Are personas too popular? In this edition of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman examine the evolution of buyer personas and their usefulness to B2B manufacturers. How helpful are they anyway? How could they be better? What other approaches might manufacturing marketers use instead? All this and more in Episode 197. We think you’re going to love it.
Peter Piper Picked A Pack Of Phucked Up Personas Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White. Joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: All is well. All is well. You?
Jeff White: I’m doing great. Doing great. I realize my voice cracked in the middle of that. I should probably do it again.
Carman Pirie: You’re going to lose your radio voice street cred.
Jeff White: Yeah. No, we’ll just let that go. Let that go. What little street cred I have.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Exactly. Gone out the window.
Jeff White: Yeah. Sorry, mom.
Carman Pirie: Well, look. I think today’s conversation, I’m curious to kick this around with you, because I guess let’s just kind of… First things first, buyer personas have been around as almost a default foundational item in the marketer’s tool kit for quite a while now. I mean-
Jeff White: For sure.
Carman Pirie: Certainly, as inbound marketing-
Jeff White: Popularized it.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Content marketing, et cetera, became a thing, it became a bit of a standard, I guess, to say, “Do you have your buyer persona sorted?”
Jeff White: Yeah. It was certainly… I mean, my goodness. I remember the original HubSpot training, the very first thing was around developing buyer personas. And they were so precise. And it seemed very clean. A very clean way to define who you’re selling to.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. And I mean look, anybody that’s ever done buyer persona work before knows that it’s obviously meant to be an approximation. I don’t think anybody doing that work thinks that they’re being exactly accurate in what they articulate. It’s more of a generalization after generalization.
Jeff White: Yeah. I do think that because we have developed certainly lots of personas over the years, going back to our early days as a HubSpot partner agency, but I think one of the things that we’ve often kind of used to differentiate how we think about personas and how a lot of the personas that have come to us have been are those buying triggers and buying objections. I think those are a little more-
Carman Pirie: A little harder working, I think, the notion of looking at what are the marketing triggers that this persona might be experiencing, what are the initial objections they may have in the course of a sales process. Helps point in the direction of in some ways things that your marketing might be able to address before sales has to do so.
Jeff White: Yeah. I think that’s useful.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. We’re not trying to throw personas completely under the bus, but I guess we are kind of openly wondering, and I hope the audience will kind of let us know what they think, as well, about how useful are they these days? Is this something that maybe we’re placing a little bit too much importance on? And I think probably why we started questioning it a number of years ago was just oftentimes people write too many of them. Too often, there’s too many personas is how I might say it. In that as you try to crack the… customize marketing content to a collection of personas that’s 10, 15, 20 deep, all of a sudden… I guess the old line I always said, Jeff, is that the act of writing personas was an act of writing a check that your content budget needed to cash later.
At some point, you’re just not willing to do it. You’re not willing to customize content at a persona level to such a degree when you have so many, et cetera, so in some ways it almost becomes… Personas, it’s almost sometimes the more of them you have, the less useful they are.
Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. But at the same time, if you’re getting to that point where… We’ve seen this before, like 15, 18, 20 personas, if you’re getting to that point it’s sometimes hard to relinquish that level of control and maybe dial it back and try and generalize if you’re going to use them as a foundation for your ongoing content or something of that sort.
Carman Pirie: I’m just saying, there’s all kinds… There’s pressure to add more. People see the complexity in the business, of course. They know that buying committees are getting bigger. Lots of research around to support that, so that when you try to say that there ought to be fewer personas, sometimes seems to run counter to their instincts.
Jeff White: Yeah. I think you’re probably right. But would you counsel anyone in a B2B marketing organization right now who’s selling into a buying committee of 12 people to write personas for each of those 12?
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I don’t think so. I really can’t think of a situation where… You know, maybe if it was like a… We’re talking like it’s a super high-end purchase, like purchase price of $10 million-plus, or something like… Maybe at that kind of scenario you can make the argument, but then I’m gonna just disagree with myself and say that doesn’t even work then, because if it’s that custom, and it’s that big, you’re going to want to do contact level research for that specific target account.
