A Conversation with Ardath Albee: The Power of Personas

Ardath Albee412_600In this blog post interview, I speak with Ardath Albee, the CEO and B2B Marketing Strategist for Marketing Interactions. She has nearly 30 years of business management and marketing operations experience that she uses to create persona-driven content strategies, and she's also a die-hard writer and storyteller.

We will revisit her 2015 B2B marketing trends and predictions and focus our conversation on the power of customer personas for B2B companies—and not just marketing departments.

Paul: Hi Ardath, how are you?

Ardath: I'm fine Paul, thanks so much for having me today.

Paul: So Ardath, we spoke a year ago regarding your 2015 B2B marketing trends and predictions. I want to first revisit those briefly and then get right into the heart of the matter, which is the power of personas, and how it's evolved in 2015 and what we can expect in 2016.

If I may highlight what you predicted a year ago, you indicated B2B companies will need to become content centers of excellence to compete. You put a high priority on developing content that was less campaign-based and more of a continuum experience through the buyer journey. In other words, successful content marketers will continuously create content specific to that buyer's journey, and move away from a campaign-type mentality. But your key prediction, I feel, was that building personas must be a priority. Could you speak a little bit about those predictions from 2015 and really touch on where things have evolved in terms of persona development?

Ardath: Sure, it goes back to the basics. It's really hard to engage an audience if you don't know what they care about, what they need, and their perspective about the problems they're trying to solve that your solution helps them to address. And so if you're trying to create a content marketing program without that knowledge and insight specific to the buyers, you're not going to be that successful.

So if you notice over this year, specifically with the Content Marketing Institute's research that they do every year, we have gotten, as marketers, less and less effective. So I think when they first started doing the research back in, I want to say 2011, 41% of us thought we were effective with content marketing and I think this year we came in at around 30%. So we're declining in our ability to be effective, and in my opinion it's because not enough of us are taking the time and making the effort to build personas which is just another way of saying, getting to know our buyers better.

And you know something has to give here somewhere, right? And so I think, if you start with the foundational knowledge about your buyers, you have the opportunity to really boost the performance of your marketing program.

Paul: So true and as you likely know there's also data out there indicating not only are companies not building those personas, but most aren't even doing the basics of documenting a content strategy, even though such a practice has proven to make a content marketing strategy and execution more effective.

But in terms of building a persona, Backbone Media is gradually seeing personas that not only empower a client's content marketing team, but other departments as well. For example, I've been told that sales teams are seeing the value in sales enablement, UX teams that need a get a better understanding of the buyer journey are also seeing value. What has been your experience?

Ardath: Oh, that's a great question. And since we spoke a year ago, I've become an adviser to a new company called Cintell. And Cintell is built, first, on a platform because they're seeing the need as well that personas need to be used consistently across the entire enterprise.

And so with my clients, for example, definitely sales, we use them for sales enablement, to help build that continuum that I always talk about from marketing to sales, so that the story continues on instead of having a hard stop when you pass a lead to sales person. We also see personas being used in product research and development, to help informthings, such as,

  • Is this really a new feature we need to add?
  • Do our customers and our buyers want this?
  • How are the problems shifting that they're dealing with, you know, what else is going on that's impacting the way that they have addressed problems in the past versus how they need to address them now?
  • What is your go-to marketing plan in relation to the systems and audiences you need to engage?

The one thing that I think is holding a lot of marketers back is how they develop personas. A lot of clients who come to me now have personas, or say they have personas, whereas in the past they hadn't developed them at all. But what I'm seeing is not an overall quality in the production of personas.

There was research that came out earlier this year that shows that personas that were ranked less effective by the marketers using them were built based only on internal insight. Everybody got in a room and discussed it and decided what their personas looked like. They weren't doing the qualitative research to really understand the buyers. And you know what they say about assumptions.

What I'm seeing when my clients say, "We already have personas. We don't need that. We just need a content strategy." They send their personas to me and I look at them and there isn't the type of information there that can really drive that story development that's going to help them create a program that produces results.

And when I say results, I mean momentum, rather than that drive-by view of your content. You need to have people take steps towards making that decision and working with each other. And so, as we move forward with personas what really needs to happen, now that personas are kind of an understood concept, is we need to learn how to apply them. How do we really use them and what kind of information do we need to put in them so that we can use them? Even marketers who say their personas are effective in driving that communication only use them some of the time to inform their marketing programs. And so until we make this a habit--a process--we're going to continue to slide back into reliance's and assumptions. This is so easy for us to do because we know our product so well, we revert.

Paul: Yeah, and we are seeing the same things, Ardath, with some of our clients, where we push back when they simply say, "This is our persona development." and they send us three or four sentences on a particular target audience. Basically, "Garbage in, garbage out." unless you can dig deeper.

Usually it's a process that evolves, right? In terms of, if we get this type of information from you, these are the results. These are the improved results you might be able to expect. They are tending to listen more because of the power of content. They know that they need to grab the attention of their target audience. And to the data point that you mentioned, over 70%, are underwhelmed by the effectiveness of their content. So they're willing to listen now, in terms of, "How else can we grab their attention?" So I'm totally on board with that.

Last question for you Ardath, is next year, 2016, what would be your trends and predictions in marketing for next year and give us two to three if you could.

Ardath: Sure, well, the first one, obviously, is that marketers are going to become more adept at using personas in a way impacts their program performance. But the other thing that I think is really key and goes along with this is that we can't just keep pumping out more content. There's so much content out their now, the noise level is deafening. What we need to understand is the better we can apply our persona insight to our content, the less content we need, because the more relevant we are. So, you don't need 3,000 articles to help somebody solve their problem, you probably need ten good ones, you know what I'm saying?

If we create better content because we have the ability to be more relevant, then we're able to create less content that gets used more. The one thing that really bothers me is the statistic that's out there that 80% of content goes unused. What a waste of resources and effort and everything else, but I think if what we focus on producing becomes more relevant and we can produce less of it, then we can focus on how do all of the pieces of the story tie together?

How do we really tell that all-encompassing story that not only gets people's attention, but takes them through that continuum of the buying process, and helps them make progress towards making the decision, rather than just getting a little information here and there? We have to really become the mentors that help our buyers solve their problems, and I think we can do it with less but better content. I think that's where personas can really have a huge impact.

Paul: So Ardath, I want to thank you for taking the time to discuss the power of personas with us along with other marketing trends. You can find Ardath Albee at marketinginteractions.com to learn more.

Ardath: You too, Paul. Thank you so much, it's been a great conversation.

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