I am fascinated by a recent Gartner study about the journey of 700 enterprise buyers across the U.S., EMEA, Brazil, India and China. According to a recent interview with Hank Barnes, Research Vice President at Gartner, the study focused on four areas:

  • During the buying process, what types of activities and information do you use, independent of the firm you are evaluating?
  • What type of content do you use from the provider itself?
  • What marketing activities get your attention?
  • What are you expecting from sales interactions?

Thebuyers journey findings? Buyers spend only 32% of their journey interacting with supplier-side content or sales people. Two thirds of the buyer’s journey is devoted to internal assessments, peer networking, and the recommendations of external experts.

According to Barnes, buyers “have access to all this stuff from vendors, but making sense of it, interpreting it, understanding that they have the right stuff is where they’re really struggling.”

This data quantifies exactly what we hear every day in our buyer persona interviews. And as a career sales and marketing professional, I am amazed that every company hasn’t realized that filling this void could be the best way to gain a competitive advantage.

In an article I wrote for CMO.com a few months ago, I related our experience interviewing buyers who say that marketing materials do nothing to help them make a decision, as competing solutions relate the same obvious benefits rather than useful information. The buyers’ experience with sales people is mostly a continuation of this theme, as sales arrives with the same marketing message rather than the critical details that help buyers gain confidence in their decision.

We know that many marketers are trying to explain the value of interviewing buyers to understand their needs and expectations. Maybe now that we have a report stating that vendors are privy to only 1/3 of the buyer’s journey, we can make it clear that it doesn’t work to build buyer personas by culling information from salespeople and marketing automation solutions. We’re seeing a very small part of the decision we need to influence.

Knowing your buyer isn’t exactly a new idea. I first learned to interview buyers in the 80’s when I was with Regis McKenna, the PR firm that represented Apple, Intel and many other technology leaders at the time.

Over the next decade, my focus on the buyer accounted for my success as VP of Marketing for three companies that sold seriously obscure technology and services. The buyers taught me how to think about the value of the solutions we offered. It was just logical, therefore, to put buyer personas at the center of the workshop I authored and led for thousands of Pragmatic Marketing attendees for nearly a decade.

Much has changed about B2B marketing since I began my career. The companies I worked with in the 80’s and 90’s were inventing technology. Buyers didn’t have many choices or easy ways to learn about their options. Many were locked into a particular operating environment. As they say in real estate when housing is in short supply, it was a “sellers’ market.”

That was long ago. Just about everyone I know today is competing in a buyers’ market. Buyers have exponentially more choices and virtually instant access to information about them. Long before they talk to a sales rep, buyers are conducting research and making up their own minds about what’s important to them, eliminating companies on the basis of whatever information they can easily discover.

With this top of mind, I recently sat down for a conversation with Pamela Muldoon, who hosts the terrific Content Marketing 360 Online Radio Show.

During the interview, I built the case for marketers to invest a few hours learning how to become a buyer expert, someone who knows how to get a B2B buyer to tell the story of how they make decisions about high consideration solutions.

Together, we walked through the key insights that marketers need to know about their buyers. These are what I call the Five Rings of Insight.

We also had a chance to talk about For Compelling Content, Let Your Buyers Be Your Guide, the new eBook I co-authored with Maribeth Ross. I shared some highlights, such as our 3 Rules of Buyer-Driven Content Marketing:

Rule #1. Your Buyer is the Center of Your Universe. Too often, we are drinking so much of the corporate Kool-Aid that we lose sight of how our target buyers think about the problems we’re solving. It’s important to make the buyer’s perceptions about their options so real, so compelling, so persuasive, that the company is willing to take direction from what they’re saying.

Rule #2. Get Everyone Aligned Around What the Buyer Cares About. That’s the purpose of building the buyer persona. But it’s not focused on gathering the B2B buyer’s demographics, their marital status, their gender, their industry, or their company size or other extraneous data. All of that is mostly meaningless noise. What’s important is how the buyer makes the decision we want to influence. And to do this, we have to talk to real buyers. It’s absolutely essential.

