Has your firm’s marketing team developed “personas” yet? If you haven’t, please don’t. If you have, please throw them out.
I have always had a distaste for the “persona” craze that has gripped marketing during the “content marketing” fad. Sure, I get that writing a persona profile gets marketers into the buyer’s shoes and helps identifies his “pains.” It gives the firm a collective view of potential clients. It streamlines “content creation.” It’s better than nothing and at least gets a firm to take its eyes off its navel for a quick glance outward.
I still don’t like them for two simple, but meaningful reasons:
- Human beings are much more complex than a pseudo-psycho summary of a functional role.
- Personas ignore the dreadful decision-making process of a B2B complex sale.
1. Human beings are much more complex than a pseudo-psychological summary of a functional role.
Here are some typical persona profiles:
Try a persona on for yourself. How does it fit? A little tight? Too loose? How close did the personas come to encapsulating you as a buyer or a person? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “Not very close.”
As a CMO in a professional services firm, as a consultant, or as a business owner, my view of the world is very different from my peers. My firms’ culture, market position, and business strategy are all unique. Can a persona that details “job requirements” (growth, brand management, product development, client experience, etc.) capture my strengths, weaknesses, fears, and peccadilloes? For the most part, it assumes that I am some creative genius or brand cheerleader tasked with something labeled “growth.” Does a company really think it understands me because I am a “Marketer” and stereotypical marketers are creative, extroverted, and enthusiastic? In reality, I’m analytical, introverted, and so introspective that people often mistakenly think that I am brooding.
Does “Cat Herder” come close to encapsulating a managing partner? Hell, every leader is a “Cat Herder.” Does “Cat Herder” reflect the scars a leader has earned on his way up the ladder? the tough decisions that had to be made? the regrets? the insecurities? How can a persona that describes a leader’s personality as a “Driver” capture the sophistication and style of a particular leader’s approach to leadership or the political factions aligned against her?
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People are just too multifaceted to be reduced to a monolithic profile, even if they are put into pretty infographics.
2. Personas ignore the dreadful decision-making process of a complex sale.
Most B2B sales are complex, meaning that they are multi-buyer (personas), political, personal, risk-laden, filled with competing priorities, wrought with conflict, and often sub-optimal purchases in the end. (That’s why salespeople make the big bucks.)
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The overdependence on personas assumes that B2B decisions are made in one of two ways:
By a single person (an economic buyer).
This may be true for many B2C purchases (iPhone, Kate Spade purses, or a tie). Seldom, if ever, are B2B decisions made unilaterally. Subordinates, bosses, functional peers, users, et al all weigh in on business decisions from consultants to software and from tchotchkes to toilet paper.
By a harmonious committee giving input to the buyer.
Personas often assume those involved in a decision work harmoniously together and/or simply relay their specific “requirements” for the purchase.
- Users care that a solution is simple to use and accomplishes the desired task.
- Influencers don’t want a solution to negatively impact them
- Economic Buyers want a positive ROI.
Harmony is not the hallmark of B2B decision making. In reality, B2B decisions are more much more messy, clandestine, and dastardly as factions push personal agendas, exploit power, leverage knowledge asymmetry, and manipulate the process.
Each firm has a unique buying process (centralized vs. decentralized), culture (seeing suppliers as vendors or partners), worldview on functions/issues/solutions (strategic vs. tactical), risk (averse vs. taking), a financial perspective (cost vs. investment), etc. They change from purchase to purchase, from player to player, and—even day to day. Personas do not capture these corporate peccadilloes and nuances. But, it is these various distinctions and interactions that drive B2B sales success.
There is no shortcut through the complexity. It is “hand to hand combat,” not “carpet bombing.”
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Yes, personas may be better than nothing for some firms. Ideal client profiles are a much stronger and strategic approach.
If you choose to use personas instead, please make sure that you don’t use them as a replacement for the hard work of getting to know someone deeply and building the understanding and trust required to truly serve them.