Brand Messaging and Understanding Your Customer
Advertising and traditional sales outreach continue to decline in effectiveness. Consequently one of the biggest challenges B2B technology businesses face is developing branding and messaging that move buyers to take action.
Effective branding and messaging must be closely aligned to how your buyers perceive their needs. “Whoever understands the customer best, wins.”
But a lot of firms get this backwards. They launch branding initiatives without first doing buyer research.
Then they do the buyer research, and realize that their brand messaging is not going to resonate with their target market. This is both counterproductive AND expensive. There IS a better way.
“There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).
For today’s episode, I talked with Marketing Interactions’ CEO, Ardath Albee, an expert on buyer personas and marketing strategy. Recently, Ardath and I have both been working with clients who put the cart before the horse by starting branding initiatives before buyer research.
In both cases, the CEO’s are pushing to complete the brand strategy and messaging as quickly as possible. So instead of being strategic, their teams are just “checking the boxes” to get everything done by some arbitrary deadline. In both cases, they’ve already completed brand messaging BEFORE we completed the buyer research. And in both cases, we’re finding that the brand message is not aligned with how their customers perceive the value of their products and services.
In the podcast, we discuss these stories in more depth and talk about the importance of buyer persona research to branding, marketing and sales. Not doing effective buyer persona research can render your messaging irrelevant or out of step with your buyers.
We also covered:
- How account-based marketing (ABM) and ideal customer profiles (ICP) work together
- Why personas still play a role in an ABM strategy
- Tips for doing ABM at scale
- Using personas for sales messaging
So listen in or read the edited transcript below. I hope you enjoy this episode and would value your feedback.
You can get more information about Ardath and Marketing Interactions via the links below:
Ardath’s book – Digital Relevance
Do you have ideas for future guests? Please send your suggestions to us by .
Edited Transcript for Brand Messaging Without Personas Wastes Time
Candyce Edelen: Thank you for joining me, Ardath. I’m so excited to have you on the call today.
Ardath Albee: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Candyce: One of the things we wanted to talk about today is how organizations should prioritize their branding and messaging efforts in order to avoid getting the proverbial cart before the horse. I know that you have a story of a company that did just that, so can you share what happened?
Ardath: One of my clients, an enterprise IT company, decided to do a rebrand, a reorganization, and launch some new products. They did all of the new brand messaging, new taglines, new logos, new everything, and then called me in to build personas. So, cart before horse, you know?
As we do the buyer research, we’re finding out, of course, that some of the brand messaging they’ve put together is not going to resonate with their target market. So we’re having to go back and rethink and redo. This is expensive and counterproductive.
We’ve worked together, and in my mind they should know better. When I asked why they chose this approach, they said the CEO wanted to speed things up and get everything to market…to get stuff done. So the prioritization that should have been there fell by the wayside. As they checked off the boxes, they got things out of order.
When firms do that, they don’t have a solid plan or messaging strategy. They end up having to do rework because they missed something. In most cases, they would have avoided that if they did things in the right order. For example, get to know your audience first and then build out your messaging strategy.
Candyce: I’ve got a client that’s doing some similar things. They brought me into do persona work, but at the same time they brought in another consultant to do messaging work for their sales decks. This was premature. The buyer research I and the messaging I’m getting from customer interviews is contradicting some of the work that they’ve done on the sales messaging. Like you pointed out, it’s getting the cart before the horse, and it’s a huge waste of money.
Ardath: It is. The other thing that’s interesting is when you do brand messaging work before you’ve done your persona or audience research, you’re basing it on your internal bias. It’s all based on what you think your audience wants to know or how you think they interpret the problem. That’s where you can get really off kilter.
You know too much about your product. So you think you know how “a reasonable person” might look at the problem you’re solving. But you are not your audience. If you try to use what you think as the foundation for building messaging and positioning, you can really miss the mark.
Candyce: It can be the nuance that’s off the mark. I’ve found in my buyer research that the way the buyer articulates value or evaluates the ROI for a product is usually an order of magnitude smaller than how the vendor calculates the same value. If the way that you articulate the value proposition is not aligned with the way your customer articulates the value, you risk being not credible.
