Buyer Personas Require Qualitative Research and Contextual Inquiry

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Buyer Persona Development and the qualitative research methodology applied to creating buyer personas have proven to be an effective means for B2B organizations to reach a deeper understanding of their buyers. They have helped companies to gain insights into market opportunities, find out why challenges exists, depict buying processes, and how to map critical sales and marketing strategies to the goals of buyers. For CEO’s and their staff of senior sales and marketing executives, they have proven to be the communications platform to help their employees become buyer-focused.



Buyer persona development methodology is at its core a research methodology. I have seen a plethora of articles and services that portray buyer personas as something completely different. Mainly, buyer personas are presented as a means of templated profile building. And, unfortunately companies can get quite self-referential about building these profiles because they believe their sales and marketing people already know just about everything there is to know about buyers – even when sales are declining and the market share pie is getting smaller.

As a former senior executive in sales and marketing, I evaluated as well as implemented several of the sales and customer profiling systems that exist where you are plotting buyers neatly into personality quadrants, demographic as well as psychographic categories, using blue sheets, and multiple other types of systems. As buyer personas makes their way into the dialogue of B2B marketing, content marketing, lead generation, and lead nurturing, this seems to be what is happening: buyer personas are being seen as another means for profiling buyers. I am not sure this is a good thing for both buyer persona development and for sales or marketing in general. Here’s why: they can lead to a false sense of knowledge of the buyer and creating tactical efforts that will see little fruit. I would advocate calling this type of profiling more appropriately buyer descriptions.



Since my early days in persona development back in the late 90’s, quality persona development has always been about the research. Initially, research was conducted on users to help inform product and/or service design. The focus was on understanding user goals and how to design products or services that helped users to achieve their goals. The story and narratives of users were told through personas. This tenet has not changed one iota. Buyer persona development is a qualitative research and contextual inquiry methodology to help inform sales and marketing strategy. The qualitative research serves as a means for understanding buyer goals. The story and narrative, depicted through buyer personas, informing on how and why buyers buy as well as providing a window of insights into how to help them accomplish their goals. The insights derived an outcome of employing qualitative research methods, rooted in the principles of qualitative contextual inquiry, that allows for reflection and interpretation. An important principle regarding buyer persona development is that one size does not fit all. Each segment and each industry may require different mixing of contextual inquiry and qualitative research methods to attain the deep buyer insights that make a competitive difference.

The myth that exists is that by pouring over internal customer data, talking to a few sales reps, and even a customer or two you can build a buyer persona profile. That can be true just to a small degree. True only if your intent is to put a face on a profile and have a buyer description. And yes, they can be of help when there is nothing else around. I suspect though that many a CEO and CMO who paid top dollar for buyer persona profiles, or more accurately buyer descriptions being called buyer personas, are left scratching their head on the value of these. I don’t blame them because they offer little or no insight value into what is staring at them in the face: how am I going to grow revenues and increase customer acquisition?



To make buyer persona development an integral component of formulating a buyer strategy, organizations can best be served by righting the train onto the right track. That track being the one that takes the company on its own journey of understanding buyers and learning valuable insights about their goals and multiple challenges. Grabbing the ideal window seat and having a panoramic view of their buyer’s world afforded by skilled contextual inquiry, ethonographic, and anthropological means. Without this type of perspective and the requisite journey of qualitative research, it will be like riding on a train at night – you will be lacking deep insight into the how and why of their buying behaviors. You will pull up to the depot platform and see passengers ready to board. You will be able to gather a good sense of the crowd. How many women or men? What seems to be their age range? What tickets did they buy? However, you will know little of how they got there, why they are there, where they may be going, what they plan to do once they get there, and the surrounding environment they came from.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I really enjoyed this article and found your advocacy of real research much needed. I too have been struggling with clients seeking to “water down” the effort that goes into persona development. Thank you for writing and posting! – Raelin

  2. Thank you Raelin for your comment. I am an advocate, as you are, of holding true to one of the essential tenets of persona development – which is – that persona development is based upon qualitative research and contextual inquiry. I am struggling not so much with clients but with the many misrepresentative portrayals of (buyer) personas that do not hold true to the core tenets and purposes that were establish at the origins of personas – of which I was fortunate to be present at in those formative years. Thus, “watering down” the value of buyer persona development in the eyes of business leaders who see it as more of a profiling exercise as opposed to an effort to inform strategy. Thank you for being a champion of true persona development!

    Tony

  3. Thank you Raelin for your comment. I am an advocate, as you are, of holding true to one of the essential tenets of persona development – which is – that persona development is based upon qualitative research and contextual inquiry. I am struggling not so much with clients but with the many misrepresentative portrayals of (buyer) personas that do not hold true to the core tenets and purposes that were establish at the origins of personas – of which I was fortunate to be present at in those formative years. Thus, “watering down” the value of buyer persona development in the eyes of business leaders who see it as more of a profiling exercise as opposed to an effort to inform strategy. Thank you for being a champion of true persona development!

    Tony

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