September 26, 2019

How to Get B2B Persona Marketing Right

In the age of 1:1 personalization, it might be considered heresy to suggest that persona-based marketing is a false idol. But hey, we’re renegades, so of course we’re going to challenge convention. The idea of personas is not necessarily bad. You can never know enough about your target audiences especially when facing 11-person buying committees as is the case with so many enterprise sales efforts. But there is a big difference between 1:1 personalization and personas, which are often an amalgamation of clichés by job title– like all CFOs are risk averse and all IT people are data-driven.  Sure, many CFOs tend to be risk averse and many IT people like numbers. Now what?  Does that mean you present you product as the least risky to the CFO and the most data-rich to the IT person?  In a word, no.

As it turns out the different story for different targets approach simply doesn’t work when you’re selling large solutions to large companies and Gartner’s Brent Adamson has the research to prove it. Marketers have heard that they need a separate persona for every slice of their target audience. But at what point are they diluting their brand or outright wasting money by over-segmenting their marketing? To answer these important questions, we interviewed our CEO, Drew Neisser, to further build on the podcast interview.

For more information on persona marketing, check out our post, Why Persona Marketing May Not be Working for You.

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Drew Neisser

Question Drew: It’s Drew, and this is the persona episode. The only way I could think of doing a persona episode was by interviewing myself, so you’re gonna hear the narrator asking questions, and then you’re gonna get some answers from this other guy named Drew.

Now, the reason we’re gonna talk about personas is that I think it’s become a nightmare, and really, it’s become a beast. Personas have led to the dilution of marketing into a series of bite-size messages trying to appeal to an infinite number of targets. The result has not led to increased effectiveness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. But let me step back for a second and ask Drew, what the heck is a persona anyway?

Answer Drew: Well, personas are used by marketers, B2B marketers and B2C marketers, for a very legitimate reason. The idea is that you have multiple targets and therefore you should have tight descriptions of those individual targets.

Question Drew: What do you mean exactly?

Answer Drew: Well, let’s say you’re a B2B business and you’re targeting an enterprise, that’s large companies. Well, chances are there is a buying committee that is made up of 10, 11, 12, maybe as many as 14 different individuals ranging from the department head that needs this particular software to the security expert, the CISO, maybe even a lawyer, probably someone from procurement, a CFO, the head of IT, maybe even HR is involved because the software includes training. Could be systems integrators. There may be even a buying committee that has to approve purchase because the whole software is going to cost a million dollars. These 11 individuals on the buying committee all have their own personalities, all have their own needs. So the idea is you would create descriptions, really detailed descriptions of these individuals.

Question Drew: Well, that sounds very logical. What’s the problem?

Answer Drew: There’s no problem so far in that we can all benefit from being smarter about our individual targets. There is nothing wrong with creating descriptions of your targets. That’s good. I’m all in favor of understanding the target, writing it down, trying to make it personal, creating even a name for this individual. Putting it in writing, that’s a great thing.

Question Drew: Okay, so I’m confused, where does the problem start?

Answer Drew: Well, let’s start with the fact that the average company has 11 different targets and they have 5-10 different media channels that they support their content with. And they’re doing that content, they want to post every day to every target on every channel. Now you’re suddenly at this matrix or grid that has 100 different pieces of content that might go out every day or at least once a week or even a month. But 100 different pieces of content targeting different audiences against different segments.

Question Drew: All right. Well, I’m still confused because isn’t that a really smart thing to do? Isn’t that the whole idea of digital marketing? That you can do this highly targeted work?

Answer Drew: Well, yes and no. And here’s the interesting part. Let’s say you do have these individual targets and you optimize your message for each of those individual targets. Maybe you remember the story of the blind men who are all at a different part of the elephant and they’re touching the elephant, but they don’t know what it is. One is feeling the feet and wondering what it is. Another one is feeling the snout and can’t really get a sense of it. Another one is touching the skin. The problem is replicated when the buying committee comes together and talks about your business and says, “Well, I like them for this reason.” The CFO says, “I like them for this reason” and “I like them for that reason,” says the security guy.

Question Drew: That sounds OK so far. What’s the problem?

Answer Drew: Well, here’s the interesting thing. Gartner did some research on this thinking that, yeah, targeting makes a lot of sense, let’s get those individualized personas out there. What they discovered was that the enterprise software company that tries to sell against personas is 2.2 times less likely to get the sale. Wait, what? 2.2 times less likely to get the sale. And the reason they discovered is that they can’t find common ground with their peers about why they should choose this particular piece of software.

