Great content marketing strategy begins with knowing your customers and clients inside and out. Engaging audiences starts with the creation of buyer personas. Buyer personas form the imaginary and ideal audience of your content and your business. Making them is a common first step for content strategy planners.
We recently conducted an interview with one of the world’s leading experts on buyer personas, Mike Gospe. He has 33 years of experience in the field, has worked at HP and Sun Microsystems, written several books, and in 2002 started the KickStart Alliance. His Udemy courses on buyer personas and othermarketing topics have earned wide praise.
The following interview has been edited for flow.
"How did you get started in marketing?"
By education, I am an electrical engineer. I graduated college with my engineering degree and my specialty is in semiconductor fabrication. However, by the time I was done, I only knew one thing for sure and that was that I didn't want to be an engineer.
What I did want to do and what really inspired me was to figure out how you can take technical content, technical value propositions, and translate it into business language that people would understand and appreciate. So that's what first got me my first job at HP. I spent 12 years at Hewlett Packard and my first job was to be the interface between the manufacturer and the customer.
My job was to translate what the customer was asking for and why they were asking for it into something that the HP engineers could understand and agree with. And then at the same time, I could take the technical language that HP was doing behind the scenes and I could sort it out into language that the customer would understand. And that's what started my career.
After four years of HP, I decided to go back to school to get my MBA. With each of my roles since then, I got more and more responsibility in the world of marketing and that helped me become very effective at being a marketing resource in the technology industry.
"Why did you start teaching people on Buyer personas?"
I like to help people be successful in whatever it is that they do in their line of work. I like being a resource. I like being able to give back. And so my path to that ultimately led to teaching and Udemy had several steps.
I started KickStart Alliance in 2002 and I was working on a project with a big company and they needed help with marketing operations. I had gotten into the habit of writing down my process for promoting my client’s products by this point, and my client’s VP of operations told me, “you know, Mike, you should really write this down because it would really help me,” and I thought, oh, maybe I should turn this into a book.
That led to my first book, which is called Marketing Campaign Development. While creating the book, I also ended up writing a lot of blog posts. By the time it was all done, felt natural that I should try to package up to the book and the blog posts and turn them into online courses so people could learn at their own pace.
I also started to recognize that the people I was working with were consuming my information at different speeds in different ways. So some people like to engage with me directly as a consultant or as a guest speaker. Other people like to read a book and do it on their own. And other people who wanted a quick snapshot, tell me how to do something, tell me how to do a click. And that led me to Udemy. I've created three Udemy courses based on this work. The first one I did was on personas. The second is on product positioning, and the last on how to create and give your elevator pitch. So that, in a snapshot, that's what led me to teach online courses.
"How did your experiences in the corporate IT world help you when starting KickStart Alliance?"
If I had to choose one thing, I would summarize it into understanding the discipline of marketing or, or maybe better yet, the discipline of new product launches. We all know HP is a technology company, but nobody would ever say, oh, you know, HP is a great marketing company. There are other technology companies, like Apple, that can do both.
However, during the 80s when I worked at HP, what the company did really well was the discipline of new product introductions. There was a constant use of planning tools that allowed us to be strategic and think through about who are we going to market and what's our positioning and messaging were. There was a lot of detailed mechanics. That strength was also a weakness later when the technology market started moving so fast that this deliberation started hampering them.
Companies need to have some level of discipline when it comes to strategic planning. Yet at the same time, companies need to be nimble and flexible to keep up. I got the discipline from HP, but I had to learn the other half later when I entered the startup world and worked with smaller companies. They were very tactical and tried lots of things, but I also saw that a lot of these companies made bad decisions because they weren’t being strategic and that’s where I had an advantage. So as I grew in my own career, going from enterprise company, to startup, to eventually running my own company, I learned how to meld both of those sides.
"What is “Marketing High Ground” you describe in your work and why is it important?"
Let me give you a bit of background on the problem that I was running into that lead me to that concept. It’s one that a lot of marketers run into, certainly at big companies, but even small companies. That's the problem of how decisions are made.
