Have you ever used segmentation outputs to develop an engaging marketing campaign? Or attempted to align your sales strategy to fit all your different customer types’ needs and wants? If your answer is “yes”, then you’re likely to know exactly how difficult it can be to get your creative juices flowing when all you have as a basis for your initiative is an abundance of customer data. The development of personas, descriptive summaries of a group of customers or target customers, embodied within a single character, enables you to bring your segments to life and to make them more tangible when developing marketing and sales initiatives. Focusing your attention on somebody, rather than anybody allows you to more effectively align your strategy around the target audience and to ultimately avoid substantial waste of resources and budgets.
Creating Ficticious Customer Profiles
The term persona was originally introduced by the ancient Romans, literally meaning mask or the character played by an actor. Over 2000 years later, website developers repurposed the term to represent typical visitor profiles that are to this day commonly used to improve the usability of websites. Shortly thereafter, marketers picked up the concept and applied it to the development of fictitious target customer profiles.
There are five benefits of personas:
1. They provide companies with a better understanding of customers or target customers.
2. They allow companies to make better choices about who to target and who to ignore.
3. They bring segments to life, enabling internal staff to become more customer-centric.
4. They enable companies to talk to different groups within the market in ways that are relevant and impactful.
5. They help guide decisions on marketing, sales strategy and product or service development.
With this in mind, the following article is a step-by-step guide for the development of buyer personas, with a specific focus on b2b markets. Of course, there is no “one size fits all” solution for building and embedding b2b personas, as b2b customer types and their needs are as diverse as b2b markets themselves. Nevertheless, these four steps will give you a rough guideline and considerations to take into account along the way.
Step 1: Gathering Insights to Lay the Foundation
The starting point of any persona profiling effort is the collection of insights. These insights can be variously obtained. Typically, personas are derived from an extensive and mostly quantitative customer segmentation. Following this approach, each segment usually lends itself to the creation of one persona. Both segmentation and persona profiling share the aim of establishing distinct and targetable groups within an organisation’s customer base and/or market. Due to their similar objectives, personas and segments are often confused with one another and therefore personas have been criticised as just another marketing buzzword. This is not the case. The difference lies in the presentation of the two. Whereas the output of a segmentation is a description of a customer type, described in a more all-encompassing way (that is, Segment A, the “Price Buyer”), the persona – as the name suggests – is a personified way of describing the very essence of a typical, “best fit” character of this customer group (that is, Steve, the Facility Manager, who wants to get the best deals to look good in front of his boss). Even though the difference between the two appears minimal, it ultimately comes down to human psychology and the fact that we can much better empathise with a person than with a faceless segment.
Collect Data Extensively
Even though personas are often derived from segmentation outputs, the persona creation journey needn’t include segmentation – at least not in its traditional form. Some opt for a qualitative segmentation, whilst others choose to use secondary sources to inform their persona development. Certainly, wherever possible, an extensive collection of primary data is the preferred option. Regardless of which route you pursue, it’s important not to let perfection be the enemy of good. An imperfect achievable outcome is still better than a perfect unachievable outcome.
Consider the following sources as a foundation for your persona
• primary market research (such as customer interviews, surveys, focus groups)
• secondary market research (such as reports, articles, industry publications)
• company internal data (that is, on customers, markets, sales figures)
• anecdotal insight (drawn from experience)
Do Not Underestimate Experience
Beware not to underestimate the importance of experience. Utilising internal knowledge and anecdotal insights (for example from the sales force) can be a valuable exercise, especially in the early stages of persona-related insight generation. Ultimately, organisations should work with what they have and what they can feasibly obtain.
Step 2: Bringing Your Persona to Life
After the insights are collected and analysed, you can move on to the development of your personas. This is most often done in the form of a brainstorming session or workshop among members of the marketing team, but involving a range of departments (sales, customer service, senior management, back office functions) is likely to deliver a wider spectrum of ideas and should be encouraged.
