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The role of „personas“ in the days of revenue-driven-marketing.

Interview with Adele Revella, Ardath Albee and Tony Zambito.
Volker Schnaars | 23.09.2012
The role of „personas“ in the days of revenue-driven-marketing

Volker Schnaars, kontextb2b: The idea of this article is to create a current snapshot of the ongoing development of the discipline of buyer persona modelling.

As a consultant for customer centered marketing I work with the concept of personas and I personally believe, that persona modeling is an indispensible fundament of every kind of customer centered marketing no matter if it is outbound marketing oriented or inbound marketing focused.

But that´s just my personal opinion. To create a more objective understanding and hopefully a comprehensive view of "best practices" for buyer persona development, I decided to interview the leading subject-matter experts to find out what they have to say about persona modeling.

In alphabetical order:

- Adele Revella, President of the Buyer Persona Institute and author of the The Buyer Persona Manifesto. Adele is a leading technology marketer with deep experience in public relations and product marketing. She has consolidated more than two decades of relevant experiences into a process that shows marketers how to think like their target audiences, including buyers, customers and sales people.

- Ardath Albee, CEO and B2B marketing strategist for her consulting firm Marketing Interactions. Author of the book „eMarketing Strategies For The Complex Sale“ and voted as one of the 50 most influential people in Sales Lead Management 2011

- Tony Zambito, who originated the development of buyer personas in 2002, and further developed the concept and than founded together with Goal Centric „Buyerology™, the next evolution of services to help understand buyers at a deeper level, in the form of descriptive as well as predictive buyer modeling called Business Buyergraphics™.

I feel honored that these experts agreed to share their views of buyer persona research methodology. To give us an idea how companies can get to know their buyers and grow revenues by making good use out of this knowledge.

Volker, kontextb2b: To dive into the topic let´s start on neutral ground by reviewing a Wikipedia article about it. Wikipedia describes the general concept as follows:

„In marketing and user-centered design, personas are fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behavior set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way. Marketers may use personas together with market segmentation, where the qualitative personas are constructed to be representative of specific segments. ... A user persona is a representation of the goals and behavior of a hypothesized group of users. In most cases, personas are synthesized from data collected from interviews with users. They are captured in 1–2 page descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to make the persona a realistic character. For each product, more than one persona is usually created, but one persona should always be the primary focus for the design.“

Volker, kontextb2b: Please comment the wikipedia entry.

Adele: The Wikipedia entry is about user personas, a tool for product designers and engineers to guide decisions about how to design and build a product. While this entry mentions that marketers use personas, it fails to clarify that marketers need buyer personas, or that the content for this type of persona is quite different. Because user personas guide usability decisions, information about „behavior patterns, goals, skills, and environment“ is relevant. For buyer personas, we want to know how our marketing can persuade people, so we need these five insights:

Priority Initiatives: Three-to-five problems or initiatives where this buyer persona is dedicating time, budget and political capital.

Success Factors:  Tangible or intangible rewards that your buyer persona wants to achieve as a result of buying your solution.

Perceived Barriers:  Reasons your buyer persona believes that your solution would not be the best way to achieve the Success Factors.

Buying Process:   Resources and steps your buyer persona relies upon to assess available options and make a final decision.

Decision Criteria:  The aspects of the product, service, solution or company that this buyer persona evaluates during the Buying Process

Ardath: Since I work in a strictly B2B environment, I think it’s important to point out that personas are also representative of the company, and even the industry they work within. For example, a CEO for a small business will have different objectives than a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. A VP of sales in financial services will have different goals than one that works for a manufacturing company. Their are many variables that can be addressed in buyer persona modeling that are dependent on the objectives of each company developing them. Additionally, there are differences between how you’d create a buyer persona for acquiring a new customer than you would when developing a persona for an existing customer. Each one has a different status quo that will serve as a starting point.

As for the statement that, „one persona should always be the primary focus for the design.“ I agree. In B2B marketing, the primary persona is the decision maker and the others play influential roles in how that decision gets made. But I would emphasize that personas cannot be created in a vacuum. Each persona will impact the others and their development should be pursued in regards to the interactivity that could take place.

Tony: The most important statement people need to gleam from these definitions is that personas are or rather represent synthesized data collections from interviews with users or buyers. I believe both definitions fail to mention one of the founding principles of persona development. That to gain the deepest insights on buyers and users, it requires third party qualitative research. Why? Studies have shown that users and buyers will have some conscious and unconscious defense mechanisms in play

if the direct organization, meaning the marketer or the producer, is conducting the interviews. This is more true for buyer personas than ever.

Both definitions also fail to mention that original intent of persona modeling was that it was a goal-centered methodology. With the foundation of goal-based theory behind it. Many of the persona modeling artifacts of work and writings today do not have this foundational methodology present.

Volker, kontextb2b: Now that we got an idea what a persona should be like. Let´s try to explore what it takes to extract actionable marketing value from the concept. Can you outline the ideal persona modeling process in it´s most minimalistic appearance.

