Demographics + Guessing ≠ Buyer Persona: Unify Your Story With Ardath Albee From Marketing Interactions [AMP 166]

When was the last time you actually talked to your customers? What do they care about? What’s relevant to them? If you don’t know, you better find out. Marketers need to know and understand their audience to attract, convert, and drive profitable action from customers.     Today’s guest is Ardath Albee, CEO and B2B marketing strategist at Marketing Interactions, Inc. She is the author of, Digital Relevance: Developing Marketing Content and Strategies that Drive Results. Ardath describes how buyer persona frameworks can help unify your brand message—from marketing to sales and beyond.

Some of the highlights of the show include: 
  • Buyer Persona: Composite sketch of target market based on validated commonalities for content marketing to steer productive buyer engagement
  • Buyer Engagement: Move from problem to solution to make a purchase decision
  • Why create buyer personas? Understand audience to create relevant content that resonates with problems they experience and what matters to them
  • Questions for Customers: What do you do? What are your responsibilities? What problem triggered your interest to take action in a product/service? 
  • Success Story: Sales enablement plus marketing equals huge win for company
  • How many is too many buyer personas? Less is more, mitigate risk, allocate resources, collect customer testimonials, and create inclusive relevance content 
If you liked today’s show, please subscribe on iTunes to The Actionable Content Marketing Podcast! The podcast is also available on SoundCloud, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Demographics + Guessing ≠ Buyer Persona: Unify Your Story With Ardath Albee From Marketing Interactions

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You're listening to the Actionable Marketing Podcast, powered by CoSchedule. The only way to organize your marketing in one place, helping marketers stay focused, deliver projects on time, and keep their entire marketing team happy.  Nathan: Know your audience. If you're like me, you're pretty sick of hearing that phrase, seriously. But there's a really good reason marketers bring it up all the time. Knowing your audience means you can attract and convert successful customers. At the end of the day, marketing is all about driving profitable customer action. Let's think about our audiences just a little bit today.  When was the last time you, as a marketer, got off your computer and had an actual conversation with one of your customers? I can tell you it sounds a lot easier said than done, but there are a lot of good reasons to get to know your customers. Here to share some of the good reasons is Ardath Albee. She is the CEO and B2B Marketing Strategist at Marketing Interactions, Inc. She's also the author of Digital Relevance: Developing Marketing Content and Strategies that Drive Results.  Today on the Actionable Marketing Podcast, you're going to learn how buyer persona frameworks can help you unify your brand message from marketing to sales and well beyond. You'll learn how to determine what your target market truly cares about to make a buying decision and you're going to learn how to enable your buyer persona with the information they need to be successful. I'm Nathan from CoSchedule and there's a ton of information crammed into the next 20 minutes. Let's get AMPed with Ardath.  Hey, Ardath. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. Ardath: Nathan, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here. Nathan: And we're excited to have you. I know that our paths have crossed ways at events like Content Marketing World and I actually attended one of your sessions within the past couple of years here about marketing personas, I believe it was. It's really nice to have you here. Ardath: Oh, thank you so very much. You should have come up and said hi.  Nathan: I should have. I was a little bit shy then. Let's kick it off here, Ardath. Can you tell me a little bit about Marketing Interactions and what it is that you do there? Ardath: Sure. Back in the year 2000, I was working for a tech company that sold website software to marketers, essentially. If you remember in the year 2000, companies have taken their corporate brochure and turned it into a website. The promise of the software was that they'd have something they could manage, so it would be more engaging. It was the first iteration of marketers doing their own websites without developers and they move this brochure content into the new software until nothing changes. We don't have anymore traffic, it's not doing anything different. I went out, looked at their content, and found out, "This is awful." I started helping them redo their content. They started to change, more engagement, and people coming to the website. I continued in helping them. In 2007, I had enough people that wanted my help that I could jump and become a consultant. That's ready-made client, if you will, to start doing the work full time. That's what created Marketing Interactions. What we do is persona development and persona-driven content marketing strategies for the most part. Mostly for tech companies because after the customers were the tech company that I was working in. That's how I started.  Nathan: Nice. That's a good transition. We are doing a lot of work here at CoSchedule, actually, with buyer personas, taking a lot of your advice that I've read or seen you present upon. I just thought this would be a great topic that our audience would really love to. Thinking about the basics here, just starting with some of the foundational elements of this, could you describe for me, what is your definition of a buyer persona?  