Ardath: That’s true, because you’re off-context.
Candyce: Inbound marketing isn’t as effective and is costing more today than it used to. So companies need tools to “hunt with spears instead of nets” so that they can land their ideal customers.
In the past, you’ve talked about the difference between a persona-based strategy and an ideal customer profile strategy. Can you talk about what you’re seeing firms do right and wrong in this area and where they’re wasting money and time?
Ardath: Account-based marketing isn’t new. I’ve been doing it with my clients for years, and I’ve always marketed that way. It just wasn’t called ABM. Essentially, if you’re going after companies that fit your sweet spot, the right kind of customer for you, and you’re marketing to the different people involved in the buying decision, you’ve been doing account-based marketing. Although you may have not been going after 10 specific accounts, you’ve still been doing that kind of marketing.
What happened when ABM came to the fore is that a lot of “gurus” or people talking about ABM thought that the ideal customer profile (ICP) would replace personas, because now we’re marketing to an account and not a lead. That’s the reasoning. The problem with it is that the ideal customer profile defines what kind of company is your ideal customer. It’s based on the technology they use, their size, the amount of revenue they make, perhaps the industry they’re in, their geography, all of these are aspects about the company.
But you still have to sell to the personas. If you are selling to somebody in HR and somebody in IT, they way they’ll talk about a problem and their perspective on how to solve that problem is going to be different. It’s based on the way the issue impacts their role, their department, their team. If you just try to market to the company, you’re not being relevant to the specific roles. The depth of context isn’t there, and so it’s really hard to get everybody on the same page.
Now, I’ve heard it argued that if you market to personas, then you get everybody telling different stories to different people, and they’ll never be able to agree with each other. I totally disagree with that. If you are engaging each persona based on their perspective and showing them how their perspective relates to the others, then you can help them actually have the conversations they need to have internally.
I think ABM is great. I think it’s the way we should be marketing and selling. I just think we’ve gotten ourselves all wrapped around the axle with this new acronym, and people are trying to make up new processes around what’s really just solid marketing.
Candyce: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I think that in addition, companies are getting wrapped around the axle about how much personalization and how much segmentation is realistic. That’s a big challenge. Sales needs to have a very specific conversation with a specific persona from a specific account. That’s feasible in a 1-to-1 sales environment. But Marketing is having trouble figuring out how to do that messaging at scale. What are you seeing that’s working?
Ardath: I’ve been applying what I call pivots for a lot of my clients to help them manage scale. When you do your persona research, quite often there are a lot of areas in the conversation where the different personas need the same information, but just perhaps packaged a little differently. They all need to understand some basic tenants about how to solve the problem. They just need them presented in a context that matches theirs. If you create one body of information, you can then spin it to address the perspectives of five different personas who are involved in that conversation. It’s taking information and figuring out how to present it differently for either the persona or the industry instead of reinventing the wheel every time.
The other thing is we need to think about content in a way where it’s re-purposable at scale. Instead of creating one piece of content, we should already have a plan for 10 pieces that we’ll roll out from this. It might be applied in different formats to different industries or to different personas. This should be planned instead of producing one-off assets. As long as we continue to look at this as “One-off Asset Land,” we’re never going be able to scale.
I think it all begins with your knowledge of your audience.
Candyce: Let’s give the CEOs that are listening to this some perspective if they’re not that familiar with what we’re talking about. What is a persona from your perspective, and why are personas so crucial? And what’s the difference between a persona and the typical customer profile that an advertising agency might do? I’d like you to just talk about that a little bit
Ardath: Sure. A persona is a composite sketch of the target market. It’s built on real people, your real customers, but what you’re looking for are the commonalities that work across them. You don’t want to know that Tony drives a Corvette, so let’s market to men who drive Corvettes that are directors of IT. That’s not going to help you. What you need to know is that Tony’s been in IT for 20 years and he really worries about how he can mentor his team. His goal is to increase the efficiency of his team and get them working on more strategic things instead of tactical things. Let’s just say that’s a summary of Tony.
