Buyer personas are one of those consumer marketing constructs that the clueless keep trying to graft onto B2B services. A persona is a fictional character that’s supposed to represent your ideal buyer. It’s not the same thing as a target buyer. “The risk officer of a multinational property and casualty insurance company” is an example of a target buyer. This, on the other hand, is an example of a buyer persona.
Buyer personas are a self-licking lollipop. The only objective is to get them done. Nobody in client service or business development uses them. And nobody in marketing wants to work on them. So, like any other thankless task, they end up being passed down the line for some poor chump at the regional level to develop.
How do I know? I was one of those chumps, briefly, once. So I got a firsthand look at why buyer personas are a pointless waste of time.
Demographics. When you sell to other businesses, demographics (age, gender, education, etc.) are beside the point. If you’re marketing to finance chiefs in Fortune 500 companies, does it truly matter whether the CFO is a 40-year-old bachelor or a 60-year-old grandmother?
Hobbies. This might be useful for determining affinity marketing opportunities. There’s no clear relationship to B2B, though, at least not to the extent that it’s worth it for marketing to research and record such information.
Typical day. There is no typical day for anyone in business management. Meetings and reports are the most consistent work. But it’s no use noting those things unless you offer something to get rid of them.
They Can’t Be Generalized
Location. The business issues that professional services firms address aren’t ordinarily defined by location. Even if you specialize in an industry that tends to concentrate in specific locations (e.g. financial services in NYC), it’s unclear how it helps to build a persona around that.
Goals. Goals are things like priorities, change drivers and internal politics. These are unique to every situation, and it’s unwise to assume what they are. You can’t know until you have a conversation with the client.
Existing processes. B2B buyers tend not to do a lot of routine work. In any case, except at the macro level, business processes are often idiosyncratic and subject to change. In many departments they’re reinvented every time a position turns over.
Budget. Budget is particular to the role and organization. The head of HR in one company may have a completely different budget from their counterpart at a competitor. In addition, some businesses don’t use formal budgets at all. Several of my clients don’t, and only one of my employers did. Even in that case, a senior decision-maker was able to find the money when they really wanted to.
They’re Painfully Obvious
Values. If “values” refers to the issues the buyer needs to address, then that’s what your offering is about. If it refers to expectations, that’s what your client service approach is about.
Objections. The big stumbling blocks are going to be fee, perception of need, an incumbent provider or the belief that the issue can be addressed internally. Any buyer can have any of these objections. Assigning one to a particular persona is just guessing.
Role in the purchasing process. Labor has become too costly to spend time marketing to anyone but decision-makers. The decision-maker to target is the one closest to business ownership.
Preferred content medium. Digital is the name of the game for media anymore. And as far as digital’s concerned, B2B buyers don’t differentiate among web pages, blogs, email, PDF documents, slide shows or periodicals. To them, it’s all the Internet. Use it all.
Where did personas come from in the first place? According to Wikipedia, they originated in the 1990s with folks in advertising and software who were trying to improve audience and end-user engagement respectively. Maybe personas do help if your business involves dealing with mass media. But software? Software should be developed with input from real users, not hypothetical ones.
Likewise with professional services. By and large, B2B services grow out of bespoke engagements; you have to work with a client in order to create an effective solution for them. Only then, generally, will you have a good idea of who else might benefit.
Either you know the client or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re better off pitching samples of your insight (i.e. thought leadership) or a small door-opener project to a target buyer. Either of these activities is more productive, I think, than building out personas.