The Emerging Importance Of B2B Ethnography To Buyer Personas


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noun_41278_cc2Better, deeper, insightful, and well-rounded understanding of customers and buyers is on the top of the list for many CEOs and CMOs today.

In recent studies by IBM and other research studies on CEO sentiments, customer insight and understanding are identified as a top focus for CEOs.  A majority of surveys also find a growing concern for both establishing and retaining customer loyalty in today’s digital marketplaces.

There are two additional concerns CEOs are finding of increasing importance to the growth, as well as, survival in competitive environs.  These two are:

  • CEOs and CMOs have a growing concern about the relevancy of their products and services in the digital economy
  • CEOs and their organizations are finding it hard to keep pace with new digital technologies

Redefining The Meaning Of Buyer Understanding

These three pressing concerns are causing CEOs and CMOs to reevaluate how to understand their buyers and their abilities to help buyers achieve their goals.  Traditional survey methods and conventional win/loss analysis are proving to be dead end approaches.  The promises of Big Data and analytics are limited in their ability to detect changes and cannot offer deeper assessments related to behaviors.

In today’s robust evolution of digital technologies, CEOs and CMOs seek buyer understanding to address these three concerns.  Resulting in a 3D view of buyers, which can help inform strategies related to each.

Many organizations are still relying on a win/loss perspective when it comes to understanding buyers.  CEOs and CMOs today should not be confused with newer terminologies surrounding this traditional perspective.  A case in point is the term “buyer’s journey.”  This is still a narrow buying process perspective designed to view the buy/sales cycle to a  “win” as opposed to a “loss”.

Buyer Research Intent Requires Change

From a research point of view, not much has changed or moved beyond buyer profiling in the last couple of decades.  Even more so, buyer profiling is still confined within the context of win/loss despite changes in terminology.  As mentioned in previous articles, CMOs in particular, will now have to succinctly discern between buyer profiling and buyer personas.  (This discernment is needed for it is unfortunate that conventional buyer profiling and win/loss analysis is being repackaged, if you will, as buyer personas by agencies and individual consultants.  Which, then leads to organizations staying in the status quo of buyer profiling, as well as, win/loss analysis.)

A case in point is we see a glut of content on what to find out about buyers, especially related to buyer profiling “repackaged” as buyer personas. Content, which suggests finding out basic demographics, pain points, personalities, and buying criteria.  This is then combined with win/loss questioning focused on the buying process (or buyer’s journey).  Questions related to asking buyers to tell you what they did when they started researching and proceeding with a “then what” approach.  This is classic win/loss interviewing technique as opposed to qualitative buyer research.  Yet, not very helpful for addressing the three concerns mentioned earlier nor to true goal-directed behavioral research related to buyer personas.

The intent of buyer research, as related to buyer persona development, should be to address understanding the goals of buyers and whether the organizations is relevant to these goals.  And, whether the organization is keeping pace with technologies, which enable buyers to accomplish their goals.

Importance Of B2B Ethnography Grows In The Digital Economy

The rise of the digital economy and the evolution of digital technologies have had a transformative impact on both buying and organizational behaviors.  Changing the way people collaborate and buy.  An important aspect essential to this transformation is how people and businesses interact.  These shifts dramatically influencing how and why decisions are made.

In order to see how behaviors and interactions are changing, CEOs and CMOs will need to embrace B2B ethnography.  Ethnographic research uses techniques, which allows businesses to have conversations with and observe people in their cultural, as well as, natural environments. This enables companies to gain deep insights that cannot be attained through surveys, focus groups, or through the use of telephone-based win/loss analysis.

The use of ethnographic research can be especially valuable for companies engaged in complex B2B marketing and long sales cycles.  In such situations, buyers can find it difficult to articulate the behaviors and activities they engage in that now are part of their subconscious thinking.

For example, in one B2B ethnographic study conducted on behalf of a Fortune 100 organization, as part of an overall buyer persona development effort, we found before buyers began researching a specific SaaS customer support solution they performed internal assessments with key internal stakeholders. The focus on how to solve difficulties in international customer service and support.  What could not be described through surveys or telephone-based win/loss style interviewing was observed in the customer’s own natural environment.  Particularly how various customer support teams collaborated virtually to resolve international support issues.

Seeing and observing the difficulties their potential buyers had in providing support to their international customers enabled the organization to develop enhanced content, as well as, effective sales conversations.   These valuable insights also led the organization to develop useful tools potential buyers could use to help facilitate assessment with their internal stakeholders.   Ultimately resulting in larger deal sizes.

This ethnographic approach in B2B also allows for understanding contextually how people and organizations are interacting to arrive at decisions.  And, to see how other businesses are adopting new digital technologies.

Addressing Three Main Concerns On Part Of CEOs and CMOs

Gaining understanding on how to achieve deeper customer loyalties, be relevant to customers, and keep pace with rapidly changing technologies requires new thinking on B2B buyer research.  No longer will surveys or attempting to understand buyers within a win/loss context suffice.  Valuable and important insights, which can only be observed, will be missed with these limited surveying methods.  And, these conventional approaches are inadequate for insightful buyer personas.

The originating principle behind personas is one of understanding goal-directed behaviors and designing effective human-centered interactions.  Which, at its origins, was and still is predicated on the use of ethnographic research.  This has never been more important.  In complex B2B environments, important insights can oftentimes best be seen rather than heard.

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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