Making Persona-Based Marketing Work in B-to-B

Meet Bill, the owner/CEO of a growing, midsize manufacturing company. Bill is in his early 40s, wears glasses, and tries his best to squeeze in an early-morning workout whenever he can. He prefers to wear golf shirts and khakis, donning a suit only when he has to. Bill drives a late-model SUV with a booster seat in the back seat for his four-year-old daughter. He is harried and worries about managing his company’s growth. He wants to leverage technology to increase operational efficiency and customer satisfaction and to offset the rising costs of doing business, but he doesn’t know where to start.

Helen is his director of sales. She’s 32, single, a competitive runner, and partial to ‘80s rock. She drives a new BMW convertible. She struggles with managing a dozen salespeople, many of whom are 10- 15 years older than she is. Helen wants the company to invest in a new CRM system to replace the contact management system they long ago outgrew, but she wonders how she’ll convince Bill and the company’s chief financial officer to spend the money.

Bill and Helen are not real people, but they’re examples of one of the most powerful tools you can use to better connect with prospects and customers: persona-based marketing.

Persona-based marketing is part Hollywood characterization and part business analytics. It involves constructing a fictional customer—based on real-life data and intelligence—and then using that character as the touchstone for promotional and selling decisions.

Persona-based marketing goes beyond simple demographic data. It describes who a prospect or customer is, by answering questions about his behavior such as “What keeps this person awake at night?” “How does he spend his time?” How does he like to be sold to?”

This concept can help you, as a business-to-business marketer, by creating a vivid, tangible picture of your best prospects or customers and then sculpting a marketing message that’s pertinent to their concerns and moves them to inquire and buy.

Let’s get back to the example of Bill and Helen. Say you’re a systems integrator who is targeting midsize companies like Bill’s. Using what you know about Bill as a representative of the typical business owner, you can make some tactical marketing decisions.

Because Bill is pressed for time, he probably won’t attend an all-day seminar or an evening dinner meeting—he’s got family responsibilities after work. But he would be interested in a 45-minute, executive-level Web seminar he could attend from his desk. He might also say yes to an executive breakfast briefing with his peers from other local midsize firms.

This fictional CEO can even help guide decisions about minute matters such as brochure or Website design. Because you know that Bill is over 40 and wears glasses, you’ll make sure that the font is big enough for him to read easily. And because you know he’s time-pressed, you’ll break down key messages into bullet points he can scan quickly.

Helen, your customer’s sales director surrogate, might raise her hand to a half-day seminar on “convincing your CEO and CFO to invest in CRM.” She might also request a white paper on “how to get salespeople to use your new CRM system.” Because she is younger and has upscale tastes, she’d probably attend a lunch seminar at the hot new bistro in town. She’s also more likely to notice an ad or seminar invitation or other promotional materials that are designed in a modern and colorful manner.

Granted, Bill and Helen are composite characters, not real people. But referring to them as you formulate and execute your messages can make your marketing more effective. And it can prevent your promotions from becoming too generic to be noticed. Performed correctly, your persona-based decisions will stop being about “I think” and start being about “what would our customer or prospect think?”

How do you get started?

  • Convene a group of employees who interact with your customers and prospects. Bring in lunch and a white board and ask them to help you build a persona for each of your target customers.
  • Start by describing the customer’s role in their company: CEO, CIO, CFO, COO, sales manager, purchasing agent, user, and any other important influencers.
  • Next describe the kind of company they work for. What industry is it in? How big is it? How up-to-date is it? Does it have a lot of competition?
  • Then describe the people and their behavior: Give each persona a name, a title, and an age, and describe how he or she looks. How does he dress? What kind of car does she drive? What does he do in his free time? What kind of educational background does she have?
  • Flesh out as many attributes as you need to give a full, rounded picture of who this person is. Then turn to your persona’s problems and goals.
  • Think about what this person’s daily calendar looks like. What are his or her most pressing concerns? What product or service attributes would be most helpful in solving this person’s problems? Is he or she looking to roll up 20 databases into one, getting ready for an IPO, dealing with a new competitor who has just entered the market?
  • Then, when formulating your marketing messages, think about what path this prospect or customer might pursue to solve this problem. Will he or she turn to white papers or articles in trade publications or Websites? Would this customer or prospect seek input from a speaker at a networking group of their peers? Let the personas steer the route, which you can pave with information that can help your prospect and customers move forward in their consideration and buying process.

If you’ve never used persona-based marketing before, give it a try. It can be a powerful way to focus your b-to-b marketing messages and offers, driving more leads and sales.

M. H. “Mac” McIntosh is president of North Kingstown, RI-based b-to-b marketing consultancy Mac McIntosh.

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