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Best Buyer Personas with Adrienne Barnes

This week’s guest is a content strategist who believes traditional Buyer Personas often fail to deliver the results marketers expect. Adrienne Barnes shares her process for creating the “Best Buyer Personas” and explains how her research pointed to improvements that eliminate many subconscious biases that traditional Persona development practices introduce. Adrienne also discusses some of the practical ways in which Personas can help align the work of sales and marketing teams.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Adrienne Barnes: Who are the buyers, what is the job they’re trying to accomplish? And what is the information that we need to know internally, that’s going to help us reach these people? So a buyer persona to me is all of the information relevant to reaching your best buyer.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye, a full-service, audience-focused creative agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, serving clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. As we’ve discussed previously on this podcast, in today’s economy, many people’s purchasing behaviors have been permanently changed as new habits formed during the pandemic. That’s true for both consumers and businesses so now is an ideal time for companies and brands to review their existing buyer Personas or to think about creating entirely new ones. Our guest today believes that buyer Personas not only help organizations understand customers and prospects better, but also make it easier to tailor content, messaging, product development, and services to meet the specific needs, behaviors and concerns of different target audiences. Adrienne Barnes is a content strategist, helping SaaS and tech companies learn more about who their audiences are. Her insights become buyer Personas that inform user experience design and unique content pieces. Adrienne’s approach to customer-centric marketing is all about creating content that nurtures and serves a client’s customers best. To talk with us about crafting the best buyer Personas, Adrienne is joining us today from her home office in Dallas, Texas. Adrienne, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Adrienne Barnes: Thank you, Adrian. Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Adrienne, you started your career in content marketing. How did you first encounter Buyer Personas?

Adrienne Barnes: I was a freelance writer writing for B2B SaaS companies and having a degree in English, in my former career I was an English teacher. The first thing you know to do or ask when you start a piece is who’s the audience? Who am I writing to? what is my tone? What kind of message am I trying to get across? And some of my clients couldn’t tell me in detail or with any kind of detail that mattered to help me formulate the piece. It was “This is the job title. Here’s some demographic information.” Or they’d hand me the slide deck with 38 slides full of information, but none that actually would really help create some content marketing. None of it was actionable. It was very challenging to say, “Okay, now I know this, here’s what we can do with it”. so there were quite a few that didn’t understand that. And then, on the other hand, I had a few who had some really great Personas, so who they really knew, and they had a different way of segmenting and they were very actionable. So seeing the stark differences between the kind of content we could create when you clearly knew your audience and their pain points and the kind of content you could create when you had very vague ideas, really led me to believe that this is something that there’s a need and there’s a better way of going about it. So that’s how I got into creating Buyer Personas

Adrian Tennant: And what’s your definition of a Buyer Persona?

Adrienne Barnes: See, and this is where I get some maybe some misunderstanding. I don’t want to say flack, but some people who are old school, standard marketers, maybe they’re teaching marketing to people. They don’t necessarily love my approach to Buyer Personas. So my approach is where really, it’s not just this demographic, topical information of here’s their job title, here’s their name. It really does go into who are the buyers, what is the job they’re trying to accomplish? And what is the information that we need to know internally, that’s going to help us reach these people? So the definition of a Buyer Persona to me is all of the information relevant to reaching your best buyer. So sometimes that’s not necessarily all of your buyers. It’s not a large segment of people we really want to identify who the best buyers are and then make sure that we’re creating the step that’s going to reach those people. 

Adrian Tennant:  Before we look at how we construct Buyer Personas, I’m curious, Adrienne, what are the origins of Personas?

