Marketing for customers in all the wrong places (or not the right ones)

    Posted by Ed Marsh on Mar 11, 2013 7:34:00 AM

    Creatures of Habit...or convenience

    inbound marketing personasEvery business knows who their customers are, right?  After all, that's about as basic as it gets. But how often is that knowledge of customers predicted on open minded, robust analysis? Not often. Rather it's typically an extrapolation based on gut feeling impressions of how it's always been.

    Is that horrible? Not really - after all that's what most companies do. But compared to what "could be", it's analogous to the proverbial drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlight - not because he lost them there, but because that's where the light is.

    Grab a flashlight!

    So if we're going to peer into corners beyond the arc of our neighborhood streetlight looking for prospects, where should we start?
    1. Prospects you should know about...but don't
    2. Prospects you couldn't possibly know about
    3. Prospects that everyone else in the world knows about but you pretend don't exist

    First, grab the sales team, CSRs, and anyone else who is customer facing during the sales process. Map out all the interactions from leads through delivery and subsequent support to identify what topics, roles, pains, decision points and themes emerge. Be careful about discounting outliers as aberrations - this may well be the data you seek!

    With the perspective you generate you now have the data to map personas, value and buying process against actual experience rather than just lore. Additionally you'll identify key gaps. For instance, if financial benefits are a key part of your value (e.g. not just lower cost but a legitimate reduction in WiP inventory due to a process improvement - and resulting reduction in working capital and manufacturing floor space requirements), but nowhere in your personas, influencers or buying process are you helping the buyer extrapolate the corporate financial implications, you have a gap to fill and an opportunity.

    Remember that most folks have a lens through which they see this topic:

    • The type of buyer personality with which they are comfortable
    • The type of industry where they have succeeded
    • The value that they find most compelling based on their personal biases, etc.  

    And of course the inverse of each as well. Don't allow individual biases to limit the range (really hard in small companies where the owner is the primary sales driver, where the company is formed around his/her biases, and where the assumption is that every company has the same priorities and buys the same way as them).

    Second, get your R&D and marketing folks together. (Note - don't try this at home.  Seriously. Get some sort of experienced corporate facilitator to help plan and execute this!)  If done clumsily this could be a colossal waste of time. However, managed artfully, this will let you continuously troll for opportunities by creating conceptual content that highlights core technology capabilities. This will allow buyers searching for component solutions to stumble across your company. This is precisely how GE intends to identify many of their new market opportunities.  

    Put simply, you can't possibly anticipate the various serendipitous applications for your technology, and therefore can't market to the folks who might need it. Naturally you can't create content for every possible situation. But in parallel to your focused, persona based content you can create some that is more focused on the technology (NOT the old product crap of GB of RAM, RPMs, HP, mm, torque, ANSI, etc.) in general ways that will allow R&D folks in other businesses to identify core capability that they need to support their developments.

    international inbound marketingThird, accept that customers are defined by their needs and budget NOT BY THEIR PASSPORT (or time zone, primary currency, language or continent)!  From a simple perspective, your distance from Toronto, Mexico City or London is likely less than between many pairs of American cities between which trade is reflexive. But more importantly many buyers in many corners of the globe fit your ideal prospect criteria. With shrinking incomes, low to negative GDP and policy uncertainty that constrains investment here in the US, why not take the easy route? If you can shift your mindset you'll find you have a global market with areas that you can enter relatively easily where "Made in America" is craved.

    If you're already inbound marketing, you already have a base of leads and data for initial market opportunity analysis. Eventually as you select focus markets you'll create parallel market specific personas, content and even locally hosted microsites with the relevant TLD - but those are refinements for later and not necessary for initial success.

    And as a bonus?  What about paying 50% lower tax on the profits from those sales?

    But what do personas really represent?

    buyer personasIndulge me while I make an awkward segué into a related topic.  

    I've become increasingly convinced that personas are the simplest way to evaluate potential clients and prospective inbound marketing practitioners for suitability.  What do I mean?

    It's pretty simple. Real effectiveness at inbound marketing requires: 
    • Lateralized cognition - artistic and logical cognitive predilections must be balanced
    • Broad business understanding - empathy (and ideally experience) with different functions and priorities across business
    • System perspective - intuitively understanding how all the pieces must be interwoven because omitting even one damages the program
    More than any other step of the program, the exploration and development of personas provides a handy crucible to assess these required attributes. Someone who approaches the persona step with a flat, check the box, simple mentality will never fully embrace the system of inbound marketing.

    You can gauge quickly whether a potential client grasps the concept and engages with you in the persona process, or simply parrots back the routine and reflexive. If it's the latter, I would contend that you will always be justifying your program rather than collaborating.  

    Similarly while you may focus on hiring "position players" such as an SEO expert, you can't afford to be the integrator between their silo efforts and the comprehensive program. An SEO expert that doesn't embrace the persona process, and push aggressively to be involved and demonstrate awareness and interest in the related aspects, will likely not be able to grow with the organization. Further, their work won't manifest the nuanced, systemic perspective that ultimately distinguishes average from exceptional. It's far more critical that role players and technical specialists understand how their piece fits into the larger context than for you to understand the detail of their specialty - beyond adequate knowledge to manage effectively.

    Maybe the question is...can someone who has never owned and run a business, is uncomfortable with systems and strategy, nor achieved noteworthy sales mastery, really create personas much less drive an effective inbound marketing program? Answers? Debate? Skepticism? Incredulity? Vitriol?  (On second thought, hold the vitriol, but let's have some discussion.)

    About the Author: Ed Marsh is co-founder of Consilium Global Business Advisors, an international marketing consulting agency focused on developing strategic global business development and channel programs.

    Topics: b2b marketing, industrial marketing, international inbound marketing, personas

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