This article originates from a presentation at the Product Marketing Summit, Las Vegas in 2022. At the time, the speaker, Ali Hanyaloglu, was the Senior Director of Product Marketing at Akeneo. He’s now the VP of Product Marketing at Amplience.

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Hi, I'm Ali. I'm a product marketer, I'm a storyteller, and I love 90s music. For any fellow 90s music fans, there are three albums sprinkled into this article. See if you can spot them all.

Let me tell you a story. It's about how last year my team and I decided to throw the personas that we had out the window and start all over again with a fresh approach. No more 50-slide decks about Marketing Maggie, her age, and her titles – just actionable personas that can benefit the entire organization and therefore ultimately benefit our customers.

In this article, I’ll look specifically at:

About Akeneo

For those of you who don't know Akeneo, where I lead the product marketing team, we’re in the product information management (PIM) space. We sell our solution to brands, manufacturers, and retailers with vast catalogs of products that they sell online, whether that’s on their own site, through a marketplace, or elsewhere.

We not only help them manage all the information about the products that they sell, but we add marketing enrichment, so it's compelling and stands out.

The problem with our personas

Now, let’s get back to our story. At the start of this journey, we had the same kinds of personas that everybody else does. They were okay, but I wanted to challenge them. I wanted to test if they truly matched the customers we were talking to, and the way I wanted to do that was by validating our assumptions through both quantitative and qualitative research.

As is often the case, our personas were filled with the kinds of profiles that I talked about before: “Here's marketing Maggie, she is typically a VP of Marketing or a CMO. She has these challenges,” and so on and so forth.

We’d use those personas as part of things like new hire onboarding, but nobody really knew what to do with that information. That's what we needed to change. The personas were too focused on people and not focused enough on what they were trying to achieve.

The other issue was that these personas were highly anecdotal, based on conversations with sales and product management teams. We needed to become more data-driven in our approach.

Worse still, all of our personas were derived from our user persona, Julia. There's a big sign in our head office in Nantes that says, “Build what Julia wants.” That’s a great rallying call for the product team and engineers, but what about everybody else? We had put Julia at the center and gone out from there: Julia's boss, Julia’s IT person. It was time for a new approach.

An enhanced understanding of our buyers

We realized that everything we knew about personas was wrong. We needed to enhance our understanding of not the user, but the buyer. As product marketers, this is the value we can bring to the organization.

Let product management take care of the user persona. We'll take a look at the buyer persona, and then we'll collaborate afterward.

First, we needed to figure out the triggers that would cause the buyer to look for a solution to their particular problem. Second, we wanted to identify their buying criteria and the path that they took to make a decision. Third, we had a buyer's journey, but it was kind of rough.

We wanted to not only enhance it but simplify it so that it would become actionable for the rest of the marketing organization.

To better understand our buyers, we did three axes of research. We did quantitative research; I surveyed 500 respondents across different industries, roles, and levels.

We also did qualitative research: interviews that were conducted with both the business side and the IT side of our customers’ businesses. And then, to remove any regional biases, we did this in our four primary markets: the US, the UK, France, and Germany.

Quantitative research

Let’s start with the quantitative survey. One of the first questions we asked was if they know what a PIM is. If the answer was no, we disqualified them. If the answer was yes, we asked them if they were equipped with one.

We never asked them what kind of PIM they had. That’s because we often find that, depending on who you’re speaking to, a product information management system could be a SaaS-based solution like ours, it could be a database that was built in-house, or it could even be a spreadsheet that they use to manage all of their products.

To avoid biasing our results, we didn't want to make any assumptions about that.

Once our respondents got past that screening question, here are some of the other things we asked them about:

  • Their business goals
  • The challenges they were facing
  • Their authority level in the decision-making process
  • The success metrics they’d look at when choosing a solution in our space
  • Their decision-making criteria
  • The sources of information they’d use to help them with their decision-making

The results of that survey were then collated into a report by OpinionWay, the survey company we worked with. That meant we didn't just get the raw data, which we could have spent months poring over and analyzing, but some key insights that they found and validated with us.

From this report, we were able to map out the buyer journey anew. We also shared this with the executives, primarily because I wanted to challenge their assumptions about who our customers are, and more importantly, who their decision-makers are.

Some of those results just validated what we knew already, but now we had data to back that knowledge up. Some results were more surprising and challenged the misconceptions that we had before.

Qualitative research

So that was the quantitative research. What about the qualitative stuff? This is where we conducted interviews. We engaged with an organization called the Buyer Persona Institute, which does what it says on the tin. Here’s what we asked our interviewees about:

  • Priority initiatives – The business initiatives led them to identify either a problem or the need for a solution that would allow them to meet specific business goals.
  • Success factors – The factors that would help them in determining which solution was the wisest choice.
  • Perceived barriers – There are always barriers both during the decision-making process and the implementation process, but which ones were they most concerned about?
  • Decision criteria – The checklist that they go through in order to make a decision and move forward.

Some unexpected findings

All of this research – qualitative and quantitative – was really insightful. Some of the findings that came out were not what we were expecting at all, so we felt like real dummies.

