The Intersection Where Buyer Personas and Email Marketing Meet

The Intersection Where Buyer Personas and Email Marketing Meet

A buyer persona is a composite sketch of a target market based on validated commonalities that actively informs content strategy to drive productive buyer engagement.


At mailfloss we’re focused on helping email marketers get the most from their email marketing campaigns. We do this in a few different ways. First, we help email marketers improve their deliverability through the use of our email list verification service. Secondly, we work hard to educate email marketers on the various topics relating to running a successful email marketing campaign.

Today, mailfloss had the opportunity to chat with Ardath Albee, a B2B marketing strategist with over 30 years of business management and marketing experience. She’s a strategist, storyteller, speaker, blogger, teacher, and content geek who is obsessed with helping companies become so damn relevant that buyers can’t help but choose to become customers and, once a customer, making sure they’d never think of leaving. Today, mailfloss was lucky enough to chat with Ardath about effective ways to use email marketing to reach (and convert) your target audience.

Without further ado, let’s jump into the interview.

The Interview

Hi Ardath and thanks for joining us today to talk about your experience in the marketing space. Today we have an interesting interview planned with you because a lot of the areas of focus do not deal specifically with email marketing but are interesting when looked at through that lens. So let’s kick off the interview by talking a little bit more about how understanding buyer personas has the potential to increase the impact and effectiveness of an email marketing campaign.

B2B buyer personas are actually integral to the effectiveness of an email marketing campaign. The purpose of sending a marketing email is to get a click. Period. The best way to get that click is with a message that resonates with your target audience. And the best way to create relevant content is to really know what your audience cares about. Buyer personas are the tool that informs your content strategy and messaging – including your email marketing campaigns.

To do a level set: “A buyer persona is a composite sketch of a target market based on validated commonalities that actively informs content strategy to drive productive buyer engagement.

The keys to that definition are target audience and commonalities. Base your persona on role, not title. There can be many different titles for folks with the same responsibilities and objectives, so focus on role. Then identify the things they care about that they have in common. The objective of a buyer persona is to help you engage the widest swath of your target market by focusing on the things most relevant to as many of them as possible.

As you mention on your website, buyer personas help businesses create content that their target audience may relate to best. What low-fi, low-cost strategies can smaller startups use to help them build and better understand their buyer personas?

If you have a phone, you’ve got your low-fi, low-cost option at hand. The secret to buyer personas, that actively inform marketing strategy, is talking to your customers. It’s best to talk to those who have purchased within the last year to 18 months because you want them to remember their buying process – what questions they had, what resources they used, what the tipping point was that put them in market, etc.

I’ve found that it’s best to only ask for 30 minutes from each customer if you want to get your interviews scheduled quickly. Asking for more delays the process. And, they’re helping you out. Make sure you’re ready with the questions to ask and that you don’t waste time asking something you can learn from their LinkedIn profile, closed-end questions, or anything that isn’t actionable. For example, demographics, family situation, salary, lifestyle are not things you use in B2B marketing.

Some questions to include:

  • Can you tell me about a day in your life – what are you responsible for and what are your top priorities?
  • What happened that had you looking for a (your solution)?
  • How did you go about researching your options? (What other things did they consider? It could be something other than your direct competitors – you want to know that)
  • What did you need to learn – what questions did you have?
  • Once you narrowed down the options, what did you do?
  • What online resources did you use?
  • Who else was involved in making the decision? (buying committee)
  • Was there any push back from others you had to overcome to get to consensus?
  • Why did you choose us over your other options?

The other thing you’ll want to do is talk to your sales reps and ask them who they engage with at prospect companies and what questions they’re being asked. Ask them why buyers in deals they lost chose an alternative. This helps validate what you’ve heard from customers. I recommend you do this before you build personas, so you know you’re building personas to attract the right prospects that your sales reps want to engage.

There is no substitute for talking to your customers. If you make up the buyer persona based on what you think, you’re not only introducing bias (you’re not the customer) but you’ll also lack the nuance that helps you differentiate your messaging from that of your competitors. There’s a reason your customers choose you over the competition. You need to know what that is.

