By Ardath Albee published January 2, 2014

Why Marketers Are Keeping B2B Buyer Personas In the Closet

[Editor’s note: Happy Holidays! This week, the editorial team at Content Marketing Institute wanted to share some of the best content marketing blog posts we’ve seen from the CMI Online Training and Certification program’s roster of expert instructors. Today’s post originally appeared on Ardath Albee’s Marketing Interactions blog on February 9, 2013.]

 

b2b keyMany of the projects I do for companies start with buyer personas. After all, it’s a logical place to start, as it’s next to impossible to develop a content strategy without a keen understanding of the people involved in buying complex B2B product offerings. But I’m noticing a trend I hadn’t foreseen:

Marketers are keeping buyer personas in the closet. Yep, it’s true.

I talk with a lot of marketers who insist they have buyer personas, and some who have no clue that they do but find them lurking in a file somewhere once they start looking. In the latter case, it’s usually because a past marketer had them created.

What’s curious to me is that the personas aren’t being used. At all. I even had one marketer admit to me that she had no idea what to do with them, but she’d checked the box since she’d heard all the gurus telling her she needed them.

That’s a plain disservice, in my opinion.

But here’s the real kicker. In nearly every case, once I saw the personas in question, I understood why they were in the closet. They were simply unusable in a B2B complex sale situation.

A perfect example of this is found in a blog post by Vince Giorgi that I’ve been thinking about since I read it. In the post, Confessions of a Buyer Persona Skeptic, he writes:

Ever worked through a persona exercise and found your team spending inordinate amounts of time arguing over whether to name the primary persona Jane or Joanne? Have you seen examples of buyer personas and wondered how somebody decided Jim owns the Jack Russell terrier, but Jasmine has the three cats and two kids (or was it two cats, three kids)? I have this nagging sense that, when personas do get developed, many end up being more suitable as backstory for an actor preparing for a movie role than as firm footings on which to base strategy and creative work.

Which is my point about unsuitable personas in a nutshell.

Let me ask you this: When you develop content for a buyer of a complex B2B solutions, how would the knowledge that your buyer had a Jack Russell terrier apply?

Don’t strain yourself. It doesn’t.

What does apply are insights to the work life, objectives, orientation, and obstacles your buyer faces that could be addressed by whatever you sell. I don’t care if he lives in a tent, a sprawling rambler in the suburbs, or a cramped apartment in the city. That’s not going to influence how he builds consensus with his team to buy cloud storage, beef up his network to enable mobility, or decide to virtualize his company’s call center.

The problem with personas is that people don’t understand what to do with them, so they create them based on their interpretation of getting to know someone and what you might learn about them as you become acquainted on a personal basis. They may look pretty once completed, but they are utterly useless as a tool to inform content strategy.

For personas to become useful tools, they must be based on interviews gathered from salespeople, customer service interactions and the buyers (customers) themselves.

And not just any kind of interview will do. The conversations must be focused on what the buyer is trying to achieve.

  • What’s important to them and what’s driving the change?
  • What’s impeding or speeding their need to change?
  • How do they go about change?
  • What do they need to know to embrace change?
  • Who do they turn to for advice or information?
  • What’s the value they visualize once they make a decision?
  • Who do they have to sell change to in order to get it?
  • What could cause the need for this change to lose priority?

In essence, personas must help us identify how we can help buyers manage and expedite change. That’s really what buying is all about.

If we build personas in this way, then they become instrumental in the development of our content strategies and marketing programs. But there’s another bonus to be had from the intentional development of buyer personas as a tool.

They’re useful to customer service, to salespeople, to lines of business, to product development and R&D. And, if you involve them in the process, they’ll have an investment in helping to apply them to the business in ways that count.

As Vince questioned in his post:

Is ‘personas’ one of the buzzwords we toss around to feel and sound like cutting-edge marketers? Or are we cutting to the chase, doing the good and hard work, and making the investments of time and resources necessary to research, refine and buy into meaningful, actionable buyer personas?

Very good questions, indeed.

Are your personas in the closet? Or are they front and center driving your content strategy and customer-facing business processes?

