Personas Risk Leading Your Messaging Astray

Tim Riesterer

The big thing in many marketing departments is to create personas — fictional characters that embody all the traits of your prospects. These personas have names, demographic and psychographic attributes, plus a detailed look at their key performance indicators.

You use these personas to guide the creation of relevant marketing and sales messages and campaigns aimed at the various influencers and deciders in today’s complex B2B team buying environment.

Sounds like a good idea, right? What if I told you that your persona work may not be addressing the real decision-making triggers and that it may be leading your messaging astray?

Fundamental Attribution Error

The research to back this up is called “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Behavioral economists tell us that we tend to over-estimate the effect of a person’s disposition on their behaviors and under-estimate the impact of their situation.

In this case, “disposition” is more like a persona and “situation” is more closely tied to their current status quo.

We experience Fundamental Attribution Error in our regular lives. For example, when you are driving on the highway and someone cuts you off. Your immediate reaction is to blame their disposition and assume that person is a jerk. But, it’s more likely that their situation is to blame for their erratic driving behavior, such as a medical emergency that needs urgent care.

Personas don’t create urgency to change

In typical persona building, your buyers are presumed to have a certain disposition, which includes their job responsibilities and the corresponding key performance indicators they are judged on.

But, this has very little to do with whether they have a sense of urgency to change their current approach or behaviors and whether there’s an opportunity to create a potential sale.

Let’s say you are responsible for selling marketing automation software to help manage a company’s marketing campaigns, social media presence and demand generation efforts. You build personas for the typical buying influences in the deal. Starting with the marketing executive, you identify their key performance indicators, such as:

·   Increasing lead generation volume

·   Expanding marketing-sourced contributions to pipeline

·   Improving quality and conversion of leads to close business

·   Ensuring ROI of marketing investments

But, it doesn’t stop there. Since this is a big-ticket purchase technology item, you also have to consider the financial decision maker and the IT decision maker, as well as the marketing operations user. And, you build three more elaborate personas for each of these people.

Then you build messaging and content tailored to each of these four buyers and expect that your salespeople will become “fluent” enough to toggle their stories back and forth, depending on who they are meeting with, in order to get each buyer on board.

However, according to the concept of Fundamental Attribution Error, the real motivation for change will actually come from what your buyer believes about their installed approach and whether or not their KPIs are at risk. Urgency to change exists more in the buyer’s context, not in their character. (See Graphic 1.)

If you build and tell a generic story based on the KPI of improving lead conversion to closed business, your prospects’ interest level may be sparked — but the real connection point will be made when you show them how their current approach (situation) is putting them at risk relative to their desired outcomes.

For example, if your prospect is using 10-year-old automation, there are specific gaps and deficiencies associated with this situation that are completely different than if they are still using spread sheets and database files to manage their marketing efforts. And, this is different still if they just happened to buy your competitor’s solution within the last 12 months.

Status quo profiles

To ensure your messages are on-point, we recommend using a “status quo profile” as the starting point. You must clearly define your prospect’s status quo — learn it inside and out — and use this knowledge to create effective messaging that moves your prospect to make a change.

A status quo profile answers the following questions:

•  How are your prospects currently addressing
the challenges that your product/service can resolve?
Describe how your prospects believe they are already doing something to solve their problems and meet their business goals and why they think their status quo is safe enough.

•  Since your prospects implemented their current approach, what challenges, threats or missed opportunities have come to light? Document the emerging factors your prospects are failing to see or appreciate that will put pressure on their business, using third-party data to show the risks and confirm the reality.

•  What are the holes in your prospects’ current approach? Identify and amplify the clear gaps and deficiencies in the current approach that will keep them from being able to respond most effectively and describe the impact that could have on their ability to reach their objectives.

Use your answers to these questions as the basis for your marketing and selling messages. Focus on helping your prospects realize that their status quo is limiting their potential and threatening their desired outcomes.

Personas miss the mark

There’s one more fallacy involved in the ultra-segmenting and tailoring approach driven by personas. It assumes that the team decisions made in B2B settings are done strictly based on each individual player’s personal KPIs being met, as if they came to the table with their own checklist to ensure that the potential solutions met their unique needs.

But, increasingly, research is showing that B2B team decisions are more collaborative. When the teams come together they focus on “higher order” business problems affecting the whole, not just the individual.

These issues transcend the needs of the individuals at the table and rally the team to consider the challenges facing the business, the strategic outcomes at risk and the solution requirements to resolve them. (Graphic 2)

And, what’s common to all of these team members? It’s not their disposition. You guessed it, they all live in a common situation. They are all living with their current status quo, and they all can rally around the gaps and deficiencies in their current approach. 

As a result, messaging and conversations based on a status quo profile trump persona-based content when it comes to helping you create messages that drive intent, not just interest.  

Graphic 1. Your messaging will create more urgency for change if it focuses on the gaps in their current situation, not the buyer’s disposition and key performance indicators. Urgency exists in the context, not the persona.

Graphic 2. B2B team buyer decisions are made based on higher order needs and shared business problems owned by all of the personas. These issues trump individual persona-level business issues when it comes to value selling conversations.

Tim Riesterer is Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Corporate Visions, Inc.