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A few days ago, Mark Schaefer published an article entitled “Why customer personas may be an outdated marketing technique.”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.

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.

People ask me why I decided to focus on buyer personas.

Easy. I like to impress people.

And it’s easier to impress people when you know what they want.

Woman with question marks on a blackboardVery early in my life, I learned that I could exceed expectations by figuring out what mattered most to the people around me. I learned how to ask good questions, and to listen intently to the way the person interacted with me about the topic.

People would often give me short answers that weren’t very helpful. But through persistence and interesting follow-up questions, I was able to learn the most amazing things.

This is the approach that landed me in the technology field more than 30 years ago. I had zero background in computers, but because I was genuinely interested, not only in how it worked but also why it was important to people, there was always someone willing to talk to me.

When I got into marketing, this simple approach began to pay big dividends.  By then I had learned that information that was easy to get wouldn’t set me apart from anyone else.  So I quickly observed that the best way to impress my boss, the salespeople, and a whole lot of other people was to make a positive impression on the buyers who were looking for solutions like ours.

No one told me that directly, mind you. In fact, the people I worked around didn’t even talk about our buyers. Every conversation was centered around our company’s products, strategies, or goals. We had endless meetings to evaluate options to talk about what we were doing and deliver that message to the market.

But no one ever talked about what the buyers wanted.

My colleagues would sometimes talk about “the market.” But this never seemed like a very useful conversation. “The market” seemed to consist of relatively meaningless statistics about the size of the companies or industries where our buyers worked.

Sometimes we’d hear what the analysts were saying about “the market,” which was mainly their perception about how we were doing compared to the competition. This led to discussions about how we could be better or different than the other companies.

None of this addressed my deeply-held conviction that success comes easiest to those who know what matters to real people. During our meetings, I’d ask questions like “what do the buyers want?”  and “if we make these changes, will the buyers care?”

I generally got blank stares.

But I persisted, because I knew that if I had these answers, I could use them to build strategies that worked for everyone. I knew that I had to find the place where our products, strategies and goals intersected with what the buyers actually wanted.

I started finding ways to talk directly to buyers. Since one of my key goals was leads and demand generation, I was extremely curious about why some buyers had suddenly decided to make it a priority to investigate a solution like ours.  So I found opportunities to talk to people who had recently bought our solutions.

I’d start the conversation by asking them about what happened on the day when they started looking for a solution like ours. After probing on that theme for a while, I’d get the buyers to tell me their whole story about what happened as they evaluated all of their options. I never accepted an easy, obvious answer. The process was one of digging around, looking for real insight.

I saw again and again that people want to engage in an open conversation about what matters most to them. I listened intently as people got caught up in the dialog and provided information I could have never thought to ask about.

It didn’t take long to see patterns in our buyers’ stories.  It didn’t take long to notice that some of the distinctions we’d had about market segments were largely irrelevant. And it didn’t take long before I could build and defend strategies and tactics that I knew would resonate with our buyers.

I know that this simple idea is the reason that three different companies asked me to serve as the executive responsible for their product management, marketing and sales teams. Through that experience, I saw the power of buyer personas to impact every one of these functions

So in 2001, when I built the product marketing workshop for Pragmatic Marketing, buyer personas were the organizing principle for the entire course. Over the next ten years, I traveled the world, attempting to cram everything I knew into two action-packed days. The feedback forms always told me that buyer personas were the most important part of the workshop.

In the emails that followed, I saw that people needed more guidance. I saw that conducting this type of interview didn’t come naturally to many people.

I realized that I had to build structure and training around the interviews or marketers would create buyer personas that were only skin deep. I noticed that larger companies needed help with the cultural and process issues that emerge when the buyer’s voice is a part of the workflow. And I saw that many companies preferred to have buyer personas built by people who were already experts.

Once again, I listened intently to what really matters to people and founded Buyer Persona Institute to answer that need. This gave us the opportunity to impress hundreds of clients, thousands of marketers, and countless buyers all over the world.

This cycle of listening and impressing buyers is the reason that we say that our sole aim at Buyer Persona Institute is enabling marketers to say: “This is what matters to our buyers. So here’s the plan.”

I’m excited to see more marketing agencies among our workshop attendees because by training just one agency to develop actionable buyer personas, we can help many more companies.

