Communications Strategy

Why Most B2B Customer Personas Fall Short

By Abby O'Connor


A customer persona, sometimes called a buyer or user persona, should feel like a real individual who represents your target audience. But too often, a B2B customer persona looks more like a broad customer segment, or it only covers the bare minimum – enterprise CTO, financial service decision maker, or small business owner.

Take a second to think about how you and your marketing team would describe your customers. Are you mentally checking off the basics: job title, company size, and industry? Maybe some demographics?

Now, think about how your customer service or sales teams would describe your customers. They’d probably picture some of the people they spoke to within the past week. Like the customer who was frustrated because he’s juggling a hundred things and his boss won’t sign off on his budget. Or another who was excited about how your product would keep her teams organized because she recently hired five managers and is now questioning her sanity.

Finally, think about how your customers would describe themselves. Sure, they’d cover the basics first. But they also might share more about their personality – like if they consider themselves to be analytical, creative, ambitious, or reliable. Digging a little deeper, they’d probably reveal the things they value the most: their family, their reputation, their time.

This is the same way B2B marketers should be thinking about their persona development strategy. As we get closer and closer to the source – our customers – they become more and more human.

RICH, HUMAN PERSONAS PAY OFF

Consider this: 77% of the most successful B2B marketers use personas for their content marketing strategy. But only about half of B2B marketers use them at all.

A limited understanding of your customer diminishes the impact of your marketing campaigns. You might notice your content isn’t performing well or leads aren’t converting to sales. If your marketing efforts keep falling flat, it’s time to take a deeper look at the people you’re targeting.

Your quantitative customer data – from a CRM system, Google Analytics, social media analytics, or surveys – should always dictate the core structure of your customer personas. But it won’t get you to a human level. For example, Google Analytics may show that you had an increase in page views during a recent campaign, but it can’t tell you if those visitors resonated with your brand values.

Here are three qualitative ways to create more personal and more effective customer personas.

1. YOUR BEST BET: GO STRAIGHT TO THE SOURCE

In marketing, our close proximity to customer data allows us to learn about what our customers do, where they work, what content they prefer, and some of the steps in their buying process. But there are some insights you can only glean through qualitative research. Conversations are the best way to understand the needs of your existing customers and create rich personas with context and character.

Schedule interviews with a handful of your ideal customers and skip the questions you already know the answers to through data. Instead, aim to learn about each person on a more human level and read between the lines. What more can you infer about them based on their responses? Try asking questions like:

  • Think back to when you decided to look for a product or service like ours. What spurred your decision? What was happening at work, or even personally, that prompted you to explore your options?
  • What were your non-negotiables when making this decision? What were some of the product features you wanted?
  • Walk through the process of your purchase with me. At what points did you feel unsure? When did you know you’d made the right decision?
  • What challenges did you face when getting final buy in? How did you navigate that process?
  • Tell me about you then versus you now. What’s changed? In terms of your work, your career, or even life in general.

2. A GOOD ALTERNATIVE: TAP INTO YOUR TEAMS

If interviewing customers isn’t an option, the next best strategy for building stronger personas is to talk to your customer service and sales teams. They’re on the front lines, working with customers every day and gaining important insights into their pain points, preferences, and personalities. Use your customer data and audience research to create the framework of your personas but tap into your teams to bring them to life.

Ask your customer service and sales representatives to be as specific as possible – reference their experiences with real customers. If you start hearing phrases like, “most of our customers” or “people usually,” ask for an example or anecdote that illustrates their point. This level of specificity will help you uncover the personal and contextual details that any amount of quantitative research couldn’t.

3. WHEN IN DOUBT: STRIVE TO EMPATHIZE

Sometimes, whether due to lack of time or resources, interviews aren’t feasible. But there’s still an opportunity to make your personas more personal. Put an hour on your marketing team’s calendar. If you can swing it, invite a couple of customer service or sales folks, or anyone else who might have valuable knowledge of your customers.

With the combined insight of everyone in the room at your disposal, run a brainstorming session dedicated to deeper customer understanding. During the process, encourage attendees to think of someone specific they know who embodies your persona. By stepping into the shoes of your audience, you’ll begin to paint a picture more comprehensive than what data could produce.

Draw a makeshift persona on a whiteboard or large piece of paper and write out the questions you’ll answer in the session. Then, go question by question, devoting enough time to each for complete exploration. As people think of an idea, have them write it on a post-it and stick it up on the board. Let the group take things in any direction they’d like – the more ideas, the better. You can distill and analyze later.

  • Describe the person.
  • What are their fears and frustrations?
  • What are we doing to mitigate those pain points?
  • What are their emotional and rational needs?
  • Who and what are they surrounded by every day?
  • Who’s influencing their buying decisions?
  • What do they value?
  • What do they want? What are their goals for themselves and their business?

GIVE PERSONAS A SEAT AT THE TABLE

With a more personal and human representation of your target audience, you give them a voice in the decision-making process. During planning meetings, bring every marketing strategy back to your priority personas, so you can ensure you’re staying true to your customers’ wants and needs. By aligning your campaigns and messaging with your customers’ values, you’ll forge longer-term connections, foster brand loyalty, and attract the right kind of business.