Adele Revella, Founder and CEO of the Buyer Persona Institute [Podcast]

Adele Revella literally wrote the book on buyer personas. She also founded the Buyer Persona Institute. So, if ever there was an expert on buyer personas, it’s Adele!

I have relied on Adele and the Buyer Persona Institute for years. She is a living, breathing encyclopedia (those were info sources before Google) of all things buyer persona.

In this we discuss…

  1. What Is and Is Not a Buyer Persona
  2. 5 Rings of Buying Insight
  3. Empathy in Marketing
  4. Fanocracy and Buyer Personas
  5. Buyer Personas and the Pandemic

Let’s jump in…

Digital Transcription – Edited for Readability

Introductions (Including a Small Rant)

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Welcome to the Wellspring Digital Chat, my name is Jon-Mikel Bailey and this is where we bring marketing brains directly to you, not the brains themselves, we bring the people with the brains, you know what I mean? Anyway, today, we have the keeper of all buyer personas secrets and legends, Miss Adele Revella.

Adele, please introduce yourself to these fine folks. Tell them who you are what you do what you’re all about.

Adele Revella: Thank you so much for having me, Jon. So I wrote the book on buyer personas, about five years ago, it was the worst year of my life, I hated writing a book, anybody here that wants to write a book go for it? For me, it was, it was not anything I ever wanted to do. I did it because I am so concerned about all the people out there saying that buyer personas are fictional.

That they’re just something you make up and fill in a template with what you know, or what your salespeople know, or what your customers, you know, a few customers tell you. When, in fact, it has never made a whit of sense to me to use made-up stuff to inform a strategy to inform what I write about, or what I say or who I talk to, or how I reach life.

I mean, why would I use fiction, to go make decisions? I love fiction, I’m a great fiction reader, I read a lot, but it’s not something I want to use in my work. So I founded a company in 2010 to help people understand how their buyers make decisions, and what you need to say and do to get buyers to prioritize the decision you care about, and to have them choose your company. And that’s it. And that’s the whole purpose of buyer personas, if anybody tells you there’s any other purpose, send them my way.

It’s just really simple in marketing, we have this onerous task of getting a market for buyers, to want to think about what we want them to think about, and then to get them to buy from us. And that is really hard stuff to do. And the buyer persona is a tool to get you there, but only if it tells you the truth, the facts, the sometimes ugly, disappointing, like, “Oh, I didn’t want buyers to care about that thing, because our product doesn’t do that.” Or “buyers don’t like my product, because it doesn’t do this, or it doesn’t do that.”

I mean, you’ve got to know all that stuff, or you’re just making stuff up.

What Is and What Is Not a Buyer Persona

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, I really appreciate you being here. And I’m very excited to have you with us. I’ve read your book, I’ve read your blog, I’ve downloaded some of your courses, you know, everything buyer persona that I think of I always go to you. I go to the source. So this is really exciting for me.

So you kind of touched on my first question a little bit, I want to dig a little bit deeper in there. You’ve spoken about what a buyer persona isn’t a fictional sort of caricature of a person. Can you dive a little deeper into that? And also talk more about what a buyer persona actually is? Or should be?

Adele Revella: Yeah, so a little bit deeper. So the biggest problem we have as marketers with buyer personas is that we start with demographics. We start with the person’s age, or job title, or role, or company size, or their hobbies. And then we try to define them based on those demographics. What this ends up doing is it ends up producing too many personas that aren’t very actionable because we now know all this stuff about people, but heck, we’ve got to get them to think about our solution, our product, our service, whatever it is, and how do we do that?

So what a buyer persona needs to tell you is the truth about what buyers are thinking and doing from the moment that they think they might need a solution like this, whatever your solution is, all the way and that at every step along their journey until they actually say “Are these guys have got the ideal product for my needs. I’m going to click Buy Now.”

I mean literally through a long sales cycle, buyers have to mentally and emotionally go through that mental process. And a buyer persona needs to describe that process. And not just like, “oh, they go to our website, and then they download a white paper and then they attend a webinar or they do a demo.” Not that. That isn’t what I mean.

I’m talking about what are they thinking? What are the questions they’re asking? What are the answers that have them go “Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s it?” We need to have all that written down in the buyer persona. And frankly, whether that they’re married and have two kids and a dog, I mean, unless you’re selling marriage counseling or dog walking services, I would just leave that stuff out.

Even company size, or industry, or geography can be less crucial than we think it is. Sometimes that stuff matters. But we got to start with insight into what do they need to know and experience as they go through that journey?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: It’s funny, as you’re sitting here saying all this, I’m thinking this really bleeds over into the UX world, for sure. UX people live and breathe this stuff. And so, you know, it’s about dang time that the marketers finally understood that we need to get up to this level of understanding our customers and what they’re thinking what they want, what they know. So that’s great.

