This article was originally published in January 2014 but has been totally updated to reflect current market trends and conditions.
I don't have the answer to this question, but I'll pose it nonetheless: how relevant are buyer personas in today's challenging economic environment?
This is a vast oversimplification of a complicated topic, but buyer personas are composite demographic/psychographic representations of people who buy what you sell. Conventional marketing wisdom is that you should develop buyer personas for your ideal customers and tailor your content towards them, answering their questions and educating them. It certainly makes sense to me.
There's only one problem. The continuing soft economy has drastically increased the risk of many B2B purchasing decisions. Consider the following findings of DemandGen Reports 2017 B2B Buyers Survey Report, which surveyed 283 B2B C-level executives, vice presidents and directors.
- 59% of respondents said they now have formal buying committees to review purchases.
- 52% of respondents said the number of people involved in buying decisons has increased significantly.
- 78% of respondents said that they spend "more time researching purchases."
- 75% of respondents said that they "use more sources to research and evaluate purchases."
Risk management is now a critical aspect of the buying process. It's no longer enough to sell the CEO - most B2B buying decisions require a broad consensus of parties before a purchase decision is made. While "consensus" selling has always been necessary in enterprise sales, it's becoming more prevalent in the SMB market.
One thing that's for sure - B2B selling isn't getting any easier.
Who plays a role in the business buying process?
Many of you may be familiar with Miller-Heiman's Strategic Selling framework for complex sales situations. Miller-Heiman identifies 4 types of buyers that typically play a role in a complex sale:
The Economic Buyer is the person who has the ability to commit funds to a purchase. They can say yes when everybody else says no and say no when everybody else says yes. They sometimes delegate buying authority for purchases under a set dollar amount.
The User Buyer is the person who will actually use your solution after the purchase decision is made. They are usually not the Economic Buyer. For example, if you're selling employee benefit consulting, the User Buyer might be the Human Resources Manager.
The Technical Buyer is the person who makes sure that purchasing rules defined in corporate governance procedures are followed. These buyers typically are purchasing managers. Don't think that there aren't buying rules in SMB companies! For example, many corporate governance policies state that an organization must solicit bids from 3 competitors for purchases over a set dollar amount.
A Coach is someone who wants your solution to win. They could be any of the three buyer types listed above or not directly involved in the purchase decision. They provide you with insight in the buying process and the people involved to help your chances of winning.
In today's economic environment, there may be multiple individuals in each of the buyer categories listed above. And to successfully close a complex sale, you need to successfully address the concerns of everyone in the buying process.
OK, so to whom do I target my content marketing?
The short answer is "it depends." You may develop multiple pieces of marketing content, each aimed at a different role in your company's typical buying process. You may decide that the Economic Buyer is the most important player for your company and develop content marketing for her.
One thing I'm fairly certain of - you ignore members of your buying process at your own peril. We talked earlier about employee benefit consulting. Let's say you target all of your content to CEOs of SMB companies in the professional services industry.
Sounds good, right? But what about the Human Resources Manager? Does it make sense to ignore his role in the buying process? What about the CFO (your coach) who doesn't have decision-making authority, but wants your firm to get the business? I think you see my point. In complex sales situations, you likely have 4 or more different buyer personas that play a role in the decision-making process.
Clearly you don't want to ignore buyer personas. You should have demographic/psychographic profiles of the typical players in your company's buying process. On the other hand, you may be making a big mistake if you target all of your content marketing to one role in your buying process and ignore the others.
Your professional services marketing strategy needs to address all players in the decision-making process at all stages of the buyer journey. It's not easy, but neither is B2B selling.
The Marketing 101 playbook dictates that you should develop buyer personas for your ideal customers and target your content towards them. This advice is still relevant in simple sales processes and many B2C situations. However, complex sales situations make this advice a bit more problematic. There are multiple people and buying roles in a complex B2B sale - men, women, baby boomers, millenials, etc. While there's no easy solution for content marketing in complex B2B sales, you should be aware of the situation and take steps to try to figure it out for your business. Do small experiments and measure everything you do. This will help you be more effective in your content marketing. As I've said twice so far, I don't have the definitive answer to this conundrum. What do you think?