OPINION: Marketing personas – fact or fantasy?

Creator: PeterPencil

Jason Ball

By Jason Ball, founder of B2B marketing agency Considered Content

Kate is an MD. She’s 42, likes true crime podcasts and hiking, is a mum of one, owns a staffy and lives on the South Coast. Kate is time poor, and she’s struggling to balance work and home responsibilities.

So goes the marketing persona.

If you’re in the business of selling to consumers, knowing what someone does with their spare time, what they listen to, and who lives in their household, are extremely valuable insights.

But financial services are not fast moving consumer goods. Sales cycles last months, even years. In research we carried out earlier this year, 78% of marketers said it’s now more difficult to get agreement on sales and over half (56%) said it is a lot more difficult.

In addition, the costs involved are into five or six figures, with high stakes attached. One wrong purchase decision can cost a person their job, and potentially hamper business operations.

Another difference is that we don’t only have to convince Kate to use our services. We have to convince Kate, her financial director, her IT department and the admin team.

And in other businesses we might also have to include heads of department and the procurement team in our targeting, too. That’s a lot of people, and a lot of personas.

So, it’s easy to see why reducing target audiences down to multiple personas can make things very complex, very quickly.

But there’s a bigger issue. Most personas actually bear little resemblance to real-life clients. Many are based on dubious data that yield fairly irrelevant details – details that cannot be viewed as representative.

What a tiny self-selecting portion says on social media, or what an existing client told an account manager on a Tuesday, cannot be viewed as reliable. Certainly not something to bet the firm’s future success upon.

The good news is there are more effective ways to better understand your audience and inform your marketing strategy.

Instead, firms should strive to understand their clients in a more profound way:

  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What makes their work enjoyable?
  • What is their previous experience of working with suppliers?
  • What is their dynamic with their colleagues who are also decision-makers?

Arguably, it’s marketing’s job to understand the customer better than anyone else in the organisation: what they care about, what they’re trying to achieve, their pain points etc. We need to understand what it’s like to be them.

That kind of understanding comes from talking to both customers and non-customers to understand how they really see the world.

It’s important to do this without a pre-considered view. Be wary of bias. With traditional focus groups, the inevitable group-think, dynamics and limitations due to location and availability can lead to variable and potentially skewed results.

A series of one-to-one interviews can often deliver deeper, more actionable insights. Likewise, using an external consultant and remaining anonymous for the majority of the interview will help ensure the responses tell you what you need to hear (not just what you want to hear).

If the respondent knows it’s you that’s asking the questions, they will tend to bring their knowledge of your business – including any associations and previous experiences – to the party.

Once you’ve undertaken this research, you can start to replace empty personas with something more useful. The Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) approach is a good alternative.

JTBD is a marketing methodology attributed to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The idea is that people don’t simply buy products or services, they ‘hire’ them to make progress in something that’s important – to help them with a ‘job’ they are trying to get done.

Christensen explains that reframing how we see our customer and understanding them better can yield surprising insights. The famous example he uses is milkshakes. A fast food chain wanting to increase milkshake sales spent months doing market research, asking customers about flavour, texture, taste etc. and were none the wiser.

Later they changed tack, and looked at sales data. They were surprised to see that more milkshakes were being sold in the morning. After conducting in-depth interviews, they discovered customers were buying shakes for breakfast as a convenient, filling drink that could be easily consumed while commuting. They were ‘hiring’ milkshakes to do the job of conveniently keeping hunger at bay on the way to work.

Looking at it in this way, it’s clear the company’s competitor wasn’t other milkshakes at all, but other easy-to-eat breakfast foods like bananas and smoothies. Great insight for marketers.

Although it’s a consumer example, the method is transferable to B2B. If we understand our clients in this way, framed by the key things each buyer is looking to make progress on, we can talk only about things that really matter to the customer (and not simply what we wished mattered to them).

It will also help us to create a more focused ideal customer profile (ICP) that will deliver greater value than traditional personas.

For example: Kate and her finance team have recognised that they’re not currently getting the specialist advice they need. They are in manufacturing but their current accountancy firm is a generalist (which suited their needs when they were smaller but not now they’re grown). They’ve also moved to more modern cloud-based accountancy software (which their incumbent is struggling with). Finally, they’re beginning to export into new regions and need a firm with experience of supporting other businesses like theirs.

Three jobs: specialist advice, software competence, export experience. Far more actionable. And not a true crime podcast in sight.

So get talking to your customers, and get under their skin. You might well be surprised about their motivations and bugbears (and how many others share exactly the same motivations).

Jason Ball is the founder of Considered Content, a B2B marketing agency that works with leading tech companies and professional services firms in accounting, legal and specialist consultancy, as well as specialist industrial and manufacturing organisations in the UK, US and mainland Europe, helping them to stand out in crowded markets.

Image: PeterPencil

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