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Who Should Be at the Center of Your Sales and Marketing Alignment?

Are your sales and marketing teams aligned?

“Of course,” you say. “We meet once a week and the communications between us have never been better.”

But that reasoning isn’t enough. The answer also can’t just come from the chief marketing officer, the vice president of sales, or even the CEO.

No, the determiner of sales and marketing alignment at your company is the buyer.

Adele Revella, founder and CEO of Buyer Persona Institute, shared that revelation and more in her presentation, Your Buyers Are Stressed, But You Can’t Stop Marketing, at CMI’s 2020 Demand Gen Summit.

She urges sales and marketing teams to consider buyers first – especially their circumstances and needs in the moment.

“Think about your buyers before you decide what content you’re going to build or how you’ll go to market,” she says. “It’s a really simple idea. We need to listen to what the buyers need and then build all of our strategies around that.”

Listen to what buyers need and build all your strategies around that, says @buyerpersona via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

Adele continues, “When we really align with sales around buyer needs, then sales isn’t driving decisions about marketing and marketing is not driving decisions about sales. The buyers are driving the decisions.”

Content marketers can help sales now

The pandemic has upended sales pipelines, forcing sales teams to reevaluate the customer segments they target as budgets and priorities shift. “Sales is finding the industries and companies whose needs are accelerating because of this crisis. They’re also identifying companies that are just in too much pain right now and filtering them out,” Adele says.

Content marketers should work closely with sales teams to learn about those shifting priorities and changing customer characteristics. In tandem, content marketers can share how they see the audience’s content interests and needs evolving. This alignment enables the content marketing team to create new or update existing content to better target the updated segments and personas. You can shift messaging from long-term outcomes to focus on short-term objectives.

Buyer-determined alignment between sales and marketing can bring good news. Adele shares research from SiriusDecisions that shows the quantifiable benefits:

  • Lead conversion rates double.
  • Content adoption rates increase 50 to 80%.
  • Click-through rates increase 36 to 48%.
  • Close rates are 30 to 40% faster.
#Sales and #marketing alignment can double lead conversion rates, according to #SiriusDecisions via @CMIContent. #research #CMWorld Share on X

It all starts with buyer personas

When sales and marketing alignment is rooted in buyer needs, buyer personas are what embody those needs. According to Adele’s definition in part, a buyer persona is:

Built from the real words of real buyers, a buyer persona tells you what prospective customers are thinking and doing as they weigh their options to address a problem that your company resolves.

Buyer personas with simplistic profiles (e.g., “Jane is a 35-year-old manager who drives a sedan”) are not effective. Instead, Adele says, buyer personas should capture “the specific attitudes, concerns, and criteria that drive prospective customers to choose you, your competitor, or the status quo.”

Personas capture what drives your prospects to choose you, your competitor, or status quo, says @BuyerPersona via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

Those attitudes, concerns, and criteria are discovered by interviewing customers and spotting common patterns to build a full picture. In furthering her persona explanation, Adele writes, “The ROI is this simple: When you know how to help buyers evaluate your approach on their own terms, you build a bond of trust that competitors can’t match.”

To create a buyer persona, content marketers need only five insights, which Adele calls the “Five Rings of Insight,” gathered from buyer interviews:

  1. Priority initiatives – What causes certain buyers to invest in solutions like yours? What is different about buyers who are satisfied with the status quo?
  2. Success factors – What operational or personal results does your buyer persona expect to achieve by purchasing this solution?
  3. Perceived barriers – What concerns cause your buyer to believe that your solution or company is not their best option?
  4. Buyer’s journey – Who and what impact your buyer as they evaluate their options and select one?
  5. Decision criteria – Which aspects of the competing products, services, solutions, or brands does your buyer perceive as most critical? What are their expectations for each?

How to interview for buyer personas

Interviews are an essential element of building buyer personas. You cannot substitute them with polls or surveys. “The only way to gather clear, unexpected insights about how your buyers make decisions is to have a conversation with them,” Adele says.

