For nearly a decade, 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
Given the big investments that companies make in content marketing, you’d think that buyers would be impressed. You’d also expect that company executives would be enthusiastic about marketing results. Yet, marketers continue to struggle for budget, and buyers regularly tell us that vendor-supplied information isn’t helpful.
I’m talking about a solution to this dilemma during my presentation at this year’s Content Marketing World, which will rock the Cleveland Convention Center September 9-12. Thanks go to the “godfather of content marketing” Joe Pulizzi for inviting me back for a second year.
I’m building my CMW presentation around a buyer persona for a marketer who is considering an email marketing solution. Many people have asked me for an example buyer persona and I’ve always regretted that I had to say no. I fully understand, however, why our clients will never allow us to share their competitive insights.
So I decided to develop this persona for an imaginary company, and could use two or three more volunteers for the interviews. If you have evaluated an email marketing solution within the last six months and can spare 30 minutes to be interviewed about that decision before August 27, please contact me. It’s fun and you’ll get to hear how we conduct buyer persona interviews.
At CMW, I will explain how marketers can become a strategic resource by changing the conversation with buyers and internal stakeholders. I’ll explain the 5 Rings of Buying Insight for the example persona and show everyone how I would use those insights to drive a competitive content strategy. I’ll also talk about how to show up as a buyer expert at planning and sales meetings, and how this small step repositions marketers as a high-value strategic asset.
I’ve decided to keep the example buyer persona secret until after Content Marketing World. But shortly thereafter, I’ll publish it here on my blog for those who cannot attend.
Want a preview of the conference? TopRank Online Marketing recently published this wonderful ebook – Content Marketing Rocks! 36 Tips from Rock Star Brands and Marketers. Thank you, Lee Odden, for including my quote (on page 27).
If you will be at Content Marketing World this year, please email me or contact me through the conference app. I don’t want to miss seeing you there!
Solutions that report on marketing results have been around for decades. Demand for useful data has produced mature marketing automation solutions at prices that make them affordable for companies of every size.
So why do marketers still struggle to gain credibility for their results? Why can’t anyone tell me how much revenue they are generating?
As I see it, the problem with attributing revenue to marketing results can only be partially addressed by technology, especially in B2B companies with complex sales cycles that extend for months or even years.
We can easily measure the number of marketing touches: how many times prospects downloaded a white paper and who attended a webinar, for example. With the right technology, we can even say how many times a particular person visited our website, where they went, and how long they stayed.
In short, we have access to plenty of data about “what” buyers are doing. Big data promises even more answers to this question. The problem occurs when we try to attach meaning to those statistics. As Mark Twain famously reported in his autobiography, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
The holy grail of marketing metrics requires us to prove that a given marketing interaction had an impact on whether we won or lost that buyer’s business. If we understood that cause and effect relationship, we could assure our stakeholders that doing more of X will generate N qualified sales leads and Y revenue.
I’ve spent decades presenting results based on these marketing metrics. I’ve run A-B tests and crunched numbers in an attempt to relate our investment with the desired (or undesired) results. But correlations are not proof of cause and effect, a fact that I’ve personally had to admit far too many times. Who’s to say that the deal wouldn’t have happened anyway?
As it turns out, the missing piece of the puzzle is a byproduct of the interviews that are required for the Five Rings of Insight about buyer personas. Because marketers are interviewing recent evaluators of the company’s solutions (including wins and losses), they can ask probing questions about what influenced the buyer to make a particular choice.
By merging these persona findings with data from their marketing automation systems, these marketers gain unbelievable clarity about their marketing ROI.
Here’s a completely made up example about a company that is marketing laptop computers to small business owners (note that we can never publish real insights for buyer personas because our clients wouldn’t want their competitors to have this information).
In this example, we see that our PR and LinkedIn activities are working well. The Small Business Owner was impressed by the coverage we got in the The Wall Street Journal and told the Office Manager to include us in the evaluation.
But then our marketing automation solution tells us that only 20% of office managers who did that evaluation continued to include us in their “top 5″ options. Through the buyer interviews, we learn why: that the Office Manager, not the Small Business Owner (economic buyer), is our target buyer persona at this critical phase, and that she’s relying on case studies and blogs to determine that the battery life and size of our laptops doesn’t meet her needs. Our marketing activities need to improve in this area.
We also learn that our displays at Best Buy and sales training are working with the subset of buyers who do continue to evaluate us. The Office Manager is impressed with the feel of our keyboards and screen resolution – features that our website is effectively communicating.
