Explore some of our past podcasts hosted by WriterAccess founder Byron White.
Byron: Welcome back, everyone. I'm here with Adele. Adele, welcome.
Adele: Thank you, Byron.
Byron: You were the CEO Buyer Persona Institute. What a cool name as well that you could develop an institute around Buyer Personas.
Adele: I know. Who would have thought that was a good idea, right?
Byron: Of course, you're the author of Buyer Personas that had gained insights in your customer's expectations, aligned your marketing strategy and win more business. Let's talk about that today. Tell us how Personas, in general, has evolved in the last, say 10 to 15 minutes? I mean, what's really new and what's fresh in the last few years particularly? How are we able to better develop personas for our customers, in your opinion?
Adele: Well, I think people have had the idea of understanding their customers, and this is hardly a fresh idea. Personas, in my world, had been around for more than a decade, but all of a sudden they've become a bright, shiny object. This is both good news and bad news from my perspective because there's a lot of really scary things going on out there around buyer personas.
Byron: Tell me about customer experience in general and the journey, the customer journey. How is the customer journey playing at your persona developments these days?
Adele: I am going to split hairs here, but I try to make a distinction between buyers and customers. The buyer's journey is the part that's around, "Am I going to do business with you around the solving of a particular problem?" The customer's journey is everything that after I say, "Yes, I want to do business with you." I think, first of all, we’ve got to be clear because there's been a lot of work over the years about improving the customer experience, which is mostly around what happens after I say ‘yes’. It’s been precious little work, and that's why this is an opportunity around improving the buying experience.
Byron: Interesting. When you think about the buying experience, which is I guess what you're most interested in focusing on, correct; the buyer experience?
Byron: Are there stages of the buying experience? Of course, the answer is yes. How does the persona change within those decisions or stages?
Adele: Yeah. We all want to map the buyer's journey. It's a very popular idea, and there's a million ideas out there about it . I would tell you that if you really…and we've interviewed thousands of buyers, mostly B2B buyers…and fundamentally, there's three parts of the buying decision there: Do I want to spend money to solve this problem right now? Then there's sort of the research around, who should I even think about solving that problem with? Then there's the choice process called, who am I going to select? Depending on how important that decision is, just like walking at the store and grab a bottle of water off the shelf not very important, or if it's going to affect my whole career. I'm going to spend more time and do more things within each of those three stages. Fundamentally, those are the three steps of the buyer's journey.
Byron: Indeed. Just to complement that, there's the making sure somebody has a need and then the research that goes on. Certainly, they make a selection as you described, and then purchasing takes over. That’s where customer experience kicks in, if I got that right. Correct?
Byron: In your mind.
Byron: Okay. In this journey, when you're sitting there trying to describe a persona of your customer and/or customers or, I guess buyers would be a better…potential buyers, even more precise, would you agree, prospect buyers…
Byron: Tell me why, for the most part this is not guess work. How do you eliminate the guess work when developing personas?
Adele: Well, because buyer personas are meant to be a tool to help us make better decisions, right?
Adele: If we're guessing about the tool, then we might as well just skip the tool and discuss about the decision. I mean if it's a tool…The tool can't be about guess work or it's not going to allow us to be any more precise than we were before we had the tool. It’s never made sense to me that we would guess about our buyer personas. We really want to get inside the buyer's mind during this buying decision and find out what's going on in their head; what are their perceptions, what are their attitudes, what are their obstacles, concerns, so that when we build contacts for them it's specifically targeted to something that’s really on their mind and they say, "Oh, my gosh, this is really valuable."
Byron: What's the best way to get under the skin of the target audience, in your opinion, to learn their perceptions, their attitude, their concerns, their pain points? What's the best way to learn this data?
Adele: As long as your buyer has spent more than a few hours evaluating their options, going through that journey, then there is one way to do that, and that is to interview people using a very specialized kind of interview that I described in the book to who have just made that buying decision and ask them to tell you their story. This is a completely unscripted interview. It's like you and I are having right now. We don’t have any scripted questions. We're just having a discussion, a dialogue, and that allows us to really listen for the emotional high and low points in that buyer's journey and the one they just completed, probe on those and get to some insights that is completely unknown. These insights are shocking to our clients that buyers think this way.
