A well-crafted buyer persona can drive significant increases in lead volume and total qualified leads. This is why product marketers often dedicate countless hours researching and developing this critical asset.
But where do you start? And how do you know if you’re doing it right?
Today, Adele’s organization works with customers from all around the world—from solo practitioners to Fortune 100 companies. Based on her extensive experience, she has developed a very successful framework for buyer persona research. In our conversation, she shared the details of that framework along with a few pro tips to help product marketers get their personas right the first time.
What is a buyer persona, exactly?
To get everyone on the same page, Adele began by pointing out the very important distinction between a buyer persona and a buyer profile.
“A lot of the work in the industry is done around what I call buyer profiles,” Adele explains. “A buyer profile basically describes an individual and works pretty well for low-consideration consumer products. (Think Sally does yoga, has two kids, and owns a dog.) But in the tech world, where the buying journey can last from weeks to months or even longer, you need to really get inside the buying experience to build your buyer persona. And the key difference between a buyer profile and a buyer persona is that the persona includes buying insights.”
In short, a buyer profile is more like a dating profile while a buyer persona is more like a full psychological assessment. That’s because a persona has to answer the question, “What does this person need to know about your solution before they buy?” And answering that question requires that you dig well below the surface.
The power of an effective buyer persona is in the details. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and trying to reverse engineer universal insights does nothing but water everything down until it’s worthless. “You could uplevel what buyers need to know in order to find commonalities,” Adele says. “But as soon as you uplevel it that high, it’s useless. The things you really need to know about your buyer are so detailed, that there’s no commonality.”
As an example, it’s essentially meaningless to point out that your buyer wants a solution that’s easy to use. That’s not an insight; it’s the obvious. And because it’s obvious, it isn’t useful. What you need to do is dig deeper to get at the specific details that will help you move the buyer forward in their journey: How much training do they expect to need before the product is easy to use? Did they have to go through a trial or proof of concept, or did they just see a demo and believe it? How do they evaluate ease of use in the first place?
“The fact that the devil is in the details is what makes this work so fascinating,” says Adele. “You learn something new from each interview about what really matters to your buyers.”
Why Buyer Personas Matter – It's All About Trust.
Product marketers invest so much time and energy digging deep and sifting through all the details because accurate and insightful buyer personas help create a critical trust bond between a buyer and a brand.
Strong buyer personas help an organization understand exactly what a buyer needs to know before they can make a purchase decision. And when you know exactly what the questions will be, it’s easy to prepare answers that let the buyer know that a) you understand their true needs, and b) they can trust you to deliver a solution that meets those needs.
The end goal of any buyer persona exercise is to uncover the insights that make it easy to build the trust that’s necessary to influence favorable customer behaviors throughout the buyer’s journey.
Interviewing Buyers: The 5 Rings of Buying Insight™
Buyer interviews are the heart and soul of any good persona. The purpose of these interviews is to identify the patterns about an organization’s buyers. Adele’s framework for successful buyer interviews—the 5 Rings of Buying Insight—is designed to provide in-depth context around the buying decision while eliminating irrelevant data and reducing the number of buyer personas. The framework includes five parts, each of which reveals another level of detail:
🙋 Priority Initiatives
Reveals why some buyers make your solution category a strategic priority while others choose the status quo.
“Priority initiatives deal with the patterns around the drivers or triggers for an investment in your category,” Adele says. “These are like the über pain points—the ones that are so excruciating, the buyer can’t last a moment longer without making this category of investment. You will likely find multiple drivers that are crucial to the moment when a buyer decides to invest rather than continue having the painful experience.”
🙌 Success Factors
Reveals what buyers expect to change after implementing your solution, and why
“Success factors have to do with patterns around the benefits and outcomes your buyers are seeking,” Adele says. “There will be a multitude of things, and it’s important to capture them in your buyer’s words.”
🚧 Perceived Barriers
Reveals why some buyers wouldn’t perceive your company or solution as their best option
“Perceived barriers are my favorite because this is where you learn about the objections buyers have,” Adele says. “True or not, these perceptions cause buyers to believe that particular providers cannot deliver what they need.” Uncovering these obstacles provides very clear direction about where you need to double down in your marketing and buyer education efforts.
⛳ Decision Criteria
Reveals what criteria buyers use to evaluate solution options and make a purchasing decision and why
“Decision criteria is usually the beefiest part of the study, where we catalog all the questions buyers have in common,” Adele says. “Most of the time, the questions are focused on features, which makes sense since the buyer is often betting their career or job or company on the technology investment.” Again, insights in this area help identify places where you may need to adjust or strengthen your marketing. This feedback can also directly affect the roadmap because buyer interviews often reveal different insights than customer interviews.
📣 The Buyer's Journey
Reveals which buyers are involved in the decision and what resources they trust to guide their decisions
“The buyer’s journey is about the steps your buyers take, the resources they trust, and the people who are involved in the decision,” Adele says. “Insights here make it clear where your marketing and sales efforts need to focus, and—most critically—what you don’t need to do.” These insights are especially important for lead gen, demand gen, sales enablement teams.
Three Pro Tips to Start You Off Right
In addition to the framework, Adele shared a few big-picture tips that can make or break your buyer interviews.
👑 Pursue quality over quantity.
In a world where so many of our decisions are driven by massive amounts of data, it’s important to remember that buyer persona research is a qualitative exercise, which means that a relatively (perhaps surprisingly) small sample size can provide really rich data.
Adele’s advice is to start with thirty interviews of thirty minutes each. However, if your sample group is homogenous—say all enterprise companies with over a billion in annual revenue—you’ll likely need no more than ten interviews.
On the other hand, if you’re segmenting your buyer audiences (perhaps by company size), she recommends at least eight interviews per segment. She also notes, because it’s a mistake she sees marketers make all the time, that geography is not a great way to segment. In her experience, buyer insights don’t change much based on geography.
💬 Let People Tell Their Stories.
The majority of Adele’s interviews run over the allotted time because she can’t get the interviewee off the phone. “People love to tell their stories,” she explains. “And, because our interviews are both double-blind and unscripted, people get really open and really candid.”
While the interviews are unscripted, they are structured around a single question: “Take me back to the day when you first decided you might need a solution in this category, and tell me what happened.” Using that opener as a jumping-off point, the conversation can then explore key questions like why they didn’t act sooner and what exactly happened at every step of their buyer journey.
🙅 Don't Get Carried Away.
“Stop building all those personas. It’s a huge, huge trap.” Adele says. “Whatever you think you need for buyer personas, you probably need half as many. Maybe less.” Extraneous personas is probably the number one problem Adele encounters, especially when new marketers are driving the process. Not only is it wasted effort to create more personas than you need, it can also set the marketing team up for failure if the budget can’t sustain unique campaigns for so many personas.
For example, many marketers want to include the CFO as a persona because that’s the person who tends to sign off on the purchase. But that rarely means that the CFO is heavily involved in the decision between provider A and provider B. You won’t gain any relevant insights by interviewing CFOs or creating the corresponding persona.
It Just Makes Sense.
At the end of the day, Adele would like to be remembered as someone who helped people make sense of B2B marketing. “I love what I do because it’s not something you can make up,” she says. “It’s not a case of everyone sitting in a room and shouting out their ideas, and he who has the loudest voice or the biggest title wins. The process lets you speak for the buyer in a way that makes sense and is logical.”
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