Then when you have that information, you can apply perspective, talk about how much his team’s going get out of it, how much he’ll be seen as a leader for helping them achieve whatever the goal is…how to address efficiency or what have you. You get those insights from a persona. The problem is that som people think that a title is a persona. Others think they have 52 personas, when in essence, most companies have maybe 5 to 10 tops. A persona is not based on a title. It’s based on a role.
I have created personas where there might be a dozen different titles that could fall into that persona category, but because of what they care about and their objectives, it’s really one persona. This is where we get ourselves stuck on segmentation. We think we have to break everything up by title. Part of the problem is the way we collect information. We ask for title on a form, but if we don’t understand that these six titles are this single persona, we don’t segment appropriately, so then we’re running around trying to create content for 52 different personas, when really, we only need it for 8 or 10.
Ardath: So you need to look at the problems they’re solving, the perspective they have, the objectives they have, and say, “Okay, this issue relates to these different titles, and the same information will serve the needs of people who care about this stuff.”
If you have five personas and you need to touch them 10 times before they move through the buying cycle, that’s 50 pieces of content, not counting website, not counting social media.
Then break it out into industries. Let’s say you target four industries. Now you’re up to 200 versions, right? So it’s a multiplier effect. We get overwhelmed with the multiplication factor. So we think, “That’s too much. We’re scaling back and doing less,” and then we don’t do it appropriately because we’re not looking at the roles.
Another issue is that almost everybody I talk to says they need to engage a C-level person. C-level people don’t want to talk to marketers. They’re not trolling the web most of the time. We need to engage people doing the research and evaluation to report back up to their C-level boss. We have to make sure we’re spending our time and energy engaging people we can get to.
Some of my clients have subject matter experts that are known in their field who can create content that would engage the C-level. But most of them do not have that expert on their teams.
Candyce: One of the challenges that a lot of companies are having is how to get a conversation going and get somebody engaged when they’re not starting their path to purchase on Google. They’re starting their path to purchase by talking to other people or by reading something in the press. So we are using PR and events to try to get out there, but are you seeing other techniques like direct mail helping to get a conversation started with the specific targets?
Ardath: Since ABM has come to the fore, direct mail is back en vogue again. Most people who are doing direct mail are doing in-person events. They’re using direct mail to get people enrolled in conversations or to show up for lunch-and-learns or executive briefing dinners. Events and direct mail are back en vogue with ABM, because they’re targeting a smaller group of people. So they can spend more money to engage these targets, because they’re the right people to engage.
I’m also seeing industries that are coming around to content marketing whose audiences are geared for direct mail, which is something that a lot of us haven’t seen for a long time.
Industrial clients, for example, are looking at industry magazines to see vendor ads. I get told in persona interviews that they want direct mail because they’re out on the plant floor. Even though they have a smartphone and a tablet, they don’t spend a lot of time on them except for tools for the running the equipment and data for what’s going on in the plant.
These are the people who still grab a manual off the shelf if something goes south with a machine instead of going online to look up a YouTube video and figure out how to fix something. Most of my clients are IT companies in some kind of modern industry. As these industrial companies realize that they need to put customer before product, it becomes really interesting.
Candyce: I’ve noticed a transition in terms of who is buying our services today compared to who bought five years ago. Five years ago, we would get calls from CEOs saying, “We need content marketing. Can you come in and talk to us?” Today, many of the CEOs we’re talking to have not heard that term or the term “inbound marketing.” I’m finding companies that haven’t really experimented with content marketing before.
Ardath: I haven’t had that experience, but I am seeing that the people making decisions are a lot younger. They don’t know as much as they think they know, and they’re trying to make decisions without having enough information. I might originally be hired by the CMO, but I’m doing extended projects with people who are in their 20s, maybe early 30s.
They’re directors and VPs. Five or six years ago, I was working with people who were at least in their 40s in those same roles. You keep hearing about the Millennials coming up and how many of them are becoming decision makers and that kind of thing. It’s not unusual for me to run into a VP of marketing who is in their mid-30s and hasn’t had a lot of experience actually executing programs that they’re now in charge of running. I think that’s one of the reasons why people say, “We have a strategy, but no, it’s not documented,” or “We don’t really understand our audience.”
