Image by Cristiano Betta via Flickr
This is the fifth and final part of a series of reflective articles on the future of buyer personas in the social age. Leading up to this final part, part 1 through 4, I covered some of the misconceptions, impact of the social age, what changes were needed, and the establishing of a new role and framework. In this final reflection, I offer 6 essentials to embedding buyer personas into your organization.
In part 4, I described a new role of Social Buyer Behaviorist and Anthropologist that can reside in a framework of researching buyer behavior through anthropological means. A return to the origins and original meaning of buyer personas that was lost as the term went viral. It is worth reiterating that buyer persona research, since its origins, is meant to be coupled with social science research methods of anthropology and ethnography. Whereby the archetype buyer persona created represents an interface to the research conducted.
There are 6 essential guiding premises that will help to embed true buyer persona research into your organization and to do so where you are not merely creating buyer profiles but are performing the bona fide practice of buyer persona research:
Do The Real Thing
If you are able to build an in-house practice, bring on people who have the requisite background in anthropology and ethnographic research. Several Fortune 100 companies, such as Intel, have moved in this direction in the past decade. These organizations are employing a team of anthropologists and ethnographers to continuously research consumer or buyer behavior. Often times, performing in-house or through the use of an experienced third party schooled in anthropological methods, developing user or buyer personas to help be the interface to their research.
What if you do not have the means or resources to build an in-house practice that conducts the research and creates interfacing personas for the research? Then a third-party option should be explored. The key is to distinguish from those who claim they do buyer personas from real practitioners versed in anthropology and ethnographic research. As the terms personas and buyer personas went viral, there have been many who say they build buyer personas but do no to very little research. This is a clear indicator that they are building consumer or buyer profiles based on a quick gathering of client data. Essentially they are providing another profile building method and incorrectly labeling them as buyer personas. It is important to look at the track record of experience in having conducted anthropological inspired research and being able to translate into buyer personas that inform on business models, buyer strategies, meeting market or competitive challenges, and adaptive strategies. Informing on adaptive strategies is becoming critical as many companies are faced with adapting to new buyer behaviors and new social dynamics as a result of the evolving social age.
Commit To The Right Level Of Time
There is no way around it. Conducting buyer persona research – the real thing as described above and throughout this series of articles – takes a sufficient amount of time. From an in-house perspective, it becomes an ongoing agenda and specific research efforts often taking a minimum of 3 months to gain the insights needed and to translate into the rich interface of a consumer (user) or buyer persona. These efforts will undergo repeated interactions with consumers or buyers. Now, these repeated interactions even more important given the rapid changes occurring in buyer behaviors due to the introduction of new social technology every 2-3 months.
From a third-party perspective, if you are promised that you can have buyer personas in a week or a short few weeks, then you should be concerned. They are most likely talking about profiles and do not have the connection to the right kind of research established. On occasion, hypothetical or what are called provisional buyer personas can be created. However, the mistake often made is that these are then used as the real thing without having been validated through research. They are, after all, “hypothetical” and if you are being held accountable for a budget to market your company’s solutions – would you bet millions of dollars on “hypothetical”?
To gain the deep insights that anthropological and ethnographic based buyer persona research can offer, companies need to allow for sufficient time in months versus a few short weeks. It takes a minimal level of 15-30 ethnographic research interviews and I’m not referring to counting friends and employees or your sales reps. This means on-site participant-observation methods with actual consumers or buyers. Depending on the complexity of markets, products, and services, it can be even more. The social age is introducing new factors and levels of research that will need to augment traditional ethnographic research. It is important to reiterate that companies today seeking third-party help must look towards a long-term partnership potential for social behavioral research will need much repeated refreshing.
Valuable insights can be gained in 2 to 4 months and depending on the complexity from multiple markets and buyer segments, it may even take longer. However, we are turning a chapter here in the social age. The need for ongoing research, as mentioned, is becoming critical for the shelf-life of consumer (user) and buyer personas is shrinking rapidly in the social age.
