Please visit our new website at www.buyerpersona.com, or read our blog at www.buyerpersona.com/buyer-persona-blog.
Please visit our new website at www.buyerpersona.com, or read our blog at www.buyerpersona.com/buyer-persona-blog.
I recently reviewed twenty-four buyer personas produced by four product marketing teams. While most needed a lot more work, Kristine’s was exceptional.
I didn’t know the story I’m about to share with you when I reviewed Kristine's work. As none of the people assigned to the project had any previous experience developing personas, I imagined that Kristine might have had previous work experience as an IT Architect, the buyer persona she was assigned to develop. Or maybe she was married to someone in this position, or had a close friend or colleague who gave her an advantage over her colleagues.
All these assumptions were wrong. Kristine simply did better work than her colleagues. When we sat down with the team to review Kristine’s persona, here’s what she told us about her approach:
Only now did Kristine feel like she was ready to talk to some IT Architects. When I talked to Kristine’s colleagues, they had skipped these preliminary online research steps. Many had also found it difficult to secure interviews. But Kristine easily found people by:
These steps led to interviews with five people who were willing to talk to Kristine about their priorities, goals and frustrations. She asked a lot of probing questions, typing as she listened, capturing quotes and key thoughts. Most people would be better off taping the call or having someone else take notes, but Kristine’s background as a journalist prepared her to simultaneously think about interesting areas to pursue with her questions, listen for the most relevant data, and take good notes.
Finally, Kristine organized her notes from the five interviews by subject, scanning for patterns in the responses. When she wrote up her persona document her findings were communicated through short, pithy, colorful statements, each summarized with a heading that made it easy to identify the focus of that section. She included quotes that turned statements that might otherwise be meaningless -- like “leads key business initiatives” -- come alive with examples and references to specific issues that frustrate the IT Architect’s attempts to succeed on those initiatives.
Based solely on reading the buyer persona Kristine wrote up, I had already decided to present her with an iPad for the best buyer persona on the team. Now that I know how she produced that result, I’m wondering how to get other people to take the steps that came so naturally to her.
My largest client for the last decade has been Pragmatic Marketing, the company that inspired and marketed the Effective Product Marketing seminar that I developed in 2001. When I sold the seminar to Pragmatic Marketing in 2007 and trained another instructor, I knew that I would someday leave the seminar behind. So I started thinking about what the attendees needed after they left the seminar.
This wasn’t really a new line of thinking. After every class I’d wondered whether the attendees would be able to put their enthusiasm for strategic marketing into action in the weeks and months that followed. Confronted with the day-to-day reality of sales requests and tactical checklists, would they be able to rally the rest of the company around their new role?
How many people, I wondered, would get permission to participate in qualitative win/loss calls? Would they create buyer personas that were so real and convincing that the company would be willing to take direction from them? Would they use their new insights to prioritize investments around activities that directly impacted revenue and buyers?
I always knew that the strategic role of product marketing represented a major change for many of the participants, and that the seminar could not address all of the specific challenges the participants would face in any particular company.
So I decided that my next step should align with the seminar attendees’ next step. I decided to dedicate the next few years to supporting the three areas that thousands of attendees have described as impediments to buyer-focused marketing:
This type of consulting isn’t new to me – I’ve continued to consult throughout the years that I was teaching the Pragmatic Marketing seminar. But because the class was my top priority, it was impossible to work on the projects that I’ve accepted over the last few months. I think I’m beginning to crack the code on what it takes to create the result that motivated me every time I taught the seminar to a new group of marketers.
I’m still teaching through the end of April, and by adding the consulting projects I’ve been too busy to develop a website that explains the new services. I should have it live within the next two months. If you have any ideas about the services I should offer, please let me know.
I admit that I’ll miss the stage, but I know that I’m better prepared than ever before to make a huge impact on my clients’ success. And as those who have seen me teach know very well, I never confuse efforts with results.
That’s my answer when people ask me how many buyer personas they need. It probably isn’t satisfying when I answer a question with another question, especially when the expected answer is a number -- three, five, ten or whatever.
But I always caution that most companies create far too many buyer personas.
The marketers I meet are incredibly enthusiastic about buyer personas – who wouldn’t love to have deep insight into how buyers think. But a little restraint is needed. It’s counter-productive to create more buyer personas than the company can support with differentiated marketing activities.
I suggest listing the job titles of each of the personas that influence the decision to buy and then ranking their importance. This can be accomplished by considering the extent to which each type of buyer is:
The tendency to create too many buyer personas starts when people simply layer them on top of their current view that messages, sales tools and campaigns need to be built for each product, service or solution. In large companies I’ve found product marketers working on personas for their products, service or solution marketers reproducing the effort for their solutions, and industry or regional marketers who are wondering how they fit into the puzzle.