Rule #3. Lose the Jargonese. Once we know precisely what matters to buyers, it’s important that we leave the jargon behind. We need to hit the delete button on all of the flexible, scalable, compatible, enterprise wide and other BS in our content. In its place, we need to focus only on the points, the criteria and the topics that buyers want to learn about, using the words and tone that will resonate with our audience.

By following these 3 simple rules, marketers can focus on what I call the content of the content. Too often, we are too preoccupied with where to put the content, how to design the content, and all of the tactical details involved in delivering the content. I’m not saying that effectively managing our projects isn’t important. I’m just saying that it’s easy to lose sight of what our buyer wants to hear – the content – unless we spend time hearing them out on this subject. When we get in synch with our buyers, the content virtually writes itself.

So what are your rules of content marketing? How do you make sure you build content that buyers will find useful and will want to consume?

If you’d like to hear my entire conversation with Pamela, you can:

For more tips and insights, you can also download our new free eBook, For Compelling Content, Let Buyers Be Your Guide.   

James’ email question was logical – “This is a solution that hasn’t changed much in years, and the market is really mature. So we know a lot about how our buyers think. Is there a simplified way to make sure that our messaging is on target?”

I replied by asking about the top three criteria that buyers evaluate while choosing this type of solution. James answered quickly — ease of use, market leadership, and cost.

A quick check of their competitors’ websites told me that each was focused on their market leading solutions, fabulous user experience (backed by customer quotes or case studies) and cost savings.

In a follow-up phone call James confirmed that discounting is a big issue for their sales people. I had expected this answer. When products and technologies are new, companies become accustomed to competing on unique features, functions and benefits. But almost every product eventually runs out of room to add capabilities that really matter to new buyers. Unless the company can find a premium-price position, the sales people will struggle for every deal through hand-to-hand combat and discounting.

It’s likely that nothing in the past has prepared this company to choose a strategic approach:

  • succeed as the low-cost provider (rare in B2B tech companies like James’)
  • sell the product to someone who can (IBM sold its PC business)
  • leverage superior sales and marketing to justify premium pricing (IBM services)

I didn’t write about this aspect of the case study that’s featured in my ebook, but as competitors copied our offering in the software escrow market, delivering the same solution for half the price, we raised our prices. A larger market allowed us to increase our marketing investment, and premium pricing was an important part of our strategy to own the position as the market’s most trusted solution.

Here are a few of the insights that would give us a chance to identify a  premium-price position for James’ solution.

If ease-of-use is important,

  • What exactly does the buyer expect to be easy about this solution?
  • What level of user will need to experience this solution as easy?
  • What steps does the buyer take during the buying process to determine which solution is easiest?
  • What did buyers perceive to be superior or inferior about ease of use for this solution and each of the competitors?
  • For buyers who didn’t purchase this solution, how did “ease of use” factor into their decision?

I’d be looking for similar insights on the other points – what level of cost savings does the buyer expect . . . how did the buyer assess the cost performance of each of the options?

James happens to work for the market leader in this category, so he might be tempted to just check that box. But this answer often masks the buyer’s concerns about the consequences of choosing a solution that doesn’t work. What exactly does this buyer see as reasons that she might not achieve the benefits she seeks (the Perceived Barriers insight)?

I don’t usually recommend that companies kick-off a buyer persona initiative by focusing on mature products. It takes skill to get buyers to disclose this information, and the company’s internal stakeholders are likely to resist new strategies for core products or markets they have long dominated.

But James saw the potential of this option, as well as the other dismal paths, and is taking on the challenge. I’m anticipating new insights that are both unexpected and clear.

How are you managing the positioning challenge for mature products?

Persona marketing clarifies buyers' real concerns with actionable insights other marketing strategies cannot match. But skillful execution is crucial.

Anyone who follows this blog knows how passionate I am about persona marketing. For me and countless others, buyer personas have stopped the madness of checklist marketing.

But as I say in the opening “confessions“ chapter of my new ebook, The Buyer Persona Manifesto, I’ve learned a lot about the difficulty of the execution step:

“Steering the proverbial supertanker is a snap compared to introducing any new idea in a major corporation. With a ship, at least you know that if you crank the helm hard, it will eventually come round.”

