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This is the fourth part of a series of reflective articles on the future of buyer personas. In part 1 through part 3 I focused primarily on misconceptions, what needed to change, and why changes must take place in buyer persona development in the social age. In part 4, I would like to center on the role needed in organizations for buyer persona development to adapt to social business.
When looking at the future role of buyer persona development as well as a specific future role within organizations, one must first visit the origins of the term buyer persona. When a term becomes viral, as the term buyer persona did just a few short years ago, it can lose its’ original meaning as well as association with its origin and the professional foundation under which it originated. The term has been used in many variant ways, especially over the past two years. It has been used inaccurately and without full understanding of what exactly the term represents. By talking about the future role, I hope that simultaneously it will help to clarify the unfortunate misunderstanding that exists most prominently in marketing.
The Science of Buyer Persona Research
Buyer persona research has been and will always be about understanding buyer behaviors and perceptions. The actual persona itself, the archetype created, is a representation derived from researching buyer behaviors and is meant to be an interpretative tool. The type of research needed to uncover deep behavioral and cultural percepts are those closely associated with participant-observation methods aligned with anthropology and the ethnographic research techniques commonly utilized by this social science.
The primary purpose for researching buyer behavior is to gain revealing insights into how and why buyers buy. I also will note here that the expression, how and why buyers buy, has also gone viral and has lost its original meaning. Getting at how and why buyers buy is an anthropological inspired behavioral and cultural research effort and not a market or sales research question. It has been misinterpreted to focus solely on the sales questions of buying process, buying stages, decision criteria, and the many other terms used commonly in sales related probing methods. Anthropological methods are extremely important because over 50% of buyer behavior indicators related to how and why buyers buy are determined by social and cultural factors. Conventional market research and sales research or probing methods do not provide insight into these all important determinants. It does not provide the deep understanding that paves the way for shaping better as well as innovative strategies leading to improved profitability and market share.
The distinction is crucial for buyer personas couched in market and sales research methods is a capture of reactive actions. It is devoid of meaning related to goals and context. It will give you a chronological stage view perhaps but will not give you meaningful social contexts that can reshape strategies. For example, you can have two senior IT executives working in different corporations and environments. It is fair to say that if you examine their buying processes and decision criteria’s and other sales related variables, you would wind up with very similar buyer profiles. The social and cultural context however for each may be entirely different and this is where organizations need to gain revealing insight in order to shape strategies for specific markets and groups of buyers.
At this writing, I am very concerned about where the emerging concept of content marketing is heading because as I see it, is caught up in the viral spun around buyer personas incorrectly. Recent qualitative research I’ve conducted show early signs that buyers really do not see anything different. I believe the root of this is related to the fact that while the B2B marketing community may be calling what they do differently – as in content marketing – buyers are still seeing the push messaging that result from conventional market research and sales probing techniques. The term buyer persona is being defined incorrectly as a target profile for content as opposed to an informing process that shapes content strategy.
The New Role of Buyer Behavior Research
As we continue to witness the evolving social age, the need for buyer behavior research becomes more important than ever. Social and cultural contexts are increasingly becoming more prominent in viewing how and why buyers buy. The term Social Customer is becoming more prevalent and there are two major components of this term:
- Social Buyer: I’ve used this term frequently in association with buyer personas to identify the Social B2B Buyer as a category in the social age. The obvious focus here is on the purchase decision.
- Social Consumer: This term is related to B2C and the focus is on consumerism and consumption.
Specifically to the social buyer, newly formed social interactions and social perceptions are playing a major role in preferences towards products, services, solutions, and relationships. The future role of buyer persona development in organizations will need to focus on identifying the deeper social fabric that are forming and how they play into the overall buyer experience. Social Buyer Personas that are derived from anthropological and ethnographic research can help organizations to identify social and cultural identities as well as be used as a communications platform for aligning their organizations to buyer goals.
The future of buyer personas resides in a new role and framework for organizations. That role is one of a Social Buyer Behaviorist and Anthropologist. A role that uses existing and new social science methods combined with that of developing social buyer personas to create an interface for the research. I recently wrote a series on Social Buyerology that attempted to address such a new role and framework. This role and framework is important also for another crucial reason: if buyer personas are developed and created through the prisms of marketing and sales research orientation, they will tend to be self-referential views of target buyers (an inside-out view) as opposed to a means for discovering not so obvious and hidden meanings that make up social and cultural contexts.
We are witnessing a social revolution today and it is literally changing the face of B2B business. Buyer persona development is not excluded from the impact. Buyer persona development must be coupled with the techniques of the social sciences of social and business anthropology to develop a new role and framework for being of value to strategy within organizations. The term and the practice of buyer persona development must once again be firmly rooted in its origins and original meaning. The future of buyer personas is truly social – it is the interpretive tool organizations will need to make sense of the social anthropological inspired research that reveal deep insights about the evolving social buying behaviors of buyers today.