Michelangelo famously claimed that when he sculpted, he simply removed the extraneous. He didn’t so much create human forms as liberate them. He wasn’t imposing his vision on slabs of stone; he was revealing the figures within.
What if we adopted this mindset with personas? What if, instead of creating personas from our imaginations, we found out everything we could about the flesh-and-blood people we want to sell to and keep happy – and then used personas as a means of revealing those people to the teams that need to communicate with them?
This analogy came to mind as I listened to Ardath Albee at the Intelligent Content Conference. In her talk, How to Develop Audience Personas That You’ll Actually Use, she emphasized the need to base buyer personas on research. All of the content in this article comes from Ardath’s ICC talk and from my subsequent conversations with her.
Why you must build personas on research
As marketers, Ardath says, our dream is to inspire prospective customers to call our salespeople and say, “We want what your company talks about. Can you help?”
Buyer personas, done well, lead to phone calls like that.
(Like many of you who read this blog, Ardath has a B2B focus; when she says “buyer,” “customer,” or “audience” – terms often used interchangeably here – she means people who make substantial purchasing decisions.)
Ardath has seen buyer personas done well and done poorly. “Getting your marketing team in a conference room around a pizza at lunch and saying, ‘OK, let’s build a persona’ doesn’t work,” she says. “You are not your buyers. You have too much knowledge.”
What works is research.
Research – the time lag for everything – is the most effort-intensive part of building a persona. It’s not quick. It’s not convenient. But you can’t create sales-boosting personas without it.
You can’t create sales-boosting personas without doing research via @ardath421 #contentstrategy
In this article, I summarize Ardath’s advice on three equally important types of research – three ways marketers find out about the people they want their personas to reveal:
- Sales interviews
- Customer interviews
- External research
When you do all three kinds of research and convert that research into well-formed personas, you end up with buyer personas that you and your team want to use – personas that help you get the right content to the right people at the right time. That’s the kind of content we all want to create: the kind that builds relationships that result in sales.
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Essential parts of a persona
Before we dig into how to research your personas, here’s a review of the nine components Ardath suggests for your personas:
- Day in the life
- Keywords and phrases
- Engagement scenarios
You can read what Ardath has to say about each part in depth in this post: Buyer Personas You Want to Use: The 9 Essential Parts. All aspects of your research relate to one of these parts.
How and why to conduct sales interviews
Where do you start with your research? Ardath suggests interviewing your salespeople first. You can then align your personas with the people the sales team wants to interact with.
If you ignore the sales team, your personas may fail to help the business. Salespeople who don’t see your personas as relevant won’t see any improvement in their leads, Ardath says. Those salespeople aren’t going to tell the same story you’re telling in the marketing department. As Ardath says, “We all need to be on the same storyline.”
The good news is, when you reach out to salespeople, you can expect an enthusiastic response:
They usually get excited about this conversation. Salespeople want better leads as much as you want to give them better leads. They want to be more productive. They want to earn more commissions. They want to close more deals.
Interviewing five or six salespeople typically gives you enough perspective although, depending on your goals and the complexity of your solution, you may need to do more. And you must talk with people individually. “Otherwise, they herd up and follow the leader,” Ardath says. “They agree with everything that leader says. That’s not helpful.”
Ardath suggests that you ask your salespeople these questions, each of which relates to one of the nine persona components she identified in her talk (as indicated in parentheses):
- With whom do you interact at a prospect company? (persona identification)
- Who influences those people, and whom do they need to influence? (day in the life)
- What questions do they ask you? (questions)
- How do they describe the problems they’re solving? (problems)
- How would they phrase what they want to achieve? (objectives)
- Why haven’t they achieved those things already? (obstacles)
- What do they need to build the business case? (preferences)
- What types of pushback do you get? (obstacles)
Throughout your sales interviews, remember your goal: to build buyer personas that build sales.
How and why to conduct customer interviews
Salespeople and customers tell you different things. Since your buyer personas must address the needs of both sides, you need to talk with customers as well.
How long does each interview last?
Ardath suggests asking for a half hour from each customer. “More than that is tough, but most people will happily give you 30 minutes. People love to talk about themselves,” she says.
How many customers do we interview per persona?
Plan to do about 10 customer interviews per persona. “Once you get to the point where you’re hearing the same stuff over and over, you know you’ve got it,” Ardath says. If you sense that you’re missing something, do more interviews. She once added six interviews when the original responses were too varied to enable her team to generalize.
What kind of customers do we interview?
If you can, interview recent customers whose buying journey is still fresh in their minds. You may not always have this option; the sales reps or account managers who manage the relationships often choose their better customers as interviewees. These aren’t always the people who did the buying; the buyers you want to talk with might not even work for those companies any more. You can still gain useful insights from the customers chosen by the sales team, but you may not learn the things you most need to know.
Ideally, interview people who have been through the buying process – especially if that process is complex – so that you can understand the whole process from the customer point of view.
You may even want to interview prospects who ended up not buying from you, Ardath says:
Lost opportunities would be my preference if interviewing prospects because they’ve made it to the end stage. But they can be hard to get on the phone. They have no incentive to speak with you, whereas customers will do it as a favor – or they might do it in hopes of getting better content or a better experience or better service.
As much as possible, match interviewees with your goals for the persona. For example, if you want a persona to help build sales with enterprise companies in the financial services industry, interview customers “who fit that premise.”
How long does the interview process last?
Invest the time to get the interviews you need. “I’ve had persona projects where I could get all my interviews done in a few weeks,” Ardath says. “For other projects, the interviews took four months.”
What goes into a good interview?
