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How to Build a Buyer Persona: Gathering Intelligence

How to Build a Buyer Persona - invisible man

Say hello to your buyer persona. 

You've probably seen them before. Maybe at a trade show, or an industry conference, or browsing through your shop. They're always vaguely familiar - you can't ever remember their face, but their story is always the same. 

Now they're back. They're interested in buying again. And it's your job to get them on the hook and reel them in.

If you want to catch a fish, you need to know why the fish bites. What kind of bait does it find particularly enticing? Where's the best place to cast your line? When is it actively looking for food? You need to know all these things to be an effective fisherman. Luckily, in the case of your fish, it can talk. And it will happily tell you everything you need to know about catching it.

Before we get into collecting that intel, let's talk about why you need buyer personas.

Free Download: The Ultimate Guide to Buyer Personas for Beginners

Why Are Buyer Personas Necessary?

Let's start with the facts. Buyer personas:

  • Lower your cost-per-lead AND cost-per-customer (this means lowering your CAC and raising your LTV)
  • Assist in lead scoring
  • Help narrow your company's focus - goals, product development, content creation, etc.
  • Tell you what content to create and where and when to distribute it
  • Increase high-quality traffic to your website
  • Increase your lead-to-sale ratio
  • Help you target the right audience on social media
  • Tell you exactly how and when to approach a prospect
  • Help you achieve every marketing goal you set

In the case of Intel, buyer personas surpassed campaign benchmarks by 75%. They were more cost-efficient than the average campaign by 48%. DemandGen Report

Remember: if you try to please everyone, you will please no one. If you try to attract everybody to your website, you'll attract no one useful. 

Personas get you to focus on one thing - your best buyers - and perfect how you approach them. The goal is not to attract everybody to your website; it's to attract the people who are most likely to buy. That's the secret to increasing your traffic, leads, sales, and marketing ROI.

What else can personas do for your company?

Personas are helpful for ALL of your employees. Your R&D and product development people can hone their direction when they understand exactly what problems your buyers are facing. Salespeople know how to push a product when they know how your persona likes to be sold to. You can provide a better customer service experience when you know what they're thinking from pre- to post-purchase. And, obviously, your marketing team can create highly targeted content and put it right where your personas are looking. 

Like dropping your hook on the catfish's head.

How Can You Learn About Your Buyer Personas?

So, we've established that buyer personas are absolutely critical for your marketing efforts. Now, how do you create and use them? For a full rundown, check out the Ultimate Guide to Buyer Personas.

Buyer personas start with reconnaissance. You need to learn all about your prospects and clients: where they hang out online, what they do in their free time, what success means to them, and other intimate details. Basically, you'll have to become an Internet Super Sleuth. 

Buyer persona information comes from two types of sources: indirect sources (third party) and direct sources (straight from the buyer's mouth). 

Indirect Information

Indirect information is valuable because it's objective and easily accessible. Direct information, while absolutely necessary for an effective persona, is difficult to gather correctly due to personal biases, miscommunications, and perspectives.

Indirect information provides the hard facts that form the foundation of your personas.

CRM/Internal Sources - You have a wellspring of valuable information right at your fingertips. Every email conversation, sales call, and face-to-face interaction with prospects and clients holds valuable information for creating your buyer personas. 

Your CRM is the digital record of every interaction you've had with leads and customers. It tells you the basics (demographics) and the more subtle cues (digital body language).

Your employees who interact directly with clients and prospects are your gold mines. Generally, they have no idea what's important, and they'll need time to remember bits and pieces of conversations. You'll have to coax it out of them gently (but firmly, since it is important information). 

Demographics - Demographics are the most basic building blocks of your personas. Many people mistake demographics for personas, but there's so much more to personas than that (though they are helpful). Personas are like a realistic oil painting; demographics are more like stick figures done in crayon.

How to Build a Buyer Persona: Gathering Intelligence benjamin-franklin     How to Build a Buyer Persona: stick figure
To be fair, that's a pretty nice stick figure.

