Future of Buyer Personas is Social – Part 3


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This is the third part of a series of reflective articles on the future of buyer personas. In part 1 of this reflection on the future of buyer personas, I focused on some of the misconceptions about buyer personas and in part 2, I offered perspectives on why changes were needed to be relevant to the social age. In part 3, we turn to the topic of what types of changes are needed.

As I alluded to in part 1, somehow buyer personas went wayward in being correctly defined. Where did it go wayward? Primarily, like most definitions in business, the term was adopted as well as co-opted to put a new label on practices that have been around for a few decades in marketing and sales. Many a good sales professionals as well as marketing professionals I knew back in the ’80’s and ’90’s adopted the valued practices of understanding the buying process, profiling their customers/buyers, discovering buyer constraints, understanding the buyer’s decision criteria, and adopting KSF (Key success Factors) factoring in marketing and sales planning. Consultative and solutions selling programs were developed to incorporate sales techniques designed to enable sales in particular to learn how to ask relevant questions aimed at uncovering answers to the above. Buyer personas over the last five years in particular have been layered over these existing practices – as if we were putting a new cover on an old book. My hope in part 3 is that by noting what needs to change, it will also dispel the new cover on an old book misunderstanding. At the same time, offer perspectives on the future of buyer personas in the social age.

From Art to Science

Buyer persona development is more science than art. Now in the social age, the science of buyer personas must be emphasized even more so than ever. Why is this? Buyer persona – and now Social Buyer Persona Development is about understanding behaviors, ecosystems, culture, and goals. Goals have been at the heart of personas in general since their origins. It takes science to uncover changes in behaviors and to understand goals in ways that customers and buyers have difficulty articulating. The science of goal interpretation from the unarticulated reveals the deepest insights about buyer behaviors as well as taps into underlying resources leading to innovation. The science of goal orientation leads to discovering the often hidden and unarticulated roots of “why” people buy. The social sciences of ethnography and anthropology are becoming more prominent in the business world and are essential foundations for true social buyer persona development. Recently, I offered a perspective on a new field called Social Buyerology to foster this sharpened focus. This change is needed because we are in a period of history that is undergoing the most significant change in buyer behaviors since the end of the Second World War. Creating a new cover for existing practices is art. Rewriting the story inside is science.

From Push to Pull

I’m a big fan of John Hagel, author of the book The Power of Pull. His macro views on how business models are shifting from push to pull is important to buyer personas because they change the context by which buyer personas are researched and created. Traditional management and business models have been built on pushing outward through the organization to buyers and inducing them to buy. John Hagel’s makes a 21st Century argument that organizations must develop a spirit of collaboration between co-workers and customers (buyers) that pulls them towards improving both worlds via the organizations. No easy task for much of today’s management structure still is focus on pushing products and services out to customers. The social age however is radically allowing this concept to happen. Understanding how the social buyer persona behaves in a pull economic model is integral to organizations learning how to collaborate with their buyers versus engaging in the art of persuasive seduction.

From Messaging to Listening

Related to from push to pull, much of the intended efforts in building buyer personas – whether executed correctly or not – has been about how to message to buyers. The messaging of course aimed at persuasion in a marketing and sales context. Social buyers today are responding to social organizations that are becoming more adept at listening. The future of buyer personas in the social age is to adapt to the science of listening and identifying the constantly shifting patterns of changes in buyer behaviors. Let the words of a buyer captured in a qualitative interview speak to this: “Look, I get all kinds of stuff from (company name removed – sorry!) and its all the same – they are just pushing (product name removed – sorry!) on me. They can disguise it all they want with white papers and all but it still comes down to pushing a product on me. That’s not listening in my book.” Social buyer persona development must change to be more about informing on listening competency than messaging competency.

From Profiling to Narrative

Not to beat a dead horse, but buyer personas must continue to move from a misunderstood practice of profiling to a practice of understanding the narrative of the social buyer. The narrative is part science and part art. You cannot tell the narrative of the social buyer artfully without the prerequisite of the uncovering attained by science. Narratives have long been an interpretative component of the social sciences as a way of presenting as well as recasting research findings. Narratives and scenario design have been building blocks of personas since their origins and can play an essential role in helping to understanding the changing buyer behaviors brought on by the advent of the social age.

From Marketing/Sales Push to Social Experience Design

Another person I’m a big fan of is Paul Greenberg (plus he’s a big Yankees fan like me), a leading expert on Social CRM and author of CRM at the Speed of Light. Paul’s mantra of – “Buyers don’t want to be an object of a sale but rather the subject of an experience.” – says it best for me. For B2B organizations, this is a tough transition for buried deep into the DNA of their own corporate cultures is the emphasis on pushing outwardly product and sales messaging thus they have little guidance on how to turn B2B buying into a social experience. Both user and buyer persona development is a design thinking process. When implemented correctly, buyer personas have been used to inform the design of buyer strategies and interactions. In the social age, social buyer persona development plays an important role in informing organizations on how to design social buying experiences that’s predicated on listening and engagement as opposed to messaging and push.

From Content Presentation to Social Interaction

The idea of using content to create CTA’s (Call-to-Action) is not necessarily a new idea. It has been part of marketing efforts for years. The term “content marketing” is gaining a foothold due to the explosion of new media channels resulting from the Internet and the Social Age. Among the positive aspects afforded to organizations, there have been consequences. Let’s have the voice of a buyer articulate: “It’s like a fire hose at times. There is so much information coming my way that it is getting hard to manage and stay on top of. I wish there was a way to turn the faucet handle down.” To me this is content presentation just flooding media channels. Social buyer persona development can help inform not only the design of content but also how to design for embedding interaction into content strategy. Buyer persona development must change from a contextual intent of content presentation and messaging to providing deep insight into the design of social interaction behaviors buyers seek. Content marketing in the form of content presentation exacerbates information overload. Embedding social interaction into content is like a sorting belt to buyers. As content floods them along the electronic media conveyor belt, those with social interaction embedded get automatically sorted to a more streamline conveyor belt.

As we look to the future of buyer personas, it is becoming more and more evident to me that the next evolution is in adapting to the social age. It is apt to note that the social sciences of ethnography and anthropology must become more foundational to buyer personas due to the order of magnitude shift we are seeing in social behaviors, interactions, and goals related to the social age.

There is irony in the narrative of my reflection. Personas, both user and buyer, started out with an emphasis on ethnographic research before the term buyer personas was co-opted to describe marketing and sales buyer profiling. The social age is returning buyer personas to the realm of a practice that more closely aligns with the social sciences as well as with the conceptual origins of personas in general.

Next: Future of Buyer Personas is Social – Part 4

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Tony Zambito
Tony is the founder and leading authority in buyer insights for B2B Marketing and Sales. In 2001, Tony founded the concept of "buyer persona" and established the first buyer persona development methodology. This innovation has helped leading companies gain a deeper understanding of their buyers resulting in revenue performance. Tony has empowered Fortune 100 organizations with operationalizing buyer personas to communicate deep buyer insights that tell the story of their buyer. He holds a B.S. in Business and an M.B.A. in Marketing Management.


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