By combining this information with the Five Rings of Insight for each of these buyer personas, this team knows what type of content they need to deliver (top priority: address erroneous data about size and battery life) and that they must get case studies and blogs working to their advantage.
Best of all, the team has transcripts of interviews with actual buyers to prove that these insights are impacting revenue so they can rally the company around a strategy to fix the most critical issues.
What is your experience? Have you asked your buyers to tell you their story about their buying experience, probing beyond their obvious first answer to get to the truth about why they chose you? Are you using these insights to fill in the gaps in your knowledge about your marketing ROI?
I hope you’ll share your comments, questions and experiences.
How much time do you spend truly listening to buyers and customers? Marketers get little, if any, quality time with the real people they hope to persuade to listen to them.
Once or twice a year, you may attend a client dinner or an industry conference. But even if your company hosts a customer advisory meeting several times a year, it will probably spend at least 80 percent of this time presenting to customers, and whenever a customer is speaking, the topic will focus on solution support or usability, not the customer’s buying experience.
If you’re like most marketers, you rely on the sales people for your information about how and why buyers make their decisions. Since sales reps typically talk to customers all day, you could assume that they know their buyers.
But, to paraphrase the the Gershwin song from “Porgy and Bess,” it ain’t necessarily so. If sales is telling you that price and features dominate the buyer’s concerns, you can be darn certain it ain’t so.
Many of you will identify with my client Dave (not his real name) who related that his organization was so focused on making the sale and pitching to clients that “we were just shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Dave is a product marketer. His organization had a common problem. Years ago, management saw a specific business problem and brought to market a solution to address it. Each new customer had a brand new set of enhancement requests, and the company had been completely focused on solving the current customers’ needs. Suddenly a competitive threat emerged that would require senior management to redeploy limited resources.
This dilemma provided the perfect opportunity to slow down, take a deep breath and listen to buyers. And that’s exactly what Dave did. He started interviewing recent evaluators. Each interview became another opportunity to get comfortable with the probing questions that revealed surprising insights. After a relatively small number of interviews, he began to see the themes that spanned all of them.
From these conversations, Dave knows how his product addresses a pervasive problem in the industry. He knows what the buyers are saying about the competitor’s approach, including their strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing his product’s successes and failures, he can apply this insight to potential market segments.
This is a starting point for building the buyer personas that Dave needs to develop an effective marketing and sales enablement strategy. Dave has even found a novel approach to developing highly qualified leads that he hadn’t thought of before.
All of this information came from simply stopping the endless selling (and marketing) and starting to listen and learn from the only people that really matter – the target buyers.
Why do many marketers never get around to talking to customers and buyers?
I’ll let Dave answer: “Sales people keep saying they just need more leads, ROI calculators and that sort of thing. We’re so busy working on our marketing checklists that there is never enough time to get out,” he told me. “I always knew my opinion was irrelevant but I never guessed that the opinions of the sales people were also irrelevant.”
While I’ve changed Dave’s name and a few minor details, everything else I’ve shared here is true. I’ll keep Dave’s secrets about what he actually learned from talking to customers though. That information is an advantage that would be lost if his competitors got their hands on it.
If you’ve developed buyer personas, does your content show it? When persona-guided content looks much the same as it always did, it’s a sign that the underlying personas are missing key insights.
Most marketers focus their buyer personas on information gained from their sales people, a product expert, the latest analyst reports, or purely demographic data such as job title, industry and company size. While quick and easy, these sources cannot tell you what your buyers are thinking about as they evaluate their options to solve a particular problem.
My concern about the missing parts of buyer personas motivated me to co-author with B2B marketing veteran Maribeth Ross, vice president of Marketing at NetProspex, a new eBook, “For Compelling Content, Let Your Buyers Be Your Guide.” This free resource launches today at Content Marketing World, where I’m presenting my “Building Your Buyer Personas” workshop.
To understand why the quick-and-easy approach to buyer personas won’t help you develop better content, let’s consider a typical scenario.
Our marketer, Kristen, talks to the in-house subject matter experts. She takes plenty of notes and learns about industry trends by reading trade magazines and analyst reports. Given her sources, most of what she learns focuses on the features and benefits of the company’s product or service. Any information about the target audience is probably basic demographics: the buyer’s job title, role in the decision, company size and industry.
Now consider a different approach.
