I’ve been actively speaking over the past few weeks about a new strategic mindset I believe B2B marketers should adopt today — a ‘mass one-to-one’ strategy. This is a posture where marketing manages scale, targeted, engaged and two-way dialogue with prospects, upstream from sales-team interaction and ultimately with the purpose of paving the way for a sales close. This is much more than mere lead generation; moreover, the growing need for such a strategy really is the natural extension of my recent observations about how the nature of the B2B buyer is changing and the permanent shift this is affecting in the roles of both sales and marketing team members.
The intent of a mass one-to-one strategy is to close an emerging sales-cycle gap — where the buyer is seeking information and having dialogue about a purchase, but is doing so on his/her own terms, mostly online (including via social media) and prior to ever engaging a sales team member. The strategy thus attempts to fill this gap by having marketing replicate and replace some of the engaged, ‘customer-centered selling’ interaction a sales team member might have pursued before the nature of the buyer began changing. The strategy focuses more on initially responding to ‘pull’ and initial ‘inbound’ activity and on conforming to the buyer’s cycle than on driving interruptive ‘push’ tactics. This means knowing the buyer better than ever before. It also means marketing has a more strategic … and complex … role than ever before.
The good news is that the same Internet that brought this change also is fostering new tools to respond to it. By embracing a holistic lead management strategy and by deploying a robust marketing automation platform, marketers can get start to get some control. In fact, mass one-to-one sounds great and is more achievable once you have technology like this in place. Yet most marketers will admit that the idea of building an endless number of dynamic, anticipatory, customer-triggered campaigns for some infinite number of customer types and scenarios is daunting. Where do you stop? How do you get any economies of scale? Such a commitment of time and resources — without limits — can result in a declining return that does not match the investment.
So how do we get our arms around this ‘brave new world’ of B2B marketing and get going with mass one-to-one without blowing a gasket? In particular, how do we focus our marketing automation campaigns to get the most bang for our buck?
I believe the answer — the ‘secret sauce’ — more than ever is personas.
Yes, personas. Let me explain …
… first some background, though. I was asked, in the Q&A portion of a session at B2B Marketing University in Palo Alto a few weeks ago, what I thought was the best way to focus campaign and content development, given a changing buyer and given the related challenges we face today as B2B marketers. Without fully thinking, I said, “Personas.” Just blurted it out. But then I thought about it for a second.
Personas at their core are a marketing approach to identifying prospective customer segments and better understanding the dynamics and situations that define interactions with these segments. They help us put buckets around bigger populations and develop products and go-to-market strategies that are appropriate to their needs and buying patterns. They also help take planning steps such as basic market segmentation to a much more useful level by putting them into context. And in a world where the buyer has more power than ever, they help us get closer to wrapping our marketing around that buyer.
Yet even after saying this, I have concerns about my comment. Personas are one of the most misunderstood tactics in the marketing world. It seems that everyone has an opinion about or a reaction to personas — often from either really good or really bad experiences. Personas also seem to come and go as a trendy marketing concept. In fact, the topic currently is finding a resurgence among the current ‘New Marketing’/Inbound Marketing in-crowd, propelled by guys like David Meerman Scott.
I wanted to dispel some mythology and focus in on what personas really are, and what are they not. Moreover, I wanted to address why they are such a good fit for the new challenges we face today as B2B marketers? I also admit that while I understand and have used personas before, I was not exactly 100% up on the ‘state of the art’ in personas when I proffered my answer onstage in Palo Alto.
So, as I often do, I spent some time digging into this topic, updating my own knowledge and ‘getting smart.’ In particular, I spent time reading posts written by a number of persona luminaries, including: Steve Mulder, a principal consultant at Molecular and author of The User Is Always Right (which I’m also now reading); Laura Patterson, president of VisionEdge Marketing; Angela Quail and Tony Zambito with Goal Centric; Adele Revella, founder of the Pragmatic Marketing seminars; and Todd Wilkens with Adaptive Path.
Here’s my synthesis …
What are personas, and what are they not?