Adrienne Barnes: So I actually reached out to the person who says that they coined the term, Tony Zambito. He’s mostly on LinkedIn. He said he was the one in the beginning, in the eighties I believe, who was working with software companies and was like, “We need to figure out a better way to understand who our buyers are, understand who our audience is.” So still coming up with the challenge of trying to reach buyers and users, because when you’re in B2B SaaS or software, often the person who uses your product may not be the person who purchases their product. So there’s a little complexity there. and also understanding that we need to be able to know these people outside of just marketing, but even like product development, what kind of products do we need to build in the future? What kind of features do we need to build? So he really started this process, to understand and answer those questions for software companies. And his approach was also interviewing customers. And then now we’ve got so many more advancements with social listening and digital intelligence analysis and digital, tools that, it’s beyond even just a customer interview. It’s grown and evolved from there.

Adrian Tennant: Adrienne, you work primarily with clients in the business-to-business space. What does your typical process for creating Personas look like?

Adrienne Barnes: When I’m working with clients, I always want to start with what questions and goals are already internally inside the company. So I sit down with key stakeholders and really want to get an idea, like “What questions do you have about your customers or your users? What assumptions are you making?” Oftentimes CEOs, CMOs, CTOs, they know – “We think this, we’re making these assumptions.” So I want to make sure that I know clearly what are the assumptions that are being made? What challenges do we currently have? Where are there hitches or slowdowns in the sales process, or how do people buy even? Is it through a sales process or is it a demo? Really wanting to identify the internal questions. And then that is what I then go out and create the interviews. That’s how I then say, “Okay. So we don’t know the answers to these questions. This is what we still need to learn about our buyers. This is the stuff that will help us be successful.” So they’ll have goals. What do we need to know in order to reach those goals? And then I do interviews with buyers and users – about twenty – to make sure that I have a really good understanding of, their job to be done. Those pain points, their challenges, the words that they use to describe the product. I call those relational keywords rather than SEO keywords. These are the words that your customers or buyers are using to really portray the relationship they have with your product. So what are those words? The language that they’re using. And then I also do what I call a four-pronged approach to research. So we’ve got our customer interviews. We have surveys that we then go off and survey a broader audience. I do social listening where I plug in the key terms that I learned from the interviews and from this survey. And now I’m looking up and hearing what the people are saying, not just in our tiny community, in our tiny group of our buyers, but over the internet, like on Twitter, what are people saying when they talk about these terms? And then I use digital intelligence tools like SparkToro, and Audiense to help me really identify clearly who are some smaller segments within our larger buyer segment. Where are they online? What kind of podcasts do they listen to? What kind of publications do they read? And only that four-pronged approach to research becomes how I create the Personas. And once we get all of that data – and it’s usually a six-week process – once I get all of that information, I’m able to plug it into a full slide deck that really says, this is who your buyers are. These are their relationships. These are their responsibilities, here’s their hierarchy at work or the roles that they play into. This is how they are measured or how they deem being successful at work. Sometimes that’s really important and then really one of the ways that I filter through the entire buyer persona is the job to be done. What are they trying to accomplish? And then once they’ve achieved that, what are the benefits that they, get to see or receive after having met that job to be done.

Adrian Tennant: You’ve mentioned jobs to be done. Would you just like to give us a little bit of background on that?

Adrienne Barnes: Yeah. So I was doing the research for how to create a really solid Buyer Persona, which led me into research, like reading about how to do interviews, how to research, that filtered into the design world and implementation. And, as soon as I got into design and qualitative research analysis, Jobs to be Done popped up. And it was like, “Oh, this is what I think makes a stronger segmentation.” It’s a stronger Buyer Persona outside of a job title or age or something like that. This really does get to the core of what – especially with B2B, SaaS – what is someone trying to do? What do they need your product to do for them? What’s the thing they’re hiring your product to do? So sometimes you’ll hear people say, you know, they are jobs to be done-focused and it sounds contradictory to what maybe someone else’s saying that they do when they do jobs to be done. That’s because there are five pretty solidly different approaches to jobs to be done. I like to use the Clayton Christianson model where I’m really just trying to narrow down what is the thing they’re trying to accomplish and then identify the benefits they receive once they’ve achieved that thing. And when you identify benefits, that get used in your content strategies, your marketing strategies, knowing exactly the things that you are helping people do and then why they enjoy it. What kind of like the benefits they’re receiving from it, it’s really easy to correlate a lot of marketing and product development from that information as well.