Adele Revella: Yeah, because user personas I mean, the guy that invented those, Alan Cooper, started with user personas, which is what UX people cared about. So we’re taking that same kind of construct and that we need to understand in aggregate, so UX people want to know in aggregate, what do users want, and marketers need to know in aggregate, what real buyers want from that buying experience. And that’s just getting missed too much. Makes me crazy.

5 Rings of Buying Insight

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So going a little bit deeper, I’ve used your 5 Rings of (Buying) Insight to work with clients on developing their buyer personas, and it’s effective, but it ultimately requires a larger time commitment than they assume they’re gonna be required to give.

So, can you talk a little bit about the five steps and why it’s important to go deeper than just, you know, what you’ve talked about, with the superficial persona and getting deeper into that? What do they know? What are they thinking? And how can these five rings help with that?

Adele Revella: Well, the fact is, you know, we really want to hear this directly from the buyers and not from the customers at all. So when we do our work, we’re going directly to buyers to understand five categories of insight.

Priority Initiative Insight

So, first of all, we want to hear real buyers describe that trigger moment, you know, that moment in time when they said, “You know, I’ve got to spend money to solve this problem. I’ve got to spend money to achieve this outcome, this goal,” we want to hear that trigger moment. And we call that the Priority Initiative Insight.

So, we’re doing interviews with a number of buyers, who have recently been through this evaluation, to understand, you know, “take me back to the day when you first decided you needed x and tell me what happened.” And they tend to just give me a list of benefits they needed. And we go, “No, no, no, wait, you probably needed those benefits, like six months or a year before you started this evaluation. What change to really make that a priority?”

As, as a marketer, these are my core pain points. These are the drivers I need to understand to get those people, appeal to that moment. So I call that the priority initiative that’s inside category number one.

Success Factors Insight

Number two, we call it Success Factors. It’s kind of like benefits. These are the benefits they are seeking. And what this tells me is how to write about those benefits in a way that buyers care about.

Not just reverse engineer them, you know, because I can come up with 100 benefits of a complex solution. I just look at all the things it does and I reverse engineer or write it. I end up with too long a list. So it gets me to the short list of benefits that buyers really care about. That’s insight number two.

Perceived Barriers

Insight number three, we call it Perceived Barriers. And I sometimes refer to this as the “bad news insight,” but really, it can be the best insight because this tells you how buyers eliminated certain vendors or providers in a situation. It says “well we into these guys because they didn’t have x, and we didn’t choose these guys because they didn’t have y, or their salespeople didn’t talk about this.”

These are all the differentiators in the buying experience. Right, Jon? We call it perceived barriers because you’d be surprised at how far off the perceptions can be from reality. Byers think there’s nobody out that does that? Well, we do that, but we just haven’t been talking or nobody’s talking about it right.

Decision Criteria

The fourth category of insight we call it Decision Criteria. And these are, this is the best part. This is the part where we get in-depth into all the questions buyers are asking through their journey to figure out which provider can deliver the value, deliver the benefit.

So another rant I have is that I’ve been in tech marketing for a very long time. The fact is, is that we were all taught talk about benefits, not features. But decision criteria will show you and you get this from the interviews with buyers that they had questions about your features, and about your capabilities.

This is the part where the rubber meets the road for them. Chances are every provider in your category is talking about the same benefits. “Oh yeah, we can solve world hunger.” “Yeah, we can deliver a fully integrated, scalable, flexible enterprise-wide solution for business results, the ROI of your dreams.”

Decision criteria insights, that fourth category insight, is where you get into all the ways that you can talk about your capabilities that prove to your buyer that you can do that. And that you can check all their boxes.

Buyer’s Journey

And then the fifth category of insight, we call it Buyer’s Journey. And this is where we get into the steps your buyers take, and the resources they trust, and the people the personas that are involved in that buying decision. And so you guys don’t need me to tell you the value of a good buyer’s journey.

The thing I got to say to you about buyer’s journey is that your buyer’s journey is not “I go to your website, and I download your white paper, and I attend a webinar.” Your buyer’s journey is “I talked to my peers. I talked to the companies I already know. And maybe you know, I did a little research online.”

And then later on once they got further into their journey, then later on, yeah, they’ll go to your website, but you need to find out from, and they look at your content, but it’s really like what are they thinking about? And what are the questions are asking in that content and on your website? And then you’re going to know to who’s on the buying committee, and who’s really influencing? And you’re going to get that whole vision through those five rings of buying insight.

