New Approaches To Understand Customers Needed In A Digital Transformation World


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Illustration by Nikita Kozin

In numerous surveys of CEOs in the past few years, predictably, you will find growth strategies as one of the top priorities going into any new year.  Strikingly, in these same few years, you will also find developing customer understanding also on the list of CEO priorities.

What is changing in the past two years, is that CEOs are focused on globalization and digital transformation.  Per recent surveys by IBM, KPMG, and Gartner, you will find that more than half of CEOs surveyed believe their organizations will be significantly transformed by digital-centric globalization.

What becomes clear considering these surveys is that many CEOs see growth resulting from a strong understanding of customers.  Yet, they also recognize that this understanding must be achieved within the context of understanding the impact of globalization and a robust digital economy.

A Strategic Necessity In An Emerging Digital-Centric World

In my article Rethinking Buyer Personas In An Era Of Digital Transformation, I presented four trends impacting the state of buyer persona development.  A recognition of a world very different from that of sixteen years ago.  Whereby, rethinking buyer persona development and insight gathering in a digital-centric world becomes a necessity.

We are now living in a world where a hyper-accelerated pace of change has become the norm.  The introduction of new digital technologies and new business models is having a breathtaking impact on how customers determine what goals are important to them, what they want, and how they decide.  For organizations to strive in such an environment, developing a robust multi-dimensional understanding of customers is becoming a strategic necessity.

Although many organizations are recognizing this strategic necessity, many are either not devoting enough resources, putting the majority of their spending in inadequate traditional methods, or have not enabled insights to achieve a valued seat in strategy.  Relying on a status quo of traditional means such as focus groups, win/loss oriented interviews, surveys, and buyer interviews that are grounded in conventional yet outdated sales and product marketing concepts.

This applies to buyer persona development today.  Especially as related to the veiled covering of old sales and product marketing methods and presenting as an expert method.  And, why it necessitates a rethinking.  Like a runaway train, buyer personas have run amok with incorrect portrayals of what constitutes insights and what methods of research are appropriate.  Leaving many companies and marketing organizations with an incorrect view of their customers.

New Thinking And New Approaches

The focus on understanding customers today in a digital-centric global world requires new thinking and new approaches.The focus on understanding customers today in a digital-centric global world requires new thinking and new approaches.  Approaches that go beyond the multitude of marketing analytical tools that are being introduced.  As well as, beyond outdated traditional means grounded in sales and product marketing used for profiling buyers.

The emphasis is on, as stated in my previous article, adopting a market development approach.  One that leads to organic growth in existing and new markets.  For companies undergoing a digital transformation, new digital market development is truly a strategic necessity.

In terms of understanding customer, specifically for persona development, one fundamental principle remains true.  That is, people are driven by goals and exhibit goal-directed behaviors when engaged in using products or services, as well as, in making purchase decisions.  No number of made-up categories of profiling facts or “insights” can equate to this fundamental principle.

As mentioned in the previous article, this has been a reflective period examining the state of insights and buyer persona development sixteen years later, when buyer personas were first launched.  Thoughts are presented within the context of an evolving era of digital transformation.  Based on works with several leading companies undergoing digital transformation and emerging companies in B2B digital platform markets, what follows are developing approaches applicable for generating insights and personas leading to new growth strategies.  Groundbreaking experiences have led to rethinking and reinvention of insights and persona development for marketing, market insights, and market development strategies:

1 – Human Insights

Digital technologies have enabled the ability to produce an overwhelming amount of data analytics.  Often characterized as insights.  Have they though produced human insight truth?  Not particularly.  We can ascertain much about the what and how in terms of activities.  This also applies to very outdated buyer profiling methods, masquerading as buyer persona insight.  Whereby what is sought is activity-based data and facts as opposed to true human insights.  The rapid increase in a digital-centric world increases the need for human insights.  Especially for goal-directed human insights as mentioned above.  For example, in recent works with Reuters, we uncovered a human insight related to how people responded to and developed worldviews as a result of connected experiences across print, digital, TV, and public media.  Enabling broadcast and digital media to reshape their news towards a connected experience.

