B2B Buyer Personas – No Shortcuts

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing and Content Strategy

B2B marketing legend Ardath Albee answers questions on buyer personas and strategy with Candyce Edelen.

Actionable buyer personas are arguably the most critical component to a B2B marketing strategy. Yet, in most enterprises, this component is either missing completely or is woefully inadequate. According to a study done in May 2014, only 15% of respondents felt they were effectively using B2B buyer personas in their marketing activities. I would posit that this is because most buyer personas are virtually useless. They are poorly executed, emphasize demographic information over qualitative research, and provide little or no insight into how marketing content can influence a buying decision.

A few weeks ago, I had an in-depth conversation with Ardath Albee about her new book Digital Relevance. We talked about buyer personas, and Ardath kindly followed up with an email responding to additional questions. I want to share her comments along with my thoughts for how firms targeting the financial industry can dramatically improve the relevance and effectiveness of their marketing programs.

B2B Buyer Persona Templates

Question: Lots of firms publish buyer persona templates. We offer one on our site. I find it very helpful for guiding interviews, but it doesn’t always work for the output. Do you use a template? What does the work product for a persona look like? Is there a one-size-fits-all approach?

Ardath: “Yes – I do use a template that has evolved over the years and continues to evolve as I incorporate new elements. It’s in a slide deck with 10 to 12 slides per persona, depending on the number of personas in the project. The additional slides are usually built to showcase the relationships between the personas.”

Candyce: I think that slides are very helpful for educating the team about the needs of the individual personas, and this can make an effective sales tool. Sometimes, it also helps to lay out critical components in a spreadsheet where you can look at the related people side-by-side.

Work Effort Required

Question: You mentioned that a buyer persona usually takes 6-8 weeks to complete. But often people think they can slap these together in a day-long working session. Can you give a sense of the work effort, so readers understand the level of effort required to do those right? How many interviews do you usually have to do?

Ardath: “Interviews are definitely the most time consuming part of the persona development process. I start with the marketing and product teams to learn about the solutions and industry and what types of marketing programs they’re capable of executing. There’s no sense in building six personas if the marketing team can only execute against two or three of them, for example.

“Then I talk to the salespeople. Depending on the size of the company and the variance in target markets, this can include from 5 – 10 interviews. Then, I may talk to customer service, R&D, and even some heads of business units.

“Next I interview customers. I like to have at least 3 – 5 interviews within each target segment. If it’s possible, I’ll also interview people that match the personas from lost deals.

“Then the external research begins. This includes reviewing 50 – 100 LinkedIn profiles of people who could be representative of each persona. Then I search for industry and analyst reports to identify trends and try to map them back to what was learned in the interviews. Then I do a keyword analysis for each persona. And I research where they hang out online and how they use social media.

“Once all of this is done, the work of extracting commonalities for each persona begins so that I can actually build them. This is why it’s hard to develop personas that serve to actively inform content strategy development and program execution.”

Candyce: Many financial technology firms skip the interview step because they’re reluctant to directly contact clients. In some cases, it’s because they’ve been denied access when trying to do press releases about client wins. But refusal to do a press release doesn’t mean the client will refuse to do an interview for market research, as long as they know they won’t be quoted.

Most financial institutions have a policy that essentially says “get quoted, get fired.” We’re conscious of this when we schedule interviews. We make sure the interviewee knows that we will keep his or her comments completely confidential and that he or she will not be quoted. Consequently, we very rarely run into difficulty securing interviews with financial industry participants.

An important contingent to interview is the “losses and no decisions.” If a loss is relatively recent, we gain far better insight from these people than from existing customers who’ve been using our clients’ products for a while. But I’d recommend interviewing these people as soon after their decision as possible.

Preparing for B2B Persona Research

Question: What do you recommend that people consider when planning their persona research? What kind of pre-work/preparation is needed before they start interviewing or before they engage you?

Ardath:  “Don’t decide who your personas will be prior to conducting the interviews. Usually, clients come to me with a list of who they see as personas. But usually, that’s not what we end up with after the research is done. For example, in a recent client workshop, we discovered that where they thought they had two personas, it was actually one. There was so much overlap that it made no sense to create two. What made better sense was to identify the instances where questions would differ based on application of the product. Everything else was interchangeable, including a majority of their content/informational needs. So they’ll save a lot of time, effort and money by streamlining their personas.

“There isn’t a lot of pre-work, but they should prepare to help schedule the interviews. Coming to the project with an open mind is a prerequisite. Be willing to have assumptions challenged. I’ve been involved in projects where the CMO insisted on manipulating the data so that the personas matched his vision. That’s never a good idea, and usually doesn’t result in the personas contributing to a high-performance content strategy.”

Candyce: Preparation for arranging interviews is critical. Marketers need to get buy-in from key stakeholders and engage the account managers in the process in advance. I’ve been involved in projects that drag on for months just because the client won’t do the work needed to secure the interviews. Also, interviews with long-time customers are not nearly as fruitful as interviews with recent wins and recent losses. That’s because their memory of what was necessary to get the organization on board with the decision fades quickly after the implementation is complete.

Making B2B Personas Actionable

Question: I see a lot of irrelevant information in personas. Last year, Hubspot published a post on 100 questions to consider for personas. In my opinion, not one question in that mix gives insight that I could use to create effective content for a B2B audience. Do you have any comments or advice for people new to the idea?

Ardath: “I agree. That list is useless for the most part — at least for B2B personas. The litmus test is that everything included in a buyer persona must be actionable. If you can’t use it to inform some part of your content strategy and content development and execution plans, then it doesn’t belong there. Additionally, personas are based on commonalities across the segment, not one-off stuff. If it’s not common to the group/segment, then it will lead your programs off track because it lessens the universal relevance to the people you’re trying to engage.”

Candyce: I love Ardath’s litmus test. If you can’t use the information to inform your strategy, and if the information doesn’t serve to help influence the buying process, then there’s no point including it. So ditch the details about whether your persona is married with children…unless his wife and kids are part of the buying committee.

For more on this subject and how to make your content relevant and effective, I highly recommend Ardath’s book, Digital Relevance. You can also read more about how to influence buying committees in financial institutions at the links below.

Facilitating the Buying Process at Financial Institutions
How Financial Institutions Buy Technology
Content Marketing to Build Advocacy in Financial Services

PropelGrowth helps financial services firms increase sales by using content marketing to facilitate the customer buying process.  To find out more about our services, click here.

Candyce Edelen