It’s a long answer.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: No, that’s, that’s fantastic. As a content marketer, I’m sitting here thinking, “man, all that data is just gold for developing your editorial calendar, for understanding what your potential clients are looking for, for supporting your sales team.

Adele Revella: I say it’s almost like cheating, Jon. Feels like it’s like, “oh, wait, this is the test I had to pass with buyers. Here’s all the questions on the test. Here’s all the right answers for that buyer. It feels like I cheated on my SAT, you know, it’s like, this is legitimate cheating.

And the funny thing is buyers, when we get them on the phone, we can’t get them off the phone. We’ll schedule a 30-minute interview and because this isn’t a survey or some stupid, like “on a scale of one to 10.” But we let buyers tell the story about a real buying decision. And we teach marketers to do this. So you said you went to our course. And you know somebody needs to ask the buyers the truth, to tell their true story.

So you can hear how incredibly difficult it is for buyers to go through this journey. What’s at stake for them if they get it wrong? It’s huge. And if you’re a consumer marketer of potato chips you should have already hung up on this one. But yeah, if your buyers got a lot at stake and making this decision, then you need to understand what’s at stake and all the questions that get them comfortable that they should prioritize this investment and choose you.

If your buyer persona is not doing that, then throw in the trash can, you know, or use it as a cover sheet? There you go. A lot of clients will say, “but we spent all this money building all these buyer personas and I’ll say, “well, use them as a cover sheet for the story about your buying experience.”

Empathy in Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Exactly. So I spent a lot of time in my last interview with my guest Scott Monty from Ford fame, talking about the importance of empathy in marketing today. And you know, I can’t help but think that the process of developing buyer personas also helps clients to empathize with their buyers to understand, and we’ve talked a little bit about this, do you think going through this process really enables the clients to understand better their clients, their buyers, and to really deeply empathize with them on a different level?

Adele Revella: Yeah, so empathy is such an interesting topic. It’s one of my favorite topics. And the question always for marketers is, “what are we empathizing with buyers about?” I mean, because certainly, you know, after the initial COVID shut down, and there was an enormous outreach of, you know, an outpouring of, gosh, you know, “stay home, stay safe, you know, we care about you, we’re doing our best to help you.” So that’s a form of empathy, right?

But every human on the planet, has ever been a moment like this one, where every human on the planet was like, in the same boat? We’re all, at some level, struggling with this shutdown. That was easy. What’s harder, and where personas can take people in the wrong direction, is some people will get like a day in the life of the buyer. Some people think personas are about a day in the life. And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that, because it can help you empathize with that person’s day.

What I say the empathy we really need to have is for their buying experience. And for the companies we work with, their buying experience doesn’t happen in a single day. No, that’s a buying process, the journey that shows up and sort of unbidden in my day, one time, you know, I’ve been going along running my business, and all of a sudden, I got to buy x, and I haven’t bought it in a long time, or I’ve never bought this.

And now I have to go figure out who should I consider. And I have to figure out who’s best, which one I can buy that’s not going to get me fired or make me look bad, or make my company look bad.

Having empathy for that is what this is about, right? And then doing something about it. Like, “okay, now, what if we became the company that delivered the best buying experience to those buyers? Because we empathize with how hard that is?”

And so what does that mean to a marketer, we’ve made sure the salespeople know how to talk to the buyer about what they care about and don’t pester them with a lot of stuff they don’t care about. We make sure that every bit of content we write is addressing questions that are really business-critical to them, or, we do some B2C stuff around, you know, really big decisions.

But it’s always, you know, helping that buyer, that’s the empathy I want to have is for helping that buyer make a buying decision, rather than the generalized kind of empathy that, you know, is good for humanity, but doesn’t necessarily help me sell more of my stuff, which is my job. I’m trying to help my salespeople and my company sell more stuff. So getting clear about what we want to empathize with about that buyer is crucial.

Fanocracy and Buyer Personas

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That leads us that answer leads perfectly into my next question, so I appreciate that. So we also interviewed someone I know you know because he wrote the foreword to your book, David Meerman Scott. We interviewed him and obviously talked a lot about Fanocracy.

And I saw that you commented about the book arriving. I think this was back in December. So I’m assuming you’ve read it by now. So my question is – I absolutely love that book that he and his daughter wrote, if you haven’t read it pick it up – but they talk in-depth about the importance of building a deeper relationship with customers. And so, in a sense is what David’s talking about with fans the same thing about what you’re talking about with really, truly understanding and gaining that deep relationship with the buyers? Is a buyer, the ideal buyer persona, also a fan in a sense?