Question Drew: That’s pretty fascinating. Let’s just dive into that a little bit deeper and explain what’s going on there.

Answer Drew: Well, it turns out that buying is hard. It’s very hard to make a decision and companies are often looking for reasons not to buy. When they have a different feeling, when the individual on the buying committee can’t coalesce around a common reason for acquiring this offer, they just don’t bother. Or they do bother and then they’re very unhappy because they thought it was going to do something else.

Question Drew: All right. We’ve got this buying committee and they have different perspectives so they don’t buy it. Where do we go with this?

Answer Drew: Well, I’ll tell you where we go with this. We step back and we think about what it is that we’re trying to do with marketing. We’re trying to make it easier for the buying committee to buy your product or service, right? That’s fundamental. We want to make it easier. And we don’t make it easier by not having a common story.

Question Drew: All right. I think I’m with you so far. Personas are problematic because you end up telling different stories to different customers and they don’t all come together. When they do all come together, they don’t have a common vision of what the company is all about and why they should buy it. So what’s the solution here? I mean, you said earlier that we should understand our targets.

Answer Drew: Absolutely. And in fact, it’s really about the progression of marketing and communications. What I’m talking about here is how persona-led marketing has really led to this small idea and the death of the big idea. Let me repeat that. Persona-led marketing has killed the big idea.

Question Drew: What do you mean?

Answer Drew: Because of the emphasis on microtargeting, brands have come to believe that they don’t have to have a big idea. They can simply put, as they keep saying, the right message against the right target at the right time. That’s the promise of digital marketing. But in fact, that doesn’t work. And there’s all sorts of data beyond Gartner to show it. You can find data that shows that sales teams aren’t making their quota. You can find evidence that B2B marketers don’t think that their content approach is working. But they’re spending a lot of money to make this stuff work, and yet it isn’t.

Question Drew: All right. I’m a little confused, but I think I can follow along in this way. Personas have led to a dilution of marketing and therefore of the big idea and therefore, brands are struggling to close the sale. So what do we do from here?

Answer Drew: Let’s take a break and come back and we can talk about how we address this whole persona thing and what to do with them.

Question Drew: Sounds like a good idea. We’ll be right back.


Question Drew: We’re back, and my guest today is me, and we’ve been talking about personas. I wanted to ask me what the heck we do with these personas if we’re not going to do micro-segmented marketing.

Answer Drew: Let’s again step back and say, “You know, what we’re missing in all of this is the big idea.” And the importance of the big idea that’s driven by purpose—at Renegade we call this a purpose-driven story statement.

Question Drew:  Wait, what’s that?

Answer Drew: The purpose-driven story is statement, as I often call it, is like a tagline on steroids. It is words ideally six or less that communicate what the brand is about and why you should care about the brand. It is designed to evoke has a sense of a purpose to employees, customers, and prospects.

Question Drew: That sounds pretty noble. Give me an example.

Answer Drew: Let’s take SurveyMonkey. One of my favorite interviews in the last year where Leela talked about how SurveyMonkey—the guys that do all the surveys for all the companies, I’m sure you’ve used them—talks about “power the curious.” I love that because we live in an era where curiosity is being questioned, is at risk. Scientific exploration is what is being questioned. Science in itself is being questioned, so powering the curious is three words that really sums up what the company stands for and what it delivers. It’s quite amazing.

Question Drew: All right. So we’ve got three great words. That’s just a tag line. What makes it a purpose-driven story statement?

Answer Drew: Well, the great thing about that example is that there are lots of things that you can do with employees. You can train employees on how to be more curious, how to ask better questions. You can do the same thing with your customers. And in fact, the SurveyMonkey is doing just that.

Question Drew: You’ve given a couple examples of how SurveyMonkey is using their tag line, power the curious, to drive and inform their communications. But get this back to personas, what do they do with that and what would be wrong with SurveyMonkey having personas?

Answer Drew: Again, nothing is wrong with SurveyMonkey using personas. In fact, I’m sure they have many. They work with a large number of companies. But the idea that I’m talking about is, first you have to have the big idea. And secondly, you need to let that idea inform all of your specific communications. So now, if we go to a head of marketing or head of research and say, “You need an enterprise strategy for your research,” SurveyMonkey is ready to do that because they are powering the curious. They can power that curious regardless of the persona. They just need to help that individual persona see how that idea applies to them. I’m not going to go into great detail on SurveyMonkey’s program, but the idea is, if you don’t have a big idea, then you just have a lot of little ideas and little ideas won’t carry the day.

