Who Do You Think You’re Talking To? An Interview with Strategist Ardath Albee

12 minute read

Upland Admin

She’s obsessed. She says so in her LinkedIn profile where she explains her company, Marketing Interactions, is all about helping B2B companies make “the transition from traditional marketing to customer-obsessed marketing.” 

Want to generate higher demand from sales-ready prospects? You need to become customer-obsessed too.

Meet marketing strategist and author Ardath Albee. If you offer complex B2B solutions, Ardath is happy to talk about content with you, but if and only if, the conversation begins with the need to understand your customers.

That’s precisely what happened when I had the chance to speak to Ardath—as you’re about to see.

Who Cares About Personas?

You help clients create persona-driven digital marketing strategy. What’s that mean? Why should a B2B enterprise marketer care?

Ardath: The easy answer is relevance and context. Persona-driven digital marketing strategy is about honing in on the segments of your market that buy your products and have needs for the solutions you provide.

If you’re not focused on specific segments or personas, you’re trying to speak to everybody at the same time.

In the book The Challenger CustomerCEB identified that there’s an average of 5.4 people involved in the B2B buying process for a complex product.

You can’t talk to all five of these people in the same way. Each of them has a different role. They have different things they care about and they’re going to bring their specific perspective to the buying process. So as a B2B enterprise marketer, if you don’t know what the distinctions are, who are you creating content for?

Buying processes are getting longer and you need to create a strategy for how you’re going to engage these buyers and help them through their decision process from beginning to end. There has to be a strategy. Just publishing content is not going to get the job done.

So there’s two pieces: One, you have to define your different audiences and do the persona work. Two, when you know who they are, you need to ask, “How are we going to engage them using content in an online channel?”

I’ve read where you call this the “compass.” What do you mean by that?

Ardath: People often look at the buying process as this linear thing: a buyer becomes aware, then they consider how to solve the problem, they evaluate the options, and they make a purchase. It doesn’t happen that way, especially given all the channels we have now.

So we really need to figure out how to reach and engage them in various channels. Thinking of the buying process as a compass means taking the persona work you’ve done and mapping it by creating what engagement scenarios—as I call them—look like.

How are we going to attract their attention? What do we do to engage them? What channels does that happen in? How do we keep that going throughout the process they use to make buying decisions?

Quite often, B2B marketers think, “Okay I have these five or six channels and I need to put content in them,” and they go throw content out there. But they don’t connect any of the dots, so they don’t know if they are engaging people correctly. They’re not giving anybody anything to do to take action. So they’re not creating any intent or commitment.

Part of the problem is they don’t really know what it means when they encounter a buyer in a particular channel who engages with a piece of content. They haven’t created the strategy. So, they don’t know that a particular piece of content is answering a question a buyer might have when they’re at a specific stage in the buying process.

The Practice of Producing Personas

I often see marketers nodding their heads when the conversation becomes about the importance of persona development. They get it. But do they have a good handle on it? A lot of marketers get hung up doing personas.

How can B2B marketers get better at persona development—or even get started?

Ardath: Good question. Developing personas takes a lot more than getting the marketing team in a room around a pizza and saying, “Okay, let’s describe our buyers.”

The problem we have as marketers is we know too much about our products. We think we know our buyers, but our perspective is skewed because we make it about what we think.

When I work with clients, I stress the first thing they need to understand is what they think about their buyers probably isn’t going to turn out to be what’s true, once we’ve done the research.

So one of the things marketers really need to do is qualitative research. They need to do interviews. On top of that, they need to think about the relationships between their personas. Very often what happens is marketers address personas in silos.

Let’s say, you have three personas and if you’re going to create a content strategy to engage Sally. You do that and you think, “Okay, what does Sally think about at every step during the process?” and you create a content plan for Sally.

Then you have John. And you do the same thing for John. Then you have Harry and you do the same thing for him, but you never look at what Sally needs from John. What kinds of discussions are John and Harry going to have? How do they influence each other?

In the The Challenger Customerone of the things CEB talks about is buying committees reach the height of conflict, on average, when they’re 37% of the way through the buying process. They also point out B2B buyers won’t reach out to a vendor until they’re 57% of the way through the buying process.

So if the height of conflict is at 37%—and we haven’t been able to influence them with our content—or help them influence each other, how many buyers are actually not even getting to the point where they engage with a vendor?

You really need to start thinking about how to help these personas, these buyers, work together. What are the overlays? What do those relationship look like? Most B2B marketers aren’t doing the work to discover these things.

“It’s Not That Easy” 

Ardath and I talked about the research CMI and MarketingProfs do each year, in which most content marketers say they’re not effective or they don’t know if they are.