Adele: Accurate modeling of buyer personas requires direct interviews with real buyers. The goal is insight, or hard-to-find information that gives your company a competitive advantage. If you simply recycle your company’s current knowledge about your buyers, you will only have a new version of the information that is already known.

To gain access to new, deep insights, Marketers need to conduct a specialized kind of unscripted, agenda-driven interview with recent buyers. They need to ask their buyer to tell them a story about how and why they made the decision to choose them, their competitor, or to do nothing at all. Surveys or scripted questions won’t work because their buyer’s first answer to any question is the answer they already know. Marketers will need to learn how to listen to an answer and ask engaging follow-up questions, probing for insights the buyers have not yet shared with their sales people, their competitors, or anyone else.

Ardath: From a minimalistic perspective, the modeling process begins with interviews from the widest variety of subjects available. This is followed by internal and external research into the industry, the problem to be resolved, and the competitive solution landscape. The personas to be developed are identified. For each persona, a „real-life“ scenario is created, objectives, orientation and obstacles for purchase are identified and questions that the persona would ask in relation to those are mapped across the buying process. Then, web experiences are modeled to help inform the design of initiatives for the marketing channels that will be used.

Tony: The ideal persona modeling process can vary between user and buyer persona modeling. In general there are several key steps:

1. Selection of the right interview pool
2. Conducting of qualitative interviews which should be more ethnographic in nature
3. Synthesis of the data and key insights
4. Modeling of representative personas reflective of the synthesized data
5. Mapping of personas to meeting user goals or buyer goals

Volker, kontextb2b: Let´s assume an organization runs through the modling process, achieves the definition of a relevant set of buyer personas. What´s next?

Adele: Buyer personas are used to guide every aspect of marketing, including segmentation, targeting, messaging, marketing mix (placement), launch strategy, and sales enablement.

We see the best results when companies start with a specific goal and then build the buyer personas that will help them achieve that outcome. Buyer personas are a tool, and there is no reason to invest in a tool that you can’t use right away. Typical starting points are an upcoming launch, campaign or initiative. You should choose something that the company believes will be difficult to achieve if they do nothing new, as concerns about success will build support for the work that is needed to gain the needed persona insights.

Ardath: The usual next step is to undertake a comprehensive content audit and map existing content across the buying process according to fit, relevance, and timing. Gaps are identified and opportunities for new content and content refresh needs are determined. Based on channels and storyline, a content strategy is developed, guided by the persona. An editorial calendar is created and plans for content development and execution are put into play and tied closely to key performance indicators (KPIs) that prove the impact of marketing initiatives on business objectives. It should also not be forgotten that personas in a B2B complex sales environment have overlays and those will need to be determined and addressed to create a compelling buying experience for the buying commmittee, as a whole.

Tony: The process of modeling buyers has an important goal in mind: to inform strategic planning in three areas:

1. Customer (Buyer) Strategy
2. Marketing Strategy
3. Sales Strategy

It should help an organization understand who are their ideal buyers, how to map to their goals, how to develop information and processes that help buyers accomplish their goals within the buying process, and address the strategic plans and compelling issues that buyers are faced with.

Volker, kontextb2b: We´ve seen that persona modeling – done seriously – will take some efforts and will consume some time. Who should be involved in these process? Is it a marketing job or should it be done by sales. Or should it better be driven by the C-Suite?

Adele: Beginning to interview buyers and rely on the buyer personas for decisions requires cultural change and new skills. We see the greatest success when senior management at the VP or C-level supports the investments that are needed. But the marketers will need to learn how to interview buyers, consolidate their findings in buyer personas, and apply the buyer persona insights to their daily decisions. This is not difficult, any marketer can learn to do this work, but new skills are required.

Ardath: Marketing should actually control the process of persona development, but C-Suite support and sales team involvement is mandatory. Additionally, involving customers, product managers, customer service and support, and research and development, as well as channel partners is important for gaining the most comprehensive view to inform the development of personas.

Tony: The overriding principle when I first started buyer persona modeling in 2002 was that it should be designed to help organizations be informed on how to develop an overall customer strategy. To achieve this, it requires sponsorship from the C-Suite. What we see today, unfortunately, is that buyer personas have become prevalent in the domain of content marketing. Meaning they are defined and contained in only a small sub-section of overall customer strategy. The C-Suite is developing a tool mentality about buyer personas – seeing them as just a tool for content marketing only. This is detrimental to the true principles of buyer persona modeling which is reliant on 3rd party qualitative buyer research and understanding buyer behaviors.

Volker, kontextb2b: These days marketing needs to be closely connected with the financial realities of the companies: „CEOs want ROI marketers 100% focused on generating, tracking and boosting customer demand for their products/services.“
– How does persona modeling fit into this picture. How can it help marketers to deliver measurable results in terms of revenue growth?