Demographics include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Family status
  • Income
  • Education level

For your buyer personas, you'll create a skeleton based on where the majority of your best buyers fall within these demographics. So, your persona may look like this to start:

  • 40-55
  • Female
  • White American
  • Married with three older children
  • Makes $50-75,000 per year 
  • College educated

This tells you zero about their buying habits, motivations, and goals, but it gives you a decent visual outline of your target buyers. It tells you to create content and market your brand in a way that speaks to middle-aged women with families, who are smart enough to understand difficult concepts and technical language. Already, you have your first piece of the puzzle.

Digital Body Language - Digital body language is the second indirect source of information for your personas. Since you can't read facial expressions, tone, stance, or other cues over the Internet, you have to read their digital cues to understand their intentions. Digital body language includes:

  • Visiting websites
  • Completing forms
  • Google searches
  • Email opens and clicks
  • Path taken through a website
  • Downloads
  • Viewing and clicking ads
  • Watching videos
  • Reading articles
  • Commenting, liking, sharing on social media

You can follow this digital activity through a full lead tracking system like HubSpot. Individual CRMs and CMS can also provide decent info.

What you're looking for are indications of interest. Like the people who come into a store, different visitors will have different levels of interest in your product. Some are just browsing, some have an idea of what they want but aren't sure, and some have a definite need for your product. Digital body language will tell you where they fall on that spectrum, how far along they are on their buyer's journey, what exactly they're interested in on your website, and whether they're truly interested in making a purchase. 

Direct Information

Direct information comes right from the mouth of your buyers. The best way to get this information is to identify a few clients or customers that you have a close relationship with and set up an interview. If you don't have any close relationships, email surveys will do the trick. 

Talking directly to your customers provides a few different benefits that you won't get from a survey.

  1. You get to know their voice and how they talk about their problems
  2. During your conversation, they'll often open up and give unexpectedly helpful information
  3. You can get up front feedback about your marketing process, sales, and product/service

So, what information are you looking for from your interview/survey? Here are the most important takeaways:

  • Pain points - Why do they need your product in the first place? What was the problem or opportunity that you are solving for them?

  • Motivators - Why do they do their job? Why do they get out of bed in the morning? What do they look forward to in life?

  • Fears - What are the consequences of failure on their part? What drives them to do the best they can in their role?

  • Challenges - What obstacles do they face in their job? What challenges do they overcome on a daily basis? What challenges are simply a reality of their role?

  • Goals - What are their goals for this project? Their career? Their life?

You might not be able to ask some of these questions bluntly. Some of this information may seem very personal, and it can be rude to ask about it up front unless you have a pre-established relationship with your interviewee. Some leading questions may be "How do you measure success in your role (benchmarks, staying under budget, design innovation), and what benefits do you get from succeeding (commendations, raise, job security)?"

I prefer to get pretty personal right off the bat with my persona interviews, like jumping into freezing water instead of wading in slowly. I treat it more like a casual conversation than a business interview, and asking personal questions makes them get comfortable with me very quickly. However, depending on the level of professionalism expected in your role and industry, this approach may not work for you.

Questions to Ask

  1. What is your job role & title?
  2. Who do you report to, and who reports to you?
  3. What does your typical day on the job look like?
  4. What skills and tools are required for your job?
  5. What and who are you responsible for?
  6. How do you learn about new information for your job?
  7. How do you learn about possible vendors?
  8. Which associations/groups/networks are you a part of?
  9. How much did you know about the product/service before researching?
  10. How do you prefer to shop for this product/service?
  11. What was the most important consideration when choosing this product/service?
  12. Did you have initial objections to this product/service?
  13. How are purchase decisions made? Who is involved?
  14. Can you describe a recent purchase?

These are only a few recommended questions for your persona interviews. To get a full rundown on gathering information for your buyer personas, check out our Ultimate Guide to Personas for Beginners.

Those are the basics of buyer persona recon.

Now that you have the intel, what do you do with it? The next step is organizing this information into an actionable tool.

While you do that, you might be interested in these stats that prove personas are awesome!

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(Editor's note: This article was originally published in May 2016 and was recently updated.)