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If there is one person associated with the concept of buyer personas, it’s Adele Revella. She is @buyerpersona on Twitter, and Fortune named her book, Buyer Personas (naturally), one of the 5 Best Business Books of 2015.

Adele has been on CMO Essentials before, and readers of this blog will know that we have often advocated the creation and use of buyer personas (especially when it comes to mapping content to the buyer’s journey).

That being said, I have often been a persona skeptic. Why? Because I’ve seen companies go to a lot of trouble and expense to create buyer personas only to have nothing really come of the exercise. Even worse, I’ve heard senior executives outright reject information gathered during user interviews. The classic case going something like this:

Researcher: Users told us that talking about X actually makes us seem less credible.

Executive: But we’ve spent millions developing X. We have to talk about it.

In other words, it would seem that people know that they need buyer personas, but aren’t sure what to do with them once they have them or, as in the case above, simply reject the insights that the personas provide.

I wanted to figure out what’s going wrong here, so I got in touch with Adele. I wanted to know, “What are people missing with this whole buyer persona thing?”

Buyer Personas Need to be Activated

Right off the bat, Adele said that personas turning into a kind of shelfware was a common problem.

“Not too long ago we were looking for case studies, so we started calling clients from for whom we’d done research,” she said, “and what we heard, again and again, was, ‘Great stuff. We learned a lot. We really haven’t done anything with it.’”

“After a while,” she said, “I had a big a-ha moment: Companies don’t actually know what to do with their personas. They don’t know how to activate them. Without hand-held guidance, they just don’t know how to turn them into useful messaging and content marketing strategies.”

“Instead,” she added, “people seem to think that if you simply publish the personas around the organization, that will be enough. It won’t. If buyer personas don’t lead to action, and if those actions don’t generate more business for your company, you really aren’t using them the right way.”

I asked her about the types of “action” buyer personas should engender.

Buyer Personas Should Help You Make Decisions

“First and foremost,” she said, “they should help you make better decisions about what to talk about with buyers and, sometimes more importantly, what NOT to talk about.”

Of course, to be useful in this way, buyer personas need to be created with decision-making in mind. Unfortunately, that is not always they way it happens. Instead, people create something that’s more like a buyer profile where, Adele says, “People talk about who buyers are, but not why they think one solution is better than another, how they arrive at that conclusion, how they make choices, and when they are willing to engage.”

The interviews informing your personas should place a heavy emphasis on these points in particular because that’s the stuff that can shine a very harsh light on the way you talk about your products and services.

“What companies really need,” Adele said, “is the ability to talk about their products and deliver information in ways that actually matters to customers. The question that should keep the leaders of these companies up at night is, ‘What if the attribute of my product that I think is unique and that differentiates us from our competitors is really something that buyers just don’t care about?”

“We run into this all the time,” she said, “We’ll deliver our research findings and our verbatim quotes from buyers and we’ll say, ‘You know that thing you love to talk about? Well, there is not a single place where buyers say they care about that.’”

Buyer Personas Keep Your from Falling for Your Own Version of the Truth

“The problem is,” Adele said, “you start to believe your own version of the truth and there is often a huge disconnect between the way you think about the technology, for example, that you sell, and the way customers perceive it.

“It’s hard have to deliver really bad news to clients,” she added. “We have to tell clients that their baby isn’t as pretty as they think. More than once we have had to tell them that buyers say things like, ‘These solutions are all the same,’ when they believe their solution is better and different from everything out there.”

Well, as everyone knows, the truth hurts. But the truth will also set you free (or so I have read).

Here’s How to Get Buyer Personas Right

Rather than letting your personas sit there gathering dust, or turning a deaf ear to the insights they provide, there are some simple things you can do.

First, Adele said, you need to focus on the way that personas help you understand how people make decisions.

Second, if your personas reveal that the messages and content you create don’t actually speak to this decision-making process, then you need to take a different approach.

Third, that different approach starts with, as Adele told me, remembering that the purpose of buyer personas is to help you make smart decisions about giving your customers information that they find useful.

This is where the really tricky part – “activation” – comes in. Publishing your personas, either internally or externally, is not activation.

Using the insights provided by your personas to create tools and collateral content your sales team can use to close deals, or, better yet, that new buyers can use to make a purchase decision, is.

For further reading, you may be interested in Pass the Best-in-Class by Aligning Content to the Buyer’s Journey.

Image Source (Creative Commons): mabmacmoragh.

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