear the waters and lay down a proven foundation for using buyer personas to produce reliable, actionable results in marketing.

In this completely updated ebook, I talk about:

  • How to move beyond the buyer’s picture and capture her voice, focusing precisely on the narratives that are crucial to the marketing mission
  • How buyer personas differ based on the amount of consideration a buyer gives to the buying decision
  • How to avoid the traps of too many buyer personas that reveal too little in the way of insights
  • How to interview buyers, including who to interview and what to ask
  • How to put buyer personas to work for marketing and sales enablement

The one thing we didn’t change? All of our buyer persona resources, including this new ebook, our buyer persona templates, and the ebook I co-authored with Maribeth Ross: For Content Marketing, Let Your Buyers Be Your Guide, are still available absolutely free. And the ebook is published under a Creative Commons license to encourage everyone to share it with anyone who might benefit.

I believe that buyer personas are one of the most powerful resources in a marketer’s toolset. I want to make sure that every single person using them has the reaction that inspired the opening sentences of The Buyer Persona Manifesto:

“It’s almost like cheating, like getting the exam paper weeks before the final. Instead of guessing what matters, now I know… not only what the customer wants; I know how she goes about deciding. It’s fantastic!”

So please read, share, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to ask any questions you might have.

One of the hardest parts of bringing our Buyer Persona model into practice actually comes after the project is completed.

We’ve accomplished so much with the client, working with them to build clear, actionable buyer personas, and the results are spectacular. We just can’t share them with anybody.

Needless to say, marketing departments like to keep their successes close to the vest to make sure that their competitors don’t hop on board. There’s nothing I’d like more than to trumpet from the rooftops how Client X or Client Y improved their marketing content or sales results using the 5 Rings of Buying Insight™, but iron-clad NDAs keep my mouth shut tight.

However, sometimes clients are so excited that they just can’t help talking.

Buyer Persona Masterclass alumni Samuel Williams, with his firm Aamplify, was contracted by Deloitte Private, the division of Deloitte Consulting that specializes in families and small businesses, to develop a marketing plan.

The firm started by interviewing people who had recently evaluated solutions like theirs, modeling the buyers’ decision to uncover clear, factual insights about how they compared Deloitte to its competitors.

When Deloitte saw the details that these personas revealed, it was easy to identify the targeted messaging and marketing content that would persuade their buyers to choose them. And it was simple to help the sales teams see how to tell those same powerful stories to their customers.

Don’t take my word for it – watch this video from Deloitte head of marketing and communications Cassandra Worrall about the whole process.

Strong stuff, right? Here’s a more in-depth case study from Aamplify with even more data.

One of the key takeaways from their buyer persona research was that buyers had three key motivations for coming to Deloitte:

1. Help leveraging global business development opportunities

2. Heavy lifting to help solve specific challenges

3. Technology solutions to improve business processes

Armed with these insights, Deloitte Private pushed that messaging front and center to their home page, giving their digital strategy a powerful, clear call to action.

The best way to judge the power of a marketing campaign is by real-world results, and Deloitte got them. Using the tools and interviewing skills they acquired by attending the Buyer Persona Masterclass, Aamplify gave their client exactly what they needed to connect with buyers without the guesswork.

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