Question Drew: You mentioned earlier this idea of the content calendar or the content grid as being a beast. Can you talk about that?

Answer Drew: Sure. I’ve been warring on content calendars for a while, and the reason is I’ve seen in action how the calendar—just this idea, “Oh my gosh, it’s Monday. We better post content” has driven a quantity over quality approach. Let’s face it, there is enough content for all of us to read for infinity. Literally, and I’m not going to give you the exact numbers here, but millions of new pieces of content are introduced on a daily basis and most of it’s okay, but none of it, or a very limited amount of it, is great. And you know the difference.

Question Drew: What do you mean I know the difference?

Answer Drew: You know the difference when you see a brilliantly written e-mail because you read it and you stop and go, “Oh, my gosh, that’s brilliantly written. They got my attention. How did they do that?” You read it and then you click on it and say, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to download that research study because it looks really smart. It looks really well done.”

Question Drew: All right, I’m a little confused. So you say it’s a beast. Why is it a beast? You haven’t really identified that.

Answer Drew: Thank you for keeping me on track. The content calendar, again, 30 days in a month, 5-10 different personas, five different channels. You’ve got email, you’ve got your blog post, you might even have a podcast. You have all these different channels and you just have to feed the beast. It is in the process of feeding the beast—and by the way, there are very few companies out there that are prepared to dedicate the resources to create amazing content for every channel and every persona.

Question Drew: So that’s the problem.

Answer Drew: Yeah, that’s the problem. 11 personas, 10 channels and every day, something needs to go out because we have the content calendar.

Question Drew: Are you saying we have to throw the content calendar away?

Answer Drew: Not really. What I’m suggesting is that you need to elevate your approach to content. One very simple way to do it is to divide your calendar, say, into quarters and say, “We’re gonna have one big tent pole idea.” I’m going to call it a tent pole program, not idea, because we have one big idea, one overarching idea. You have your power the curious. You’re going to have your purpose-driven story statement. Now, if it’s any good, that idea can be executed in any number of ways.

Let’s say that you’re “power the curious.” It’s time to do a global study on curiosity and you do this global study and the results come out amazing: that curiosity as a whole is down across the globe, in the United States it’s particularly down, but in other societies, it’s going up. For some reason that Greeks, who knew, are more curious. You have this study, and what’s interesting about the study is you can generate a tremendous amount of PR out of it.

You can get infographics out of it and get blog posts out of it. You might do a roadshow, a webinar, and you can develop a lot of interesting content around this one proprietary bit of research that is connected back to your original story. In this case, it’s power the curious. And then you can take iterations of that and say, “Here are the financial implications for any business of not being sufficiently curious.” Okay, that might be appealing to the CFO. “Here are the security issues that come with not being curious.” “Here are the HR issues with not being curious.” Like if you don’t ask the right questions in an interview, you might not get the best employees.

Question Drew: Okay, I get it. Or I think I get it. Is it really as simple as you describe it?

Answer Drew: Yes, it is. It really is. One of the things that we’ve noticed with digital marketing and the advent of MarTech is an incredible increase in the complexity of marketing.

Question Drew: Can you be more specific?

Answer Drew: Sure. We did some research among 110 B2B marketers just to confirm this idea. 90% said that marketing had become significantly or very significantly increased in complexity. Okay, that was really bad grammar. I’m sorry. Yes. 90% of them noted that marketing had become a lot more complex. The reasons were pretty clear. They had a lot more data. They had a lot more targets and a lot more messages, but it hadn’t become more effective. What’s interesting in and aligns with this is, Forrester has done a lot of research on marketing technology and the use of it, and they’ve actually concluded that marketers are wasting billions. I think it was $10 billion. No, I’m sorry. $19 billion that they were recommending that marketers reallocate to marketing as opposed to technology in order to yield a $10 billion dollar increase in marketing effectiveness.

Question Drew: Wait. I think we’re gonna have to take a break because I need to wrap my mind around that.


Question Drew: We’re back. And yeah, we’re still talking to Drew. He just mentioned this research study by Forrester that suggested that marketers were spending too much money on marketing technology. Can you talk about that?

Answer Drew: Sure. I’ve seen this in practice not just from the Forester research, where a marketer targeting enterprise customers is spending as much as a million dollars on marketing technology and doesn’t have a million dollars in their media budget. I just wonder how that’s supposed to play out because if you don’t have media of some kind to build awareness and drive interest in your brand, how are you going to get the word out that you are all that you’re cracked up to be?

