[1:50] Intro to the Buyer Persona Tool
[6:40] What are some common hangups with making personas?
[14:47] Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with the marketing process.
[21:44] Application of word choices and style with personas.
[25:50] Web app to help develop a persona
[27:24] Final Thoughts
Ardath is CEO and B2B marketing strategist for a consulting firm Marketing Interactions. Thirty years in business management marketing operations to help clients create persona-driven digital marketing strategy. Ardath is the author of a couple books including Digital Relevance, her most recent.
We’re really excited to have her with us, thank you for joining us.
ARDATH: Thanks for having me Chris, it’s great to be here.
CHRIS: Absolutely, thanks. So we met Ardath here in Chicago at a conference called Content Jam put on by some mutual friends of ours, Orbit Media. And Ardath, we attended your session where you spoke and after listening and just the things you were saying and focusing on were just so up our alley and what we’re trying to develop as a firm ourselves. We just knew that our listeners, small to medium sized business owners, and other marketers would really benefit from hearing your perspective.
So thanks again for being here.
CHRIS: When it came to your talk, one of the things we loved about it was it seemed like you take a very process-oriented and kind of tools-driven approach to B2B persona development and we really love it when there are tools and kind of things that can take something that’s qualitative and yet measure it.
ARDATH: Basically the approach is you need to talk to people. So I always start personas by talking to people within the company, so all the different internal stakeholders. Everybody from marketing to product management and marketing to sales people, especially sales people, because you need their buy-in.
And you need to make sure the work you’re doing is going to serve them, and the persona is going to relate to people they will want to speak with. Otherwise you’re going to have a big problem on your hands.
And I’ve gotten into that situation before where, everybody didn’t make sure everybody was on the same page. But the essence of it is really talking to your customers and really understanding them. But it’s not just about talking to people. Once you have all of that input you need to figure out how you’re going to use it.
And so you have to do a lot of research to back that up. And there are a ton of tools that can help you validate the things you’ve heard. So for example I live on LinkedIn. I mean, never before has there ever been a site where people just like your buyers are putting their own personal information online about the jobs they do, and how they interpret the jobs they do.
But in addition to that, people are providing recommendations, which describe how they see people. Like, “Sally was a great mentor to me when I was learning my job or whatever”, and “Felix is extremely process-oriented and really focused on the details” And if you start seeing repetitions of these things, then you can draw the conclusion that people who are in that type of role tend to have some of these characteristics.
So what you’re really looking at for personas from a marketing perspective, are the commonalities. Because we aren’t trying to reach one on one, we haven’t gotten there yet. We as marketers are trying to reach the widest swath of the segment possible and engage them and get them to move forward with us in deciding to solve their problems.
And so we really need to pay attention to what are the big deal things. So I’ve been in a conversation where a CMO has said, “Well I’ve been talking to Charlie, one of our best customers. And this morning Charlie told me ‘X’ and this persona doesn’t fit because it’s not Charlie.”
Well, Charlie is only one, so we have to really be careful that we don’t let ourselves go astray because of Charlies.
CHRIS: Falling in love with the anecdote, but it’s really just a sample size of one. You need a bigger sample size than that.
So you’re saying to use a tool like LinkedIn to find more commonalities so you can have a little bit of a data-driven process to know who these people are. Correct?
ARDATH: Yes, exactly. And right now I’m working on a project where we’re actually doing a survey to gather some quantitative knowledge and part of the process of that is asking people to volunteer to be interviewed in addition to the survey, and they’re signing up like crazy which Is wonderful.
But really taking a look at how can you mix quantitative and qualitative together. Another site is Crystal Knows. Where you can go and input the names of people in particular roles and it feeds you back characteristics that are drawn from all of their social interactions and different expressions online. So you can gather a bunch of those and start to see patterns.
So there are a variety of ways now where we can apply data to validate things about our market. Our total addressable market. Not just the people that are in our database.
This is really an important point because a lot of times the people in our database, we’ve attracted not exactly the right people given the type of content marketing we’ve done before personas. So we need to look beyond the information we all have on our own.
But the thing that really is important to me about personas is that they need to include actionable information that actually provides the foundation for your content marketing strategy. So for my personas I include 9 different components.
And one of the most important components to me are the questions that a persona would have at each stage of the buying process.
So if you think about that and you can figure out their informational needs. What their questioning about the entire time, then you can figure out how you can answer those questions. And in figuring out the answers you’re actually figuring out the premise for the content pieces across that journey.
