Speak to a Buyer’s Situation—Not Their Title

By Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer

February 26, 2015

What if we told you that persona-based approach to messaging is potentially hurting your cause rather than helping it?

A recent Harvard Business Review article cites a set of surveys which found that, on average, 5.4 people now have to formally sign off on each B2B purchasing decision. If you’re following a persona-based messaging approach, that means you have a good amount of message tailoring to do, right?

The problem with this hyper-segmented approach is that the decision makers end up receiving starkly different pieces of information. As a result, you risk highlighting the divisions that exist between them instead of the challenges they share. That can effectively pit stakeholders against each other and create the kind of stand-still that leads to a “no decision.”

The authors of the article write:

…personalization has a dark side. When individuals in a buying group receive different messages, each one stressing that an offering meets his or her narrow needs, it can highlight the diverging goals and priorities in the group, driving a wedge between members and hindering consensus.

The implication for suppliers is clear: The best way to build customer consensus isn’t to do a better job of connecting individual customer stakeholders to the supplier but to more effectively connect customer stakeholders to one another.

To truly persuade someone to make a change, your marketing message should aim to identify and address the higher order business challenges found in the situation they share, not in each individuals’ narrow priorities and needs. These issues transcend the needs of individuals, helping you rally decision makers to consider the strategic outcomes at risk and the solution requirements to resolve them.

That’s how you can help drive consensus instead of division in a consensus-driven sale.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Imagine that you’re driving on the freeway when another driver abruptly cuts you off. What’s your first reaction to this erratic driver? In all likelihood, you’re going to immediately think he or she is a jerk.

The reason? We tend to attribute most behaviors, good or bad, to someone’s personality or disposition, even though they’re much more likely to be dictated by situational factors. The erratic driver could be late for an important meeting at work. He or she might be rushing to the hospital due to a medical emergency. The list of possible situations goes on. The point is, these situations are more likely to be the cause of the white-knuckle driving than some deep-seated character flaw.

This calculation is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error, a behavioral science term which posits that humans tend to overestimate the effect of a person’s disposition on their behaviors and underestimate the influence of their specific situation.

With persona-based messaging, you’re essentially committing the Fundamental Attribution Error by assuming that the disposition of your individual influencers is a more important factor than the current situation they all share and are trying to improve. That approach won’t help you tell a compelling story that shows how your prospect’s status quo is unsafe. To do that, you have to address the higher order problems that clearly demonstrate how your prospect’s status quo situation—not a narrow set of responsibilities and related needs—is preventing them from achieving their desired business outcomes.