Jeff White: Because why would you want to have generalized assumptions of data about who that person is when if it’s a specific account, you can actually just find out who that person is and target it that way.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, so agreed, and so yeah, I don’t think I ever would recommend it, and then there’s also… Yeah, it’s hard to see how actionable it is, like what can you really do with it anyway?
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, and then, if you start to think about the groupings of personas, if you’re trying to do that for every different type of buying committee, you were already at a deficit in terms of being able to craft content that suits each one of those people. Now you’re just… It’s even worse, because you’ve got every niche’s, every vertical’s buying committee adjusted with personas for each. There’s just no way. It makes no sense.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Maybe now would be an interesting time to bring it up. I was reading some articles from a marketer the other day, she specializes in customer journey mapping work, and articulates, crafts personas as part of that work. I guess what she was advocating for or suggesting is that maybe personas have become… Maybe we were being too gendered in 2022 with our personas. Even went so far as to suggest rather than having names, like Procurement Peter or whatever, which we’ve all-
Jeff White: Why was it always like that?
Carman Pirie: I don’t know. I don’t know. But rather than having names, she was suggesting maybe what they ought to be is initials, so that you… It wasn’t immediately gendered. And that was like, okay, that’s interesting, and of course she’s quite right. It is 2022 and maybe we ought to be thinking about some of these things a little differently, not trying to get too woke on our audience or anything like that. I’m just saying like-
Jeff White: No, no. But my goodness, all of a sudden it becomes okay, so instead of Procurement Peter, it’s P.P., which is far worse. But then it loses its usefulness, because really the name… Now, I realize the name is also assigning the gender, but generally gender has been defined within a persona usually anyway, so it was meant to be shorthand to be able to refer to what are we working on for Procurement Peter in this process.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, and look, and so often when people talk about selling into engineers, you’ll hear, “Oh, well, they’re white guys. They’re 35 to 55. They drive Ford F-150s.” The gender and everything, it’s all like people just assume that they know. So, I guess you’re saying it loses its utility by going to initials, but what it led me to wonder was did it have any utility anyway?
Jeff White: Well, that’s-
Carman Pirie: Yeah, like if we’re willing to use it, if there’s actually a pro that’s been engaged in this for an awfully long time suggesting that we move to initials and that we don’t lose anything as a result, well then what else?
Jeff White: I mean, you mentioned the ubiquitous F-150. My goodness, we could have put our kids through college writing personas for organizations with personas who drive F-150s. But the other one is age, and the fact of the matter is if you’re getting so specific with your personas that you’re defining someone, “Oh, they’re 48 to 55, and male, and white, not very good with technology.”
Carman Pirie: Yeah. But really into sports, which is always the-
Jeff White: And then you go to an airport and look who’s using technology all over the place, Susan.
Carman Pirie: Yes. Exactly. I encourage anyone to go to an airport, try to look at everybody that you just kind of might assume is over 60. There will be a lot of them there. They will all be on their iPhone. It doesn’t really matter how old they are. And we talk about the ubiquitous sports loving 45 to 50-year-old engineer or whatever it is, if you watch any sports really these days, who’s the biggest advertiser in sports on a lot of the online… They’re all trying to advertise gaming, like sports betting, right? It’s a huge business. What, so this person that’s really into sports doesn’t sports bet, though? The only person to sports bet is the 19-year-old? Because I’d say no, no. The person that you say isn’t particularly good with technology is probably placing bets on their football team on their phone while they use the washroom in the morning, not to get too graphic.
Jeff White: Yeah. And checking their fantasy baseball score.
Carman Pirie: Exactly, or whatever. You’re quite right. I don’t know how useful the age is. And how are you going to operationalize it? Like, so-
Jeff White: So, you’re going to write content that somehow is in the vernacular of an ESPN announcer calling a basketball game? It’s just not gonna work.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. What is the guidance that that’s going to give you?
