Map It Out: Understanding Your Buyer Persona's Journey

In our last blog, we discussed buyer personas and how important they are for understanding your target market segments. The first-hand research you performed with your customer groups helped you develop these personas, which represent your ideal customers. It gave you an understanding of their familiarity with your product category, how they approach decision-making, and what sources they trust to inform those decisions.

The good news is, all this research can do double duty as you develop a road map of the buyer journeys for each of these personas. If you want to be able to create the right marketing content to reach your customers, you'll need a thorough understanding of their journey as a buyer.

Emotions and the buyer journey

Whether you realize it or not, you go on a journey every time you make a purchase. That journey can be told in the form of a story, with a beginning, middle, and end:

  • Beginning: You have a problem that needs to be solved.

  • Middle: You look for a product or service to help you solve the problem.

  • End: You choose to buy a particular product or service, and your problem is resolved.

At each point in this simplified story, you are thinking and feeling a certain way about your present situation. Those thoughts and emotions drive you to take action toward the next step.

A buyer's journey is strongly connected to the human decision-making process: We make decisions based on emotions, and then find data to back it up. Neuroscience has shown that decisions based solely on reason and logic simply don't exist; there is always some emotional element tied to the choices we make.

When we discussed value propositions, we introduced Daniel Kahneman's concept of "fast" versus "slow" thinking. Fast thinking (or System 1, as Kahneman calls it) is our default mode of thought. It relies on instinct, intuition, and emotion – it's our automatic, gut reaction to a situation.

This is why fact-based negotiations that don't consider the feelings or perspectives of the other party are rarely effective. Entrepreneur and negotiation expert Jim Camp says in a Big Think article that negotiators must create a vision for the other side that helps them through the discovery and decision process.

"You don’t tell your opponent what to think or what’s best," Camp writes. "You help them discover for themselves what feels right and best and most advantageous to them. Their ultimate decision is based on self-interest. That’s emotional. 'I want this. This is good for me and my side.'"

This is also true in advertising. Most B2B ad campaigns fail because they don't address the emotional, often irrational human beings behind the rational, logical brand. In an article on The Drum, Jeri Smith reminds us that business people have their own notions about their brand (as they should – remember our brand narratives?), derived primarily from their System 1 thoughts. The business target, says Smith, has deep-seated impressions of the brand that impact their decision-making.

When you map out your persona's journey, you can better understand the emotions that may influence a customer to move through your sales funnel. Armed with this deep understanding, you can appeal to a customer's emotions and feelings about themselves and their brand – or, create the vision, as Camp says. Then, you can supply them with data points that rationally support their decision to work with your brand.

How do I map out a persona's buyer journey?

If you search for "persona journeys" on Google, you find a few different models that break down the phases of a customer's journey. Arguably the most common is "ACD" – awareness, consideration, decision. It's nice and simple and clear: You become aware of a brand, you consider it, and then you decide to buy from them.

While the ACD model is good on a meta level, I found that it was not granular enough to truly capture a person's emotions and thought processes at each stage of their customer journey. I started researching more about how decisions are made and came up with six stages that detail a buyer's relationship with a brand, from initial awareness, through the purchase decision and beyond.

The image below breaks down the basic persona journey map, followed by a more detailed explanation of what each element entails.

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1. Awareness.

The persona journey starts with awareness – becoming aware of the need for change; becoming aware of the fact that a problem exists and can be solved. Before anyone has an explicit want and can understand the way forward (e.g. a specific product), they develop a concept of a need. Needs relate to pains and challenges, which we've discussed in our blog about positioning and messaging framework. From a persona journey perspective, you're looking to understand how people become aware of their needs and all the corporate options that exist that may eventually become a want.

This stage is not necessarily about awareness of your specific brand, though; what's more important and more valuable here is that initial awareness of the issue itself. You'll have the opportunity to introduce yourself and show the customer how your product can help them later on in the journey. 

2. Realize.

Once a customer becomes aware of a problem, the next phase is realization. The buyer realizes that they have to do something about their problem to make things better or fix things. This phase is often characterized by research and learning. How do people research and learn about the sorts of problems that you help them solve, and the sorts of products and services that can help solve them? At this point, the different options and brands on the market start to come into play, as the customer begins to realize what the market landscape looks like.

3. Internalize.

Everything a customer discovers during the realization phase is carried into the next stage in the journey: internalization. Here, the buyer is matching up what they're finding in the external world with what they know about their internal world. They seek to understand what will be required to execute a solution, and how that solution fits into their existing routines, actions, and beliefs. Ultimately, they are hunting for the Venn diagram overlap in products and services that exist with the pains and challenges that they have. It's important to consider how you are showing up in this process and providing the right tools, programs, and services to help customers connect the dots from their problem to your solution.

4. Visualize.

Visualization is where "need" crystallizes. It is where a new future is seen; the new reality is visualized. Your buyer may consult case studies, customer reviews, and other resources to discover how individuals or businesses in similar circumstances have handled the same issue they're facing. This will give the customer a sense of how to put their plan in motion and where they'd be headed if they follow the same path.

As a brand, your job is to help potential customers see what their future can be like if they invest with you. How can you demonstrate this to them? What types of free trials or experiences can be provided to help people clearly visualize the future that includes you and your company?