In recent years, we’ve seen a decline in the number of content marketers who claim to have effective programs. What’s going on here?

Ardath: Look back at the research all the way to 2010, which I think was the first year. 41% said they were effective with content marketing.

I think what content marketing is, the definition, the reality of it, has changed.

In 2010, all of the talk was about you need to become a publisher. Marketers did that. They published blogs and content and said, “Okay, I’m a content marketer.”

But content marketing really is a practice, it’s a strategic approach to how you use content to engage people and persuade them to make a buying decision. It’s not just about publishing content on your blog every Tuesday. That’s not content marketing; that’s publishing.

I think, as time has gone by, marketers have looked at it and thought,

“Wait, this isn’t really working,” and it’s because they’re just publishing. They haven’t taken a strategic approach.

The research shows 55% of marketers say they don’t know what an effective content marketing program looks like. It’s probably because they’ve never actually executed one. They’re thinking content marketing is all about “let’s publish content,” and that’s not true.

Jake Sorofman from Gartner wrote a blog post about this after Content Marketing World last year where he said content marketing is sliding into the trough of disillusionment, as it relates to their hype cycle. We had all this excitement about content marketing in the beginning and then the reality kind of set in—it’s not that easy.

Marketers who have done the hard work and committed to it are doing very well, but most of them are not. I think it’s a big wakeup call. I think marketers have to figure that out and learn how to execute successfully.

Do you think marketers are having a hard time defining what effective means?

Ardath: I do and it’s because they use the same metrics they use for traditional marketing. They may not be measuring the right things.

How many times a piece of content gets viewed will tell you whether the topic is popular with people, but it’s not going to tell you if they’re going to buy.

Enter marketing automation. Most marketers use it as a glorified email blaster. But what really needs to be done is figuring out lead scoring. How can we actually monitor and figure out the buying process and the things people need to actively learn about in order to make progress towards making a decision? It’s a difficult thing and not as easy as everybody thought it would be.

The Campaign vs. The Continuum

Ardath said one of the things that makes content marketing difficult is it takes time and persistence. In her book, Digital Relevance, she refers to it as “the continuum.”

Do you think B2B marketers remain overly focused on campaigns and is the approach going to let them down?

Ardath: It absolutely will. Yes, we are overly dependent on campaigns. “The continuum,” which I write about in the book, means engaging people all the way through the entirety of the buying process.

The problem we have is campaigns are a construct companies or marketers created so they could box the thing in and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to measure against.’”

And so, to use the stereotype, three touches and a sales call executed in the month of June is going to get us 200 leads. And when you use the word “leads” you should put quotes around it because form completion is not a lead.

A lot of my clients are tech companies and they’re selling big solutions. The buying process could range from 9 months to 24 months or longer. So they need to keep people engaged across that period of time based on the things they need to know about it at different stages.

When you run a campaign, let’s say the topic is really interesting and it engages some buyers, but it only runs for a month, or maybe a quarter. You get the person really involved in the topic and they’re moving forward thinking this is great.

Then all of the sudden the information stops coming. Next, they get an email from a sales person who says, “Do you want a demo?” They say, “Wait. I still have to talk to John and Harry and Sally and get all these questions answered.” And so they delete the email from the sales person and go looking for more information.

What you’ve done is halted their momentum and engagement with you because your campaign ended. It’s not on their timeline—it’s yours. So we’re really doing ourselves a disservice as marketers when we think in terms of campaigns.

Are We In the Dark Age? 

The first wave of content marketing seems to have been simply about the need to do it. Now, a second wave focuses on doing it more effectively. 

In between doing content marketing and doing it effectively, there seems to be a dark age. Marketers appear to be in the dark about how to come together to best serve their customers. 

Ardath: I absolutely agree. Content marketing really requires a cultural change, or at the very least, a change of mindset from the way marketers have always done it.

It’s very hard to dislodge the product or the brand from the center of everything and put the customer there. That’s not how companies were built. That’s not how marketers were trained. So it’s easy to revert back to that. It’s one of the things that keep us from making progress.

But the other thing is, as marketing has evolved and all the new channels have come around, we’ve created silos—within marketing. You have the social media team that never talks to the corporate communications team… the demand gen team that doesn’t talk to the web team, and whatever. We’re all executing things in our own way.

Quite often when I work for a client, I get engaged by a demand generation director in charge of a particular industry or product line, but there are 17 other industries or product lines in the company that are not doing content marketing. So it’s going to take a big shift.

Buyers have changed. They’re not going back to “your product is the most important thing on the planet.” It’s not going to happen. You need to change and put the customer in the center, or you’re going to stay in the dark.

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