A successful business relationship often needs to align on several levels within a company, with people who have different roles, objectives and interests at heart. Achieving this in the B2B environment has always been notoriously difficult – trying to please everyone can often dilute the impact and focusing on a single individual runs the risk of missing or alienating a vital part in the decision chain.

The problem is now compounded as over the past 10 years, corporate buying processes have increased in timescale and complexity. More and more people are becoming involved in decision making and companies are also increasingly involving procurement departments who have a unique set of goals (many of which may be separate from the actual project under discussion). Understanding and combining these disparate needs can be a Herculean task.

Add to this the growth of the online environment – companies are tending to undertake more self-directed research before they even approach a potential supplier and are less reliant on ‘traditional’ sales pitches to gather information and make initial judgements about potential partners. It is ever more difficult to gain traction with B2B buyers and indeed, you may be knocked off the list before you even knew you were on it.

To help cope with the new challenge, we are seeing an increase in B2B companies using and developing buyer personas. A representation of the ‘ideal’ customer, a buyer persona is purely a structure to help understand how products and services are bought by key customer segments. Effectively creating architypes of people who represent the actual buyers, it is based on insight into buyers buying behaviours – including the goals, needs and objectives of a buyer. They buyer persona is then harnessed to make informed decisions on effective marketing and sales strategies, targeted at different stages/ levels within the buying process.

Buyer personas are research-based representations of the buyer – who they are, what their behaviours are and what is driving this behaviour, how they think, when and where they buy. We are aiming to identify a collective pattern of attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and drivers and represent this in a single, specific entity that represents these buyers – effectively a behavioural segmentation that is buyer centric.

This is different from a segment (groupings of similar entities which can be based on any set of rules within the data – most often based on demographics) or cohort (groupings based on similar experiences).

Understanding the buying process, or customer journey mapping, is not new. However, these techniques often focus on a set of actions that a buyer takes in the journey – and certainly these can be used to improve the experience – but this does not get under the skin of the buyer and look at what is motivating their behaviour.

Developing a buyer persona hinges on independent qualitative and ethnographic research as well as anthropology (business and digital). This is not something that can simply be created – it needs a strong and solid research foundation.

A buyer persona will include a blend of demographics, firmographics and psychological insight. What is important in a buyer persona is understanding the landscape, objectives and needs, value drivers, motivations and obstacles that impact on buyer decision making. What are clients pain points, what are the success factors and barriers to buying from this brand, what are the decision criteria? By going beyond the functional and really understanding the how, when and why buyers come to their decisions and then grouping buyers based on beliefs, priorities, goals and preferences it becomes clearer whether, what and how those decisions can be influenced – we are moving from just looking at the attributes of the person to understanding the triggers, outcomes and resources that influence the buying decision.

And this is where research comes it. A buyer persona should be well rounded, 360-degree views of the buyer– and should include the customer voice, the sales team view and other available insights and information. We are not trying to create the business equivalent of a consumer segmentation, but rather something that is focused on what they are trying to achieve within their business context. Each ‘persona’ may include several archetypes – for example an influencer, target buyer and buying team – and these may be very different to each other according to the responsibilities, areas of focus and strategies/ goals.

The research task is to collate this information and develop a usable and actionable persona that can then be implemented throughout the client organisation. This is not as easy as it sounds – and identifying the useful from the interesting information is a real discipline that requires a lot of time and thought. A buyer persona combines the practical benefits of a course of action with the emotional rewards of that action set within the corporate context.

The ultimate benefit is that, by understanding these drivers, it is easier for clients to develop approaches and materials to achieve the desired outcome and in doing so creates a more compelling and satisfactory experience for the customer. A well-developed buyer persona allows clients to apply the knowledge through well timed and targeted interventions, the ultimate customer is more likely to engage with and contribute to the process and progress being made – this is the difference between simply pushing someone towards a course of action or involving them in that action so that they work with you to achieve the desired outcome. Writing well targeted content, understanding what is influencing them, segmenting them effectively and developing a brand presence that ‘speaks’ to customers will make clients’ offers more relevant and engaging.

Understanding how to create this momentum through emotional engagement underpins the value of buyer personas. But this is not only a tough sell to clients – it requires a lot of faith and investment, may well challenge internal preconceptions and prejudices and enters emotional territory that some may feel is inappropriate in a business context – but is also difficult for researchers to get right so that the full value is realised.

Buyer personas can be a very powerful tool – but how many deliver? Simply producing a ‘pen portrait’ of a customer is not going to wash – rather, a buyer persona needs to unpeel the layers of the corporate onion to really understand and portray the goals, attitudes and outcomes of that organisation. B2B researchers have a role in developing actionable personas and to do this we need the skills to draw together the factual and emotional underpinnings of corporate decision making.

Claire Labrum