How to Evaluate Persona Vendors

Nov 10, 2016

Have you ever met an effective marketing team that didn’t have a strong understanding of their buyer? It’s a simple truth, but a powerful one. It’s really hard to connect with your buyer if you don’t understand their needs, their fears, where they go for information and their buying process. Buyer personas profiles provide marketers with this information in a concise package. 

Separate the Weak from the Strong

We have a list of questions that marketers should ask when they’re working with prospective persona vendors.Marketers can either build their own buyer personas or outsource this effort to a 3rd party such as a marketing agency. While there are many strong B2B persona vendors, there are even more that produce profiles that leave you, the marketer, scratching your head saying “How is this useful?” or “Now what??” 

We have created buyer personas for several clients and have received many questions along the way as part of pre-sales process. We thought it would be helpful to compile a list of questions that marketers should ask when they’re working with prospective persona vendors. 

1) How much do I need to be involved in the process? 

You hire agencies for their expertise and because you don’t have the time to do with it. So make sure to understand how involved you’ll need to be in the project at the beginning and then on a weekly basis once the project is underway 

Typically, our client lead is involved heavily at the beginning of the project as we go through the discovery process. Later on, status calls can be used to provide updates on the project progress. There may be instances, in which we may need our project lead to help us overcome some barriers such as co-ordinating internal interviews or influence sales to allow us to speak to their customers. 

2) What is your discovery process to learn about our business in order to create the personas? 

The essence of a good persona interview is where we ask probing questions that enable the interviewee into telling us a compelling story about their buying process. In order for us to identify areas to probe deeper, it’s critical that we have a sufficient understanding of the solution/product, the general use-cases, the triggers to buy and the competition.  

To help us with our discovery, we provide our client lead with a checklist at the beginning of the project. Although you may not realize it, you probably already have a lot of information that could be useful at piecing together the personas and buying cycle. 

Having the vendor provide you with a checklist at the beginning of the engagement, can be instrumental in helping you coordinate internal resources while the project has momentum (something that you may loose during the customer interviews as they can take a few weeks to complete). 

3) How many external interviews do you conduct? How do you find the right people to interview? 

While you may assume that there is a need to conduct hundreds of interviews to get the essence of your buyer, we’ve found that typically 10-15 interviews are sufficient per persona. After 6-8 interviews, the answers on the buying process are shockingly consistent. We then use the remaining interviews to dig deeper into areas that are still a bit murky. 

Sales people are an outstanding source of identifying the right candidates to interview As part of our discovery process we ask them to connect us with ideal external interview candidates and we provide them with pre-written emails to help request interviews.  

The pool of external interview candidates should consist of: 

  1. Existing clients that went through the buying process within the last 6 months, so that the information is still relatively fresh in their minds. 
  2. Lost prospects as they are an excellent source of competitive information and can tell you precisely why you lost the business. 

In cases where sales isn’t able to help that much, your agency should provide found suitable external sources such as associates, forums or groups where the target personas gather and information can be scraped. 

4) What does your interview guide look like? Can you show me a sample guide? 

The interview guide is what the interviewer will follow over the course of the interview. It’s important that it is a guide and not a script or a survey. You’re not looking for several ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. You want the in-depth story that your customer wants to share. A well-constructed guide will help direct the story and drill deeper to find the insightful nuggets.   

We use a standard guide that uses SiriusDecisions frameworks as a base. We then customize the guide based on our client’s solution, target audience, customer use cases and the objectives of the project. 

5) What does the final deliverable look like? 

The final deliverable is ultimately what you’re paying for and needs to meet your objectives of understanding your buyer. Your prospective vendors will all have their version of a standard buyer persona which are visual, composite customer profiles that are representations of real people and behaviors and communicates their goals, decision criteria, perceived barriers and success factors. 

Look to see what sections are in their template and whether they’ll give you the insights you’re looking for. 

In addition to the buyer persona profile, your vendor should provide you with additional insights from the research they have done.  We typically provide the buyer persona profile as part of a 20-30 slide insights report which may contain many other sections, among them:  

  • Customer Journey Mapping 
    Document that covers the triggers, needs, milestones, relevant content and distribution channels for each buyer persona within the buying cycle stages. 
  • Interview Insights 
    Valuable insights uncovered from primary interviews with buyer personas and secondary research. While they don’t fit the profile template, but are still valuable nuggets but could still be used to make better sales and marketing decisions. 
  • Content Suggestions 
    Recommendations on early/mid/late stage content topics that would satisfy the needs of your personas along their buying cycle. 
  • Competitive Analysis 
    Feedback on why you win deals, why you lose deals and which competitors your buyers are evaluating you against. 
  • Testimonials & Case Studies 
    Agreement from interviewees to provide a testimonial or case study. 
  • Feedback for Improvement 
    Feedback from interviewees on how you could improve your offering and the buying experience. 


6) How do your other customers use these personas effectively? 

This is now a frequent question from our prospective customers who are thinking ahead. A persona profile does no good if it’s collecting dust in a desk drawer somewhere. A personas profile is meant to give everyone a consistent view of your buyer. That means it needs to be shared and reviewed with sales, marketing, product, customer support, your creative agencies, your writers and anyone else who comes in contact with the buyer or whose work will be consumed by the buyer. 

You may not want to share the entire deliverable with them. More likely, you’ll want to tailor what you share for each audience to enable them to do their jobs better. This could mean showing the profiles as well as 1 or 2 more summary slides specifically written for them. 

Many marketers will use these insights as fuel for content marketing. Effective content is content that’s written to benefit the target personas. Many phenomenal B2B content writers such as Ann Handley advocate to think of the person you’re writing for before your write. A persona profile enables you to visualize this individual. Your vendor can help you take it even a step further by recommending content topics that your persona cares about. 

If you’re a B2B marketer in the process of exploring how to get your personas done, then YOU are our target persona and we hope this content is helpful (pretty meta eh?). If you’d like to learn more about how we might be able to help you develop your personas, we’d be happy to speak to you and walk you through what a typical persona project looks like as well as the output.