We’d always assumed that there was one decision-maker. What we found was that there is typically a whole buying group with one lead evaluator – and that buying group could contain anywhere between six and eight individual roles.

It sounds obvious now because we are an enterprise solution, but the company had never looked at it this way. We created so much action from this insight, and I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.

There were more surprises in store. When I came into the company less than two years ago, I kept hearing “It's an immature market with lots of greenfields.” However, what we found was that there’s a much higher percentage of organizations out there who are not only aware of what a PIM is but have one. As I said, what that PIM looks like might vary, but they do have some kind of PIM in place.

I'll share with you right away the action that came from that: we instructed our BDRs to stop telling prospects what a PIM was and go right into what they should be looking for in a PIM like Akeneo. That’s made a huge improvement to the quality of the sales-qualified leads that we have now.

Another thing we thought is that there was business, there was IT, and they had different priorities. Obvious, right? The business people are going to care about things like customer satisfaction, time to market, and reduced return rates, and IT folks are going to care about security, integrations, and so on.

However, when we talked to the IT folks, they were saying, “We want to increase the quality of the product information that we have on our own eCommerce sites. We've got a feeling that there's something wrong with the experience that people are having.”

Meanwhile, the marketing people were saying, “I want to make sure that the technology we've got is well integrated into our commerce stack, and I need to make sure that the data has integrity and that it’s secure.”

We were stunned. We realized that the business side and the IT side share priorities because they collaborate. They were each representing their partners on the other side.

This ties back to the first surprising finding I shared. The lead evaluator could be in a marketing or IT role. That means we have to be careful about how we message a particular persona.

We can't assume that the IT persona only cares about security and integrations and what have you. They care about the business side because they're representing the buying group. This was eye-opening for us and it really changed our messaging.

We also asked about people's first source of information and their most trusted source when they’re trying to identify a solution. This is key because research from Challenger shows that buyers are already more than halfway through the decision-making process before they engage with a vendor.

They've been doing a whole bunch of homework before they come and talk to us, and guess what? We’re not the first source, nor are we the most trusted.

So who was the most trusted source? Solution integrators – our partners who provide solutions and integrate all the different systems. Potential buyers would go to them first for help in finding a solution and making a decision.

The next most-trusted group was peers, and after them, analysts. Please engage with the analysts that are covering your space. Why? Because they're talking to your customers and prospects, so you’ve got to keep them informed.

Turning insight into action

So what did we do with all these findings?

Pre- and post-sales: Stakeholder maps

For pre and post-sales, earlier this year, we started rolling out stakeholder maps, highlighting to our customer-facing teams that wouldn’t just be talking to one person, but as many as six to eight.

To grow our opportunities, our teams need to be able to identify who those individuals are and what their role is in the decision-making process. Who’s a decision-maker? Who’s an economic buyer? Who are the influencers? Who are the spectators?

More than that, once you've identified who they are, are they a champion, a detractor, or are they neutral? We also want to know if that’s their position on our space as a whole or us as a vendor.

Mapping this out gives you a political map that can be used to generate plans for how an AE is going to tackle that account. They can then pass it on to our customer success team so they know who to work with and what to look out for as our solution is deployed.

Marketing: Updated buyer journeys

For marketing, we updated our buyer journey. This is part of the marketing playbook that the rest of the marketing organization uses. It helps them to identify what they should be incorporating into their campaigns, whether they’re global or regional. Like many organizations, we use the SiriusDecisions framework for this.

Product: Target customer needs definition

We’ve started to roll out a new product launch process. Our awesome new VP of Product Management has told his team that every feature and every product rerelease has to drive customer value. I love this.

Part of our new launch process involves product marketing sitting down with our peers in product management and doing a target customer needs definition exercise. This is informed by our persona research, and it's very similar to the jobs-to-be-done framework.

We rank customer jobs by priority, the pains involved in completing each job, and the outcomes and gains of completing each job successfully. We then use this to write a value proposition, and for your product to be approved, it's got to have a value proposition associated with it.

What’s next for our personas?

We're not done with our personas yet. Here’s how we’re going to keep putting them into action:

  1. Leveraging insights very early on in the product launch process
  2. Updating our new hire onboarding with actionable information
  3. Updating our sales enablement.
  4. Adding additional personas as part of our long-term strategy

What we would do differently

If I could do this all over again, I’d do the qualitative interview research before the quantitative research. Why? Because the insights we get from the interviews can help determine what questions we ask in the survey, which would then give us data to back up what our interviewees tell us.

Secondly, I’d like to split the survey by level and role in the organization and ask questions based on that. We've heard from our analysts at Forrester and Gartner that C-levels tend to be positively biased when they do surveys, so we want to split that up.

The other thing I’d like to do is look at related technologies. We want to know what other technologies people care about and own because that's a budget we can either go after or we're already competing with.

Final thoughts

If you’re thinking that the personas you’ve got aren’t great or that you could do more with them, don't worry. There is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Challenge the personas you have today. Throw your previous assumptions out the window. Then, very carefully listen, learn, and validate what you find out through both qualitative interviews and quantitative survey research.

Once you get your insights, don't stop. Think about how you can turn them into actionable deliverables, tools, and assets that all of your key stakeholders could leverage and benefit from.