Is your company using customer avatars or marketing personas effectively? The idea of persona-driven marketing appeals to practitioners for a wide variety of reasons. It’s part of what I’d call core inbound marketing dogma.
Yet, marketers are admitting that they’re not really using personas or that they’re failing to use them effectively. Let’s take a closer look at why personas matter, how they fit into the B2B content marketing landscape, and explore some strategies for developing customer insights that will really help you make progress with your B2B inbound marketing.
Getting A Baseline With Customer Personas
I like to describe customer personas as a baseline for helping you understand your audience. The idea is that your customer base can likely be broken down into segments. Each of these segments has enough factors in common that you can describe a “model customer,” which helps you understand the specifics of their lives. This makes it easier to understand what motivates your customers so you can communicate with them and develop products and services that meet their needs.
Many marketers are familiar with customer personas in the context of inbound or content marketing. But the term is borrowed from a well-developed history of segment personas from market research. Usually, the market research firm gathers a tremendous amount of data about your audience and then starts to look for patterns. The patterns that emerge are grouped into similar customers, and each of those segments is given a name that relates to their status or behavior.
Consider just a few personas from recent market research reports I’ve seen: “The Early Tech Adopters,” “The Networking Movers & Shakers,” “The DIY Mom” and “The CrossFit Paleo Evangelist.” All you have to do is think about these labels and you immediately start to visualize who that person could be. By personalizing it, you add another layer of depth and insight.
Let’s take a closer look at these examples and see what happens.
(Note: Before moving to the next step, if you want to understand personas within the context of an overall B2B marketing campaign, I recommend reading How To Achieve ROI From Your B2B Content Strategy in 60 Days.)
Personalizing Customer Profiles Leads To Deeper Insights
Let’s assume for a minute that you’re selling a B2C fitness product. One of your target segments is “The CrossFit Paleo Evangelist.” What do we know about this person already?
- They eat a “paleo” diet, meaning that they consume meat, veggies, fruit and nuts, skipping processed food and grains.
- They’re into exercise. They participate in CrossFit, which emphasizes functional approaches that have both aerobic and strength training components.
- Evangelist implies that they’re passionate about these topics, sharing information in some way with other people.
Then let’s assume that we want to really flesh out our understanding of this segment. Specifically, we’re looking for insights into what their lives might look like and what motivates them. As you dig through your customer data, you might find that this person is:
- Male, between the ages of 18 and 40
- Single, dating or married; if they have a family, it’s a young, small family
- Employed, often at a stressful job
- Interested in diet and exercise for appearance and health reasons
- Motivated by being part of a community focused on fitness
- Driven at least in part by competition, accountability or sports performance mindsets
- Sharing information about these interests to both help people and to demonstrate expertise
- Possibly working in fitness or interested in making a career transition down the road
Suddenly, your ability to communicate effectively has increased dramatically. For some people, you might want to go as far as assigning a name (“Brad, The CrossFit Paleo Evangelist”) and describing his life in detail.
As a tool, this can be helpful in a number of ways: getting everyone on the same page as to whom you’re serving, helping your analytical team identify the right channels for engagement, and as inspiration for your creative team in terms of developing future landing pages, social campaigns and copy. As you’ll quickly find out, however, customer profiles are only useful if your organization uses them effectively. If you’d like to read more about getting to know your audience, I recommend:
Where Customer Profiles Break Down
What’s inportant about the customer profiling process is understanding where customer profiles break down. What barriers arise that keep organizations, especially B2B organizations, from using profiles effectively?
- They’re not based on real data. If you’ve got a budding novelist on staff, you may run into these profiles. They are vivid and engaging, showing that a tremendous amount of energy and imagination went into creating them. But they’re not based on current, insightful data. The root of a solid profile starts with auditing your website data, your buying history, mailing list profiles, customer interviews, staff insights, surveys, detailed market research reports and more. Absent this base, the most creative profiles are useless.
- They’re not holistic. In the example above, I provided a long list of places you can go to get insights about your customers. It’s not feasible for an entrepreneur to consult every source. But if your data sources are too one-sided, you may miss out on critical insights and the kind of well-rounded profile that your business can really use.
- They’re too data-driven. At the other end of the spectrum, you get profiles that are too data-driven. What I mean here is that the profile is a list of statistics or facts, but it fails to analyze the meaning of these facts in a helpful way and apply it to your business.
- They focus on the wrong thing. Every content marketer has an anecdote, whether personal or borrowed, about a persona creation meeting that got stuck on whether to name a customer avatar Paige or Penny. I suspect that many of these are just myths, but they underscore an important point: the personalization is just a tool. If your customers are moms, it doesn’t critically matter if Paige has 2 children or 3 children, unless your product specifically makes life easier for a larger family. For example, this detail is critical if you’re selling 3-seat strollers; but, it’s basically useless if you’re selling subscriptions to a parenting magazine geared at families of any size.
- They’re never used. Many companies have gone through a content marketing exercise and created avatars because that’s what common wisdom says you’re supposed to do. But once that item is crossed off on the checklist, there is a follow-through failure. People don’t understand how to put avatars into action, so they sit unused and feel like wasted effort.
