B2B Personas with Purpose

Personas are typical characters created to represent a customer or user type.  They were originally spawned out of the software design community as a means of getting designers to empathize with user audiences, and make development decisions that reflect their priority needs in different use-case scenarios. They have now become increasingly popular as a means of helping managers in different roles to make customer-centric decisions.  With growing use of personas as a tool for companies, I wanted to share our observations on how to design them in business to business situations so that they fit the requirement and have purpose in achieving business results.

In recent years we have worked with different companies not only to develop personas for digital properties and services, but also to support product development and marketing/sales activities. In doing this work, some common themes have emerged when advising clients.

“These are the personas we want you to write up.”  Client organizations may have preconceived notions of how the personas should be structured (i.e. the roles that should be profiled).  Often, this is based on an approach to segmentation that has been adopted or simply the way the business is structured.  While the organization may have a good handle on their audiences and the proposed structure may make sense, we have found that that is not always the case.  A number of times we have gotten into doing the research, talking with different customer audiences, only to find patterns that suggest a different approach.  As a starting point, it is helpful to step back from your approach to structuring your audiences and determine:

  1. What was the business motivation for the structure that you chose and what insights were used to guide this?
  2. What is the business purpose of the personas and how will they be used?
  3. Does the existing structure fit with how the personas will be used?

By way of example, one client had segmented audiences by size of firm for marketing purposes.  We used in-depth interviews with different audiences, largely by firm size, to inform the personas.  As the interviews proceeded, some of the distinctions that emerged relevant to how the personas would be used were driven more by firm specialty than by size.  Because the original interview plan was based on pre-conceived notions of the audience, we had to refocus how we selected customer interviews as we got into it.

Personas are people, not organizations.  Another common theme that emerges, which can be linked to the previous one, is that personas typically represent individual roles or people within firms.  Moreover, certain personas may exist in more than one type of customer organization.  For example, a finance manager in one type of firm may have needs and challenges that are very similar to a finance manager in another type of organization.  What this means is that you may end up with personas that exist across different client organizations, which can have implications for marketing into customer organizations.  In a sales scenario, thinking of the roles that exist within a certain type of company can help ensure that different decision influences are considered.

Which personas are important?  In some cases, there can be more personas than clients care to deal with.  The question then becomes: Which ones do you cut or save for another day?  One obvious way of prioritizing personas is to identify those that have a greater impact relative to the business decisions being supported.  In a product development situation, this could mean that the users are given more priority over an administrative role involved in the purchase decision.  Additional quantitative segmentation data can also be used to support decisions around which personas to keep in the table.  Although one may be a valid persona, the relative prevalence in the market may be low.

Personas are an important tool for companies with B2B audiences, and taking these considerations into account can help to ensure that they are more relevant and useful for the intended purpose.

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Doug Church is the co-chair of Phase 5's innovation group. He can be reached at dougc@phase-5.com or 613 241 7555 x101.

Written by Doug Church

Doug Church, MBA, is a co-founder of Phase 5 and co-lead of the Innovation practice. He has more than 25 years of experience conducting innovation, product, and go-to-market research. He brings extensive methodological expertise and strategic insight to clients. Doug is a Certified Marketing Research Professional and a member of ESOMAR. He has served on the boards of several organizations and spoken on numerous occasions at marketing research and industry events.