Complex B2B sales require '3D' buyer personas

Ed Marsh | Dec 11, 2014

This post originally appeared on the HubSpot Insiders Sales Blog on December 1st, 2014.

Advanced B2B marketers in the industrial manufacturing space have a solid understanding of the traditional buying process, and general awareness of their target buyer personas.  But they only infrequently map the buyer's journey, and almost invariably fail to account for the complexity of a "3D" buyer's journey which they must manage virtually. 

Personas and buyer’s journey are valuable tools to help guide inbound marketing. The goal of both is to ensure that content is relevant to the prospect - both based on what’s important to them in their role, and what’s important based on where they are in their buying process.

They’re especially important tools because buying is now largely un-accompanied - at least through 70% of the buying process until buyers accede to speaking to a rep. So the dynamic cues, or "mile markers" of the buying process, which sales reps used to collect through direct communications, and interaction with multiple departments or people, are now missing. At best, marketers, who are now selling virtually, can infer certain information through observation of buyer behaviors, but little is explicitly indicated.

So persona and buyer’s journey provide a handrail for marketers to stage and sequence information to build and maintain momentum of the buying process - to create a series of ‘yeses’ that keeps buyers moving with a content nudge here and there.

But it’s neither linear nor solitary

Consumer buyers’ journeys are often pretty compact and direct (at least if mine are representative.) But for complex B2B sales the process is vastly more intricate. Every business transaction has a finance element, and most have some IT implications these days. Many have associated HR and legal considerations as well. In very small businesses and specific situations it’s possible that the ‘CEO’ fills all those roles and informally addresses all aspects. But most B2B purchases involve a team of folks - each an individual with personal and professional concerns which are different from their colleagues.

Here’s where the typical construct of the buyer’s journey breaks down. The initial prospect interacts with awareness stage “attract” type content that speaks to a specific issue on which they’re focused. They convert and are gradually nurtured through a workflow built around their perspective - and typically marketers do a decent job mapping content through the consideration and decision phases for that prospect’s journey.

But their “decision” is merely the first step. “Closing” that prospect means getting them to the point that they’re willing to stick their neck out and suggest your solution to their colleagues or boss. And that then triggers the next in a series of individual buyers’ journeys.


Corporate buying journey

It’s helpful to envision the buyer’s journey as a more complex concept. Instead of the simple 2D (linear) representation that’s common, think of the B2B ‘corporate buyer’s journey’ as a 3D construct which incorporates several individual/departmental buyers’ journeys. Some are linear (e.g. the first needs to reach a decision ‘yes’ to trigger others) and some are parallel (e.g. often the finance buying journey proceeds in conjunction with technical appraisals by IT.)

But each must be understood and executed - and marketers need to build content for each persona and journey segment involved AND they MUST choreograph the segues between personas. In fact those segues must not only proactively create the structure for departmental involvement, but they must also coach and prepare personas to introduce projects appropriately to subsequent personas. In other words, to teach them how to sell internally since your sales rep won’t yet be invited to do so.

The difference between traffic/lead generation and revenue

HubSpot has taken this approach with its “Marketing Mary” persona. They offer content around the topic of “how to sell inbound marketing to your boss” which is focused primarily on presenting and justifying to the finance persona. And the software’s easy enough to implement that even the most obstructionist IT department has a hard time stonewalling.

But they’re an exception - most companies fail to codify personas and even simple, representative buying journeys into guiding frameworks. And precious few reach further to create a “3D corporate buying journey.” Yet this will become a differentiator between successful and mediocre content marketing as competition increases with buyer savvy.

Without this approach you may be an traffic generation and lead conversion rockstar, but you’ll struggle to move B2B transactions through to close.

Building a 3D corporate buying journey for complex B2B sales

So what does a really robust journey entail? Here are some quick guidelines to get you started:

  • Don’t outdrive your headlights - It starts with a robust business understanding. Frankly this is where many companies - that tend to suffer from product myopia and focus on legacy successes - and marketing agencies - that understand marketing tactics but not industry - struggle. It’s hard to envision the hand-offs, push-back and analysis to which projects are subjected if one hasn’t owned general management and P&L responsibility.
  • Conduct real interviews with each persona at target companies. Ask about more than their problems & challenges - ask about how they make decisions and what prevents good ideas from moving forward
  • Get objections on the table - great sales people have always done this. Whether they told you to your face it not, it would still kill your deal. Better to know about it and be able to address it (in this case build preemptive content)
  • Go GANTT - envision your buyers journey representation like a GANTT chart. In sum it’s a linear process, but it’s full of interdependencies, precedents and other constraining factors and influences
  • Crush the ‘hand-offs’ - it’s easy (if you’re good at what you do) to create content for each individual buyer’s journey. The magic happens when you understand the interrelated roles and the selfish concerns of each - and then create content which enables the smooth transition of a project concept between personas. You might even need to create white label content that one persona can use to enhance their own internal persuasiveness
  • Create solid content - think this is an understood or vapid point? It should be, but it’s not. I’ve seen lots of sophomoric “financial justifications” built on an oversimplified ROI for instance. When you provide this sort of material it’s doubly harmful. First you hurt your overall credibility. Second, you lose your chance to help your champion sell on your behalf. Your premise will be discounted along with your shallow/incorrect/incomplete analysis. So if you have to overcome finance (who doesn’t), legal, production, HR, IT or any other departmental hurdle, make sure you’ve got content which will resonate insightfully with folks in that discipline

The paradox of inbound marketing

Herein lies the paradox of great inbound marketing. To work well it must be simple, seamless and intuitive for your personas. That argues for simplicity and clarity. Yet in order to fully visualize the nuanced and intricate corporate buyer’s journey, marketers and sellers must enthusiastically embrace complexity. Learn how to tackle these complexities and drive success with our free whitepaper below.

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