Make Your B2B Buyer Personas Rock: Tips from Adele Revella

Make Your B2B Buyer Personas Rock: Tips from Adele Revella

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Top-notch B2B Market Researchers know that Buyer Personas are the centerpiece of modern B2B marketing and sales efforts.

“Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business”by Adele Revella is an excellent resource for understanding buyer personas and the impact they have on market research studies.

For this episode of the B2B Market Research Podcast, Cascade Insights CEO Sean Campbell spoke with Adele about her book and her approach to analyzing buyer personas.

[Sean:]

On the podcast today I have with me Adele Revella, who has written a very interesting book called “Buyer Personas, How to Gain Insight Into Your Customer’s Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies and Win More Business.” She’s also got a great website at buyerpersona.com. Adele is the CEO and founder of the Buyer Persona Institute.

First off, Adele, why don’t you give us a formal definition of Buyer Personas?

[Adele:]

Buyer Personas symbolize the real people out there that you need to target with your marketing decisions.

The idea is to understand who makes the buying decisions that you want to influence in an aggregate.

That’s a general idea, it’s when we get into the specifics that it gets more interesting.

Our approach to buyer personas focuses on first understanding the buying decisions that our clients want to influence and then to focus on the people that make those decisions.

Most buyer personas are what we would call a buyer profile. They profile the people, but they don’t get deep enough into the buying decision.

That’s where the B2B buyer persona departs from and differs from a consumer buyer persona, and that’s really the emphasis of our work.

[Sean:]

You mentioned the difference between B2B and B2C. One of the things that really jumps out in your book is that companies sometimes use marketing, sales, and market research methods that are better aligned with low consideration versus high consideration purchases.

You write that sometimes people say their buyer persona is simply CIOs and the Fortune 500, and you respond, “No, no, no, no, that’s not enough.”

You also do a great job of explaining that if you borrow too much from the B2C way of looking at things you actually do yourself a pretty big disservice when you’re putting buyer personas together.

Can you unpack some of your thoughts in this area?

[Adele:]

When we look at the B2C approach to buyer personas, what we see is a generic description of a mom with two kids and a dog and maybe her income level and so forth. We want to sell her on our brand of cereal for her kids.

There isn’t any insight in that description.

If all we had to use were existing B2C research methodologies, it would be hard to go much deeper without some very specific kinds of conjoint studies and so forth.

But with B2B, if we use some different methods, we’ve got a chance to really unpack the buying process and get some great insight.

That’s because B2B buyers tend to put so much consideration into their decision.

(Some consumers do too, but that’s much rarer.)

We use the term “high and low consideration” to acknowledge the difference.

Some B2B buyers spend days, weeks, months or even years investigating their options around a major technology investment, a major capital improvement, or a major new service partner.

Some B2B buyers spend days, weeks, months or even years investigating their options around a major technology investment, a major capital improvement, or a major new service partner.

Hence, if interviewed correctly, that buyer can tell you so much about that buying decision that you can do far more than simply profile them as a CIO in ABC industry with an X sized company.

We can actually get to insights by interviewing them about exactly how, when and why that buying decision went down.

If we do that across enough buyers, we can start to get to some really interesting findings that effect everything from how we’re going to take a product to market to how we can effectively persuade those CIOs or buyers to choose us rather than our competitors.

[Sean:]

Those are all really good points.

One of the things I’m sure folks are curious about is how many people you have to interview if you want to build a killer buyer persona.

One of the things I’m sure folks are curious about is how many people you have to interview if you want to build a killer buyer persona.

[Adele:]

Listeners at this point are probably assuming you have to interview a whole bunch of people.

Having done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, probably in the thousands by now of these interviews with B2B buyers, I have some happy news I can share with you today.

We have discovered that we learn everything we’re going to learn after about ten interviews around a particular buying decision with a relatively well-focused target market segment.

We test this theory all the time because we tell our clients, “Look, we’re going to charge you per interview, so if you’ve got a budget for more than 10 interviews we’ll happily do more than 10, but the reality is, we think you’ll be wasting your money.”

Occasionally, a client will jump in and say, “No, we really want to buy 20 interviews.” We’ll go and do them and test ourselves afterwards each time. We ask, “Did we learn anything new on the 11th interview?”

The answer is always no.

Many of our clients are basing huge decisions off of these findings.

Before our research, they had often based their message strategy or similar off of guesswork.