And it’s really a key point to how you apply personas into programs that action instead of saying, well we’ve done our personas, check the box, put them in the file, now what should we do?
CHRIS: Yeah, so I’m hearing you say a couple things. One people get personas they check the box, they put them in the file. Two they over-rely on the anecdote because the CMO had a conversation that morning. And this Crystal Knows tool is awesome and we’ll include it in the show notes.
What other common mistakes do you see people make in this persona part of the process, because you’re starting to get into what you do once you have the persona, then it’s the content marketing strategy and you line up pieces of content at the different stages of the buying process, we’ll get into that.
But what are some other common hang-ups you see people trip over when it comes to the persona part of the phase?
ARDATH: One of the most common is that we don’t step away from our too much knowledge thing.
It’s really interesting, I was talking to a couple of marketers who had built personas and they went through this process and built a persona and they did it internally, they got all their people in the room and built the persona based on what they know, because they figured they knew their customers.
So they built this persona and after they completed it, they realized it was totally about them, their software, what they thought, it had really, nothing to do with the customer.
So what they did was they went out on customer sites, this is a construction software company, they went out on customer sites, and they actually videoed people who were their personas in real life and had them talk to them about their jobs. So they did a “day in the life” kind of videos and stuff.
And by sending their marketers out to the job site and interviewing their actual personas they got a totally different view. And when you hold up the new persona vs the one they had created internally, it’s like night and day, it’s two totally different things. And once they had created the new personas, their marketing skyrocketed, went through the roof, because they were so relevant, so related to the people they were trying to engage and really understood them that they were able to create information that those people really needed, whether or not it led to the software.
So by helping them actually run their companies and in certain areas where they had expertise, they were able to build relationships that then translated over into selling their software.
CHRIS: That’s really powerful when you think about how many ways that benefited the company. The example you’re giving, the whole reason you did it of course was to get the persona right, and have the actual video where you’re staring at them, “what are they saying, what emotions are they expressing?” They’re telling you right now what their job is, you can’t argue with that.
But then the goodwill they got from reaching out to customers in that way and getting that content. Imagine how that benefited the organization up and down, it’s amazing.
ARDATH: Absolutely, the biggest mistake I see people make is that they don’t go in depth enough. So for example, under goals they’ll say well this persona is interested in efficiency. Great, what does that mean actually?
Or this persona has to generate higher revenues. What does that mean? Where’s the scenario? What does it look like? What’s the context? So personas really need to get to that context level.
The other thing that’s huge for me, especially in B2B, there’s a committee. So you’re not selling to just one persona, so there’s let’s say five. And so are we looking at how do those personas, how do the relationships exist between those different 5? What are the conversations those five have with each other? Whether one on one or what are the push backs? What are the conflicts? What are the things we need to help them resolve with each other? And how can we create content that helps them have those conversations?
Because if our ideas can be what they use in those conversations, where do you think they will turn when they need more? So we really need to look at what are those different relationships and how to we help facilitate that? And CEB, I don’t know if you’ve read The Challenger Customer?
What they found in their research was that buying committees reached the height of their conflict at 37% of the way through the process. Well, also according to CEB they don’t reach out to a vendor until they’re 57% of the way through the process. So if they’re failing to decide to move forward at 37% of the way through, how many opportunities are we missing out on because we as marketers don’t start early enough in the story, trying to engage these people?
CHRIS: It sounds like there’s a ton, most of them, based on those numbers. So can you give an example? How can you created a piece of content that either helps these two people say in this case, they’re kind of in opposition about maybe this initiative they might take on within the same organization?
Are you writing about the actual decision they’re making, are you writing about their relationship with one another, and how different organizations work? What would be an example of how you would execute that? A content strategy for different personas within the same company.
ARDATH: So when I build personas I start all the way back at status quo. So what is their situation today. So this also applies to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and that kind of thing.
CHRIS: To interrupt you really quick, the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey was an awesome piece of your presentation, just to kind of catch the listeners up, this is a literary construct that Joseph Campbell came up with and Ardath applies this to the story telling piece of this content strategy development work.
So sorry about that, go ahead.
ARDATH: Yeah, I know we’ll get there, I jumped ahead but.
CHRIS: You’re so excited about it, you jumped ahead! Continue!
