I have actually seen Adele in action at a workshop and taken her classes, and they’re wonderful. Adele, thank you very much for being here. It’s great to have you.
Adele: Well, thank you for asking me, Susan. As you know, this is my favorite topic. I’m thrilled to be here.
Susan: How important do you think content marketing as a whole is in the mix today?
Adele: Goodness. Content marketing is everything. Matter of fact, I had an experience just this weekend where I decided I needed to hire an administrative assistant. I went out on Google, googled “administrative assistant,” found a woman through a blog post that she had published at an organization she participated in, and I just hired her.
This is the kind of thing that happens every day. Your buyers are out looking for you. You don’t know how they’re looking for you, and if you can publish content that’s where they’re looking, they’re going to find you and you’re going to have their business. You can publish the kind of information she did that spoke so directly and perfectly to my needs that it was just a no-brainer that she was the one I was looking for.
Susan: I wonder if she’d created a buyer persona for you. [chuckles]
Adele: I don’t think so, and I think that that’s interesting. I think when companies are very narrowly focused and really small, as she is, she’s really just an individual contributor and sole practitioner, I think that they already intuitively know their buyers. I think what’s really different and I know what’s different about what happens once we get inside a company is we’ve got many products, we’ve got many different types of buyers. We’ve grown up, and now there are lots of different pieces and parts moving, getting aligned around who that buyer is is a much more complex task. We don’t, in the ordinary course of our business, have an opportunity to really understand our buyer at the level that Bonnie, this lady, understands her buyer.
That’s really what buyer personas are about. It’s about being able to get the kind of insight that an entrepreneur who starts their business just to solve this problem probably already had that buyer in mind, knew them well, and saw that problem. That’s why they started the company. But I’ll tell you what, that goes away really quickly as you grow.
Susan: So, tell me a bit about a buyer persona. Who needs them? What, specifically, are they? What problems do they solve?
Adele: What the buyer persona is, and a lot of people are confused about this, is people are building a profile of the person. They’re calling that a persona. It just describes the person they want to market to. This is what’s causing all the trouble. We need to know, as content marketers, as marketers in general, we need to actually model and profile more than the person. We need to profile the decision, the buying decision, that we want to influence. That’s the part that tells us for this person, for the person we’re targeting, what factors into their decision. How do they make that decision? What triggers that decision? How do they go about choosing us, or choosing a competitor, or choosing the status quo? Why do they make the decisions and choices that they do along the way?
So, a buyer persona isn’t just a persona. A persona would be the person, but a buyer persona should model the decision as well as the person making it.
Susan: It’s a great shift in thinking. I know, from personal experience, when you really start looking at that decision and focusing the conversation around that way, really your personas become much clearer and much more useful.
Adele: Yes, exactly. Yeah. The part that I’m working to change through the Buyer Persona Institute is to try to create a standard in the industry that if you’ve got a medium-to-high consideration product, service, or solution you want to market, it isn’t enough. It might be OK for very low-consideration products to know whether the buyer is married or not, whether they have children, and their hobbies. But honestly, when the buyer is spending weeks, months, or even years evaluating their options, finding out whether or not they are snow skiers or whether they’re married is really irrelevant to us. What is terribly relevant is everything that’s going on for them as they’re making that choice. That’s the big shift that we’re trying to make in understanding our buyer personas.
Susan: How important is it to actually talk to the buyers?
Adele: Well, it’s extremely important that someone conduct an unscripted interview with a buyer that goes into detail about how they actually make these decisions. This is another area that’s pretty troubling for me. There are a lot of people out there saying, “You can build your buyer personas off of internal data, or things that your salespeople tell you, or social media interactions.”
The fact is that the information we really need… we call this the five rings of buying insight around the buyer persona, how, why, and when they make a decision that we want to influence as marketers. Those insights have never been disclosed or discussed with anyone, and you can’t get that picture without actually having a conversation with the buyer. The funny thing is, it’s pretty simple to do that, and yet it’s just so new to marketers that a lot of people just haven’t developed the skill to do that, or it’s just sort of out of their range of reality that you could even get on the phone and talk to the buyer. They tell you precisely what you need to know in order to be a more effective marketer.