The biggest payback from buyer personas occurs when the company starts with the most important buyers, and then assigns a single owner for each, regardless of what the company hopes to market or sell to them. These companies create a collaborative home (such as a wiki or Sharepoint site) and encourage people throughout the company to post their observations of real buyers. The owner has the final say about what is included in the persona, but the opportunity to contribute to the effort is distributed across the company.
I’m working with companies where it is standard operating procedure for marketers to rely on personas to see the problem and solution through their buyers’ eyes. These personas are the organizing principle for decisions about whom to target and how to build relevant messaging, content, campaigns, and sales tools. Many of these companies have the senior management buy-in to quickly adopt this culture, and the results are astonishing.
For those who lack top-down support, try using the ideas above to prioritize and create the fewest possible personas. Then rely on them to:
It won’t be long before someone notices the difference and asks you how you pulled 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
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.
For the last few weeks I've been helping a client conduct their win/loss calls, listening to recent buyers talk about how they made the decision both for and against my client's solution. Once again, I was amazed at the useful, surprising information we uncovered, and reminded that buyers actually want to share their experiences.
I thought I might inspire some of you to conduct your own win/loss interviews if I wrote about how this project went --how we set up appointments for the calls and what we learned from them.
Working with a list of recent wins and losses, I made a phone call and left this message --
"Hi (buyer's first name), this is Adele Revella, calling on behalf of (company). I'm hoping you will be willing to spend 15 minutes talking about your experience evaluating the (name) solution. No sales person will be on the call and this isn't a survey -- the company's product manager and I just want to listen to your candid feedback about what worked and what didn't as you went through the decision process. I realize that It may be easier for you to respond to a meeting request through email, so I'll send a follow-up message in a few minutes, or if you prefer you can reach me at (phone number)."
My tone of voice was important -- I'm very careful to avoid anything that sounds insincere or like I'm reading from a script. So please don't use my exact words, just get these basic ideas into your message.
When an assistant answered the phone (rarer all the time), I asked for his/her name, explained exactly why I was calling, and then used the assistant's name when I called back to see what the boss said.
After leaving the voice message I immediately sent an email with this subject "Voice message re the (company name) interview." The body of the email repeated the same info as the voice message, with a bit of detail about the people who would be participating from the client's side. I assured them once again that sales people would not be on the calls and provided times when we would be available.
Everyone who responded did so by email, but the phone call improved the probability that my email would be opened, especially since my email address was unfamiliar to them.
It was a bit easier to conduct win/loss calls when I did them alone in my role as a product marketer. I'd get the list of wins, losses, or inactive accounts and just try to catch people with a phone call. Many times I'd find that people were willing to talk to me at that moment, and if not, they almost always agreed to set up a specific time within the next few days. It was rare that anyone would say "no" to my request.
With this project I wanted to make an appointment so that my client could sit in on the call. You might want to do the same thing -- its always helpful to have two people listening, taking notes and thinking about how the client's responses create new opportunities for investigation.
We quickly secured interview appointments with several of the targets -- 5 of the 16 people met with us within 4 business days of the first call. Even though I initially requested 15 minutes, the shortest call lasted about 20. In most instances I would have had to rudely interrupt to end the call after half an hour. One buyer talked for so long that we had to apologize for ending the interview.
What did we learn? The details are confidential, of course. My client will use the insight to win more business for a solution that has lots of competitors. But I can tell you about the type of information we obtained:
People frequently ask me if they should outsource their win/loss analysis to third parties. I tell them that this activity is too valuable to leave to others, and at a minimum they need to participate in the calls. Although I analyzed the results of this project and submitted a report, nothing compares to the value my client got through participation in the dialogue with a real buyer.
Another reason to do interviews internally -- win/loss should be qualitative (not quantitative) research, with a few topics outlined in advance but the actual questions guided by the buyer's responses. As a third party I never have enough intimacy with the product and company strategy to catch something surprising and pursue it fully. Towards the end of every call I asked my client to pose any questions that I should have asked. Without their involvement, I would have missed an important insight.
The best part of this recent project is that my client really "got" how easy it is to ask buyers to supply the useful information they need to win their business. I'm hoping that this short project hooked them on a business practice that will always be near the top of their priorities.
Here is a frequently asked question -- who should develop our buyer personas? For years I answered the question within the questioner's expected context -- I'd say that the people in marketing or, more specifically, product marketing, should own this responsibility. But that's not my answer now. It just wasn't working.
After years of observing the people who thrive in the role of persona creator, plus tons of feedback from people who have made no progress whatsoever, I've noticed that people who readily produce good personas may work in marketing, but they are just as likely to work in other departments. So I've decided to build a persona for the people who excel at buyer persona work.
