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Using customer insights to level up your content strategy with Adrienne Barnes

Episode #

12

Show Notes

In this episode we’re joined by Adrienne Barnes. Adrienne is a B2B SaaS Content Marketer and strategist who’s advised and written for top B2B SaaS companies including Stripe, Drift, and Demio. She is also the founder of Best Buyer Personas. We discussed:

- Why it’s important to know the relationship your customers have with your company?
- How to apply what you know about customers to your content?
- How to get started with customer research?

Resources
- How SaaS Marketers Can Get Buy-In on Qualitative Research Projects
- 65% of marketers reported conducting market research seldom to none at all

Connecting with Adrienne
- Reach out on Twitter
- Adrienne’s personal website

Episode Transcript

Stuart
Hello, and welcome to the Customer Conversations Podcast. Today I'm excited to be joined by the fabulous Adrienne Barnes. Adrienne is a B2B SaaS Content Marketer, and strategist who's advised and written for top B2B SaaS companies, including Stripe, Drift and Demio. She's also the founder of Best Buyer Personas. Adrienne, thanks so much for joining me.

Adrienne
Yeah. Great to be here. Thanks.

Stuart
I'm very excited for this conversation. I know we talk a fair amount and I've talked a fair amount about some of the topics that we're going to dive into today, but for those who sort of don't know you and don't know your work, maybe you can describe sort of what you do typically for the companies that you work with.

Adrienne
Yeah. So I have kind of a range of services. Content marketing is mostly where in that kind of engagement I get hired by usually a small marketing team who's trying to ramp up content, but just doesn't have the time to write and really dive into things like that. So for those clients, I do a lot of the writing. And then other clients really, they are just beginning. They're just trying to figure out where they're going and they need a lot more of heavy-handed buyer persona, that whole research audience research. And then we create strategies from that. And then I have other clients who are those B2B bootstrap founders. It's like one or two people. Maybe there's a co-founder. They know that they want to build their audience before and while they build their product. And so they come to me and together we work together to kind of create a strategy.

And those are really customized engagements where it's been everything from I'm helping them email their audience, try to get surveys, to interviews, to know they've already got their audience down and we're really looking at creating content strategies or pulling the thousands of ideas. I love founders because they're inventors and they're creative and they're idea people. And sometimes they have too many ideas. And so what I do really well is help them kind of narrow that down, channel it, put them into focus and make it really an effective content strategy so that they can begin to build their audience while they build their product.

Stuart
Amazing. So you mentioned that you're often working with founders who have a million things going on, a million ideas and the focus is sort of the name of the game and making sure that the things they're doing are actually impactful to moving the business forward. So what's typically your starting point in all of this, because obviously you sort of a lot going on. How do you sort of dial in and get started?

Adrienne
Yeah. So with what I call done with you strategies, that's for the founders, it's a low-cost engagement, essentially for them. We really just began with a conversation. I get on the phone with them, we go on a chat, we're trying to figure out where are you at, where's your starting point. If they say, yeah, we've done... I mean, I've talked to founders and they're like, no, we've done thousands of hours. I hired interns and we've got tons and tons and tons of data and customer conversation, qualitative data. I just don't know what to do with it at all. So in those kinds of engagements, I go through it, I help categorize it, theme it out and then show them really like, this is where your content is headed.

I've had other founders where they're like, no, I don't know. I know this is a good thing, but I haven't talked to anybody really about it yet. So then that took like, okay, we create surveys then we get on the phone with their, like they have a few best customers and I get on the phone with them and really pull that data out for them. So it really does depend on where they are on where the engagement is. But I always start with audience research. Either the question is how much have you done? And if the answer is none, then we do it. And if the answer is a ton and they just don't know what to do with it, then we go from there. So it's always beginning with who are you building for. Let's start there.

