Wellspring Digital Chat – Ardath Albee, Buyer Persona and B2B Marketing Expert

Ardath Albee is one of my go-to authorities on B2B marketing strategy. As the CEO & B2B Marketing Strategist at Marketing Interactions, Inc., understands today’s B2B digital marketing landscape better than just about anyone I know.

I’ve been doing this digital marketing thing for quite some time now and for as long as I can remember, the name Ardath Albee always makes it onto just about every top female marketer’s list that comes out.

In this installment of the Wellspring Digital Chat series, I dive deep into the marketing brain of a B2B marketing genius.

It’s good stuff! We dive deep into…

  1. What a real buyer persona is and why it matters for B2B marketing
  2. Banishing BANT, budget, authority, need, and timing
  3. Replacing BANT with PVEC, problem, value, engagement, and change.
  4. Aligning sales and marketing operations around business goals
  5. Marketing automation and technology in the B2B world.

Let’s do this…

Digital Transcription (Edited for Readability)

Introductions

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Howdy folks. My name is Jon Bailey and I am the CDMO for Wellspring Digital, and you are listening to the Wellspring Digital Chat series where we have a special ops team that goes out. And we basically kidnap some of the best marketers around. We put them in a secret location, a little bit of a rendition-type thing.

We grill them for about 20 minutes and get all the great information we need. And then we send them on their way no one’s harmed. It’s really a very streamlined process. I think it’s clear to anyone that has watched any of these that I need help.

So anyway, Ardath Albee is one of my go-to authorities on B2B marketing strategy. She understands today’s B2B digital marketing landscape better than just about anyone I know. Ardath, welcome, please take a moment to introduce yourself to these fine, folks.

Ardath Albee: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I spend most of my time building personas and persona-driven content marketing strategies. So I spend a lot of time talking to my client’s customers and working with my client’s marketing teams to develop the programs that then activate these personas, and drive their marketing programs and opportunities.

So I’ve also spent quite a bit of time lately working around sales enablement. As some of you know, I served as interim VP of Marketing for Modus to the sales enablement platform for about a year during COVID. And so that helps kind of enlarge my vision of how we need to connect marketing and sales. So that’s basically what I do every day.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s fantastic. And that’s really what I want to kind of dive into here. And get into this. But, you know, I’ve been doing this digital marketing thing for, I don’t know, 20 plus years. And for as long as I can remember, your name makes it to just about every single list of top female marketers that comes out, and personally, I think it should just be top human marketers.

So I want to pick your brain about B2B marketing strategy and what it looks like today. So are you ready?

Ardath Albee: I am! We only have 20 minutes?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, you could stretch it out. No, talk as long as you like, don’t hold back. Let us know every good little piece of information that’s sort of swimming around in there.

What A Real Buyer Persona Is and Why It Matters For B2B Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So speaking of buyer personas, I interviewed Adele Revella, who is the founder of the buyer persona Institute, I’m sure you know her well. She had a bit of a rant, which I will link to here about what a buyer persona is and what a buyer persona is not. I would love to hear your definition of a buyer persona, and maybe some insight into how it fits into today’s B2B marketing landscape.

Ardath Albee: Yeah, Adele is a good friend of mine. And her rant is basically my rant. I’ll tell you a couple of things I’ve been developing personas for, jeez, I don’t know since 2005, I think. So hundreds of them, literally. And every client who has come to me, or almost every single one and said, hey, no problem, we’ve got buyer personas.

And I say great, send them to me. Only one time did a client have personas that were actually usable. If that tells you how the askew this will persona concept is. And so the biggest problem I have with it is the way personas are talked about and the way they’re thought-about, and you see this fictional character thing come up time and again.

Well, when you build personas, like I do, like Adele does, they’re based on conversations with actual buyers and customers, and their phrasing and their insights. And you can get way deeper than “Yeah, they’re focused on increasing revenues.” Well, what the heck does that really mean? You know, and so you need to get specific.