Stay tuned for more details on the CMI Online Training and Development program. And if you are looking for more guidance on creating buyer personas, read CMI’s eGuide on Audiences.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Ardath Albee

Ardath Albee, CEO of her firm Marketing Interactions, works with B2B companies with complex sales to help them create eMarketing strategies that use contagious content to turn prospects into buyers. She’s the author of the book eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale and one of the Top 20 Women to Watch in Sales Lead Management in 2011. Find out more at Marketing Interactions. Ardath is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program.

Other posts by Ardath Albee

  • Ted Hart Karczewski

    I agree 100% that many businesses don’t know how to use create or use buyer personas. Many marketers focus on what they perceive to be their prospects’ action points, but most are based around insight gleaned through incorrect processes. For example, interviewing clients as a marketer will generate answers that may not be accurate enough to base an entire persona around. Do you think buyers are honest and straightforward to any sales rep? Doubtful.

    In order for B2Bs (or B2Cs) to really understand the various audience segments they should market to, teams have to go beyond traditional interview practices. Spend money to conduct surveys, buy a license to a tool like Sysomos to understand market trends without having to speak to individuals, evaluate site patterns using Google Analytics, Easy Egg, Marketo, to see what’s being read and clicked on, then affirm your persona drafts by speaking to clients. You should already have sufficient knowledge of your segments by the time you conduct a single interview. Otherwise you’re still operating in the stone age when it comes to audience targeting.

    • Ardath Albee

      Hi Ted,

      While I agree that developing personas must go beyond
      interviews, I’m going to take issue with the honesty comment. In my
      experience, this isn’t so. Buyers may not be totally honest with
      salespeople, but that is an entirely different situation when they are
      choosing whether or not to buy. The deal is that when you conduct 10 –
      12 customer interviews, you can see patterns – what commonalities exist -
      as well as to identify anomalies that can be discounted or further
      researched for veracity.

      Surveys are often inconclusive because
      they don’t delve deep enough and you lose any insight to the way buyers
      would phrase their answers or how they would talk about an issue. In
      fact, the way most companies conduct surveys, they are actually setting
      up the answer selections to provide input that they want, rather than to
      learn what they don’t know.

      I agree that analytics ( I think you
      meant Crazy Egg, not Easy Egg?), marketing automation and understanding
      patterns of behavior is important, but I disagree that these are inputs
      for persona development. I’d stipulate that they’re tools for
      developing execution and distribution plans and for increasing
      engagement for the marketing programs you develop. This is an
      after-the-persona exercise. And it’s critical, but it does not
      necessarily inform persona development. Although I’d say that you can
      test a hypotheses against them as it relates to the goals you have for
      specific personas you intend to engage in a marketing program.

      One
      of the most important things about personas is to realize they are not
      “once and done.” They must evolve as your market changes and trends
      emerge. You can apply your learning from behavior analysis and web and
      social analytics to help refine your programs and identify areas for
      further research to enhance your personas over time – and should do so.

      Finally,
      I want to really make the point that if you’re doing research in a
      vacuum and attempting to create personas “without having to speak to
      individuals” you’ve sorely missed the point. You’re doing this work to
      engage with individuals. Don’t jeopardize your project by leaving people
      out of the process.

  • Gasper Rubino

    I haver recently gather all the info I need to create a buyer persona for my company, and I found that as a company we have around 15 different personas. Do you think there can be too many personas? I tried to pare down the number but found it impossible. Each one of our sales buckets has around 4 to 5 personas. The thought of creating relevant content for each is a daunting. What suggestions do you have for that?

    • Ardath Albee

      Hi Gaspar,

      Carlos makes some good points and there can be many personas for a company depending on go-to-market strategy (verticals, industries, etc.).

      What I suggest is to prioritize your personas and take an iterative approach. Otherwise, you’ll try to do too much with limited resources and not do any of it well.

      Start with your sales team. Who do they absolutely need to get into a conversation with for each bucket? Can marketing programs reasonably engage and build relationships with those people? If not, who is the next likely options that could serve as a bridge to the person the salesperson needs to engage?

      There are many other considerations, such as access to subject matter expertise to create great content and skillsets of your marketing team, but figure out how to carve out a niche and how to prove wins to gain more resources for expansion as you go.

      Whether you choose one persona per bucket or one bucket of personas, narrow your starting point and iterate out as you gain wins with your initial focus. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

      In my opinion, it’s much more important to do what you can do well than to try and do it all and end up with mediocre results.