Adele Revella: So first off David and I go way back, I knew and before he wrote his first book, which was the New Rules of Marketing and PR, we were working together, so yeah, so I’m a big fan of David Meerman Scott. He’s like one of my favorite people, and wonderful people, and his daughter, Reiko, is an amazing, young woman, I met her when she was still in middle school, I think, anyway. And now she’s all grown up, how does that happen? I’m that age thing again?

So is it the same? No, it’s not the same because, you know, fans are something we build, and a relationship, is something we build over a period of interactions that usually extend into after they buy. Our work is all about before they buy, and fans are about both. It’s like, “how do we build fans among people who haven’t purchased and people who have purchased and build this sort of upswell of support for it.”

Now, the reason David’s book is so important, and that I am such an advocate of that work, is that the number one way buyers decide which providers to consider is from their own experiences and from talking to their peers. There’s hardly anything that we hear in every single study – and we’ve done hundreds of studies, thousands and thousands of interviews – the only thing that we ever hear (I mean sometimes they go online, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they attend conferences, sometimes they don’t) they always ask their friends, their peers, their colleagues, always.

So what could be more important than building that fan base and, and David’s laid out in his book all of the elements of what it takes to do that. And so I would say to you in terms of this conversation around buyer personas, that it’s not necessarily the same. Because for buyer personas. You mentioned ideal customers. So people sometimes talk about buyer personas being “your ideal customer.”

And, you know, there’s that, like all other adjectives, this one can be interpreted multiple ways. We want it to be your target customer, we want it to be the right kind of customer. But some people take that idealism a little far with personas, and they go interview their best customers, and they fail. That’s how the whole market is.

So, I get a little uncomfortable with that term. When people see too often. And you know, back to my rant, you know, your persona is a fictional depiction of your ideal customer. It isn’t fictional. And it’s the truth about the market, some of whom aren’t even considering you, don’t know who you are, or think bad things about you. And so if you take that idealistic thing too far, it can really be a raffle.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s, that’s a great point. No, I appreciate that. Okay, so maybe then would it be fair to say that it’s easier to build a fan base if you’ve also spent the time to go through the buyer persona process and really talk to the customers and understand your journey?

Adele Revella: Yeah, because the buyer persona is also always about finding that match between what we do and what buyers want. And of course, ultimately, at the end of the day, we can’t fake people out. To build fans, they’re going to finally figure out what or who we really are and what we really do and what we really believe in.

And so, you know, it’s all about trying to create that match for our sales organization for our marketing activities and for our customer relationships so that we get the right people to do business with. So don’t want to get outside of that edge of that too much idealism here. That’s the only thing I wanted to caution against.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Fair point.

Buyer Personas and the Pandemic

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So here we are in the middle of a pandemic. Great times. It’s craziness. But I think one common theme we hear a lot is companies saying that they’ve had to “pivot.” They’ve had to dramatically change their course or retool something. And I wonder, in a sense, do you think customers that have gone through the process of truly understanding their buyers were able to better pivot and empathize with the situation that their buyers were now facing and were able to more quickly recognize that situation and see that issue and pivot faster and more effectively. Do you think that that helps them? That’s part one.

And part two, if I may, is there a benefit right now that we’re in the middle of this pandemic, to starting this process? And really diving deep into the buyer persona process?

Adele Revella: Yeah, so the pandemic? Hmm. So, you know, we’re always better off, of course, when we are aligned with our buyers. So, you know, broadly, yes, companies that do that. There’s so many places we can go with this conversation. So I’ll just try to keep it because there’s a lot of different aspects of this. And, you know, I think the key thing here is that we’re not just in a pandemic, or in the middle, who knows middle and beginning halfway through, right? If you find out Jon, call me, I want to know…

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I’ll let you know. Yeah.

Adele Revella: But we’re also in a recession. Yes. And an economic recession. And to me, the pandemic has imposed all sorts of restrictions on the way we live. For our buyers, it disproportionately affected some companies more than others. I mean, there are companies that are absolutely decimated by this.

In early March, we were literally within days of starting a huge study for a company where they only do marketing for restaurants. And imagine, being the second week in March, and every single customer you’re trying to talk to is a restaurant owner. So anything they knew about their buyers before that moment was completely irrelevant, and they needed to do over. So that’s the most extreme case.

By and large, people we’re interviewing are telling us that, that the pandemic hasn’t stopped their major initiatives, it’s slowed them down. And so, you know, knowing that knowing what you knew about your buyers, before the pandemic, and that adding on things are going to go slower, and there are some industries that are “just don’t talk to them.”

