The Insightly Insider Presents: Creating Buyer Personas to Sell & Market Better
Creating Buyer Personas to Sell & Market Better
by Jonathan Chang
Hello Insightly Community! I’m Jonathan and I’m a member of the Marketing team at Insightly. Prior to joining Insightly, I’ve held marketing roles at Act-On Software, AT&T Interactive, and Fox Interactive Media. Throughout my career, I’ve conducted a good deal of market research at these companies to help them sell products and services better and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with you. When buyer personas are properly assembled, you gain real insights into why a potential customer chose your product or a competing one. And, armed with those insights, you can properly impact any of the elements of the marketing mix: product, place, promotion, or price. And if you’ve got a buyer persona tip up your sleeve, I’d love to hear what has worked for you.
First, pretty much most of what I’ll be sharing comes from a great book that was first published in 2015 called Buyer Personas. It’s written by Adele Revella and is the de facto standard in creating buyer personas. Adele has been creating buyer personas for over 25 years and honed her craft at Regis McKenna, the PR firm that launched Apple and nearly every other tech company that mattered in the 80’s.
I highly recommend that you buy or borrow her book - it’s an excellent read. Also, Adele has an institute focused on buyer persona training. Sign up for her MasterClass, workshop, or contact them for consulting services. (And, no, in case you’re wondering, I don’t have a business relationship with her.)
Now that I’ve properly credited my sources, I’ll dive a little bit more deeply into what, why, who, how, and when to create and use buyer personas in your business.
Part 1. Why should you create a buyer persona?
Buyer personas help you gain insights into your buyer's mind-set so that you can create and market what your buyers are seeking. You'll see how to differentiate the needs of distinct groups of buyers in buyer personas that guide your company to breakthrough success. In the case of GoPro, for instance, it’s not just digital camera buyers, but surfers, race car drivers, and skydivers, too.
Buyer persona research ensures that you market using the voice of your buyer, not of your founder, CEO, product manager, or public relations (PR) agency staffer. This builds a bond of trust with your buyers that leads them into the buying process, making your salespeople's work easier and quicker. Organizations that take the time to understand their buyer personas escape the trap of selling to the wrong people at the wrong time. You’ll see that by being helpful and informative rather than hyping, your marketing will come alive. Your buyer will be eager to do business with you and excited to share your ideas with others. The sale will be made more quickly, and your buyers may even be willing to pay a premium to work with you.
Part 2. Who should create buyer personas?
Buyer personas are typically most effective for marketers of “medium- and high-consideration” products, services, and solutions - buying decisions that require a considerable investment of your buyers’ thought and time. So, it would make sense to create a buyer persona for anything that takes weeks or months to consider or has a large price tag - a college or graduate education, heavy construction equipment, a passenger car, etc. And, conversely, it wouldn’t make sense to create a buyer persona for anything that takes a few seconds to consider or has small price tag - a pack of gum, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, etc.
In 2012, the Corporate Executive Board's (CEB) Marketing Leadership Council released a widely cited study that concisely defined the problem, revealing that on average, business-to-business (B2B) customers are nearly 60 percent of the way through the purchase decision before engaging a sales representative.
We know that the 60 percent statistic cited in the Corporate Executive Board study is not universally applicable, but the trend is unmistakable - customers who have the resources and networks to make buying decisions without your input are happy to do so.
Part 3. What is a buyer persona?
Built from the real words of real buyers, a buyer persona tells you what prospective customers are thinking and doing as they weigh their options to address a problem that your company resolves. Much more than a one-dimensional profile of the people you need to influence, or a map of their journey, actionable buyer personas reveal insights about your buyers’ decisions — the specific attitudes, concerns and criteria that drive prospective customers to choose you, your competitor or the status quo.
A buyer persona is not merely a description of your buyer. Simply profiling your buyer results in too many personas and not nearly enough marketing guidance.
But when you have insights into what your buyers think about doing business with you, including verbatim quotes from people who have recently made the decision to solve a similar problem, you have the knowledge you need to align your marketing decisions — from positioning and messaging through content marketing and sales enablement – with your buyer’s expectations.
The ROI is this simple: When you know how to help buyers evaluate your approach on their own terms, you build a bond of trust that competitors can’t match.
Part 4. What makes a buyer persona different than a buyer profile?