ARDATH: Yeah, let’s go ahead to the status quo. So if we’re going to get involved early, and we’re going to affect that 37% conflict and help them keep moving forward and decide to move forward, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on before they actually decide to move forward.
A lot of marketers look at their prospects like they’re already in market, they’ve already decided to solve the problem. Well if they’ve already decided to solve the problem, they’ve already gotten information from somebody other than you about why they should do so.
So we need to back it up and say “OK, your world today looks like this and it’s causing you these problems, and just because you think your workaround is working, it’s really not, here’s what you’re missing out on, here’s why you need to think about changing what you’re doing today”.
We need to get in there early and we need to talk to them where they are, because that’s how we’ll get their attention because it’s relatable to them. If we’re talking to them like they’ve already decided to change when they haven’t, they’ll just click on and we’re irrelevant because it doesn’t have anything to do with their situation today. They think, “Well, I don’t need that.” And so we need to back it up and actually prove the case for why they need to pay attention and what they’re missing out on so that we can get them to start having these conversations internally. If we can become the driver of that then we are already in.
So there’s a really cool thing that Dan Ariely, he wrote Predictably Impossible, he did a bunch of research and what he found out was that before people decide to change or buy anything, they don’t have any preconceived notion about brand or how they’re going to do it or whatever. But once they decide to change or buy something and they find something appealing to them, that becomes like the anchor to them.
So everybody else has to then unseat that idea that they’ve decided on is how they need to approach solving their problem. We want to be the ones becoming that anchor, because then we’ve got a leg up and we’re already in their mindset about how they want to move forward or why they should or whatever it is that allowed us to get in there. And that’s a very powerful position to be in.
So for example I work with a lot of companies that say, “Well won’t we get an RFP?” And I’m kind of like, “Ok well you’ve already missed the boat.” Somebody else helped them write that RFP and it’s not you so you’re out. They’re just going through the motions.
So we have to start earlier, we have to really understand, what are our prospects situations today? Why should they change? And how do we help them see that as an opportunity? Or as a tragedy if they don’t actually change and they get left behind.
CHRIS: Right, so starting early, starting before they would ever know to come contact you, that’s a really powerful insight. And so then, how does this relate to Campbell’s Hero Journey as far as you mentioning status quo and the possibility of a tragedy. Can you walk our listeners how you use that construct? Because again it’s one of my super favorite things from hearing you speak before.
ARDATH: Yeah so, I’ve kind of simplified it for application to B2B marketing, you need to or you get overwhelmed with all the steps. But the basic thing about story, and I have a degree in English literature, and I write fiction novels for fun. I’ve studied with some of the best-selling women’s fiction writers out there. I’ve gone on writer’s retreats and all of that stuff.
But anyway, what you need to think about with a story is it always starts with trouble. It doesn’t start with, “Jim got up this morning and brushed his teeth and stood there looking in the fridge trying to decide what to have for breakfast.” Who cares? Right? Boring.
So a story always starts with trouble. So what kind of trouble is your hero, or prospect, buyer, customer, what kind of trouble are they in, or what kind of trouble could be presented to them that makes them have to do something?
And so it’s all about including emotions right? And so fear of risk is huge these days especially in B2B, most of my clients, or many of my clients sell big, huge, complex products that cost millions of dollars. And signing up for that is like putting your career on the line a lot of times. And so the fear of risk is huge, but also the fear of being left behind the fear of losing your market advantage. I have a client today because they haven’t changed, because they were the market leader and they kept holding on to that, now all of a sudden things are shifting and they’re going “Oh boy!” You know? And so they are looking at what they need to do to shift to keep up.
And so, what you need to look at is the story starts with trouble. And so then, once your buyer decides “Oh my gosh I have to do something”, they are going to go out and try to do something, and chances are it’s not something they’ve done before, or at least not for a long time, the technology is different or whatever. They’re going to run into trouble, obstacles, things they don’t know.
So what they really need, I’m following Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, is a mentor. Somebody who’s going to come along and give them the tools, knowledge or whatever and move forward and get over these obstacles. Or otherwise they just fold up their tent and go home and say, “This is too hard I’m not doing it.” And “The devil I know is better than the devil I don’t.” And that kind of thing.
And the mentor in the story is you, the vendor. So we’re going to share our expertise, we’re going to show them how to conquer these obstacles and keep moving forward. And as they continue to move forward in a B2B story, the other characters and the other people on the buying committee are going to come in and get in their way. They’re going to face conflict right? They’re going to get push back.