While the concept of buyer personas is relatively clear, an array of missing skills and details are leading companies to take shortcuts that compromise the entire idea. Many are packaging up their internal knowledge of their customers, or segmenting buyers based on role, and calling the output a buyer persona.

These companies have failed to consider that the information that is obvious to them is also obvious to their competitors. They have barely scratched the surface of the principles of persona marketing, and are often reaffirming mistaken ideas through social media.

These concerns inspired me to write The Buyer Persona Manifesto and to develop a new online workshop, Persona Marketing Essentials. My goal — to ensure that marketers and their colleagues can quickly grasp the most “essential” parts of persona marketing, see what’s missing about their buyer knowledge and assess the potential for their own work.

The ebook is published for free, without registration and under a Creative Commons license. I’d be grateful if you would pass it along to colleagues who might benefit.

For people who want to know more than I could fit into the ebook, I’m delivering the Persona Marketing Essentials seminar online on a regular basis. I hope to “see you” there.

Judging by the current interest in buyer personas, 2010 could be the decade when companies realize the competitive advantage that belongs to those companies that have the deepest insight into their target buyers.

Armed with a well-researched buyer persona, the newly competitive company would know that a technical buyer isn’t impressed when the company’s website or marketing materials simply state that a solution is “interoperable” or “scalable.” These marketers would have detailed knowledge about how the technical buyer has been struggling with specific scalability or integration challenges. Imagine the value of the marketing copy this team could create – connecting the buyer’s needs to the unexplored merits of the company’s approach.

Similarly, our competitive company would know that an economic buyer isn’t impressed by copy that simply announces that a solution will increase revenues or reduce expenses. This marketer has deep insight into what this type of buyer has been doing to manage the bottom line, including how the economic buyer persona perceives the alternatives. So the marketer can now communicate that another approach is available, beginning a relationship that continues when the sales people, who have been well-trained to understand how the economic buyer thinks about these issues, make the first sales call.

This will require real work on buyer personas, of course – not the fluffy stuff that is permeating the blogosphere. Maybe its helpful for some B2C companies to know their buyer’s hair color or hobbies, but for my vision to become reality for B2B companies, marketing needs buyer personas that provide deep insight into

  • which problems the target buyers perceive as their highest priority
  • the way each type of buyer is currently managing these problems
  • why the problems persist in spite of current efforts
  • how this type of buyer will respond to the company’s approach or solution

Most buyer personas fall far short of this level – what I call “grokking” – to the detriment of every subsequent step in the marketing process.

If buyer personas aren’t thoroughly developed, marketing activities are inevitably guided by the expectations of product-focused stakeholders. Buyer pain points are reverse-engineered from the capabilities of the solution. Marketing is frequently charged with the task of educating the buyers about the company’s version of their problem. 

B2B buyers obviously don’t derive any value from this form of marketing and there is no chance that it can create any competitive advantage for the vendors. Early in the buying process buyers are looking for written content, increasingly sought online, as a next step after a peer referral, or to help a mid-level manager produce a report requested by a senior executive. These buyers are looking for evidence of a close match between their view of the problem and the vendor’s solution, not lengthy explanations of the vendor’s view of “the problems in the industry today.”

With all of the emphasis on buyer personas, I’m looking forward to a year, maybe a decade, with increasingly powerful examples of content that simply and directly demonstrates the company’s ability to answer buyer problems. I’m looking forward to a new definition of competitive advantage where marketing plays a leadership role.

Just about everyone I know is working feverishly to update their messaging strategies. The abrupt downturn in the economy has caused most prospects to rethink their priorities and "buying criteria"– the capabilities that a buyer ranks highest during the purchase process. For most of us, this means that any messaging we developed prior to September 2008 needs to be rewritten.

So I thought if might be helpful if I shared some insight into the new priorities of the Chief Information Officer ("CIO"), one of the buyer personas most frequently cited by attendees of the Effective Product Marketing seminar. 

Let's call this CIO persona Sam. Sam is on the executive team for a global, multi-billion dollar company that sells commodity products in a very mature market.

