Peter Altschuler in Marketing, Advertising, Offline Marketing Head of Marketing and Creative Strategy • Wordsworth & Company LLC Mar 10, 2017 · 2 min read · +300

Persona non grata

Persona non grataPersonas annoy me. It may be because my focus is, primarily, B2B. Or it may be that it's a word that's applied indiscriminately -- as if the concept were universal and universally applicable. But B2B isn't targeting a suburban mom who has two kids in after-school sports, drives an SUV, works in real estate, has a six-figure household income, and belongs to a gym.


There are numerous people in the B2B buying process. There's the person who initiates the purchase, the one who does the research, the individual who shortlists the products or services, the evaluators, recommenders, influencers, decision maker, and man or woman who signs the check.

Each has their own expectations and requirements. Each sees the purchase through a different lens: the end user wants to know about usability, the department manager about productivity, the finance folks about initial and long-term costs and ROI, and so on. And the information that marketers prepare has to address those specific interests. But I contend that they don't have to know about the person's age, income, family, hobbies, and the like. 

Those insights might help B2C marketers who need to show a product in use by the people most likely to buy it. Or it might help frame the context in which content is offered. It can even guide creatives in choosing the most effective copy and imagery.


In B2B, the situation is different. The folks buying pressure control valves want to know about tolerances, compatibility, installation and maintenance, initial cost and mean time to failure (which helps forecast future expenditures), technical and customer support, warranties, and more. Interactive tools for comparing products or doing cost calculations, video or graphics to guide the people who do the installations and keep the devices running, and spec sheets that provide essential facts will all be the same no matter whether the audience for the information is liberal or conservative, suburbanites or city dwellers, 25 or 50.

What will matter is knowing whether or not the audience is skilled, directly or indirectly involved in the product's/service's use, more concerned about price than quality, etc. And those insights will vary from one piece of content to the next because each piece is designed for different people in the buying cycle.

There are some traits that do matter. Job perceptions, for instance. The people in charge of keeping a computer system running may think of themselves more as game players shooting down obstacles than as mechanics replacing a bolt. Knowing that will help determine whether the creatives use a video game metaphor or a tool kit to capture someone's interest. Yet it's just as likely that one person's self-perception will differ from (and alienate) the next's. 


In a recent article, Gartner uses healthcare as an example for developing personas. While they clearly define the difference between personas and market segments, they conflate the two in one example and ignore all the individuals who are likely to have an effect on patient care, such as spouses, caregivers, adult children, and physicians.

Instead of personas, which Gartner advises the company to share across the organization, the firm is actually faced with accommodating many more granular criteria. Those criteria defy conversion into anything more than fuzzy outlines about patients'/buyers' expectations and requirements.

Everything depends on data and the effect it has on refining the target. Yet, rather than expect to be able to adapt to all the variables, particularly those related to human health, B2B's approach may work just as effectively -- defining the areas of greatest common concern and providing solution-oriented communications to address them.


A.I. may, in time, be able to use an infinite number of individual data points to custom-tailor communications for each customer (and may even be able to create the copy, select the illustrations, and render the layout). That level of personalization may represent a marketer's holy grail (though, personally, I find that scenario horrifying), but it will also eliminate what might be called the human element. 

Prospects and customers will no longer be people. They'll only be a collection of data points combined with a vendor's collection of data points to effect a transaction. And, if that's still not enough, who will be available to explain things to prospects as more humans are removed from the interactions? Bots? If we reach that point, then personas are meaningless. Yet an understanding -- by people or machines -- of the general areas of concern will remain relevant... even if human marketers are not.

Todd Jones Mar 29, 2017 · #6

#5 I am not an alarmist by nature, but the thought of this is chilling. Many people with reasoning capacity far beyond my own (such as Stephen Hawking and other notable physicists) have taken a dim view of this subject. Coupled with nanotechnology that may eventually be able to manipulate matter at the atomic level, there lies the potential that humans may be viewed by A.I. as little more than raw material.

Peter Altschuler Mar 29, 2017 · #5

#3 Todd, I worked at an A.I. developer in the '90s, and I've seen a remarkable shift in the past 20 years. It's not encouraging.

The emphasis then was on enhancing humans' capabilities by providing access to the skills of the most experienced colleagues, speeding up analysis and decision making, improving the positives while eliminating false negatives, and giving business a competitive edge... intellectually.

A.I. today still has its eye on analysis, decisions, and speed. Yet it also is seen as labor saving -- as in the elimination of human labor. That's an evolution with a far greater impact on society.

First, it has the potential to put the current labor force out of work... with no hope of retraining in highly technical professions like programming, computational logistics, or robotic engineering (though the posited Law of Accelerating Returns could quickly see machines design and build themselves). That affects the tax base and, in turn, the revenue available to government for essential services.

That possibility has given rise to the concept of a universal wage and/or a tax on robotic systems -- a levy that generates an amount similar to the taxes paid by displaced workers. That still doesn't put the humans back to work. Instead, it conjures up visions of the people on the spaceship in "WALL•E." And that's a horrifying image.

More terrifying, cosmically. is the possibility that a) A.I. can go rogue and annihilate everything or b) become as lazy as humans and, once they see no point in catering to carbon life forms, stop running farms, manufacturing shelter and clothing, building products only humans need or use, and leave the humans in the lurch with no way to provide for themselves and survive.

Will it turn out as badly as that? That would take a level of prognostication that even A.I. isn't likely to achieve. Yet... who would have predicted the current situation in Washington?

+1 +1
Todd Jones Mar 29, 2017 · #3

Greetings Peter... After reading this post, and clicking on the link to your BlueSteps post, I hope you don't mind if I share a link to a blog describing a conceivable future of A.I. that I found fascinating. It is a rather long two-parter, and it opened my eyes to the destructive potential of artificial super-intelligence that looms in the not too distant future. If you have the time to get through Part 1, I highly recommend that you continue on to Part 2.

I've read all three of your beBee posts, and a few on BlueSteps. Top shelf stuff. You should consider sharing more of your work on beBee. I am sure that you will find a very receptive audience.

Peter Altschuler Mar 11, 2017 · #2

In an era when people think that time began the moment they were born and that nothing existed before they inhaled their first breath, this is not a surprise. Content? A brand new concept. Collateral, sales aids, product literature, slicks, one-sheets? They never heard of them. Personalization? A 21st Century innovation. A call from the local merchant to tell Mrs. Capobello that her favorite type of mushroom is back in stock? First, you have to explain "local merchant."

It's what I refer to as the arrogant myopia of ignorance, and its epidemic permeation throughout the Marketing populace should require inoculation.

Jerry Fletcher Mar 10, 2017 · #1

Well put Peter. You summarize the problem that we in the B2B world have with the latest bright shiny methodology being bandied about in B2C being applied in ignorance to B2B. I've searched for ways to overcome this trait for over quarter century. Unfortunately I've never found a cure. Keep up the fight.