For clients who are making a big decision, we tell them to start with the results of the qualitative phase.

For clients who are making a big decision, we tell them to start with the results of the qualitative phase.

Let’s take the results of the ten interviews (or more if we’re going to segment the study across multiple verticals, geographies, types of buyers, etc.) and then let’s go test them in a follow up quantitative study.

Preferably, we’d test them with a quantitative survey with a statistically valid sample spanning different industries or company sizes or geography to find out if our data holds up.

We don’t do that often, I admit, but every time we have gone out and done quant studies we have never learned that we were off target with our qualitative research.

Sometimes we’ve found some additional segmentation opportunities, but we’ve never seen anything that refuted what we learned from those ten interviews.

[Sean:]

All good points.

In fact, if you do qual for long enough, you’ll typically find that the client’s initial assessment of how many interviews should be performed is usually more than they need.

That said, the key thing about 10 being the magic number of interviews is true only if those ten folks align with an analytical group, right?

That said, the key thing about 10 being the magic number of interviews is true only if those ten folks align with an analytical group, right?

In a given group you’re likely to have a specific set of people that you’re interviewing about a particular type of purchase, aligned with a certain type of role or impact on that decision.

That’s also not to say that you wouldn’t have a study that might have three or four of those analytical groups.

But I agree, it’s pretty common that for each group, once you get past ten interviews you’ve pretty much maxed out what you’re going to learn from them.

[Adele:]

Exactly.

We have studies going on right now, one that’s 45 interviews total, another one that’s 40 but the studies are segmented.

We’re talking to different roles in the buying decision or, in one case, some of the interviews are in the US, some are in the UK, some are in Germany, and some are in India.

What we’re trying to do is find out and ultimately prove to the stakeholders whether there are differences across those segments.

So, 10 is a good rule of thumb given that you’ve got a very fixed objective regarding who you want to interview and what buying decision you want to understand.

[Sean:]

To switch gears a little bit, what’s the first thing that alerts you to the fact that a company might not have thought through their approach to buyer personas?

In the first part of the book, there is the implication that there is a way to hurry this process that leads to bad results. I completely agree, but since you’re the book author, I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

[Adele:]

Well, yes. Thanks so much for giving me a platform to say this Sean; it’s the reason I wrote the book.

Buyer personas have become this bright shiny object for a lot of companies now.

People will go download a template and do some set of internal interviews or talk to a few customers or take some data off their marketing automation solution and call that a buyer persona.

The emphasis, for me, is that buyer personas should be about discovery. This isn’t about documentation.

If all we’re doing is documenting what we already know, I’m not sure I get the value of that. Maybe there’s some little tiny value in a big company where somebody in the company knows a lot of stuff and somebody else doesn’t.

But that value is so trivial compared to the potential value from buyer personas.

For example, every single day we go off and ask buyers what affects their decision to choose our client versus someone else.

When we take that information back to the client, they’re blown away.

They hear a lot of things that they knew about already, but there is always a half dozen things that are really shocking.

They hear a lot of things that they knew about already, but there is always a half dozen things that are really shocking.

These surprises, in some cases, fundamentally shift the way our clients think about going to market and presenting their solutions through their sales people and their marketing organization.

That’s the goal for me around buyer personas.

I’m seeing too many people saying “oh yeah we got those, check box” because they’ve got some PowerPoint templates somewhere that somebody filled in- but it didn’t change anything about the organization.

Every time we, as a company, deliver buyer personas, we also give a workshop to help that client walk through the findings and figure out what to change about the way we message our product and market and sell our product as a result of those findings.

We started delivering workshops because we had started to see the same behavior, even though we gave people new insight. They’d say, “Wow, that’s amazing, that’s new,” and then nothing would change.

We want to make sure that the research actually causes real change in the organization.

[Sean:]

Yes, that makes sense. It’s somewhat akin to what I’ve told our clients too. We like to measure ourselves on decisions impacted, not on the number of PowerPoint slides we produce.

We gauge ourselves by asking after six months, is your product different, is your sales team different, is your marketing messaging different? Then I really know that we’ve done a good job.

Tell me a little bit about the mock buyer persona interview.

The reason I really like this part of the book was that anyone who has done anything with research for a while has come across a part of an organization or an individual in an organization who says, “I need to know nothing. I simply need to execute. Find me new customers and they shall love me.” And that’s the end of the conversation.