In short, buyer personas provide insight into why or how a persona bought your product over competing ones, whereas a buyer profile simply describes who a buyer is, and provides no insight into why or how they bought your product. Buying insights reveal:
- Which buyers are receptive, and which will ignore you no matter what you say
- Which aspects of your solution are relevant to them, and which are irrelevant
- What attitudes prevent your buyers from considering your solutions
- What resources your buyers trust as they evaluate their options
- Which buyers are involved in the decision and how much influence they wield
A buyer profile alone allows you to focus on who your buyer is through demographic data assigned to a fictional name and portrait. When you combine the buyer profile with buying insights, you will have clear guidance for the decisions you need to make to win their business.
Part 5. OK, I'm ready to create buyer personas for my business, how do I go about creating them?
There are two types of research that you need to perform: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research is just a fancy way of saying you need to interview live people who recently bought your product or service. Quantitative research is just a fancy way of saying you need to send out a survey to people who recently bought your product or service. I highly recommend that you conduct your interviews, qualitative research, first as that this research will help you design the survey you will send out for your quantitative research.
What’s the best way for me to conduct my interviews?
Unlike traditional qualitative research, Adele doesn’t recommend following a discussion guide because “people don't think how they feel, they don't say what they think, and they don't do what they say” according to David Ogilvy, a reknowned advertising sage. Rather, I recommend conducting free form interviews where you let the interviewee tell you their story and the opening question that gets it all started is, “Take my back to the day when you started looking into buying product x. Please tell me what was going on in your company or life.”
The best practice in conducting the interview is to be an active listener and, in general, behave like a good journalist. You want the interviewee to do most of the talking tell you about their buyer story. Adele describes it best:
Recall an interview by a great journalist and you may recall that it seemed like you were listening to a private conversation. Even if the journalist was interviewing a head of state, the interviewer was comfortable with a conversational dialog, effortlessly prompting for the next part of a fascinating story. When an answer was incomplete, the journalist took a slightly different tack with a follow-up question, persisting in uncovering the details that revealed the leader's mind-set. As the story unfolded, you were privileged to gain insight into a high-stakes situation and decision that you will never personally encounter.
Using this journalistic technique, you’ll be able to uncover real insights about your buyers. It’s important to note, however, that timing is crucial as you need to ensure that the interviewee’s purchase is recent enough so that they can recall most of the details about their buying experience.
Part 6. Where do I find buyers to interview and how do I conduct the interview?
Now that you know how to interview your buyers, sourcing your interviews is the next step. There are a number of sources for your interview candidates which are:
- Your sales or customer database (also known as your CRM!)
- An external recruitment firm
- A media publication that has access to buyers
When you’re identifying your candidates, you’ll may want to screen them based on specific criteria. If the candidate is currently in a sales cycle, then you’ll want to disqualify them because they haven’t completed their purchase. In addition, the candidates should have, in the last 6 months, participated in the evaluation and purchase of a [your product category]. And, if your product category is new or difficult to define you could phrase the question a little bit differently: “Have you, within the past six months, evaluated one or more of the following [product categories]?” Then, list the names of the products that your buyer would have evaluated to solve the same problem that your product will address. In addition, you may want to screen based off of:
- Job title
- Company size
- Company industry
- Geographic location
And, you’ll likely have to provide an incentive to get people to agree to the interview since they don’t stand to benefit at all from the interview. Depending on the length of the interview, you may need to provide anywhere from a $50 to a $200 incentive.
As you contemplate the universe of buyers who can relate the story about their decision, you can see that they logically fall into the following four categories:
- People who considered you and chose you (your customers)
- People who considered you but chose a competitor
- People who considered you but decided to keep things as they were, to maintain the status quo
- People who never considered you and chose another (either they chose a direct competitor, or if your solution is a new innovation, they chose a different way to solve the problem)
And, you’ll want to interview all of them, especially members of group B. These buyers, having determined that something about your company or solution is insufficient, often experience strong feelings, something akin to a personal relationship that ended badly, and are anxious to tell the whole, often colorful, story.
Part 7. How do I conduct my interviews?
Once you’ve gotten a bunch of people who will talk to you, you’re ready for the actual interviews. Not only should the interviewer be an active listener, but she should have an innate sense of curiosity, a sincere interest in learning how decisions are made, the way parts in an organization fit together, and the manner in which options are weighed. And, the interviewer should do a little bit of prep work prior to the interview. They should know the buyer’s:
- Company Name
- Basic information about the dates when the sale or evaluation occurred
Finally, before the conversation, the interviewer should return once again to the 5 Rings of Insight, and focus on the goal. Assuming you’re the interviewer, you’re going to try to understand what happened in the buyer's environment that triggered the search for a solution. You are also going to attempt to learn what steps were taken to investigate options, and discover what worked and what didn't work about that experience, and hear it expressed in the buyer's own words. We want to discern each step in the process and learn about every individual evaluation that resulted in a decision to continue to include our solution as an option, or exclude it from consideration.