Once they start better understanding their buyer persona, how should this impact the content contained within their email marketing campaign?

One of the most off-putting things about marketing content is when we use language that is ours, not that of our buyers. Research conducted with buyers shows they’re begging for relevance and for marketers to stop the fluff and overt sales pitches. The truth is, they don’t care about your products, they care about what outcomes they can get that they couldn’t without them. They want their problem solved.

Listen carefully to how your customers talk about their industry, the problem they were solving and the outcomes they were looking for. Use those words and phrases in your email messaging and marketing content. You’ll find much higher levels of engagement because your content will resonate with them naturally.

On your website, I really like how you say, “one-off content is not content marketing.” Would you also argue that one-off emails are not email marketing? Why / why not? How do you approach building a bigger strategy around content marketing?

One-off anything is a bad idea in marketing – in my opinion. The more connected the story you tell, the easier it is to gain and keep attention across the long haul.

For example, let’s say you create an email marketing campaign that has five touches and lasts for two months. If it takes prospects an average of six months to go through their buying process you’ve just cut them off at the knees when your campaign ends at the two-month mark. They’ve engaged. They’re interested. They’re following along…and then…nothing. But then you start your new campaign and they’re sitting there wondering what happened to the “story” they were interested in learning more about?

Buyer personas will help you understand what the entirety of the buying process entails so you can focus on building that story and moving them through it (and through their buying process) as it unfolds. The additional benefit you have is that taking a “serial storytelling” approach to your email marketing programs also helps them remember your brand. You’re the consistent one they can count on for more of the information they want and need. You’ve got staying power and consistency. A key part of the buying decision is how they feel about you as a vendor – not just your product. Showing them how comprehensive your expertise is to help them goes a long way.

And, in case you think running a continuous campaign is limiting, it’s not. Your personas will help you see that. Remember when you interviewed them and asked what they needed to learn about to make the buying decision? Answering those questions is one key to creating a compelling story with your buyer as the hero. And, the beauty is that as more questions come up, you can add them to the story and keep expanding it over time. No more reinventing the wheel for every campaign.

You also mention on your site that content marketing is an “orchestration of relevant ideas and concepts that resonate with all of the different perspectives on the buying committee”. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by“orchestration”. What parts are at play here?

One of the things we’re not privy to as marketers are the conversations that go on internally with our customers. Depending on what types of companies you sell to, this can include 11 or more people – all with differing roles and perspectives. Our content needs to address those varying perspectives to help our buyer get them all on the same page. So think about the opportunity to send an email to your buyer with a message about how “this content” will help their (Director of X) understand the value of choosing (your product) to solve the problem. Here’s what’s in it for them…

As you point out on your site, buyers are “self-educating”. Can you tell us a little bit more about the intersection where education and email marketing meet? In your opinion, how important is education as an email marketing content type?

Education is critical. Think about it this way. Even if your prospect has purchased what you sell a few years back, chances are that there are new things to consider now. Think about how fast products evolve, technology most of all.

But take a step back from that. Your prospects likely have a way to do whatever it is that your solution solves for today. They may not even realize they have a problem. Or they may know they have a problem but don’t understand what they can gain by fixing it or the true cost of not fixing it.

Your audience is most likely to spend time engaging with your email if it teaches them something new or provides a new perspective to consider. Education comes in many forms. I’d argue that nearly all marketing is educational in some way. Why do your prospects read your case studies? I’d say it’s to learn how others, like them, solved the problem they’re facing by choosing your solution.

You also mention that content must serve as an enticement to push people to engage with your sales reps. You mention that “getting prospects in sales conversations is a primary objective of digital content strategy.” How does this play out as it relates to email content?

There are many ways to answer this question for B2B. The first is that the whole point of content marketing (and arguably email marketing) is to create engagement with customers and potential customers. If your messaging and the content you share are focused on addressing your audience’s needs in a way that’s relatable and helps them see themselves solving their problem, prospects will reach out to speak with sales as a result of that value provided.

