Which comes first for content marketers—the buyer journey or the buyer persona?

I’ve been thinking about this question ever since commenting on Adele Ravella’s blog post about how B2B buyer personas need to go beyond demographic details to provide insights into buyer behavior. My response was that buyer personas without buyer journeys were like sentences without verbs—they go nowhere.

But how do you get the insights that breathe life into your personas? It’s a typical chicken and egg question.

What’s In a Name?

First a few definitions are in order. Buyer personas are profiles of the kinds of people who participate in deciding whether to buy your product, subscribe to your solution, or hire your company. For B2B providers, these buyers run in packs. Estimates of how many people weigh in on a buying decision vary from industry to industry, but for B2B technology decisions, IDC suggests there are at least seven people involved, perhaps more.

The best buyer personas capture what motivates each individual role in the purchasing process and how they interact with the other people involved in the decision.

The buyer’s journey is the path they all take to get there. The travel metaphor is apt, because anyone who’s gone on a trip with a group of people knows everything gets harder as the group gets bigger. Where to go, how to get there, how far to plan ahead, how much to pay, what’s optional and what can’t be missed—it’s all up for debate. Indeed, the way different roles interact throughout the buying process is neither linear nor well defined.

That’s why well informed buyer personas are so helpful.

It’s All in the Details

Many marketers use demographic details such as names, photographs, and fictional resumes to bring their buyer personas to life. Calling a buyer persona by name gives that role a presence that’s hard to ignore. It’s not uncommon, for example, to hear how Peter (the IT decision maker) might answer a question or how Marina (the small business owner) would respond to a proposed marketing message.

This is a powerful way to keep buyers central to the process. It’s also much easier to develop content with an individual in mind.

But buyer personas are only one tool. What you are really trying to figure out as a content marketer is how your buyers move from identifying their challenge to choosing who will help them. As a February 2013 Forrester Research, Inc., report entitled “Rethink Marketing in The Buyer’s Context” suggests, B2B marketers need to put the buyer’s journey at the center of their marketing efforts.

Q&A

Paired with an understanding of the buyers’ often serpentine path to purchase, buyer personas can help unlock the triggers that move buyers from thinking about their challenge, to looking for solutions, to short-listing who can help them. You need to know what questions your buyers are asking at each stage and then answer those questions, notes Forrester Research in the report mentioned above. That’s where buyer personas and the buying journey intersect. And once you know those questions, then you can answer them with content that anticipates their needs.

Which to develop first is a probably a function of what’s close at hand. Beware though—naming is easier than knowing. And knowledge of how they get from one step to the next is the best way to ensure you’ll be there at the end of their journey.

Looking for guidance about how to map content to the buyer’s journey? Download our solution brief The Right Content at the Right Time.

Image credit: Ruben Alexander