Let interviewees know that all they have to do is show up. Help them feel comfortable. Ardath says, “Assure them that the conversation is strictly internal. You only want to talk with them about their experiences with your company and your products.”
Conduct customer interviews as conversations, not interrogations.
Conduct customer interviews as conversations, not interrogations via @ardath421 #contentstrategy
You can’t treat this opportunity like the Grand Inquisition. It’s not a big opportunity to find out the laundry list of things you want to know. It’s about finding out what prospective customers want to know.
Ardath suggests asking questions like these, each of which relates to one (or more) of the nine persona components:
- What do you do in your job? (day in the life)
- What happened that made you look for a solution? (problem)
- What was the outcome you wanted to achieve? (objectives)
- What did you need to learn about? (questions)
- What kept you from solving this internally? (day in the life)
- Who else was involved? (persona identification)
- Where did you find the most useful information? (preferences)
- What kind of pushback did you get? (obstacles, questions)
- Do you remember the turning point, the moment when everyone got on board? What happened? (engagement scenarios, sales enablement)
Ardath cautions against feeling attached to this list or any list of questions you might prepare. Let the interviewee lead. Listen with all your might. You want to discover everything you can that’s relevant, even things you didn’t think to ask about.
External research enhances and validates the information you collect in your interviews, helping you keep the personas unbiased. Ardath suggests digging into the following sources:
- LinkedIn profiles
- Analyst and research reports on the industry or role
- Industry blogs, thought-leader blogs, and webinars
- Competitors’ content
- AdWords Keyword Planner
- Twitter hashtags, influencers
- Job listings
“I live on LinkedIn,” Ardath says. “I have a subscription on LinkedIn, so I get access to the advanced search capabilities. I can go out and do profile searches on people like the personas I’m building.”
For every persona she builds, she sifts through 50 to 100 LinkedIn profiles, looking for people who have taken the time to build their profiles. “You can learn a lot from people’s profiles,” she says.
Ardath gets the most value from the LinkedIn summaries people write about themselves and from the recommendations others give about them.
I document all this stuff in spreadsheets. I look for commonalities. I look for attributes that keep coming up across the profiles, like ‘Sally was a great mentor to me’ or ‘Edgar is detail-oriented and always on point.’ I look for information that repeats.
Analyst and research reports on the industry or role
Analyst and research reports can give you insights into a persona’s industry or role. If you can’t afford to buy a report you’re interested in, you may find a company that’s using that report as a lead-generation tool, in which case, Ardath says, you just have to fill out the form. “You want to get your hands on some of that analyst research to validate what you’re seeing and hearing elsewhere,” she says.
Industry blogs, thought-leader blogs, webinars
Read the blogs that are read by people similar to your personas, Ardath says. Those blogs will give you insight into your personas’ interests and motivations. Even better, look at the kind of comments people like your personas leave on those blog posts.
Also attend webinars that draw this audience, and notice what questions attendees ask. “You can gain huge insights there,” Ardath says.
Review your competitors’ websites, blogs, social media profiles, and case studies. Learn what you can about people who have purchased your competitors’ products. “What can you learn? Sometimes nothing. Case studies for some reason are horribly sucky. But sometimes you find good case studies,” Ardath says.
AdWords Keyword Planner
Ardath uses the AdWords Keyword Planner to look at long-tail phrases and search volumes. “I look at the search results to see if they’re relevant,” she says. For example, if you search on “nurturing” vs. “lead nurturing,” you’ll get all kinds of web pages related to babies. You want to DO the searches yourself to make sure that prospective customers are going to find pages they consider relevant.
Twitter hashtags, influencers
Suss out the Twitter hashtags that your persona is likely to use, and look at those streams to see what’s being posted. Find out who the influencers are on social media and what they’re talking about.
Research the responsibilities described in job listings for roles that people like your persona would have. Look for any attributes you’ve missed. “What kind of background are employers looking for? Is everybody asking for an MBA? Or is it five years of experience? There’s a big difference,” Ardath says.
Pulling the research together into personas
At some point during your research, you decide how many buyer personas to build. The more personas you have, the more differentiated your stories need to be. You can’t tell the same story to different personas. You must tell a story to each one based on what makes that persona tick.
Without well-built personas, you may tell stories that engage the wrong audiences or no one at all. Your content may not help buyers solve their problems.
Without well-built personas, you may engage the wrong audiences or no one at all via @ardath421
Well-built personas increase your chances of reaching the right people with the right content at the right time. You may even reach them early enough in their process to give your brand an edge.
If we get our content in early enough, and it resonates, we have the opportunity to get our salespeople in that conversation early – and our competitors’ ideas won’t resonate. The first relevant information that comes along becomes the anchor for how people look at the situation.
(Ardath cites Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, as the source of this concept of first-in information as anchor.)
After you’ve created your personas, Ardath suggests presenting them to the salespeople before presenting them to the corporate team.
Find out if your personas match up with what the salespeople are thinking. If not, explain why some things don’t match their perceptions. Show them the research, the data, the transcripts – whatever it is – so that you all end up on the same page.
Typically, your personas end up different from what your salespeople originally described. “Get ready to earn that buy-in from sales (team). If you don’t, you’re going to have problems,” Ardath says.
All the research described here has one purpose: to help you build useful personas – personas that reveal your buyers, personas that inform your content marketing strategy, personas that build sales.
Here’s how Ardath summarizes well-built buyer personas. They:
- Inform smart content decisions
- Help companies build relationships with the right people
- Keep buyers front and center as the heroes of our stories
- Drive buyer outreach
- Help all teams across the company tell the same story
Has your team created buyer personas? If so, do you use them? What has (and what hasn’t) worked well? Please let us know in a comment.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute