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Rapid buyer persona development

My colleagues and I were recently thrown a challenge by one of our clients to identify and describe its key stakeholder personas in half a day. On first thought, and despite our in-depth knowledge of the company and its industry (offshore engineering services), it seemed an impossible task, especially because the company has several business areas and various customer types within each of those business areas. But always up for a challenge, my colleagues and I planned a high-intensity session with the outcome of clearly defined buyer personas representing the most important revenue streams.

Why buyer personas?

Developing buyer personas as a means to understanding and targeting potential customers is a common element of content strategy. Of course, it’s not something that can, or should, be done in isolation. B2B companies shouldn’t avoid other strategic processes and tools such as stakeholder analysis, customer engagement maps, messaging platforms, and the like. Nevertheless, identifying and documenting buyer personas helps keep your marketing efforts focused in the right area and create a solid platform for accurate differentiation.

Just understanding the stakeholder landscape and how the various key decision-makers and influencers are related would take considerable analysis and discussion. This is normally needed before you can begin to start on the exercise to define the 4-5 most important key buyer personas.

So how would it be possible to compress a complex process involving lot of discussion and decision-making into such a short time?

Investing the time

As a starting point, it was agreed to focus on just one of the company’s business divisions. This removed some of the complexity of dealing with many different customer types. We also agreed that many assumptions would have to be made along the way. Instead of relying on hard data from proper research, everyone involved in the process would have to contribute with their specific knowledge of a particular area. Then, two things needed to be in place: Our preparation had to be good – and the right people from the business unit had to participate.

The latter was vital. In the room we needed all the necessary knowledge not only to make the best assumptions, but also to keep the discussions at the right level and to make the many decisions required during the session. Participants included the divisional director, sales managers, product managers, account managers, marketing management and a company vice-president, who was the driver of the project. With this combination of people, it was quite an investment to make.

Then it was up to me and my colleagues to be sufficiently prepared. In particular, we needed the right tools. We were ready with idea-generating processes to enable us to quickly gather input from the participants and decision-making processes to help to draw conclusions from the input. We also developed templates that not only helped us move quickly through the program, but also served as a good way to document the ideas floored and the decisions made.

The vital element of preparation

It’s not, however, all about the tools and processes. It’s easy for a group to be dragged into all sorts of discussions that, although interesting, only distract from the goal at hand. In a high-pressure situation such as this, we had to be ready to filter information, ask the right questions, and keep discussions on track, only focusing on what was essential to achieve our goal.

But perhaps the real key to succeeding with this program was documenting accurately and quickly during the discussions. That means that the participants would be able to actually visualize the persona by the end of the session, so they could see the results of their work.

The end describes the means

So how did it end? After a lot of scribbling on flip-over charts, post-it notes and whiteboards, as well as rapid documentation live on screen, the session successfully ended with five documented buyer personas. As with any rapid design process, further reflection on the outcome will be required, but in all likelihood the personas will be close to the mark.

It’s worth mentioning a slightly unnerving aspect of this rapid session. Before the session started, we were not able to spend time describing in detail what a persona profile looked like or how to build one. Normally, we would want to make sure that everyone involved in the process was sure about the goal. But that would have meant spending time talking through the process explaining what we were going to do and why. In this case, the schedule didn’t allow it, so I knew we would face some challenging moments where the short-term process and goal were not entirely clear to the participants. The process itself had to reveal our goal – and they had to trust us that we would get there in the end!

The next step

With the persona profiles described and documented at the end of our half day, we were ready to move to the next challenge: to build a strategic messaging platform in the second half of the day! More about that another time.


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David Hoskin

I've helped B2B companies create and implement international marketing and communications strategies since 1999. I've been fortunate enough to work with some great companies and highly talented individuals during the years. But the game's changing fast. Although my aim is always to create pragmatic solutions that produce measurable results, there are always new challenges to overcome. I studied engineering and music and I have an Executive MBA (with Distinction) from Henley Business School, University of Reading (UK). Today, I'm a partner at B2B marketing agency cylindr and BBN International. Here on Integrated B2B, I want to share my personal opinions and perspectives on the changing face of B2B marketing. I hope you join in the conversation, too.