“What if our users won’t adopt this? What if it takes too long to implement? What if it doesn’t do what the vendor promises it will do?” Whatever the questions are, all that what-if stuff right? That comes up, we have to make sure that our personas our buyers, our characters, can answer that stuff to keep the process moving forward.
And so we play that role of mentor that facilitates that forward step. So we have to figure out what does that look like? What does that journey look like? What are the tasks they have to do at each stage? How do we facilitate that? Given what the persona cares about, the different people they have to convince, what they’re responsible for achieving, their level of authority, you know do they need help to get this thing through? Can they make the decision if they can convince everybody?
So we really need to pay attention to all of those things. And then you reach this spot where it looks like the deal is just going to stall because there are so many obstacles and we have to help them get through that, it’s kind of like the big climax of the story. And then as they decide to move forward your customer becomes the hero of the story, pulls them through and they get to that happily ever after or whatever.
But what you can see when you’re looking at this is there are a lot of ups and downs, it’s not a flat thing. And so it’s one of the reasons why there’s a lot of talk going on now about emotion in B2B. We have to get those highs and lows in there, we need to emphasize those conflicts and resolutions because otherwise people lose interest. B2B marketing doesn’t have to be boring, even if it’s around technology which is a majority of what I spend my time writing about.
It can still be interesting, there are still highs and lows. We have to figure out what those are for each of the people involved and that’s why to me, personas are the best construct I’ve found for being able to do that and create content that’s not only relevant but it resonates. Which means it will continue with that momentum.
CHRIS: And part of the reason that it resonates apart from the emotional stuff that’s about the person is there are certain story retelling arcs that are just naturally resonant. Like you said, one of the more basic constructs and shapes, is you start at status quo, say, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, he falls in a hole, and then boy climbs out of hole. You know, it’s just simple dip and back up, and if you’re the person that when they’re in the hole you’re handing them the tools, or even tell them beforehand, “Hey there’s a hole ahead of you” You’re the mentor and the person that can almost narrate their experience and when your solution is the thing that gets them out of the hole, that’s where you’re in a very powerful position.
It makes me think of this recent research that was done on sentiment analysis of the 2000 most read books of all time including very old texts. And they were analyzing the shapes of the stories to try to figure out where the commonalities are, and the ups and downs you’re talking about a lot of stories have many ups and downs. And so, what are all those shapes, and when you align your content marketing plan with those shapes that people already are familiar with, and already interested in. It’s already been proven that these are the story telling shapes that are interesting to us.
So you align that with your hero’s journey and I just love that. I can feel that it connects to who you are personally and your education background. I also have an English degree, although I can’t say I use it in all the cool kind of writing exercises that it sounds like you do. I was not as smart or creative as you are in actually taking my English degree. I use it all the time when I write, but it sounds like you’ve more literally applied It than I have. So congrats on that.
It’s obviously a long standing joke for us English majors.
ARDATH: Yeah, well it’s better than my business degree that was obsolete when I walked across the stage to get my diploma you know?
CHRIS: I have one of those too and I know exactly what you mean.
ARDATH: The thing that was interesting to me in that sentiment analysis of all the stories was the word choices. And the difference in emotion that word choices could make. So one of the other things with personas is you want to look at tone and style. Are they carrot people or stick people, negative or positive?
How would they describe, their goals and the things they do? We want to get close to that language because it will have more relevance for them. And when you look at company-speak, the way we talk about our products and our tools it’s awful. And it’s the same as everybody else for the most part.
CHRIS: And it’s usually about us and not about the buyer.
ARDATH: But we also need to look at, if we are going to engage the buyers, we need to be able to talk the way they talk and relate the way they relate. Even across industries. It’s why you can’t use the same content for everything.
In industries there are different acronyms, there are different phrases, there are different kind of slang words if you will that reference what they do, and it’s different from one industry to another. And if you want to be seen as an expert who’s going to help them as that key mentor you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about from their frame of reference. And that’s another thing personas help you get.
And that’s why talking to your customers is so important. Because you get that flavor when you talk to them, they use those words that are common to them. And if you try to do it internally we use what we think, not what they think.
CHRIS: So would you literally, and this is something we’ve been talking about internally recently, would you literally write a list of words like a vocabulary sheet, just put it on a board somewhere, you go through an exercise where these are the actual words they used in the interviews, these are the words they are using to describe their work, these are the words we have to use now?
