Persona non grata
Personas 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.
MORE THAN ONE
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.
SEGMENTS AND PERSONAS
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.