Byron: How many people do you think you need to speak with to get some consensus on some attributes you might pick up on the influencers of that buying decision?
Adele: So we get that question every time and it's hard to answer that quickly, but I'll just say as long as the group is relatively alike and we're not trying to segment the group, then we have found over and over again through thousands of interviews, that 10 interviews is enough to give us consistency.
Now, there are situations where the clients want to segment the study and then we want to do at least six and ideally eight interviews in each segment. There are situations where the decision of the company is going to make based on the buyer persona is so strategic and so critical that we want to follow up with a survey, with a quantitative study to validate those findings. But if we're just going to do the interviews and we are going to segment the study at all, people are shocked to find out that 10 is enough.
Byron: How much time does it really take to put together a first class and world class persona process and how often do you need to change that and go out and re-research and re-interview?
Adele: Yeah. Two questions. Each interview is an hour. So if you're going to do 10 interviews, that's 10 hours. Now, the thing about that is that's completely unstructured data. If you do it correctly, these interviews are not scripted. So there's a whole methodology in the book as well to teach marketers how to go through and mind those interviews for the…what we call the five rings of buying insight, and build the persona. That's about another three hours per interview. If you really look at it, that's 40 hours of your time now. The fact is, you’ve got to find the people to interview, schedule the interview, it's all that; so insert another long story. It's not that much time if you consider the value of those insights.
Byron: How can you...?
Byron: Yeah. Sorry, go ahead.
Adele: You also asked me how often do you have to update those.
Byron: Yes. Fair enough.
Adele: That is the such an interesting question. People think that it's constant. I think if you're an in-house marketer doing these interviews all the time is a good idea because it keeps that buyer's voice in your head. But if you're using a third party, you really want to think about how often that buying decision is likely to change. It's probably going to be something in a mature technology that's been around a long time. There's not a lot of huge innovation going on in the industry. You probably don't need to do them very often, maybe every year or so. On the other hand, if it's really emerging technology, there's a lot of change, a lot of movement, then you're going to need to do them more frequently.
Byron: Tell us a little bit about what…you talked about in the book regarding formulating questions in advance versus winging it a little bit more, making it feel more conversational, more loose. One hour is a lot of time to ask your customer to spend the phone with you, just pointing that out. How do you handle these obstacles? What are you looking to uncover?
Adele: Yeah. We only ask the customer for 30 minutes of their time.
Byron: Okay. Yeah.
Adele: The shocking thing, Byron, and you guys just may be amazed about this; we usually can't get the client off the phone in those minutes because...
Adele: It goes back to your question about…this is completely an unscripted interview. We're getting people to tell their own story and we're not just reading off stupid questions that address what we want to know, we're probing on…The only question that's scripted is the very first question, "Take me back to the day when you first decided to look for a new blank and tell what happened." Then we walk that buyer so slowly to their story and we listen for and probe on sort of their experience around that. When they get worked up about something, you ask them to talk more about that. People literally get so caught up in the story, they forget what time it is and we’ve had to end the call early. But most people will go 40 minutes before we say, "Look, I realize we're really running over." It is an hour interview. You're going to schedule 30 minutes. The shocking part is that at the end of it, people are grateful. They say, "Gosh, this was really interesting for me too. You made me think about things that I hadn't thought about."
Byron: Are you just asking them questions about what they're telling you or are you probing for, "Okay, thanks for telling me that information. What were you feeling at that time? How angry were you that there weren't good choices?" How deep you go?
Adele: Yeah. Basically the structure of the interview…and there's a whole model for this…is that we ask the buyer to take me back to the day when you first decided to look for a solution like this. No one answers that question when you ask at the first time.
Byron: Yeah. Right.
Adele: They all say, "Well, we wanted this benefit and we chose this company because..." That didn't answer my question.
Adele: The first thing I'm going to do is I'm going to say I’ll take what they said about the benefit and I say, "Well, you probably always wanted a solution of what you got." I'll back them up and I'll say, "Tell me what changed to make it suddenly become possible or a priority to invest in this area." We might spend five or 10 minutes just talking about that event in their company or in their priorities. It's really just like we're having this conversation now. People are just so worried about this. I say, "Look, if you can go to a party or a conference or a networking event and talk to people you don't know, you can do this", because you don't go to any of those with a script in your hand. It's listening to something they say that's fascinating and then probing on it.
