Marketers are getting buyer personas wrong.
And for a long time, we did too.
A buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on research and information about your existing customers.
As discussed in our recent post about why SaaS marketing isn’t working, business often align their content with generic buyer profiles that have little or no bearing on how people actually research and purchase a solution. They are building their messaging on a foundation that doesn’t really exist. This is one of the biggest reasons why inbound marketing campaigns fail.
The best way to get useful insights is by interviewing people who have researched and purchased a product or service like yours. Some of them could be your customers. Others might have worked with a competitor.
Regardless of the relationship, it’s important to keep your salespeople away from the conversation. If you have worked with the customer in any sales capacity, you should delegate someone else to approach them and handle the interviews.
You want the buyer to speak freely about the process he or she went through looking for a solution. The instant they feel you are gathering information to make a case for selling them your services, you will lose the opportunity for honest feedback.
Once you’ve scheduled the interview, you need to prepare the questioning that will get you the answers you need. We follow the methodology created by Adele Revella of the Buyer Persona Institute to get the 5 Rings of Buying Insight:
The following examples are similar to actual interviews we've conducted with buyers, applying Revella's tactics.
What happened within the company that made finding a solution a priority? Even if the stakeholders were aware of this problem for years, something happened that pushed them off the fence and made them start searching for answers.
Let’s say your company builds intranet portals for enterprise companies, and you are interviewing Bill, the operations manager for a manufacturing company. Here’s an example of how this conversation might go:
You: Go back to the day when finding an intranet became a priority. What happened?
Bill: Well, we had an old version of SharePoint, but people stopped using it years ago because it was so inefficient. It was time to look for a new one.
You: Tell me more about that. If everyone had gotten along with this old system for many years, what changed that made it important to find something new?
Bill: We had an outage on the production line while fulfilling a critical order. It took us several hours to find the documents needed to fix the machines and get things running again. Really frustrating and stressful. At that point, we knew we needed a more efficient document management system.
Notice how Bill didn’t give you the answer you needed in his first response. That will happen a lot. Don’t put words in his mouth, but bring him back to a specific point and probe deeper to find out what really happened. By asking him to help you understand why the team suddenly couldn’t live with the old system anymore, you find an actual event that pushed them to action.
Once the company realized they needed a new intranet, they asked Bill to start looking for options. Even if he was already aware of a few popular brands, it’s likely Bill did some homework before bringing a recommendation to the CEO.
Your job is to find out how he conducted this search, and how the information he found influenced the decision.
You: Once you got the green light, how did you begin your search?
Bill: I was already aware of a few intranets out there, but I did a few Google searches and came across a few I hadn’t heard of.
You: What content did you look at?
Bill: I downloaded a guide from Aerie Consulting about how to improve an underperforming intranet. We wanted to make sure this implementation was done right so that more employees would use it.
You: That’s interesting. Where else did your research take you?
Bill: I asked a few colleagues in the industry for referrals, and searched a little on LinkedIn. It didn’t take long to find a few good options.
You: How long did you research before deciding upon a short list of contenders?
Bill: It was a busy time of year. I’d say the research took me a couple months.
Now you are getting a sense of where Bill went to get some trusted information. In this case, he used a mix of online research and referrals from other people in the industry. In the process, he downloaded a guide that showed him strategies to improve employee adoption, something that was a challenge in the past.
Finding out how your buyer envisions success will help you understand which aspects of your solution are most important them. This is your chance not only to discover what features and benefits they were looking for, but also what they expected to get out of them. Try to focus on the outcomes they hoped to achieve in-house, as well as the components of the solution itself.
You: You mentioned employee adoption was a high priority. How did you evaluate one solution versus another with that goal in mind?
Bill: We started looking for intranets that included a social networking app, a community exchange, and other features that encourage interactivity.
You: I see. And why was that interactivity important?
Bill: We had low adoption with our last intranet, but we found employees that were highly engaged outperformed other workers in several areas. People who used the intranet were more efficient at their jobs. Unfortunately, we didn’t take the steps to get more employee buy-in.
Bingo! You now understand how the company imagined certain features (social applications) translated to a desired outcome (greater efficiency and productivity). These insights are marketing gold.
After narrowing the list to two or three options, Bill decided on one recommendation to take to his boss. You need to find out how he compared one solution to the next and how he eliminated providers from the list (and this might include your company). Be careful not to say anything defensive or offer a counter-point to his evaluation. Remember, your job is to ask questions and get an understanding of how the buyer thinks, not argue with him or her.
You: So, you narrowed your choices to Aerie Consulting, Bonzai, and at least one other intranet provider. How did you compare one solution with the others?
Bill: It really came down to Aerie and Bonzai. They were the closest in terms of features and cost. Both had strong social apps, but Aerie offered better customization options. We could brand our intranet better – which helps with employee engagement – and they offered some great integrations that made reporting and data sharing easier. That made a big impression on Mary, our CEO. Improved reporting was a big priority for her.
Here we find out which aspects of the solution made Aerie their first choice, but we also discover Mary the CEO played a role in the decision as well, and her priorities were different than Bill’s. This information will help you craft a distinct buyer persona for Mary as well.
Compare the examples above with the information you are using to craft your brand message. Does your buyer persona research reflect quotable insights about the actual process your customers go through when investigating solutions like yours?
If not, it’s time to line up some interviews and find out what’s really happening when your customers make a decision. But first, I highly recommend you read "Buyer Personas," by Adele Revella. She will teach you everything you need to know about how to gather insights and put them to good use.
Your growth depends on it!