Overcoming The Content Personalization Challenge With Buyer Persona Research

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Tony Zambito

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It is clear that one of the top challenges facing marketing, especially B2B marketing, is the ability to connect with potential buyers on a personal level.  Recent surveys of marketing professionals by Rapt Media, Forrester, Seismic, SAP, IBM, and others all indicate that content personalization remains the biggest challenge for marketers this year and for the foreseeable future.

The percentages of marketers indicating this as their top challenge are not measly either.  For example, in a survey of 500 marketing professionals by Rapt Media, over 80% stated content personalization as their biggest challenge.  This coincides with previous studies and surveys showing content marketing effectiveness continues to be an enormous struggle.  Whereby organizations have struggled to break the 39% ceiling, in several surveys completed by CMI (Content Marketing Institute) the past few years, claiming their content marketing efforts have been somewhat to very effective.

The correlation is evident.  The majority of content today is not hitting the mark with buyers and customers.  For CMO’s, it is especially disconcerting for, after a few years of justifying increases in content marketing budgets, the returns are not matching up.  Interestingly enough, as well, is after a few years of CMO tenure trending upwards, the average tenure is trending downward.  Could there be a correlation here also?

Is Technology The Answer?

Faced with such challenges, many CMO’s and marketers are under the deluge of prognosticators pinpointing the problem as a technology problem.  In the Rapt Media survey of 500 marketing professionals, a whopping 94% say that better content technology is the key to creating more personalized content.  Other surveys have resulted in the range of 60% or better believing the lack of technology is the main reason for an inability to personalize content.

We have been down this road before.  Invariably in business, there seems to be a tendency to gravitate towards the knee-jerk response of technology fixing a problem.  We have seen this in marketing and sales with CRM, sales automation, marketing automation, and now content automation.  Projects often afflicted in an analogous way like troublesome commercial real estate development.  Initial budgets become bloated with cost overruns, deadlines are missed, and expectations falling significantly short.

On the other side of the coin, we have also seen opportunistic responses and attempts to fulfill an apparent need.  For example, the advent of cloud technology is spawning all kinds of efforts to address content technology.  In many cases, by teams heavily skilled in engineering but perhaps lacking the wherewithal knowledge of understanding marketing and customers in general.

What history tells us is that CMO’s and marketing should be wary of taking the technology road as their first response.  It is a dangerous road fraught with the perils of missed projections and expectations.  Bringing organizations, no closer to customers or buyers than when they first began technology implementation.

Customer Understanding As The Foundation

Where confusion can set in is when technology is positioned or perceived as a strategy in of itself.   I am witnessing this happening today.  Even hearing verbatim “our strategy is to implement content technology this year.”  Technology is an enabler of strategy and the tactics in support of strategies.  To confuse technology as a stand-alone strategy can mean missing entirely what is at the root of solving issues and problems.  In the case of content personalization, missing what customers will truly value as personalized content.

I believe this is the case happening in marketing with respect to content personalization.  A belief that a lack of technology is the core cause of ineffective personalization.  Rather than, a lack of deep customer understanding.

To get at the core of overcoming the content personalization challenge today, organizations will need to develop a deeper understanding of buyers and customers.  Understanding that helps inform how they can create content that is personalized to the goals and situations of their buyers.  Not gaining such understanding will make organizations prone to take the “rush to technology” road mentioned above.  And repeat the mistakes of the past.

Buyer Persona Research

When I first began my involvement with personas in the ‘90’s, they were primarily aimed at attaining a deeper understanding of user behaviors to inform overall design strategies.  This took place in the mid-to-late ‘90’s as digital technologies began to evolve.  This premise still remains foundational to buyer personas.  Understanding both usage behaviors and buying behaviors helps us to inform overall customer engagement strategies.

Unfortunately, this premise is either being skipped over or being subjected to mislabeled customer profiling and journey mapping exercises.  For example, use of marketing and content technology requires us to bring a design methodology to buyer persona research.  Many mislabeled buyer persona approaches are not grounded in this essential concept.  Basically, offering a profiling exercise at best.

This is one of the main reasons why some companies still struggle with content personalization after they have gone through – what they believed to be – a buyer persona research initiative.  The reality is that they did not go through such an initiative and are not moving beyond basic CRM profiling and data points.  Nor are they informed on essential design principles related to technology.

Understanding The “Whole” View Of Your Customer’s World

Critical to buyer persona research is the use of qualitative research.  And, I do not mean mere win/loss oriented conversations.  Or conversations relegated to a narrow view of just buying decisions and journeys, as some mislabeled and misrepresented buyer persona processes claim.  It involves the use of qualitative research best practices to get the “whole” view of your customer’s world.  Narrowly focusing just on the traditional sales/buy view and journey of buying decisions means you still have not moved towards truly being able to personalize content for customers and buyers.

For example, one Fortune 50 company I assisted recently uncovered not only new roles but also rapidly changing processes by incorporating a “whole” view of their customer’s world in their buyer persona research efforts.  As opposed to just relegated to buying decisions or journeys.  This has not only led to more effectiveness with existing services but also allowed both marketing and sales to engage with new participants, new situations, and new processes.  In other words, truly personalized to the changing world of their customers.  Using technology then to enhance their engagement with customers in the most human of ways possible.  As opposed to mere attempts to automate for the sake of collecting data or efficiency alone.

Had this organization “rush to technology” or made use of limited buyer profiling oriented approaches, they would have missed what truly mattered.  And that is how you overcome the content personalization, as well as, the content technology challenge.  By uncovering what truly matters in the world of your customers.

(I like this short clip that features anthropologist Chad Maxwell.  Chad offers a profound perspective that, in marketing, we may be making marketing efforts too much about data collection.  When it comes to content and marketing automation, there is a tendency to collect every bit of data possible.  Doing so without asking the important questions, as well as, researching what truly matters.)