Ardath: Sure. A buyer persona is essentially a composite sketch of a target market based on validated commonality. What are the things they have in common with each other, as far as their objectives and what they care about, that kind of thing, that you actively use to inform your content marketing strategy to drive productive buyer engagement. You don't really want to know the stand-out things likes Charlie drives a Corvette and Mary rides a pony. What you want to know is what are the things they all have in common, so that you can create the widest swath of engagement across that target segment by being really relevant to what they all have in common, that they need and care about. Nathan: Nice. It's probably pretty common for people to think about personas and just those attributes that are pretty easy to get out, like you're mentioning the demographic information like Mary rides a pony. I love that.  Ardath: The problem with that in B2B is, what do you do with that? Unless you're selling ponies, it's not going to help you very much. You need to really focus on the information that you collect being actionable, something you can use. Otherwise, you're just cramming your persona full of a bunch of stuff. If they make a $150,000 a year and live in the suburbs, does that affect the content you write for them? I don't think so.  Nathan: Definitely. One of the  keywords that you drop, that I'm very curious about is buyer engagement. Is that what you're talking about with this idea of actionable, is like defining their problems and then trying to solve that through content marketing? How do you define buyer engagement?  Ardath: Absolutely. Essentially, what I'm seeing with most of my clients that I worked with, is even helping them define their problem, but then engaging them from wherever they are and that status quo, like they recognize it or what-have-you, getting them to move all the way through the process to buying.  I'm not talking about stand-alone campaigns, [...] themes, or any of those things. I'm talking about the journey they need to take to get from where they are today to the point where they buy whatever it is you're selling and become your customer. Even more so now, we're moving on into the customer lifecycle, to retention and those kinds of things given the changing business models.  Nathan: That's fascinating to me. It's all just one overarching experience. Making sure that you have that unified message from the top of the funnel down to retention. It makes a lot of sense to me.  Ardath: And doing a lot of work and sales enablement, too, right now because your buyer doesn't care if they're engaging with marketing or sales. What they care about is the information they need.  Nath: Bringing this just back up to the foundational parts of this just a little bit, could you explain just what are some of the best reasons to create a buyer persona? Or what value do you see a framework like a buyer persona providing to a company? Ardath: I have potential clients call me and say, "We sell to VPs of IT. We already know this. Can you just create a content strategy?" I'll say, "Great. What do they care about? What problems are they having that relate to whatever you're selling?” and they can't answer those questions.  The best reason to create a buyer persona is understand your audience and what they care about so that you can be relevant to them. It drives me crazy, but you hear this saying like people have the attention span of a goldfish. You have about between 10 and 20 words to get their attention and get them to decide to engage with you. That's not a whole lot of time. You have to know what they care about. That's the biggest reason for creating it. The other reason is like what we're talking about before, they don't care if they're talking to marketing, sales, customer service, or whatever, but if you're going to have consistent messaging so that they won't get whiplashed thinking, "Okay, wait. What part of the company am I talking to now? Do they even talk to each other?" A buyer persona can help unify messaging across the entire customer life cycle. You're talking the same messaging, about the same issues, the same problem to solution journey, and that you're able to pick it up wherever they are within that process of problems to solutions.  Nathan: With marketing, we think of branding consistency that way. It seems like this personas are really good avenue to bring that deeper than just marketing. Ardath: Absolutely. They're also a great way to test your messaging. Given what you've learned about your persona is a way your messaging are going to market going to resonate with them, given what you know they care about.  Nathan: I love that. Is it resonating? That's a big takeaway for me. Something that you had mentioned is like really, truly understanding what your target audience cares about or what problems they are having that you should be talking about how you solved. One of the questions I had for you is just, how do you go about finding some of that information? What does the research phased look like for you? Ardath: If I'm building them, I start by talking to whoever hires me and their whole marketing team, to understand how they're going to market and that kind of thing. The next thing I want to do is talk to the sales team. Most of the time, the marketing team will come to me and say, "We need to engage the C-suite." Nine times out of ten know they don't because the C-suite is not their buyer. They've delegated it down to somebody else that maybe is stepping into the process at some point, but they're not the ones doing the research and evaluation, they're not the ones that are getting engaged. We need to go into the sales team and say, "Who were you talking to? How do you go into accounts?" The other thing, too, is if your sales team is selling to a manager level, for example, and marketing goes out and builds a C-suite persona, can they even have that level of conversation?  