If you want to know whether potential customers will value your product, the worst thing you could possibly do is… ask them.

The desire to learn every possible thought that each stakeholder* may have about your product is deeply ingrained in the product marketing psyche. And it makes sense: We are a naturally inquisitive bunch, always looking to solve puzzles, discover patterns and unearth insights. However, typical profiling techniques often lead to what I consider one of the most pervasive, yet least understood, challenges in product marketing: the “anosrep” (“persona,” constructed backwards).

This is not to suggest that you stop talking to your customers, far from it. But to undo the “anosrep,” we must look at typical persona-building approaches, the questions they attempt to answer, and the outputs that result.

*Yes, “stakeholder” not “buyer.” All buyers are stakeholders but not all stakeholders are buyers.

A note on market research

Have you ever read a category-specific market research study cover to cover? Through interviews and surveys they demonstrate exactly what respondents think of a particular category, concept or even product. The level of detail is incredible, but the resulting image is seen out of context, and is highly distorted.

Survey and interview participants have a lot at stake: probably something as important as a Starbucks gift card (or, for a really senior executive, a pair of branded AirPods) on the line. So, they will do a great job of communicating exactly what they think about your product, competitors or category. And that’s the problem…

Qualitative market research typically has a massive blind spot because the conversation has been heavily biased from the beginning. You may discover what thoughts subjects have about a topic, but you’ll learn neither the frequency nor intensity with which they have them. In other words, the amount they know about a topic may be far greater than the amount they care about it.

If you really want to understand your stakeholders, learn what they were thinking about the moment before their interview began, and resumed thinking about the moment it concluded.

Filling in the gaps

Done properly, persona-building interviews should resemble something of a hybrid FBI interrogation and psychotherapy session. The objective is to have stakeholders talk as much as possible… revealing what is important to them without necessarily realizing they are doing so. You will need well-prepared questions to guide that conversation, and examples might include:

  • Asking a CEO: “What do you consider the greatest existential threat to your industry?”
  • Asking a CMO: “Do the resources allocated to marketing correspond with the P&L goals set for marketing?”
  • Asking a VP of Sales: “If your team doesn’t meet its goals, what are some typical reasons?”

If these questions themselves seem to have little bearing on your ultimate messaging and positioning, that’s because they don’t. At least not directly. But they can be incredibly revealing insofar as understanding what is going on in stakeholders’ heads. Much like the breakthrough moment in a criminal investigation or self-discovery quest (at least the made-for-TV versions) these questions really attempt to answer a different set of questions, the ones you cannot ask directly:

  • To what incentives are you, as an individual, responding?
  • What specific outcomes are in your own best interest?
  • How does your self-interest potentially differ from that of your colleagues, company or employees?
  • Is your role that of a champion, a gatekeeper or a decision-maker?
  • What is keeping you from achieving your ambitions?
  • What are you worried could put your entire career in jeopardy overnight?

As product marketers, you know how to read between the lines, make interpretations, and see patterns emerge, hence the value of indirect questions. So, where are we going with this?

Let’s go to the movies!

Remember the 2010 film Inception? An incredibly slick sci-fi thriller, it’s also the ultimate product marketing movie. In fact, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading here and go watch it (this will be here when you get back).

Product marketers need to find their Inception moment: an opportunity to insert their products into the (figurative) dreams that stakeholders are already having. This is far easier than trying to change the nature of the “dreams” themselves, because stakeholders are not being asked to alter their basic thought patterns.

Your messaging and positioning wield greater influence when stakeholders see your product as part of their own “dreams.”

Back in the real world…

While it is not possible to access others’ dreams (or, is it?), this way of thinking has very practical applications. Most importantly, a move away from the “anosrep” (building personas fundamentally backwards). Virtually all personas are built, in one way or another, around one foundational question:

What does our product do, and how can we relate the role of each stakeholder to it?

But the premise is entirely backwards, significantly distorting the result! We should instead base all we do on the answer to:

What is going on in our stakeholders’ heads, and how can we relate the product we’re selling to that?

Conversations with stakeholders about the product, the category or the competitive landscape answer the first question (which is actually all about you, the seller). But answering the second requires full insights into the stakeholder psyche, and triggers the fundamental buying emotions, “concern” and “ambition” (aka: “fear” and “greed”). Building personas in this way reveals exactly what ideas any product, current or future, must be positioned around.

It is now your job to work any product you are marketing into the thoughts your stakeholders are already having, rather than convincing them to have different thoughts in the first place.

If you know what stakeholders are thinking about most intensely, and most often, you know the narrative that a product needs to fit into.

In essence, this narrative becomes the persona. The result? New abilities to talk to stakeholders as people, living their own narratives, instead of attempting to fit their lives into the narrative you’ve created for your product. After all, if personas cannot capture the very “humanness” of stakeholders, what purpose do they really serve?