Stuart
That totally makes sense. And I know that's something that I talk to customers and to clients about a lot is, how do you get started with that particular step, right? What are the things that we're actually trying to learn about our customers? So maybe you can sort of speak to that aspect of what are the sort of first questions that you have for somebody who has done... I mean, and I guess in some cases it doesn't matter too much unless they've done a lot of research and they've looked at it and it hasn't given the answers they want. But for somebody who's sort of just getting started, needs to answer, I guess the first question is what are the questions that they should be trying to answer about my audience to help inform this content strategy that we're going to put together.

Adrienne
Yeah. So I'd like to know basically why someone is using the product, what triggered them to buy. And it's all about that jobs to be done approach, like what job are they hiring the product to do. Why did they come to you? So I ask a lot of questions like what was the thing that you were trying to accomplished before you purchase this product. Or tell me about right before you bought the product, tell me about the process of buying it, really because I want to go to those, like the core emotions of it. So I'll ask these kind of first, just kind of vague questions. Not really specific, not really like hammering down a specific point. I'm not looking for an answer, but then I find that the best comes in the follow-up.

So a lot of the best stuff is like, Oh, that's really... Tell me more about that. Like, Oh that... So you mentioned that you were struggling with this thing. Can you explain to me a little bit more around what was going on there? And that's where the gold, just kind of the bits come out. Usually it doesn't take a whole ton of questions. I don't have a list. I don't have a strict script to stick to. I mean, typically even when the recipient, the person that we're talking to has a lot to say and is free-flowing in the conversation, I could ask maybe two or three and get a really good conversation out of that. Why did you purchase? And then like, Oh, okay. Tell me more. And then like, how are you using it now? Or what do you find most frustrating about it?

I like to ask even the negative questions, even though sometimes that makes my founders cringe because they're like, no, don't make them think about negative, but I'm like, we want to know what doesn't fit because it's not going to be a negative for everybody. But if it's a negative for them, we want to know who are the people that are likely to turn, because we don't want to talk to them. We don't want to advertise to them. We don't want to target them. We kind of want to shift it to the people who were like, nothing. This thing has been great. Every step of the way has just been amazing. So yeah, that's kind of where we start with the which questions do I ask. Definitely.

Stuart
Yeah. It's interesting that you mentioned that there is no script, right? That it's very sort of free-flowing and it's just a conversation. I think you use this, you use conversations, customer conversations as the way to describe sort of the data that the founders might have about their customers. And I guess that data can come in many forms, right? You mentioned interviews, you mentioned surveys. Where's typically your sort of starting point or your bias in terms of sort of what is the right way or the right sort of channel to capture all these conversations through? Because really, and I guess the answer is always, it probably it depends, right? If a company is more established and has maybe hundreds of thousands of support tickets, that's a very different place to be than just starting out with no real audience yet.

Adrienne
Yeah. I find it depends, not necessarily just on the audience, but on what we need the information to do. If we know something is true or we think something is true and we send a survey out and we find out that yes, what we thought was true. Sometimes that's like an information bias, right. We're just kind of creating our own the cycle of like, well, we think this, so we're asking this. They said, yes, now we're right. And that cycle just kind of continues on. I like to use conversation... You're only going to be able to get emotions and feelings and motives out of a conversation. You're not going to get at least very good, at least very good information on someone's drivers from a survey.

So surveys are good for like, why did you show up? I like really short surveys. So surveys at the cart, close of a cart or right at onboarding, Hey, what brings you here? Like quick three question kind of surveys that will help you segment your audience. Those are great, but they're not going to give you those content copy insights that are going to help drive that core emotion of why is this person reading? How can we address their struggles? What are the problem that they're trying to solve and how are they describing that problem? So you may understand what their issue is, but you're never going to get how are they speaking about it on a survey. So that's kind of how I like to differentiate between a conversation and a survey.

Stuart
Yeah. That makes sense. You sort of you need to go beyond the what and really dig into why is this the answer that they gave in a given survey. It's always really interesting to me when you run a lot of surveys with both [inaudible 00:09:29] but with previous things, it's always really interesting to see what people put in the other box, which I totally agree is still not the same level of depth or the same sort of fidelity of insight as a live conversation with somebody. I don't think there's sort of really any way to beat that for the depth of insight. But it's always really interesting to see what people put that you didn't select as an option for them to multiple choice, which is often things that are pretty unexpected.