- They’re seen as not applicable to B2B. Many marketers don’t understand how to apply customer personas to B2B marketing, believing that it’s too hard to accurately profile a B2B buyer. Is the buyer the company, the decision maker, or the ring of influencers weighing in a position? Is it possible to map a buyer when the B2B buying cycle is long, intense, and multi-faceted? The answer is yes.
Applying The Customer Marketing Persona To The B2B Space
Translating the buyer persona to the B2B world isn’t difficult, but many marketers don’t know which levers to focus on. In the B2C space, it’s all about facilitating ease: what problem is your buyer facing that your product or service fixes? How can you ease their mind or bring overall ease to their lives?
In the B2B world, an effective customer profile maps two things:
- The corporate context
- The decision maker and influencers’ need to more effectively navigate that context.
For B2B companies, the buyer’s context is the company. By looking at your most profitable and engaged customers, you’ll quickly see patterns that will help you understand the context. It’s also worth expanding your universe to look at customers that surprised you (i.e., responded well to your product or got a lot of value from it) and your aspirational customers (i.e., your dream client) when developing data files. What you want to understand about them is:
- Basic demographics: industry, size, who do they serve, number of employees, revenues, footprint, etc.
- Biggest objectives as a firm for the year ahead
- Biggest obstacles for them as a firm for the year ahead
- Industry dynamics, i.e., what’s their bigger context?
- What’s changing where they’re feeling the pain that you’re alleviating?
Change & The B2B Buyer
I want to focus on the idea of change for a minute, because it’s central to understanding the B2B buyer. Businesses rarely innovate for innovation’s sake. The decision to buy a new accounting system is driven by something such as: growth in revenues that an old system can’t keep up with, a lack of features that are adequate to the demands of public reporting prior to an IPO, or changes in technology that allow more flexible mobile reporting.
Whatever the situation is, something has happened that makes this urgent or important enough to focus resources on now.
In an interesting post on the Content Marketing Institute, Ardath Albee suggests asking the following questions to help understand what’s changing:
- What’s important to them and what’s driving the change?
- What’s impeding or speeding their need to change?
- How do they go about change?
- What do they need to know to embrace change?
- Who do they turn to for advice or information?
- What’s the value they visualize once they make a decision?
- Who do they have to sell change to in order to get it?
- What could cause the need for this change to lose priority?
The second area that you need to profile encompasses your decision maker and influencers. In effect, this change in the bigger corporate context has created a change for your buyer’s job. You have to understand that ripple effect and capture that critical data in your profile. Answering the question, “How does this corporate change affect your buyer?” will get you sales.
At the decision maker and influencer level, you need to understand who is involved and be able to answer the following:
- What is their job title and core responsibilities?
- Who evaluates their performance?
- What aspect of their performance evaluation can your product assist, such as increasing efficiencies or cutting costs?
- What’s at risk if they make a bad decision with regard to this purchase?
- Who else in the organization will they impact with their decision?
- How has the bigger company change or pressure impacted them personally?
It’s less important that your B2B buyer is Jenny, a 35-year-old office manager that manages two administrative assistants. It’s more important to know that Jenny needs to find a way to report her team’s productivity to her boss, who sees administrative support as a cost center and is under increasing pressure to manage his P&L.
If you can demonstrate a tool with the analytics to turn administrative capability into a revenue generation center (for example, by tracking their contributions to lead generation), you’re going to have a sale on your hands.
How To Put Avatars To Work Across Your Organization
In content marketing, we often talk about creating a culture that embraces this type of marketing in order for it to be successful. A related idea to this is that you need to create a culture that understands, values and can implement customer avatars. Below are some ideas and strategies you can use and how specific groups within your company can benefit from putting marketing personas into action:
- Include your customer avatars as part of your standard internal marketing documents. Your internal marketing kit probably includes a brand guide, templates and other materials to assist your staff with external communications. Including your avatars, with an explanation of why they matter will help demonstrate that you take them seriously and empower individuals throughout the organization to apply this knowledge to their jobs.
- Include them as part of your new hire training. More organizations are including marketing and content marketing training as part of new hire orientations. It’s important at every level. Executives are expected to contribute thought leadership pieces. Administrators may be managing social media accounts. By introducing your customer avatars as part of your overall introduction to new hires throughout your company, you’re putting your team on the same page.
- Share them with sales. Customer avatars can help your sales team quickly identify and sell more effectively to leads and prospects. In fact, using customer avatars that align with where your online marketing is derived from can help your sales team better manage leads from inbound marketing. Historically, leads from cold calling and from inbound marketing may require different handling. This approach can help overcome that barrier.
- Arm executives with avatars. Anyone speaking on behalf of your business will benefit from understanding your customer avatars more deeply. From press interviews with the CEO to your director of HR pitching potential recruits, solid B2B avatars can help focus themes, language and approach.
- All creatives should work from customer profiles. Depending on your business, you are likely to have a range of creative staff working for you. This includes writers, designers, and positions you may not think of as creative types such as programmers. If they’re involved in creation, think of them as creative. How could a deeper understanding of your ideal customer help them write better copy, build a better product or craft a more engaging customer experience?
If you take a close look at most inbound marketing process documents, you’ll see that marketing persona generation is one of the most important steps. But, asking the right questions and creating a culture that enables those personas to go to work for your business is critical, and many organizations don’t understand how to tackle this aspect of the process. Has your business found an effective way to use your B2B customer avatars to inform your marketing and other endeavors? Let us know in the comments below.