Susan: What are some of the ways you are able to reach the people that you need to talk to?
Adele: There’s a number of ways to do that. What we like to do with people that… we do a lot of research for our clients, and then we also do a lot of training for marketers that want to do this work themselves. So, if the marketer wants to do this themselves, then what we try to do is get them to interview the people that are the easiest to find and the easiest to recruit for these interviews, and also where it’s easiest to get these insights. That is to find a list of people who have recently been in the buying experience. They just made a decision either for you or for a competitor, or they’ve made a decision to stay with the status quo, and if you can get that list, about three out of ten of those people will usually talk to you, and they’ll be very forthcoming about how they just made this decision, why they made the decision, what triggered that decision.
People sometimes think, “Well, gosh. How could that be the right person to interview?” The fact is, there’s every reason to believe that the people who have just made this decision are very similar to the people who you want to make the decision next week or next month. So, we’re really capturing from a real buyer, and not having to have a hypothetical discussion, but rather have a real discussion about the very things that we expect to influence with the buyers that are coming into, or that we hope to persuade in the upcoming period of time.
The only exception to that is when we have new products that we’re bringing into market. That’s where we generally say, “You know, you’re probably going to need to hire someone to do that work for you,” because it takes a little bit more skill to do those interviews.
Susan: So, let’s say there’s a marketer who gets this, who’s really on [type], but they might be getting some pushback from the C-suite. What kind of pushback do you traditionally see from the C-suite on this kind of exploration, and what would you say that a marketer could tell the C-suite about why this is so important?
Adele: That’s a great question, Susan. I think a big part of my focus on this work comes from the fact that I was a sales executive as well as a marketing executive in my career, and I find it just fascinating that people take for granted the fact that a salesperson needs to listen to the buyer they have to persuade before they have to make a pitch. As a matter of fact, there’s all sorts of training curriculums, all of them that say to the sales reps that you should never go into your first meeting and just present your solution. First, you should listen to the buyer.
Yet, by contrast, marketing is expected to go out and pitch to buyers every day without ever listening to them. This is just illogical to me. If you really think about it from this perspective, the main difference between sales and marketing is that salespeople persuade one buyer at a time, while marketers persuade markets full of buyers, which is harder. I guarantee persuading markets full of buyers is harder than persuading one buyer at a time. Yet, salespeople have the permission, the training, and the opportunity to listen to their buyers before they have to speak, while marketing has none of that.
This is my primary message to the C-suite. Explain to me how that’s supposed to work. If you think that’s a good idea, let’s just have your salespeople do that for the next six months and see how good a job they do.
Susan: [laughter] That’s wonderful. [laughter] Let’s see how the company does.
Adele: [chuckles] Do you think I might be being too hard on this? I don’t know. But I really …
Susan: No, I don’t think so, because I think people really need to know. I think there’s a lot of energy all over the place expended on the wrong things, and you’re doing people a big favor if you can shine a light on that. It may be hard to hear, and it may not be what people want to hear, but they have to hear it if they’re going to grow, or even survive, in this day and age.
Adele: You know, one of my interviewers that’s working on a research project for us, this morning he got off a call with one of the buyers. I was debriefing him about the interview, and he said, “Adele, I feel like I’m cheating.” And I said, “Precisely.” Getting to interview the buyers before you have to market to them is like cheating. You already know what you need to say.
So, I’m promoting that. I think we should cheat. I think before we have to sit down and write the content, write those few words that are going to be the headline of the email, and figure out what our white paper topic should be. I think we should cheat. I think we should go out and find out… a very simple idea. Let’s talk to the buyers and find out what they want to hear first.
Susan: It’s such a simple idea, but it takes the friction away when you are in alignment, you can use their language, and you have a real understanding of the exact moment where things go right or go wrong. I know in your process you keep bringing people back to that moment so that you can really, really understand that critical point where they are making a decision for you or against you. Yet, we do. We just throw it aside as if it’s the sort of thing… it’s like handing car keys to somebody and saying, “You’re 16. Congratulations, there’s the car.” [laughter]
Susan: [chuckles] I can imagine all the frantic people you’ve got saying, “How do I convince them?” [laughter]
Adele: Yes, exactly.