There is a time for that of course, but that time for most organizations is somewhat fleeting. The example I’m using this year is Slack. They are simply killing it. I don’t think Slack needs to do a lot of market research right now. They need to find new customers and spend more to find new customers.

…for multi-product companies you have to make sure that one product that is wildly successful isn’t hiding a problem with another product, etc.

Again, that window of time is somewhat fleeting for most companies.  And for multi-product companies you have to make sure that one product that is wildly successful isn’t hiding a problem with another product, etc.

Or there comes a time when the company’s nose is bloodied, or there is a change in the market dynamic or something else happens and all of a sudden you need somebody who can say it’s not simply about executing, it’s about understanding.

[Adele:]

We have a very open methodology. Of course, we’ve been training marketers to do this kind of research, and I wrote down everything I know about it in the book.

For $9.99 on Kindle, anybody can have access to our method, and people thought I was crazy.

One of the most common things I heard back as companies were learning how to do this was: “My client won’t let me.”

I spoke about that scenario directly in the book, and I said, “Great, if your client thinks they know everything, and you’re an agency or an internal marketer tell them, ‘Perfect. You know it but I don’t.’”

This may be too old an example but, let’s take the Columbo routine: “I’m really dumb and I want to get this information.”

Tell them that you want to schedule a time to interview that internal stakeholder, that person who knows it all and conduct the same kind of interview that you would be conducting with real buyers and tell them to stay in role. Say, “I want you to be the buyer right now, I’m going to take you through this whole interview methodology and don’t get out of role, don’t start talking to me about the product. I want you to talk to me as if you were a real buyer grappling with this decision.”

When that internal stakeholder starts to see the kinds of questions we’re asking and starts speaking in a way that shows they maybe drank in the Kool-Aid, I’ve stopped them and said:

“You know what? If that’s the way your typical customer thinks, you don’t need any marketing. You ought to be pulling in the deals every single day. There’s got to be some objection, some resistance, some issues here or you wouldn’t even need to be thinking about spending money to market and persuade people to buy your product.”

Push back a little bit on them and it really gives them a chance to see the kind of interviews you want to conduct.

[Sean:]

All really good points.

Let me switch gears again to something that was actually mentioned in one of the Amazon reviews of your book.

One reviewer mentioned that a good buyer persona highlights why someone doesn’t buy.

One reviewer mentioned that a good buyer persona highlights why someone doesn’t buy.

That comment really stood out to me is because it’s one of the pieces of feedback I give people about battle cards all the time.

If it doesn’t explain what segment or area accounts that rep should not go after there’s a tendency for people to look at the battle card as an unauthentic piece of content, right?

And as I read through the book, I got the sense that that was also where you were going with buyer personas.

Buyer persona development isn’t just about having a rah-rah session and saying if all these things line up, customers will beat a path to our door. It’s also important to show who will not be a customer and why.

[Adele:]

Exactly.

I think that my method derives a lot from my experience. I spent a year of my life selling big computer systems and four years running sales.

I know that the most valuable thing a company can do to help win more business is to focus their sales people on the deals that they have a chance of winning.

I know that the most valuable thing a company can do to help win more business is to focus their sales people on the deals that they have a chance of winning.

I ran sales in companies where it took us at least six months, maybe a year or 18 months to close a deal.

The worst thing that could happen to me was that I’d spend that six or 12 or 18 months on an account that I had no chance of winning.

We have five insights that we seek to discover about a buyer persona. Perceived barriers is absolutely one of those five insights.

I know some people out there are saying you might build two personas, one for your ideal buyer, one for your negative or “don’t sell” buyer. Again I think that’s a little bit more about profiling than it really is about the persona we build to generate buying insights.

Every buyer has objection, and we certainly want to find out about objections that are so glaring that the client should just cut their losses and get out of the deal sooner rather than later.

We want every buyer persona to include the sincere and profound objections that the reps are going to have to have an argument for.

By forearming ourselves with how a market full of buyers thinks about us, including all the positives and the negatives, we can build the sales tools and programs and so forth to help that sales rep be prepared to win accounts and get out of the ones that are impossible.

[Sean:]

Adele, I want to thank you for being on the podcast. This was a really good concise discussion of buyer personas, and you gave a lot of great tips throughout.

This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. Cascade Insights specializes in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our specialization allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Sign up for our newsletter for brief monthly updates on our Read Like an Analyst series, podcast, and conference list.

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Sean Campbell

Sean Campbell

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