You only gain clear buyer insights by talking with them, says @buyerpersona via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

Her interview process feeds into the Five Rings of Insight. The interviews seek to discover buyer insights at each stage of the buying process:

  • Awareness
  • Research
  • Evaluation
  • Purchase

Awareness: Buyers explain why this need is a priority

Buyer persona interviews are open-ended and almost unscripted. Act like a journalist who’s trying to get to the bottom of a story.

To assess awareness, begin with this fill-in-the-blank statement: “Take me back to the day when you first decided you might need X and tell me what happened …”

That kickoff question is the only scripted question for the awareness section of the interview. Now, you adapt follow-on questions based on the answers. For example, if a person mentions certain product benefits, the next question could be: “You must have always wanted those benefits. What changed to make that a priority at that moment in time?”

The follow-up answer helps you understand what caused the customer to go from a latent need to an active need. This insight can help inform your content and campaigns.

To dive deeper, restate a prior comment and ask for more. For example: “That’s really interesting what you said about the need to have all of your customers connected. Tell me more about that?”

Research: Buyers explain how and what

In the research stage, you want to understand what buyers did to find solutions that might work. “As marketers, this is gold because we’re now getting to hear whether our buyers did Google searches, went to a conference, looked at the Gartner Magic Quadrant, or called a friend,” Adele explains.

Do not accept the simple response (e.g., “I did a Google search and visited a few vendor pages”). Go deeper to discover:

  • What they wanted to learn
  • What they ended up learning
  • What the barriers were to learning
  • What challenges they encountered

The answers can help you understand how to adapt your content marketing to better satisfy the buyers’ needs.

Evaluation: Buyers disclose their questions and concerns

With B2B purchases, buyers commonly start with a broad set of vendors, then whittle it to a short list. In this segment of the interview, you want to understand how customers eliminate vendors.

“We start to get insight into the buyer’s mindset about choices, all of the perceived value. Remember that decisions can be made based on perception. It’s not necessarily the truth. So, we want to know what perceptions buyers had about the different solutions,” says Adele.

She notes that the first answer to any question is never an insight. You need to keep probing to uncover more interesting insights.

Here are sample questions she uses in the evaluation stage:

  • How did you decide which solution was easiest to use?
  • How much training did you think you needed before it was easy?
  • How did that affect your decision to take that provider to the next step?

If the answers aren’t sufficiently detailed, use this simple phrase to get more information: “That’s interesting what you said about [X]. Tell me more.”

Purchase: Buyers explain who, how, and why

B2B purchasing decisions usually involve complex processes and multiple people. It can take days, weeks, months, or even years. In the purchase stage of the buyer persona interview, you want to uncover how the final decision was made:

  • How did they come to a consensus?
  • What did they have to do to get the purchase approved?
  • Who gave the final signoff?

Don’t forget to interview the economic buyer

The pandemic has caused a change in B2B purchases – the economic buyer is figuring more prominently. As Adele explains, “The economic buyer is the persona who owns the budget for the buying decision you need to influence.”

The economic buyer is the #persona who owns the budget for the buying decision you need to influence, says @buyerpersona via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

That’s a change for sales teams accustomed to working with the lead evaluator (i.e., the person leading the buying committee). That’s why economic buyers should be part of your persona interview process.

“With the world’s economy under stress, it’s become more important to focus on the economic buyer – the senior executive who is adjusting the company’s buying priorities to decide which investments will be accelerated and what must be delayed,” Adele says.

Are you aligned?

While there are many ways to keep sales and marketing teams aligned, the key connector is a shared set of well-defined buyer personas based not only on the information collected and observed by sales and marketing but through customer interviews.

How do you assess sales and marketing alignment in your organization? Is the buyer the arbiter of its effectiveness? Use the comments area below to share your insights or suggestions.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute