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Personalities Trump Personas in B2B

by Hank Barnes  |  October 31, 2017  |  1 Comment

Personas continue to get a lot of attention by B2B marketers.  And while it is hard to argue with working to get a deeper understanding of the individuals involved in buying decisions, the persona approach, at least in B2B, may not be effective–particularly if used on its own.

Here’s the problem (in my opinion).  If you research best practices in persona development, they emphasize going deeper than demographics to look at emotions, wants, aspirations, etc.     These personality attributes are a critical aspect of personas in consumer situations as you can target people that have similar wants and needs.

But in B2B, that is much harder.  First, you aren’t dealing with individuals making a buying decision, you are dealing with teams.  CEB (now Gartner) finds that 6.8 people are involved in B2B buying decisions.  For technology related purchases, it’s even higher.  Gartner research shows between 6 and 8 people actively involved and another 5-6 occasionally involved.  That is a lot of people and personalities.  And it is nearly impossible to find a segment where you will find the same aspirations for specific CIOs, business unit leaders, and other roles.  Further, appealing to individual personas could create conflict when these teams get together to build consensus.

Applied incorrectly, persona based marketing in B2B could be slowing down your deals (or leading customers toward no decisions) rather than accelerating them.

But there is an alternative that Gartner (and CEB) believes holds great promise.   The idea of targeting particular personalities that came from the consumer space is a good idea.  But in the enterprise space, evaluate the personality of the enterprise.  You could almost think of it as an enterprise persona.   This positions you to go after customers that have the ideal profile for your business.

Then feel free to do some persona development, but focus more on understanding who is involved in the buying decisions, what their role is in that decision, and what questions they need to answer.   You can consider some personality attributes, but recognize that the enterprise context carries more weight (and it may be very difficult to find a broad swath of companies where everyone on the buying team shares the same persona attributes).

Finally, and this is critical, as you start working on opportunities, profile the individuals to understand their personal motivations and styles.  The CEB team has categorized people involved in buying decisions into 7 profiles (go-getters, teachers, skeptics, guides, friends, climbers, and blockers).    These profiles (covered in more detail in their book, The Challenger Customer (recommended read))  are independent of role, so you really can’t attach them to a persona–you have to uncover them as you are working on opportunities.

The focus on these profiles is critical, because they guide you into who is more likely to actually drive organizational decisions and actions–like buying. As the graphic below shows, specific profiles, the grouping CEB calls mobilizers, are the ones that can drive decisions.  Others are likely to slow you, and more importantly their organization, down.  These profiles could be people in different roles in every organization and every buying situation. Personas won’t guide you, and they could mislead you.mobilizers

So, summarizing, the alternative path to persona driven B2B marketing and sales is:

  1. Build an ideal customer profile of the enterprise (almost an Enterprise Persona) that looks at a variety of attributes, including psychographic elements.  Use this profile to tailor marketing efforts and sales qualification.
  2. Develop information on the typical members of the buying team that focuses on their role in the buying process.  You can call this a basic persona, if you like, but you won’t benefit from the consumer level persona development.   Don’t feel obligated to go deep into personality attributes that may vary widely across your target customers (or conflict with the enterprise personality).
  3. As you engage with customers, profile them to identify mobilizers, talkers, and blockers.   Evaluate those profiles again your buying team personas and develop an opportunity strategy that engages the mobilizers to help you build the consensus toward a decision.

This idea and approach requires must more focus and understanding than is possible in a blog post, but I invite you to think about this approach and if you are interested, consider engaging with the Gartner team to explore how this could work for your business.

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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: b2b-buying  enterprise-personality  mobilizers  persona  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Personalities Trump Personas in B2B

  1. Great post. Totally agree.

    In fact, based on the CEB finding re. Interpersonal Persona in B2B, I’d written two posts on use and misuse of personas in B2B technology. As I pointed out, “Since a committee comprises of people with varying personalities, it tends to place the company’s needs above any individual’s persona. Ergo, persona based marketing has its limitations. That’s the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, PBM based on simplistic personas of the committee members can actually backfire.”

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