An audio recording of the phone call is incredibly valuable. But before you can push the “record” button, you need to obtain permission. It is unethical—as well as illegal in most states—not to obtain documented consent from the person being recorded. (An audio recording of the consent agreement is all the documentation necessary.) It is not advisable to ask for this permission when you first approach the buyer for the interview. If this request is introduced during the recruiting part of the project, some buyers get anxious and may think it necessary to get the approval of higher-level management or consult with company lawyers.
So plan to get the recording request out of the way at the beginning of the call. The best practice is to make this your first question prior to the actual interview, asking, “I really appreciate that you are able to take time to do this today. I'd like to capture everything you have to say, but I'm afraid that if I try to take notes I'll miss something. So before we get started, I would like permission to record this interview. The recording will not be shared with salespeople or anyone else except the small team working on this project with me. Would that be okay?” Ninety-five percent of the time, the buyer will say, “Sure, that's fine,” and the subject never comes up again.
Part 8. OK, I've finished conducting my interviews, now how do I assemble my personas?
Once you’ve finished conducting a good amount of interviews (25-50), you can start collecting quotes by buying insight type. There are 5 types of buying insights which Adelle names “The 5 Rings of Buying Insight”, they are:
Insight 1—Priority Initiative
What causes certain buyers to invest in solutions like yours, and what is different about buyers who are satisfied with the status quo?
Tips and Examples
- Do not confuse Priority Initiatives with pain points that you simply reverse-engineer based on the capabilities of your solution.
- You want to understand the personal or organizational circumstances that cause your buyers to allocate their time, budget, or political capital to resolve the pain.
- For example, you could guess that the marketing executive buyer persona has pain in the area of marketing metrics and campaign automation. But an insightful buyer persona would tell you which marketing executives are most (and least) receptive to your marketing automation solution and why.
Insight 2—Success Factors
What operational or personal results does your buyer persona expect to achieve by purchasing this solution?
Tips and Examples
- Success Factors resemble benefits, but this insight is far more specific and written from the buyer's perspective.
- For example, you might currently emphasize your solution's impact on cost reduction, but an insightful buyer persona would identify the category and degree of cost reduction that buyers anticipate.
- Examples of personal outcomes include impressing peers, widening the buyer's sphere of influence, or increasing their ability to control something about their environment.
Insight 3—Perceived Barriers
What concerns cause your buyer to believe that your solution or company is not their best option?
Tips and Examples
- Expect to gain insights into product or company-specific barriers that are no longer (or never were) factually correct.
- These perceptions often result from negative experiences with similar solutions, online interactions, or direct feedback from peers.
- Other barriers relate to personal or business obstacles that prevent your buyer from investing in change. Examples include the need for business process change, gaining acceptance from end users, or other politically-charged issues.
Insight 4—Buyer's Journey
This insight reveals details about who and what impacts your buyer as they evaluate their options and select one.
Tips and Examples
- To help you target the most influential buyer personas, this insight identifies which personas have the most impact on the decision to continue to evaluate your solution at each step in the process. (Tip: the economic buyer or decision maker isn't as influential as you think.)
- To help you prioritize your marketing investments, you need to know which resources the buyer trusts at each step of their evaluation for this decision. For example, a marketing executive would not rely on the same resources for decisions about web conferencing and off-site event planning.
- For persuasive messaging and content, the Buying Process insight specifies the Decision Criteria, Success Factor, and/or Perceived Barrier that has the most impact on the buyer's choice at each step.
Insight 5—Decision Criteria
Which aspects of the competing products, services, solutions or company does your buyer perceive as most critical, and what are their expectations for each?
Tips and Examples
- You will know which of your capabilities has the most impact on your buyer's choice to do business with you. (Tip: this is unlikely to relate to what is newest or most unique).
- This insight informs messaging and content marketing decisions, clarifying both the buyer's questions and the answers they want to hear.
- For example, if the buyer wants a solution that is "easy-to-use", the Decision Criteria Insight specifies which aspects of the solution this persona expects to be "easy to use" and how they determine which solution is the easiest.
Now that you know what the buying insight types are, we can resume talking about what to do with your interview recordings. It’s a good idea to get the recordings transcribed so that you can easily manipulate the text of the transcription.