As a result of the economic downturn, Sam's budget for IT investments has been substantially reduced, causing him to re-evaluate every one of his plans for the IT projects he had slated for this year.  

Sam says that he looks for answers to these three questions to conduct that evaluation:

  1. What does the technology do to support the company's strategy?
  2. What is the business case?
  3. How much risk is in the project?

In the past, Sam says that he could justify IT investments that helped the company make money. For example, last year he was able to recommend technology that made the people in his company more productive. But not now.

For the next year at least, Sam says that every IT investment will be evaluated for its ability to create predictable, measurable cost savings. Sam says it is just too hard to measure improvements in productivity and too risky to expect the company to make the changes needed to realize that benefit.

We asked Sam to give us more insight into this statement. He noted that people have grown accustomed to rapid improvements in relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use technology products in their personal lives. While Sam has different concerns with corporate technology, especially in the areas of security, support and compatibility, he faces major resistance if the solution is costly or requires changes in business processes.

Sam says that his priorities are single-threaded right now — find places to reduce the IT budget — even if that involves nontraditional ways of delivering IT. As much as Sam wishes that internal stakeholders would ask him for recommendations on what IT can do to make the company more productive, all anyone cares about is the budget.

In this respect at least, it should be easy for us as marketers to personally relate to Sam's pain. Most of us are in reaction mode with companies that have asked us to cut our budgets. If we simply cut out all of the wasted effort that wasn't going to impress Sam (or another buyer persona) anyway, we may be surprised at how easy it is to comply. In fact, this may be our best chance to eliminate the work that we always knew was a waste of time.

Working on a buyer persona for a chief information officer last week, my client listed the predictable pain points on the flip chart — shrinking budgets, conflicting priorities, legacy solutions that are difficult to integrate but costly to replace.

These aren’t the real issues for Sam, I said. He’s been living with these problems for years – why would he be motivated to talk to you now? We explored the more personal side of this issue for Sam – could his job or career be compromised by sticking with the status quo? Which aspects of this decision look riskiest to Sam? What, exactly, is at stake if he makes a decision to go with your solution and it doesn’t work out?

I kept asking for deeper insight into Sam’s resistance to their solution. Sam knows about products such as yours, I said, so this isn’t about the obvious problems. Let’s talk about his attitudes and what it would it take to change those perceptions.

After a bit of discussion, my client said, “I get it! Buyer personas are about ‘stake-in-the-heart’ marketing.” A bit violent, I thought, but the people in the room suddenly understood that capturing the same old “pain-points” in their buyer persona renders it meaningless.

I’ve never seen a more interesting example of stake-in-the-heart marketing than this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. I confess that as a marketer I am predisposed to see the election through the lens of effective campaign strategy, but think about it. Can you see that the proposed answers to the country’s problems (health care, the economy, terrorism) are the candidate’s “feature-benefits,” crafted into messages that target different persona pain points? Do the differences in their plans fully account for your decision? Are their solutions new enough to explain the record numbers of people voting in the primaries? Or could it be that these candidates have managed to communicate on an entirely different level, and to audiences who are seeking something more?

With rare exceptions, the technology solutions I hear about each week are a lot like politicians – the differences between competing features and benefits aren’t enough to drive most people to take action. Plus buyers know that technology (and political) solutions are more difficult to implement than anyone wants to admit. Marketing needs to get personal if we want to convince buyers that our solutions can be trusted get the job done, come what may.

I’ve been asked to talk about a narrow but controversial topic – whether products should be demonstrated at tradeshows. Some of my colleagues say that this is a bad idea, but I “never say never” when it comes to any marketing tactic. Instead, I evaluate the buying process for the products the company is marketing, outlining steps in a sensitive vendor/buyer dance that is a lot like the intricacies of dating. The best steps will differ greatly depending on the characteristics of the partners in the dance.

Think about it — potential buyers engage in a series of interactions with vendors, with each positive date increasing the probability that the buyer will be willing to pursue the next phase of the relationship. Vendors are most vulnerable in the earliest phases, when the buyer hasn’t invested a lot yet and can easily stop taking our calls. The buyer is constantly trying to learn more, moving ever closer to the decision that we could be their perfect partner. He doesn’t want to make the wrong choice, after all. This will be a long-term commitment and a bad marriage will be very difficult (and expensive) to dissolve.

