Just before the release of Adele’s book, Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business (http://www.amazon.com/Buyer-Personas-Customers-Expectations-Strategies/dp/1118961501/), I had the opportunity to speak with Adele about her Buyer Persona methodology. My 23-minute (mp3) interview is here. Download the transcript (PDF) here. My Huffington Post book review is here.


John Fox: I actually have just five questions. Let me just start with this one. How can a marketer know when they need to create a buyer persona? What are the tell-tale signs that a marketer would even know that it’s time to consider something like this?

Adele Revella: Yeah, good question. I think it’s really around saying to one’s self, “Look, we’re just not hitting the mark here.” We either forgot, or I don’t know how to achieve a goal that I think I have. Either we’re trying to accomplish something and it’s not working, and I don’t know why. We think we’ve got a great product, a great service, a great solution. And we’re putting out marketing and there’s just not the reaction that we expect. Or it’s, we’ve got something new we’ve going to go accomplish. It’s something really hard and we’ve really never marketed this product or service before, or we’re going to go market it to people that we haven’t ever had to market to before. And this is… I don’t want to just guess at this, because it’s too important. And guessing might end up with the wrong answer.

Fox: Got it. Okay. Good start. So, let me jump that into… Let’s assume I’ve got a perfectly written buyer persona. What can a marketing team do, now that they have it that they’ve never been able to do before without it?

Revella: Well, I think it’s not so much that they’re going to do anything different. Because we’re still going to do the same thing. We’re still going to build messages and write marketing materials and send out campaigns. What’s different is that the content of all of those materials and the way we deliver those materials is going to be something that there is a foundation for. That we know that we’re highly likely to be doing the right thing and saying the right thing in all the activities that we’ve done before. And we’re going to be able to eliminate some activities that we probably kind of guessed might not be working. But now, we really know, “Oh, gosh. These are… I can see why these are the wrong things to do or the wrong things to say.” So it’s about finding the right things to do and finding the right things to say in the activities we do.

Fox: Okay. Can you give me an example of how that, sort of a before and after that, that you’ve witnessed a client not armed with a buyer persona, and then what’s happened, now that they have it some before and after as I said?

Revella: Yeah. So, it’s tricky, because the insights that we deliver to clients are never things that we can reveal specifically to the public. And the reason for that is because those insights are so valuable to our clients and such a strategic resource that we can’t… They don’t want their competitors to know what we discovered. And so, it’s really about the spasticity of the message. And so, the example I’ll give you is that, and I’m going to use a technology example here. A lot of our clients sell enterprise technology solutions. And in the past, the message might have been, “We are the market leading provider.” See if this doesn’t resonate with you… “We are the market leading provider of enterprise wide flexible, scalable, compatible solutions for business growth and awesome results”. I’m sort of parodying it a little bit, because it’s kind of funny when you think about it. But this is the kind of message that most technology marketers talk about.

Fox: Sure. I bet I could do a Google search on that phrase, Adele, and find a million websites that say exactly something like that.

Revella: Precisely. Precisely. And this is nothing to be ashamed of. I, personally, as a marketer, as a career marketer, sat in meetings where we were trying to synthesize or reduce this very complex set of valuable capabilities into just a few words. We only can say 10 words or 25 words. And in trying to summarize the benefits of our solution, I’ve written words almost probably… I’ve probably written that statement myself in the past, but that’s because I didn’t have the benefit of hearing buyers talk, for example, about… Let’s just take that they really do care about flexibility.

When we’ve listened to the buyers talk about what flexibility means to them, we can now look at their interpretation of flexibility and we compare what we have to say about how flexible our solution is or how easy it is to use and now we can go find a way to talk to the buyer about that, that attribute of flexibility or ease of use, in a way that’s quite concise, still short, but really just differentiates us and is fundamentally more useful to the buyer. So he’s scratching his head, saying, “You know, I’m reading all these messages. They all sound alike. They all say they’re flexible, scalable, compatible. I know they can’t be all alike. And what I want to know is X”. Well, we don’t know what X is and so we’ve actually listened to the buyer talk about X and that’s the benefit that you should be deriving from your buyer personas.