Once you have your transcriptions, you then need to mine them for buying insights. To do this, create a spreadsheet with a few tabs, one for each insight type, and with several columns, one column each for:
- The Buyer's Words (quotes)
- Key Insight
- Buyer Type
And, to get a clearer picture of your buyers, you may want to add demographic or firmographic columns if they are relevant to your buyer types such as:
- Business to Business Companies
- Job Title
- Company Size
- Business to Consumer Companies
- Marital Status
- Age Range
Once you have your spreadsheet setup, you’ll start adding quotes from your interviews to the appropriate tab. So, for example, if you get a quote from a buyer that says,
“...Looking at industry sites that would rate the different tools and their pros and cons, checking out prices, requesting that the reps give us a call and answer questions, so a bunch of different little things.”
then you would add this quote to the Buyer’s Journey tab since it’s a quote about their journey in buying an email marketing solution and credit it to Tim. Or, if you come a across a quote from a buyer that says,
“...There were some that were too small; in other words they didn't really have the features or capacity that we needed.”
then you would add this quote to the Decision Criteria tab since it’s a quote about what the buyer looked for in an email marketing solution and credit it to Tim. At this point, don’t worry about the “Key Insight” and the “Buyer Type” columns as I’ll discuss what to do with them at a later date. Also, you don’t need to add any other columns at this point unless you would like to do so. At this point, your goal is just to aggregate all of your quotes into this spreadsheet so that you view all of them in one document.
Once you’ve processed all of your interviews and added all of the quotes from each of them to your spreadsheet, you can now take a look at them holistically. When looking at all of the quotes from each tab, you’ll want to make sure that you can enough quotes from different buyers to draw meaningful insights from them. If you don’t have about 25-50 quotes from different buyers, then you’re going to want to conduct more interviews and add them to your sheet. Except, when you conduct these interviews, you’ll want to focus on the areas where you want more quotes - Priority Initiatives, Success Factors, Perceived Barriers, Buyer’s Journey & Decision Criteria.
Once you have enough quotes for each Ring of Buying Insight, you’ll start to organize the quotes in each tab by Key Insight. This is when you’ll start populating the “Key Insight” column with what you think the quote is saying in more concise terms. So, for example, if you have a few quotes that say, “... the laptop needs to be light”, “I’m always on the go and carrying my computer around, so it shouldn’t be heavy”, or “I’m not that strong, so I can’t carry that much and anything I buy shouldn’t weigh me down” then you would add a key insight for Decision Criteria that says “Low weight”. As you can see, if you have a ton of quotes that are related to low weight, then you can assume that this is a key insight across most buyers. If you have more than one key insight from the same source on a tab, just use the most meaningful quote and key insight from that source. Then, do this for all of your quotes and each tab in your spreadsheet. After you’ve completed this, you’ll have all of your quotes organized by key insight AND you’ll be able to sort them using your spreadsheet tool’s sorting capabilities. And, once you sort your insights, you’ll start to see many of the same key insights appear. (Some of them may need to be reworded to match another key insight.)
And, once you spot those key insights patterns, you’ll start to see the personas emerge. For example, if you observe a prominent key insight that different buyers “...bought on behalf of a client”, then you can safely say that one of your personas is a consultant or an agency buyer of some sort. If, after looking at all of your key insights the personas aren’t emerging, then you add the firmographic and demographic columns to help clear up the picture. Once added, you’ll likely start to see patterns in job titles, company sizes, industry, location, etc. And, if adding these columns of data aren’t working, you may need to add psychographic data to your buyers. Psychographic data are things like attitudes or behaviors that specific buyers exhibit. For example, consumers who care about the environment, recycle, and purchase organic food may be categorized as a “eco-friendly lifestyle” attitude and preference. After adding all of these columns, keep in mind that your personas are based off of actual buying insights, NOT profile information.
When assembling your personas, you can layer on demographic or firmographic details to add a little more color to the personas. Adele provides a fantastic buyer persona example to which you can refer. (See below.) In her example, Amanda is an agency buyer of an email marketing solution and the persona has her typical profile as well as Ring of Insight key insights and quotes. In the example below, the key insights are the statements in green and bolded and the quotes below them map to that key insight. Just keep in mind that the buyer profile by itself isn’t the persona. The buying insights COMBINED WITH the profile is the persona. To identify the demographic or firmographic details of your personas, simply look up the LinkedIn profiles of your interviewees and their companies and use the job titles, company sizes, genders that you see most often among all of your interviewed buyers.
