Surveys don't tell me anything I didn't know

My recent post about Dave’s success developing buyer personas generated several requests for help with survey questions. The request is good but my answer isn't a list of questions. If I help you develop a survey, someone will send it out with a web tool, or show up at an otherwise promising venue with clipboard in hand. “Excuse me, sir, but we are about to launch our new supercharged business optimizer. Do you have a minute to answer a few questions?” Uh, no, I don’t think so.

Dave’s persona project was a success precisely because he went to conferences sans survey. His goal was to meet people he didn’t know, people who (hopefully) represent his target buying influencers, and to find out what they want to talk about. He listened to the conference presentations, got an idea for a topic, and then met people at lunch or by arriving early at breakouts, asking people about some of the issues that were discussed in the general sessions.

As each of Dave's conversations progressed, he learned more and developed new questions, striving to recognize themes and patterns about his target buyers’ compelling, urgent business priorities. His assignment was to listen carefully and delve deeper into areas of interest to each individual, engaging each person so that he could develop an in-depth understanding of how his target buyers think about their challenges and potential solutions.

People who have no experience with this type of unstructured research are often worried about entering into open-ended conversations. But we’ve all had relevant experiences in social settings. When I meet someone at a party or through a friend, it’s easy to create rapport if I am clued in to one topic that person is passionate about. The quality of our conversation is enhanced when I’ve been studying or reading about the issue and am genuinely interested in what this person has to say about it. If I’m not positional and really listen, asking good questions, the conversation will continue almost indefinitely. People tell me the most amazing things.

As Dave continued to meet new people in the weeks we worked together, he built upon the topics he had learned in previous interactions, asking new contacts if they had similar concerns. He started  with a few general ideas from his first conference session, and as the range and depth of his knowledge increased, his meetings gained more specificity and were more valuable. By now Dave has the insight he needs to anticipate his buyer's response to his marketing strategies and the solution itself. He knows that every person is unique, but he also knows how to develop a buyer persona that will be the basis of his go-to-market strategies and tactics.

If Dave had started with a survey he would have asked the wrong questions and people would have been less willing to respond, plus he would have missed the in-depth insights captured during his personal interactions with the people who represent his target buyers.

I use surveys when I want to quantify or validate what I learned during the first qualitative step. If Dave needed quantitative data to convince his management about the validity of his findings, a survey would be the next step in his process. He would also do a validation survey if the buyer persona would be used to make decisions that were very risky and not easy to change. Dave will present his findings to management next week, and we anticipate a favorable response. We also have a plan to monitor the results of his marketing strategy so that he can continuously improve. I think that we completed the project, but I don't expect that Dave will ever stop listening to his buyers. He's been assimilated.

Topics: Buyer Personas, Market Research

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