To get a sense of how agencies are leveraging buyer insights in the messaging, content marketing, advertising and campaigns they deliver for their clients, I interviewed recent Buyer Persona Institute graduate Julie Squires, CEO of Softscribe Inc. Her Atlanta branding, marketing and public relations agency serves clients in hospitality, travel, multifamily housing, and federal government and enterprise markets.

Q:  How did you decide to build buyer personas for your agency clients?

Julie Squires:  “I like to tell the story of Henri Matisse, who didn’t start painting until his late 20s when he was recovering from appendicitis. His first teacher looked at his work and told him, ‘You were born to simplify painting.’ We feel we were born to simplify marketing – that’s what we do for our clients.  Our focus is to increase sales 20 percent to 25 percent through marketing.  And buyer personas give us an effective process to do that.”

Q: How are personas helping you better serve your clients?

Julie: “Messaging is going micro and it’s going visual. If you only have six to eight words [to get a message across], how do you know you’re picking the right words? Buyer personas give us a way to break through the noise level. For us, they’re a discipline for grabbing hold of the voice of the customer.  We hand-build this into persuasive messaging that captures the buyer’s attention.”

Q:  Do you think marketers are getting too caught up with data, forgetting that marketing is both art and science?

Julie: “I do think we’re getting too algorithmically hypnotized. But we’re starting to see a swing back toward incorporating more of the human element and storytelling back into marketing in service of the business goals.”

Q:  What did you do first after attending the buyer persona workshop?

Julie: Our team quickly completed 6-8 solid interviews for a client with buyers who made win or loss purchase decisions within the last 30-90 days. We found that we were able to tap into the voice of the customer at a visceral level and understand the essence of who the buyers are and what they want. Buyer personas are now embedded in our agency culture as part of our BEAM methodology – with the ‘b’ standing for buyer personas.”

Q: Do you think that buyer personas will help you win new business?

Julie: “Yes, it’s one way we’re getting new business…Our clients trust us to lead them into the next new, effective way to communicate to increase sales. So we’re seeing a lot of interest. And it’s already paying big dividends for our existing clients.”

Q: How have buyer personas helped your clients?

Julie: Here’s what’s cool. Our first buyer persona initiative resonated so well that our client rolled out the messaging in all their ads, trade show booth verbiage, and videos. At the sales meeting, everyone was enthusiastic and had confidence in the work [because it was based on real interviews with real buyers].”

Q: What advice would you give for others who are considering using buyer personas?

Julie: “Templates, e-Books, webinars and a wealth of other resources can help you get started. It’s a big procedural shift.  You need to invest in training. Teach your team how to incorporate buyer personas into their marketing and PR processes. Also, it’s not enough to talk to in-house experts; interviews with real buyers are essential to gathering competitive and other insights you need to build effective sales-oriented messaging that gets results.”

I want to thank Julie Squires for participating in this interview and sharing her experience. If you have a success story about buyer personas, I’d like to hear from you.

If you’ve developed buyer personas, does your content show it?  When persona-guided content looks much the same as it always did, it’s a sign that the underlying personas are missing key insights.

Most marketers focus their buyer personas on information gained from their sales people, a product expert, the latest analyst reports, or purely demographic data such as job title, industry and company size. While quick and easy, these sources cannot tell you what your buyers are thinking about as they evaluate their options to solve a particular problem.

My concern about the missing parts of buyer personas motivated me to co-author with B2B marketing veteran Maribeth Ross, vice president of Marketing at NetProspex, a new eBook, For Compelling Content, Let Your Buyers Be Your Guide.”  This free resource launches today at Content Marketing World, where I’m presenting my “Building Your Buyer Personas” workshop.

To understand why the quick-and-easy approach to buyer personas won’t help you develop better content, let’s consider a typical scenario.

Our marketer, Kristen, talks to the in-house subject matter experts. She takes plenty of notes and learns about industry trends by reading trade magazines and analyst reports. Given her sources, most of what she learns focuses on the features and benefits of the company’s product or service.  Any information about the target audience is probably basic demographics:  the buyer’s job title, role in the decision, company size and industry.

Now consider a different approach.

Kristen kicks off her content initiative by interviewing recent buyers to probe for the Five Rings of Insight, her target buyer’s perspective on the five factors that influence the decision to buy a particular product, service or solution. These insights include the buyer’s Priority Initiatives, Success Factors, Perceived Barriers, Buying Process and Decision Criteria for the solution Kristen needs to message.

