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In marketing, you have to understand buyer personas. You have to understand that a buyer persona is more than just a general representation of who your buyers are. You have to know how to use buyer personas to inform and enrich your marketing efforts. You have to know how to effectively research and develop your buyer personas to keep them credible and accurate. With all these things and more that you need to understand about buyer personas, we thought it best to go right to the source and connect with Adele Revella, Founder and CEO of the Buyer Persona Institute for a quick, yet in-depth Q&A session.

CMO Essentials: Adele, you literally wrote the book on buyer personas, but if you could only give marketers one single takeaway on buyer personas, what would it be and why?

Adele Revella:

The most important aspect of buyer personas is that they describe your buyer in the context of a decision you want to influence. So you want to create an example buyer, but the most actionable insights reveal why your buyer is purchasing and the criteria they use to make a decision.

This was the real reason I knew I had to write the book.  We’re seeing too many articles about the need for buyer profiles and journey maps, but no one is talking about the need for buying insights.

So marketers have dozens of templates that describe their buyers. A small company might have six or more.  A very small fraction of these companies have the bandwidth or insights they need to create and disseminate content that each of these audiences will find useful.

CMO Essentials: Recent customer experience research has shown that organizations that map and manage their buyer and customer journeys enjoy 79% higher cross-sell and upsell revenue, on average, compared to peers without such a capability. Even though this is a buyer-centric tactic, however, it clearly serves as a competitive advantage for the business. When it comes to effective, well-developed buyer personas, who would you say benefits more in this case – the buyer or the business?

Adele Revella:

I can’t imagine a better win-win scenario than this one.  Your study focused on the vendor side, whereas our research focuses on the buyer’s perspective. So I can assure you that buyers have lots of questions as they evaluate their options, and when they get the answers they want to hear, they have confidence that they are making a good decision and trust the companies that have provided them with relevant content.

This is obviously a huge win for the supplier, and even a source of competitive advantage, because if two solutions are exactly alike, but one company is easier to work with, that company will win every time.

I would comment, however,  that we see a very high proportion of business executives who are frustrated with their inability to get useful information through their interactions with sales and marketing teams, so the companies that reported this outcome are rare and to be commended. And yes, there’s immense benefit for both buyers and sellers when marketing and sales interactions are aligned with customer expectations.

CMO Essentials: For marketers who want to excel at crafting buyer personas, what skill sets should they most actively work to refine?

Adele Revella:

This is a very good question.  Marketers have lots of experience building assets by relying on internal resources, web analytics and surveys, which is why a lot of online resources recommend these approaches for building buyer personas. If this worked, buyer personas would, indeed, be a result of refining existing skills.

But by trying to leverage existing skills, marketers are producing too many buyer personas and then wondering what to do with them. They’ve recycled the information they were already using and that’s not very helpful.

There’s only one way to get buyer personas that tell you why people make decisions and how they decide that one is best – someone needs to have a very specialized, unscripted conversation with buyers who have recently made that decision.

The fact that is such a new skill is the reason that it took me four chapters to explain what’s needed. Marketers need to learn which buyers to interview, how to ask for the buyer’s time, and most critically, how to have a probing conversation that encourages buyers to open up and share details they haven’t yet revealed to anyone.

Then, since these conversations are unscripted, you can’t just count the responses and report them. One of the most important new skills is mining the interview transcripts for the relevant quotes and identifying the key insights. There is a whole chapter devoted to this topic, and another that explains how to choose the right number of buyer personas based on differences in the insights.

CMO Essentials: When an organization does have a healthy process for developing, refining, and implementing buyer personas, in general, what does it look like?

Adele Revella:

First of all, marketing is the respected authority about the company’s most important constituents – its buyers. When marketing plans directly relate to a buyer persona’s expectations, stakeholders don’t feel the need to interject their own opinions about everything from messaging to content strategy or whether a tactic such as social media is a good idea.

From salespeople to senior management, everyone knows what the buyers expect and can make more accurate projections than ever before about which business strategies are likely to be well received. When sales and marketing teams meet, the discussion focuses on what the buyers want and how the two teams can work together to be more helpful and persuasive.

Note that this is mostly visionary at this point, however. The reality is that the adoption of buyer personas is in its early stages, and companies that are most successful with them are starting with a small part of their business and then optimizing their utilization of personas in that segment. We advise everyone to take this approach because it makes for a manageable change effort.

CMO Essentials: On the other hand, when organizations fail to utilize buyer personas effectively – when they get it wrong – what can happen in terms of overall marketing or business performance?

Adele Revella:

When companies profile each type of buyer in each of their existing segments, the result is so many personas that the company either ignores this work or attempts to create messaging and content for each of them.  Fortunately, most companies simply forget about this work, wasting only the cost of the profiling effort itself.

Building content for each of too many personas is more expensive in absolute dollars, since it results in redundant marketing activities that, lacking buying insight, are likely to recycle the original messages, content and activities.

But the biggest cost is the lost opportunity that comes from knowing what really matters to buyers as they evaluate their options to solve a problem, and then executing efficiently on the messaging and content  that helps buyers to make an informed decision.

CMO Essentials: Amending the first question a bit, if you could only give marketers two takeaways on buyer personas, what would that second takeaway be?

Adele Revella:

My first takeaway is the importance of buying insights, and we’ve covered that.

The second point is that the transition to audience marketing is a fairly significant change initiative. Marketers will need to be willing to learn new skills or they will need a budget to engage a third party to conduct these interviews.

And then, once the persona insights are in hand, the company will need to learn how to revise their messaging based on the insights. Finally, you will want to make adjustments to marketing content and sales tools to incorporate the new insights and messaging strategy.

So we strongly recommend that companies start small. Unless you are a one-product company, don’t try to interview every type of buyer about every decision you want to influence. Instead, find a pilot for this effort by choosing a campaign, goal or initiative that is strategic and a bit challenging. The importance of this initiative will help you to gain approval for the appropriate investments. And because the company sees the goal as challenging, they will be better prepared to listen to the findings and make decisions accordingly.

It’s logical but easy to forget. Buyer personas are not the goal – they are a tool to guide your decisions about how to reach the goal. When the buyer persona is built from real conversations with real buyers, capturing their thoughts about the decision you want to influence, it is perfectly tuned to reveal amazing insights.  You need to get the right guide map and follow it or you’ll end up right where you started.

Adele RevellaAbout Adele: Adele Revella is CEO of Buyer Persona Institute and author of Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into Your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business (Wiley). Adele’s unique perspective derives from decades of experience as a sales and marketing executive, trainer, researcher and entrepreneur. Through the company she founded in 2010, Buyer Persona Institute, Adele has a compelling strategy for marketers who seek the confidence to say: “This is what really matters to our buyers. So here’s the plan.”

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