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Does Marketing Matter? Buyer Personas are Rewriting the Rules About ROI

For nearly a dDoes Marketing Matterecade, I developed and led a marketing workshop for Pragmatic Marketing, the leader in training courses for B2B product managers and marketers.  I wrote this article for the Fall issue of Pragmatic Marketer Magazine, released yesterday in celebration of the company’s 20th anniversary.

It was the second day of a Pragmatic Marketing course I was teaching, when a senior director’s question sucked the oxygen out of the room: “How do I know that anything would change if I eliminated the marketing organization?”

While Tom’s harsh words and choice of forum stunned me, his question did not. I’ve worked with enough CEOs and participated in enough reorganizations, budget cuts and executive transitions to know that only slightly less-threatening versions of this question are commonplace. And easy answers don’t cut it.

Metrics Can’t Answer The Real Question

Many marketers have been asked to explain how much incremental revenue they generate. They are asked how much less they could spend without taking a revenue hit. Or if higher levels of spending would improve results.

There is little evidence that B2B marketers of complex solutions will ever have definitive answers to any of these questions.

Sure, we can report that a webinar was attended by someone who later downloaded a white paper and then purchased our solution. However, I’d like to have a nickel for every time the marketing impact is unknown because the salesperson was calling on that account for years.

When a company meets its revenue and profitability goals, senior management generally seems willing to adhere to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule. Most budget requests are approved, and the marketing team operates with relatively little interference.

But miss a few revenue or profit targets and marketing will quickly find itself in the spotlight. This is the moment when someone will start wondering if we could do better, or if a new team and reporting structure would fix things.

Part of the Problem or of the Solution?

Many of the metrics we track have unintended consequences when we report them to other departments. What should stakeholders conclude about our role and value, if they only see the output and measures of our production activities?

Is it possible that the strategic role of marketing is being subverted by the way we interact with our stakeholders?

I’m not suggesting that marketing leads, content and sales tools aren’t important. And I’m certainly not recommending that we discontinue our efforts to track results. Performance metrics help us to refine countless strategies and tactics.

What I am saying is that we need to balance the way we interact with stakeholders, focusing in equal measures on our strategic and tactical contribution.

This begins when we subtly shift the conversation in meetings, presentations and hallways away from project charts and deliverables. It requires marketers to become the source of information about what markets full of buyers are saying about how, when and why they choose solutions like ours.

Consider your company’s perception of marketing ROI if your head was filled with buyer conversations of strategic value to your stakeholders:

  • Which buyers will be receptive to your new marketing strategy, and why?
  • For those who aren’t, why not? What would engage these types of buyers?
  • Why do some buyers prefer X competitor?
  • What role does each potential target in the buyer’s organization play in the decision? Which are most likely to choose us and why?

If you scanned these bullet points, rather than contemplating their meaning, note the emphasis on the “why” aspect of each of these questions.

Most companies believe they know what the market needs, but few can predict the path to achieving the goals they imagine.

Marketers Are Missing Buying Insights

In recent years, buyer personas have gained popularity as a tool to improve a marketer’s focus on buyers. Today more than half of B2B marketers report that they have developed buyer personas.

Yet, few of these marketers have enough confidence in their perception of the buyer to define, defend and deliver strategies that don’t conform with the internal perspective. So companies make decisions based on inadequate information about the market’s receptivity, and marketers are on the hook to persuade buyers who don’t care. In other instances, perfectly good products fail because the company didn’t identify and communicate with buyers who have the need.

There is a lot of confusion about the content of buyer personas and how to ensure that they uncover compelling insights.

Some marketers fall into the trap of only collecting knowledge about the buyers internally. This has some value but doesn’t prepare the marketer to persuade the same stakeholders who contributed the information.

Others retain expensive third parties to deliver a lovely set of PowerPoint slides or posters that are soon put away and forgotten. One marketer spent more than $100K on her buyer personas. When she contacted me for advice about how to leverage them, I was horrified that they described little more than the buyer’s role and priorities—information readily available to her competitors with just a few hours of research on LinkedIn.

What Buyer-Expert Marketers Should Know

The value of buyer personas is directly proportional to the quality of insights about how, when and why buyers choose solutions like yours.

If your buyer persona simply recasts obvious and readily available information such as industry, job title and responsibilities, then this is a very low-value effort.

To change the conversation about the value of marketing, buyer personas need to be the result of in-depth, unscripted conversations with actual buyers. Fewer than 10 well-executed interviews can lead to five compelling insights:

Priorities. What happens to make this investment a priority for this type of buyer? Don’t confuse this insight with pain points, because many or most of your target buyers have this pain and still aren’t looking for a solution like yours. Your buyer personas should tell you what drives some buyers to address the pain, while others remain satisfied with the status quo.