The other thing I see is a lot of job changing. I have clients who are working for their 6th company in the last six or seven years. They just keep moving. There’s a learning curve that goes with that. You have to learn a new product, a new audience. It’s good for me because I get brought on to help them do that, But it’s also an interesting human resources trends. It’s a war for talent. How do we hire the right talent and how do we keep that talent?
People shift jobs very quickly these days. In the past, you could spend your entire career at one company just working up across divisions and seniority levels. Now people are moving around, and not even moving around within the same industry. They’re moving from industry to industry, even.
Candyce: Millennials being in the decision-making roles is interesting to me, particularly in the case where the buyer personas may be old school, especially in the manufacturing industry. So the Millennial needs to wrap their heads around a buyer persona that’s not using a phone to find answers.
Ardath: That’s definitely one of the challenges, yeah.
Ardath: Another issue is when people who did their personas five years ago realize that they need to update them. One of my clients recently realized that one of their personas doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s been replaced by another role. This caught them unaware. Now we’re building that new persona, but until they dug into the data, they weren’t aware that anything had changed in the makeup of their buying group.
Candyce: When you’re updating personas for a given company, how much change do you find over the course of a year or two in the persona needs? Or are you waiting five years where the change can be more radical?
Ardath: It depends on type of company and industry. In technology, I see more change than I do in industrial clients, for example. It also depends on what you’re selling. I remember when I was running a tech company back in 2000. That’s only 17 years ago, but it was all custom installs. We didn’t have SaaS platforms then. Now everything’s SaaS. Firms wouldn’t do a custom install unless they have a specific reason to do that. Everything’s in the cloud now. We didn’t used to have the cloud.
Candyce: It’s all coming out of the operating budget, not the capital budget, too.
Ardath: Right. Things have shifted, and so that means responsibilities have also shifted. Roles have shifted. You mentioned nuance earlier. It’s nuances of things that change. There are little shifts of perspective. But if we don’t update the narrative we’re sharing along the way, it’s obvious. It doesn’t feel like we’re keeping up.
Ardath: If they’re interacting with your content, your story needs to be up to date. For example, take Internet of Things (IoT). How many of us have actually incorporated IoT into our messaging? I got a question during a persona interview the other day where somebody was asking, “How is IoT going to affect this?” I didn’t have an answer for them. I’m not sure my clients have addressed it. But their customers are thinking about it. That’s why we need to update our buyer personas.
Firms need to find out what new questions customers are thinking about. Even if the firm isn’t yet sure it’s going change anything they’re doing, buyers are thinking ahead. We have to figure out what they’re thinking about and address those topics so buyers can see that we can continue to help them meet their business goals as technology and business needs shift over time.
Candyce: Let’s talk about how this affects sales. Buyer personas can be profound tools for the sales department if they’re framed in the right way. That IoT story is a perfect example of helping Sales prepare for questions that the customers might be thinking about. The buyer may not think to ask about it during the sales process, but if the salesperson doesn’t bring it up and their competitor does, they have the potential of losing the opportunity. They might be perceived as not as competitively strong as the competitor, depending on other criteria that come into play in the evaluation.
How are you helping companies from the sales perspective leverage these buyer personas and the nuance that needs to be integrated into their sales conversations?
Ardath: Salespeople aren’t really embracing personas. They’re glad for the additional insight, but they think they already know their buyers pretty well. If salespeople have been around for a while, they’re not really embracing personas. But they are embracing help to improve the relevance of their email communications and their phone conversations.
I don’t know about you, but every day, I probably get 30 or 40 emails from salespeople saying, “Do you have 15 minutes so I can tell you about my company?”
Well, why do I care? Right? I’m not going give up 15 minutes of my time so you can talk to me about your company. Instead, they should be presenting an idea for discussion where they think they can bring value to me. So I’ve been helping my clients’ sales force figure out how to create emails that actually address the needs identified in the personas. I help them figure out how can they reach out with some kind of valuable piece of information and offer to have a conversation where they can provide insight around that topic.
They’re seeing tremendous results. In one example, a sales manager showed me this four email series which basically said, “Give me 15 minutes to tell you about my company.” Then, “Just checking in to see if you’re interested in doing X, Y, and Z.” They were all the kind of emails we just delete immediately. I said, “Nobody is going to read past the fourth word.”