You have to match it up. You also want sales to be excited about the leads you're generating and if your personas don’t match with the people that sales engages with, you're not going to toll your leads. They're not going to work them. We put sales in an awkward position. We have to talk to the sales team. It's always interesting for me to hear from sales what they talk about, their impressions of their buyers, and that kind of thing, and then I want to go talk to the customers. I'll do 20 customers calls to build the persona plus a bunch more research externally. You need to talk to customers and I can't tell you the number of times I've seen personas and ask, "Where do these come from?" because I'm really not seeing the relevance of them. They said, "We got the marketing team in a room and sat down and created them." Well, okay but they're not representative of your customers and what I'm looking for is what words do your customers use? How do they describe their problems? Is the messaging we're creating written in a way that resonates to them? Is it something that they're going to work for, look for? Are we really talking about the problem as they see it? Or are we talking about the way we see it? Part of the problem that marketers have is that they drank the Kool-Aid already. They already believe their product is the best thing. It's hard for them to step back and look at it from the buyers perspective without knowing, what is this product all about? Why would I choose your product for somebody else? Et cetera. Nathan: Ardath has more to share. Stick around after the short break to learn why with personas, less can be way more. Something I learned so far on this episode is that marketers should talk with customers. Now, that might sound a little taxing for your team members, not to mention your customers themselves. Here's a simple framework we use here at CoSchedule to help all of our marketers connect with customers. Our sales and customer success teams call customers multiple times a day every single week day. It's a standard expectation for each marketer here at CoSchedule to shadow at least one of those calls every single week. On Fridays, we come together to share a lesson learned in a weekly retro sink with the entire marketing team. You could probably try something similar at your organization, too, just to make sure that the voice of the customer is heard for your marketing team. All right, now let's get back to the show with Ardath. When you're talking to those customers and trying to dig into some of their problems, what sorts of questions are you asking? Is it pretty loose or do you have a structure that you typically follow? Ardath: Yeah, I do which I've created over the years because I'll you what, it's hard enough to get customers to agree to a phone call and interview, but I'm lucky if I can get 30 minutes. I have to be really, really good at getting what I need in that 30 minutes. What I definitely start with is, “Tell me about what you do. What are you responsible for? Tell me what happened that had you start looking for a solution…” whatever my clients are selling because I want to know the trigger, I want to know how they were thinking about the problem, what difficulty was it causing them. Then, I'll say, “Well, how did you learn about my client?” I try to keep it really conversational, but what I really want to find out is what are all those steps that they took during their buying process? What really cause them enough pain to make them take the time to go out, research, and to find they needed to buy something. Then I ask, “Who else was involved?” I want to understand the buying committee. “Did you get any pushback? Was it hard to get consensus to make this decision?” because if you watched the research, you'd see that no decision is growing just as much as losing to the competition.  Buyers are too confused to make a decision so they decide, "Okay. The devil we know is hotter than the devil we may not." Problems with the evolution of technology or probably problems haven't been solved before. We're not really sure and we're not doing a great job at helping them mitigate risk, so they'll feel comfortable.  I want to ask them all those kinds of questions like, “Why did you end up choosing our product versus whoever else you looked at and who else did you looked at?” so I can see if they're even considering the competition properly because sometimes, it's not a straight competitor. It might be they're thinking about solving the problem differently. There's questions like that. Then, I ask them, “Well, what kind of content do you like to engage with?” so that we make sure we're not spinning our wheels in creating videos when what they really want is blog post. Nathan: I actually really like hearing that word “trigger,” like “What trigger the action?” We're even seeing this here at CoSchedule where inactivity or inaction, the decision not to do something is probably our biggest competitor. Ardath: It's most of my client's biggest competitor. If they can actually get enough engagement to get somebody in a conversation with them, it's not really deciding. They could still be evaluating different products. Really, what happens is they get confused and they just can't figure out whether they're making the right choice or not. In fact, with one of my clients, what we discovered was that they were talking about how easy it was to implement their technology. Buyers started pushing back, going, “If it sounds too good to be true, probably it's too good to be true. We don't believe you. We don't want to get stuck in a mess.” We actually had to go out, get customer testimonials, and create an implementation guide that shows them, “These are the steps,” and then we had our customers validating. “This is what it took them to do it and what have you,” so that we have some proof points for what we are saying.  Nathan: This is a great example. You're talking about an implementation guide. You got  someone all the way through the funnel and this is still a marketing aspect of this to help onboard that client successfully. Ardath: Yup. In fact, the sales team came to us and said, "Marketing, you need to help with this. We don't know what to do. We need something that will help us get past this hump." They had several really big accounts right on the edge and they couldn't get them over. We created that, quickly went out and talk to some of our customers, and got some stuff they would agree to let us use and manage to save those. That was a big deal. Nathan: It sounds like it. You're talking about marketing and being involved in sales enablement. Is this an example of what you see as a success story there with sales enablement plus marketing?  Ardath: Absolutely. The fact that sales was even willing to come to us and say, “Help us,” because we had done all the persona work, they knew we understood their buyers, and we'll be able to put it together for them rather than them just going out trying to create it on their own, was a huge win for the company.  