What’s the best way to target B2B content – hyper-personal, or aimed at buying teams?

Current B2B marketing wisdom says we should write content for individual buyer personas. But a new school of thought says this approach could actually do more harm than good. Fiona investigates.

What’s the best way to target B2B content – hyper-personal, or aimed at buying teams?

Two schools of thought seem to be emerging about the best way to target B2B marketing content.

One – the prevailing one – says the way to go is hyper-personal: with content written for a single persona – or, in extreme cases, an actual, real-life person.

Hyper-personal content gets under the skin of a potential buyer; acknowledges their hopes and fears and ambitions (both personal and professional); talks to them in their own language; and presents the brand as a concerned friend who understands their problems and is standing by, ready to help.

(I really like writing persona-based content; you have a vivid idea of who you’re talking to, so you can write in a nice, conversational way about the kind of thing you know that person is interested in. I’d say it elevates the chance of your content getting read and acted upon by about 90%*)

* Based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, I’m afraid.

Have we forgotten how B2B purchasing decisions are actually made?

The other, seemingly diametrically-opposed, view is that content should cater to the way buying decisions are actually made in the B2B world – that is, not by individuals but by teams of decision-makers who gather in board meetings, steering committees, or cross-disciplinary project groups.

In a highly persuasive Forbes post from October 2013, the CEB’s Patrick Spenner argues that persona-based content does nothing to encourage speedy agreement and action among groups that may contain execs from functions as diverse as Finance, Purchasing, one or more lines of business, and IT. Here’s what he says about persona-based content:

“Personalization is grossly insufficient.  That 40% intent to purchase lift would be great, if that individual were the sole buyer in a purchase.  Raise your hand if you’re a B2B supplier and you have one person making the purchase decision? *Crickets*”

Personalization is insufficient because each of these people has their own agenda, their own fears and aspirations, their own jargon, and their own – potentially conflicting – selection criteria for whatever type of product or service is being considered.

Patrick Spenner points out that what’s needed in this environment is not content that’s highly tailored to just one of the people round the table, but content that can enable all of them to come to a consensus and agree on a solution – without anyone losing face:

“All of the vendors and gurus out there telling you to personalize your content to the individual pain points and objectives of individual stakeholder personas.  That means, at best, your content and messaging is doing nothing to help a group of disparate individuals actually find common ground […] In many cases, it probably harms those connections.”

(Seriously, read it, it’s a bloody good post, and so is the follow-up piece about how to market to buying groups.)

What does this mean for writers?

It’s a very convincing argument, but reading it as a writer, I had an immediate sinking feeling.

That’s because in the pre-Enlightenment days of technology copywriting, if you asked your client “Who’s the target audience for this white paper?” they would invariably say “Everyone”.

(Some clients still do this. And it makes me weep, as we shall see in a moment.)

And they would have meant it: they would genuinely want one white paper to appeal to the CEO,  CFO, CIO, HR director, data centre manager, lift attendant and office dog – even though these individuals think in completely different ways, use completely different terminology, have completely different agendas and would probably prefer completely different solutions.

I remember actually sobbing at my desk one weekend, trying to craft a coherent white paper that would tell HR directors they could completely bypass IT by buying no-fuss HR software in the cloud, *and* tell IT directors that cloud software is actually pretty complicated, so they would need to get heavily involved in the integration and configuration of it.

Eventually I managed to convince the client that these were two completely opposing arguments, and could not be rationalised into a single message – at least not one that would readily endear the client to either of the intended audiences.

And so I ended up writing two: one for HR directors, and one for CIOs.

(More business for me, wahey!)

(Not really, as I had to write them over Christmas. The tragic life of the B2B copywriter.)

But back to the point: I worry that marketers, seized by the conviction that they need to be creating content for buying groups, will return to the bad old days of creating content aimed at “everyone”.

Or, in other words, content that ends up being useful to precisely no one.

So, if not white papers targeted at everyone (shudder), what should this ‘buyer group-focused’ content look like?

Well, I have a couple of ideas. Three, to be precise.

1) Guides to building a business case for investment in a new solution.

We don’t get asked to write these very often, which leads me to think they’re massively under-used and marketers are missing a trick.

Helping your buyer create a business case to present to Finance heads and other stakeholders surely has to be one of the most useful and relevant things you can do.

It makes your buyer’s life easier because you take them through all the steps they need to complete and all the info they need to gather; it helps them talk to the other members of the buying group in their language; and it helps them to convince the group of the big-picture business benefits of the investment.

And, by the way, I don’t mean building a business case for investment in your own product: buyers will (rightly) see straight through that. I mean genuinely helpful, non-biased content that helps your buyer build a business case for investment in the type of solution you provide.

In other words, the kind of content that’s going to be really useful when your buying group is 37% of the way through the decision-making process, which is the precise point at which CEB research suggests things start to unravel.

2) Discussion kits.

This isn’t a format we’ve ever been asked to write for, as far as I know, so I’m wondering if it even exists. But if it doesn’t, it should.

So what do I mean by a discussion kit? I’m imagining a set of guides to resolving a particular business problem, each one written for a different persona in the buying group. But rather than just focusing on that person and their needs and motivations, it would also explain the conflicting needs and motivations of the other people in the group, and offer tips and advice on finding common ground and resolving differences. These discussion kits could be used to guide group discussions, or be ‘bedtime reading’ for group participants before key meetings.

In his second post for Forbes on this topic, Patrick Spenner calls out Marketo’s Definitive Guide to Marketing Automation as a great example of this kind of approach. It doesn’t assume that ‘one message fits all’ like the white papers targeted at “everyone” that I’ve referred to above, but explicitly acknowledges that different people in the group have different views, and offers advice on negotiating with them to come to a consensus.  From my experience, this level of honesty and pragmatism in B2B copy is extremely rare, but vendors would be well served by doing more of it.

3) Case studies.

The case study is already a staple of the B2B marketing toolbox, but they’re most often presented from one person’s perspective, and, because they’re generally intended as bottom-of-funnel pieces, they tend to gloss over the decision-making process to focus mostly on the benefits delivered by the chosen solution.

But, as Patrick Spenner says, the sticking point in the funnel occurs much further up, when buying groups are trying to come to an agreement over the kind of problem the business is facing, and therefore the likely shape and nature of the solution.

That calls for a different kind of case study: one that focuses on the decision-making process rather than the chosen solution. I can imagine that a case study about how the organisation came to realise it had a problem, and how it formed a group to analyse that problem and come up with a solution that everyone agreed on, could be very useful for other organisations in the same situation.

And, because such a case study would almost certainly involve obstacles, tension, conflict, emotional drama and ultimately resolution, it would also make more a much more powerful story than your typical “we bought the Workatron 2000 and it increased productivity by 64%”-type case study.

It would mean a radical change in the way most vendors approach case studies, though: the writer would need to interview all of the members of the buying group, and those people would have to be willing to talk frankly about the tensions and objections they had to negotiate in order to come to a decision. The resulting story would look much more like a magazine feature than a vendor puff-piece, requiring proper journalistic skills – but it would be all the stronger and more valuable for it.

Any experience to share?

I think this is a really interesting area and would love to know who’s addressing it and how it’s working on the ground. Marketers – what do you think? Are you creating content aimed at buying groups? If so, what does it look like, how did you go about it and what results have you seen?


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