Adrienne
Yeah. It would be the part of the conversation where if you were having a quick 20 to 30-minute chat, you'd be like, Oh, wait a second. What was that again? Can you tell me? That's the thing. And now you're on a survey you're reading another and you're like, dang, that's really good. But I wish I could learn a little bit more. I wish I could figure out why they said that or the thing behind that. But now you've got it in a qualitative data on a survey. And okay, that's great. But you could have done more with it with the conversation, I feel like,

Stuart
Where do you find is the right balance of conversations versus sort of, which are obviously one-to-one and less, scalable is maybe the wrong word, but it's a very sassy word. What do you feel is the right balance between conversations that you know are more time-intensive, both on the side of you and the company, but also on the customer side. Right. They're also investing and spending time there versus sort of the breadth of data that you can pull from a survey that can reach many more people.

Adrienne
I think so the balance would definitely be, you can do both. And I think you should do both. Some people like us who are really into the qualitative and the one-on-one conversations, they can have a tendency to push away surveys and they're like, no, there's no need for them. But of course there is. Surveys will give you a lot of information about a lot of people very quickly, and that's useful and that's beneficial, but I think you should balance it out with a conversation. And it shouldn't be an either-or. I don't think there's a stance where it's like, oh, this is the only part that's good and only use this part for surveys. And then only do this for conversations.

Anytime you're starting something new, anytime you're launching, anytime you're building, get on the phone. And it doesn't have to... I think people feel like, Oh my gosh, I'm going to do customer conversations. I'd have to get on the phone with 25 people and it's going to be like every week and that's 45 hours and I don't have the time to do that. So let's just send out one survey. And I don't feel like that's true. I feel like if you implement in your process conversations, like you have one or [inaudible 00:12:39] five a week and you're only asking five questions. Like I'm on a call today with somebody who's about to launch a product. I'm their target audience. It's a 15-minute chat and he's speaking with five or six people. It doesn't have to be time-intensive. It doesn't have to be this oppressive thing if you just do a little bit of time.

And it's one of those things it's like compound interest, it will build upon itself. The more conversations you have, the better off you'll be, the more you'll know. And it can be those small little, just a daily habit. Put it in a part of your routine, a part of your weekly habit. Monday, you talked to two people and that can be it. It doesn't have to be like, okay, we're starting this thing and it's got to be huge. Just make it a part of, and it should be a part of a continuous process because we're all... You should be learning always, your market's shifting, your product can be refining, there's new iterations. So there's always something new to learn.

Stuart
Absolutely. Yeah. I love the way that you put that, what can you do to make this a habit, right? It doesn't have to be this big sort of song and dance around, this is a huge research survey that we're going to do. It's going to take a month and we're then going to put that in a corner. And we did that survey or that study one time. That's what we do. Right?

Adrienne
Yeah. And that's what happens. And that's why the data becomes overwhelming because it sits in this large, huge Google spreadsheet that nobody looks at. It's just sitting there. Even if it's divided up and organized into themes and pain points and things like that, it's a to-do list. Essentially, you've added a to-do list, which I think you and I both are really strong and like, no, let's provide the actual action items that can be done from the qualitative data. I think that's something you and I both agree on as researchers. It's not just something like, okay, here, here's a huge 40-page spreadsheet with all of this information and have fun with it. It's really good information. You're going to learn a lot.

And so now it's on a manager's desk and they've eight billion things going on. That's why they hired us in the first place is because they had too much to do. It needs to be made simple. And I think if it's the manager who's like, no, I'm really passionate about doing the qualitative data and doing the interviews on our own. If they can make that a part of their routine, it won't be this oppressive like once a year annual push a thing that just sits. It can be really like, yeah, on Monday we have chats and then we can iterate that and we can start to focus on it. And you'll see trends, you'll start to see your trends well before your market would show it to you essentially through product or advertising or things like that. Your people will tell you.

