True story: we were sitting around the table with a client a few months back talking about a few new blog post ideas. We’d been hired to replace an underperforming marketing agency a few weeks before, and were looking for some simple customer-related background information to start crafting new content.
The client was an international technology company that had been struggling with sales in the US, and their content marketing efforts over the previous 2 years had been robust, but netted little in the way of results. Yes, some of the content had resulted in traffic, but few of those visitors converted into reasonably qualified leads (has this ever happened to you?).
We asked them probing questions like “how do customers get to your website now?”, “what problem does your product solve for your customers?” and “how does your product compare to competitors in solving these problems for your customers?” They didn’t know the answer to many of these questions. And before you start to judge them, most of the companies we talk to struggle with exactly the same challenge: they don’t know who their customers are, how they decide to buy, and why they buy from our client. They’ve never developed buyer personas. I’ll tell you how this ended (quite happily, I might add), later on.
The challenge facing sales and marketing in today’s B2B buying climate
Part of the problem lies in the changes that have impacted the B2B buying journey. Customers are more empowered than ever. More of the sale happens before the buyer even talks to someone from your company. And there are more influencers involved in the decision than ever before. A single person might be responsible for the buying decision, but that person isn’t working in a vacuum. They will have influencers impacting that decision, and they’ll need to debate and defend the decision to buy your product or service to other team members, leadership, and sometimes even to a Board of Directors (we just went through this with another client).
Your buyer will have to live with the consequences of this decision for a long time—whether it works out—or not. Because of this, it is imperative that you have alignment between sales and marketing, and truly understand who your ideal customers are, and what they really need from you. The difference between a failed campaign and successful one might be a single detail that you never knew—unless you had a proper understanding of your buyer.
So, how do we define a buyer persona in 2015?
In the rush to develop sales and marketing programs that generate revenue and ROI, a lot has happened over the last few years. One of those things has been the emergence of buyer profiles: nicely formatted demographic and firmographic data that is easily acquired, but more often than not, when leveraged alone, useless. How often have you seen a persona that mentioned that your buyer has two cats at home, while you are selling a cloud-based accounting solution to them? Unfortunately, many marketing agencies are still leveraging these flat, unhelpful and unaccessible documents, that are out of date the minute they are presented to management. These profiles never make it out of marketing, and become useless files buried on some server, never to see the light of day. Based on nearly a decade of experience, I define personas a little bit differently.
I see a persona as a living, breathing document that captures situational conditions surrounding problem solving—essentially a tool that can be used by the entire organization—to help move prospects and customers along through their journey. Yes, these personas will include some demographic and firmographic data (we do need to qualify our buyers), but the focus will be more the challenges your prospect is trying to solve for, the circumstances and influencers that surround the buyer, and how your particular product, service, solution or app will solve those problems. This persona will also evolve over time, as a prospect moves through their unique buyer’s journey, and into the customer lifecycle. I call these “adaptive personas”.
Adaptive Personas result in true ROI
In the middle of 2014 my agency was hired to market a large technology-focused global organization. The organization was mature, and had strong ties to global tech brands you’d easily recognize. The scenario looked something like this:
- They had 3 core (and distinctly different) offerings for customers
- They were marketing to 7 vastly different markets
- Within each of those markets, they were marketing to middle management up through the C-suite
At the time we were hired, they had a single value driven message they were putting out their to their audience. But think about it this way: the value you provide to a middle manager is different than that you bring to the C-suite. The value you bring to TelCo is probably different than you would bring to the Department of Homeland Security. The value you bring through one offering (consulting) is different than you bring through another (software or standards development). If you think of this as a 3 dimensional cube with “offering” along one axis, “markets” along another axis, and “role/responsibilities” along a third axis, you get an equation that looks like this:
x 7 markets
x 4 roles/responsibilities =
84 unique/personalized messages
Personalized marketing is critical to reaching customers today. In this case, their previous efforts based on a single value proposition/messaging were not yielding the results they needed to be a success. After segmenting their groups, mapping their messaging to distinct persona types, and leveraging content marketing instead of traditional push marketing, their program saw a dramatic up tick in traffic and leads.
So, what are the components of successful personas in 2015?