And the whole point of buyer personas in my perspective is to create a composite sketch of who your buyers are. And as marketers, you need to think about the fact that most of the time, unless we have the resource to do really targeted one-to-one ABM, we are marketing to a large swath of that target market, right.

And so what we’re looking for are all the commonalities that apply, right, we can individually address those individual little nuances in every communication. But what we can do is say, okay, given the fact that we’ve talked to 25 or 30 of these people, what we see that’s similar across all of them are these particular things.

And then you’ve got a place to focus where your chance of being relevant goes way up. And so that’s really what you’re looking for when you’re building a persona is not assumptions. I mean, how many times have you sat in a marketing team meeting, and somebody pipes up and said, I would never read that? Well, now that you’re not the buyer.

I have a client right now who I go through this battle with every single time. And she says, “that’s not appealing to me.” And I’m like you are so night and day from who we are trying to attract. It doesn’t matter. You know, and so what people get off track with, I think, is they see this concept, and they see the cute little templates, you know, Mary Marketer, and whatever, and all this demographic information and ridiculous stuff that you cannot use as a B2B marketer.

What you want to know about is their professional role, what they care about, what they’re responsible for, and what’s relevant to them in order to properly engage them. And so, I think that personas have gotten off track. But I think the other glaring issue is that people don’t know how to use them. Right? So they check the box and go, Okay, we have these cute little persona templates, file them away, back to whatever they’re doing. And that’s not the point.

But you know, as things have changed, and buyers have really taken control over their buying process, they’re pushing people back, saying we’re going to self educate, we’re self-driving our experiences. If you don’t know about them, how in the heck are you going to engage them from arm’s length? Right?

You’ve got to get them engaged in your content, you’re thinking their ideas of your company, you know, all of those kinds of things, in order to get them to think I need to talk to these people, right to go further. And we can’t do that if we don’t know who they are.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Your rant was delivered a bit less aggressively.

Ardath Albee: I’m just getting warmed up.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Alright, fair enough. Fair enough. All right.

Banishing BANT, Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So continuing on that kind of theme of buyers educating themselves, in a recent post on your blog, you talk about the need to banish BANT, b-a-n-t, which stands for budget, authority, need, and timing. There’s a line in there that sums it all up for me, which is “buyers will disqualify themselves if we make the right content and information available.”

Do you think B2B marketers are finally coming around to this idea? And as well do B2B salespeople seem to be getting this?

Ardath Albee: Only it was that easy? You know, part of the problem is that the way marketing gets measured, and the way we’re graded on performance is totally in conflict with buyer irrelevance, right? It’s not about the buyer. It’s about this false number of qualified leads. So anybody who fills out a form is breathing, you know, and we’ve got to stop it.

I mean, it’s report after report that comes out on buyer preferences or top complaint about marketing stuff is the sales pitch and the, you know, biased information. And it’s not relevant. It’s not useful. It’s not high quality. Yeah, they all say, “God, this is high-quality content. It just has nothing to do with me. It’s not helping me.”

It’s not, so I mean, my inbox is still filled every day with emails from salespeople, saying, just following up, have you thought more about this? Could we talk and there are no strings attached to it? And I’m like, looking at this email go, I thought more about what emails a day I hit most of them that I thought about what you know, they’re adding no value.

And so we’ve got to be more thoughtful and that comes from understanding our buyers. In fact, the thing that was interesting to me and Forrester’s 2022 predictions is that our personalization attempts are going to fail due to a lack of buyer insights, which leaves us where exactly you know.

And so I think we’ve got to give them the information, buyers, the information that they need in order to make advancement in their thinking in order to rule us out or rule us in. I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn because I run social media for some of my clients. And I see conversation after conversation where people are piping up about how irritated they are that they have to actually qualify themselves to get a demo.

They have to go through a discovery process, we just want to get a question answered, we just want to get some information, which isn’t on the website. So they need to go through this thing to talk to a sales rep. But they have to go through this qualification process, hence, my rant about fans. And it’s not relevant to them, because they’re not there yet.