So in a matter of a couple of weeks, you're like, Oh, this is where things are shifting and you can almost be ahead of it. Whereas if you're just doing paid ads or content pushes or things like that, SEO, you end up finding it after the fact. A conversation will allow you to be preventative, active, proactive rather than reactive.

Stuart
Right. Yeah. I absolutely agree with that. That's sort of where building a habit around this and making it a continuous practice is so, so valuable and you said this already, that not only will you see trends, we will see the compound effect of tracking those trends over time. Right. And you'll also be able to see things, how at this point in time, we compared to people who are considering us against this tentative like this, but now they're considering us against this new player in the field who has a different value prop and is positioned differently to us and people are saying new things about new competitors. The market is never standing still. There's not sort of a... Like solving for a point in time is great, but only for that point in time.

Adrienne
Yeah. I mean, and can you imagine the companies who already had this in practice before COVID hit? Like right now, when things have shifted so dramatically, I mean, they would have had this already going, already implemented and been able to respond faster in their copy, in their content when their clients were ready for it, when their customer base was ready for it. What I noticed a lot with this situation was that people, it took people two weeks to ramp up, to be able to respond in these unprecedented times and dah, dah, dah, and COVID was everywhere.

But by week two or three audiences were sick and tired of hearing about it. We were all like, please stop saying unprecedented times. But had they said it on day three, had they been able to react, they would have been the first ones. By week three, they would have been done and they would have known, okay, our audience is sick and tired of this. Now what do they need? Now let's reiterate. Now let's build. So, I mean, this is obviously an extreme circumstance, but it happens like that slightly all the time.

Stuart
Right. Yeah. This is just sort of been an accelerator of existing trends, right?

Adrienne
Yeah.

Stuart
So one thing that we talked about is why it's important to do this on an ongoing basis, why it's important to sort of build this, I guess, build this muscle for lack of a better word around sort of doing ongoing discovery is how do you track all these things? How do you keep everything that you're learning organized and turn it into a way and so more importantly than organizing it, how do you actually start using that in all the other activities that you are doing? Because it's certainly not unique to just having an impact on copy, it has an impact in a lot of places.

Adrienne
Exactly. Yeah. And what a pain point that is, right? So the solutions right now, which is why I'm so excited about LearnWhy, but right now you've got a Google doc spreadsheet that someone can come in and organize, somebody like me, who's a little nerdy and likes to color code it and thematic and things like that, Excel spreadsheet. And that's about it. That's about all the tools I use right now for them. It's just, there's not a great way. There are a lot of heavy researchers tools like scientists who do this for research and their tools are ugly, number one, they're just not cute to use. Number two, it's very technical. I've been in them, I've tried to use them and it's so... I mean, it's set up for a scientific researcher, so you're tagging words and things like that to go back and make hypothesis and build upon your science experiment.

And they're doing years, you're taking like most of these kinds of scientists are watching and doing these experiments for 10, five years. Whereas we want really quick turn-around, right? We want these insights, we want to build on it. We want to be able to make an action. I mean, that's basically what I do. I just put it into a spreadsheet and lock them out by themes. And then I am able to tell like me personally, like, okay, look. So this is kind of what they're saying when they talk negative, and this is how they're praising and the positive words they use. And these are their descriptor words, what I call those relational keywords. These are the words your audience is using that's very specific to your product. So we need to use this in your copy.

I kind of use the sneaker example. If you are selling shoes and all of your audience calls shoes 'sneakers,' and not tennis shoes, well then in your ad copy and your content, we're not going to call them tennis shoes. We're going to call them sneakers. Just simple things like that. So, and then I just pull those out basically in a doc and kind of make a whole presentation out of it. So there's not like a really simple, streamlined, beautiful way, which is why I'm excited about LearnWhy.

Stuart
Yeah. I think that, and this is certainly one of the pain points that drove sort of starting LearnWhy was that. And I would say there are certainly a number of tools sort of in-between like the academic sort of research analytics, is kind of the wrong word, like organization tools. There are certainly tools that are targeting UX researches, but again, the same challenge is that they're targeting researchers, right?

