Buyer Personas: Why They Are Important

Shweiki Media Printing Company is excited to team up with Adele Revella—CEO of Buyer Persona Institute and author of Buyer Persona: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies and Win More Business—to present a webinar regarding buyer personas, why they are important and how to use them.

What is a Buyer Persona?

Dave: Can you explain what a buyer persona is?

Adele: A buyer persona is an example of the real buyer that you want to influence through sales and marketing efforts.  Where people tend to get in trouble with buyer personas is how they build them. The main idea behind buyer personas is to understand what the buyer is thinking and caring about in order to engage and interact with them via sales and marketing. Marketing and sales actions are based on our understanding of the buyer’s expectations and how productive engagement will be for the buyers as well as for us.

Dave: I think a lot of people are confused about the difference between what a true buyer persona is and what a buyer profile is. What are some of the main differences between a true buyer persona and a buyer profile?

Adele: A buyer profile describes a person and it may go into varying degrees of depth around a person’s attributes depending on whether it is B2B or B2C. A B2B buyer profile may focus more on psychographics while a B2C profile may focus more on income types. The purpose of buyer personas is to help us understand how our sales and marketing interactions should be designed. Buyer profiles are insufficient in that regard.  If you just profile the person, then you are missing a key element. You are missing the part of the buyer persona that tells us how, when and why buyers start to engage with the idea that they should buy whatever it is we are selling or marketing. I wrote this book because I was deeply concerned that marketing professionals were getting all these buyer profiles and were not getting any value from them. It is important to understand the mindset of they buyer while they are making a decision because that is what we are trying to influence.

Dave: So in order to get a true buyer persona, one basically needs a buyer profile plus how the buyer came to a decision. We need to look at the journey the buyer took to know what, how and why they came to a decision.

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What Do You Need to Know to Create a Buyer Persona?

Adele: There are five insights needed to make a buyer profile. Those insights allow us to keep know the mindset and expectations of buyers that are going through this decision process of buying something being marketed to them. What we need to know about people changes depending on what they are buying.

What does the buyer really care about? Is it the product’s value, uniqueness, competitive advantage or something else? Does the buyer actually care about what makes the product unique? These are important questions to consider because even if you, as the marketer, think that the product’s unique selling point is the most important thing, the buyer might not care about it at all. If you talk about something the buyer does not care about or apply to them, then they will ignore you.

Sometimes, I wonder whether we are doing this for the vendors or the buyers. When I listen to buyers talk about making these decisions, I realize how frustrating it is for them to get useful information. We need to stop and listen to what buyers want. If we are not delivering useful information to them that will help them make a decision, then they are going to go elsewhere and ignore everything you are saying.

Dave: If you have a good direction, it makes everything so much easier. Are buyer personas mainly for B2B or B2C companies? Is there a difference?

Adele: It does not matter whether you are selling to consumers or to businesses. What really matters is the amount of consideration the buyer takes to make a decision. So it is not about whether it is a B2B or B2C company, but rather the amount of time and investment the buyer makes to get insight into the product and see what factors into that purchase decision.

Buyer Persona Interviews

Dave: What are the first steps one has to go through to get a buyer persona? Do you start with general information?

Adele: The best way to get insight into a buyer’s purchasing decisions is to talk to real buyers that made those decisions and ask them to give you their story. Marketers tend to turn to internal experts or current customers using an online survey script. Unfortunately, that will give marketers inadequate insights into a buyer. What marketers need to do is get people on the phone that represents the buyer persona in terms of the target market, company size, industry or job title and who have, in the last year, participated in the buying decision. Do not do these phone interviews with a script. Have these buyers tell marketers their decision making process from beginning to end.  If we write down questions we want to ask, then we are only going to get answers we expect to get or think is important. What is really important is getting that information that we would have never thought about.

Dave: In your book, you mention that the only script you use is for the opening question which is, “Take me back to the day you first realized you had a need.” To circle back around, it is basically setting up a conversation. You will get a lot of general information right off the bat. Am I right in saying that it is not about starting with that, it is about starting with your clients?

Adele: Well, I would worry about just starting with your clients. If you are going to do that, make sure they are people who have just recently purchased your product. Do not just interview the people that choose you. The most important insights you are going to get is choosing people who did not choose you. Actually, the people you really want to talk to are the ones that did not choose you, but instead, chose your competitors. The whole point of interviewing people is to get better at sales and marketing. The best insight is going to come from talking to people that did not choose you.

Dave: What about when you are just getting started though?

Adele: That is a little bit trickier and at that point, you may want to get a professional involved. What you need to do is get a recruiting partner. If you do a Google search of “qualitative research recruiters,” then you can find a company that specializes in setting up phone interviews for you. Normally, we have to do a lot of coaching with clients to help them define questions so they are not confusing for buyers. As vendors we get so caught up in our own language and jargon in how we describe our solutions that we often forget that most people will not understand what we are talking about.

Is “Big Data” Relevant to Buyer Personas

Dave: The word “big data” has been a buzz word for the last few years. How much does it play a part in all this?