Fox: Got it. So you talk about crafting a successful marketing strategy based on insight from… And I’m going to quote here from your book, “Intently listening to your buyers. Insight that is nearly impossible to acquire any other way than through one on one buyer interviews”. So I get that. In fact, your previous response sounds parallel to this. So what is it that stands in the way of a marketer actually doing this? What have you seen as the roadblocks or maybe the detours that prevent a marketer from successfully doing this?

Revella: Yeah, so what is the detour to intently listening to our buyers, is, first of all that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about buyer personas. Where the concept of actually listening to the buyer before you’ve built the persona isn’t even discussed. So that’s the first roadblock that we see and it’s the most common. Is that there’s that a lot of, a lot of confusion around the need to even listen to the buyers and people think that they can listen to their sales people or just listen, just sort of sit in a room and be creative around this information and that just leads to different versions of our flexible scalable compatible. Where we’re still kind of making stuff up. Only we are at least trying to think like the buyer when we make stuff up. Well, for marketers that sell products that they themselves use. If I were the marketer of a cell phone, then I might be pretty good at making up stuff about what matters to users of cell phones who are like me. And so I think there’s probably a place in the consumer marketing area where that fits.

But in business to business products, especially, or in very high consideration products where the marketer is unlikely to have ever experience that buying decision, it’s there’s not necessarily been this practice or this expectation in the company that the marketers need to go listen to the buyers first. And there’s no way to just sit and make this stuff up and be accurate or specific about it. And so, it’s really about a new way to think about the role of marketing as people who are expected and given the permission and the budget or the training, one or the other, really the budget to get a third party to do the research or the training to go do it yourself, so that you can have a very unique kind of interview. And it’s not a typical kind of conversation or interview that a marketer’s ever been exposed to. And so, now, we have to go, we have to get the company to buy into the idea that this is even something marketing needs to do and once that happens then it’s pretty simple because, now, there’s either third parties that can do that research for you or there’s the training available so that the marketer can learn to do it themselves.

Fox: Okay, that, you’re getting to a really good point there, and I’m wondering then so who, kind of a two part question here, who is responsible then for the success of the persona and then secondly, maybe you can step out what some of the phases or the steps are in the process?

Revella: Okay. Yeah. So who’s responsible for success of personas? So the persona is a tool, and it’s… And I don’t think that the persona, in and of itself, is a successful outcome, having a persona doesn’t really change anything. It’s… Nothing changes until you’ve used that persona to make better decisions. Because that, it’s just a tool, it’s a decision… A buyer persona is a decision making tool and I think that’s another, sort of, what’s happening in our industry right now is people are thinking as marketers, “Oh we need buyer personas. Oh, great, we have buyer personas. Check that box. We’re good”. When in fact, when we go and ask buyers or marketers, “How are you using those personas?”, we’re really disappointed in what we are seeing about that. So, marketers need to look at the buyer persona initiative as an opportunity to learn something about their buyers and then use what they’ve learned to fundamentally alter their message strategy, their content marketing strategy, the way they go to market.

And so that’s, if you think about the steps and the process, it’s really, first of all, gaining permission to even go do this. Just getting our heads around, and this is why I wrote my book on this, is getting people to think about the fact that marketers ought to have this expertise to… The expertise called, “I know, I have insight into what matters to our buyers and to how, when, and why they buy our solutions, our services, so that I can now make better decisions and have the credibility with the company that I should be trusted to make those decisions. ‘Cause I’m not making this stuff up here, I’m actually informed by deep insight into what our buyers want.”

Fox: Yeah. I think you even mentioned that in the book, you talk about being a buyer expert. And just in setting up this call, I think I related to you that as I read the book, the more I could tell that this forms not only a great text and reference for business users, but I think the core for a university course on how you actually do marketing today. This is my own personal feeling. And just to kind of dovetail on that, do you feel that universities really… Or is anyone teaching that marketing’s job or one of their jobs is to be a buyer expert?