Jeff White: Yeah. What utility does it have in improving the sales process?
Carman Pirie: Level of education and technical knowledge in the subject matter area may well give you guidance in your content writing around how specific you need to get and how technical you can be or ought to be, so I could see some of those considerations maybe being more useful than some of the other stuff that we’ve weighed so heavily on in the past, like they drive a Ford, they’re into sports, the gender, the age. It’s like I’m not so sure.
Jeff White: Well, I think so often too, these become victims of their age, as well, because people often say, “Oh, we’re gonna iterate on these and we’re gonna keep updating them as we learn more.” And the fact of the matter is they never really do. If anything, they just redo them a couple years later, but again, they’re still based on assumptions and there aren’t many organizations that I’ve seen that are actually operationalizing data to inform personas. We talked to Cynthia Kellam again a little while back from TE, and they’re building their persona profiles based on purchase behavior, and all of the other NPS type data, and other things, so they can cross-reference that so many different ways and actually be making informed decisions about it.
But most organizations don’t have the capacity for that.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I’ll be curious to hear how they make out with that because will it give them anything that is particularly actionable or alternatively will they just find, “Huh, people that buy our stuff are really diverse.” You know? Golly gee, there are people from a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different… Might that be where you just end up? Which I guess is kind of knocking on the door of this other problem with personas, I think, which is just sometimes I feel like they’re just too self-referencey. How many times have I talked to a B2B marketer who, for instance, was white, that had made a persona and that persona was anything other than white? It doesn’t…
In consumer personas, maybe you would see it a little bit more often in the B2C world, but if you’re looking at B2B buyer personas, it feels like a lot of that-
Jeff White: Especially in these global operations. I mean, you know-
Carman Pirie: Clearly, not everybody’s white. Yeah. Exactly. But it’s interesting that most of the personas kind of are. And so, I guess two points is like how much other persona information is very self-referencey and not particularly reliable, and then how do you operationalize it, anyway? The language that they speak is helpful to know, but their skin color isn’t, really.
Jeff White: No.
Carman Pirie: You’re not gonna talk to them differently as a result. If you know which countries you’re selling into, you could maybe look at some different sensitivities that way or approaches to business that differ by jurisdictions, but…
Jeff White: I will say this. This is completely a tangent but I promise it’s interesting, is that last week I went to Quebec with my son for a mountain biking vacation and I used Airbnb to book a place to stay, and one of the things that I’ve never seen before that I thought was really crazy was the Airbnb was actually translating my messages to the host from English to French and their messages back to me from French to English, and it was really good, and it actually told you that that was happening, so it’s almost like a Star Trek communicator where we may be getting to a point where the AI is good enough to do on the fly translation for many situations, which I think is really interesting kind of where we might be able to go from a language perspective.
Carman Pirie: So, are you kind of saying maybe you don’t even need to know. That’s kind of what you’re saying?
Jeff White: Well, that’s kind of what I’m saying, like what value is it? At some point maybe it’s not useful at all to know if someone speaks Punjabi, or Kanji, or English, or French. You just need to be able to serve the appropriate thing.
Carman Pirie: Right.
Jeff White: From a digital perspective.
Carman Pirie: Right. There still may be some-
Jeff White: Nuance.
Carman Pirie: Well, yeah.
Jeff White: I mean to creative.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. How styles of humor often decode differently.
Jeff White: Oh, we get to see some people get into very hot water with these technologies come online, but you know, so if age isn’t important, and gender isn’t important, and interests aren’t useful, and maybe even language is potentially not the tool we thought it was, then perhaps personas aren’t useful as a tool for marketing. But what should we be looking at? Because we gotta define it somehow. We can’t just write stuff for nobody.
Carman Pirie: Let’s just not worry about who we’re making this for at all. Yeah.