Yeah, I mean, you know, what I’ve had to do with that client is just, you know, like, hug them, virtually, of course, and just say, “gosh, you know, stay in touch, we love you guys and we’re thinking of you and, you know, stay home stay safe” kind of thing.

But then there are the industries that have accelerated, where they really have had to pivot, and because they pivoted. I don’t know if it was the buyer persona, I don’t want to take credit where it’s not do. Honestly, I think it’s more about just a commitment to caring about what your buyers need right now.

And we see this even with buyer persona work. We bring incredibly deep insights, but companies now have to be willing to pivot to do what their buyers want. And now, what do we say? So I say the bigger issue is, we’re in a recession. And, you know, I’ve been a sales and marketing leader, CMO, and run sales and marketing through other recession’s. Four of them in my career, and guess what happens? Marketing budgets get cut or scrutinized like crazy, and headcount gets cut.

For a lot of companies, marketing is the only place that they can cut costs, without having to lay people off. Nobody wants to let go of their people. So what do they do? They cut our budgets, and we feel like we can’t do anything. So I would say to you that because we’re in a recession, and who knows how long that’s gonna last, that’s the more crucial way to think about this… The ROI of marketing has never been more important.

And it’s never been more critical that we don’t just, like, switch our live events to virtual and expect the same results. We have, more than ever, got to connect with the customers who are spending money to solve this problem now and talk about what they care about.

Because if we are wasting money, or we can’t show how what we’re doing is helping buyers make buying decisions, then that program, our job maybe is at risk. I think this could be the longest and deepest recession of my lifetime. And that’s saying a lot because I’ve been through some bad ones.

This is absolutely the time to know what your buyers want to talk about. Also, I literally had a client say – I’ve been talking to customers, of course, through April and May – and they said, “we’re just going to pause all of our marketing for the rest of the year.” So how does that work? And I’m thinking, “but guess what? Your salespeople, they’re still working, they still have to close deals.”

And more than ever, our salespeople – I mean, I talked to my sales guy in April and said, “so Brock, really and truly, what’s the pipeline now?” And he didn’t know. And I’m not the only executive asking the sales team, “what’s the pipeline now?” So the more marketing can be joined at the hip with the buyers and with the salespeople, this is the place where marketing and sales alignment comes from, and we’re really connected to what the buyers want.

This is the one thing that salespeople care about, that we care about. They may not care about that white paper we publish, but they care about which buyers are buying, and what are they buying, and why are they buying? And how are they buying and who’s involved. And so, this is the time when marketers need to double down on all of that. It’s not marketing to Mary with two dogs and a cat kind of person. Do not do that.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I think the pandemic and, you know, ipso facto, the recession have forced many industries to rethink many of their methodologies and, you know, marketing is one of those things that… We’ve seen, as a digital marketing firm, we’ve seen clients go, “okay, we’re cutting off all marketing,” and then come back to us and say, “well, that was a bad idea, let’s, you know, reengage but let’s re-engage in a different way because our salespeople are saying, “there’s no leads!”

I like to look at the positive side, and maybe the positive side of this is that some of that more superficial sort of marketing activity will fall by the wayside, finally.

Adele Revella: Exactly. When budgets are available, marketers can really go a little bit off the rails. And, really it is positive because we know marketing’s crucial. Your company knows that, it’s dating back decades. My dog’s over here complaining, I don’t know why. She’s having a normal. Yeah. So I desperate because I didn’t walk her this morning, I was busy.

(We’ll forgive you, Roxy!)

You know, we’re in a position right now where we have an opportunity to really show the value of marketing and prove that value. And I think that’s ultimately a good thing for us. I kind of worry when marketers are out there, with sort of unlimited budgets, doing stuff that you know, and then we get on and the real reason I worry about that we get on the phone with the buyers, and we interview them about their buying decision. And we say “well, talk to me about the marketing content that really helped you make a buying decision,” and they’re like, “um.”

“Well, we looked at the documentation, or we looked at…” That’s scary. And I think that’s what still gets me working so hard every day is that there’s this huge opportunity to deliver the best buying experience in the industry. Honestly, so much of the time we hear buyers say, “well, no, we didn’t look at that, because they all said the same thing.”

And then we’re sitting around in back rooms trying to use more adjectives, different superlatives, different success stories, or different video formats or whatever. When the buyers are just begging us to answer their questions. Yep.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s, that’s Yes. Amen. Well, thank you so much for taking the time and doing this. I really appreciate it. I could talk to you about this all day long but I don’t think either one of us have all day so we’ll cut it off here. So, thank you so much!

Stay safe out there everyone and read Adele’s book, please.

Adele Revella: Go to our website. It’s All right. Thanks, everyone!

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Bye-bye everyone.

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