Adele: You are not going to get inside the buyer’s story of how, when and why from big data. There are things we can learn from data such as what our buyers are downloading on our website. There are a lot of holes in data, so use it as an add-on. I would say where big data shines best is in very low consideration buying decisions. The difference in low consideration and high consideration marketing is that low consideration is everything about the product, price, place and promotion. As soon as we get higher up in the consideration scale, it is about building a trusted relationship with the buyer. Marketing automation systems tell me what the buyer is doing which is good for low consideration purchasing decisions. In high consideration buying decisions, it is important to know why they are doing it. The problem with big data is that it does not tell us the cause of behavior.

Dave: In regards to big data, it really only applies to a tiny percentage of companies anyways. 99% of us have the small to medium sized businesses which are not going to have access to big data. In regards to building personas, how many people do you need to talk to in order to gather enough insight?
Adele: When people think about doing research, they tend to think about huge data sets. In quantitative studies you need statistical validity. However, buyer personas rely on qualitative research. In qualitative studies, you can get insight from a relatively small sample. What I have discovered over thousands of interviews and hundreds of studies is that when we have a homogenous group and we are interviewing the same type of people over the same type of buying decisions, then ten interviews is all we need to get the insight.

Dave: Will five or six interviews get you on the right track?

Adele: If you are an in-house marketer and you want to get the company on the right track, then do at least six interviews. Then I would recommend doing at least one interview a month for the rest of your life. In-house marketers want to be able to credibly say to the company that you are doing interviews regularly. When someone questions you, you want to be able to say, “Well this is what they said in our interviews…” Now, if you are in an agency or doing work for clients, I would highly recommend doing ten interviews.

In-House Marketers vs. Agencies: How to Get Buyer Persona Interviews

Dave: What do you do if you are an in-house marketer or an agency and the boss is a little hesitant for you to talk to clients. Do you have any advice on how to handle a situation like that?

Adele: As an in-house marketer, I would approach it differently than as if I was in an agency. If I was an in-house marketer I would say to my boss, “Our salespeople are trained to go out and listen to prospects before they pitch. They do not go into a pitch without first making a discovery call to understand what is important to that customer. Our sales people are collecting data that allows them to formulate a compelling story for that prospect that will make them want to buy from us. A salesperson is trying to persuade one buyer at a time. I am trying to persuade a whole market full of buyers. I never get the chance to listen before I talk. When we are building a buyer persona, we are building a market full of buyers with the same kind of insight a salesperson uses to get one buyer at a time in a prospect call. Only we are doing it more successfully because buyers will not open up as much to a sales person than they would to us if we do it correctly.

Dave: What about an agency?

Adele: An agency is a little different because you are almost in an arms length relationship. You talk to the account and tell them you need to understand the buyers. Try saying something along the lines  of “I need to develop a persuasive marketing strategy to know what buyers are thinking.” Usually the client will say, “We already know our buyers.” You should respond, “But, I need to know that information as well. Let me talk to somebody in your company who is a buyer expert.” When you get on that call, I suggest interviewing that expert and act as if it is a buyer interview. This allows you to put that expert in the position of the buyer and talking as if they were one. First, this allows the expert to experience what the buyer persona interview would be like. Second, when they start giving you the vendor happy talk about “I want a solution that does X” I can stop that person and ask them if that is how all the buyers think. If all the buyers thought that way, then the account must be winning all the time.

Dave: What are some of the reactions that you have received?

Adele: They start to recognize that they do not really have the knowledge to share with you and will start to be more open with you. Or at least see why you need to do those interviews.

Dave: I am assuming an in-house person can do the same tactic. If you have a roadblock, talk to them and do a role play interview with them. If you can catch them basically touting their features and benefits, then ask them if that is how everybody thinks. It is lightbulb moment for many. Currently, I am having some resistance because they do not want to mess up the client relationship. If they see the value, then it will overshadow that fear. Is that what normally happens?

Adele: We are not an agency, but I have done it back in my career. I have spent 30 years being an in-house marketer and inevitably there was always this sense of “We know our buyers.” Especially when you are a third party coming in, you have to be extra careful to say “No, you do not actually know your buyers.” That is why you have to call their bluff.

Dave: I know the importance of what I am trying to do. It is just a matter of convincing the client how important buyer personas are. I think we have covered a lot of information, given some clarity and sold the importance of buyer personas. Any parting thoughts?

Adele: The idea of buyer personas is very popular right now. Everybody feels like this is the good thing to do. The main thing you have to decide is how much energy to invest in buyer personas. Every single study we have done regarding buyer personas has shown that we are quite different from what buyers are actually thinking. This is not a criticism. The fact of the matter is that when we live inside four walls and sit in meetings all day, we know a lot about what the product actually does and what it does not. However, what we can never know is what people’s perceptions are. For marketers, perception is what really matters. Marketers are too caught up in reality. There is a mismatch between what our reality is and what the buyer’s reality is. Knowing what this mismatch is can be an incredible source of competitive advantage.

Dave: How can people continue to learn from you?

Adele: I blog at buyerpersonas.com, have a Facebook page, and am on Twitter @buyerpersona. Of course the book is available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I love to hear from people and I accept emails as well because I want to help people become buyer experts.

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