Perhaps I'm being a little bit cynical, but business decisions are often made by he who yells the loudest. I would go to a new product introduction and the team says, you know, what we should this or that, this is our go-to market strategy, and some VP comes out of the woodwork with a personal opinion that says, “I don't like this, we should do something else.” And we’d have to just do it because they're literally yelling and making a lot of waves or because they are at a higher level in the food chain and therefore my opinion didn’t matter. And so what was happening was that decisions were being made based on seniority or opinion, not by good marketing judgment.
So, the notion of the marketing high ground actually comes from a very close friend, mentor, and colleague of mine. His name is Brian Gentile. He wrote the foreword to my book The Marketing High Ground. The notion is if you want to make better marketing decisions, you really have to understand the market so well, so completely that you can become the customer's advocate and overcome that VP’s opinion.
Before I learned this, I would tend to lose those opinion discussions because I would have no way of backing up my opinion. However, if I did my market research, talked to customers, observed the market and could prove the trends that were happening, I was able to take the high ground in these confrontations. My opinion is a reflection of the market, not my personal opinion. The VP has to fight the customer and the market rather than me.
Therefore, instead of being sucked into debates that are not helpful within my company, I can set up more productive, constructive marketing and leadership conversations with my colleagues. As a result, the company produces better results. Over time, I become an appreciated marketing leader within my own company and as a strategic thinker who understands the market. I own the marketing high ground. That's what achieving the marketing high ground means.
I have a simple mantra. Whoever understands the customer best wins. If I understand the trends and drivers, the business problems customers are trying to solve, better than my competitor does, then I will be able to make more impactful business recommendations on how my company should perform new product introductions and market strategies. I will have an easier way to sell my recommendations to my company.
"Many businesses from Blue chips to start-ups struggle with buyer personas. What are common problems that you have observed?"
I would summarize that the overriding problem with persona building is that they are incomplete and I want to describe what I mean. You can google a lot of templates and examples for persona creation, but a large portion of them are missing key information.
So a good, complete well-thought-out business persona for B2B has three component elements. There's the demographic information, in other words, who these personas are. There's who does the persona work for, what is the company profile or perspective. And the third is psychographics, or why did they think the way they do and why did we think that they would be a good target for us?
A proper persona must acknowledge all three of those aspects. The demographics, a little bit about the company culture and profile, and then the psychographics of the individual. I will say most personas do very well at demographics, but I would say a good 80% of the personas I see do not acknowledge the company culture angle, and over 50% do a poor job of describing psychographics. They make things up. So that’s the biggest problem I see about creating buyer personas.
"Which solutions would you use to solve them"
So what is needed are two things. One is we need to be aligned so we can help the company achieve the marketing high ground.
Now, by the way, the marketing high ground is not just limited to marketers. If you're in a marketing role, you are in the most likely spot to set up the type of conversations that you want your company leadership to have so the company will be successful in where the market is going. Ultimately you want your CEO to also be able to say, I own the marketing high ground. You want your VP of sales to say, yeah, we understand the marketing high ground as well, so it's totally collaborative.
In fact, one of the sayings that I use occasionally is that there are no bozos on the other side of the aisle, meaning that, you know, if you're sitting on marketing, don't just point fingers at sales and say all of our problems are based on sales. And if you're sitting in sales, you can't point over to marketing and say, well, we would be successful, but you know, those marketing guys are, are totally worthless. It's like, no guys, we are a united team and one of the first best exercises you can do is to create a persona together, which is the second thing needed to tighten the alignment between marketing and sales.
"Infighting coupled with marketing and sales misalignment are very common in Enterprise businesses, how does having a persona help with this?"
I'll give you an example of how I used to do it when I held a “traditional job” before I started KickStart. I would invite a small team out to lunch to go through the persona exercise. If I was acting as the director of marketing, I would absolutely have a salesperson, plus my PR person, an industry strategy person, maybe my VP of sales, someone from demand gen (generation), the whole cross-section of sales and marketing.
I’d bring these six people or so around the room and I’d stand up with a flip chart and I’d ask them, to go through the persona exercise because if all of us agree on who we think the best target market is that's a huge win. If we can agree on that, we can the next step which would be to identify what a good quality lead is.
Now a lot of painful interchange between sales and marketing happens because both sides don't really understand what a good quality lead is. They think they know, but they're not aligned. I did this exercise for one of my clients not that long ago and came up with a persona similar to the change agent. The next thing we did was socialize the output. What I mean by that is that the team, not just me, took what we created and made a one-page slide, then shared it with their sales stakeholders and asked what they thought.
