Buyer Personas: The Marketing Mantra You Must Get Right

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The marketer’s need to understand the market is hardly new. But the depth of insight required is increasing exponentially as technological advances demand that organizations rethink how they sell everything from music and books to bulldozers and information technology. That’s where buyer personas come in.

Buyer personas are built from real words of real buyers and allow marketers to craft strategies to promote products and services to the people who might buy them. During the past decade the term has become a marketing mantra, but the growing interest has also resulted in confusion about how they’re created, how they’re used, and their ultimate effectiveness.

For example, a common mistake made in the development of buyer personas is the idea that you need dozens of them. In fact, it’s likely that one of your first questions was on how many you need to build. So first the good news: You need far fewer buyer personas than you may think.

There’s a lot of tension around this question of “how many” and for good reason. As you begin to build buyer personas that represent real people, you will inevitably be tempted to humanize your persona with a wide array of interesting details. This often begins when you decide to include the fact that your chief executive officer (CEO) buyer persona is male, married and extroverted. Although this might not seem like a problem at first, eventually someone will note that many CEOs are female, single and introverted. Someone else will point to the female CEOs who are married with children. The apparently harmless decision to add attributes to your buyer persona can thus spark debate about its credibility. Worse yet, because each of the attributes you include could potentially be used to differentiate one group of buyers from another, you may feel compelled to create another persona.

The fundamental question then isn’t how many buyer personas are required, but rather how many ways do you need to market your solution to persuade buyers that your approach is ideally suited to their needs. We can achieve this goal only if the way we define our buyer personas makes it easy to know when a different version of our story will result in more business for the company.

So where do you begin? At the very root of buyer persona development are your interviews. The only way to gain insight on your ideal customer is to connect with those who have recently made a buying decision and ask the right questions.

The questions you ask in your buyer interviews shouldn’t be planned, with the exception of the first question which helps set the path of your conversation. By active listening, you’ll be able to identify the right follow-up questions. It’s important to begin by probing your buyers about the moment when they first became aware that a solution was needed – as opposed to when they first considered your product. This question sets the tone for the conversation and allows you to walk through the entire decision making process with this recent buyer.

From here, remember to:

• Jot down notes while your buyer is talking. This is how you’ll determine what questions to ask.
• Go slowly. Don’t let yourself or your buyer skip ahead: to ensure you’re capturing the whole story.
• Ask who influenced each phase of the decision.
• As you discuss each phase, ask the buyer to explain how they determined that only certain solutions should remain in consideration.
• Look for insight when buyers use jargon. Words like cutting-edge, flexible, market leading, industry-standard, scalable, world-class and easy-to-use are all opportunities to learn more about some aspect of the decision or solution.
• Don’t make the conversation about your marketing efforts – keep probing to discover what matters to your buyers.

Things were so much easier when marketers didn’t need to tell a different version of their story to different types of buyers. Before the internet made information so easy to access, buyers had no choice but to pick up the phone early in their buying decision. Now that buyers eliminate all but one or two sellers from consideration before they talk to a salesperson, marketers must achieve a more difficult task – understanding the needs of groups of buyers and establishing the same perfect fit. The stories captured during interviews will synthesize and prioritize the key elements of your buyer personas.

Parts of this post were adapted from the book Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business (Wiley, March 2015), by Adele Revella.

Adele Revella
Adele Revella is CEO and Founder of Buyer Persona Institute and author of the book, Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer's Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business (Wiley, March 2015).

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