And that the people that we're talking about who wants to use this, these insights are not researchers, right? Like A, their title is not researcher, but B, research is just a component which sort of drives everything else that they're doing. Whether they're a content writer, whether they're running ad creative, whether they're creating strategy, growth strategy, whatever it might be, research is just sort of an input to that process rather than being their sole job. So yeah. It's certainly a time-consuming challenge. I think that there's a big opportunity here to help make these things that are so important and make these insights that are so important to keep track of more actionable in everybody's sort of day-to-day.

Adrienne
Yeah. Because without that, if you're not able to, like we said earlier, hand somebody things that say these are the differences, these are the choices, this is the changes that you can make based upon all of this research that's going to make an impact, then you're handing them homework. And nobody wants homework. Nobody wants homework.

Stuart
Right. I mean, it's homework that gets more difficult or not necessarily more difficult, but certainly more time-consuming the more data you have, right?

Adrienne
Right. Absolutely.

Stuart
And this is something that I've found as I'm doing discovery for LearnWhy. We do follow that process ourselves, but-

Adrienne
It's kind of meta.

Stuart
It does get meta very quickly. But something that's been really interesting to me is the number of people who've said and it's shown we did the survey, we did the interview. We took the first step and collected data, but we didn't really have a plan for turning that data into action, right?

Adrienne
Yes. So there's an old CoSchedule statistic. I knew I would want my stuff in it so I was going to do this. They say like, oh gosh, 64% of marketers or 80, they have a high number percentage of marketers don't do any research. And those who do see 644% better results. It's something like that.

Stuart
We'll link it up in the show notes, but we'll make sure it's accurate.

Adrienne
Okay. Thanks. Yes. I have a article on LinkedIn that has it, so you can find it there really easily. It's a hard graphic to find, I will tell you, to sort to cite. But then yesterday I was looking up the same kind of information because I'm curious, are people doing research yet? And I think in the last two years, it has caught on, marketers know we have to do it. So HubSpot's data that I found yesterday, it was a 2019 report. And we'll link this in the show notes too because I could be wrong. It was like 80% of marketers are now doing audience research.

Adrienne
So like you said, they're doing it. Now, are they using it? Do we know how to use it? Do we know how to take what we've learned, what our audience says and apply that to our actual content strategies or to our entire marketing strategy? I always think very content strategy because that's my strength and my focus. But if you're an overall marketer, if you're a general marketer or a marketing manager and you're managing all aspects of marketing, do you know how to take the audience research you're learning and apply it to your strategy, to your skills? Can you see the trends? That's a wholly different skill set. That's a different ballpark really.

Stuart
Right. Yeah. And it's interesting to see sort of tracking this, I hate to call it transformation, such a buzzword, but sort of over time as these things, as these trends emerge, it's very similar to me to how sort of trends and product have emerged, right? That people have moved from building things end-to-end up front and then finding out later if people will we use it to sort of more iterative testing of the solution as we go, to more sort of shortening that loop with discovery as an integrated component, to sort of making sure that not only are we doing the research upfront, but we're also doing the research on the backend, right. That we're actually testing that the thing that we researched, design, built, shipped actually had impact and really tying everything together in data.

Adrienne
Absolutely. I think the loops have gotten smaller, like you said. We're no longer expecting massive perfection in even a final product. We expect for something to be shipped and then reiterated on and then another version and then another version. And then for the content, even a blog post, I don't expect that blog post that gets published to just sit there and stay there. I expect to go back to it, to update it, to refresh it, to change it a little bit. Yeah. And I think that's also just the expectation of the market. We're all creating quickly and we've kind of created a tolerance for it not being perfect the first time, because we know that we're going to learn more and we're going to adapt it. So.

