How Many B2B Buyer Personas Do You Need?

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One of the first things potential clients say to me is something along the lines of how many buyer personas they think they need to create. I’ve heard everything from one to fifty-two. The average is three to five B2B buyer personas.

But even beyond the number of personas to create, it’s deciding on which buyer personas make the most sense to invest the time, effort, and resource to develop. Which B2B buyer personas, when engaged, will help marketers drive contribution to revenues?

Let’s take on both of those questions. While you can build as many personas as you like, there’s a point of no return that you should be careful not to cross.

Which B2B Buyer Personas Should You Build?

Before you can answer the question about how many, you need to identify which personas are even in the running.

Quite often, the first thing I hear is that the client must have a C-suite persona. They are convinced that the higher they can get in the organization, the more sales they will be able to influence. This is rarely the case unless the solution the client sells is highly strategic or they sell to SMBs where the CXO is responsible for cross-functional roles and/or has a very limited team.

The better question for discovery is, “Who can the marketing team reach and engage successfully?

Who is doing the research and evaluation and recommending the solution to the decision maker? Quite often, what you find is that this person—lower down the hierarchy—is entrusted with the selection and the “decision maker” is just blessing their recommendation based on the business case they presented.

While the decision maker may be involved during various activities, such as sitting in on a vendor demo or discussing options, the true engagement is likely with those on their team they’ve entrusted to do the work of evaluating and selecting a solution.

3 Steps to Identify Worthy Buyer Personas

  1. Start by talking to your sales team. After all, the reason to develop personas in the first place is to build an engaged audience of potential prospects who can and are likely to become customers. If you build personas in a vacuum, you could end up with a database of contacts that sales reps have no interest in talking to and who won’t ever buy from you.
    1. Include a range of sellers – not just your star reps or account managers.
    2. Ask them why they talk to those roles. Are they going in bottoms-up or are they reaching higher to get referred down? Note that this could be the reason marketers think they need a CXO persona. Or, do they pursue the buyer who will be in it for the duration from the start?
    3. When you get this opportunity, you should also ask questions, such as:
      1. What does an ideal company profile look like for X product?
      2. Who else to they need to involve in making the decision? (who shows up at the demo and the on-site presentation?)
      3. How long is the sales process from the time you get involved?
      4. What questions do they ask you?
      5. Which competitors do you see show up the most when you’re working deals?
      6. What kind of obstacles or pushback do you encounter?

You may as well learn as much as you can quickly while you’ve got your sales team’s attention. And be sure to talk to them one-on-one so they aren’t influenced by their peers on the call or in the meeting. The answers to these questions will help you form an initial list of buyer personas for consideration. You may find out that the buying landscape looks a bit different than you thought.

As you have this conversation, also identify companies and contacts each salesperson thinks would be a good interview, so you can start building your list for interview requests moving forward. It’s great to get your sales team’s buy-in and build their excitement about the project. On most of my projects, their willingness to help with customer outreach makes the difference in getting this work done quickly.

  1. Once you have your conversations with the sales team, make a list of the personas they named. Then look in your database to see who’s in your existing prospect pool.
    1. Can you readily reach these roles? If you can’t, do you have the resources and runway to attract and engage them?
    2. And, how clean is your database? Does work need to be done there first?
    3. Can you segment your database according to the personas you’ve identified?

Segmenting a database by personas is sometimes not as simple as filtering by title. Buyer personas are not dictated by title, but rather by role.

For example, unless you’re also segmenting by company size, a CMO or VP of marketing in a small company could be the equivalent of a Director of Marketing at a mid-size company or a Marketing Manager at an enterprise company. You also need to identify other titles that could represent your persona, such as Director of Digital Marketing or Director of Demand Gen, and others specific to a certain role or business function.

  1. Now determine how many buyer personas you can competently engage. In other words, do you have the resources to create content and programs for five personas right now? Or can you only confidently picture you and your team addressing one or two across the entirety of their buying process?

The reason I bring up these considerations is due to how fast things change. If you can only address one persona, then just create one. Otherwise, when you finally have the resources to address the others in six months, you’ll find out they’ve changed. I’ve seen this happen more than once and have had to resuscitate personas that were no longer accurate in order to activate them to effectively inform new marketing programs. Why do the work twice?

This said, as buying committees grow—Gartner has B2B buying committees up to 11 people now—you will likely need more than one for a complex B2B solution. If resources are a limitation, consider rolling them out in phases, or consider persona types to apply effort in consideration of the persona’s impact on buying. (My next post will focus on those options)

The Limitation of Intent Data for Buyer Personas

Finally, I’d like to address one thing that is making me a bit crazy in relation to buyer personas. The growth and availability of data has led some marketers to believe that they no longer need to do the work of building comprehensive buyer personas because they can leverage intent data.

Be very careful with the idea that intent data is the silver bullet to replace personas. The data is a wonderful addition to your persona, but never forget that it has limitations. The data can tell you what they’re searching for or which content they are engaging with, but it cannot tell you why they are doing so.

The data will also not tell you what they think about the problem they’re solving. It can also be misleading for where they are in their buying process because they may be just learning to refine their search queries and in a general state of inquiry. Looks can be deceiving.

There’s no substitution for getting to clarity in understanding your buyers’ world, the impact of the problem, the words they use to talk about it, what they hope to achieve, how they view success, and so much more.

I’m pretty much of a data geek. The more the merrier. Just make sure that it tells you what you need to know and that you understand how to get useful, actionable insights from it. We may well get to this point in the future, but for now, I’d recommend that you look at data as an enhancement to buyer personas, not a replacement for them.

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