Marketing personas: an invaluable tool, or a cosmetic exercise?

December 20, 2019


By Anu Ramani

Anu Ramani is a specialist in international B2B communications.

More articles from Anu Ramani

Tech B2B marketers are often working with a complex purchase cycle, involving numerous stakeholder groups and influencers. For content marketers, deciding on the right campaign targets and speaking their language therefore becomes a tricky exercise, which is why marketing or buyer personas are so commonly used. They are a sort of shorthand: a fictional, generalised representation of the ideal customer.

Buyer personas like this one are invaluable in B2C and even B2B2C scenarios. Typically developed through market research (keep reading – I’ll cover a better way to approach this that doesn’t have a huge cost attached), they help marketing, sales, product, and services internalise the ideal customer they’re trying to attract and relate to those customers as real humans. They also help marketing and advertising campaigns strike the right tone, provide appropriate context, and present the most relevant messages to achieve the desired goals.

However, as a tech B2B content marketer who often works much deeper in the value chain, I believe that, for all of our so-called devotion to customer-knowledge, the majority of businesses have little more than a surface-level idea of who their customers really are. Despite, in many cases, investing significant time and budget into finding out.

I have seen more marketing persona reports than I like to count languishing in a folder on a server somewhere. Although beautifully created and rendered, they’re never reflected in actual campaigns. This makes me question their value. Do they have relevance? And even if they do, why are they so rarely used?

There are three main issues that contribute to this:

  1. Personas don’t account for a globally dispersed audience. With deep value-chain solutions, the target audience for a campaign is often global. Many companies don’t have the budget for global customer research. So, marketing personas developed in a single market are regularly defined as the template for campaigns in every market. And it doesn’t need a rocket scientist to work out that a customer working for a mobile operator in Argentina, for example, has a very different context, likes and aspirations when compared to one in the US. Using humour in a global campaign, to use just one example, can be dangerous when you’re basing it on an understanding developed in just one market.
  2. Numerous internal stakeholder groups lead to persona overload. Tech B2B purchase cycles are long, sometimes taking months or even years and involving numerous stakeholder groups. In an effort to be comprehensive, each stakeholder group is accounted for, creating many personas based on job titles and roles in a complicated organisation chart that is simply too overwhelming to use. It kind of reminds me of a mnemonic that’s even harder to remember than the actual facts! (Fans of the hit TV show Brooklyn 99 – remember the tongue twisting acronym AAGLYNCPAA!)
  3. Lack of buy-in of the persona process. In tech B2B, content creation and approvals often involve technical and product marketing teams. If these teams have not previously bought into these personas, carefully crafted marketing messages and tactics can be abandoned in favour of what I like to call comfort-zone tactics.

But if we do not have personas, what is the solution? Who do we target our campaigns to?

A pragmatic approach is essential.

I have found that more generalised descriptions of roles in the purchase process are more useful than very granular buyer personas.

For example, classifying personas into tech implementers, tech decisionmakers, and financial influencers, might give marketers a better feeling for who they’re speaking to than job titles. If research budgets are limited at first, these personas can be defined through engagement with sales and product marketing teams within the company. It is important to ensure that all global regions are involved in this exercise.

Including only work-related data points on personas strikes me as being more useful than a slide of information on hobbies, passions and other concerns. It avoids information overload point with data that just cannot be used within a campaign.

A persona based on the following basic criteria is more likely to get used than one with a ton of detail and design work and research budget behind it (and is far cheaper than conducting a multi-geography market research campaign):

Company size and situation

With respect to your product or service.

Tech influencers – Types of roles, how they would use the product/solution, what they are using its stead at the moment, how well they understand the category, what the barriers to adoption in their minds are, what types of drivers for job success are for them.
Tech decisionmakers – Types of roles, how they would use the product/solution, what they are using its stead at the moment, how well they understand the category, what the barriers to adoption in their minds are, what types of drivers for job success are for them.
Financial/business influencers – How their jobs would be affected by the solution, how well they understand the category, what would their concerns be, what types of drivers for job success are for them.

What do you think of this approach to buyer personas? Pragmatic, or lazy? Is your experience different? If you feel your own content marketing efforts could benefit from our approach, drop us a line: [email protected].


Photo credit: Various contributors on Unsplash

Share this Post!

You may also like