And so I think one of the biggest things we need to understand is that we are starting too far ahead of our buyers, we assume they’re all in the market, they’re all aware of their problem, they understand it, they need to solve it, they’re committed to change. They are not, there’s a huge bunch of stuff that has to go on.

Especially in B2B where research has shown that a few years ago, there was maybe a total of 17 interactions a buyer would have including the sales and content, marketing, whatever, on their way to purchase, it’s now up to 27.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Wow.

Ardath Albee: So that’s a lot to think about. How much that is, and they spent none of that time with us, you know, in sales conversations. So marketers have to step up to the table. And if we can get the information out there, then we can develop leads that are truly qualified because they want to talk to us, they have the information.

It’s not like they’re gonna get on a call and go “Oh, so that’s what you do. Yeah never mind.” I’m over it. So you know, we’re doing ourselves a disservice, because we think the Holy Grail is getting that meeting when there’s so much other stuff that has to take place.

Marketing has this huge opportunity, it’s really exciting to me, that we can now impact the buyer process, the whole customer lifecycle from end to end, and support that and give air covered everything else that’s going on, but mostly to our buyers.

Replacing BANT with PVEC, Problem, Value, Engagement, and Change

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, I mean, and continuing with that, and I think this is where you’re heading is in the same post, you talk about replacing BANT with PVEC, p-v-e-c, problem, value, engagement, and change. And I can really see an entire content effort driven around just addressing various stages of a buyer’s problem.

So in some ways, with this focus, do you think B2B marketers are now able to shape the buyer experience better than before a salesperson ever would talk to a buyer? And it’s, I mean, it sounds like yes, but I’d love to hear more from you on this.

Ardath Albee: Yeah, I think that’s definitely what we should be doing. You know, part of the issue we have is time constraints, right? Everybody wants marketing to produce results immediately. And the thing that’s always interesting to me, I work for clients, I’ve had a three-year sales cycle, and their executive team wanted to see results in a quarter.

How does that even work? You know what I mean? Most of us in tech, seven months, six months, you know, and we can’t just produce instant results. And if we do, we’re getting that low-hanging fruit that was already in the market and done their research. But the fact of the matter is that somewhere along the line, companies started looking at marketing as an extension of sales.

And marketing isn’t sales or shouldn’t be sales, marketing is positioning, education, you know, building relationships, we are not in the business of sales. In B2B, at least for complex sales, we have a whole job to do that supports what our buyers and customers need to know, and how to help them advance their thinking.

All of these different kinds of things going on in a sales job are selling. Right and, and closing the deals and that kind of thing. And helping when buyers get to the point they need to dive into the nitty-gritty details and figure out “how much disruption am I really going to face?” You know, can we really be successful with this? You know, how does it really work? Those kinds of things.

And so, marketers have this huge responsibility to develop helpful content that’s trusted and reliable, right? We’ve got to build that trust so that people will talk to our sales team. But you know, the thing that’s interesting to me and I just sort of post about putting humanness in content. Our research study came out from the University of Florida.

And what they wanted to do was find out what consumers thought about chatbots, which sounds like totally off-topic, but bear with me. They had some of the people interact with chatbots, and some of the people interact with humans, and in the chat experience, 67% of the people could identify whether it was a human or a chatbot. 67.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s, that’s actually lower than I would expect to be honest with you. But right.

Ardath Albee: But here’s the thing, what made the difference for them, and they weren’t all correct in their diagnosis here. But, what made the difference for them was the feeling of humanness, the perception that their experience was human. And when they felt that the experience was human, they felt better about the company, because they figured it was obvious that the company had invested resources to understand them and be relevant in their conversation with them.

What a huge opportunity for us now that buyer experiences are self-driven and digital, they’re spending more time with content and online information, that if we can make that content, feel human, right, that there are humans behind it, and that it’s more engaging to them, we have this chance to build trust.