Adrian Tennant: Adrienne, you recently conducted a webinar in partnership with Audiense, an online consumer insight and segmentation tool. You started your webinar by saying that most business-to-business Personas suck. Why do you think most buyer Personas suck?

Adrienne Barnes: So that’s become my like red flag, my warning flag is just “Buyer Personas suck!” And that’s because most of them do. We did a survey with Audiense where we polled marketers and we said, “Hey, do you guys create Buyer Personas?” And I think the results were like 85 percent said yes, absolutely, we create buyer Personas, they are important.” I was like, “Great!” The next question was “Now, how often do you refer back to your Buyer Persona or how often do you use it?” And most, 77 percent, said “Never. Like we don’t even look at it once a year. We don’t look at it for new marketing campaigns. We don’t look at it when we’re creating new products!” It just wasn’t something that people were using, but yet it’s something people were doing. So that led me to believe, “Okay, this is really become check the box marketing practice.” I had my assumptions because I’ve been on teams as a consultant where the message comes down from the CEO or the CMO that says, “Hey, you know, on our yearly to-do list, that buyer persona needs to get done. Can you go execute on that?” And somebody sits in a conference room or now at their desk and cranks one out in a day. Maybe it’s based off of some formal information, but often it’s just kind of assumptions and an internal fictional story. It’s an echo chamber of internal fiction that you have created. And that actually isn’t helpful. Nobody’s going to use that. It doesn’t help anyone create anything. So rather than tiptoe around the issue and try to convince people that Buyer Personas actually were good at all of that, I’m really saying, “You know what? They do suck. But they don’t have to. So let’s talk about how to do them better.” So that way we can actually get out of the mindset of that “Mary Marketer” is a Buyer Persona and know what a Buyer Persona is a data-backed, helpful, useful document and process that’s never done, that’s continuously being added onto. So that’s really why I was like, “You know what? Yeah, I’m just going to embrace it. People think buyer Personas suck. They do, but they don’t have to. So let’s teach them how to do it better.”

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Seth Segura: I’m Seth Segura, VP and Creative Director at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as creative professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we commit to really understanding our clients’ prospects and customers. Through our own primary research, we capture valuable data about people’s attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and guide our creative briefs. Clients see them brought to life in inspiring, imaginative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused creative communications to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Adrienne Barnes, a content strategist, and creator of the Best Buyer Personas. Contrary to most traditional practitioners, you don’t believe that in order to be effective, Personas need a name, a face, or even a biography. So why not?

