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How to differentiate personas and segmentation in B2B marketing

Most B2B companies would agree that they need to take a more buyer-centric approach to online marketing. However, the challenge is knowing how to get off on the right foot. A company may have compiled a substantial list of contacts that includes demographic data, which is a good start, but there's no way for a business to target its digital marketing messages to buyers if they're all lumped into a single monolithic group of purchasers.

Especially for content marketing campaigns aimed at lead generation, there are a couple of strategies that business owners can employ to better ensure they're actually appealing to the right people. Two of the most effective ways to do so are to establish buyer personas and develop customer segments. Yet, problems often crop up when companies try to put both of them into practice because the two terms can become conflated. But to effectively create either personas or segmented buyer lists, companies should be clear on what each entails.

Building buyer personas that work
Driving any lead generation or content marketing campaign is understanding the audience. There's almost no chance of attracting a qualified lead or nurturing prospects without consistently delivering a relevant message. It's at this point that a buyer persona will play a critical role.

What exactly is a persona? A common misconception is that it's a completely fictionalized customer that has been contrived from broad market information. This isn't the case. Personas are built from verifiable data to device an idealized representation of a buyer. An issue facing many marketing departments is that there isn't a reliable database or centralized system to capture buyer or prospect information that would lend itself to better, more accurate personas. As a result, some marketers may take it upon themselves to make things up (1). This may be due to a lack of time or financial resources. In truth, developing personas requires a significant amount of time and investment to understand what drives existing buyers to become paying customers.

In addition to market research, B2B organizations will likely need to reach out to customers and prospects directly to conduct interviews, either in person, over the phone or via email. There may even be cause to reconnect with former buyers to get a better idea of why they decided to partner with the organization in the first place and find out why they ended up leaving. It won't make sense to speak only with happy customers, as this strategy will provide a very narrow view of the buying audience. While there's not specific minimum number of interviews marketers should perform, an achievable and effective target could be around 10 interviews to get sufficient feedback. Considering roughly half of companies interview customers and 34 percent do the same with prospects, there's room for improvement (2).

The reason behind putting in the legwork to connect directly with past and current business partners is to build a clear picture of the purchasing journey that people go through when they interact with a company. After all, the personas should provide a comprehensive picture of the purchaser moving through the sales funnel. By doing so, a lead generation campaign driven by content marketing, for instance, will work more effectively by integrating the most demonstrably relevant keywords to improve search engine optimization.

On the other side of the coin, businesses need to consider the role segmentation will play in fostering more powerful online marketing initiatives.

Use a fine-toothed comb
The dividing line between segmentation and buyer personas centers on the fact that segments are most often created from data correlating with existing customers (3). The way organizations frequently go about segmenting their customers is by looking at their wants and needs to distinguish sub-categories of buyers in order to deliver the most relevant messages, products and services. However, most businesses tend to take a passive approach to segmentation, discovering them instead of actively building them. Using demographics alone to create a group of buyers with common attributes may not end up being very accurate. It's difficult to believe that two buyers who live in the same town and are the same age will respond to the same lead generation campaign in the same way.

As a result, businesses need to look closely at attitudes and behaviors in addition to demographics, wants and needs if they want to develop useful segments. For example, looking at how buyers access information about a particular product – whether through search engines or industry publications – can help marketers figure out which channels will generate the strongest results. Attitudinal data can aid in defining how to present a specific message.

A few keys to effective segmentation are clearly defining the groups and making them large enough to be worthwhile. Microscopic buyer groups may boost personalization efforts, but they may end up being less cost-effective because so few people will likely respond.

For multiple aspects of online marketing, buyer personas and segmentation are critical strategies to improve outcomes and generate return on investment.

1. "Buyer Personas and Segmentation: On Is Not Like the Other"
2. "The Reason Only 3% of Enterprise B2B Marketers Are Very Effective"
3. "What You Need to Know About Segmentation"

Sheila Kloefkorn

With more than 25 years of hands on marketing strategy and operations experience, Sheila Kloefkorn is dedicated to developing marketing strategies and plans that help clients succeed. Some of the world's largest brands have depended on Sheila for marketing programs that delivered tangible and substantial results. Specialties: B2B marketing, lead generation, lead nurturing, sales strategy, marketing strategy, competitive marketing strategy, social media, search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), mobile marketing, email marketing, website design, marketing plans.