2 – Rapid Crowd Insights

The ability to utilize the power of crowdsourcing today to test insight understanding is proving to be very valuable.  The use of digital platforms to test ideas, co-create with customers, spark innovation, and learn about emerging patterns of goal-directed behaviors can lead to new growth opportunities.  In one case of working with an international supply chain platform, we learned that how the brand was framing a narrative in their content and conversations actually resulted in an unintentional negative view of the brand.  This human insight prompted a shift in content towards a narrative that mirrored their customer’s goal-based intentions.

3 – Field Observations

As mentioned in my previous article, the impact of digital transformation is changing the way people conduct business, behave, work, socialize, interact, and perform activities.  To accurately gain insights into the what, how, and why of what people really do requires observation.  What people say they do is usually far less accurate than actual observation.  One digital platform company we worked with, for example, wished to expand their presence outside of business intelligence into other functions of enterprises.  Through observations and onsite conversations, we found that business intelligence teams were already “pre-equipping” other functions to offload routine intelligence runs.  Based on this observation of how teams worked and interacted, the company had insight into which “pre-packaged” intelligence solutions to prioritize for new market entry.

4 – Contextual Insight Communities

As the digital platform economy expands, we are seeing customers, on a personal and business level, adapt to working within digital platform environments.  This is having a profound impact on how people engage in goal-directed behaviors, perform activities, collaborate, and make decisions.  It also affords opportunities to create iterative and collaborative insight communities with engaged customers.  Especially for customers’ representative of being active users, as well as, buyers.   Enabling multiple two-way dialogues on specific interests among teams of people.   As an example, a secure documentation company we worked with engaged working teams of 3-4 people in dialogue on its transformation to new cloud-enabled services.  Leading to a human insight of how it would enhance working relationships and uncovering that a purchase decision did not require the approval of “a boss” – teams were empowered to make consensus decisions.

5 – In-Depth Executive Interviews

The impact of digital transformation is changing the very notion of executive leadership.  Not only in terms of leading digital transformation but also in terms of how executives lead today in a digital-centric world.  Whereas mentioned in my previous article, is far less hierarchal.  While in-depth qualitative interviews (not to be confused with woefully inadequate buyer interviews focused on latest wins or losses) have been a staple of persona development for nearly twenty years, they take on added importance at the executive level.  How organizations behave and lead are undergoing an enormous transformation.  A case in point, in evaluating receptivity of transitioning global finance and trade compliance to cloud-based services for one international entity, in-depth interviews with executives invalidated an assumption that leadership would resist.  Finding instead the contextual framing by which leadership would want to accelerate their transition.

6 – Use Analytics To Scale Insights

Massive amounts of data can be collected today and analyzed.  Oftentimes, organizations can engage in “needle in the haystack” missions to find revealing insights to uncover growth opportunities.  Such exercises can be unfruitful and expensive.  What organizations can do is scale their insights to get more detailed pictures of growth opportunities.  For instance, a digital platform provider in customer support uncovered four distinct personas representative in six segments.  Through data mining capabilities, they were able to target customers based on goal-directed behaviors specific to the four personas.   Enabling them to tailor marketing communications to specific personas and segments.

Reengineering Insights And Persona Development

How we understand customers today will need to undergo its own transformation as we adapt to a digitized global economy.How we understand customers today will need to undergo its own transformation as we adapt to a digitized global economy.  Transforming how we gather insights, identify relevant insights, and develop archetypal market-based personas (or market personas) is a strategic necessity.  Companies today will need to examine the merits of using older techniques for insight gathering.  Including the merit of promises to create buyer personas through the use of older sales and product marketing conventions.

Not reexamining can lead to an incorrect view of customers in a digital-centric world. And, produce the negative effect of an organization being outside the view of customers.

(This article is geared towards new approaches for discovering growth opportunities.  In this short video, futurist Gerd Leonhard asks – how will we respond to discovering new opportunities in one of the most transformational times in human history?  Enjoy.)


Article by Tony Zambito

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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