Revella: Well, yes and no. Every university marketing class tells you that you need to know who your buyer is. And if you even go into the most traditional consumer marketing classes, they’re going to have this idea of a target buyer or a target audience. What’s different about the university courses then, what I’m talking about in my book is that in a university course, the audience is very well-defined around demographic attributes: What’s your income level? Are you male or female? Do you like craft beer or are you more of a fan of organic juices? And I know I’m being a little sort of off-the-cuff here, but the fact is, is that as marketers have extended the concept of their existing sort of university work around target audiences and the buyer personas, what they’ve tended to do is add attributes to the demographic, attributes that they’re familiar with.

And so now instead of just being level of income and geographic location and “Are you married or single, and male or female?” they’ve started to add all these sort of, like I said, “Do I like craft beer or organic juice?” And that is not a buyer persona make. And I think that’s where the universities could then I said, from rethinking this concept to target audiences. Because in today’s day and age, when buyers have so many choices and it’s so easy to bypass the marketing effort and just ignore our marketing, our efforts to persuade buyers, it’s just never been easier for buyers to ignore the marketer, and in that place, it’s incumbent upon us, if we’re going to be effective at all with these audiences, to stop thinking of them in such rough categories. Just because I’m over 50 doesn’t mean I don’t use technology. And the same thing is true for people that are under 25, might not be using technology.

And so there’s these very sort of… Very crude ways that we can target buyers if we’re reliant on demographics. And what the buyer persona does is break out of that box of demographics and say “No, we’re going to define audiences based on how they think, how, when and why they think about doing business with a company like ours.” And now we have the potential to really… To be more effective with the buyers and be more useful to buyers, to give them… Buyers are going to ignore us until we give them something useful. And the only way we can give them useful information is if we know what they find useful. So yeah… I’m very hopeful that… And it’s a big shift, it’s a big mental shift and there’s been just decades of history around demographic segmentation and to now start to segment markets or to think about audiences in a different way is a big leap.

Fox: Yeah, and I especially like what you’re talking about there, relative to, lots of data doesn’t necessarily make you smarter. And I like the approach that you’re talking about because it really involves a human understanding other humans, beyond the demographics. I think that’s really, really a vital exercise and important for, to be marketers especially.

Revella: It’s important for everyone. I think there’s just a wholesale, a backlash against marketing. Look at how many commercials… We’ve now invented devices, right? Technologies that allow us to skip past marketing. [chuckle]
Or on a lot of free tools now, we’ll pay extra not to get the ads… And what’s the… Why is that? It’s because we’re just so annoyed by marketing. And when in fact, and this is really the call to action for marketers out of buyer personas is, let’s really rethink our role. Let’s… How do we become useful to buyers?

Fox: Hmm. Well, let me jump back to something else that you said, and that’s about the decision whether or not to do this themselves or to outsource to a third party as far as the exercise of creating a buyer persona. And I think you talk about that in part two of your book. Can you give a… Boil down on that decision on what a marketer may determine some of the key points of how it would help them make that decision?

Revella: Yeah, it’s funny, John, because we find that a lot of people come to us, already sort of mentally knowing that answer but I’ll just make it really simple for you and then we can talk at length about this, of course. But fundamentally, conducting these interviews requires a unique skill. And I think there are some people who are delighted by the opportunity to learn a new skill. They find it just fascinating that they could get on the phone with buyers and have the kind of conversation that would give them these insights. And so for those people, they just need to realize that there is some training involved. You can’t just… It’s not rocket science, but at the same time, there is something you have to learn about this kind of an interview. And it’s not even like traditional qualitative interview where you get a call guide or a script and you kind of read questions. It’s an entirely different kind of interview to do this.