So we started redoing them, and now they’re actually getting more response than they used to. Surprise, surprise.
But then we also had to also work on what that conversation should look like. We didn’t want Sales to get a prospect on the phone and then leave him or her in a pickle where they couldn’t carry on the conversation. We gave them training on how to do that and also provided three or four resources that Sales can pass on after the call to try to continue the conversation.
They’re getting a lot more response because they’re offering something valuable that their persona sees as valuable. That’s how I think personas can really help sales.
Candyce: Yeah, I totally agree. We were recently working with a client that had a trial that was getting 100 to 150 new downloads a week, This is a pretty small company. It was seven day trial, and they sent a nurture email every other day during the trial. But not once did they consider what the customer was trying to accomplish with the trial or facilitate using the software more effectively. It was all company-focused, with reminders like, “Your trial is about to end, you better hurry up, let’s schedule a sales call.”
I said, “Let’s think about this from the customer’s perspective. We can get the salesperson involved and engage the prospect in a conversation, but instead of making it about the trial expiring, let’s teach them how to use it.”
Ardath: That’s what a lot of people don’t get, you have to create an onboarding program for your trial program.
You can say “Here are three fun things you can do right away with your trial product.” Then, “Here’s a couple other tips.” Then, “Take a look at how this other company is using it,” and stuff like that. You’ve got to engage them in that 30 days or 7 days, however long the trial lasts. But a lot of companies don’t get that. Instead, they think, “Someone downloaded the trial. Now we need to get them in a conversation and sell them.” But the prospect needs to be able to use it.
I just helped a client whose tool was great. But if you downloaded it to do a trial and didn’t talk to anybody, you couldn’t figure out how to use it. We had to create resources that walk users through it. We gave them three use cases that they can easily set up themselves. Then they could actually see the value and would be willing to take a call.
Candyce: I just signed up for a product called Acuity Scheduling. That’s what you used to schedule this appointment with me. They are brilliant with the trial nurturing process. They’re funny, they’ve got a great tone. They nurtured me both in the app and via email. They even sent me chat messages while I was in-app to see if I needed help. It was clear that this was all automated, but it was so well done, so thoughtfully done. It’s hard to actually execute on something like that, and I’m sure that it took them a tremendous amount of time to put it together.
I think I’ll interview them because it’ll make a fun podcast interview about how they approached that. It’s brilliant, if you ever want to test out that product.
Ardath: Yes, stuff like that is really hard to do. You have to orchestrate all those different interactions.
Candyce: The amount of planning that it takes to do something like that just cannot be underestimated. No matter how much you think you’re overestimating the amount of work it’s going to take, you’re still going to miss things. It is incredibly difficult to plan all of those moving parts.
Ardath: Yeah, and the more content we get out there, the more interactions we create. If you don’t have everything documented, if you don’t remember, or the person who set something up originally is no longer there, things just fall through the cracks.
We talk about content governance a lot, but we don’t really do it, because we’re in a hurry getting content out and everything. But as things keep multiplying and we get more and more assets out there and more and more programs running and everything else, there’s just a ton of stuff. Trying to remember isn’t going to cut it.
Candyce: This kind of governance and documentation has to be budgeted for. It’s really easy to focus the budget just on the things that are going to generate an immediate ROI. Governance is not going to bring in leads. I think that the focus on marketing having to generate an explicit ROI for everything they do has caused people to forego important projects around infrastructure that is prone to pretty serious breaks.
Ardath: I think it’s also because they’re still looking at it as a numbers game. For example, a CEO of a company I’m working with wanted to make sure that 2,000 leads were generated from a specific event. I said, “Last year, you generated 1,756 ‘leads’. You actually sold two of them. What if this year, we could put a program together where you get 500 high quality leads and you can close 150? Wouldn’t that be better?” He responded, “Well, I don’t know. 2,000? 500? Hmm…”
Candyce: Are you kidding?