Susan: And maybe some of it is just that they’re not… maybe, too, marketers are limiting themselves. I’ve seen this as well where marketers make assumptions about the limitations that the C-suite will impose upon them, but they actually get this sort of thing more than, perhaps, they’re given credit for.
Adele: Yeah. I think the biggest barriers actually are not the C-suite. The biggest barriers are that marketers are so busy in a production mode, delivering content, and churning out all the work that we have to churn out. The idea of stopping to learn a new skill… because it is a new skill, by the way. You can’t… most people. There are probably a few people who can just jump on the phone and just figure out how to get to these insights, but most people are going to need some training to do that. It’s not lengthy. It’s just a couple of hours of training, but it’s something brand-new. I think a lot of us have been doing our job for a long time, and we’re really comfortable just doing the things we do all day, and it’s a little bit of a step outside of our comfort zone to say we’re going to start phoning people up and asking them questions, and then learning how to get to, really, the insight.
So, that’s why we built our framework, to make it really clear which insights you need. You only need five things that you need to know. Then, also we made our training available so readily, already pre-recorded and packaged up so that people can come and listen to it, they can listen to it again and again, and they can get really comfortable with that. Like anything else, it’s a new skill. I think that’s actually the bigger barrier than the C-suite.
Susan: You know, I think you’re right. I also think that there’s a trap that marketers fall into, which is, “I know my audience.” It’s very hard to challenge yourself sometimes to say, “Well, I may have known them when I first started this, or maybe there’s more I need to learn about them, or maybe I don’t know them as well as I think I do.” But there is that sense of, “No, I know these people, and I can speak for them,” without continually going back and getting that deeper understanding. I think that’s a barrier, too.
Adele: Yeah. I hear that occasionally, mostly from people who used to be the buyer. Maybe when they came into their role they were hired because they had the job that was similar to the people that they’re now marketing to. That’s where I usually hear that.
Things change, and unless you… I once hired somebody back when I ran product management and product marketing. We were doing networking solutions, and I hired a guy who ran the world’s largest enterprise network for State Farm. I thought this was such a grand hire, because he exactly understood the problems that our buyers faced, and in fact it didn’t work out and he ended up leaving us after a very short period of time. The real problem was that he did, literally, work for the world’s largest enterprise network. Well, that wasn’t our target market. That was one company. A whole bunch of our clients worked in companies that were much smaller than that, and his experience in that company actually stopped him from being curious about how other buyers thought.
So, that’s the other reason why we train marketers to do this. We literally say that we want you to conduct six to eight interviews before you build your buyer persona, but then we want you to conduct one interview a month for the rest of your life, because things change. Competitors come into the market, and the priorities change. There’s all sorts of change that’s going on out there in your buyers’ world. This is about, not just the demographics, because you probably know that, but really what’s going on in their minds while they’re making these decisions.
Susan: This is kind of off topic, but something that has stayed with me was working on a project with Earthquake Preparedness in Vancouver. All of these emergency planners had been working on… OK. So, here’s what we have to do. When the earthquake happens, we have to get everybody to this hospital, this hospital, and then that hospital. This is the order, and these are the routes. These are the routes that are likely to stay safe, and here are the challenges we’re going to face. Everybody was really happy with that, working on that for years and years and years. And somebody piped up their hand, who was kind of a last minute invite to this meeting. Somebody threw up their hand and said, “Just a quick point. The hospitals were actually built before code, so they’ll be the first things to collapse.” [laughter]
Susan: So, for years and years and years everybody had been working on certain assumptions, and then all of a sudden the world changed and everybody suddenly realized, “We have to reverse-engineer everything we ever thought about this.” [laughter]
Susan: But it was only because they decided to open up the field and start inviting people who they actually thought were rather peripheral to the conversation.
