Persona Experts Have Focus, That's All
I once believed that great marketers were gifted with rare creative genius and intelligence. Then I got to know some of these “experts.” True, they are smart enough, but I meet a lot of equally talented people who are on a path that will never gain much recognition for them, their products or their companies.
I've recently realized that it’s a matter of focus rather than IQ that separates the marketing experts from those who toil away in relative obscurity. In whatever role they assume, experts seem to have a knack for choosing a high-value topic that is not well-understood. Then they take specific steps to achieve expert status. Initially, their goal is to assimilate as much as they can from the information that already exists about their topic. This doesn’t seem to create more work for the emerging expert; it is simply a way of prioritizing their thinking. Every activity, however mundane, is an opportunity to observe, to gain a fresh perspective or insight on the chosen subject. Every meeting is a chance to ask questions and listen. These people aren’t creating new ideas (yet), they are a central point of information for knowledge that is all around them but not aggregated, analyzed or appreciated.
I’ve always believed that much of the information about buyer personas is readily available to marketers, and that a lot can be gained by simply collecting and communicating internal information. So I was motivated to write this post after listening to user-experience expert Tamara Adlin speak about personas in two great webinars hosted by Marketing Profs last week. If you are already a premium member of Marketing Profs or want join, you can view the archived Personas One and Personas Two webinars on-line in their Premium Library. While Tamara’s background is more focused on product design than marketing, she has developed a practical methodology for accumulating insights and building personas. She also has a book The Persona LifeCycle, that I just ordered and will be reading in the next few weeks.
One of the most important messages in Tamara’s webinar is that internally generated, or “ad hoc” personas, are a valid and useful first step in the process of bringing personas into the organization. Tamara and I have never met, but she was speaking for me when she told her audience that persona expertise can start informally and without a huge investment. With nothing more than focus and commitment, marketers can generate a lot of value by simply compiling and analyzing all of the company’s assumptions about each of the people who influences buying decisions.
The idea of building personas from internal data sounds like heresy to those of us who know the importance of listening to the market. But getting approval for the time and resources for external research can stop a good idea before it has a chance to prove its merits. Tamara made a great case for the value of ad hoc personas, noting that companies base their product and marketing strategies on unstated and widely varying assumptions about who they are targeting. Marketers who take the initiative to verbalize and agree on a common set of assumptions have a much better chance of building a product and message that resonates with someone. I’ve said it many times and heard it again from Tamara: strategies that target everyone resonate with no one. Plus the process of seeking internal alignment on the critical elements of a persona brings the ambiguous, conflicting details to light, building support for the external research initiative.
So are you an expert on a topic that, in your company, is perceived to be both rare and of high value? If you are stuck in a tactical role, consider how much focus you have given to an operational skill that can be readily outsourced or that no one really respects. Or maybe you have devoted your energies to product expertise, which is more valued but certainly not unique.
Whether your company has identified the problem or not, it needs (and lacks) deep insight into the motivations, preferences and influences that drive decisions within your target audiences. The role I call buyer persona expert describes someone who is both rare and valuable -- a marketer who can articulate the business goals and perceptions of the target buyers with such clarity that the company can predict the impact of product and marketing strategies before they are implemented.
Companies think they know the buyers because they listen to the sales people talk about the prospects. But ask a sales person to describe a persona and they’ll tell you that each account, each buyer is unique. Sales people are not paid to look for patterns. Their job is to learn about each account and to develop a strategy that is tailored to that prospect’s needs. Plus the sales people are only interacting with, and knowledgeable about, a fraction of the market, those buying influencers who are willing to enter the sales cycle and talk to them. Unless your sales people have saturated your market and sold something to each type of buyer in those accounts, there are many personas your sales people don’t know and may even be avoiding.
If you're reading this and you’re someone's boss, ask the marketers who work for you what they have learned recently about the buyers in the market and the issues they face. Within a short time, you’ll have marketers who listen to the market. Ask them how each of the target audiences makes a buying decision, and you'll get people who know what marketing tools and programs they should build to influence the buyers. Ask them what's keeping the sales people from moving deals into and through the sales process, and you'll get people who think about how to align buying and selling processes. Do all of this, and you will have buyer persona experts and a very competitive company.
Oh, and if you’re no one’s boss, become a buyer persona expert and let me know when you get your promotion.
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