Success factors. This tells you what results or outcomes the buyer expects as a result of purchasing a solution like yours. Success factors resemble benefits, but when you hear them from recent buyers you will have a shorter list that is far more specific and compelling than anything you can reverse engineer based on the capabilities of your solution.

Perceived barriers. I often refer to this as the “bad news” insight, because it tells you exactly why this buyer would be unlikely to purchase your solution. Barriers could relate to prior attempts to solve the problem, negative (and even inaccurate) perceptions about the suitability of your product or company, or  internal resistance from other departments or personas.

Buyer’s journey. This identifies the stages your buyers pass through to evaluate their options, eliminate contenders and choose one solution. It specifies the stages when this buyer persona will be pivotal to keeping your solution under consideration and when other personas will be more critical. You’ll be completely clear about when and why social media, content marketing, sales engagement and other resources have the most impact—and what you can do to improve your efforts.

Decision criteria. The final insight reveals the three to five capabilities that have the most impact on this buyer. Decision criteria frequently include specific features or attributes of the implementation or company. Pricing (or value calculations) can also be relevant to these decision criteria. This insight is critical for sales enablement, because it identifies which buyers will be concerned about specific features and why.

The Marketing Credibility Problem Is Expensive

While Tom’s question may have never been spoken in your presence, the hand-wringing about the merits of marketing take a toll on every one of us. There are even those who predict the demise of marketing as a profession.

I can’t imagine that marketing will ever disappear, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that we are not positioned to deliver the value that B2B companies truly need.

Too many really smart marketers toil away in organizations where they operate with little more autonomy than factory production workers.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if financial statements were subjected to as many reviews as your most recent messaging document. Could engineering ever deliver a new product, if its role and management team were redefined every 18 months?

The endless debate about the value of marketing ultimately interferes with our goal of building the value of marketing. This needs to stop, and buyer personas give you a lot more power to rewrite the rules than you may have known. When will you begin?

Download a PDF of Pragmatic Marketer Magazine

Comments

  1. Ian Goldsmid says:

    Really superb article Adele! I recently purchased your Buyer Persona Masterclass – and I’m now just beginning to allocate some time to get into it.

    How does the jobs to be done – http://www.forbes.com/sites/stephenwunker/2012/02/07/six-steps-to-put-christensens-jobs-to-be-done-theory-into-practice/ – approach compare / contrast with your Buyer Persona process?

    • Adele Revella says:

      Thanks for the great comment, Ian. I’m looking forward to seeing you in the Buyer Persona Masterclass Live session soon.

      I was not familiar with the “jobs-to-be-done” theory until I read this article, but as far as the mapping to the 5 Buying Insights, the article’s #4 (Performance Criteria) matches our Decision Criteria Insight, #5 is an exact match for Perceived Barriers, and #6 is the same as our Success Factors Insight.

      I would say that his #s 1-3 are more aligned with personas built for product decisions than marketing decisions, a category of insight that we would allocate to User (not Buyer) Personas. Those are essential insights, we agree on that. Our focus on buyer personas is more about how to take products to market.

  2. Jeff Ogden says:

    Great post, Adele. No matter what aspect of marketing we are talking about – content, advertising, webinars, etc. – this simple fact remains. It is ALL about the customer!

    Only by deeply digging into real buyer insights like you outline can businesses develop true, deep and useful insights about buyers. These insights are needed to drive ALL aspects of marketing today.

    I’m saddened that more companies aren’t developing the deep buyer insights needed to deliver real business results.

    Jeff Ogden, the Fearless Competitor
    Creator and Host
    Marketing Made Simple TV
    http://www.marketingmadesimple.tv

    • Adele Revella says:

      Thanks for the great comment, Jeff, and for your ongoing efforts to educate marketers about the importance of buyer personas. I appreciate it!

  3. Thanks Adele for sharing your insights. I just started today learning about buyer personas. I must admit that my first impression of the term was like “oh no, another magic marketing bullet” but your post made the value of it very clear.

    BR Svend

  4. Denise says:

    Thank you Adele for this insightful well written piece. As an independent marketing professional I too am faced with having to keep my clients calm when they are impatient with the process. Buyer personas do go a long way in not only defining exactly who buyers are, but also to help focus the mind of business owners who want to “reach everyone”. Thank you for greater clarity.

    • Adele Revella says:

      I completely understand, Denise. In fact it’s my experience that buyer personas are a great way to cement a permanent relationship between a marketing consultant and the client. Once you are truly the buyer expert, you are essentially irreplaceable to that client. Thanks for the comment.

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