Stuart
Right. Yeah. It's really interesting to sort of follow these trends. So I'm curious to sort of dive into plus few minutes here, all the different ways that we can apply insights, right, because there's lots of different opportunities for it. I know you mentioned the sneaker example, using the exact phrase that sort of quoting your customers, right, in ad copy is one example. What are some other ways that you, I guess, specifically in the content that you're writing, but also just sort of generally in marketing strategy of your using insights?

Adrienne
Yeah. So I combine the relational keywords, that kind of term that I use those clients words plus SEO. So when I just create an entire content strategy, I use that HubSpot, pillar content strategy where we're really working on a few focused keywords, but then I add in your client's words, your customer's words, what are those pain points? So that helps me answer the how-to blog posts, like what do they need to know how to do? What are they already asking? That helps me write just the general news kind of stuff. Are they interested in the company? Some customers are. Some customers are so ingrained in wanting to know about the company's culture and where they're moving and how the company treats their employees that that becomes a part of their buying decisions. Other customers could care less. They do not care at all.

And it's even in B2B, like you'd think, Oh, all B2B doesn't care. That's mostly when you're working with direct to consumers, that's not true. Other companies care how other companies are treating their people, things like that. So that helps me just create the overall themes for like the blog post topics. So that's kind of how my brain works, is it works like I start with a larger overall strategies of what is go to people's searching. That's the SEO. And then what are people saying?.And that's their relational keywords. And from there I create blog post topics and those overall arching topics, I can use their language and subheadings directly in. Like just when I create an outline, oftentimes it's those key points, it's those pain things. It's those questions when they're asking me like, well, I didn't understand this. I didn't know how to do that. Oh, okay. That's a blog post. That's exactly how it works in my head.

And so that's how I create essentially 12 weeks of strategy off of conversations and a 20-minute SEO. It might be more than 20 minutes, but a quick SEO search. From there it just kind of all falls in place. It gives us the strategy and the architecture for the SEO to do well, which is still important. You can't completely negate that that's still an important aspect of creating a content marketing strategy while also speaking to the people, while also speaking to the humans who are struggling or who have questions or who are trying to learn whatever this product is, because that's the thing with my clients, with B2B and software. They need to how to use it and implement it quickly. And they need to also learn and have a brand awareness as well. It's not just all how-tos, it's also can be brand. So yeah, it whittles its way down all the way into just sentences in the content for me. It really does filter all the way through.

Stuart
Amazing. So to sort of wrap things up here, if you were talking to somebody who is in the 20%, who is not currently doing research, or even is in the percentage of that 80% who has done the research, but isn't sure what to do with it next. What's sort of the one piece of advice that you would give them as a starting point to sort of start implementing some of these things that we've talked about and really take that content to the next level?

Adrienne
Yeah. So find an hour in your week and make it possible, if that's not possible, then hire it out. There are people like me and Stuart who are focused, like this is the passion of what we do. But really for some of these clients, they just, that's not in their budget. So find yourself an hour and do your phone calls and do your tagging, have at one standing dock and have your dock up while you're in the middle of the conversation, record it, get it transcribed, pay for like Rev, Temi, I've heard of other, even cheaper ones, have it transcribed for pennies. I mean, it doesn't cost hardly anything to have it transcribed and then pull out the interesting things, the positive things, the negative things, the emotional things. That's really what you're looking for and put that in the doc. And every week you just continue to do that and it will build upon itself and you'll learn more and you'll be able to really make decisions based on that better than you would if you were just like sitting here looking at Google Analytics, in my opinion.

Stuart
Great. Well, I think that's certainly great advice. I think there are a lot of little steps that people can take to sort of incrementally improve the way that they make decisions that are based on things that the customers are actually saying and actually important to their customer. So for people who want to learn more about you or hire you to do this type of thing for them, where should they go to find you on the Internet?

Adrienne
I am at adriennenakohl.com, which is AdrienneN-A-K-O-H-L.com. Thanks mom. And just @AdrienneNakohl on Twitter. Twitter is a great, I'm always on Twitter. Find me on Twitter.

Stuart
Amazing. Well, thanks so much for doing this. It was great to have you.

Adrienne
Thanks, Stuart. I appreciate it.

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