Adrienne Barnes: Yeah. So I was actually working on a team last year and we were putting together Buyer Personas and the marketing director. I said, “Hey, aren’t you gonna put this Mary Marketer, give them a name and a cute gender and go find a funny picture?” And he said, “No, I find that actually induces some bias.” And I found that really interesting. So I went on a little research hunt and wanted to validate that. Is that true? If you include a name, a face, a gender, and maybe even your cute alliterative name, does that create bias in marketing and product development? And come to find out, I talked to a lot of diversity and inclusion experts because I am not a diversity inclusion expert. I don’t even want to be put in that realm because these people are very passionate and knowledgeable. So I called them up – a whole bunch of different ones – and I said, “Hey, is it possible that if we name our Persona Mary Marketer and give her a picture of a 32-year-old shining, cute, little like white girl, is that potential for bias? And the answer was a hundred percent unanimously. Absolutely. So in our minds and there are five different types and I’ll see if I can remember them all. There’s beauty bias: so if we are showing these pictures we find an Unsplash photo, chances are we find that person attractive. We chose them to represent this Persona. We’re attracted to that picture in some way, for some reason, we find that attractive. Now, if we find customers maybe in customer support or out in the wild or whatever your situation may be, that don’t meet the picture, the image you have in your mind of who your attractive Persona is, you are actually going to show bias towards that person. And it’s unconscious, that’s another type of bias. You don’t even realize you’re doing it when you’re doing it. The unconscious bias was one that they mentioned quite frequently because it’s not something that you can train yourself out of. We all have our own histories. We all have our own personal stories and our own experiences and that shapes and forms our viewpoint on life, our perspectives. And they said, you know, “Another thing that you’re not going to be able to eliminate all bias in anything you do. And sometimes bias is actually healthy. But the thing that you should do is work towards eliminating it, where it could be harmful to groups of people.” So when I say, you know, there’s no reason to have a name, a gender, or, a picture with your Buyer Persona, it’s because what you’re trying to do is you’re taking a large group of people who are very diverse and who look very different, who have very different genders, and you’re saying it’s really this one person. They all can be represented by this one person. They actually can’t. They do have things in common and that’s what we should really be trying to find. What are the actual things they have in common? What are the actual issues and pain points and solutions they’re looking for in common? But not because they look like someone or they’re all a certain age. I use an example of if your buyer persona is a CEO and if you Google “CEO persona” and look at the images, most of them are older, white men, like just hands down they are. And that may be statistically accurate, right? Like I don’t know the statistics, but it could be 78 percent of older white men are CEOs, but still as a marketer, our job is to make businesses money. We are to market to our segments of people, where’s to find our audiences. And if we are establishing a situation where we’re saying, “This is the ideal, they look like this”, then we’re automatically eliminating large portions of our audiences. We’re automatically assuming every piece of content we create, every message we send out, every product we develop, is already eliminating somebody, another segment of our audience. Whether it’s even 12 percent of our audience or even bigger, just setting off from the get-go you’ve created a foundation of bias where you’re eliminating audiences. I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t believe in that woke stuff. I think you should have gender and all that stuff.” And I’m like, “Look, I’m not making a political statement. This is not me standing in front of people trying to say like, ‘oh, this is, you know it’s 2021.’ And this is just the way things should be because of some wokeness or political statement, it’s about reaching people in the best way possible. It’s about making sure that we’re not leaving out pockets of money, pockets of potential buyers, just because we’ve deemed that this Persona to be a person so that we can remember them.” I think that’s a false notion that we’re not going to be able to create content or develop products in a way that’s beneficial if they don’t look like a person to us. And I think that’s a lot of the arguments that I hear is that, “Well, if we don’t give them these names and these pictures, we won’t remember them. We won’t think of them. And we won’t do a good job of creating, content and information or products for them.” And I think that’s not true. I think we will absolutely do a better job if we segment them in a different way, in a stronger way. We’ll actually reach them with more empathy and in a much better way than just, “Oh yeah, that’s Mary Marketer.”

Adrian Tennant: So what’s a better way of segmenting customers?

Adrienne Barnes: So that really can depend on the company themselves. We’ve segmented customers according to jobs to be done. That’s one of the very basic ways that I can do it is where I can say, “Okay, really? What are the people trying to accomplish? Let’s group those people together. If there are users and then their buyers and that’s different. Let’s group them in that way.” Other companies I’ve worked with, they said, “No, it really does do us better if we segment according to user maturity, the maturity of the user within the company is so different and creates a need so many different, their own type of marketing streams, essentially. So we need to separate them up according to their maturity.” Other ones have said, “You know what? It really is according to the size of the company they’re in. And that really equates what kind of products of ours they buy and what kind of content they need to read.” It really is all about how do you segment your people in a way that you’re going to actually be able to create things: content, products’ features, support, that is going to be most helpful to them in a way that where they can understand, “Oh, you know what, they’re really meeting my needs. They’re really here. And they really do understand.” And that really does vary from company to company. So I always say, “Inside your own company, see what kind of groupings do you notice naturally form between your buyers, your users, community members.” And that’s always a really great way to say, you know what? That’s probably the best way to segment. I think people get stuck on having to segment by job title, because LinkedIn ads or Facebook ads, but that’s only beneficial for those ad segments. It’s not actually beneficial when you’re trying to get outside of a PPC campaign and really wanting to create an empathetic company that can market and support customers in a different way.