Kristen doesn’t rely on a survey or focus group. She has one-on-one conversations with recent buyers to discover how they evaluated and compared her company’s products and services to their other options. These interviews tell her exactly what outcomes resonate with buyers, their concerns about the company’s approach, which aspects of the solution they use to compare their options, and where they get the information they need to make a decision.

Imagine if you could develop all your content based on direct conversations with the people who are your target audience.  Here are three tips for putting buyer insights to work in your content marketing.

1.  Interview buyers to gain real insights. It’s not enough to know the title, age and gender of the target buyer. And if you make stuff up about your buyer personas, your marketing content won’t look any different than it did before you took that step. You need to have a specialized kind of conversation with recent buyers, probing for insights that buyers have not yet shared with your sales people, your competitors, or anyone else for that matter.

2. Focus on the decisions you want to influence. Interview people who recently evaluated your solution to hear exactly how they compared your approach to your competitors’ offerings. This gives you the data and confidence to define a messaging strategy that communicates the information that will motivate those buyers to choose you.

3.  Lose the jargon. Probe deeply on your buyer’s use of words like  “streamline,” “robust”  and other generic words that your competitors also use. When you know exactly what the buyer expects to be “robust”, your content can speak directly to the outcomes and concerns that are most critical to them.

By gathering key insights from unscripted interviews with recent buyers, you will become the buyer expert. When you make your buyer the focal point for your marketing initiatives, they’ll show their appreciation by choosing your company’s solutions with increasing frequency.

I hope you enjoy the new content marketing ebook and look forward to your comments and questions.

Just because you’ve met with internal stakeholders and can tick off buyer pain points– increasing operational efficiency, reducing costs and minimizing risks—doesn’t mean you know your buyer personas.

Marketers need to go beyond the obvious, generic stuff and understand the real questions buyers ask as they evaluate the solution you are marketing. For example, what initiatives trigger your buyer’s search for alternatives to their current approach? What objections will you have to overcome to persuade the buyer to consider you?

More often than not, companies’ knowledge of their buyers is limited to obvious data based on job title and role. It’s even worse when their personas focus on trivial points about B2B buyer’s hobbies or personality.

Buyer personas are useful to B2B marketers when they convey specific insights gathered from first-hand conversations with recent buyers.  You can easily learn how to engage in direct conversations with your buyers, discovering exactly what you need to do to persuade them to choose you. The result is a buyer persona that is unexpected, factually correct, and not available to your competitors.

Getting started

These templates will help you get started, showing you exactly what you need to know about your buyer personas.

Part 1. Use the Core Buyer Persona Template (left) to capture your buyer’s demographic information and priority initiatives. This template captures only the basic information about a buyer persona that would not be influenced by the products, services or solutions you are marketing.  This information is helpful for targeting the most receptive buyers, but Part 2 of the buyer persona is needed for every other marketing decision, including messaging, content marketing, segmentation, marketing mix, and sales enablement.

Part 2.  Use the Product-Persona Connection Template (below) for data that varies depending on the product, service or solution you are marketing. This template focuses on the information you will need to define strategies, messaging and content, including the buyers’ description of their success factors, perceived barriers, buying triggers, decision criteria, influencers and resources.

It is important that your source for the content in these templates is from direct conversations with your buyers. You will need to master just a few new skills to conduct the unscripted interviews that lead buyers to disclose facts they haven’t yet shared with anyone else.

We call these facts the Five Rings of Insight because they provide a clear picture of everything you need to know to impact your buyers’ decision:

  • Priority Initiatives:  three to five business problems or objectives that the buyer is dedicating time, budget or political capital to addressing, and how those relate to your solutions.
  • Success Factors:  tangible or intangible rewards that the buyer associates with success for each priority initiative.
  • Perceived Barriers:  the buyer’s reasons to question whether your solution or company can achieve the success factors.
  • Buying Process:  the process the buyer will follow to explore and select the product, service or solution.
  • Decision Criteria:  aspects of the product, service, solution or company that the buyer will assess in evaluating solutions.

These buyer persona templates are freely available without registration. I hope they will inspire you and your colleagues to begin talking to real buyers and building your own buyer personas.  As always, I welcome your feedback on the templates to help me continue to improve them.

Adele Revella will teach marketers how to interview buyers in her “Building Your Buyer Personas” workshop at Content Marketing World on Sept. 4, 2012.  Find more information about buyer personas at www.buyerpersona.com.

Am I the only one who has noticed that the typical short (<25 word) marketing statement communicates almost nothing of value?

