B2B marketers are directing an increasing percentage of their energy and budget towards content creation. But the consequent focus on quantity rather than quality is leaving B2B buyers unimpressed: according to Peter O'Neill of Forrester, more than 3 out of 4 believe that vendors are generating too much material for them to sort through.
Much of the content is simply a weakly disguised product pitch. But even when the content addresses a relevant issue, it often leaves the reader feeling that they have been subjected to a worthless re-hash of ideas they were already familiar with, and that they have learned nothing new.
One thing is obvious: if you don’t know what your target audience is likely to see value in, you’re unlikely to be able to create the sort of content that will engage them and make them want to learn more. So B2B marketers are now seeking salvation in buyer personas - but many are making unfortunate and avoidable errors in their implementation…
In my experience, a lot of the blame rests with marketing agencies who have swallowed the buyer persona phenomenon hook, line and sinker without sufficient regard for the profound and dramatic differences between B2B and B2C buying.
B2B is complicated
The B2B buying decision process is complicated. It typically involves a number of stages and multiple stakeholders. Significant amounts of effort may be involved, and significant sums of money may be at risk. If consensus cannot be achieved, the most likely outcome is a decision to do nothing.
Let’s be clear: I believe that, when properly crafted and based on genuine research-based insights, buyer personas can be an incredibly effective tool for B2B marketers. But the process needs to take account of the complexities of B2B buying, and avoid the irrelevancies.
Stop the vacuous speculation
In short, it’s time to kick the Shih Tzu out of B2B buyer personas. Vacuously speculating on what dog your archetypal prospects own, how many children they have or what sports team they support has no relevance whatsoever to crafting messages that will resonate with a B2B audience.
What’s worse, if your sales people see anything that trivial in a buyer persona, they have every right to laugh marketing out of the room, and the marketing department will have suffered another well-deserved hammer blow to their credibility. It’s time to put the trivia aside.
9 essential elements
So what ought to be included in B2B-focused buyer personas? Ardath Albee, author of the excellent “Digital Relevance”, is one of the leading experts in this space - and she identified 9 key elements in a recent webinar (you can watch the video here).
- You’ve got identify what their key responsibilities and objectives are
- You’ve got to identify the problems that are preventing them from achieving these objectives
- You’ve got to anticipate the obstacles that could prevent them from taking the next step
- You’ve got to anticipate the questions they are likely to ask at each stage
- You’ve got to understand the personality traits that are typically associated with the role
- You’ve got to understand what keywords and phrases they might use when searching for solutions
- You’ve got to understand how to engage them at each stage in the buying decision journey
- You’ve got to be able to understand what a day in their life is like
- You’ve got to understand how they consume information - and not assume it’s all through social media
And just in case this wasn't already clear: no dogs, no family and no vague generalities. But beyond that, you've also got to take into account the fact that they are part of a decision-making team, and that their relationships with their colleagues are going to be critical for the outcome.
You’ve got to be specific, rather than generic, in your conclusions - for example an objective to “grow revenues” is far less helpful than understanding that they need to "strip out the inefficiencies from their go-to-market process" when it comes to identifying compelling topics for content marketing.
You can’t afford to make this stuff up
I’ve seen too many buyer personas that seem to have been solely based on speculative internal conversations between members of the marketing team. There is simply no substitute for getting out there and interviewing your key customers and prospects. But - as Ardath points out - these interviews need to be conversations, and not interrogations, and you need to be prepared to adapt your line of questioning in the light of what you hear.
How many personas do you need?
The latest research from the CEB found that the typical B2B buying decision involves an average of 5.4 stakeholders. So does that mean that you need 5-6 separate buyer personas to have any chance of understanding their motivations?
Fortunately not. Stakeholders tend to fall into one of three clusters - strategic, operational and technical. Members of these clusters tend to think about the world in broadly similar ways. So if you start by crafting representative buyer personas for these three archetypes you will have gone a long way to understanding their role in the buying process.
Help is at hand
One of the problems with the traditional approach to buyer personas is that it is a static process, supported by very little enabling technology. But if Cintell, a Boston-based start-up has anything to do with it, this is all going to change. Their solution is in beta at the moment. I suggest you keep them on your radar.
Oh and by the way: organisations have personas too...
p.s. the Shih Tzu in the photo is called Poppy. She's absolutely delightful. But the only purchases she influences are dog-related.