Get a Holistic View
Before you jump ahead to the “fun part” of giving your persona an identity, make sure you have a sufficient idea of the customer group the persona is aiming to represent. Do you know the typical industry, company size, structure, individual role, needs and behaviours of your segment? Having all the information at hand will provide a more holistic view of your segment.
Now that you have the “boring stuff” out of the way, it’s time to move on to creating your persona and getting the creative juices flowing. Whilst being a personified representation of a segment, a persona should essentially have the traits of a seemingly real-life person (that is, have a job, a family, a favourite book or film, hobbies, interests, ambitions).
Moving on from “What needs does segment A have?” to “What is Steve’s favourite film?” is not easy. Example exercises that can help you in taking this leap are:
1. Describe a day in the life of the persona (strong, tangible link with the business; little creativity required).
2. Create a LinkedIn profile for the persona (focus on professional needs and behaviours, direct link with the business; more creativity required).
3. Create a Facebook profile for the persona (focus on personal needs and behaviours, indirect link with the business; most creativity required).
Find Out What Is Relevant
The question you should always ask yourself when building your persona is: “Is this information or characteristic directly or indirectly relevant to how we can serve this segment?” Irrelevant facts might only detract from the essentials and lead to confusion. Specifically when thinking about the persona’s personal life, defining facts that are relevant can be difficult – but not impossible. Could an interest in sci-fi books for example point towards a particular interest in new technologies? Don’t be scared to come up with “crazy ideas” – they tend to be the best. Even if they might seem somewhat absurd to you, they will guide your conversation into a creative direction.
Step 3: Embedding Personas In Your Organisation
Once your “family” of personas is in place, the journey does not end. On the contrary, this is merely the beginning. It is likely at this point that each persona is familiar only to a small group of people within the organisation, and only exists in the form of scribbled notes and (possibly) the odd sketch. The personas must now be brought to life and introduced to the rest of the organisation.
Visualise the Personas
Variety is the spice of life and organisations should endeavour to visualise their personas using a range of media. Examples adopted by others include:
• Profile posters with photographs of each persona, accompanied with key characteristics and a description of key needs, products, sales/marketing messages which may resonate strongly. These posters should be distributed to employees and prominently displayed in offices or locations. You may also wish to create cardboard cut-outs of the personas, which then take up residence in meeting rooms or other office space. During internal discussions, staff should look over their shoulders and ask “What would Steve say?”
• LinkedIn and/or Facebook profiles, designed to look realistic and sometimes actually created (enabling “connections” or “friendships” with people within the organisation) (see figures above). • Email messages from personas to introduce them to the organisation and to enable a direct interaction with them. Personal contact with personas triggers interest and deepens understanding of different customer segments.
• Online portals, offering an interactive platform to explore the different aspects of a persona’s life (for example, having a look at the persona’s work desk, his/her social media profiles) and to offer extensive information in an easily digestible format.
• Face-to-face interactions with actors playing personas at internal events bring personas to life in a literal sense, initiating further conversation and making it a memorable experience for each employee.
Create a Long-Lasting Impression
The ways in which a persona can be visualised and embedded within an organisation are endless. Try to think of other ways in which you could encourage a conversation about your personas and create a long-lasting impression among your colleagues. The ultimate goal here is to develop a company culture of customer centricity, helping of all strategic decisions and in everyday operations.
Step 4: Keeping Your Personas Up-To-Date
Markets, competitors and customer requirements are constantly evolving. Therefore, it is essential that you revisit personas periodically. This process should be done twofold:
Keep the Conversation Going
The best way to keep your personas relevant is to spark on-going anecdotal conversations discussing how the persona could have evolved over the past few months (How would Steve be feeling about the new industry regulations affecting companies like his?). Ideally these conversations should happen frequently. If you’re finding that this isn’t naturally the case, make an effort to get together to discuss every three months.
Do Formal Persona Audits
Every three to four years, you should revisit the whole persona creation process, refreshing any research you may have, creating personas from scratch and developing a revised strategy on embedding personas in your organisation. It is not recommended to carry out the process more frequently than every three years, as you can easily lose momentum and fail to take full advantage of the benefits of your existing personas. ■