Jeff White: No, that’s not what I’m saying.
Carman Pirie: I know, I know.
Jeff White: That was a setup, okay.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. No. There was a recent podcast I think with Eddie, it was like a week or two ago.
Jeff White: Eddie Saunders.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think it was him that kind of tended to think about his content, he talked about blue collars and white collars, and basically kind of saying like look, it’s the people on the factory floor or working in it every day or what have you that are going to tell the white collar people what they have to buy. And he kind of seemed to think about the content platforms a little bit through that lens, like yeah, I think he might say sure, maybe you’re not talking to the white collars on TikTok, but you’re talking to the blue collars on TikTok.
Jeff White: Yeah. Because you know that the white collars talk to the blue collars to find out what they actually-
Carman Pirie: Right.
Jeff White: Is his idea.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I’m not necessarily saying I fully agree with him or disagree. All I’m more saying is it’s at least another way to maybe carve this up or to think about it.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Which is kind of maybe potentially more useful in some scenarios.
Jeff White: Potentially shorthand. Yeah. It feels to me like that kind of idea, and maybe it’s just because he’s a bit more of a growth hacker than a traditional marketing, digital marketing guy, those kinds of ways of thinking about it and separating that would seem to align with choosing platforms to communicate with people. But I guess that’s useful everywhere, so maybe I take it back. I’m not just saying it’s like all nouveaux growth hacker stuff.
Carman Pirie: No. Not really.
Jeff White: Yeah. But I do think that there’s something to that more kind of SaaS style of growth marketing that fits and aligns with that perspective a bit more than you might see frequently in B2B manufacturing marketing.
Carman Pirie: Right. But yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. I can think of a lot of manufacturing environments where that blue collar-white collar dynamic seems to exist. You could probably argue that there’s more overlap there than that framework permits or allows for. But any framework is in some ways necessarily a bit of an oversimplification, isn’t it?
Jeff White: Yeah. For sure. But I think there is… Our general sense of it would be that you’re much better off focusing on ideal customer profiles or a target accounts approach, eh?
Carman Pirie: Well, yeah. I think typically if you can stick more on the firmographic side, those ideal customer profiles that determine the industry codes that you sell into and the kind of ideal customer, paint a picture of your ideal customer from the point of view of annual revenue and employee count-
Jeff White: Location.
Carman Pirie: … location, potentially, although increasingly global, but yeah, so of course location. And as you do that, does that help shape your messaging maybe in the way that a persona does? Or could?
Jeff White: I think it could. I mean, I think it can in some ways because you may speak to oil and gas differently than you speak to semiconductors.
Carman Pirie: I suppose.
Jeff White: You may use different terminology that way, so I think-
Carman Pirie: But would you talk to them differently if it’s a 3,000-plus company? Maybe. Maybe you might. But I think the primary utility or one of the primary functions of that is it then enables you to create a target account list. And that’s pretty darn helpful, right? And you can stay maybe a little bit more focused on the problems your business solves within that particular industry or category in your messaging, and not be too worried about changing or tweaking messaging to fit personas-
Jeff White: Right.
Carman Pirie: … that frankly just message into batches of target accounts that have some similarities.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: And of course, account-based experience, and account-based personalization, and things of that nature can be used, or just fully one-to-one custom ABM campaigns to go further down that road.
Jeff White: Well, and I think if you’re getting to the level where you have a tier, a AAA tier, one out of this world account prospect, you can get down to the level of contact research where instead of trying to use a persona to define the people, you can define the people people.
Carman Pirie: And that can be very, very useful. I mean, even things… We’ve seen occasions where we’ve identified kind of a shared educational… You know, people that went to the same school as… Oh my goodness, are you serious? My CEO and the CEO of my biggest target account actually graduated from the same school in the same year? Some of that can happen. Even you might find somebody, maybe they’re a big Green Bay Packers fan or something like that. Well, in a one-to-one outreach you can leverage that information in a lot of different ways. And so, therefore it makes it useful.