Nathan: I could totally see that. One of the things that you mentioned, Ardath, earlier was this example of maybe marketing is trying to get a C-suite in and sales is actually talking to a manager. It got me thinking about this as, is it possible to have too many personas or is that helpful for just knowing where to focus? I'd love your input on that. Ardath: Yeah. It's interesting to me because people tend to define personas based on title, for example. I had a potential client call, about 6 months ago, and said, "We've identified about 52 personas." I want to say, "Just go shoot yourself now and get it over with." It's a lot of work to create a really good persona. In fact, I just did an internal webinar for a company’s global marketing group that talked about different kinds of personas. They can't afford to create primary personas for all the different people involved nor should they have to. For example, a primary persona would be essentially your buyer, that champion or that person you're going to engage all the way through and that you can reach. You have to ask yourself, can you reach this persona? Do we have them in our database? If we don't, can we get them? Otherwise, you're wasting your time once again.  The other thing is, there are people that come in and out to evaluate. Sometimes, if it's a business buyer buying a fax solution for their team, a tool or something, IT is going to come and validate it. They're going to look at security, whatever, a couple of other things, but they're not going to be involved all the way through. They're not going to make the decision. But if they say no, then that can derail the whole thing.  It may be need of mini persona and half a persona if you will. They just look that in what areas does this role involve? What are the things they need to know? You create the content you need for that, but you're not necessarily going to create an end-to-end problem to solution set of content for them because they don't care. You don't want to waste your time. Personas will also help you try to inform where you're going to allocate resources. Then, there's that C-suite. For one of my clients, I recommended, do a research-based persona because with C-suite, for example, there's lots of articles. You can find interviews where they're using their own works, podcast, conference sessions, whatever, there's a lot of research on what they think, what their priorities are. You can create a research-based persona that you can use to create a few thought leadership pieces ground-building kind of stuff so that they aren't saying, "Who is this company again? Who is this sender?" They have some recognition, so that when they're brought in to the process, they are more accepting, more trusting because they've already been exposed to something or that their staff member who’s doing the evaluation or whatever have some thought leadership or something to pass on to them to break the ice. You don't need a whole persona for that, either. There's different levels of persona creation and people get themselves wrapped around the axle with, we got to build all these big personas, and you got to think about what you need them for. If you start by focusing on your primary persona, then during the interview, you ask, “Well, who else is involved? How are they involved?” You can start creating that, what does the buying committee look like? Who's involved? Who has to be involved all the time? Who just comes in and out for a few things? Then, you just focus on those areas so you're focusing your attention where you're going to get your impact.  Nathan: It almost seems to me like in this example of C-suite, that if you provide that primary persona with what they need or arm them with the right things, they could maybe just deliver those messages to the other people in that buying committee. Is that a good way of understanding that? Ardath: Absolutely and it something I call inclusive relevance. You want to be able to arm the buyer that you're going to be the most engaged with, that sales is going to be most engaged with, to actually create that consensus among all those people that they're talking to, because we're not necessarily going to be in the room for all of that. How do we facilitate their ability to get everybody on board?  By understanding those tangential people, we can create content that that person can then share with them because what happens is—Gartner did some research, it's really interesting—as buying committees have grown, more people are involved. They all go off on their own and do their own research. They all find different content, they all bring it back, none of it matches up because they've got it from different places, different vendors, whatever. They have to spend all this time de-conflicting all this information and trying to get back to a baseline.  If you can preempt that by saying, "Here's a paper for our CMO, here's a paper for the IT to evaluate," so that you can make sure that all the [...] line up, somewhere it will make it a lot easier and help not create all that conflict to begin with. Nathan: That's super smart. I totally agree with that. That makes a lot of sense to me. That's a really great place to end this episode. Just want to say thanks for sharing all these information with us. I'll make sure that we share your website around and make sure that we get some people headed your way for help on their buyer personas. Thank you. Ardath: Excellent. Thank you so very much for having me. It's been a fun conversation. Subscribe to the Actionable Marketing Podcast
About the Author

Nathan is the head of marketing at CoSchedule. With the help of an awesome team, he’s helped CoSchedule attract more than 65 million marketers, convert 10 million email subscribers, and support 300,000 software users. Nathan has 15 years of proven corporate and startup marketing experience and continues to venture off the beaten path.When he’s not marketing, you’ll catch Nathan canoeing in the Boundary Waters or training for his next ultra marathon. Connect with Nathan on LinkedIn.