How Activity-Based Buyer Persona Development Generates Opportunities


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English: Not for the faint hearted A daunting ...

English: Not for the faint hearted A daunting flight of steps faces office workers and shoppers at the Mailbox. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are busy people. Our business and personal days are filled with activities. The activities we engage in usually are designed to help us accomplish either a business or personal goal. For example, I get up early and go to the gym and engage in the activities of exercising. Not because I just want to – but because I have a goal of losing weight!

Often times, marketing and sales folks have no idea about the activities our customers and buyers perform on a daily basis. Yet understanding these can yield rich and robust insights into goals, which drive buying decisions.

A Day in the Life

Since childhood, we have probably heard this quote a thousand times:

“You never truly know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” –American Adage, Source Unknown

This applies in the development of buyer personas. Using an activity-based research approach allows us to walk in the shoes of our customers and prospective buyers. What it gives us is something very important. Context.

Context provides us with a day in the life perspective. We want to see what customers are confronted with in their natural – not artificial – environment.


When you have visitors to your home, you take pride in your home. You gladly give a tour, telling your story about how you bought or decorated the house. This comes natural to us. Much in the same way, activity-based buyer personas, to yield rich buyer insight, require day-in-the-life perspectives. When you get a call at home for a survey, your patience gets tested. Let alone, trying to recall your activities can be a frustrating experience. There are inherent limitations with phone only research.

These same principles apply here. Customers and buyers enjoy not only talking about their place of work, but enjoy “show and tell”. And, that is what you want.

See the Not So Obvious

Without getting too technical, a day-in-the life perspective is a combination of ethnography, business anthropology, and in the new digital age – digital anthropology. These social sciences give us the techniques and tools needed to uncover what I like to call the not-so-obvious. In other words, cannot be yielded by phone interviews only.

Let me illustrate:

I was engaged in a buyer persona development effort for one of the largest logistics and delivery firms in the world. Through a series of on-site qualitative buyer interviews, I began to notice a unique not-so-obvious insight happening. While the focus had been on getting national contracts – and the “buyer” was in the front office for these – I learned decisions were actually made in the back office. Decisions on which carrier to use were being made through the push of a button at working stations in the loading and shipping areas. Usually these decisions were happening around the same time everyday. Also, a personal goal rather than a business goal proved to be the main driver of which carrier was chosen. This led to an improved ordering system as well as a shift in marketing towards “back office” buyer personas.

Phone-based buyer persona research alone would not have yielded such insight for these reasons:

  • First, you would be confined to status quo conversations with perceived notions of who the buyer is.
  • Second, it would have been too focused on traditional sales “win-loss” research.
  • Third, the focus would be on obvious insights.
  • Lastly, you would miss the big not-so-obvious insight.

In this particular situation, on-site allowed for ethnographic insight (day-in-the-life), business anthropology (witnessing the culture of shipping and back office), and digital anthropology (discover the impact of how digital systems impacted decisions).

Insight-to Foresight

The former Chairman of Proctor and Gamble, A.G. Lafley, was a big believer in gaining qualitative insight, via ethnographic research, and had this to say about what it leads to:

“lead to richer insights which helps identify innovation opportunities that are often missed by traditional research”

Granted, we are talking about one of the largest B2C entities in the world. We may be unable to afford or scale research like P&G. However, there are lessons for B2B Marketing in every story. I like this quote because it embodies where B2B needs to go. And, what it misses in buyer foresight if it does not.

Activity-based buyer persona development can lead to obtaining rich (not-so-obvious) buyer insight. This level of buyer insight can lead to tremendous buyer foresight. Allowing us to uncover “what if” opportunities to innovate for customers as well as with customers. Leading to the coveted prize of more revenue opportunities.

My advice to B2B Marketing and Sales leaders is this: if you believe buyer persona development is an activity for just content and messaging, expand your belief to bigger opportunities with customers and buyers. Move beyond obvious insight to not-so-obvious insight.

More critically, do not miss out on big insight-to-foresight opportunities as A.G. Lafley aptly conveys.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Tony Zambito
Tony is the founder and leading authority in buyer insights for B2B Marketing and Sales. In 2001, Tony founded the concept of "buyer persona" and established the first buyer persona development methodology. This innovation has helped leading companies gain a deeper understanding of their buyers resulting in revenue performance. Tony has empowered Fortune 100 organizations with operationalizing buyer personas to communicate deep buyer insights that tell the story of their buyer. He holds a B.S. in Business and an M.B.A. in Marketing Management.


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