The most compelling way to understand people we don’t know is through stories: stories about the challenges they face, the options they consider, and how they decide upon a particular course of action.

You probably know that historical figures such as Amelia Earhart and Ernest Shackleton were intrepid risk takers.  But this label falls short of explaining their “adventurer” persona.  Indeed, as every biographer knows, we remember these people because we have heard stories about the circumstances they encountered and the choices they made.  Spend more time with their stories and we begin to empathize with their unique circumstances and why they made such fascinating decisions.  We can even see where a “small” change in situation may have led to larger changes in direction – and to very different outcomes.

Tell An Actionable Story About Your Buyer Persona

The biographer’s credo is instructive for marketers who want to use buyer personas for insight into strategies that will affect their persona’s buying decision.  Sadly, many buyer personas fall short.  Most are built around buyer profiles, featuring descriptions about their personality, role, priorities or concerns.  If these profiles tell any story at all, they tend to feature “a-day-in-the-life” of the buyer, with a timeline that is unlikely to include the buying decision we want to influence.  We get lots of context, but little connection; these profiles lack the essential links between circumstances and a buyer’s motivation to invest in a service or product like ours.

The confusion about buyer personas evaporates when you approach them with a biographer’s mindset.  You can reveal a story about your buyers’ perceptions, attitudes, and behavior as they confront the need to achieve a particular goal, research alternatives, assess the merits of various options, and make a buying decision.

Your buyer persona’s story will be actionable when it focuses on just five buying insights:

1.  Priority Initiative Insight
This identifies the conditions that trigger your buyer’s decision to search for a product, service or solution like yours.  Not to be confused with pain points, your persona’s story will tell you what is different about the buyer’s environment or attitude at the moment when he or she decides that now is time to take action – investing time, budget or political capital in this type of purchase.

2.  Success Factors Insight
You don’t need personas to identify all of the benefits you can deliver, but it’s difficult to know which of these benefits will have the most impact on your buyer’s decision to do business with a company like yours.  When you understand the emotional and practical outcomes that matter to your buyers, you eliminate the noise and emphasize those benefits that matter to your buyers.  This insight makes it easy to develop simple, persuasive messaging and content.

3.  Perceived Barriers Insight
Otherwise known as the “bad news” insight, this is the part of your buyers’ story where you learn why they might choose a competitor’s solution or decide to stay with the status quo.  Although many companies have heard that their solution is too expensive or missing a critical feature, this insight often reveals that buyers have false notions based on prior experiences, or what they’ve heard from their peers.  Companies that know how and why buyers form negative opinions can develop effective strategies to change them.

4.  Decision Criteria Insight
This part of your persona’s story details the product or service and company attributes buyers investigate as they weigh the merits of each of the options they evaluate.  As buyers navigate the stages of their journey, they develop opinions about the capabilities they need and seek answers that match these expectations.  Through the decision criteria insight, buyers reveal the specific capabilities you need to talk about to win the buyer’s trust and confidence in your approach.

5.  Buyer’s Journey Insight
Many marketers know they need to understand their buyer’s journey, but few have heard their buyers’ words describing what they do to identify alternative solutions, weigh their options, and make the decision they want to influence.  This insight explains those steps, the sources buyers trust to answer their questions, and each of the different types of buyers who have influence over the decision.

Discover Your Buyer’s Version Of The Story Or Don’t Bother

It takes a bit of sleuthing to discover the factual details for any compelling story.  Biographers and other journalists prefer one-on-one interviews with their subject, or when necessary, with people who are their close confidants.  For stories about people who lived long ago, their job is more difficult.  These storytellers must scour every possible resource and attempt to build a complete picture with incomplete data.

But fortunately, the buying decisions we want to understand are ongoing, and the journalist’s preference for one-on-one interviews is entirely achievable.  The findings from a relatively small number of skillful interviews reveal the whole truth, and there is no need to guess about any missing pieces.

The only disappointing news is that marketers cannot discover true buyer insights from internal experts, current customers or surveys. Your company’s experts, especially salespeople, have biases based on their own effect on, and involvement in, the outcome of the buying decision.  The company’s customers will have forgotten their buying experience by now, and their story is tainted by their desire to maintain a positive relationship.  Surveys can only deliver answers to the questions WE THINK are important.  This is why they are highly useful for validation and completely misguided when we need to discover new insights.

The unique value of studying a buyer’s decision is that we learn the truth about what buyers think and want from companies like ours.  These truths can be both gratifying and disappointing, as we inevitably discover that something we’re doing or saying needs to change if we want to persuade buyers that we are a perfect match for their expectations.  When we approach these studies with an open mind and deep curiosity, we consistently find opportunities to develop strategies that align with our buyer personas, creating a happy ending for their story… and ours.