Adrian Tennant: As we discussed earlier, your webinar was part of a series hosted by Audiense. Adrienne, can you explain how you use Audiense’s tool to build better Personas?

Adrienne Barnes: So I love Audiense. Their team has been great. I started with them at the beginning of this year as their content strategist, and I was just on their team, helping them create content strategy. And then really every time I do a Buyer Persona, I use their tool. So they have quite a few different ways you can come in and use it, either keywords, bio keywords, you can actually add in social listening audiences and then really add that into Audiense, the tool, and figure out what our specific audience is talking about. What kind of things they’re looking for. But what I love it for most is its segments and its IBM Watson information. So I will go out and find out like, what are the words are people are using either through those conversations and surveys and social listening. Then I plug that into Audiense and Audiense tells me, “Okay, here are smaller segments of your audience that you didn’t realize existed.” And usually, it’s pretty surprising or it’s “Oh yeah, I forgot – now we can clearly see that within our one larger audience, there are like four smaller segments.” So now we can figure out where do we reach them on podcasts? What kind of PR campaigns need to be done? What kind of media needs to be done? Where do they go to learn something new? Where do they read their news from all that kind of information is. As well as the demographic information, which when I say you don’t want to segment your audience based on the demographic information, that’s absolutely true, but I don’t think that it’s just not important. Like you can include it in your Personas. It’s still important to know if 85 percent of your audience is male, then let’s know that, but we don’t have to make the Buyer Personas identity male if that makes sense. So we really want to make sure that Audiense’s tool tells me all of that stuff, the smaller segments, it gives the IBM Watson data, which is like, what are their personality traits? Are they more risk-averse? Are they conservative? Are they liberal? Do they have a positive affinity or is it more a negative tone online? It’s very interesting to get in and go through that kind of data and then make some connections and be able to, then market to your audience in a way that’s more meaningful and empathetic

Adrian Tennant: What are the main differences that exist between your approach to developing Personas for business-to-consumer versus business-to-business brands?

Adrienne Barnes: So it’s almost the same. The framework itself is very solid. The thing that changes is probably the internal goals are usually very different. Sometimes scalability,  growth, is usually always a goal. And then the questions that I ask during the interviews and the way that I reach out during the surveys is what’s really different. But the framework itself, all four approaches to data research or to market research are the same. We make sure we want to listen to the audience, figure out who they are, what are the words they’re using, the challenges, their pain points. That all has remained the same even if it’s B2C or B2B. I will find B2C people sometimes are easier to get on the phone, which I think people might think as a surprise. They really are, especially if they love the product, they have a tendency to wanna get on and share. B2B – they’re at work. They tend to be busy. It’s easier to cancel an interview with somebody than it is to cancel a meeting at work. So that’s been one of the stark differences in B2B to B2C, but the process itself is exactly the same for me. 

Adrian Tennant: Now you believe that Personas make for more empathetic marketing and customer support. How does adopting your approach help sales teams?

Adrienne Barnes:  So I believe that well-researched Personas do create better empathy and because we have a tendency to know more about the customers and the user themselves, we’re not trying to stereotype a large group of people into one. And so for sales, it’s almost the exact same way you’re able to then say, “You know what? I heard you say these things, I know that this is some stuff you’re probably struggling with. Customers like you have come and said this to me, are you finding those problems? Are you struggling with those challenges?” And every good salesperson knows it’s all about uncovering the other person’s challenges, uncovering their story so that you can then swoop in and meet that need. So once you know those very clearly, that job that they’re trying to accomplish, that main challenge they need, and the benefits that most of your Personas receive from them. As a salesperson, you figure out through your conversations, you uncover that, and then you automatically have your list of benefits. “Okay, you said this, wouldn’t it be great if you had this benefit. If it was actually like this…” You’re able to put them in that future mindset of “Look at how great things could be, much easier.” And I find when you’re able to actually meet people’s real problems and not just make a lot of assumptions about what they’re likely dealing with, it’s just a much more empathetic way to reach your audience, to reach your people. And especially for sales, when they’re doing those one-on-one sales.