Another way to answer this question is that if your nurturing program is well designed and engagement is high, then there can be several trigger points where sending an email asking them to request a demo or a conversation with your sales team is appropriate – and may just be the nudge the prospect needs because it comes at a time when they’re ready to take a next step.

A third way is to create email sequences for your sales reps to send out to the prospects they’re pursuing, offering valuable insights in exchange for a conversation. By helping create this sequence, you have a better shot at having the story your sales reps are sharing match the story marketing is sharing so you have a consistent narrative across the buying cycle. There’s nothing worse than a prospect thinking they know “you” and then receiving an email from a sales rep that’s completely out of left field given the content they’ve been viewing.

You also believe it’s content that will set a company apart from its competition. What do you mean by this and how would you respond to people who would disagree with you and say it’s primarily the product that separates one company from another?

Nobody cares about your product. Period. No one. What they care about is what the product can do for them that they couldn’t do without it. They care about what’s in it for them (WIIFM) which generally means solving a problem that’s keeping them from meeting objectives.

In a B2B complex purchase, there’s a lot of inherent risk. People get fired for making the wrong choices. A B2B complex purchase is a major change management initiative. It usually means that people are going to have to change to adopt the new solution. People don’t like change – including your buyers. There are two things that I’ve seen become primary reasons why purchases result in no decision or a lost deal.

  1. The buying committee can’t reach consensus because they can’t deconflict all the various information each person on the buying committee brought back. Because they can’t agree on which perspective to believe, they end up not choosing to change and stick with the status quo. Let’s hope that’s not based on solution brochures from your company that misrepresent your product!
  2. The second reason is that they felt the vendor wasn’t a good cultural fit and the product they were buying was pretty much the same across the final vendors they were evaluating (the buyer’s perspective). Prospects see most products today as commodities and are looking for that something special from a vendor that has them feel like a partner. It’s called trust.

To apply this to email marketing, it’s important to consider the emotional component of your emails. How does your audience feel when your email hits their inbox? Do they snarl, think ‘you, again’ and hit delete? Or do they open it with anticipation to see what helpful information you’re sharing today? Those are pretty much your choices. Obviously, you want the latter response. What drives that is the content and messaging.

In answer to the first reason above, provide clear information focused on adding value to your prospect’s search for an answer to their challenge. In answer to the second, exhibit the qualities that builds a predisposition to trust you based on the quality of the information your email deliver. If your sales team exhibits this same care and value, the consistency of experience will keep your prospects predisposed to choosing your solution – as long as the product delivers what they need.

Lastly, let us throw a hypothetical scenario at you. You’re offered a new job at a small startup with no formal marketing department. You’re given one week on the job to implement the three most important systems or processes that will help this company grow in the long run. What are the three things you work on this week and how do you get them off the ground?

The three things I’d implement are:

  1. Buyer personas
  2. New positioning and messaging on the website
  3. Launch a blog

I made several assumptions and one week isn’t a lot of time. I assumed that the website was passable, but not really showcasing a kick-butt, buyer-driven story. In order to change this, I’d need to talk to customers quickly to discover the story that will stick and pull others in. If I can get 10, 30-minute phone calls with customers, I can do this – or at least a phase 1 buyer persona – enough to get started. Quick chats with the sales reps and founders will give me additional insight I can gather quickly that will help to ensure alignment between the company and its target market.

The other assumption I made is that the startup needs awareness and content for the sales team. A blog can help with both. Buyer personas will identify the questions your prospects have and what they need to learn to buy your product. Answering those questions gives you an editorial calendar for the blog.

Once you have those things, you can do a lot to have marketing contributing to the startup. And, it’s important to consider that in a startup, marketing must wear a lot of hats. Sales enablement is one of them.

Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with the mailfloss email marketing blog readers today Ardath. We really appreciate you taking the time. To our audience, if you’d like to learn more about Ardath and the work she does, you can follow her on Twitter or head over to her website here.