We reach Ardath Albee by phone at her Southern California home on a Friday afternoon. It’s the one day a week she tries to reserve for writing, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way today. Her writing, which is good enough for Palgrave Macmillan to sign her to a contract and recently release “Digital Relevance,” is often subsumed by her ability to create buyer personas.
The thing is, Albee’s exceptionally experienced at crafting buyer personas. She’s been hired to do more of these than anyone we’ve ever encountered—her tally of 125 in the last 3 years makes her sort of like the Stephen King of the B-to-B buyer persona world.
“Most times, a client will send me their personas, with no research, and most times they’re just three or four adjectives.”
Today, she’s on interview #33 for a project, one that began like so many do—with an incomplete client brief.
“Usually, when I get involved with a client they’ll call me, and at the beginning of the conversation they’ll usually say something like, ‘we have personas, but we need strategy.’ And they send me personas, with no research, that most times are just three or four adjectives.”
Considering that most of Albee’s clients—she started her company, Marketing Interactions, in 2007—have as much as a 24-month buying cycle, a deeper immersion into the personas is typically her first recommendation.
“If you can’t articulate a ‘day in the life’ for a persona, you need to learn more about them.”
“You have to sustain that narrative over a long period of time, it’s a novel, not a short story,” says Albee, a writer of romance novels fond of artist’s retreats. “You have to have enough depth of insight to figure out how does that story fill across that period of time; what are all the nuances, and how does it make a body of content that comprises the whole story? If you can’t articulate a ‘day in the life’ for a persona, you need to learn more about them.”
But the bigger problem Albee sees among organizations, particularly in industries with long sales cycles, is how marketers are evaluated: on metrics like the amount of leads generated in a month, which makes an extended content program a challenging buy-in.
“Organizations don’t have the incentive to change because the performance of their marketing department doesn’t depend on engaging somebody for nine months,” says Albee, whose clients have ranged from utilities to deep-sea oil drilling companies. “Their performance depends on getting a form completion this month.”
“Organizations don’t have the incentive to change because the performance of their marketing department doesn’t depend on engaging somebody for nine months.”
Albee argues that getting a form completion, although it may be the start of getting to know a prospect, doesn’t contribute to business objectives. “It doesn’t create revenue, at least, not immediately, and most of them may never,” she says. “So how do you change from a quantity to a quality perspective? For a lot of companies, if you have a nine-month sales cycle, you’re not going to see results that you want, not overnight, unless a lot of the leads you already have are pretty far through that process and you capitalize at the right time.”
Many employees inside companies find it hard to justify a sustained budget for a program that isn’t showing a lot of return for that length of time. So Albee recommends getting creative about how content marketers can prove value. “What we’ve found is that a lot of times, developing a better relationship with salespeople, where you can get them into conversations earlier, produces great feedback that the business cares about,” she says. “Even though the prospect isn’t ready to buy for another three or four months, they’re engaged. It’s now an opportunity for the sales department in the CRM, and content can help inspire that conversation.”
“If your content can create a better relationship between sales and marketing, it’ll produce great feedback that the business cares about.”
To facilitate these conversations, Albee says in the persona development process it helps to find where the trouble is. “It’s the first thing you write when you’re writing a fictional story, you know, jump off in the deep end of the pool,” she says. “You’re dealing with a lot of personas within a company. One of the reasons it’s so hard to get consensus in an organization is because decisions are often made by committee, and if you don’t address each of their perspectives, the chance that they’re all going to agree is not high.”
Albee pays attention to figuring out the interplay between the personas. “So if you have a VP of marketing interacting with a systems administrator for some solution for the line of business, what does that look like? What do they need from that person? How can you facilitate an exchange of information that gets everybody’s questions answered, gets them on the same page? So there’s a lot of depth in here that goes on that I don’t think a lot of people realize.”
Albee has advice to B-to-B companies who are aiming their content at people in the C-suite. “Nine times out of ten, you find the C-level are not the ones doing the research and evaluation,” she says. “It’s delegated to someone else. So if you can reach that person, how can you entice them to get that information that that C-level person needs? That’s the strategic stuff, that’s what I get hired to do.”
We like her chances; after all, you've got to figure she knows her customers.