So the outcome of that research study was when they felt that their engagement was human, whether it was or not, it increased their trust because they felt like the company had made the investment to understand them. I think that’s a huge opportunity for us if we really focus on the quality, and understanding of our buyers so we can create content that resonates with them that’s relevant to them and helpful to them.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I’m smiling because it reminds me of a conversation I had with Scott Stratten where, because he’s from Canada, I sort of bastardized a lyric from a Rush song and the lyric was, or my version was…

“All this machinery making modern marketing can still be open-hearted. It’s really just a question of your honesty.” The Holy Triumvirate, Sort-Of

So I think that’s exactly what you’re saying here. And that’s interesting because that’s really a much different take, from what at least the chatter I see about, you know, the machines. That’s a very interesting point because I think that really frames it in a way that makes sure that marketers aren’t engaging in ridiculousness if for lack of a better term. Right, tomfoolery, if you will.

Ardath Albee: Yeah, unfortunately, there’s still quite a bit of that.

Aligning Sales and Marketing Operations Around Business Goals

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, now that buyers are driving much of their own qualification in the B2B sales process, it seems to me that any organization who isn’t aligning and marketing and sales operations in terms of, you know, overall business outcomes, you know, will be at a tremendous disadvantage over those who do, do you agree?

And if so, how do you explain this to the C suite such that change can happen in an organization, especially an organization where they’re old school, and everything’s siloed. And they just, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, kind of. This is what we do. And you know, we like it.

Ardath Albee: Yeah, well, goes back to that thing about how people look at marketing. And I have to say, just kind of as a lead in to this, marketing is the only profession or role that everybody thinks they can do. No, I mean, seriously, you talk to your leadership team, or whatever they will think they have, they all have an opinion, they think they know how to market.

They would never try to tell a developer how to develop, they wouldn’t tell the CFO how to balance the books. Right. But everybody has an opinion about marketing, and they think it’s “just go do that. You know, it’s easy, what’s your problem?”

By the same token, as I mentioned earlier, the way we look at marketing and the way we measure performance is out of tune with the marketplace, what buyers want, and all those things. And, you know, I wrote another post recently about why customer-centric doesn’t mean buyer-driven. I had done a bunch of research.

And you know, customer centricity was first mentioned, I think by Peter Drucker back in 1954. But it took until 1990, until it actually kind of became a thing, right? The problem with it is we really messed it up. What we did was we said, “Okay, let’s get to know our customers for the sole purpose so we can force them down the funnel to do what we want them to do,” right?

We didn’t do it by saying, let’s get to know them. So we can serve them and give them what they want. No, we said, let’s get to know him so we can get what we want. Right? And we totally screwed this up. And so, you know, part of my, what I’m working on now is this whole buyer-driven experience kind of thing where we need to shift back.

I mean, you know, that one of the things I wrote about was, I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of Jeff Bezos putting a chair in the room to represent the customer, the center chair. So let’s just say Buffy is in the chair. And so we say, hey, Buffy, what do you think about this great idea? We’re talking about here, Buffy, and really, they’re answering, right?

So it’s really, yeah, we got to cheer for the customer, but what’s going to take over is that the common thinking in the room? Right? They’re all going to decide what Buffy thinks, but no input from Buffy. So how customer-centric is that really, you know, we fooled ourselves into thinking we’re customer-centric, and we’re not.

And if we don’t change that, I think, you know, the companies that do are going to win companies that don’t are going to be left in the dust.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: If they do hear Buffy answer, then then they’ve got some bigger problems.

Ardath Albee: Well, there is that. And the other thing that, you know, as far as convincing your C suite is marketers need to learn to talk about business, understand P&L, we need to understand how the numbers work. Do you know what profit and loss means? What margins mean? We need to spend time with our CFOs, we need to figure out how to talk about business objectives in a way that makes sense to our executive team.

They don’t care that we generated 500 leads last month, what does that mean? You know, I mean, we need to be able to relate it to pipelines, revenue numbers to things that they care about, and that are tied to business objectives.

Which a lot of campaigns are, you know, when I talk to marketing, what’s the goal of this campaign? And they’ll say, “Well, we want to generate email addresses. So we build our database.” Really? That’s the goal, really? And it’s because of the way they’re measured, right? So form completion counts, doesn’t the matter how relevant the thing is.