Now after that first five or 10 minutes, I'm going to say, "Okay, now you’ve decided that this was really valuable to do. What did you do first to evaluate your option?" Now they’ll say…I don't know what they're going to say. They went on the internet, they did a Google search. I'll say, "So great, when you went out and did that search, what did you find that was really compelling for you?" Then as I'm walking through their journey, I'm giving them to tell the story about it at each phase. Buyers will describe the phases of their journey like this: "We went out and did the research. We found five, six, ten companies, I don't know.” Then I'll say, "Okay, what did you do next?" It's just like you ask them, "So you went on a trip somewhere. What did you do first? What did you do next? What did you do next?" Then asking them to tell you what they remember about that, what they learned about the companies at that step because here's what you can hang your head on by it, whatever people remember about that is what was important for them.
Byron: You're right. Right.
Adele: Because people don't remember very much. I don't remember very much. What they remember and what they tell you is now “Uh-huh, this is something important.” It's really about collecting all those important moments along that journey that leaves us to not just the buyer's journey but the other four rings of buying insight we're after, which is the trigger event, how they define success, what are their barriers, and what are their decision criteria. If they tell you what they used to eliminate people from consideration and walk you through this journey, they're going to tell you what you need to write about in your marketing practice.
Byron: Let's break each of those four down a little bit, because I think we’d love to hear some deeper insights from you. Could you start at the top and sort of...By the way, you're cheating a little bit with your persona development because you know what you're looking for. You're a professional at this, right?
Byron: But for those that are out there, for example, we have hundreds of writers that are working with customers for the first time, right? Do you feel like a customer needs to provide to a writer a really good persona of who the target audience is? Don't you think that's critical to writing style and tone and story and voice and all the wonderful things? What's your take on that question?
Adele: Sure, Byron. In a perfect world, if somebody was going to hire me to write, they’d give me the persona. Yes, I am cheating because I understand this, but the reason I wrote my book is that I wanted to give...A lot of people write a business book and it says that buyer personas are a good idea and here's a bunch of case studies about how it worked out. I didn't do that. The middle section of this book is everything I know, everything I've ever done to find people to interview...First of all, persuade the client to let me do these interviews, if they haven't done it themselves, then as a writer this might be either something I persuade them to do or that I go do for them. I wanted to give them a guide book, like every step of the way. How do you persuade the client that you need this, how do you find people to interview, how you convince them to interview, how you do the interviews, how do you mind the data for insight, and then how do you use this set of insights to find the intersection between what matters to buyers…Remember I said we're going to find what matters to buyers…and then work with the client to find the intersection between what matters to the buyers and what they do. That's the critical outlet. It isn't just the buyer persona but it's getting the client to sit down…Chapter Eight is all about how to do this. Get the buyer to tell you for every single one of those expectations the buyer has, here's our response to that. Now the copy practically writes so, because we don't just know who the buyer is, we know where the buyers need intersect with what the client delivered.
Byron: Here's a question, what's the best stage of the customer's history with you to work with? Should you balance the portfolio and have new customers to you as well as established customers and then somewhere in between? When you're choosing, say the 10 people, if you were just going to look at one segment, how would you diversify that?
Adele: Yeah. I go into a lot of details, there's some trade-off here. The reality is I am not the least bit interested in talking to the client's best customers. As a marketer, my job is to persuade people who aren't already in love with my clients, with my company. The people I most want to interview are the people who didn't choose us, who didn't choose the client, who decided not to go forward in the buying decision because those are the people that I most need to understand, "What the heck was going on in their mind? What were their perceptions and attitudes that I need to address in order to cause those buyers to do business with them?" This is one of the problems that companies have, is that they're only sort of listening to their customer counsels, their best customers...
Adele: Yeah, the champions. Oh, my gosh! I’ll literally say this to a client. I’ll say, "Listen, if every customer thought like that, you won't even need to do marketing."