This is not a well-researched persona, just the accumulation of a lot of years of observations. I'm writing this post to see if I'm on the right track
Let's call this guy Michael, the persona who thrives on buyer persona creation (note that I've found a 50/50 split between males and females for this persona). Michael is . . .
What did I miss? Do you know anyone who loves to build buyer personas who isn't at all like Michael?
The most important component of buyer personas is missing from much of the discussion I'm seeing in whitepapers and blogs. Personas can't make a credible impact on sales and marketing strategies if their description is limited to information about demographics and pain points.
The most important insight about a buyer persona is the answer to this question -- what prevents this type of buyer from choosing us? We need to interview real people to capture information about the attitudes and beliefs that cause this buyer to walk away from the product, service or solution we hope to market to them.
Buyer persona interviews don't end when we hear an answer like "its too expensive" or "too hard to use" or "missing "X" capability". These are the answers that sales people are likely to pass along about why they lose deals, but personas need to go much deeper into what real people have to say about these issues.
If a feature is causing lost deals, I want to interview the types of buyers who are reporting this problem. If I can convince them that I'm not in sales and not trying to resurrect a lost sale, these interviews give me great information about what the buyer could do better if they had the missing capability. Those of you in product management may think I'm trying to impact the next release, but I'm only using this opportunity to get the buyers talking about the details of their problems and how they determined that we couldn't address them. I may find a different way to position the product to solve the problem, or may use the interview to gain deeper insights into the importance of the problems we can address with current capabilities.
If the buyers tell me the product is too complex I ask them to talk to me about how they assessed its ease of use. I want to learn about the buying process and what sales input or tools they relied upon to make that determination.
If they tell me it's too expensive, I ask about the outcomes they would expect to achieve with a product like this. I'm trying to get the buyer talking about the results they value most so that I can assess the tools we've built to communicate the impact we'll make.
The information gained through these interviews will not all be great news -- there may be some types of buyer personas we simply can't win over given the status of the product. But this is exactly what I need to know to improve the ROI on my marketing budget and my ability to train sales people to target the most receptive buyers.
I suspect the problem with much of the discussion on the blogosphere is that personas are a popular topic for web designers and others that focus on the early stages of the buying and awareness process. Perhaps the simple information they describe is enough for marketers who only focus on the top of the funnel. But this focus is dangerous in business-to-business marketing. While many people believe that marketing is all about lead generation, even highly qualified leads won't result in revenue until the sales people have the training and tools to overcome the resistance they're going to face later in the sales process.
Marketers complain that sales people don't follow-up on their leads, even those that are highly qualified. But who can blame sales people who have various ways to make quota for choosing to sell products where they can anticipate the buyer's reaction at each step in the sales process. Marketing needs to step up its game, using buyer personas to deliver the training and tools that drive sales funnel conversions.
I just saw the results of yet another market survey that almost failed to ask what turned out to be the single most important question. Several people within the vendor's company, each with decades of experience in the target market, reviewed the survey questions. One of the reviewers had recently worked in the buyer's role. Each reviewer had been involved with the design of the product and knew every detail about the technology and the problems it could resolve.
So why was the most critical question not included in the original version of the survey? it related to a capability that was relatively unimportant to the internal stakeholders.
I have been worrying about this product launch. While the users were overwhelmingly positive about the pilot, we'd conducted phone interviews with several economic buyers and each had reported high levels of satisfaction with business-as-usual. It appeared we would have to either delay the launch or risk positioning against a problem that no one wanted to pay to resolve.
Then a relatively serendipitous review by an external industry expert produced a new question and market feedback that surprised everyone. This is only the second survey I've seen this year and in both cases the companies only barely added the most important question. They were about to launch a product without the key insight that would guide them to feature the capability buyers valued above all others.
I'm always concerned that we are overly dependent on industry experts whose internal role inevitably erodes their objectivity. Now I'm worried that easy web surveys may be the default step for market research. Surveys are great at confirming that the insights gained from a few buyer experts are pervasive. But because they can only provide answers to the questions their designers value, they can also be dangerous.
One of my client's industry experts sat in on just three of the interviews we conducted with the target buyers. He was absolutely stunned by what he heard. Had those interviews not occurred, or had he opted out of those meetings to do something "more important" than listening to the buyers, the company's targeting and messaging strategy for this launch would have failed.
It is often difficult for a company to adjust its strategy to conform to the market's view. Inevitably a lot of stakeholder passion was poured into the original vision. Sometimes a market will evolve to value the developer's perspective (in this case I suspect that's highly likely). In the short term these companies should be comforted by the cash buyers will spend to solve their high priority problems.
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.