And that’s what I mean, there’s just this whole fragmented approach to how we look at marketing. But in all fairness to the C suite, marketers, enough of them do not understand how to talk about the financials in the business and the goals that the executive team hears about.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: You know, it’s funny, you keep giving these perfect legions to my, my, my next question, and it’s almost as if you had access to the questions in advance. So I’m gonna have to look into that. (I’m such a dork!)

Marketing Automation and Technology in the B2B World

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, you know, you’re talking about metrics, and you’re talking about tracking and all of these things. And I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the importance of marketing automation in the B2B world. You wrote a post about nurturing lost opportunities that I think shines a bright light on the importance of your tech stack and your marketing efforts.

So do you think B2B marketers are using marketing automation effectively? I’m really curious to hear this answer. In other words, what’s the state of marketing automation use in B2B marketing today? Well used or underutilized. And please expand and rant if you feel the need.

Ardath Albee: Well, yeah, you opened a door on this one.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Let’s go the bang!

Ardath Albee: Well, we’ll start with the research and then I’ll rant about you know, I think it’s around half of the marketers that say they are utilizing more of their marketing automation system than as an email blaster. Maybe, from what I’ve seen that is a lot. And so I mean, a lot of the features of marketing automation sit there unused, such as lead scoring and, you know, integrating with other systems so you can pull in different types of data.

And, I mean, let’s face it, we can collect data from all over the place, but most of us don’t use it well. And that’s to our own detriment. On the flip side of that, people are now saying that because we have intent data and all this other data, we don’t actually need to talk to customers anymore. Because we have so much data, we can tell, whatever we need to know, which is a bunch of BS, in my opinion, because data will tell you what it will tell you what they did.

It doesn’t tell you why they did it. Or if they got what they wanted out of that, or whatever. There is no anything other than behavior activity monitoring going on with some of this so-called data. And so you can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater, you know, and say, give me the easy button this technology.

MarTech and AI

But the other thing and to move kind of beyond just marketing automation to the martech stack, you know, I have a bunch of concerns about what marketers are doing at the rate they’re buying technology, they’re looking for that easy button, rather than being strategic first, and then thinking about what technology will help us improve on this, or even better.

And so for example, one of the statistics, it’s just scared the crap out of me a couple of weeks ago was when I read a report that said 42% of marketers trust AI to personalize content in real-time for their audiences. Okay. Now, if that doesn’t frighten the hell out of you, you know, but it scares the crap out of me.

Because in the next paragraph, that same report said, the majority of successful marketers say their top challenge is creating engaging customer experiences. How do these two things coexist in the same report? And so you know, the thing that kills me is that in report after report, what you see is all these priorities for more engagement, higher quality leads all this stuff at the top of the list.

Buyer Personas

And down at the bottom of the list, or personas or buyer insights or customer insights or any of that stuff. Well, how do you get the stuff at the top of the list if you haven’t done the foundation at the bottom? The reason the AI thing scared the heck out of me is because AI can only serve up content that is in the system that exists.

If you don’t know your buyers, you haven’t created the right content. How in the hell do you trust AI to personalize your content in real-time, garbage in garbage out, you got to feed the machine in order for it to work properly. And so I just sat there and looked at that. And I thought, oh my god, if you’d see these reports where marketers are going to go out and spend more money on more technology.

And Scott Brinker just released that bizarre report where we’re like, over 9000 martech solutions now or something and, you know, marketers are gonna go buy more of it. But instead of grading the strategy and the foundational resources, they need to actually have this technology work for them. They’re relying on the tech to do it for them. There’s a disconnect here that I’m just missing somewhere and I don’t quite understand it. Do you know why?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, I think you, I think you hit the nail on the head, it’s the easy button. You know, everybody’s trying to automate themselves out of critical thinking and hard work. You know, to some extent, I wonder if marketers, you know, if the majority of marketers really know their buyers very well at all. Because, you know, I think they have a slice of an idea of who their buyers are. But the complete picture is rarely ever there in my experience, which is scary.