Adele: Buyer personas are simply a tool that allows marketers to achieve the results that the CEO rightfully expects from the team. We expect sales people to spend the time to learn about the needs of their accounts and build a strategy to win that business. In the same way, marketing needs to understand the needs of a target segment of buyers and build a competitive strategy before they execute on the programs that generate revenue and customer demand. The time and money wasted on ineffective programs far exceeds the investment that is needed to interview buyers and learn about what will work.

Ardath: Personas should be used to inform communications and content strategies across the entire buying experience and customer lifecycle. The true value of personas is found by using them as a tool to increase the relevance of your messaging to the people who can become – or are – your customers. Higher engagement and targeted value delivery lead to purchase decisions in your favor. By addressing the problems and priorities your personas are responsible for resolving, marketers can achieve swifter pipeline momentum to shorten sales cycles by helping to get salespeople into the right conversations with the right people at the right time. Personas can also play a role in helping to improve marketing efficiencies as channels that will not produce results can be identified and eliminated, thereby avoiding costs.

Tony: Buyer persona modeling helps in the area of providing more accuracy in terms of engaging the ideal buyers. This should translate into improved ROI in the areas of demand creation, lead nurturing, lead conversions to sales qualified leads, improved opportuntity management, and improved win rates. Marketers must be able to track the flow of their efforts to customer acquisitions. It starts with understanding who your customers are at a deep level. It means making a commitment to 3rd party qualitative buyer research and the willingness to accept that you may not know everything about the buyer. The insights you gain may very well mean you will need to change the status quo and develop new approaches and strategies to engage the buyer.

Volker, kontextb2b: To finish this article I would like to ask each of you to describe a persona modelling example with a surprising result, an unexpected smoking gun may be, a game changer, whatever you want to name it. And what you learned from it about persona modelling.

Adele: There are so many stories, I will choose the most recent one. Just this week, a client learned that the target buyer persona for one of their products was exactly the opposite of what they thought was true. The company has three products in this category, one is premium-priced (expensive), one is moderately priced, and the third is value-priced (very low-cost). The company believed that the low-cost solution was attractive to relatively uninformed customers who were new in their roles or otherwise unaware of the benefits of their high-end offering.

Interviews with recent buyers proved that my client was absolutely wrong. In fact, the buyer persona for their low-cost product is the most educated of all their buyers. The buyer‘s complete understanding of the technology gives them the confidence to purchase the lower priced solution and save the cost of the premium product.

This was shocking news for my client. The insight will prevent my client from making mistakes in the branding, messaging, pricing and feature decisions for all three products in this category.

For anyone involved in buyer personas, this story shows why it is absolutely critical to base buyer personas on conversations with real buyers, asking lots of follow-up questions about how and why they make decisions.

Ardath: In this example, a marketing team thought they really knew who to focus on with their marketing initiatives. Their assumption made sense on the surface. Salespeople emphasized their need to gain access to these individuals. However, when all the research and interviews were completed, it was obvious that the persona they were targeting was not actively involved in the buying process, but merely needed to be convinced to sign-off on budget from a direct report. The lesson is to be careful about making assumptions based on who actually signs the contract. I see this situation occur more often than you may think.

Another example is to make sure that your sales team is equipped to have relevant conversations with the buyer personas that are developed and pursued. During one project, it was discovered that a persona at a higher level played a key role in the purchase decision. But many of the sales team were not comfortable speaking with this person based on addressing his/her priorities. We had to put an enablement strategy in place to bring the sales reps up to speed, quickly.

Tony: I have been involved in both user and buyer persona modeling now for nearly 14 years. And there have been many surprising game changers as well as more mundane findings that still resulted in game changing events for organizations. Here is one such example:

I worked with a Fortune 100 high-tech organization whose mandate was to develop a C-Suite marketing and sales strategy for the C-Suite in the healthcare industry. You see this quite often – the mandate to sell to the C-Suite. After conducting 3rd party qualitative research throughout the country in hospitals, clinics, and medical centers, we uncovered several key new types of buyer personas that were not seen by the Fortune 100 organization. These new buyer personas were very influential in the emerging areas of healthcare information technology. Our research and insights, modeled and represented through buyer personas, showed key executives that a new approach was needed to address these emerging buyer personas. A new strategy was put into place that resulted in partnering with different organizations to deliver new solutions to hospitals, clinics, and medical centers. They enjoyed a robust 15% growth in revenues after the first year of implementing this new strategy.

Volker, kontextb2b: Thank you very much for answering my questions. I am sure our readers will make good use of these insights you´ve been willing to share.

1) Adele Revella,
2) Ardath Albee,
3) Tony Zambito,

About the author: Volker Schnaars is a marketing consultant and owner of the consulting firm kontextb2b. As a consultant he helps companies to be found by new customers because of consistent inbound marketing with contents of persona relevance and a strictly customer centered approach. You can follow him on Twitter, Google+, facebook, LinkedIn or may be you want to read his blog