If the product is really simple, this isn’t much of an issue. I have one client who enables third-parties to build apps around their core solutions. Think iPhone apps, but my client publishes 35% of the world’s scientific research data. When someone created a Genome Finder app and said that it “views and analyzes sequence data of genes,” I was happy. That’s what the app does, all it does, and this information is helpful to the buyer persona.

But the typical B2B product solves a myriad of problems, has a long list of features / benefits, and buyers really want to get some useful information from us.  Meanwhile we’re  focused on other priorities such as:

  • Explaining the availability of the new features the developers spent so much time to include
  • Differentiating this product from the competition, plus other products within the same product family
  • Featuring the right key words for SEO
  • Satisfying the requirements of internal templates

Note that the priority to engage or persuade the buyer isn’t even on this list. While this would logically be the first priority, internal pressures generally weigh so heavily on the messaging process that the addition of another variable is entirely unwelcome.

So short messages usually devolve into safe summaries that neither impress nor inflame. Here are two examples I found on the web this week (from two, very large, very successful vendors for this type of solution):

Vendor #1: The ___ system delivers productivity for your people, offers flexibility for your business, and works with existing IT investments.

Vendor #2: Our ____ solutions have been tailored to fit your industry business processes, your customer strategies, and your success criteria.

I suspect that writing these statements involved countless rewrites and internal reviews by dozens of well-paid people. Then the company spent additional money buying Google ads for these products. And these were the first words I read when I clicked on the ads.

Look at these statements from the buyer’s perspective, and tell me if you learned anything at all. These companies had 25 words to try to gain our attention and convince us to take the next step, and this is the best they could do? If only they’d taken the time to understand what was important to us before they wrote the first draft, it might have been their final draft.

“No honey, we are not going to buy a new boat.” That’s what the fisherman’s wife said when her husband revealed his great idea.

“We already have a boat” she argued, “And we’ll be retiring in a few years. If we bought a vacation cabin now it would be a great investment in our future.”

Meanwhile, the two largest boat manufacturers were developing the marketing plans that would launch their new models. The economy was tough but the high end of the market was doing OK. Winning in that segment was essential to their revenue goals.

One company’s product marketers felt great about their strategy – the newest boats in their line-up were equipped with major advances in satellite-based navigational electronics. Fishermen would surely be impressed by their well-differentiated benefits – find the best fishing spots, catch the most fish, win every tournament with on-board access to graphically displayed weather, current and tidal conditions.

A second company’s strategy was built around an equally impressive differentiator — speed in rough seas. Every fisherman has experienced ugly weather with no practical way to reach the spot where the fish are biting. Speed and stability represent conflicting challenges for hull designers, but this company’s engineers had a new design that really worked. Flash videos and other marketing tactics clearly communicated the benefit of catching more fish and winning the biggest prizes, supported by points about the boat’s speed and agility.

Want to guess which company dominated sales that year?

Neither. In fact both market leaders fell short of their goals when a scrappy little company identified the key insight for this persona – a fisherman isn’t going to buy a boat in this price range unless his wife wants it too.

The company didn’t ignore the fisherman. The company’s marketing materials and sales people were well equipped with messaging that their boat was the best way to catch the biggest fish in any kind of weather. But the critical insight was that the fisherman’s wife was an uncontested, unaddressed influencer over the buying process.

So the company’s marketers and sales people turned on the charm. In marketing materials and boat shows, the wife is invited to see a fully-equipped galley with lacquered teak finishes, Corian countertops and a microwave/convection oven. The table is set for a candlelight dinner. It’s impossible to miss the spacious sleeping berth, a large “head” with shower, a hanging closet, and a diesel heater that will keep her warm during those winter fishing expeditions.

And here comes the closer — there’s another sleeping berth for the grandchildren who will want to visit every weekend once they see this boat!

“When can we take delivery?” says the fisherman’s wife.

This is a B2C example, but B2B marketers make the same mistake. Competitors fight for the attention of the same buyer persona, promising virtually identical benefits that are reverse-engineered based on their unique product capabilities. It’s the rare marketer whose competitive strategies are grounded in deep insights about their buyers, and it’s surprisingly common that the underdog company with the smallest marketing budget is the one to pull it off.

Judging by the current interest in buyer personas, 2010 could be the decade when companies realize the competitive advantage that belongs to those companies that have the deepest insight into their target buyers.

