Has your organization ever created buyer personas? If so, were they ever used? Was creating personas a valuable exercise that improved the effectiveness of your marketing? Or did it feel perfunctory, like something you did simply to check off a box on your best-practices list before getting back to your normal routine?

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Considering the time and effort it takes to create buyer personas, the idea that you would not use them once you have them seems foolish. Nevertheless, that is the case in many organizations for one big reason: People don't know how to create truly useful personas in the first place.

To get more insight on how to do just that, I invited Ardath Albee, author of eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, to Marketing Smarts. Ardath has spent a lot of time helping her B2B clients successfully develop and deploy personas, and in the course of our conversation (which you can hear using the player above) she laid out the key elements that go into creating personas that you can really use.

(Note: Ardath will be speaking on "Creating Conversations in the Content Marketing Continuum" at our upcoming B2B Forum. Use the promo code: SMARTB2B when registering and get $200 off!)

Personas vs. Profiles

Ardath told me that when beginning a client engagement she is often told that she can skip the persona step because "they already have them." On closer inspection, she said, what you find is that they have are profiles, not personas.

When I asked her the difference, she said a profile generally takes the following form: "We market to CIOs and midsize companies who manage networks of size X, etc." Personas, on the other hand, are detailed portraits of the people involved in buying your product or service.

Those portraits, according to Ardath, ideally consist of a description written in the first person that sounds something like this: "Hi, I'm Joe, the director of service delivery for IT in <whatever> company and no matter how hard I try, I can't get our infrastructure performance to the right level and capacity management is just a nightmare… etc."

To serve as valuable tools for the creation of content and other marketing materials, such narratives should, in Ardath's view, reflect the following four elements.

1. Pressing Concerns

What affects this person? What keeps them up at night? What do they look for in a vendor?

"The purpose," Ardath told me, "is to really help you get in their head so when you are creating content, you are going to write content that this person cares about."

2. Objectives, Orientation, and Obstacles

To capture what this person cares about, you need to clearly represent their objectives (What do they need to accomplish on a daily or quarterly basis? What are their primary responsibilities?), their orientation (Is this person analytical, social, goal-oriented?), and what obstacles you might face in the course of selling to them (What could derail the deal? A critical sign-off lacking? A competitor? A price point?)

Naturally, when listing out the objectives and obstacles, Ardath emphasizes, they need to be related to whatever it is you offer. To this end, she recommends that you "focus your persona on a 'problem-to-solution scenario' [describing] in relation to what you sell, what their scenario would be and what their inner dialogue would be."

3. Questions

Ardath also recommends that your persona include "all the questions that this particular persona is going to have on their way to solving the problem," and she suggests that you map those questions "across buying stages."

Those questions are a critical element because they are "going to direct your content strategy." 

"The way you would answer those questions," Ardath says, "is the premise for your content."

4. Channels of Interaction

The personas you create need to reflect how your prospects are going to interact with the content. How will they find you? Will they visit your website? Read your blog? Follow a link you post in social media?

And once you get them where you want them, how are you going to get them to opt-in and engage?

By incorporating the channels of interaction into your personas, you will not only address the concerns harbored by your prospects but also anticipate the behaviors allowing them to discover the remedies you might provide.

Repeat, Validate and Update

In the B2B context, as you know, you are seldom selling to one person alone but frequently to a committee (either explicitly or because the primary buyer needs to get sign-offs from various stakeholders). Accordingly, you should repeat the process outlined above for all the people who will have input on the final buying decision. You should also include a description in each persona of how the person in question relates to others in the buying process.

The other thing you need to remember is that creating personas isn't a "set it and forget it" kind of affair. As Ardath says, "There is the constant need for updating and re-validating that you're still being relevant...that their [read: your prospects'] interests haven't changed, that the problems haven't shifted, [or] that something hasn't superseded what used to be most important to them."

It's Work, but It's Worth It

If you have spent time creating buyer personas, then you know how much work it can entail and, if you haven't yet, this article should have given you a sense of that.

However, don't let the work daunt you. Aside from the valuable customer insight that the persona creation process can in itself provide, if you cover the bases outlined above, actually use the personas to create and disseminate content (among other things), and treat your personas as living entities that need to be nurtured and evolved over time, then you will find that the time spent was in fact a worthwhile investment in your future success. 

If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Ardath, you can listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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