Byron: You can still identify pain points though with the decision-making process, can't you, with the existing customers?
Adele: Yeah, sort of, kind of. I mean I say on a scale of one to five, their talking to existing customers is a two. Well, it's not useless. It's just I sure wouldn't wait to scale…I mean, if I'm going to talk to 10 people, no more than three people who are current customer.
Byron: Let's go to your famous chapter seven, which is a big one. That's how you determined how many buyer's personas you need.
Adele: You cheated, Byron. You read the book.
Byron: I did read the book. It's amazing, and that's why you're on the line. I would call it biblical. Don't quote me on that, of course, but it's the bible for really understanding. It's so deep and it's so awesome. Anyway, what are your thoughts on that? Share that with the audience.
Adele: Yeah. It is the longest chapter in the book. It was the hardest chapter to write. The key thing is that people are building way too many buyer personas.
Byron: You think?
Adele: It's driving me insane. I can't tell you. It’s like we've got 10 industries where we do business and now we've got three different influences in each, the buying decisions so now we need 30 buyer personas. That is the wrong answer. What is the right answer? The right answer is that after we've done these interviews, we have a chance…I was talking about finding out what matters to your buyers around the five rings of buying insights; their triggers, their priority initiative, how they define success, what are their obstacles to choosing you in this matter, what are their criteria for choosing you, and then what's their journey. When we look at all of those, we look for how many differences are there between people that we interviewed. If we think that we've got four industries where we do business, let's do six or eight interviews in each industry and then let's look at those five insights, look for the patterns in them and say, "Honestly, do we need to market? Do we need to build different content for each of these buyers, yes or no?" That's how many buyer personas we need.
Byron: What sort of training do you think somebody needs to do to really master the art of persona development? Don't you think it's really the best persona development specialist out there are working more in an agency setting or as an individual strategist where they are able to go in to multiple companies and really develop a system and a pattern here and a process by which they surface with really great personas?
Adele: That's a good question. I haven't thought of it that way, Byron. I don't think it matters where you work. I think it's more of personality. I've got a team of people that do this research for us. It's interesting that your audiences are writers because a lot of them have studied journalism. People who learned to be journalist and learn to go interview people are far and away the best people at doing this work. I don't care where they work, whether they're independent or do this in an agency. What I care about is that they've got that willingness and interest and sort of that insatiable curiosity. That is the one thing that comes across in an interview. When I'm screening people to be on my team, that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for people, that when I talk to them, you can hear that they're just always wanting to learn something. I think this is more of a personality trait. Certainly, having the confidence to get on the phone with the CEO of one of the world's largest banks, or the chief technology officer who's going to talk jargons, that comes…Eighty five percent of our clients are in the tech industry, so we look for people that have spent a decade or more in the tech industry and can speak the jargons, because you don't know what's going to come up, right? It's not like traditional research. That's my problem with a lot of the agencies, is a lot of them are so married to their discussion guides. You've got to be willing to do this research without a discussion guide. I do have people on my team who are seasoned researchers. They've grown up being researchers, but I have to train out of them that behavior called, "Oh that question worked on the last interview, I'm going to ask it again on this one", because you really want to take every interview like this opportunity. You have no idea where it's going and that's got to be fun for you or this isn't going to work.
Byron: You have your personas. They're wonderfully crafted. They help you distinguish between two or three, let's say buyer types and the complexities within their journey, what do you do with this fabulous data that you've just put together, let's say even if it's put together by a professional company like yours, what you do with it?
Adele: The first thing you need to do is to get…If we do this correctly, we're going to have maybe 30 or 40 for the key findings insights around the buyer's expectations as they go through that journey. Now we schedule an eight-hour session. We do it over three days, so it doesn’t drive people crazy because it's hard work, with the company subject matter experts. We go to every single headline and we say, what's your response to a buyer who's worried about this aspect of ease of use? We heard from buyers that they want email marketing solution that is so easy that they never have to refer to help, consult with anybody. If that's their key requirement, what's your response to that? We go through every single one of those and we develop an answer.
