Buyer Personas for Radically Relevant Marketing

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing and Content Strategy

Identifying buyer personas is the key to a killer B2B marketing strategy.

A couple weeks ago, I had an opportunity to talk with Ardath Albee, someone who has had huge influence on PropelGrowth since we read her first book, eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale in 2010. She’s recently published another book, Digital Relevance. If you haven’t read it yet, then order a copy today. You won’t regret it. The book is packed with practical wisdom on how to take your marketing from irrelevance to “radical relevance.”

Become Obsessed with Understanding Your Buyers

Marketers need to become obsessed with understanding their customers. Albee cites multiple studies that found that the majority of digital content created by marketers never even gets used, and that more than 30% of what is used misses the mark for buyers. She cites a study by Fournaise Group that found that over 70% of marketers failed to deliver the measurable business results expected of them. Albee concludes that the reason these marketing programs aren’t delivering is because they’re not relevant to the buyers. The only way you can create content that is radically relevant to your buyers is to do the research on what those buyers want.

Invest the Time to Get Buyer Personas Right

During our phone call, Ardath said she won’t do any strategy or content work for a client before she does the buyer persona research. She said it takes her 6-8 weeks to create buyer personas, allowing for internal interviews with her client, external research, and scheduling customer interviews. We find similar timeframes in our work. Don’t underestimate the level of effort required to create effective personas.

Interview the Right People

A lot of marketers get sloppy with buyer persona development. Most don’t interview customers at all, and if they do, they only interview the delighted customers who’ve been clients for a while and are great references. But I find that these people bought so long ago that they don’t remember the process they followed, if they were involved in the decision at all. They look back on their buying decision with rose-colored lenses. Hearing that your company is awesome doesn’t help you as a marketer trying to figure out how to communicate with skeptical prospective buyers who don’t trust you yet.

Gather Relevant Information

I also see firms focus on all the wrong things and overlook the important elements. What difference does it make if your B2B persona has a dog, kids, or lives in the suburbs? How is that going to influence their buying decision?

The important elements to learn are things like what issues bubbled to the surface to make them need to start looking for solutions? How did they go about researching the problem? Note: most people DO NOT resort to Google as a first step in research. Usually, they talk to colleagues, other vendors, channel partners, and friends. They don’t usually start a web search until they get some ideas of what to look for. And then, most find that Google is not very helpful for figuring out complex problems. In fact, when I interview buyers of financial technology platforms, I generally hear that their Google searches unearthed little of value until AFTER they had surfaced vendors through other sources.

Ask About the Shortlisting Process

Once they had surfaced some options, ask them what kinds of information they searched for to validate their options. Usually, buyers are searching for a couple kinds of information – what other vendors they should consider – and which vendors they should scratch off their list.

Most of the buyers I’ve interviewed find this process of shortlisting vendors frustrating and annoying. They can’t find basic information that gives them a sense of which vendors will meet their core needs as they understand them at the time. It’s incumbent on you as the marketer to find out what they were looking for, create that, and make it findable on your site.

Identify the Buying Committee

You also need to find out who else in the organization they needed to convince and what it took to convince those people. That’s your buying committee. There’s never just one person involved in a complex B2B decision, and every person has a different agenda. Many times, the team that is advocating your product has to do a huge sales job internally to convince the organization. They need to do a cost/benefit analysis, get satellite teams on board, and convince IT. Often, they need to do a preliminary cost/benefit analysis before they can even get the resources to seriously evaluate vendors. Yet, most vendors don’t publish enough pricing or ROI information to give them the insight they need to do that. Are you preventing your buyers from buying because you don’t give them the information they need to convince their teams.

Ideally, you should interview at least 3 or 4 key members of the buying committee for a single client as you’re working on persona development. It really helps to get more color on different points of view. For example, in interviews I did this week, I learned that one key evaluator really wanted screen shots of reports the system produces, even though he knows these are heavily customized by the end user. The second, more senior decision-maker said the screen shots would not be that meaningful, he was more interested in videos of the workflow needed to create the reports. If you know this, you’re better prepared to support both personas.

Timing is Everything

If you don’t interview customers right after the heat of that battle, they won’t remember the important details of their buying process. And if you want to be radically relevant, then you must get those details. For example, I find that customers forget what other vendors they considered within a month or two of the selection decision. They might remember the closest contender, but they won’t remember the others. Within 6 months, they’ve completely forgotten what had to go into the business case.

Interview Losses and No-Decisions

Another place marketers don’t usually go is interviewing customers who selected your competitor or who decided to stick with their status quo. I find that interviews with these people lend even more insight than the customers we’ve won. It’s incredibly helpful to find out what they didn’t like, what information they were missing, how the decision process flowed, and how frustrating the selection process was. But again, it’s important to do it as quickly as possible after Sales realizes they’ve lost the opportunity. If you wait 6 months, they won’t remember the process.

Creating a Continuum of Content

Ardath’s book focuses on the concept of a continuum of content that flows through the buying stages. She writes, “The continuum approach has a direct overlay to the stages of the buying process and the questions your prospects will need to have answered as they move from stage to stage.” The book lays out a grid that shows you what the buyer is doing at each stage, what it takes to move them to the next stage, and what questions they’re asking. If you overlay your persona research onto this grid, you’ll be able to create a flow of information that answers the customer questions at each stage, and nurtures them through the process.

The marketing strategy naturally falls out of well-researched buyer personas. It will give you a clear vision of what kinds of content is needed, who’s interested, how to make it findable, and how to measure the level of interest for lead scoring.

You’re Never Done

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that buyer personas are never done. In our conversation, Ardath says she encourages clients to review and revise personas at least annually, because situations change, markets evolve, economies shift. Personas should be active, living tools that you update regularly and refer to every day as you execute your marketing strategy.

For more insight on this topic, check out these resources:

Ardath Albee’s blog
The 4 Stages Of The Financial Technology Buying Process
White paper on using content to support the buying cycle
Buyer persona template