You’ve probably heard about personas before, and more than likely it was related to product marketing. I’ve actually (sort of) talked about personas here before — referring to research and writings by Patricia Seybold around the concept of ‘customer scenarios’ in a past blog post on this site. Product marketers have been successfully deploying personas for some time — particularly in the consumer products arena — as a catalyst for new product and service development (NPSD). This may skew your perspective of personas, though, so let’s be clear that the thinking around personas and their broader marketing applicability is constantly evolving and widening. (And our focus here is meant to embrace this widening.)
Personas are increasingly being applied to the complete range of marketing activities, not just NPSD — meaning that personas are helping to define not only the product or service a buyer may want but also the channels and dialogue that will be the most effective in engaging with a prospect and closing a deal. And in the B2B marketing arena, persons are increasingly being used as a tool for modeling your buyer segments and the buying cycle they go through.
“Understanding not only who your buyer personas are but also how they engage in the buying cycle (and how the buying process is defined) is a ‘new rule’ for the creation of buyer personas,” comments Tony Zambito, president and CEO of Goal Centric, in a post on his Buyer Persona Insights blog.
This is a critical evolution. As I indicated above, an increasing amount of time and energy of B2B marketers is being spent on understanding, responding to and supporting engagement with buyers in the context of the changing nature of the buying cycle. Personas thus represent both a rallying point and a catalyst for more buyer-centric B2B marketing at a time when buyers have more power than ever before — which is why I included this concept in my recent “Seven Principles for Building More Buyer-centric B2B Marketing Programs” post on the Demand Generation blog.
So at a most basic level, what is a persona and what is it not? Laura Patterson, President of VisionEdge Marketing, tackled this in a great post on MarketingProfs:
Personas are archetypal users that represent the needs of larger groups of customers, in terms of their goals and personal characteristics. Think of them as “stand-ins” for real customers. A persona seeks to zero-in on customer behavior and characteristics. A persona is a concise description of a specific customer type.
It’s important not to confuse personas with profiles. Personas are narrative descriptions that bring user profiles to life. Personas present an alternative representation of user profile data that is easily understandable and is designed to communicate customer details that are easy for team members to keep in mind during the buying process.
This helps us better wrap our heads around personas. Building on this — and based on the research I’ve seen — there seem to be a two key characteristics that define effective personas:
> They are insight-based and focused on defining the common core of buyer segments. Effective personas are rooted in research, and they help us understand opportunities for better engaging with B2B buyers. What is an insight? “An insight is a focused observation about a gap between your customers’ actual experience and a possible experience that would either relieve a point of pain or actually take them all the way to enjoyment,” explains Angela Quail, a colleague of Tony Zambito at Goal Centric, in a different post on MarketingProfs. Taking this further, Patterson explains in her article above, “The purpose of a persona is to identify a customer’s motivations, expectations, and goals. Even though personas … are fictitious, they are based on knowledge of real customers. A well-crafted persona enables you to stand in your customer’s shoes and take a more customer-centric view.”
> They combine a descriptive profile with a contextual situation. Effective personas are more than just a profile, as Patterson explained above. They start with a description of a buyer, but they seek to understand the context through which a company might interact with a given buyer — either in the context of a buying cycle or in the context of using the product or service. This is why personas are such a critical tool for B2B marketers. Increasingly marketing has more touch points with a buyer than any other part of the organization, and the marriage of profile with context is critical to modeling effective interactions and to designing marketing programs that will result in higher sales conversion rates. Personas thus become a valuable lens both for analyzing marketing investments and for mapping them to successful programs and tactics.
What are the key elements of an effective B2B persona today?
There are some fundamental differences between B2C and B2B marketing. No question. What makes B2B marketing different? B2B marketers tend to support direct sales forces; theirs is a high-involvement sales process in which a great deal of information is exchanged and a number of stakeholders are involved; products tend to be lower volume, higher price; and the buying process tends to be rational, versus emotional.
