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B2B Buyer Personas Don't Belong in the Closet

Many 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 solution, 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 worklife, 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?

 

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More Stories By Ardath Albee

Ardath Albee, CEO & B2B Marketing Strategist of her firm Marketing Interactions, helps companies with complex sales increase and quantify marketing effectiveness by developing and executing interactive eMarketing strategies driven by compelling content.

Her book, eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, was published by McGraw-Hill.

Her articles and blog posts have been used for university ezines, published in CRM Today, Selling Power, Rain Today and Enterprise CRM News. Marketing Profs has incorporated her blog posts into a number of their "Get to The Point" newsletters.