Fractal Reads: Buyer Personas by Adele Revella

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Adele Revella’s Buyer Personas opens with the following dedication:

This book is dedicated to every marketer who questions the wisdom of making stuff up.

We’re in the age of big data; every conceivable digital interaction with prospects and customers can be measured; the device they’re on, the link they clicked on, the keywords they searched, the pages they landed on and went to next, what they did on those pages, what they downloaded, all cross-correlated with their online personas.

Every bit of data you could imagine can be squeezed out of a properly configured analytics system. Except for one crucial thing: what motivated them to come looking for you in the first place.

Even inbound keywords, which can provide some (interpreted) insight as to customer intent, mostly apply as data that is generated after a customer has interacted with you. That means, we don’t know what all your other potential customers are doing, or thinking, or where they’re going.

That’s a huge blindspot, and a tremendously dangerous one since it’s so far upstream in the sales cycle. If your initial assumptions about what motivates your customers are way off base, your whole marketing program, no matter how sophisticated, is fragile.

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The Focus Has Historically Been Focus Groups

For a long time, the standard solution to this problem has been focus groups. In fact, before the era of big data, most brands relied on focus groups to test their marketing concepts. They also relied on survey data to target their placements.

But things are more complex now. Prospects are omnipresent, across a variety of channels. Sustaining their attention is increasingly challenging. And when you’re in the B2B space (or any business that requires high-consideration) your marketing materials not only have to resonate with the people whose problems you’ll be solving, but also with their boards, internal stakeholders and senior decision makers as well.

Focus groups can also be problematic because of selection bias. Surveys suffer the same problem as well as the fact they are inherently unidirectional, and thus you only get answers to the questions you’ve asked, bringing us back to the you don’t know what you don’t know problem. The other principal problem with both these approaches is that they can be expensive, sometimes prohibitively so for startups or smaller brands.


You Want Insight? Just Ask

So what’s the alternative? In Buyer Personas, Revella makes a compelling case for a lightweight and highly actionable methodology rooted in what she calls The 5 Rings of Buying Insight.

Her approach is refreshingly simple, and begins with the premise that if you want to understand what motivates your customers, just ask them. Seriously. Just ask them, and they’ll likely oblige.

We’ve read her book and where applicable, use her methodology, because it cuts right to the chase. Where complex statistical approaches often yield confusing and contradictory insight, the Buyer Personas approach takes you straight to understanding what motivates and inhibits your prospects, without bloat, potentially misleading demographic information and in a manner focused on refining messaging.

While it has its limitations, especially with regards to placement, we’ve never come across a cleaner, more cost-effective approach to up-front research. It also sidesteps many of the problems we’ve observed with more traditional customer-persona methodologies that tend to create abstracted profiles loaded with oftentimes distracting data points like gender, socio-economic-status, race, age, and the like.

When it gets down to it, your customers are your customers, and it doesn’t really matter what they look like. What matters most is what motivates them to choose you, or a competitor, in their search for a vendor.


Who Should You Be Talking To?

Revella proposes that you begin by reaching out to your sales team, and ask to interview either already converted customers or people who have declined to use your product or service. Yes, people who’ve said no. Revella makes a strong case that interviews with this segment will yield the most actionable insight. The only people you should not attempt to contact are active prospects (duh).

She recommends interviewing the person whom sales had contact with, because they would naturally be the people that would inquire and/or come across your services. This makes sense, doesn’t it? Rather than aiming to interview C-Level decision makers, who may surely have lots to say about their company’s procurement processes and high-level needs, shouldn’t you interview the people in the trenches who more directly interact with the service you’re offering? They’re the ones who will ultimately pass you up to senior decision makers and thus will know specifically what the needs and obstacles are. She does note that you may encounter resistance from sales. In her own words, from her Buyer Personas Manifesto, she states:

“When your buyer persona team is geared up and ready to go, start by looking for buyers who have made a decision in the past several months. This is where you may hit your first obstacle: sales reps may not want Marketing to talk to their contacts. So you may need the Marketing head to ask the Sales head to help secure cooperation. But don’t limit the search to your own sales force. Mine the stack of business cards you have from conferences. Trawl through online industry forums. Search LinkedIn. Work like a detective to sleuth out buyers. If you still come up empty-handed, a focus group recruiter may be able to help find people who match your buyer’s profile.”

The interviews are intended to take anywhere from 20-60 minutes, and focus on 5 topics. The beauty of this approach is that while the questions are straightforward and can easily be answered by the people you’re targeting, they’re open-ended and unbiased enough to yield completely unexpected insight.

5 Rings to Bind Them All


According to Revella, when interviewing a customer for the purpose of developing a Buyer Persona, you should aim to get answers for the following 5 topics, or 5 Rings of Buying Insight using her parlance.

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  1. Priority Initiative: What changes trigger this buyer persona’s search for this type of solution? What about this buyer persona’s business environment causes this problem to be funded for resolution?
  2. Success Factors: What results or outcomes does this buyer persona expect from the successful completion of the Priority Initiative? Be specific and include tangible/logical outcomes as well as aspirational/emotional goals.
  3. Perceived Barriers: Why would this buyer persona be unlikely to purchase this solution? Barriers could relate to prior attempts to solve the problem, negative (and even inaccurate) perceptions about the suitability of your product or company, or the barriers could relate to internal factors (sales won’t let us change our CRM solution).
  4. Decision Criteria: Identify the top 3-to-5 factors that this buyer persona uses to compare alternative or competing options and make a decision. If this buyer persona is involved throughout the Buying Process, these criteria may change at different stages of the Buying Process.
  5. Buyer’s Journey:
    1. Buying Influencers: What role does this buyer persona play at each stage of the buying process? Who else in the organization will be involved at different stages, and what is their ability to impact the decision?
    2. Resources Buyers Trust: Identify the two or three most influential resources this buyer persona relies upon at each stage in the buying process. For each answer, be as specific as possible about the name of the resource (which conferences, blogs, websites, etc.) the buyer persona trusts as they evaluate options
      1. Phase 1: Awareness of new ideas and information.
      2. Phase 2: Research alternative solutions/approaches.
      3. Phase 3: Consideration/assessment of suitability.
      4. Phase 4: Internal approval of investment.


In my experience, most of the focus groups I’ve observed tend to focus on insights 2, 3 and 4 (Success Factors, Perceived Barriers and Decision Criteria). While surveys often have focused on identifying resources buyers trust to optimize placement of marketing materials.

Revella’s is the first framework I’ve seen which addresses the entirety of the sales cycle in a single, lean, one-on-one interview format. The only missing piece in my opinion relates to the after-sale experience: what would motivate you to recommend our solution to peers.

Should You Read It?

Buyer Personas is a useful book for anyone in B2B marketing departments, especially those in companies with small research budgets. Revella lays out a straightforward framework that will get you insight quickly and easily.

She recommends conducting multiple interviews, between 6 and 10, but avoiding overdoing it, for concern that insight might get muddied.

The book is also full of helpful tips as to how to formulate your questions in an open enough way to yield insight while keeping your subjects on topic. For example, for the Priority Initiative topic, she suggests you ask your subject to take you back to the day when you decided you needed this sort of solution. Again, from her manifesto, here are some sample, open-ended questions she recommends to get subjects talking:

  • What happened on the day you decided to look for a solution like this?
  • What did you do to find potential solutions?
  • How did you narrow the options down?
  • How did you decide to continue to include those companies?
  • Who else was involved at that stage of the decision?

safetyAnother key thing she stresses is to “Learn to stifle the urge to correct the interviewee no matter how stupid, wrong or unfair his perceptions are. This will be tough at times, but the interviewer’s job is to uncover perceptions, not to change them“. That’s a really important tip. Let your subjects tell you what they think, and if they’re wrong, that means there’s something wrong or missing in your marketing messaging. She recommends that the interviewer be someone with a background in journalism, or someone who has experience talking to people 1:1, and is naturally able to get your subjects comfortable and talking freely.

She also expresses the voice of the frustrated marketer really well. The book is loaded with tips about how to build internal support for conducting buyer interviews, how to map that insight directly into useful spreadsheets and documents and how to present it.

That’s the real meat of it, in my opinion. It goes beyond high-level recommendations and right into practice.

Like I said, definitely worth a read, but don’t treat it as the absolute end-all-be-all of your marketing planning. There’s still plenty of room for insight for post-launch optimization coming out of analytics, and as I mentioned, informal discussions with clients after-sale is key in understanding how to motivate them to move from customers to ambassadors.

Check out one of her sample buyer personas here (screenshot below). It’s pretty impressive, the amount of actually useful insight you can gather in just a few 1:1 conversations.

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Revella offers a masterclass on Buyer Personas through her site here:


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  1. Pingback: School’s In… For-Ever: 7 Digital Marketing Opportunities for the New Higher-Education Landscape | Fractal Digital

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