There are a lot of flavors of personas out there. We’re still seeing a lot of easy to access, yet useless demographic data being used as the sole aspect of personas that end up as a part of a powerpoint presentation or locked in a PDF on someone’s laptop. They aren’t leveraged beyond an initial strategic marketing presentation, and they certainly don’t extend to inside or outside sales teams. We take a slightly different approach to persona development, and that helps create programs with a higher probability of success. Here are what we see as the critical components of an adaptive persona.
In spite of what I may have said above, demographic data is important in determining factors like age, geography and preferences. These factors influence tactical details like what platforms to engage with your audience, timing of campaigns, and cultural influencers. You may be able to assign a personality type in this area, depending on your particular methodology for marketing.
I once had a CEO tell me to “boil the ocean” (meaning go after everyone and everything). Impossible. No matter what our best intentions, we can’t make everyone happy and go after every market. Understanding and focusing on a few markets will help you come up with more specific, custom campaigns than high level generic versions that “appeal” to everyone, but never result in quality leads for sales.
Your persona will help determine the circumstances, conditions and reasons that the purchase of your solution becomes a priority for your prospect. This is particularly helpful in moving a buyer through a funnel, and helping sales close the deal.
Measure of Success
The measure of success is the yard stick (I’m dating myself) that your prospect will use to determine whether your solution was implemented properly or not. Don’t forget: your buyer will be expending a certain amount of political capital and resources to get buy-in for your solution, and knowing what their expectation of what it takes to be a success will be critical in marketing to them, and sealing the deal.
Barriers are any obstacles or objections your prospect will experience (or create themselves) that prevent them from moving ahead with your solution. If you can anticipate these, you have a better chance of moving them through your funnel.
B2B decisions are made by committee. People don’t make big purchase decisions (like enterprise-wide SAAS solutions) in a vacuum. What will sway your decision maker may not be a positive to the CFO. What is interesting to the CIO may not be of interest to the Director of Marketing. Knowing who is influencing the decision will allow you to supply your buyer with the necessary ammunition to help be your internal champion when discussions (and ultimately objections) arise.
We’ve heard a lot about the buyer’s journey over the last few years (thank you Hubspot), and understanding how/where your prospect researches and defines their challenges, evaluates and eliminates options, and ultimately makes a final decision is critical to your campaigns. This is the aspect of the persona where you can start attaching relevant content, keywords and an elevator pitch. This allows marketing to directly support sales with information, materials and data that will help close the deal.
We know you have the most amazing technology on the planet, and it should be flying off the shelves. But it’s not. Why? Because what you care about and what your buyers care about are typically two different things. You must understand what aspects of your product or service are important to your buyer and how they impact their decision to choose you over your competition. Your job will be to find the magical middle ground between your prospect’s needs and your solution.
Personas will contain some generalized data, as noted within Demographic and Firmographic Data above. But you will need specific information that will actually dig into details that influence and impact your sales and marketing programs. For example, you will want details on your persona’s specific challenges they face, and what they need to overcome those challenges. You will also want to note what you may be able to do to help this persona achieve their goals.
On a softer side, any personal information that can be leveraged and attributed across people that fit into this persona will be extremely helpful. If you’re able to capture this personality’s passions, aspirations, motivations—social data, this will help you create more personalized marketing campaigns, and connect better with them during the sales process.
International technology firm redux
So back to the international tech firm. In developing a few key personas, mapping out content required for each of the buyer journeys, and generating content specific to the personas (and optimizing that content for search engines), that client is getting more visitors, more social shares, and more inbound leads. They’re pleased.
Final thoughts (for now)
If you’ve stuck around this long, I have a few last thoughts. It’s important that you keep in mind that the persona is meant to be representative of your target buyer—not necessarily one specific person. For example, if your ideal existing client is Marketing Manager Mary for a software development firm, you don’t want to replicate her exactly—that would be impossible—EVERY customer is unique. Marketing Manager Mary will help guide the development of your persona, but you should be interviewing and interacting with others to inform this persona—as each individual buyer sheds additional light on the entire buying process. Focus less on demographic data, and more on the particular challenge Marketing Manager Mary is looking to solve. It’s more important to know that Mary struggles with a business challenge than it is to know that she’s 35, has two kids and 1 dog.
Do you build out adaptive personas today? Are you leveraging a particular process or tool to do so? If you find that your marketing is generating enough leads, but not the right quality/qualified, you may have misalignment with your personas. We’d love to hear what marketing challenges you’re dealing with!