Ardath: No. I said, “You’re looking at this wrong. It’s not about the number of leads. It’s about the quality of the leads.” I still have marketers that I work with who are being evaluated on the number of leads they produce for sales. If you give Sales 1,000 leads and 900 of them are crap, what kind of relationship are you going to have with Sales? By the time they dig through the crap leads, how many of the good ones have already moved forward and bought somewhere else? If you gave them 100 leads and they can close 60 of them, then what? Hallelujah!
We get ourselves all screwed up focusing on quantity. Sales still plays that game. You have to make so many dials in order to get so many meetings, and then out of so many meetings, you’re going get so many deals, or whatever. They work this numbers thing, but it’s not a numbers game. It’s a quality game.
I think that’s what everybody’s hoping will be the holy grail of account-based marketing and sales. Its the hope that we will now be focusing on the accounts that are the best match for our solution.
Candyce: One of the problems that I see is the lead generation expectation. When you’re going after those ideal accounts, let’s say you’re targeting 50 or 100 target accounts. Marketing is not going to, “generate,” those leads. Those leads are identified. The accounts are identified, and if you’ve got a decent sales team, they’ve already got relationships with people in those accounts. The credit for generating an account needs to not be a key attribution factor. Instead, we need to track influence and engagement. It needs to be a collaborative process with Marketing and Sales linking arm in arm. Sales can no longer complain, “You didn’t generate enough leads for me.”
Ardath: The whole point is working together. ABM is all about increasing reach within a target organization, increasing engagement with the contacts that create that account, and then building momentum. It’s all about influence, persuasion, engagement. That has to be a joint effort. Buyers are not saying, “Okay,. I’m in the consideration stage, so I should reach out to Marketing.” They don’t think like that. They think, “I need this piece of information in order to move forward. Somebody give it to me.” It’s funny that we’ve drawn these lines in the sand.
The other thing that really gets me is that statistic that buyers don’t engage with salespeople until they’re 60 to 70% of the way through the process. In most of the persona interviews I do, they’re engaging at the beginning with salespeople. They’re trying to figure out: can we solve the problem? Is it worth solving the problem? Can we solve it internally or do we need to go outside? What is it going cost to solve the problem? Who should we consider to solve the problem? They’re getting involved with salespeople at every phase in different ways. It’s not like they decide, let’s do 70% of our work first and then we’ll go talk to vendors.
Candyce: Waiting until your customer is 70% through the buying process is a great way to guarantee that you are not first in the competitive deal.
Ardath: Oh, sure. Somebody else will have influenced them by then.
Candyce: You’re guaranteed that somebody else influenced them. That’s how they form their vision. It’s silly to wait. This is something I’ve had to re-educate a lot of clients about. They used to contact customers earlier. Then marketers started promoting the idea that customers are 70% of the way through…
Candyce: Well, Ardath, I think we have run out of time, so let’s stop there. But this has been really interesting, and thank you so much for participating again today.
Ardath: Thanks for having me. You and I could talk forever.
Takeaways From This Episode
There was a lot of meat in this episode. But I think the key takeaways are:
Do Buyer Research Before Branding
Don’t get market research and branding out of order. You’re not speeding up the process, you’re just costing the company unnecessary time and money. Get to know your audience before building your messaging and brand strategy. If your value proposition is misaligned to the value your customer perceives, you’re likely to lose credibility in the sales process.
ABM Strategies Still Require Persona Targeting
Even if you’re targeting a few key accounts based on your ideal customer profile (ICP), account-based marketing and sales still need to be built around buyer personas. You can’t just target at the firm level and expect to be successful.
In Person Events and Direct Mail are Great Tactics for ABM
Events and direct mail are the two most effective ways to engage buyers who are not trolling the web.
Update Personas Regularly or Risk Irrelevance
It’s important to update personas and your brand messaging on a regular basis. Business needs, technology and the buying committees all evolve over time. Update your messaging based on your buyer’s current reality, or risk being considered hopelessly out of date and irrelevant.
Persona Research is Vital to Sales Enablement
Persona research can help educate the sales team about the buyers and provide them with more effective sales messaging. The findings and quotes from customers can form the foundation for more effective emails and sales prospecting tools.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. If you have ideas for future guests and topics, send your suggestions to us by ..
For additional help with the market research needed to develop buyer personas and customer-centric brand messaging, check out this related content:
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