B2B marketers are starting to rely more on data-driven persona development as a way to personalize their interactions with prospects and enhance engagement. Leveraging customer insights and predictive tools within personas, some leading B2B organizations say they have been able to create more contextual and personalized digital experiences for their target buyers.
While currently fewer than half (44%) of B2B marketers use personas, that number is expected to increase to 73% in the next 12 months, according to ITSMA’s survey, Increasing Relevance with Buyer Personas and B2I [Business2Individual] Marketing. B2B marketers typically use personas as springboards to develop specific messaging to engage prospects and tap into new markets.
Justin Gray, LeadMD’s CEO, attributes the improved conversion rates to better messaging that is tailored based on persona research. “We really approached it from a data perspective, and we now have a much higher level of confidence in our nurture stream.”
Data-driven persona development also helped LeadMD more accurately target its content, according to Gray. “We don’t just look at titles when building our personas. We have personas based on institutional penetration as well. A VP in a very small company has a different level of influence than someone with the same title at a larger company.”
Other examples of personas impacting marketing initiatives include:
- A construction software company, which revamped its marketing copy and website based on interviews with prospects about their biggest challenges;
- A Fortune 500 company that developed four buyer personas and is in the process of creating content around those roles to help them enter a new market; and
- A large technology firm that used persona research to make the shift from enterprise offerings to cloud-based computing by targeting line-of-business buyers rather than IT professionals.
How Personas Impact Engagement
Even as marketers take a more data-driven approach to persona development, observers note that it can be challenging to accurately track the influence of persona-based content on metrics such as open rates and engagement. While A/B testing is an option, few companies are benchmarking their persona work, according to industry insiders.
“We don’t see a lot of testing going on, as once marketers develop a persona the tendency is to want to use it immediately, not to see how it performs against a campaign that was developed without persona insights,” said Katie Martell, Co-founder and CMO of Cintell, a customer intelligence platform. There is also the concern, she said, of wasting good leads by sending them content that was not a result of persona research.
Personas should be viewed as a catalyst for creating more relevant content and messaging to drive engagement and conversion, Martell noted. “As a result, having the right personas is ultimately going to impact open rates and click through rates. In general, when you compare a persona-based campaign to one that is not persona-based, you’re going to see twice the amount of open rates and five times the amount of click-through rates with the persona-based campaign.”
A clear indication that buyer personas are working is that more content is getting used. Tony Zambito, creator of the buyer persona concept, said “as much as 70% of content goes unused, according to industry figures, and that percentage gets lowered dramatically when content is developed based on goal-directed buyer persona research.”
According to Zambito, buyer personas provide additional benefits, such as:.
- More effective and fruitful conversations between salespeople and prospects;
- A higher level of customer engagement; and
- More successful go-to-market efforts when informed by goal-directed personas.
Isolating Variables A Key Challenge
While some marketers are having success with data-driven personas, there are opportunities for improvement. Only 15% of respondents using personas said that they were very effective, according to the ITSMA survey. Among the challenges cited were inconsistent application and inability to operationalize.
“One of the biggest challenges B2B marketers face in persona development is that you can’t assess a persona,” according to Matthew McKenzie, Chief Content Officer for Content4Demand. “Marketers can only assess elements of a persona that they are able to isolate and link to some aspect of a buyer interaction.”
While metrics can be difficult to obtain, personas can help marketers steer their content marketing budgets to the most effective messages and formats, said Adele Revella, Founder of the Buyer Persona Institute. “Personas should force you to rethink your strategy. Ultimately the idea is to stop wasting time on creating content on topics no one cares about.”
Personas have to be continuously updated and evaluated to be most effective, according to Revella. “To be real contributors to strategy, marketers need to be able to know, with some confidence, how buyers are going to react. Since buyers are always evolving, marketers can’t just put their personas on a shelf and bring them out occasionally.”
It is also crucial for marketers to ensure that content maps back to the personas, according to observers. That may mean making adjustments to existing content and creating new content to fill any gaps, McKenzie said. “A persona should be a living document. You can add new insights, throw out stuff that isn't working and constantly test various pieces.”
Personas will play an even greater role going forward, as prospects continue to wait longer to interact with sales and marketing during the buyer’s journey. “A recent Gartner study said that buyers are engaged with sales and marketing for just 33% of the buyer’s journey. Marketers have to have a better understanding of their buyers to reverse that trend,” Revella concluded.