Adele: Yeah, the real insights come from the most amazing places. People often ask me about the attributes of a really good marketer, and sometimes there’s things on social media, “What’s the one thing that a good marketer needs to have as an attribute or a trait?” I always say curiosity.
Susan: Yeah. I think…
Susan: Totally. It’s…
Adele: Yeah. Never stop being curious about how people think. There’s so much we have to learn. We should be lifelong learners.
Susan: That’s really it. Lots of marketers want to be lifelong talkers, and we really have to be lifelong listeners.
Adele: [laughter] Exactly. Yeah. It’s a basic thing. There’s all these silly jokes, you know? You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason, and we just don’t listen enough.
Susan: [laughter] I think you’re absolutely right. Is there one thing that you think everybody absolutely needs to know about a buyer persona before we sign off?
Adele: I think this is really a new way for most marketers to think. I think that the biggest problem people have with buyer personas is they take their existing ideas about their market, their demographics, “We sell to this guy with this title in this industry in this geography,” and then they layer on top of it, “OK. Now, we’re going to go profile this guy.”
Actually, good work on buyer personas starts somewhere else altogether. It starts with, “What decisions do we want to influence?” And it starts by interviewing somebody who’s been involved in making that kind of decision to find out, really and truly, who was involved in that decision, and what’s different about how different buyers make that decision.
What we find is when we take that approach, when we start with a decision rather than our ideas about segmentation strategies and demographics, we end up with far fewer buyer personas, and we end up with the insights we really need to be able to impact and affect those decisions. Just really critical.
Susan: That’s a good question. How many buyer personas do you think the average organization needs?
Adele: Half as many as you think you do.
Adele: There’s just no way to answer that. But it’s always fewer than you think you do, because you’re trying to model the buying decision and not the person. Just because I have a different job title or I’m in a different geography… we have one client that we are building buyer personas for all of their 2014 planning. This is one of the five largest software companies in the world. No one can tell me how many products they have. Probably thousands. They have 1600 people in marketing, and we’re only building ten buyer personas.
Adele: They have marketers in every corner of the world, and we’re only building ten buyer personas.
Susan: That’s fascinating. You arrived at that number of ten by your preliminary research and said, “Gee. Just looking at how these decisions are being made, this is how they’re coming together.’
Adele: We looked at it by looking at what were the decisions that the company strategically most wanted to influence this year, and they said are big market opportunities. We actually got involved with their planning cycle and looked at it. And again, a ginormous company. This is, like I said, huge. We said, “Where are we going to get the most bang for the buck in terms of building buyer personas?” Well, it’s going to be finding parts of the market where we know it’s a big strategical for the year. We know we don’t have all the insight we could to be effective here, and there’s a lot of competitive activity. There’s a lot going on in this space. Now, let’s just go find out who’s involved in that buying decision, and that’s where our research comes in. Then, let’s build personas for those people.
Susan: And it’s critical, too, to get this phase of things right at the planning table. The earlier you have a seat at the table, the better.
Adele: Yeah. And this is, again… Now we’re kind of drifting off of content marketing into the use of buyer personas for real strategic work, and that’s good, Susan, because the fact is that buyer personas can be applied to solve so many problems in the company. Ideally, we’re at the very front end of the strip strategy work.
I just recently wrote an article, and it was republished on my blog recently at BuyerPersona.com, about my vision for marketing and what really drives the work we do is that marketing ROI, marketing’s value, is measured in part… not exclusively, because we’ve still got to deliver all that content, there’s still a lot of leads we’ve got to deliver. We’ve got to do all that. But in addition, I want this whole other dimension of the way we’re measured that’s around the strategic value we bring to the company.
We’re really buyer experts, and this is the real goal of buyer personas. It’s to become an expert, to know that buyer better than anyone else in the company, so that you can predict, with great clarity, where the company is going to be successful, and what it needs to do to be successful.
Susan: Adele Revella from the Buyer Institute. Thank you very much. That was great talking with you.
Adele: Yep. Thank you, Susan. Thank you again so much for having me today. It’s been my pleasure to be here and talk to your folks.