Getting Back to the Roots of Buyer Personas: Interview with Tony Zambito of Goal Centric
Tony Zambito is the founder, president and CEO of Goal Centric, a strategy consulting organization with a focus in buyer insight and buyer persona development. Tony and his partner, Angela Quail, originated the development of buyer personas in 2002 based on their work with Alan Cooper, who is largely credited with the origins of user personas for the design of digital products. Here Tony and I discuss the concept of and misperceptions about buyer personas, and what it takes to extract full value from them.
A. Before working with Alan Cooper, I had been the VP of Sales and Marketing for three organizations. When I saw what Alan was doing with user personas – to define the person using products so engineers and designers could address the user’s goals, tasks, and skill levels – it struck me that the same process could be applied to sales and marketing.
Q. In an article on MarketingProfs, Angela Quail, your SVP of customer insights, says “simple customer profiles, even ones bursting with rich, research-based attributes and details, are not enough.” Please explain how personas have evolved from 1.0 to 2.0.
A. In the B2B world, there’s a heavy emphasis on the company you’re selling to. In other words, when you ask a senior executive who they’re targeting, they name companies.
So, in 2003, we began to paint the entire picture of the buyer journey. To do that, you need to look at things in a larger and more strategic context. We began to examine various touch points, and we developed business – or organizational – personas. At the same time, we also began to look at the prominence of mental models – in other words, the sets of attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and unarticulated insights that influence how buyers think and make decisions.
We define buyer personas as the process of not only developing archetypal representations of buyers, but also the process of gathering insights, developing buyer scenarios, tapping into mental models, and mapping to the buying process. The end goal is that these elements should combine to help inform an organization’s future strategy for business, sales, and marketing. If they’re not informing strategy, then buyer personas are not providing the highest value. Your approach to developing buyer personas dictates their ultimate value.
Q. What are the common reasons that B2B companies do not develop buyer personas?
A. Most B2B companies are seller-centric – you see lots of emphasis on sales programs and methodologies. But that’s changing as more B2B companies are recognizing the importance of marketing and reaching out to customers and buyers. Also, much has been written over the past 2-3 years about the importance of buyer personas, but these articles, books, and blog posts have stressed them as profiles or lead-generation tools as opposed to a best practice that informs on business, sales, and marketing strategies that help best identify and reach buyers.
Q. What are typical catalysts spurring the development of personas in B2B organizations?
A. We see a variety of catalysts. A company:
- Is pursuing a new market opportunity but has no sense of the market or its buyers.
- Wants to validate a new product idea.
- Wants to understand its customer base, especially its SMB clients.
- Is losing market share and needs to understand why.
Q. Do you feel the adoption of inbound marketing and marketing automation has partly fueled the growing interest in buyer personas?
A. I’m happy to see these trends because they reinforce the value of buyer personas. My only concern is that I don’t see many of these initiatives as being buyer-centric. Instead what’s happening is that buyer persona profiles are being developed within a seller-centric environment without the investigative process needed to really understand the buyer. There’s a big difference between buyer personas – as Goal Centric defines them – and buyer persona profiles as many companies think of them.
If you’re in seller-centric mode, you immediately correlate to selling methodologies you’ve used and make presumptions about the target audience. Someone with good intentions says “we should build buyer personas for our target.” This becomes an internal exercise of overlaying a profile on existing information. The problem in that case is that companies don’t do full-fledged investigative research – in other words, gather buyer insights and conduct rigorous analysis to understand what’s going on in the marketplace. As a result, they might miss a transformative event shaking up the market, or the fact that a target audience has a new set of goals, or that new roles have emerged. So they might be going after the wrong target with their buyer persona(s).
Q. What common mistakes do B2B marketers/companies make when developing personas?
- They presume they know who they’re targeting, which means they might miss a critical role.
- They don’t realize the importance of gathering buyer insights and the extent of the investigative process that’s needed.
- They try to combine a seller/company-centric culture with a buyer-centric approach.
- They view buyer personas as a tool, rather than a strategic process and initiative.
- They don’t incorporate their own company goals as they’re defining personas.
Q. What do you mean when you say that the investigative process can uncover “the unarticulated?”
A. Sometimes, the investigative process yields something that has not yet been discovered. For example, one of our clients couldn’t understand the reason for revenue losses. We talked to buyers in different organizations and detected a reluctance to engage in conversations. We finally uncovered the fact that buyers didn’t believe the organization could engage in the types of conversations these buyers wanted. That is not something buyers were expressing to the company, and yet it was having a significant impact on sales.
In another case, we discovered that a new role had emerged. The client was able to enhance its existing product so it was relevant to this new role, and marketing was able to develop sales-ready messaging and content. This essentially opened a new market for the company, yet this insight wouldn’t have been discovered in a win/loss analysis or the typical buyer persona profiling process.
Q. How can companies uncover unarticulated issues if buyers are reluctant to engage in a conversation, or if the company doesn’t know how to dig for these insights?