Kristen kicks off her content initiative by interviewing recent buyers to probe for the Five Rings of Insight, her target buyer’s perspective on the five factors that influence the decision to buy a particular product, service or solution. These insights include the buyer’s Priority Initiatives, Success Factors, Perceived Barriers, Buying Process and Decision Criteria for the solution Kristen needs to message.
Kristen doesn’t rely on a survey or focus group. She has one-on-one conversations with recent buyers to discover how they evaluated and compared her company’s products and services to their other options. These interviews tell her exactly what outcomes resonate with buyers, their concerns about the company’s approach, which aspects of the solution they use to compare their options, and where they get the information they need to make a decision.
Imagine if you could develop all your content based on direct conversations with the people who are your target audience. Here are three tips for putting buyer insights to work in your content marketing.
1. Interview buyers to gain real insights. It’s not enough to know the title, age and gender of the target buyer. And if you make stuff up about your buyer personas, your marketing content won’t look any different than it did before you took that step. You need to have a specialized kind of conversation with recent buyers, probing for insights that buyers have not yet shared with your sales people, your competitors, or anyone else for that matter.
2. Focus on the decisions you want to influence. Interview people who recently evaluated your solution to hear exactly how they compared your approach to your competitors’ offerings. This gives you the data and confidence to define a messaging strategy that communicates the information that will motivate those buyers to choose you.
3. Lose the jargon. Probe deeply on your buyer’s use of words like “streamline,” “robust” and other generic words that your competitors also use. When you know exactly what the buyer expects to be “robust”, your content can speak directly to the outcomes and concerns that are most critical to them.
By gathering key insights from unscripted interviews with recent buyers, you will become the buyer expert. When you make your buyer the focal point for your marketing initiatives, they’ll show their appreciation by choosing your company’s solutions with increasing frequency.
I hope you enjoy the new content marketing ebook and look forward to your comments and questions.
I’ve always suspected that B2C marketers got far more respect than those of us in the B2B world. While well-marketed B2C products seemed to sell themselves, the sheer complexity of matching B2B products to a particular buyer’s needs appeared to position Sales as the permanent source of meaningful revenue results.
I’ll never forget a workshop I led many years ago – the marketers’ stunned reaction when a senior exec asked for proof that any of the company’s revenue was influenced by those in attendance.
Fortunately, I’m now seeing indicators that our days as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of sales and marketing are ending. And who can we thank for our elevated role and status? None other than the buyers as they change the rules about how they make decisions for even the most complex B2B solutions.
A recent report by Corporate Executive Board’s sales practice reported that B2B buyers are 57 percent of the way to a buying decision before they are willing to talk to a sales rep. It’s becoming clear that only a strategic and buyer-savvy marketing organization could be relevant to such independent buyers.
Here’s a case in point: I just had an interesting online dialogue with a sales rep who had recently lost two deals for a complex B2B solution because the buyers believed in the competitor’s approach.
“I have been in two different cycles this year already where the buyer was armed with a portfolio of misinformation and dug their feet in because their people researched it on social media and the Internet,” the sales rep wrote. “I didn’t care so much that we lost, what I cared about was the clients’ addiction to that information as if it were the truth.”
As an experienced sales rep, he had lost deals like this in the past, but always because the competitor’s sales rep got to the account first. In this case, the competitor’s marketing had been the source of success for those deals – quite an acknowledgement from a sales guy. I suspect he’s going to be talking to his marketing team about that.
Buyers are creating a huge opportunity for us to change the relationship between B2B sales and marketing. When buyers depended on our sales people for most of their information, we could communicate the basic benefits of our solutions, and then it was the sales rep’s job to discover each buyer’s specific needs and build the trusted relationship that would win the deal.
I’m working with marketers who are learning how to be the buyer experts. I’m watching as they gain deep insight into exactly which factors their buyers evaluate. I’m coaching them to leverage these insights to build highly segmented, relevant messaging.
And now I’ve got anecdotal evidence through this week’s online dialog that B2B marketers are generating leads that are 57% (or more) ready to buy their solutions.
Would you like to become a buyer expert and play a strategic role in your organization? Consider taking my first online public workshop, Buyer Persona Masterclass, on Thurs., March 29, 2012. My half-day workshop will give you the tools to become a buyer persona expert and plenty of hands-on experience.
Enrollment is extremely limited, so register today. I hope to “see” you there!
Imagine that you’re at a party with a group of acquaintances and the woman standing next to you announces her weekend plans – she’ll be painting her apartment. Which of the following would you be most likely to ask:
A: What color did you choose?