Part 9. OK, now that I have my personas, what are my next steps?
If you’re still unsure of your personas, then conduct more research until you’re more confident. As I mentioned earlier, if you can get 50 interviews completed, then you should have enough data to be confident in your preliminary personas. If, for some reason, you’re unable to conduct more interviews, then you can send out a survey to get some degree of validation of your buyer personas. And, now that you’ve spoken with a bunch of buyers, you can more intelligently write your survey questions and answers. Of course, you won’t be able to ask them what type of buyer they are, but you can ask other questions that help identify their priority initiatives, success factors, decision criteria, perceived barriers and buying journeys. Of course, you’ll want to target your survey to people who recently purchased your type of product and were involved in the purchase process. And, you’ll want to make sure that you can get enough quality responses to ensure your survey data is statistically significant.
Some examples of survey questions you might include are:
- Which [Product Category] does your company currently use? If you are still setting up your [Product Category] that you recently purchased, please indicate the [Product Category] you recently purchased.
- Which of the following characteristics of a [Product Category] were most important to you in your last [Product Category] purchase? Please select and rank the top 5.
- What prompted your organization to buy or replace your existing [Product Category]? Please select all that apply.
- Which of the following information sources were the most influential in your [Product Category] purchase process? Please select and rank the top 5.
- How many people were involved in your purchase process?
- How long did your purchase process take? (in weeks or days)
Once you have your survey data collected, qualified and analyzed, you can layer those findings onto your qualitative findings to validate and add more detail to your personas. For example, you can be a bit more specific about how many people were involved in purchasing your product or service or how long it took to consider what brand to purchase. In the end, layering on survey findings to your personas can only strengthen the personas you’ve identified, refine your personas, or help you identify additional personas you might have missed. The bottom line is that your personas become more accurate with more research you conduct. The trick is balancing more research/accuracy, keeping costs low and completing the project in a timely fashion - you will, most likely, be able to get two of the three, but not all three.
Now that you have your shiny and new buyer personas, you’re ready to start using it to make changes to your go to market strategy. The next best step is to share your personas with the key decision makers in your organization - those people that need to approve of any changes in your sales and marketing strategy or efforts. Some changes in your efforts could be the following:
- You may find that one of your buyer personas is a consultant or a third party who recommends your product type to his clients. So, you plan to test out a partner program that helps you improve sales through third parties like consultants.
- You may find that recommendations from friends or colleagues are very influential in the purchase process of your product or service. So, you plan to test a referral program to incentivize and encourage this recommendation behavior.
- You may find that buyers place a lot of emphasis on a free sample or a free trial prior to buying. So, you plan to provide a cost-effective and accessible way of providing free samples/trials to your prospects.
If any of your tests provide better outcomes, then you can make them permanent and you have the test data to justify any changes. You just have to ensure that your tests are well executed and have a large enough sample so that the test is statistically significant.
It’s natural not to know all of the ways you can modify your sales and marketing efforts immediately based off of persona findings. So, it’s a great idea to generate a spreadsheet of actions you can take and prioritize them based off of a framework like impact and effort. Then, focus on your top priorities and be sure to do measured tests prior to full implementation to make sure they actually help your business.
Part 10. Parting and concluding thoughts
Identifying and creating your buyer personas isn’t 100% a science as there is some art and intuition involved. I emphasize interviewing as many buyers of your product as humanly possible. As you conduct these interviews, you’ll learn a great deal about them and you’ll start to see patterns in their buying insights. And, when you compile your insights into buyer types, buyer personas, it helps you get into your buyers’ the mindsets so that you can focus and optimize your sales and marketing efforts. If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, don’t get discouraged, just focus on scheduling your first interviews and go from there. You’ll feel a lot better once you conduct your first interview.
And, if you need a cheat sheet, here are the steps that you should take to get your personas developed.
- Schedule buyer interviews
- Interview buyers (record the conversation)
- Transcribe interviews
- Markup interview with buying insight types
- Aggregate insights onto a spreadsheet
- Write key insights based off of quotes
- If needed, add demographic or psychographic info about your buyers to get a better picture of them
- Identify patterns in the key insights
- Identify your personas based off of the key insight patterns
- Compile your personas into presentable formats and share them with key decision makers on your team
- Based on your personas, list out all of the ways you can modify your sales and marketing efforts and prioritize them
- Execute on your most important modifications
Good luck! And, don’t forget that you can always refer to Adele’s book if you get stuck!
Stay tuned for Part 9 and Jonathan's conclusion!