Ardath Albee: Oh, I think that’s true. And one example, I’ll share is I’m doing work for a company that didn’t have the budget to create personas, but they wanted to create a nurture program. And so the way I tried to solve that was talking to a bunch of their executives, their sales team, their CEO, all kinds of people.

I did like 25 internal interviews, just to find out what they all knew about their buyers. The difference or the different opinions I got from one end of a company to the other was quite startling. Yeah, nobody could describe the buyer. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody, two or three, you know, described the same buyer.

But out of 25 interviews, you know, so and some of these people had constant day-to-day, like the sales executive gives him the sales team on the street constant day to day exposure. So they were closer. But then you get to others product and marketing and the C suite and what have you, and they’re relating to buyers in a different way, right?

When you think about who your customers do your executives talk to, versus who does your sales team or customer success team talk to, different people, right, that play different roles in the company. And so one of the things that cool about personas is you can line up all these different perspectives and kind of see how you need to address them to bring everything together.

When you’re blind in a way, and you only talk to one set of people at a company, because that’s your role or whatever, then you think and you think you know the whole story, but you don’t. And so part of this thing where we rely too much on tribal knowledge or assumptions, because we extrapolate from, well, my favorite customer Gus does it this way. So all of our customers must do that, right?

That’s never true. But you know, so if we get into that thing, that’s what causes the damage, right? Because we’re not seeing it holistically. And that’s a problem.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I think we’re all victims to the stories in our head. You know, I went through a sales seminar one time, and one of the main takeaways I took from that was was check your stories, check the stories in your head and match it against actual truth. And you’ll often be quite surprised.

Ardath Albee: The other thing that I wanted to mention, too, is I think there’s, you know, for years ever since I’ve been in marketing, there’s been a discussion about sales and marketing alignment. But I think that what we’re seeing now is buying is no longer linear, right? So people come in and out. And there’s this big spaghetti chart, you know, that Gartner put out and all these things.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Scott Stratten calls it the Sales Cloud.

Ardath Albee: So, but here’s the thing, I think marketing teams need to step up and be involved across the entire continuum of the customer lifecycle, and need to support it. So we need to work in parallel with sales, no more handoff. The thing we forget is we have these orchestrated processes from within our companies, our buyers don’t care.

They don’t know whether, I mean, they don’t care, oh, I’m in a marketing interaction. Now I’m in a sales interaction. Now I’m in… that doesn’t compute that way. So we need to be relevant no matter where they are, right. And so we need to work in parallel with our other teams with our revenue ops teams, you know, our sellers and our customer success and whatever.

Instead of doing this thing with the handoff, because what happens with the handoff? There’s a disconnect. And so marketing has nurtured the buyer this far, and they’ve learned all this information, then they go, okay, sales, here you go. And then the sale starts over and says, “can you tell me what you’re interested in?”

And so it’s like when you get passed around, and a customer service calls, every time you get a new rep, they say, can you tell us your problem, or you go to a doctor and they send you to a specialist, and you have to do it all over in, right? That’s what we’re doing in marketing and sales.

And it doesn’t need to be that way. We need to work as a team. So it’s not alignment, I think anymore, given the change in buying, it’s more like integration. You know, we just need to work together.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Amen. Sister! I think that’s a fair point to end things on. There’s a ridiculous amount of great information in here and I cannot wait to unleash it on the masses. So Ardath, thank you so much for doing this. Like I said, there’s so much great stuff in here, and I really appreciate your time.

Ardath Albee: Thanks so much for having me. It’s fun. I can talk about this stuff all day long.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: We’ll have to do a part two.

Ardath Albee: That’d be fun.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Awesome. All right. Thanks.

Jon-Mikel Bailey is the Chief Development and Marketing Officer for Wellspring Digital, a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in SEO, PPC, Marketing Automation, and Content Marketing. He has been published in MarketingProfs, Business2Community, SpinSucks, {Grow}, Social Media Today, and more. He has spoken at the Digital Summit Series, MarketingProfs, ITE, Grant Thornton, and others.