The problem with personas in B2B, and what we need to do differently

We see an awful lot of personas in B2B these days. The rise of content marketing has led to a renewed emphasis on audience insight. Recognise this?



Of course, this isn’t totally wrong, but it’s been dangerously oversimplified.


The hunger for B2B personas and audience insight is producing a lot of very mediocre output and wasting a lot of effort and budget. Michael Brenner makes this point nicely, with some very funny (and accurate) spoof examples of ‘what sucks’.


Michael also makes the very sensible point that a persona should be actionable. We come across a lot of personas that aren’t actionable. Especially when you get down to activity that is supposed to be generating demand, producing meetings for big, complex propositions.


Of course, the people working on these personas want to make them actionable. So what’s going wrong?



A view from the sharp end of demand generation

Up at the ‘brand’ level of activity, which is where most of these personas crop up, you can be a long way from the end audience. And a long way from sales. These are the people who actually understand the challenges and propositions in detail and know what a sales conversation really feels like.


People who get into marketing are rarely attracted to things like enterprise IT architecture, cloud orchestration or finance & accounting optimisation. But our end audience is – they’ve made a career of it!


So we’ve got to a situation where many B2B marketers have adopted a B2C tool for audience insight, without being able to engage with the detail. We’re not selling hair care products here – we’re addressing some pretty complex problems and buying behaviours.


This comprehension gap is laid bare in some of these personas. It’s why salespeople often laugh if you show them one. It’s not doing wonders for bridging the sales and marketing divide, is it?



What we should do differently

Personas aren’t the wrong thing to do in principle.


But the really interesting pain points are often being missed. What may seem new and insightful to a marketing team can be pretty facile and obvious to a specialist B2B audience. It looks a bit like this:



Here are just a couple of thoughts on how to stop this happening.


1. Make understanding of the proposition sacre

It’s not enough to talk about something like ‘productivity’ or ‘efficiency’ – there needs to be an original angle. And that should be easily tracked right back to the proposition. Not just because it’s the sales end game, but because if you understand the problem it’s solving in detail, you’ll understand your audience better. Then it’s just a question of rooting that particular pain point in their broader context.


2. Marketers need to move in different circles – or be different people

B2B marketers (and especially those who work in campaign planning) should be much closer to the sales teams, the solutions designers and the audience’s general environment. It requires a certain amount of specialisation. It may even require some original thinking about recruitment for these roles. I for one have benefited hugely as a planner from close proximity (and brutally frank feedback) from the following kinds of people:


  • Client-side senior sales people
  • The people who design or implement solutions and services
  • Friendly insiders drawn from the target audience – senior Finance, IT, Ops style people
  • Former enterprise sales people who work in my agency
  • Desk-based ‘Inside Sales’ agents in my agency who take the messaging right into the lion’s den


These people will tell me pretty quickly if the messaging and any personas are relevant and actionable. They will also be very good at testing my team’s understanding of the proposition.


So next time someone says ‘Let’s do some personas!,’ have a really good think about just who’s going to work on them, where that insight will come from and what kind of quality (or bullshit) controls are in place.


By Tom Upfold | October 22, 2015