Last week, Jason Stewart, the Vice President for Strategic Content at Annuitas, published a great article at LinkedIn titled “What the C-Suite Needs to Know About Account-Based Marketing.”
In this article, Jason argues that ABM represents a major step in the right direction for many B2B companies, but he also contends that it falls short of being a comprehensive demand generation strategy. He writes, “ABM is an extraordinarily smart way to make the right tactical decisions when it comes to demand generation, but the elite Account-Based Marketers are still building personas, nurturing every step of the buyer’s journey, and know exactly which activities and leads are driving revenue.”
I would suggest that Jason’s article is particularly on point when it comes to the issue of buyer personas. Most ABM experts say that account-based marketing involves a fundamental shift from “lead-centric” marketing to “account-centric” marketing. But does this mean that ABM diminishes the importance and value of buyer personas? The answer to this question is an emphatic “No,” and I’ll explain why momentarily. But first, a little historical perspective is in order.
Buyer personas have been a core element of B2B marketing for more than a decade. The origin of buyer personas is usually traced to the practice of creating user personas to help software engineers develop more user-friendly applications. User personas made their appearance in the late 1990’s, and we started hearing about buyer personas a few years later.
In the B2B world, buyer personas are intended to help marketing and sales professionals better understand the people who influence business buying decisions, but the importance of this understanding was recognized long before anyone had ever heard of buyer personas. Consider, for example, the following quotation from Organizational Buying Behavior by Frederick E. Webster, Jr. and Yoram Wind published more than four decades ago:
“Although organizational buying is the result of organizational decision making, individual behavior defines this decision-making system. Each person involved in the buying process brings to it a set of needs, goals, habits, past experiences, information, attitudes, and so on which he applies in each specific situation. . .
An efficient and effective marketing strategy for organizational buyers must be aimed at specific individuals who have authority and responsibility for buying decisions, not at some broad conception of the ‘organization,’ for individuals, not organizations, make organizational buying decisions.”
When you implement account-based marketing, the first two steps in the process are to select target accounts and identify the relevant contacts (i.e. buyers) in each target account. The third step in the process is to develop deep insights regarding each account. With ABM, therefore, you will identify the actual buyers, and you will develop deep account insights before you begin your marketing program. Doesn’t this knowledge reduce the need for buyer personas?
In reality, buyer personas are still essential for effective ABM because every buyer at each target account will bring his or her individual perspectives to the buying process, and it’s still important to have marketing messages and marketing content resources that address those individual buyer perspectives. Today, it is possible to learn more about our actual buyers than in the past, but even “big data” won’t consistently reveal the goals, objectives, and motivations of individual buyers.
So, we still need buyer personas to fill those gaps in our understanding. As we interact with actual buyers, we can and should use those interactions to learn more about the specific goals, interests, and perspectives of our buyers. And we should use those insights to fine-tune our marketing messages and content. As we learn more about our actual buyers, we can rely less on buyer personas for insights about those specific buyers. But buyer personas still provide a critical starting point for effective ABM.
Illustration courtesy of Rick B via Flickr.
Thanks for articulating an important point in your fantastic article. The most important aspects of buyer personas are the deep insights gathered. Buyer personas are basically an essential communications platform for businesses to gain a common understanding of customers and buyers. They will only be as good as the third step you describe. If the insights are lacking, then the buyer personas to communicate the insights are lacking as well. ABM is just an extension of Account-Based Sales that has been around for decades. I might add, however, that while ABM is a fad buzz word at the moment, changes are already afoot in the marketplace where organizations are acting less and less as accounts. Gaining buyer insights into these changes are now even more critical.
Many thanks, David!
I read Stewart’s article expecting to find a definition of Account Based Marketing, but he didn’t explain what it is. Here’s how it’s described on Wikipedia:
Account-based marketing (ABM), also known as key account marketing, is a strategic approach to business marketing in which an organization considers and communicates with individual prospect or customer accounts as markets of one. Account-based marketing is typically employed in enterprise level sales organisations.
To me, ABM is a strategy, which – like any strategy – has risks and trade offs. ABM makes strategic sense for some companies, but it would be a poor fit for others. In particular, companies with shorter sales cycles that have a large number of prospects.
I like persona development for many reasons, not the least of which is the planning rigor personas bring to vendors. But I don’t agree with the statement, “individual behavior defines this decision-making system.” It influences decision making, but it does not define it. Decision making in large companies is controlled in varying amounts by governance, procedures, policies, rules, regulations, and laws as much as individual preferences. A sales team that focuses on individual buyer behaviors, tics, biases, etc., without understanding the corporate processes and constraints will struggle in winning the sale.
Thanks very much for your comment. You are one of my go-to resources when it comes to buyer personas. I was intrigued by your statement about organizations acting less and less as accounts. I believe you made a similar point in one of your recent blog posts. Are you alluding to the fact that there can be multiple “buying centers” within a single account, and that each of those buying centers may act fairly independently? Or are you referring to something deeper?
Thanks, again for your comment.