3 Common Problems with B2B Marketing Personas

Funhouse MirrorDeveloping personas is one of the first steps recommended by many B2B marketers. Understanding your audience is critical, and personas are one of the most effective solutions, right?

I recently had the privilege (cough) of reviewing personas created for a client by a large, respected agency. It was a stark reminder of how common bad personas are today.

Unfortunately, many B2B marketers are working with personas that do more harm than good.

Here are some of the most common problems I see. The faint silver lining: at least all of these issues are avoidable.

1. The Funhouse Mirror Persona

Prospects don’t spend most of their day thinking about you or the problems you solve. And prospects that work with your competitors don’t go through their day terrified, while your customers sit on cloud nine popping bonbons all day.

All too often marketers end up with these funhouse mirror personas: grossly distorted and misleading views of the audience that focus attention on irrelevant features while obscuring the most important ones.

Instead, personas should be like a caricature: immediately recognizable while focusing on the defining characteristics of each segment.

The solution:

  • Don’t rely on salespeople and executives for insight, or even on customers. Talk to potential prospects that have not engaged with sales in order to understand prospects your marketing needs to reach.
  • Don’t just focus the discussion on views of your category or company. Instead, learn about each individual’s overarching priorities, concerns and activities.

2. The Title Persona

Titles do not define people and personas should help you connect with people!

You do not need to create a profile for an accounting manager, a director of finance and a CFO. Depending on your market, you might only need two. Or you might need five, in order to capture the relevant differences in their motivations and perspectives.

Whatever you do, defaulting to creating a persona for each target title almost ensures you will lose the insight you need into what will motivate or hold back your prospect. Instead of unique and useful insights, you will be capturing information that could be had far more cost effectively by just reading 20 job descriptions on Craigslist.

The solution:

  • Identify underlying motivators or perspectives that push individuals and organizations to change or stay where they are. These are your potential personas.
  • Examples to consider: the change agent, the reluctant manager, the old timer, the early adopter.

3. The Personal Persona

Yes, personal and professional lives are inextricably linked. But if a persona tells you more about a person’s family, pets and free time activity than their professional career and motivations, you are missing an absolutely critical part of the picture.

The solution (this one is easier):

  • Get to know them professionally: how do they spend their time, what are their priorities or concerns and what are their aspirations and fears.
  • Explore their role, experience and emotions around purchasing decisions that ended up being very successful and around those that failed.

Summary

B2B personas should illuminate your audience and provide a clear roadmap to relevance in your marketing. Instead, far too many perpetuate myths and misconceptions about your audience or, even worse, just tell you what you want to hear.

Your Turn

What problems do you see with the personas B2B marketers are creating or using today? Share your view in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

Photo Credit: dearoot via Flickr cc

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  • Dara Schulenberg

    Excellent discussion Eric. I’m seeing people struggle (still) with taxonomy, who want to talk in jargon and branded phrases and thereby miss the opportunity to connect. And there’s a lot of personal bias applied. Your buyers are not like you and projecting want you want them to value/do/say means they’ll be talking to your competitors. Ask, don’t assume and just say no to building off of garbage such as poorly developed persona!

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Thanks Dara, I appreciate your addition here.

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  • Ardath Albee

    Hi Eric,

    Great points. #3 is my personal peeve for B2B. But I have a question. I agree with the idea in #2, but I’d argue that you do need titles/roles to some extent to enable segmentation of databases. I just can’t see fields on forms for “change agent, reluctant manager and old timer” :)

    However, there is a place in personas for what I call orientation – which are these types of perspectives. For example, many engineers are analytical thinkers. You’d write content differently for them than you would a CEO who’s more of a visionary (for an easy example). I contend that you may have all of those types that you list for number two, but that they may be spread across all of your personas in different ways.

    Essentially this means that you make your best “guess” based on interviews, research, etc., launch your content strategy and then find out what prospects are responding to that is moving them forward in the buying process and refine your personas. I’ve found that continuous evolution is critical to getting them right. (The “moving them forward” part is the imperative to focus on)

    Another interesting approach is to consider the difference between young in career and willing to take a risk to climb the ladder vs. old timer who knows where all the “bodies” are buried and wants to get stuff done but not rock the boat on the way to retirement.

    There are tons of ways to look at how to shape personas. It’s always different depending on the company, solution, etc. I’ve developed many personas with the same title, for example, but no two have turned out the same, if that says anything.

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Thanks Ardath, as always, for the great addition.

      I agree there is a place for titles, but if your persona effectively says a CEO is a CEO is a CEO, you’ve lost some of the insight about how to connect most effectively with each of them. Too often, that seems to be the case.

      We may see that some CEO’s behave more like heads of engineering and others behave more like heads of sales. If your personas had stylized three types of people and we looked for the cues into which type of person we were engaging with, regardless of title, marketers would be better positioned to make a meaningful connection with their audience.

      Thanks, again, for taking the time to comment!

  • Geoff Tucker

    Your statement, “Don’t rely on salespeople and executives for insight, or even on customers. Talk to potential prospects that have not engaged with sales in order to understand prospects your marketing needs to reach.” is the best advice I’ve read in a while. Thanks for perfectly timed blog post!

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Geoff, glad it was helpful!!

  • Adele Revella

    Thanks for the excellent post, Eric! You are so right on all three points.

    In response to Ardath’s comment about job titles, we usually describe the organizational “roles” that are included in a particular buyer persona. So, for example, we might have one buyer persona that is inclusive of the CMO, Marketing VP, VP of Business Development and Director of Channel Marketing.

    In other instances, we’ve needed two buyer personas for the role of CIO, because there were two very different perspectives about how to buy the solution in question.

    Guessing about your buyer personas is unnecessary and usually leads to wasted budget and resources (plus unrealistic expectations and disappointment about marketing ROI). You can simply interview recent evaluators of your solution to learn about the 5 buying insights that we describe at http://www.buyerpersona.com. After the interviews are complete and you’ve grouped buyers based on similar buying behavior, you can look back at the titles of the people you’ve interviewed and assign the roles based on the facts.

    Thanks for the great conversation. Sorry I’m late to see this.

    • http://b2bdigital.net/ Eric Wittlake

      Thanks Adele. One of the challenges I see is that those insights often don’t map clearly to titles, then multiple key driver insights get mashed together, when they really are uniquely different groups.

      I really like the work the Eisenberg brothers have done on this. Rather than assume you know what persona maps to a person, ensure your communications are shaped to appeal to each persona until you identify which persona they align with. It is a more challenging creative problem, but it forces you to focus on each of those underlying drivers, styles, etc that are meaningful to your process.

      Your solution, or multiple personas around the same or similar titles because they behave differently, is key.

      Thanks for your addition!

      • Adele Revella

        Yes, Eric, buyer persona insights often do not map to titles at all, in which case marketers need to think out of the box about their segmentation strategy.

        It is very difficult to make this adjustment, as segmentation has always been focused on demographics and so many go-to-market strategies are affected when we abandon this thinking. But this is a step that needs to happen or marketing will continue to miss the needs of the buyer.

        And it can be done. Last year NBC News announced that they had killed the demographic approach to their programming and ad sales. See this story http://bit.ly/19jJ3Cq