Armed with a well-researched buyer persona, the newly competitive company would know that a technical buyer isn’t impressed when the company’s website or marketing materials simply state that a solution is “interoperable” or “scalable.” These marketers would have detailed knowledge about how the technical buyer has been struggling with specific scalability or integration challenges. Imagine the value of the marketing copy this team could create – connecting the buyer’s needs to the unexplored merits of the company’s approach.

Similarly, our competitive company would know that an economic buyer isn’t impressed by copy that simply announces that a solution will increase revenues or reduce expenses. This marketer has deep insight into what this type of buyer has been doing to manage the bottom line, including how the economic buyer persona perceives the alternatives. So the marketer can now communicate that another approach is available, beginning a relationship that continues when the sales people, who have been well-trained to understand how the economic buyer thinks about these issues, make the first sales call.

This will require real work on buyer personas, of course – not the fluffy stuff that is permeating the blogosphere. Maybe its helpful for some B2C companies to know their buyer’s hair color or hobbies, but for my vision to become reality for B2B companies, marketing needs buyer personas that provide deep insight into

  • which problems the target buyers perceive as their highest priority
  • the way each type of buyer is currently managing these problems
  • why the problems persist in spite of current efforts
  • how this type of buyer will respond to the company’s approach or solution

Most buyer personas fall far short of this level – what I call “grokking” – to the detriment of every subsequent step in the marketing process.

If buyer personas aren’t thoroughly developed, marketing activities are inevitably guided by the expectations of product-focused stakeholders. Buyer pain points are reverse-engineered from the capabilities of the solution. Marketing is frequently charged with the task of educating the buyers about the company’s version of their problem. 

B2B buyers obviously don’t derive any value from this form of marketing and there is no chance that it can create any competitive advantage for the vendors. Early in the buying process buyers are looking for written content, increasingly sought online, as a next step after a peer referral, or to help a mid-level manager produce a report requested by a senior executive. These buyers are looking for evidence of a close match between their view of the problem and the vendor’s solution, not lengthy explanations of the vendor’s view of “the problems in the industry today.”

With all of the emphasis on buyer personas, I’m looking forward to a year, maybe a decade, with increasingly powerful examples of content that simply and directly demonstrates the company’s ability to answer buyer problems. I’m looking forward to a new definition of competitive advantage where marketing plays a leadership role.

I'm seeing a lot of blog and email traffic that is motivating this post — two earnest requests directed to people who are just beginning to develop buyer personas or put them to work.

Request #1 – Outsource buyer persona creation only when necessary, and then ensure that the company has a permanent spokesperson who will keep the persona's story alive. 

The goal for buyer personas is to make them so real and persuasive that the company will be willing to take direction from them. This won't be easy and it isn't going to happen all at once. The company is accustomed to making decisions based on its own ideas or input from prospects and current customers. The buyer persona spokesperson will need to keep reminding the company to think about the buyers, the people who choose to do business with competitors or to get along without any of the company’s products and services.

Many companies have invested in “voice of the customer” initiatives, resulting in written reports and little in the way of insights that anyone remembers or references. I'm concerned that buyer personas could end up in the same trap — yet another short-term fad that misses the point in just about every respect.

If limited bandwidth or investigative skills make it necessary to assign persona development to a contractor, so be it. Just make sure that the third-party engagement includes an effective handoff to someone who will persist in being a spokesperson for the buyer.

Request #2 — Personas should tell their story to the website designers and content people, not the real buyers who find the website. 

Many companies develop buyer personas in support of a website initiative, which frequently results in only a fraction of the insight or commitment that's needed to deal with my number 1 request.  To make matters worse, some of the people involved in these sites have come to expect that a "persona-based website" reveals the buyer persona's story.

Buyers don't visit a website to find out who they are, and if a real buyer finds just one thing wrong with your description of them, that's all they'll remember.

Buyer personas are useful for website designers and content creators precisely because they keep everyone focused on how various types of buyers evaluate the company's solutions. The typical website serves up generic benefits statements or content that is neatly consistent with the company's templates. A persona-based website provides easily accessible answers to the buyers' real questions.

To stay grounded about buyer personas remember that their purpose is to tell a story to internal audiences about how a particular type of buyer views the decision to buy the company's product, service or idea. The story must be real, even though the persona is not. Persona developers need to continuously interact with buyers to keep the story real, reiterating the buyers' perspective whenever an internal decision loses its focus.

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