B: How did you choose the color?
C:There are great apartments for rent right now. Have you thought about moving?
Answers vary on this selection (more on that later). But it’s clear that the question needs to follow the woman’s lead, that we would never script our conversation in advance of the social interaction. Imagine the confused, annoyed or bored response from this woman if we asked “so what do you think about that new play that just opened?”
Most people are perplexed when I ask them to conduct unscripted buyer persona interviews. These are the same people who will happily show up in any social situation, listen for threads of topics that others find engaging, and guide the conversation to mutually relevant topics.
Why not take this same approach with buyer interviews?
While it is definitely more taxing to develop questions in real time, the pressure to do so keeps us listening intently. And each time we base a question on a point that the buyer has recently made, our rapport with the other person builds. The buyer might even tell me, a perfect stranger, something he hasn’t told anyone else.
Pre-defined questions can only address topics that we found interesting before we started listening to the buyer. Worse yet, we are unlikely to learn anything new, having missed the opportunity to probe deeply on an interesting point..
This approach is especially critical for win/loss interviews. We need to get buyers talking at length about their decision criteria and process. We aren’t going to discover any actionable insights by writing down the buyer’s short answer — that we lost the deal on price and features, or won it because our sales rep is such a great guy. We need much deeper insights into how and why the company made this decision.
For instance, if the buyer told us that one of the triggers for this decision was that our solution was easiest to use, we might follow up by asking the buyer to describe what, specifically, they found to be easy. Or we might ask what level of user would find it easy to use, and what training they expected that user to need. Another line of questioning might reveal details about how they assessed the solution’s ease-of-use.
Returning to your interaction at the party, if you selected question A (what color will she paint her apartment), you have just learned that your new acquaintance likes light yellow, which might be interesting if you are selecting colors of paint to carry in your store, or what colors to feature in a marketing campaign for paint.
Question B (how did she choose the color?) is a great follow-up question, or likely your best first question, as this should trigger a story about the way this person thinks and makes decisions. This question will probably get you the answer to the color too.
Question C (did you know there are some great apartments for rent?) is changing the subject, a terrible technique when you need to build rapport, and one of the major reasons that interviews should never be scripted.
Unless you’re marketing home improvement products, you shouldn’t care about anyone’s choice of paint – buyer’s decision processes vary dramatically based on the products, services and solutions they’re considering. But we want to have an agenda, perhaps three-to-five topics that we hope to explore, and not a structured questionnaire, if we want buyers to tell us what really persuades them to make decisions about our category of solutions.
Marketers who find it frustrating to source qualified leads might be surprised to learn that buyers are equally frustrated about sourcing qualified solutions. Assuming you’re marketing a product that solves a pervasive problem (a topic for another post), there is no shortage of buyers who are currently looking for your solution – provided that it matches that buyer’s specific definition of the problem.
Following is a true account of a recent interview . . .
The owner of a large printing company describes her need for an accounting system that can track her orders, from quotation through manufacturing and billing. She says the system would need to be customized with codes for the materials that are unique to her type of printing business. She currently has separate systems for bidding jobs, materials management, billing and accounting. Without an integrated system she can’t track the profitability of individual orders.
She doesn’t know where to begin. I suggest a web search but she doesn’t know what keywords to use. The websites she does find are talking about ERP, cloud computing and software-as-a-service. What does that mean, she asks . . .
Your target buyers may be far more astute than this example, but listen carefully to their stories and you’ll hear that they never trusted the vendors’ sales and marketing pitches. If we honestly consider the confusing array of options that confront our buyers, we might agree that it’s reasonable for them to default to the solutions their peers recommend, or live with the problems they already know.
Just imagine the buyer’s reaction upon learning about a solution that is a perfect match for his decision criteria. Think about the trust that would accrue to the vendor whose sales and marketing resources deliver unambiguous answers to the buyers’ questions at every step in the buying process.
Marketers who want to generate leads need to rethink their approach to targeting and messaging. Why debate the merits of email, social media, or other marketing tactics if we can’t ensure that our actions accurately address the target buyer’s needs, perceptions and concerns?
Aprimo is sponsoring a free webinar series on lead generation. They invited me to deliver the July 21 session, “Defining your Target Audience: Why demographics are insufficient — and how to succeed with a buyer-centric strategy.” I hope you’ll join me to learn more about how to generate leads by discovering and answering your buyer’s questions.