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Four Keys for Success Using Buyer Personas to Focus B2B Marketing Automation Campaigns

by: Adam Needles (@IBMforMarketing)
06 November 2009

I posted a new piece on my Propelling Brands blog this past week that examines the application of buyer personas in the B2B marketing arena -- which I wanted to follow up on.

B2B marketers find a growing challenge when it comes to actually implementing their marketing automation campaigns. First, complex, multi-step logic can be tough to visualize and model without really understanding your target audience and the nature of the interaction you seek to drive. Second, populating content for multiple marketing automation campaigns across buyer segments and stages of the buying cycle can be ... well ... daunting. This is especially true at a time when B2B marketing is more than ever 'bottoms-up' and relationship-driven environment -- a challenge to scale.

Yet marketing automation campaigns are a critical tool for the 'brave new world' of B2B marketing that has emerged over the past decade. They help us power a more buyer-centric marketing approach through 'mass one-to-one' marketing. This shifts the core of how we engage with buyers in our marketing from a legacy of push/interruptive tactics to a future of pull/responsive tactics.

To effectively implement marketing automation campaigns today, B2B marketers must find a balance -- understanding how granular to go with segmented campaigns, while still achieving the type of scale marketing that led you to adopting marketing automation in the first place.

Buyer personas can play a key role in managing this balance, but they are widely misunderstood and misused. So I wanted to take a deeper look at what buyer personas mean to B2B marketers -- building on my previous post -- and examine how we can be most successful in using them to drive our marketing automation campaigns.

What are buyer personas, and why are they a critical tool for B2B marketing?

First, let's take a quick step back and summarize what we mean by a buyer persona.

Laura Patterson, President of VisionEdge Marketing, wrote a great piece for MarketingProfs on this topic, defining buyer personas in this way: "The purpose of a persona is to identify a customer’s motivations, expectations, and goals. Even though personas ... are fictitious, they are based on knowledge of real customers. A well-crafted persona enables you to stand in your customer’s shoes and take a more customer-centric view."

Buyer personas also have two key components, as I discussed in my Propelling Brands post:

They are insight-based and focused on defining the common core of buyer segments. They combine a descriptive profile with a contextual situation.

The net result of developing a set of buyer personas is having a core, common set of definitions of who it is companies are targeting and what the nature of the interaction with these audiences can/should/will look like.

Now, let's discuss why buyer personas are a critical tool for B2B marketing.

Most importantly, they are crucial for rationalizing your content and campaigns and for closing gaps in existing B2B marketing programs. I think of them as the 'secret sauce' for building successful marketing automation campaigns. I explained further in my previous post:

They help us put buckets around bigger populations and develop products and go-to-market strategies that are appropriate to their needs and buying patterns. They also help take planning steps such as basic market segmentation to a much more useful level by putting them into context.

Most critically, buyer personas give us a tool for re-focusing company attention and resources on what matters -- the buyer and his/her needs -- especially at a time when buyers have more power than ever and are tougher to reach than ever. And they help to conceptualize our buyers not in a vacuum but in terms of how we actually interact with them -- important for developing campaign logic and content in terms of a dialogue, rather than a traditional definition of a static campaign.

What are the keys to success using buyer personas to focus B2B marketing automation campaigns?

Given all of this, it would seem that deploying buyer personas would both be a no-brainer and easy to do, right? Yet both marketing and sales teams seem to constantly struggle with personas.

So here are my thoughts on four keys to succeeding with buyer personas in the B2B arena:

> Ground them in business reality: The first key to success with buyer personas is to make sure that they are built on real marketing insights and that these insights are relevant to the business. This takes us back to the point made above that personas take profiles/segments and put them into context; to be clear, that context is the nature of how your business interacts with your target buyer.

Steve Mulder, author of buyer personas treatise The User Is Always Right, commented on this in an interview with Liz Danzico on her Boxes and Arrows blog: "Personas that are more rigorous and that are communicated in the language of business are more likely to bring these different groups together and bring their strengths to the table."