A. At the outset, I advocate using a third party with the experience and expertise to uncover these insights. From our experience, a third party can get a deeper level of insight than someone who is part of the client organization. When someone within the organization tries to conduct insight gathering, the buyer’s guard goes up, relationship issues come up, and customers have a natural tendency to hold back because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Once the buyer personas have been initially developed, companies can put people with the right skills and aptitudes in place to refresh them.
Q. What must be in place for personas to be successfully adopted and used within a company?
A. First, you need a senior champion who understands the importance of uncovering opportunities and the strategic value of buyer personas, and will make sure tools get built to help sales and marketing execute on the insights.
For example, we’ve been working with a senior-level champion within HP who saw the value of reshaping the company’s strategy around an emerging growth market. The key is not only about informing strategy in terms of how the company goes to market but to enable sales and marketing to engage buyers with this information. We developed interactive Buyer Persona Sales Playbooks and Marketing Playbooks on sales-ready messaging. HP’s sales the first year after implementing the Buyer Persona Sales Playbooks were tremendous. HP has now developed vertical market strategies around buyer personas that align their sales and marketing organizations efforts to win at the mid-market competitive level.
Q. What should companies expect in terms of the time and effort to develop buyer personas?
A. Assuming it’s a complex B2B sales and marketing environment, you need a minimum of three months in order to:
- Conduct internal stakeholder interviews, map to assumptions about the marketplace and buyers, and then validate those.
- Conduct 20-40 interviews with customers.
- Distill information to identify insights and key patterns about market and buyers.
- Evaluate implications and determine how they inform the company’s strategy.
- Build buyer scenarios, map to the buying process, and determine messages that should align with those.
- Identify the profound insights and boil them down into coherent statements.
- Deliver all of this so it can be put into play, either via a document or an interactive tool or by embedding it into an existing application, and then lead teams through the insights.
The required time is severely underestimated, particularly when the exercise is seen as just developing a profile. If a company is going to view buyer persona development as a strategic exercise, it needs to dedicate the time. Then the process of maintaining and continually refining buyer personas needs to become an integral part of processes throughout the organization.
Q. Do companies need to develop more buyer personas to account for the fact that there are now more buyer roles are involved in the B2B buying process?
A. You don’t necessarily need to develop more personas, but you need to understand how key personas interact with various stakeholders. It starts with mapping the buying process and understanding the different touch points in the process. As an example: in the past, when the economy was robust, an IT director might have had signing approval up to $5,000. Now that’s been reduced to $1,000, the CFO needs to authorize purchases, and the CIO pays more attention to purchases. You need to show all those relationships and how the IT director has to interact with those stakeholders to make a purchase happen.
As another example, in many organizations, you’ll have IT managers, IT directors, and a VP of IT. Unless their goals are extremely different, there’s no need to develop separate personas. Instead you can develop one persona that represents the group’s goals. If each of those roles has unique goals, you might also develop secondary personas for those that the primary persona interacts with. In other words, if the IT Director needs to interact with the CIO about a purchase, the CIO would become a secondary persona to the primary persona of the IT Director.
Mapping the buying process in this way is a feature that distinguishes buyer profiles from a buyer persona as we define it.
Q. What will it take for buyer persona development to evolve into a marketing best practice?
A. First it must be viewed as strategic and core to forming business and marketing strategies. Second, companies need to establish a repeatable methodology and dynamic process for development and refreshing.
Q. Can you share another example of success that a B2B technology marketer realized by incorporating personas into its marketing efforts?
A. We did interesting work with a group within Reed Elsevier. The group believed the tablet PC would revolutionize the industry, but we validated that it would not. However, through the investigative process, we uncovered new uses for the existing product. So the group refocused its efforts on reshaping the existing product for the existing buyer and for a new set of buyers. At the same time, marketing repositioned its content and selling efforts. As a result, the company increased sales significantly.
Q. What tips can you share with companies wanting to get started with buyer personas?
A. First, educate senior executives on the strategic value of buyer personas. You do that by explaining what the buyer persona process is and then demonstrating how they add strategic value, such as by the examples I’ve shared. Next you point out how the organization lacks the deep understanding required to connect with buyers in a meaningful way.
If you lack a champion at the senior level, you may come up with tremendous insights during the investigative process that never see the light of day. For example, perhaps your marketing department spends lots of money developing and sending content to prospects and customers. Insights during the buyer persona investigative process might show that this activity has marginalized the perception of the organization in the market. If the person championing the buyer persona initiative is in the marketing group, he or she will be reluctant to share these insights as it reflects poorly on the group’s activities. You need someone who can take advantage of these insights without pointing fingers for how things have been handled to date.
Next you need to dedicate the right amount of resources and those with the right skills to handle this education process and to oversee the development of personas.
The first time around, I strongly advocate using outside expertise – if you get it right the first time, then the outside firm can help you establish a repeatable practice.
Q. In addition to the information on the Goal Centric site, what resources exist for companies wanting to learn more about buyer personas?
- My blog
- Alan Cooper’s site
- Adele Revella’s Buyer Persona Blog, which advocates the use of buyer personas in product management and product marketing
- David Meerman Scott’s book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, which strongly advocates the use of buyer personas
- Our organization, Goal Centric. We conduct in-house workshops and advisory services to educate organizations about the original intent and value of buyer personas.