Adrian Tennant: You talked about this a little bit at the beginning of our conversation, but I’d like to dive a little bit deeper. Adrienne, in what kinds of ways can Better Buyer Personas help content marketers?

Adrienne Barnes: So because a lot of this derived from my need to create better content marketing, every conversation becomes an idea for content. Usually, after one conversation, I’ve got three or four blog posts. Every time a client says, “I didn’t know how to do this” that becomes “How To/How We” content, right? We need to teach our users if they’re struggling and understanding how to use the tool in this way, then that becomes content we need to teach them. That’s some educational content. If they, during the conversation, say, “This was just amazing, we loved this thing”, that’s a case study. That’s your insights, that’s being able to explore and highlight those on your home pages or in your product pages. Any kind of wins that you uncover and they have really every conversation and every question for me does become a link to a piece of content, especially when I’m doing this type of research for the content strategies, much of my research process is very similar. So when I’m doing a Buyer Persona, the questions are a little different than they are for content strategies, but it’s very similar. And then every time I ask a question, when I’m researching for content strategies, I want to know, “What kind of things are you dealing with? What kind of struggles do you have?” and that goes directly correlated to your content strategies. It’s crazy, once you start to think about it that way, how clearly the connections can be made.

Adrian Tennant: And how frequently do you think marketers and sales teams should review their Personas?

Adrienne Barnes: I think anytime you’re about to launch a new product or create a new campaign or at the very least once a year just to look at it and be like, “Okay, is this still true? You know, if you created a Persona in 2019, it didn’t fit in 2020. And now even in 2021, there’s been so many changes and just the market and just the way people are purchasing and buying and feeling, in the words they’re using, and the language, and their pain points, those are changing and those are adapting very quickly. So I would make sure that it’s at least something that you are having those conversations and if you have them frequently, or if you do what I call continuous development. If you’re actually able to have those kinds of conversations, you’ll see the shifts in the market before you see them economically, you’ll be able to tell, “Oh, we’ve heard quite a few people say this. I think something like this is happening.” Or “I think our audience is starting to ship in this way” before three months down the line, when you’re looking at your sales data or you’re looking at your blog post data and things are telling you then, you get to predict it before it happens.

Adrian Tennant: Adrienne, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you and Better Buyer Personas, where can they find you?

Adrienne Barnes: I’m at BestBuyerPersona.com and I am @AdrienneNakohl on Twitter. So I hang out on Twitter quite a bit. And then if you’re interested, I do Buyer Persona workshops where maybe if you have a team but y’all just need a little bit of help, a little bit of guidance, I do that. I do full Buyer Persona projects where you say, “We don’t want to do any of it, we just want you to give us all the details.” I do that as well, and I do quick consultations where you’re like, “We really just have four questions.” I do one-hour consultations as well. So there are lots of different ways for us to engage and I’m always happy to chat and answer any questions I can. This is definitely a passion project of mine. It’s what I love to do. It means a lot to me so I’m happy to help.

Adrian Tennant: Adrienne, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Adrienne Barnes: Thank you, Adrian. It was so nice to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Coming up next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Doug Stephens: Mall owners have to realize that you’re not in the commercial real estate business anymore. You’re in the hospitality and entertainment business. And your job in that center is to create a flywheel of amazing new brands, experiences, services so it’s a totally different kind of activity.

Adrian Tennant: That’s an interview with retail futurist Doug Stephens, next week on IN CLEAR FOCUS. Thanks to my guest this week, content strategist, Adrienne Barnes.You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under insights, just select podcast. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us on apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, Amazon music, or audible, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant until next week. Goodbye.

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