That same information when it’s generalized at the persona level is kind of useless, isn’t it?
Jeff White: It’s not just useless, it’s potentially dangerous. You could make assumptions about your audience that completely offend them.
Carman Pirie: That’s true. The downside of personas.
Jeff White: The deep, dark corner.
Carman Pirie: But no, that’s a fair point. You could. It could lead you to focus on the wrong things at the very least, which that in and of itself is damaging. And I suppose it does lead to a chance to offend.
Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we’ve talked since the beginning of this episode about the nature of having to create content for different groups of people, whether that’s within an ICP, or whether you’re trying to actually craft these things the way you would for each different type of persona you had back when you were doing early inbound, but you’re still going to need to… From an account perspective, especially if you’re targeting very specific accounts, you could still be looking to get as much for your dollar as possible in terms of targeting the right people within that buying committee.
So, if you’re looking into those ICPs or those target accounts, where would you suggest people focus their energies when looking to sell into an organization like that from an account-based perspective?
Carman Pirie: Well, kind of two things. You can kind of… Some people look at it and try to talk about focus on more like the economic buyer. Who’s the person whose budget this is gonna come from? Yes, there might be a committee influencing the decision. Procurement might be involved to ensure a fair process is followed that gets them a good deal. But it’s not procurement’s budget that’s getting hit when they buy X, Y, or Z. So, who is the manager that’s responsible for that. That would be one way to look at it. But it’s also fraught with problems and there’s a lot of complexity in B2B sales, so it’s really I think hard to get a one-size-fits-all.
I think probably you’re best off to look, lean into the intent if you’re deploying a program at an ABM level. Leverage intent data and basically there are some platforms that allow you to target advertising only to the contacts within your target accounts that are showing intent. So, in that way you don’t have to guess which person that might be. The platform’s kind of letting you know. And you can serve up experiences over the course of that journey that give opportunities that give that… At some point, some opportunity for that person to convert and tell us who they are, right?
Jeff White: At which point you can then personalize that experience to a greater deal.
Carman Pirie: Sure. Sure. But I think it’s probably almost enough to customize the experience at the account level in some way. You don’t need to call them by their first name in order to have impact. The fact that your regular communications even understands the company that it’s speaking to and refers to that company by name, and is customizing its industry content, et cetera, based on the industries that are most important to that target account, all of that could… It’s kind of enough.
Jeff White: It’s still a lot but it’s a heck of a lot easier than writing custom workflows for 18 different persona groups.
Carman Pirie: Exactly right. Exactly right.
Jeff White: Which we’ve been through before.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. This has been fun to kick around. I don’t think that we’re ready to completely kill the persona, but I think… I hope we’ve caused people to at least question the utility and how they’re being used in their organization, and how much time they’re spending doing them versus how much value they’re getting out of them. And as always, we’re interested to hear what folks have to say, so if you have a defense of personas that you’d like to file, or if you think that they should be killed, let us know.
Jeff White: Yeah. Podcast@kulapartners.com. Drop us a line.
Carman Pirie: Good chatting.
Jeff White: Thanks a lot.
Carman Pirie: Cheers.
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Carman Pirie & Jeff WhitePrincipals at Kula Partners
At Kula Partners, Carman serves as lead marketing and sales counsel to the firm’s diverse range of North American manufacturing clients. His unique insights and distaste for the ordinary have earned him a Gold Award for Media Innovation from Marketing Magazine and Kula Partners—Canada’s first Platinum HubSpot agency—has been recognized as a top lead generator among HubSpot partners. A User Experience (UX) and usability expert, Jeff began building sites for the web over 25 years ago. He leads the design and development practice at Kula Partners, Canada’s first Platinum HubSpot Partner agency. A passionate advocate for usability and an open web that is accessible to everyone, Jeff frequently speaks on web design, usability, accessibility, marketing and sales at events such as HubSpot’s Inbound conference.