8 Tips For Conducting Insightful Persona Interviews

Whenever I’m asked to create a piece of content my first question is always about the target audience.  Understanding who we want to consume the content being produced increases the effectiveness of the content being produced and reduces editing cycles. Unfortunately, many people don’t know how to answer this seemingly simple question in a meaningful way.  They default to a profile of their intended buyer – they know the title, industry, perhaps even, geography of the audience. These are very helpful clues, and often all we have to go on, but they are not sufficient.  Instead we need to understand buyer motivations, personality attributes and organizational context.

Those who take the time to invest in buyer persona research see big payoffs. In fact, according to Aberdeen research, marketers whose personas and map content to the buyer’s journey enjoy 73% higher conversions (20% vs. 12%) from response to marketing qualified lead (MQL), versus companies not pursuing this approach.

how to conduct persona interviews

But you probably already knew that! Persona interviews can be intimidating and often the only thing holding us back is a little faith that the time will be well spent.  Here are a few tips to get us over the fear:

#1 Use a variety of questions

Using a variety of questions spurs the most insightful discussions that can later be used to find patterns. Each interview should explore the participants organizational context, personality attributes, purchase preferences, motivators and priorities and content interests.

#2 It’s a conversation, not a survey

Being prepared means establishing an interview guide to drive your conversation. Unfortunately, if you’re not well-practiced at persona research your interview guide turns into a survey. You ask ALL of the questions on the survey in the order you wrote them down. Nothing more, nothing less. Surveys are incredibly helpful tools, but they are unsuitable substitute for a conversation. Instead provide give and take. Use open-ended questions. Go down an unexpected path that the research participants leads you towards. Comment on their responses. And whatever you do DON’T compile the interview responses into a “survey like” summary report. You’ll be missing all the nuance that helps you build a persona that truly drives at emotional connection.

#3 You are not message testing

While you’ve got a potential buyer on the phone why not test some messaging? Two very good reasons. First, you are putting words into your participants mouth and you’ll miss the chance to hear what words they use to describe challenges and opportunities they face. Second, if you really want to create a persona that can be used as a foundation for all kinds of marketing outreach it must be in large part independent of your specific offerings and company.

# 4 Don’t rely on the usual suspects

It’s natural to go into persona research thinking you know the “profile” of your buyer. Our instincts are to find 5-7 people who validate what we think to be true. While human nature, it is also a terrible opportunity lost. Don’t limit your research to the obvious candidates. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give you 30 minutes of their time if you ask.

# 5 Personas are not titles

Titles are easy to identify, but they are incredibly misleading. Many people try to make a persona a profile and start looking for “target personas”. This naturally leads to a persona becoming a search for people with similar titles. As a marketer you need both personas and profiles, just don’t try to do both in one approach!

To illustrate the risk of grouping personas by title I conducted an experiment at a recent workshop. We took the notes of 25 interviews and removed the name, company and title of each respondent. We went through a series of exercises and grouped interview respondents together into personas. At the end we mapped each respondent to their profile information. And you know what we found? Title had a lot less to do with priorities and motivators than the team suspected.  We ended up with 7 distinct personas from a pool of about 4 different titles. This has significant, positive impact on their content strategy.

#6 Make your interview candidate feel comfortable

Welcome them by name and thank them for joining you. Remind them this is purely for market research and all of their responses will be kept confidential (and away from sales!). Be sure to ask if they have any questions before you get started.

#7 Silence can be your friend

Don’t try to fill every pause in the conversation. The quiet will encourage your interview candidate to dive deeper into their thoughts.

#8 Plan in advance how to document information collected

Call me a bit obsessed but I like to type my notes and have a notebook handy for written scribbles. I find the act of typing/writing allows me to internalize the information as it’s being collected. However, if you are not a fast typist and want to dedicated yourself to listening you can record the session and have it transcribed later. If you chose to record the session be sure to seek permission from your guest but set them at ease by explaining the recording is to make sure you don’t miss any of their feedback.

Persona interviews are time consuming but with a little practice you’ll be rewarded with content marketing programs that improves engagement and are more efficient to produce.