There were two pieces of feedback that were just awesome. The first was, “This is exactly correct. This is who I'm selling to this afternoon. You got it right.” The second piece of feedback was, “I've worked for this company for five years. I've never seen it written down.” There was an immediate morale boost between both teams. And from this, they were able to build better lead gen (content marketing) campaigns and drive a higher ROI all because of a simple exercise that took about a half hour.
Now, the persona is not an end in and of itself, but it's the first step of a larger, more strategic approach.
"What are your must-haves for developing a successful or great persona"
The most common piece that shows up in all of these personas, and the easiest to get, is the basic demographics. And you have to start that right. Who are they? What's their job title? How many years with the company? What's their education? Some basic block-and-tackle information. And everybody's got that.
But what's missing is either the second or the third area, and quite often the area that's really overlooked is the second, the company profile. I want to give you some examples of why this is important. When I would meet with companies and we would start talking about business personas, I would start with a general question and I would say, “Hey, Edwin, who are you trying to sell to?” And they would tell me. They'd say, “Mike, we’re going after the Global 3000. And we want CIOs at the Global 3,000,” to which my response would be could you be any vaguer than that? Essentially you're trying to be all things to all people.
You said you captured a title, but the Global 3000? So, do you mean that a CIO of a startup behaves the same way as the CIO of Pfizer, as the CIO of a company in Germany? In Australia? It’s far too broad.
So we can we drill deeper and look beyond the type of company they work with but also the company culture they work with. Do we envision that decisions at the next Google, whatever that company is, a very spry, nimble, energetic company run by the new generation of college graduates today that they would be following the same decision process that the CIO of Hewlett Packard would? And the answer is, obviously, no due to company culture.
Let’s do some comparisons:
- Is it paternalistic or collaborative?
- Is it community-based or hierarchical?
- Is it based on the latest technology or a long-established product?
- Do they work at the headquarters or in a newer branch?
There are just some of the dynamics that are culture-based. Other things to consider might include how many employees are at the company and how are they organized? There are many dimensions of that. If we can understand how the company makes decisions, how the company empowers the decision maker or not, provides clues into what language we should use, what evidence we should use, and what channels we should use to communicate that evidence.
Then there's the third piece, the psychographics, which is about how they make decisions and why do we think that they would be a good decision target for us. An example of a psychographic would be values. Let's talk about values.
I had been working with a number of companies who all said they targeted CIOs. And so each of them were tasked to create a persona for CIO and, at the end of the persona exercise, we were able to come up with a little tagline for the personas. One of the taglines was CIO – the change agent, and another was CIO – the skeptical futurist.
These are the same CIO, they have the same titles. They work for the same size companies and fit the same company profile, but what's different is the psychographics between the change agents and the skeptical futurists.
The change agent was newly hired into the role of CIO. They’re very much a strategic thinker who wants to leave their mark on the company. They’re driven to get the company leadership to think differently to ensure that they're relevant in the market three years from now. They’re willing to take chances and adopt new technologies. That's the change agent profile.
In contrast, let's take the skeptical futurists. They’re very reluctant to make a decision because they fear to make the wrong decision. Their decision process takes longer. There are more i’s that need to be dotted and t's that need to be crossed. These are the people more likely to be older. Who would, in the past, would use to say I never got fired for hiring IBM.
Their values are different. They have different fears. They have different pet peeves about the purchase process. There are a number of elements that play to not only what you as the vendor company needs to say, but how you need to say it and when and where do you need to say.
"In your Udemy course you have 10 steps, and a key one that stood out for me was socialising, your persona to your peers in your organization, can you tell me a little more about this and why it's so important?"
The socialization step is a human step. Socializing is about dealing with internal politics. Where personas fall apart is when they’ve been created in a vacuum. If we did not socialize the persona, everyone else who’s a potential stakeholder would look at your creation and feel like they or their team didn’t have any buy-in and ignore it, or make their own.
"Do you see big data having an impact on how we will create buyer personas? And can you see it having an impact on how you would socialise a buyer persona?"