ARDATH: Yeah think of it like the tone and style guide for your content developers. Not down to every word you have to use, but the flavor, the feel you want to evoke if there are specific phrases, yes of course, those are in the list. But I’m sure you’ve seen those, almost like a personality guide, when we’re writing to these people we want to be this way, not that way. We want to be friendly, not arrogant or whatever the things are.
And then some key terms or phrases that help you accomplish those things. Examples of what to say or what not to say, or how something changes. So one of the things people don’t think about with personas is that you can have a persona, let’s just say a VP of Marketing. And you can do pivots. So if you’re approaching the VP of Marketing in manufacturing vs technology, how would the content differ?
We also do it for region, if you’re talking to this persona in a Pac vs CMEA what’s different? There can be different maturity levels, there can be different cultural implications, what have you. So you can use your personas and pivot. A lot of times people think they need a different persona for every little thing. I had somebody call me the other day and say, “We’ve identified 55 different personas.” And I said, “Go shoot yourselves now and get it over with.”
CHRIS: Ha-ha, come back when you have three.
ARDATH: Yeah, you know, most of my clients are between three and seven. Because you can’t, it’s almost impossible to apply resource to more than that. And people that can apply more to three are doing really well.
CHRIS: Yeah, more than three would be hard I would think, if you’re doing it on the early end of things, meaning you haven’t done a lot of it yet.
ARDATH: Yeah, and I’ve had clients where I say, “Look you have the resources to address one, so let’s do one and do it really, really, well, and then we’ll have a general track, and when you get that one nailed, maybe we can add resource to do another.” But even doing one can produce amazing results for your company. Especially if you’re a small or midsize company.
Really engaging extremely well with one persona can really make a huge difference.
CHRIS: Absolutely. So we’ve just got a few minutes left here Ardath, I’m interested in our couple minutes left, at the beginning of the episode, you mentioned the app that helps in the persona development, do you mind telling us a little bit about that?
ARDATH: Sure, it’s a couple years old, the url is upcloseandpersona.com and what they did was they took my methodology and they created an app online and so you go out and it asks you to define all the questions, answer all the questions about a persona in order to build one. Using most of the components I use today. Of course what I do has evolved a little bit over the last couple years, but it’s a really solid little tool. You can go out and define everything and at the end it will pdf everything together and send it to you.
So you have your persona and you can also save it and come back and work on it over time if you need to. But it’s a way to step yourself through building a persona and thinking about the things you need to know and answer in order to get insights that you need to apply them to your content marketing strategy.
So it’s one way for small and midsize companies who may not have a lot of resource to go out there and really start thinking about what’s the information I need to get to know about my buyers in order to create a persona.
CHRIS: Sounds awesome, we’ll definitely link to that in the show notes. And as soon as this is over I’m going to go do it myself. It sounds like a great first step to really start thinking about this. And maybe when you’re done with that you’re like, “I have to go video interview all of my best customers so I can go deep on this.”
I love that example; I love that exercise. Thank you so much for all of the insight, you’ve given us so many things, different books to link to and read and we’ll link to all of that in the show notes.
If someone wants to better understand your approach, learn more about you and the way you think, is your book the best place to go at the moment?
ARDATH: Probably my book, my website I have a blog that I don’t get to as often as I would like because of my project load.
CHRIS: Isn’t that the way it goes when you’re a content marketing strategist?
ARDATH: It is, but my book and then there is an intelligent guide to buy personas that has an excerpt from my book Digital Relevance as well as my perspective on personas that I believe there is a link to download it on my buyer persona page on my own website, so that would be helpful for people.
CHRIS: Awesome, well we will definitely link to, looking at the amazon page right now, digital relevance, developing marketing content and strategies that drive results with that little $ there if you know what kind of results we are usually talking about.
Ardath thank you so much, I’m sure our listeners really appreciate your time and your insights as much as we do. Any last thoughts you’d like to leave our listeners with?
ARDATH: No, just go forth and create great personas and make your content marketing relevant.
CHRIS: go forth and multiply creating great personas. You will multiply your business if you create great personas. That you so much Ardath, we really enjoyed it, and there’s a lot in here that there’s multiple moments where I thought, “Subject for another podcast!” Including the writing stuff.
Thanks again for your time, very generous of you and we will be in close touch.
ARDATH: Yeah, thanks again for having me, thanks everyone!
–intro and outro music from our friends at Sabers: https://sabersmusic.bandcamp.com/releases