But there are marketers and I think people with a journalism background or people who are attracted to sort of interviewing people, those kinds of people might say, “Yeah, I want to learn how to do this.” And then, there’s the more typical customer that we’re seeing which is, “Hey, I am super busy. I have a launch that I have to get out in six weeks or eight weeks. And I’m going to have a hard time finding the people I need to interview. And I need real insight.” ‘Cause it’s going to take some time for the person that’s new at this to really get the skill to get great insight. And those people we’re saying are better off going to a third party who’s been doing this for a long time and knows how to find the people to interview and knows that within six to eight weeks, we can give you an amazing insight that you’ve never seen before. And so, it’s really sort of a, “Am I going to become the kind of practitioner or expert who has this as a part of my skill set? And is this going to advance my career to be that kind of an individual? Or, do I just need to get these insights as fast as I can, and knowing that it’s going to be a big investment for me to have to go learn to do this myself? Do I just want to use a third party to do it for me?”

Fox: Yep, totally get it. This is great. We could talk forever on it, but I really like all of the things that you’ve kind of walk through and how this works and the importance to marketers. I got one last question that… It’s… Maybe this applied, and let me take it from here, and I’d like to ask anyone that I interview this same question which is; with now knowing and the expert and creator of buyer personas, if you could step into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback machine and go back to the time that you were just starting in your marketing career, what would be the career advice that you’d give yourself?

Revella: Hmm. That’s fascinating. I’ll fall back on my one, the career advice someone gave me, in truth, in my Wayback machine. A guy named Dave Bevon who was my boss. And I don’t even remember, I was probably in my mid-20s. And he said to me, he said, “Adele,” he said, “You need to work for a company. If you’re going to be successful, you need to work for a company where you love what that company does and where you’re fascinated by learning more about the core business that that company is in.” And at the time I was working for, in the financial industry, for a division of a big bank. And boy, I was outta there so fast. I mean it was… If you wanted to keep me around, it was bad advice to give me because I knew more than anything else that I wasn’t going to spend my life learning about the financial industry. And that’s what led me into the technology industry shortly after that, because I loved it.

And a corollary to that, and it’s probably equally important, if I’m permitted two things, is, don’t think about what you want to be when you grow up, think about how you want to spend your day. Because life, at the end of the now many days of doing the work I do, and I think it’s the reason I love the work that I’m able to do, is that I love to listen to the buyer’s story. And it’s fascinating for me and I always feel privileged when I get to spend the next hour talking, listening to my buyer talk about how they think about buying something from me. And so I know I was just sort of built to do this kind of work because it’s how I want to spend my day. And I think that those two pieces that have got together, if that’s acceptable, would be the advice I’d give to anyone who’s new or in the early stages of their career. “What do you want to do all day?” And definitely, work for a company where you love their core business.

Fox: I love it. And I love how you came right back to the core. One of the core missions you mentioned about what a buyer persona gives you is it’s a great decision making tool which I guess is my shortcut to, how do I get more out of my day, because if I have this great decision making tool, I’m able to make decisions faster which gives me more time in my day. [chuckle]
Revella: Which gives me more time and gives me the chance to really look like a hero to everyone around me, which is of course, what earns me the opportunity for advancement and bigger paychecks and more opportunities to spend my days even more the way I want to. So it’s got this kind of nice snowballing or cumulative effect that when you… I don’t claim to know who said this, “Do the work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Fox: Yeah. That’s great. Well, thank you, Adele. I really appreciate you spending time and I wish you a lot of luck on the book, “Buyer Personas” by Adele Revella. It’s published by Wiley. And we’re all looking forward to reading it.

Revella: Thank you John. Thanks for having me.


John Fox

John Fox

CEO - Founder at Venture Marketing
I’m an experienced, revenue-focused, B2B marketing leader especially devoted to the success of the direct and channel sales rep. After all, at the pivotal moment of truth—when reps meet one-on-one with qualified decision-makers—everything the company has put in place to make this meeting happen will be measured.
John Fox


BD/CMO leader for disruptive B2B innovators. Proud dad of 5 entrepreneurs. Known for SEO, channel strategy, buyer personas & building geo distributed teams
"A lot of people get stuck negotiating with themselves. A little voice in their head says, “I don’t feel like doing… https://t.co/MU9X18wjFn - 1 year ago
John Fox