Cheap Will Not Get it Done
If buyer persona research tied to anthropological buyer behavior research is done in-house, be sure to get the right level of people to support such efforts. You can be sure that some of today’s leading organizations with in-house practices have staff that includes anthropologists with graduate degrees. These are people well versed in the methods of anthropology and ethnography as well as have the interpretive skills to translate findings into communicable as well as informing consumer (user) or buyer personas. Additionally, commit to a budget that supports ongoing research.
Due to the viral misunderstanding about buyer personas, as I previously mentioned sometimes research is misrepresented as meaning to talk to a few customers, a few friends, and interview employees. This should be a red flag for you if promised by third-parties. You will not get the insights that come from the right level of ethnographic research and the information will most likely be used incorrectly – perhaps even damaging if used for a high stakes initiative.
Budgeting to do the real thing and with the right amount of time is usually somewhere between what typical focus groups costs and a large scale national study for example. Meaning an organization should explore conducting buyer persona research – the real thing backed by skilled ethnographic research – with a budget in mind of five figures – sometimes six figures if it involves many multiple markets and the degree of complexity is high. The real question for many organizations given challenges they may be facing as well as faced with transitioning to a social business – can you afford not to do true ethnographic based buyer persona research to uncover real insights and opportunities that will help shape the direction of your organization in the social age?
Triangulate Your Research
A common misperception is that quantitative and qualitative research has a great divide. In fact, they should enjoy a reciprocal relationship. Ethnographic researches accompanied by the interface of buyer persona archetypes can often times inform quantitative research direction that validate opportunities uncovered. Likewise, quantitative research can be triangulated with qualitative and ethnographic efforts with buyer personas providing the interface and the narrative that brings to life both the quantitative and the qualitative research. Focus groups as well as usability studies can play a role in triangulating research by being used to gauge the reaction to prototypes and new concepts that may be born out of the combined quantitative and ethnographic research.
Involve Multi-Disciplinary Groups
As the viral misunderstanding of the term buyer persona proliferated, a common misperception evolved that buyer personas were provincial to marketing. It is not hard to see why. If the perception is that buyer personas are target buyer profiles for targeting marketing and sales messaging, then it is a logical conclusion for marketing and sales has been targeting buyers for eons. Going back to the origins of personas and buyer personas as an ethnographic research effort to inform design and strategy, these meant involving multi-disciplinary groups from design, branding, corporate strategy, marketing, call centers, fulfillment, and service. With the prominence of the social age now an important development for all businesses, a multi-disciplinary approach becomes even more crucial. The new social buyer ecosystem is touching every facet of an organization and those organizations that have deep rooted knowledge of their consumers or buyers will have a leg up on succeeding in the social age.
A very disconcerting and negative outcome of the viral misunderstanding of the term buyer persona has been how it plays out in the minds of senior marketing executives. Many a VP Marketing I’ve spoken to in the last couple of years see buyer personas only as a tool to help marketing craft sales messaging. Thus, the concepts of buyer personas never make it out of marketing if this thinking exists. Anthropological inspired research and persona development should reside within a hub and spoke part of the organization that truly is focused on the customer and the buyer. Such as in customer experience for example where the efforts must take on a multi-disciplinary approach.
Know When To Use Buyer Persona Research
The questions your organizations are attempting to get answers to can serve as a guide to know when you need the real thing – true ethnographic based buyer persona research. I like to refer to these as the “I have no idea” types of questions that keep executives up at night. If you have no idea about consumers or buyers in a new market and how they may respond to your products or services – then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea how products or services are used in new and emerging markets – then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea what the impact of social media has been on the buying behaviors of potential buyers – then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea how to generate demand now that buyers have changed their buying behaviors – then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea whether approving $15 million in new product development will be received well in the markets targeted – then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea what mix of sales and marketing strategy to deploy – then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea why previous buyers are no longer buying - then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea how best to communicate with potential consumers or buyers - then buyer persona research is right for you. If you have no idea why market share dropped by 5% in one year - then buyer persona research is right for you. I think you get the idea!
True anthropological and ethnographic based buyer persona research is meant to get answers to many of the strategic big questions that shape the future direction of organizations. I conclude with saying that the future of buyer personas is social primarily because the social age is presenting executives with many big questions that we’ve yet to have answers for. Returning buyer personas to its origins and original meaning as well as advancing with changes adaptable to the social age will help in answering such big questions.