The first time I bristled at the word “persona” was around 1998, when we were working on one of the early websites for Panasonic. One of our clients had come back all pumped up from a Forrester conference at which they declared personas were the only way to drive effective customer experiences. Next thing you know, we’re drafting faux bios of stereotypical visitors like Donna Dealseeker and Tom Techie and trying to rearchitect the website to match their specific needs. How could such customer-centricity be wrong?
Two decades later, I’m still struggling with personas, remembering how ineffective this approach was back then and the problems multiple personas are causing marketers today. Back then, the tech couldn’t keep up with even a modest amount of personalization. Today, the problem is the opposite—at least in the world of B2B, where there’s enough tech to support an infinite number of profiles, encouraging marketers to slice up their messages into idea-less oblivion. Allow me to detail how such a smart-sounding concept can send marketers awry.
Useful Personas Aren’t Clichés
It’s with the best of intentions that B2B marketers target specific personas. After all, a CFO has substantially different information needs than a CMO, and the CMO certainly has different information needs than the heads of HR, Customer Experience, Security and IT. So, by all means, acknowledge these differences—but not with paper-thin caricatures that result in vacuous blog posts. Take a page out of Sage Intacct CMO Ian Howell’s playbook: he conducts 25–50 interviews with a highly focused target before attempting to write one piece of content for that audience (hear podcast interview).
More Personas, More Content
In a study we did for my second book (almost done writing it!), we found that more than half of B2B marketers focused on at least five personas and a quarter had more than 10. Makes sense given the ever-growing buying committees that B2B marketers must persuade over a typical 14-month sales cycle. With the expansion of targeted personas, there’s been a corresponding explosion in content development but not a commensurate expansion in budget. The result: more content but not better content. Only 25% of the CMOs we surveyed thought they were producing exceptional content, and average content doesn’t cut through (see recent blog post).
But Here’s a Kicker
Perhaps the bigger problem of persona-happy content creation is that it doesn’t (usually) work. You’ve probably heard of the story of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and not being able to come to a shared conclusion of what the object is. As it turns out, buying committees suffer from the same syndrome: if you present your brand differently to different roles, when they come together, they can’t find common ground for making a big purchase decision. In fact, Gartner research shows that a splintering messaging approach is 2.2x less effective (see my interview with Brent Adamson).
Don’t Let Personas Bury Your Brand Story
Ultimately, CMOs and their content teams are far better off creating marketing that all ties back to a tightly focused brand story and creating tools that address the individualized needs of the key decision-makers. For example, CFOs are always going to want to understand the ROI of your product or service, so you’ll want to have an ROI calculator of some sort for these folks—just make sure to frame the results in the context of your overall story. Similarly, the CISO will want a thorough briefing on the security protocols of your software, but even this kind of information can be served up in the context of your bigger brand story.
Final note: There’s a big difference between the current marketing usage of personas and the unquestionable power of personalization. The latter has extraordinary potential to transform communications on all levels, but we’ll need to save that conversation for another day.
Your turn: Tell me how personas have made a difference for your business (or not).