Right now, it’s bad news about what’s going on in the real world regarding data. To make proper business decisions, you absolutely need to have good data to back it up, you need it, and in fact not just data but evidence. I want to come back to the evidence point in a little bit, but here's the problem. There's so much data that's out there that we’re overloaded, and frankly, companies don't know what to do with it. So what I see as a lot of companies investing in various forms of data gathering and all kinds of applications and they pat themselves on the back by saying, “oh, I've collected all this data,” but are they able to digest it and make real-time correct business decisions?
So collecting data does not lead to action. In fact, it often confuses the process more than it helps. So I advocate taking a careful streamlined approach to data collection. You only want to collect that data that is helpful for you making decisions.
I'll give you a very simple example. In fact, it is so simple, it's probably gonna be nonsensical, but I'll use it just to illustrate a point. In selling to B2B markets. Why on earth would you ever ask if your client is married and how many kids that they have? If I'm selling to consumer markets, that information could quite logically be helpful, but why would I ever want to collect that for B2B? Maybe there's a case where it makes sense, but in general it doesn't, so there's some extra data that's being collected that’s unnecessary.
What is needed is some sort of mechanism to sort it all and AI, I think, could be a wonderfully helpful enabler tool to sift through all the data that's clogging the pipes out there. It could sift through the pile and say this data is relevant, this data is not relevant, and then use the relevant data to help drive decisions. Now I know I'm speaking very generally, but that's why I see that helping.
How this feeds into building buyer personas is that is you need the data that can tie to business problems they have, how they're trying to deliver value to their end customers, and what data is relevant down the food chain, down the supply chain if you will, from your persona’s position.
It can be very helpful in not only a positioning your product better, but having the company establish or reached that level of that high ground we talked about earlier.
One quick side note about evidence. I see a lot of evidence problems in the marketplace and I'll give you just one right now. Comparison. A company says, “I’ve got a new product. I'm going to market with a new product that I want to sell more of it to a target audience.” How they decide to position it is to compare, evidence-wise, the new product against the old product. So they're comparing us to us. They ended up doing it just to complete the analogy.
I'll be purposely facetious here. When they do this, it’s like they’re saying, “Say you know what, you were silly for, for buying our old product. What'd you should do is buy our new product,” and that, of course, is not helpful. So the evidence mistake is comparing yourself to yourself. We need to have proper evidence.
Not too long ago, I sat in a panel discussion with CIOs and one of the questions that was asked of them by software vendors was, “what evidence is most important to you and what would you like to see your vendors do that they're not doing?” One of the CIOs said, “The evidence that I'd really like is if you could take your product and do a comparison against the other product that I’m looking for as an alternative to solve this particular problem and put that comparison on YouTube. I don't need fluffy marketing stuff. I want somebody who knows exactly what they're talking about and gives me a video comparing your product to the comparison product and be honest.”
The followup question was why would you ever want to acknowledge your competitor? The CIO sat back and said that he understood the hesitancy, but if you do it and if you're honest, I give you credit because I don’t want to do all that research. I acknowledge that you've helped me. You've become a resource for me and because you did that I’m more inclined to think you might be a vendor that I want to work with because you're showing high integrity. You're providing information and helps me and I'm more likely to give you a call to ask you some follow-up questions. And I thought that was incredibly eye-opening. Right?
So this combines elements of the marketing high ground, integrity, data, and everything else we’ve been talking about into that decision-making process.
One of the things I said earlier is we want to avoid the situation where the one who yells the loudest makes the decisions. What we do want is people sitting around the table bringing their unique perspectives of how they see the market and the customers, but each of those people should have some evidence for their reasoning. If it can be supplied by AI, then we should bring that to the table to increase the level of confidence that they’ve created an appropriate persona.
Let’s understand that there is no 100% accurate persona. If you strive for 100% accuracy, you’ll miss the market. It takes too long and it’s not helpful. But we want a high level of confidence, something around 70-80% of the time. That’s good enough in my book. If we can use AI and data mechanics to provide evidence that gives us confidence in our persona, then you've created gold right there. Creating a persona by having an AI help in the right way, is much more valuable than a persona that has no thoughtful data collection.
Content marketing strategies for professionals starts with good buyer personas, it’s difficult to execute a high-performance content strategy. Do your personas have the information that Mike Gospe talked about in the interview?
For more information about creating buyer personas and their importance in creating content strategies, check out our recent e-book on the topic as well as the Udemy courses we linked to earlier in the piece.