B2B is a complex dance with high-involvement by both buyers and marketing/sales team members. This complexity has led many to shy away from personas — viewing them as an oversimplification. “One of the most pressing issues that have surfaced in the last few years with the evolution of personas and with buyer personas in particular is how to address the complexity often found in B2B markets,” explains Zambito in his post above. “In fact, I believe it is the underlying issue that has prevented buyer personas from being more widely adapted.”
B2B personas don’t have to be complex, though, to be effective. In fact, there are just a few key elements that are critical to developing effective B2B personas (building on the two key characteristics defined above):
> Buying cycle definition and alignment: We touched on this a bit above, but it’s critical to re-iterate this point. A successful and useful set of B2B personas must identify and encompass the discrete and addressable set of ‘critical paths’ commonly followed by groups of buyers, and then segment by grouping common ‘like’ paths.
Zambito further explains, “To fully realize the potential of buyer personas today, they need to be part of an overall effort to integrate them with buying process scenarios and a view of the ‘ecosystem’ that is relevant to a specific B2B market. These views are essential to understanding … how as well as why buying decisions are made.”
> Identification of both explicit and implicit ‘critical factors’ in the buying cycle: What are the common traits and actions that lead to sales conversions and that define the ‘critical paths’ customers take? Given this, what are the discrete and definable buckets of these common traits and actions? That’s what we want to find out, but we need a complete picture. This means analyzing and identifying both explicit/demographic factors of these personas and also implicit/behavioral factors. One without the other skews the picture; that’s why we need both.
“Personas can’t make a credible impact on sales and marketing strategies if their description is limited to information about demographics and pain points,” explains Adele Revella, developer of the acclaimed Pragmatic Marketing seminars, in a recent post on her blog.
> Linkage to lead score models and lead management processes: There is no element of B2B marketing planning that lives in isolation. Everything is integrated as savvy sales leaders have always known, and as increasingly-savvy B2B marketers are finding. The same explicit and implicit critical factors that must be identified for the persona are also the factors that should be driving your lead score model, and consequently your lead routing and nurturing processes. Not only should the two be fully aligned and integrated, but the development of the persona can prove to be an opportunity to put ‘flesh’ and real-life understanding back into a lead score model.
Similarly, the scope of the insights driving your personas should take into account the entire lead management process and the entire critical path buyers follow, rather than merely focusing on activity at the earliest stages of the buying process.
Revella addresses these points in her post above. She also highlights how personas can contribute to greater sales and marketing alignment by driving common understanding of the critical path buyers follow:
I suspect the problem with much of the discussion on the blogosphere is that personas are a popular topic for web designers and others that focus on the early stages of the buying and awareness process. Perhaps the simple information they describe is enough for marketers who only focus on the top of the funnel. But this focus is dangerous in business-to-business marketing. While many people believe that marketing is all about lead generation, even highly qualified leads won’t result in revenue until the sales people have the training and tools to overcome the resistance they’re going to face later in the sales process.
Marketers complain that sales people don’t follow-up on their leads, even those that are highly qualified. But who can blame sales people who have various ways to make quota for choosing to sell products where they can anticipate the buyer’s reaction at each step in the sales process. Marketing needs to step up its game, using buyer personas to deliver the training and tools that drive sales funnel conversions.
> Capturing the diverse nature of the modern, savvy B2B ‘buying unit': One of the stark realities that B2B marketers face today is that there is no single buyer. I noted in my recent blog piece on how the nature of the B2B buyer is changing that buyers are “… operating in a more sophisticated fashion than ever. A big-ticket purchase will be evaluated by a team of people, ranging from the initial recommender, to someone making the business case, to a purchasing agent, to legal/finance/etc. It’s a complex process to navigate.”
Zambito echoes this in his blog post above: “One thing that I am sure any person in the B2B markets will tell you is that there is never just one ‘buyer’ in these markets.” He further offers, “[T]his misunderstanding and common pitfall of attempting to create a ‘single’ user or buyer persona can be costly and result in little value.”
Steve Mulder, a principal consultant at Molecular, talks about this in his book, The User Is Always Right, which provides great insights into using personas to drive more effective Web content interactions. “It’s too easy to think and talk about ‘the user’ as if everyone who visits the site has the same goals, acts the same way, and thinks the same way,” says Mulder. “Intellectually, I know my users are very different, but it’s tempting to create a single abstract, idealized user to design [content] for, because it simplifies my decision-making.”
