Good, Better, Best: Creating Buyer Personas at Every Budget

We have frequent conversations with our clients about how to create buyer personas, and what a powerful tool they can be when they are really being utilized. Few B2B marketers dispute the value of personas for strategy, messaging and execution across sales and marketing. And in fact, personas are one of the hottest B2B topics searched for online. After all, it’s hard to ignore stats like these:

  • Companies who beat their sales goals are twice as likely to have formally documented personas (Cintell, “Understanding B2B Buyers: The 2016 Marketing Benchmark Study”).
  • When targeting cold leads, customer engagement is six times higher for companies with persona-based content (Demand Gen Report).
  • Email open rates are five times higher for companies using personas (Forrester).

Yet even though their value is proven, a persona project can seem out of reach for organizations, due to budget or time constraints. So what’s a savvy marketer to do when they need personas but are hesitant to make the investment?

We believe there’s a spectrum of persona work and that there’s a way to get meaningful, useful information at any budget. While ideal personas contain in-depth insights based on first-person interviews conducted across the buying ecosystem, there are less complicated ways to get buyer insights that can power your sales and marketing. And personas are definitely an area where something is better than nothing, so don’t look at personas as an “all or nothing” proposition. Instead, use our tips to select and execute a strategy that fits your needs and your budget.

Four steps to creating personas on a budget:

Whether you’re using an agency to assist you in your persona-building project, or you’re doing it internally, there are four key steps for success.  Your approach to each step will determine the time, cost and complexity of your project.

  1. Gather data. Use your historical sales data to identify key persona types and potential contacts to interview.
  2. Collaborate with stakeholders. Meet with your sales and marketing leaders to align on project objectives, define market focus, and understand the insights you’re looking to gain.
  3. Listen. Leverage 1:1 phone interviews, online surveys or in-depth conversations with experts to gain buyer insights.
  4. Distill insights. Create persona documents with actionable insights for Marketing and Sales.

So, how do you create buyer personas to meet your needs, within your budget, in a decent timeframe? We have three strategies to get you there: good, better and best. Let’s start at the top:

Best (the gold standard for persona creation).

Number of personas: 5 or more

Research method: first-person interviews

Final deliverable: in-depth persona overviews of 3–4 pages, including:

  • Core persona information
  • Five Rings of Insight (based on the Buyer Persona Institute model)
  • Detailed insights into the buying process and each persona’s role in the final decision
  • Buyers’ questions, and corresponding content needs, at each stage of the customer’s buying journey
  • Quantitatively validated insights into preferences for content types and channels

For complex buying cycles and large buying groups, it’s best to understand your full buyer ecosystem.  This may mean completing first-person interviews across as many as 10 buyer personas. While not all of those personas will have direct purchasing authority, they may have a strong influence on whether your solution is selected. Understanding this complete buying ecosystem can yield rich insights that help both Marketing and Sales understand where to focus their time and attention, as well as important factors for influencing customers with different needs and objectives.

For example, a recent persona project we completed for an industrial manufacturer included everyone from engineers (who specified products early in a project) to end-users (who influenced or approved project plans) to contractors (who often submitted final recommendations within a bid).

It was important for us to understand the different motivations and needs of each of these groups — and which had the most influence over the final purchase — to see where the sales and marketing groups had the most leverage. In addition to first-person interviews, we often recommend an online survey to a broader group of contacts across each persona. After initial interviews have been conducted, these surveys ask follow-up questions to a broader group. They can clear up conflicting information from interviews, and they can provide quantitative firepower to back up interview insights on preferred content types and most effective communication channels.

Better (a common method we often practice for our clients).

Number of personas: 2–4

Research Method: first-person interviews

Final deliverable: in-depth persona overviews of 3–4 pages, including:

  • Core persona information
  • Five Rings of Insight (based on the Buyer Persona Institute Model)
  • Detailed insights into the buying process and each persona’s role in the final decision
  • Buyers’ questions, and corresponding content needs, at each stage of the customer’s buying journey
  • Overview of preferred content types and channels

While not as in-depth as the “best” personas, this level of investment often suits our clients’ needs. In this case, you’re not focusing on the entire buying ecosystem — just the 2-4 personas most likely to affect the final purchase decision. Instead of honing in on these core influencers through research, you’ll need to rely on your internal sales team to identify them.

With this method, you may conduct as few as three interviews per persona type. You may miss out on some nuance and additional detail you’d get from more interviews, but you’ll still have plenty of great insights to create meaningful, actionable personas.

Good (viable and worthwhile).

Number of personas: 2–4

Research method: internal stakeholder interviews (primarily sales, support and product teams)

Final deliverable: 2-page persona overviews that include:

  • Core persona information
  • Persona’s pain points, perceptions and role in decision-making
  • High-level buy-cycle insights
  • Segment-specific insights

If you see the value of personas, but a time-intensive process with first-person interviews isn’t in your budget, don’t dismay. While the best personas are based on validated insights gathered directly from your customers’ prospects (even those who didn’t choose your offering), your internal stakeholders likely have a wealth of information that’s very valuable once gathered and distilled correctly.

In place of customer interviews, we recommend conducting targeted stakeholder meetings with internal team members across your sales, product and support teams to gather their insights in the same categories you would have spoken directly to customers about.  While you won’t be able to gather all insights with this method, it’s still a great first step.

Consider outsourcing your persona project.

It’s often helpful to outsource the persona-building process to experts who know how to create buyer personas effectively and efficiently.  In addition, objective observers and interviewers will have an easier time breaking through internal perceptions and jargon to gather true insights. They’ll distill that information into a final deliverable that will garner buy-in across your organization. In addition, pros who have experience with these types of projects can get you to the finish line in less time.