So where does the trade show fit in the dating process? The companies who are asking this question are wondering what to do with buyers who are out on their first date (Yes, I know, there are other dates going on at the show, but we’ll take that up another time.). It’s best to think of the trade show as a bar or speed-dating event, with fewer and fewer potential buyers allocating just a short time to each of several potential partners. No one is going to get married during the show, but prospective buyers will be narrowing down the field. Make the wrong move and we may never see them again. Present ourselves as the perfect potential fit, however, and this could be the start of something beautiful!

So I put myself in the shoes of the buyer (I do this with personas) and take a look at the demo through his eyes. Then I compare it to every other opportunity I might have to impress him. If the persona will be won over when he sees some aspect of my product (I’m thinking of the iPhone and some of my early adopter-friends, for instance), I’ll create a short demo that is optimized for his concerns. I can’t do this unless I’ve really grokked the buyer persona and can accurately predict the aspects of the product that will generate a positive experience. I keep the demo very short and have already outlined my plans for a second date. I’ve actually seen a few companies that can close deals at trade shows (amazing!) but I almost always have to go slow. Good relationships take time.

When more than one type of buyer persona will be attending the show, I plan for multiple demos, each precisely targeted to communicate something that will be highly valuable and quickly communicated. This is not the time or the place to tell my whole story – that is way too much information for the first date.

I grew up thinking I’d be a fashion designer. My foray into the computer industry was accidental and (I thought) temporary. There’s a long story here, but the short version is that I came to appreciate the brilliant people and fascinating products in this industry. Tech marketing seemed like the perfect solution – keep my great paying job, work with interesting people, and if I went into marketing, I could spend my time being really creative.

These thoughts were triggered when one of my readers forwarded a paper published by Laura Ramos, Forrester Research’s analyst for B2B Marketing. The paper, entitled “Segmentation vs Personas, Where Should B2B Marketers Start?” reports that B2B marketers are way behind their B2C peers in developing effective messaging and marketing strategies, and that the source of our problem is that we don’t useboth sides of our brain. I’m sure that Jonathan Asbell sent me the paper because Laura points to segmentation and personas as the answer. Thanks, Jonathan.

The Forrester report describes the typical B2B approach to segmentation, with marketers following the sales people’s lead and utilizing industry, geography, or company size to identify target markets. B2C marketers start with this thinking but delve much deeper, seeking to understand and segment markets based on subjective differences in how customers approach decision making. In Laura’s report, she recommends personas as a way to capture and communicate these deeper insights.

Laura published her report in June 2006, but I haven’t seen much change. We’re still using the same left-brained thinking to develop marketing strategies, despite the fact that our markets are maturing. We’re not at B2C commodity stage yet, but we’re well beyond the time when we could successfully market and differentiate products based on the just-released features.

Since you’re reading my blog you may already agree with me, and are wondering what you can do to get your management to listen. I’m happy to recommend Laura’s report for those in your company who might be influenced by a Forrester analyst. Here’s one of my favorite parts of her report:

“Because segmentation defines who to target and personas describe what to say to them, B2B marketers should use both hard numbers and soft emotions to expand their customer understanding. They should delve deeper into prospect requirements and needs in exchange for handing out information like white papers or detailed product specs.”

Well said, Laura. We need to resist thinking like our left-brained companies. We need to abandon our personal preferences for right-brained, creative activities. It’s time for technology marketers to engage in some balanced brain utilization.

Kudos to Tim Buntel at Adobe for a series of blog posts about the buyer personas he needs to influence. After attending the Effective Product Marketing seminar, he developed a persona for a developer he named Chris and posted a description of the guy on his blog, Not Too Fluffy (love the Teddy Bear, Tim). The first of dozens of comments said that the post was "creepy" in its accuracy. More people chimed in with comments to confirm and build on Tim’s original thesis. Tim’s added a couple of new posts in the last few days to keep the conversation going and gain more input. This is a great example of leveraging the blogosphere to develop persona insights and engage buyers in a favorite pastime — talking about themselves.



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