Why do B2B marketers need personas to find success with marketing automation campaigns and with adopting a mass one-to-one strategy ?
This brings us back to the original issue — and the title of this post. This is where the rubber meets the road. Let me say that I strongly believe personas are the secret sauce for effective marketing automation campaigns and the key to achieving a ‘mass one-to-one’ strategy.
Patterson does a great job in her post above of summarizing the top line argument for why personas make sense in B2B: “Personas provide valuable insight into the motivations and personalities of specific buyers and users. While they are simple in form and structure, the information they contain is powerful; it can be applied to decisions throughout the sales-enablement process. Personas can help with understanding specific requirements, facilitating alignment, and expediting the sales cycle.”
Taking this further, I believe there are four specific reasons why personas are critical to helping us respond to the ‘brave new world’ of B2B marketing and find success with marketing automation campaigns. I believe personas:
> Focus company attention and resources on what matters — the buyer and his/her/its needs: I feel somewhat ridiculous calling this out, but I’ve been around the product-centric/sales-led world of B2B for too long and I know this gets forgotten. So this is my first supporting point for ‘why personas.’
“Successful companies recognize that putting users at the center of decision-making is almost always a good idea,” argues Steve Mulder in an interview with Liz Danzico on her Boxes and Arrows blog. And Todd Wilkens agrees in a defense of personas on his own blog: “[P]ersonas have always improved an organizations understanding of their customers because, if nothing else, they become a tangible and explicit artifact for focusing and catalyzing discussion about customers. While this may not always be inspiring, it moves things forward.”
> Focus the development of go-to-market strategy and the design of marketing campaigns: Even for organizations that have a reasonably-enlightened sense of who their customers are, there seems to be tons of go-to-market strategy and specific design of marketing campaigns that remains un-inspired, un-focused and basically just a shot in the dark: ‘Someone buy my product … pretty please.’ Come on, B2B folks, you know this is true. The good news is that having a discrete sense of personas, along with their insights into the critical paths buyers follow in their buying cycles, is a quantum leap. This totally (re-) focuses the development of your go-to-market strategy and gives you rationale for how you should design your campaigns. This is particularly helpful when it comes to the issue of which channels and in what sequence. If you know your buyer personas, this stuff is easy.
> Rationalize content development in terms of buyer dialogue: Content development is consistently one of the greatest challenges B2B marketers find themselves wrestling with. Too much content gets developed in a vacuum. Personas change everything. If you know your buyers and their personas, then it’s a breeze to develop content that aligns to the buying cycle and that propels forward a coherent dialogue — something I touched on in a recent Demand Generation blog piece.
Personas also give insight into aspects of the content you probably aren’t really even focused on today. Steve Mulder in his book above comments, “In any medium, effective communication can make or break a relationship between a business and a user. The content is important, but so are the style and tone in which it is delivered, which is why it needs to be tailored to the users you’re serving. And by ‘content,’ I don’t just mean text, because imagery and multimedia also contribute to the messages you communicate.”
> Are critical to efficiently scaling your marketing automation campaigns: This closes the loop. We all want mass one-to-one, but we can’t develop infinite numbers of campaigns, tracks and content. Personas keep us focused and allow us to know when to stop. If we’ve identified 5 major clusters that we can describe in terms of personas, we can ‘go deep’ with these and knock the content and dynamic tracks for these campaigns out of the park. This is a lot harder to do if you try to design an individual track for every possible buyer you might come in contact with. Truth is that while we truly want to get to mass one-to-one, we still need to get some economies of scale. Personas enable us to intelligently access economies of scale as marketers without losing sight of buyers’ needs and/or missing opportunities for real engagement.
So what are the best practices for designing and implementing B2B buyer personas, and how can a B2B marketer get going with personas? I’ll cover this in a follow-up post early next week on the Silverpop Demand Generation blog. Stay tuned …