And this same rigor -- backed by similarly-rigorous data -- can make persons very compelling to others within a B2B organization: "The power and danger of personas is their realism. Good personas use this realism to drive authentic understanding deep into the heart of an organization," comments Todd Wilkins on the Adaptive Path blog.

> Base them on defensible market segmentation: The second key to success is alignment of market segmentation with buyer personas. Personas are not hypothetical ideas about who your buyer might be; rather, they are defensible descriptions of your actual buyers ... in the scenarios in which these buyers interact with your organization and its products/services. I refer to this latter part of this description as a buyer's critical path -- insight that helps to further define realistic segmentation. Too often marketers segment purely on demographic/explicit or BANT (budget, authority, needs, timing) criteria, but it also is critical to combine this with analysis of behavioral/implicit factors. Good buyer persona definitions should align with this segmentation based on a combination of explicit and implicit factors -- parallel to the idea of the core components of profile along with context.

So how to approach this segmentation? In his book referenced above, Steve Mulder delivers this advice:

I typically try the following approaches, in this order, to seek out the best way to segment users: 1. Segment by goals. 2. Segment by usage lifecycle. 3. Segment based on a combination of behaviors and attitudes.

With all of these approaches, keep in mind that this is an iterative exploratory process. You can segment your audience in many perfectly valid ways; your goal is to find the way that is the most useful for those who will use the personas and what they'll use them for.

> Make sure they are a hybrid of both qualitative and quantitative insights and of both internal and external perspectives: To both deliver on realism and to better align personas with effective segmentation, it's critical to combine a variety of perspectives. The third key to success is to make sure that your personas provide this complete picture. This is particularly important because it calls out where some organizations can go off track with persons. They should not be merely a product of an afternoon brainstorm session within the marketing team.

One critical perspective is that of the sales team. Collecting insights from the sales team about their real-life interactions with buyers will both help complete the picture and also ensure that the sales team has an integral stake in the outcome of the personas definition.

This also is part of a bigger process of involving stakeholders, which Steve Mulder calls out in his book:

The entire segmentation process is collaborative and iterative. Regardless of your approach, you will want to involve key stakeholders throughout the organization. Include product owners, marketing design, customer service, sales and so on -- everyone who interacts with or serves customers and has a take on the types of users who are out there. If you don't involve these stakeholders in the process of segmenting users, it's far less likely they'll buy into you recommendations.
Another critical perspective is that of rigorous data analysis. This is where your marketing automation platform, CRM system and transactional data are vital. What can you observe about the correlation of factors in past buyer interactions? What critical paths and 'stories' emerge?

To do this you should conduct analysis on two levels. The first is basic correlation analysis, which can be couched in basic cross-tabulation of data -- the sort of thing you probably are already doing using Excel Pivot Tables. The second is more-advanced statistical analysis. To really boil things down and gain more fine-tuned and measurable insights, you might want to conduct factor/cluster analyses and regressions to identify those key factors that are most predictive of sales conversions and to test the elasticity of these connections.

The results of both qualitative and quantitative analysis are critical to developing the buyer persona, but it's important to point out they also are also critical to developing lead scoring and routing models. This is where a key opportunity is to blend your efforts to develop buyer persons with those to define lead scoring and routing models. The two are intimately intertwined, anyway, so why not tackle them in tandem.

The net result of all of your efforts should be a hybrid set of perspectives that leads to a more-accurate buyer persona -- not over relying on either the qualitative or the quantitative. Steve Mulder advises in his book, "There isn't one right way to do segmentation. Even with quantiative research and analysis, segmentation is not a science. Think of segmentation as the art of finding patterns and stories in the data, whether your data comprises qualitative user interviews or quantitative survey results."

> Don’t go overboard; keep it simple: The fourth key to success is simplification. The point of defining and using buyer persons is to enable you to scale by getting your hands around a discrete number of segments and critical paths that matter -- not to create infinite complexity. In the end, you want to be able to reduce the amount of work you have to do defining campaign logic and developing content. Isn't that the point? So pull back a little if it seems like you are iterating infinitely.


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