5. Decide.

When your customer and/or their organization is ready to make a decision, there is a shift from the emotional realm to the rational. They may be emotionally committed to your brand, but they need solid, rational data to confirm it. They need to be sure that the choice is justified from a financial standpoint, and that they'll receive the expected return on investment.

This is where your brand must prove success. What materials or results can you provide which will help justify a purchase with you? What data sheets or rational arguments can you share? Dig deep into the proof points of your positioning and messaging framework to understand the types of questions and insights you need to gain from your persona research to inform this phase.

6. Evangelize.

Your relationship with a customer doesn't end with a closed transaction or signing of a contract. You need to give them a reason – and a platform – to become a raving fan. What does it take to get a customer to not just buy from you, but actively choose to share your brand with their peers? If you've proven your value and exceeded the customer's expectations, they'll be much more likely to sing your praises to family, friends, and colleagues. From here, it's about facilitating your satisfied customer's evangelism. What do people who match your persona do to express their passion and fandom for similar products and services? How can you help them tell their story in a way that will spread word that ultimately leads back to you? This may be in the form of reviews, case studies, social media posts, speaking engagements, or other forms of evangelism, depending on your specific persona.

As you can see, these steps follow the same basic trajectory as the ACD model (and indeed, "awareness" and "decide/decision" remain the same). But there are a lot of things that can happen in a customer's mind during the "consideration" stage. Breaking it down into realize, internalize, and visualize allows you to acknowledge where someone is in that broader phase of considering a brand or solution, and speak to their emotions and thoughts in that moment. Our journey also extends beyond the purchase decision ("evangelize") so you can understand what it takes to earn your customer's trust and referral.

What's happening at each stage of the buyer journey?

To dig even deeper into the mindset of your customers, you'll want to look at the specific context, actions, and feelings behind each of the six steps. Each of these points can be fleshed out through first-hand customer surveys and interviews.

The story: While the holistic buyer journey is a story with a beginning, middle, and end, each step along the way contains a story in itself. This sentence-long story should summarize what the persona is experiencing at this particular stage of the journey (see examples in the next section).  

Doing: What is the customer doing at each phase? What are they trying to understand and overcome? Your customer research can help you understand not only what someone is actively doing, but how they're feeling during the experience. This helps you draw out nuances and get more granular, which ultimately helps you craft better, more compelling content for your customers. Based on your sentiment analysis, you can craft a couple of bullet points about the emotional state of your customer at each stage of the journey.

Thinking: Knowing what a customer is thinking at each step in the journey allows you to understand and answer the specific questions and needs they have at that point. The "Thinking" question or statement should describe precisely what a customer is looking for – and your brand should be able to produce a solution.

Feeling: This is similar to the sentiment bullet points you crafted for the "Doing" element, but presented in a simpler, distilled format. "Feeling" should be a single word or phrase to describe the customer's emotional state and how are they feeling about situation – anxious, cautious, excited, overwhelmed, etc. Having this information is important for engaging with prospects at each stage, as it sets the tone for the content you're going to create.

Action: "Action" gets a little more nuanced than "Doing." The former is about the practical steps a person is taking within the context of their own life to arrive at a decision (researching, exploring, consuming content, etc.). Action is about the relationship between your customer and the larger market. It's the realization that they need to engage with players in the marketplace (e.g. you!) to solve their problem. For instance: "If I'm concerned about these things, I should consider this product." The "Action" element provides the appropriate context and market perspective to help a buyer understand what action must be taken and how they can make it happen.

To better illustrate how a buyer journey works, I've outlined a very simple map of my own journey to find my favorite razor company, Dorco.

matthew woodget go narrative Dorco Slide2.PNG

A persona buyer journey map helps you better serve your customers

If a buyer persona is your North Star, the persona journey is the road map to get to that star. This map will guide you toward creating the right type of content, with the right message to answer the right questions and concerns for your customers. As you get more specific and do your research, you'll gain a much more accurate understanding of what your buyer experiences and what you can do for them.

Let's reflect for a moment on this idea of understanding your buyers and what you can do for them. It is the responsibility of modern companies to walk in the shoes of their customers so they can help them keep walking forward, remove any roadblocks, and get them to a place where they will buy the product. It's all about customer service – that is, working in service of the customer.

Author and thought leader Shep Hyken frequently writes about the idea of serving your prospects throughout their entire experience with your brand. In a recent blog post, Hyken talks about reasons why a customer might choose to do business with a company, and one of those reasons was customer service:

"You love the way they treat you. Employees are friendly, knowledgeable, and quick to respond. They are there to take care of you, and in turn, you take care of them… by doing business with them."

Think of your targeted content creation as the ultimate form of customer service. When you know the problems your customer is experiencing at a certain point in their journey, you can craft a blog post, video, whitepaper, etc. that helps them over that hump. With a persona journey map, your whole organization can focus on the development of materials, resources, and content that will support each step along the journey for your core buyer personas.

Yes, conducting the necessary research to build buyer personas and their journeys is a lot of work. But it's absolutely worth the effort. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, failing to prepare is preparing to fail – and without these assets, you're unprepared to create the kinds of content that will most deeply resonate with your target markets. You are unprepared, ultimately, to best serve your customers.

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