Question Drew: Marketers are spending too much on marketing technology. So what?

Answer Drew: Well, the so what is that you don’t have money to develop amazing content. You don’t have money to get the word out there that you have an incredible product or service that is profoundly important to the marketplace. Personas lead to or are driven by an increase in marketing technology. An increase in marketing technology means less money for media and content creation.

We’ve got a place where every marketing technology company has said, “We can make your life simpler and more effective.” And in fact, one of the interesting things is, almost every marketing technology that you get—let’s just take marketing automation where you were going to automate your content campaigns—and by the way, I have nothing against this. In fact, I think every company needs to have it. They just don’t want to overinvest so you have so much money spent in marketing technology that you have nothing left for media.

You get this marketing technology, the marketing automation software, and you have to hire people to support it. And in fact, you really need two people. Most of time people just hire one, but the two people you need, you need a data analysis person who can look at these campaigns and really assess in theory what’s working on a very important level. That’s just that’s a huge area of opportunity and mistake because you optimize for the wrong thing.

Question Drew: All right. You just mentioned like five ideas. Could you step back and clear that up a little bit?

Answer Drew: You’re doing a content marketing campaign, and here’s where the personas come back. You have a database of 50,000 names. Each of those is divided up into a number of groups. You have started to score those folks based on the number of visits and what they’ve done and so forth. The challenge in the metrics is making sure you really know what metrics matter because you don’t want to optimize for click necessarily. You want to optimize for really meaningful interactions.

For example, if someone comes and does a demo, that’s a pretty clear indication that they’re interested at least in looking at your product. If they look at your pricing page, that’s bing, bing, bing, bing, bing! They’re pretty interested. That’s the moment. That’s a metric that matters.

Question Drew: We have metrics that matter and we need people to do that. But what about the content? You said that you needed another person.

Answer Drew: Right. Well, the person who’s going to be able to really help you take advantage of your marketing automation is someone who can create campaigns that are testable, that deliver the right people into your pipeline. This is where it gets complex really fast. That individual will start with the data person. You start creating, “Oh, well, we have 10 different targets, so let’s create 10 different campaigns at 10 different times.” And now we’re back to this dilution and complexity. This is the whole problem—you think that because we got that person to click on and watch the demo, you go, “Yeah. That’s the right person. We got this now.” But now we go back to the buying committee. No one buys a million-dollar software based on watching a demo on your website. Even if they want it really badly, they have to go back and convince the entire buying committee to buy the product. And if you haven’t given them an anchor idea and enabled them to sell the rest of their organization with all these different tools that tell the same story, you’re going to fail.

Question Drew: All right, I think this whole thing was rather circular, but I think you got to the main point, which is: We’re trying to sell stuff here and we can’t sell stuff unless each of the members on the buying committee have a shared understanding of the company that they’re buying.

Answer Drew: Bingo. That’s it. That’s why you need a big idea. That’s why you have to make sure that you don’t dilute that big idea with your personas.

Question Drew: Let’s be clear. Yes or no on personas?

Answer Drew: Yes on understanding your target. Yes on developing tools that will help each of the individual groups understand your product or service in the context that’s important to them. That’s why you need personas. But no to creating distinct messages for each of your targets that don’t align back to your big idea.

Question Drew: It sounds hard.

Answer Drew: It isn’t really that hard. It simply takes a little bit of courage. You have to have the courage of your convictions and believe that you need a big idea and that you need a purpose-driven big idea, one that employees, customers, and prospects can buy into.

Question Drew: Anything else you want to add on this topic?

Answer Drew: Yes. When your sales guys are getting ready to go into a meeting, I’m not saying treat them all the same. In fact, there’s this really cool piece of software called xiQ. It’s an application, actually, and you can download it on your phone right now. That’s xiQ. And you can test it and it’s amazingly accurate. You put in a person’s name and this thing in a matter of seconds gives you a profile of this individual and how to talk to them. I think that’s really cool because there are individuals who are very rational. So you have your big idea, but you need to feed them the components of that idea in a way that they can understand. There is a time and a place for really knowing who it is that you’re talking to. That’s when you’re in these one-on-one conversations. That’s when you need to take advantage of some of these technologies out there, like xiQ. But when you are talking about marketing, we need to have the courage to have one big idea that is profound, that can hold everything else that you do together.

Question Drew: Personas are okay, but persona marketing is problematic. I guess that’s the big takeaway of the day. If you enjoyed this episode, do me a favor and write a review. Share the show with a friend. Give me your feedback. And until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.