  • Carlos Abler

    Gaspar. No, it’s not too many. Asking if there are too many persona is not quite the right question, because your effectiveness of persona will be driven by both the quality and organization/packaging of information, not volume. Volume solves itself if you get these other factors right. Of course the first hurdle is having effective and useful information about your customers. From there, “organization/packaging” is key because how people “package” persona can have better or worse effect on how useful the information is, whether information gets lost, etc. In my practice I believe I have cracked the nut of persona. I’ve identified three primary categories of customer information with 12 overall secondary categories. There are far more than 12 tertiary categories. Particularly in how you define “psychographics which are ONE of the 12 categories. These 12 secondary inputs (and respective applicable tertiary inputs) become a bit of a Rubik’s Cube of permutations.

    This permutative thing is key because many customers may overlap in psychographics, tasks, and other sub-segmentation types. What is deadly about many personae is their authors pick overlapping inputs as primary hinges (big mistake) and run into endless reductionist or over-simplifying outcomes through artificially assigning inputs to one that may be common to others. In my persona model the primary hinges are Role and Task based. Role and Task account for 4 of the 12 overall inputs I’ve identified. These are by far the safest hinges because everyone is a Role (WHO we are targeting + their market context”), and everyone is doing a task (the WHERE and WHEN of our product/service/content/tool interventions). If you successfully work out the primary role and task inputs, and then map your other inputs in a manner that is flexible to the reality of actual humans, you will arrive at the “right number” and avoid the pitfalls of arbitrarily low numbers or input reductionism that are an epidemic in persona land.

  • ronellsmith

    Ardath,

    Like you, I am also astounded more companies aren’t using personas effectively. It’s as though they have a real fear of the information amassed regarding some of their ideal clients.

    Personas, as a whole, are all the rage in content marketing, however. Marketers are beside themselves with glee in highlighting the knowledge they’ve gleaned, as if conversions are just a matter of time.

    I’m not so sure.

    While building personas can be an invaluable tool for your business, they can also steer companies away from who should be the real targets.

    For example, in mature industries, where information is not hard to acquire–meaning personas are easy to build–it can be tempting to continue catering services to the core market, when the real opportunities exist in serving new markets.

    I always tell clients “You likely know your clients and prospects better than I ever will. My goal is uncover markets you’d never have tapped without me.”

    I love the Jack Russell terrier analogy.

    RS

    • Ardath Albee

      Hi Ronell,

      I respectfully disagree. In most projects I work on, the personas we end up creating (based on what we learn during the process) are usually not what the company expected or predicted – even in mature markets. The trick is looking beyond who inks the deal to who’s charged with research and evaluation. As well as the interrelationships where consensus must be achieved to move forward.

      One of the hardest things involved with creating personas is to put “what you think you know” to the side and go in with an open mind. And I’ll bet your clients don’t really “know” their prospects as well as they should. Assumptions are a big part of the problem with creating relevant marketing programs. We know too much about what we sell. We need to learn to see our prospect’s situations through their eyes. I’d argue there’s always lots to learn, no matter how much you think you know.

      I’d argue that even in “mature” markets, there’s plenty of opportunity to improve your efforts and learn new insights about your markets. The marketplace moves swiftly. What was relevant yesterday, may not be as relevant today.

      • ronellsmith

        Ardath,

        We are largely in agreement. My point was primarily related to personas as the be-all and end-all. They are not. And thankfully so, in light of how much money is thrown at the incorrect “personas.”

        Also, you are correct–and this is a point I make often in my writing: Too many companies do too much assuming as regards who comprises their core audience.

        With regard to mature industries, however, I’m talking “big wins” as compared to steady growth.

        If I’m working with a client who rightly feels as though she has exhausted the potential of the existing market, the smart play is not to look for ways to do more business with that market at the expense of identifying new business opportunities.

        My goal is to ensure we accurately and adequately tap the existing market while exploring new opportunities as well.

        RS

        • Ardath Albee

          Thanks for the clarification! I agree about looking for new opportunities/markets – but they will also need personas :) – or at least modifications to existing personas depending on how adjacent the new opportunity is.

  • Steve Hartkopf

    Hi Ardath,

    We spoke when I was working at TE. But back to the topic.

    In my experience creating personas has not been too difficult. I have a standard template of questions, 13 to be exact, many of which are open ended.