Now we have a list of 40 or 50 things that we know we have to talk, be prepared to talk about either whether it's sale messaging or website content or a blog content or articles at White Papers. We've got 30 or 40 things to talk about. Then what we do is we rank those things or that long list based on the relative importance to the buyer. Out of all the things that buyers care about, what are the five most important things, and those are the Top Five messages that we're going to feature in our short form marketing content. We now have kind of a play book for aligning with and engaging with the buyers who are on this journey.
Byron: Interesting. Have you ever been asked by a customer to put together personas based upon helpdesk tickets and/or live chat logs?
Adele: No one's ever asked us to do that. I would tell them that helpdesk tickets are part of the customer journey, not the buyer's journey. That would be out. Live chat during the buying decision, really? Are you sure? What's interesting about all these…I just read an article called ‘There's Nothing Automatic about Automation.’ We’re all in-love with automation. I have been in tech industry for 35 years. I'm like the world's greatest fan of technology. But there's no substitute for listings where real person tell their story. If it is a high consideration buying decision, like one where buyers spent weeks, months, or years evaluating their options, most of that occurred offline. You can go mind your digital content for all you want, you're going to get maybe 10 to 20 percent of the buyer's story. That's okay. Let's take that data, let's integrate it with our findings from the interviews, but there's no substitute for the interview.
Byron: I think you’d agree that one of the main purposes of developing personas is to then develop content that centers around the needs and the wants of the pain points and all the other fun stuff that you're learning about these personas. Agree with that? You agree with that obviously?
Adele: It's the primary reason.
Byron: Primary. Perfect. Why not learn with A/B testing and multivariate testing and trying and testing different types of content to let data prove to you that the type of content you're creating is in fact engaging and interesting and motivating for the sales funnel? Why not use advanced technology like A/B testing and multivariate testing to determine the future of what you create and why you create it?
Adele: All of those things are good ideas, but the problem is, is that you've still only tested your guess work. You're still not able to do discovery, right? So this is the problem with anything that we do, like a survey. Why not send it all on a survey and then ask people to respond to it? First of all, it's binary information. It's just ‘yes or no’, it's not ‘why’. It’s if they engage, they didn't engage, so it's just ‘yes or no’, it's not ‘why’. It's not like, "What if we tweak this? What if we tweak that?" There's infinite possibilities. We're only able to test what we thought up in our minds to begin with. What I want to do is first get the buyers to tell me their story, and then absolutely I want to take all sorts of variations on that theme, including that Top Five ranking I did, and I want to test all of those.
Byron: In tech companies, how do you find people that didn't buy?
Adele: Well, our preferred method of doing this…and I went in to this just briefly in the book because it is kind of the highly skilled thing to do this well…is to work with qualitative research recruiters. We sit down with the client to find their target market demographics; what industry, companies, etcetera, that type of roles. The hard part of that is that we then add a question, "Have you within the last year evaluated this kind of solution or solving this kind of problem?” How you write that sentence is a really big deal. If you get it wrong, you'll get the wrong people. Then the recruiters will go find people. You have to pay them. You pay an incentive to the participants. That's how we do all of our studies.
Byron: I see.
Adele: Within the company, how you do this is, is you have to focus on your last interviews. That's how you have to apply.
Byron: We've just thoroughly enjoyed this discussion, and frankly want more. Let me help the audience by making this little brief and ending here, and probably get you back for another session because I have a lot more questions that I would love to ask. Two final questions; who would you like to hear from, and how can they get a hold of you?
Adele: Anyone who's interested in Buyer Personas is on my good to contact list. They can contact us through our website at buyerpersona.com. That's the best way to reach me. The website has our contact information there.
Byron: Adele, it was a real pleasure chatting with you. I'm going to try to look to schedule another one in the near future. Do you have any new books coming out on the topic?
Adele: I don't. I am not a writer, I'm a public speaker. This one used up all my energy. It'll be a while before the next one.
Byron: Well, it was published this last year, so I think you're good for at least a few years. It was really great that you took all your experience and put it together. It's just a fantastic book. Thanks for writing it.
Adele: Well, thank you for having me, Byron. I enjoyed it.
Byron: It was a real pleasure. Thanks for listening everyone, and we'll see you next week for another great podcast. Thanks for tuning in.