Speak to Your Buyer’s Situation—Not Their Disposition

By Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer

April 28, 2017


Or, why your persona-based approach could mean your customer conversations are missing the mark

The great persona crackup continues.

Even two years ago, when the average buying group size in B2B deals was said to be more than five, B2B organizations high on a persona-based messaging approach had a lot of message tailoring to do. And, if you’ve held fast to persona-based messaging, you now have even more. That’s because the average of number of decision-makers involved in B2B purchasing decisions has crept up to almost seven, by some counts.

As complex sales get ever more complex, the risk of relying on hyper-segmented messaging becomes that much more pronounced. Why? Because the reality of having more decision-makers involved in B2B deals only complicates the job of any marketer or sales pro trying to disrupt their prospects’ current situation and drive consensus among disparate stakeholders. In this case, multiple personas and other forms of hyper-segmented messaging won’t relieve the complexity—they will aggravate it.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Here’s the risk associated with focusing on a wider set of persona-based needs: Stakeholders within the buying committee ultimately need to unite, but will struggle because they are receiving drastically different tracks of information throughout the buying process. Far from binding these decision-makers together, this splintered messaging approach might actually drive them apart by underscoring where and how their needs bifurcate.

That’s not a prescription for consensus. It’s a prescription for a standstill, and deals sputtering out into “no decision”—which is the biggest threat to your marketing and success. One major analyst firm actually identified a negative impact on deals when you over-tailor your messages to individual personas.

The problem also has a scientifically proven cause called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Behavioral economics researchers have proven that we tend to attribute human behaviors and decisions, good or bad, to someone’s personality or disposition, when they’re far more likely to be shaped by situational factors.

In fact, tests prove that you overestimate the effect of a person’s personality on their behaviors and decisions while underestimating the influence of their situation on those same actions.

There’s a parallel between this concept and persona-based messaging.

By segmenting your messaging based on decision makers’ titles, roles, and responsibilities, you run the risk of committing the Fundamental Attribution Error by assuming their “disposition-based needs” are more influential in the buying process than the “situational challenges” they share with the other decision team members.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Let’s say you’re responsible for selling marketing automation software to help manage a company’s marketing campaigns, social presence, and demand generation programs. You build messages for all the typical buying influencers within the deal, starting with the company’s marketing executive, and you identify key performance indicators such as increasing lead generation volume, expanding marketing-sourced pipeline impact and improving the quality and conversion of leads to closed business.

Your background research doesn’t stop there. Because this is a big-ticket martech item, you also need to consider the financial decision maker and the IT decision maker, not to mention the marketing operations user. So you build three more “talk tracks” for these individuals.

Keep in mind: This requires a major lift in terms of messaging and content creation. The expectation is that you’ll become fluent enough to toggle between your stories and conversations depending on which person you’re meeting with.

Problem is, none of this messaging has anything to do with the situation. It’s all about the disposition of individuals—and that’s not what affects behavior change. A more compelling “why change” story will create uncertainty about the company’s flawed current approach—which all influencers feel—instead of appealing to individuals’ professional dispositions. For example, if you build a generic, KPI-based story around “improving marketing-generated pipeline,” you might spark your prospect’s excitement, but you won’t drive action unless you can show how their established approach puts them at risk relative to the outcomes they want.

For example, when it comes to “situations” buying committees might share, it could be that your prospects are using 10-year-old automation technology. If so, there are specific gaps and deficiencies associated with this aging automation situation that are completely different from the circumstances if your prospect is, say, still using database files and spreadsheets to manage the company’s marketing efforts. And this is different still if your prospects just purchased your competitor’s solution within the last 18 months.

The point is, these sorts of situation are different enough that they will drastically alter your core message, based on what your prospects are experiencing. These situations are also what trigger your prospects’ survival instinct, making them see that the need to change is based more on the situation they’re in than on anything to do with their job title. By messaging to these shared situations, you will build consensus and compel buyers to act.

To persuade buyers to rally together and embrace change, you need to identify the higher order business challenges that stem from their shared situation they are trying to improve, rather than messaging to individual sets of needs tied to each of their unique roles or dispositions.

These higher order challenges rooted in the shared situation transcend individual dispositional needs and unite buying committees, helping you create a buying vision that multiple stakeholders—regardless of role—can get behind.

This article originally published in Sales & Marketing Management Magazine