    What does frustrate me, however, are clients that develop solid personas yet still publish bland lifeless content. I’ve seen it many times and it’s usually caused by having a bureaucratic (read committee) content approval process.

    When content has to be approved by several functions the persona is often drained out of the message. Not to be ugly, but if content has to be blessed by Legal and HR before it’s published, you can probably forget-about-it as far as relating to a target audience.

    I understand that Legal and HR are there to protect the company and eliminate risk but too many times the result is weak corporate-speak that appeals to no one.

    • Ardath Albee

      Hi Steve,

      Nice to “speak with you again.”

      I hear you and I’ve been there. This doesn’t always work, but I find that if you get sales and marketing execs on board and pull legal and HR into the project – explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how personas work and why we need to develop the type of content we’re proposing that we can get some leeway. Never as much as I’d like, but if you don’t educate them, you can count on them to use the brand guidelines that were created before digital marketing existed, when real-time marketing, customer centricity and social media weren’t even on the radar.

      It’s a process, but it’s worth the effort. To get the buy-in, executive support is absolutely critical. And go for small wins and prove out the merit of latitude to gain more.

  • http://www.friv2friv4.com/ Friv 2 Friv 4

    They can also steer companies away from who should be the real targets.

    • Ardath Albee

      When done well, I’ve rarely found this to be the case.

  • Producer2

    Sounds like a gigantic bureaucratic exercise.
    The real goal is to identify buyer behavior, pains and information needs – to help sales identify additional high-potential leads and also then to echo those profiles back out through marketing messaging and sales enablement material (e.g. collateral) so additional prospects can also self-identify (the so-called ‘inbound marketing’).
    Top performing sales staff is the best place to get the information, and it should probably be kept within sales and marketing is corporate is going to ‘sanitize’ it (e.g. legal review).
    No wonder most sales forces have no use for marketing.

    • Ardath Albee

      Top performing sales staff is great for gathering information, but if you rely solely on them, you’ll find information that’s not always useful because of the stage of buying when they enter the conversation. What happens before this occurs is a critical component. Just saying. And yes, it takes work. But boy does it pay off when done well and used to connect sales and marketing efforts to create a seamless purchasing process for buyers.

  • Debbie Meltzer

    Hi Ardath, there seems to be a plethora of thought and reactions to your article. I guess you hit the nail on its head – it’s a classic emperor wearing no clothes syndrome. Nobody really wants to deal with the truth. The truth is marketers need to become better listeners. Interviewing a handful of customers with set questions is not enough, we need to let them talk about their pain points and their decision making process. We also need to listen to the consultants, the sales people, the pre-sales, the customer support personnel, the technical support teams…. and then you may start to scratch the surface. Bit by bit the puzzle comes together.I can lecture you to death about the proper marketing processes, but in the end its our EQ skills that crack the initial code.

    • Ardath Albee

      Thanks, Debbie! Listening and EQ Skills – Great points.

  • Sue Duris

    Hi Ardath. As you know, we agree on most things B2B, Personas, Content and this article is no exception. To add, much of the B2B persona work I see is either incomplete or inaccurate and it should be closeted because it either suffers from (1) lack of collaboration with sales and product teams – who are the front lines of businesses – so it is inaccurate or (2) marketing hasn’t gone the distance to research and engage with prospects and it appears incomplete. Many cases it is a combination. If marketers are going to create personas (and remember, personas evolve), it is a journey and must be a collaborative effort with sales and product and something in which takes time and focus.

  • Tony

    Hi, a bit late to the party here. Great artice, I just have a question about personas: do they apply to all businesses?
    I am trying to creating personas for our business, however, as we serve four different sectors, our clients have different needs and interests. Should I quadruple our effort and create content for each sector? Should our website be subdivided for each sector, or would you just pick one to concentrate on?

  • Tejasri

    Great article Ardath. Stark insights on how buyer personas are underutilized. Although it is understandable that B2B marketers drop the ball when it comes to effectively utilizing buyer personas, I believe that it’s the lack of initiative to actually conduct interviews and rather grab data solely from historical information that undermines the role of buyer personas in modern marketing. I read a similar post if anyone’s interested on buyer personas and what it takes to actually get down to the nuts and bolts of it. Find it here http://blog.xerago.com/2013/08/why-buyer-personas-are-not-the-same-as-customer-profiling/