Illustration by Louis Prado

In the past five years, we have seen exponential disruption each year in multiple markets. Digital technologies and resulting transformation turning markets literally inside out. Fundamentally reshaping markets in five years’ time compared to the fifty to seventy years it may have taken to build up a market.

Take for instance the iconic yellow cab, a fixture in New York City for decades. In the past few years, the yellow cab companies have been unable to stem a rapid decline from the onslaught of Uber, Lyft, Juno, Via, and other ride platforms. Revenues falling by as much as 40% and many drivers switching to Uber.

To think digital transformation is primarily a consumer phenomenon is a fallacy. The introduction of the cloud has uprooted many B2B businesses whose foundations were built on hosted premise software. Cloud-based applications are creating new business models enabling not only entry into existing markets but the creation of new markets.

Understanding Customers Has Changed

In this era of disruptive digital transformation, customer behaviors in B2B and B2C markets are radically changing. Making the need for organizations to understand customers a centerpiece of their growth strategies. One means for the last sixteen years to understand customers and buyers have been the use of buyer persona development. It is time to rethink buyer persona development in this new era of digital disruption.

When the concept of buyer personas was first launched in 2001, the world was a very different place. Since that time, there has been a significant upheaval in what was once an indication of a stable corporate order. During sixteen years, we have seen more than half (52%) of the Fortune 500 at the start of the new millennium merge, be acquired, or go bankrupt. And, more than half of those still existing are losing money.

Developing a deeper understanding of customers has been and is becoming a stronger strategic aspect of growth. New business models and customer behaviors mean companies must adapt or be another statistic in the next ten years. It also calls for new thinking when it comes to buyer persona development and gathering insights.

In this article, let us walk through 4 specific trends affecting a need for rethinking buyer personas:

1 – The Buyer Is Also The User and The User Is Also The Buyer

When the concept of personas was first introduced, they were introduced on the foundation of informing design strategy. How to design products and services that were user-friendly and enabled users to fulfill their goals. Buyer personas were an outgrowth of this founding principle of understanding goals and goal-directed behaviors. In this case, the focus is on understanding the goals of buyers to inform overall marketing and sales strategies. Sixteen years ago, particularly in B2B, the line between user and buyer was more like a gap. Today, many buyers are also users and power users. And, conversely, many users are buyers. The era of digital transformation has fused notions of a buyer and a user into one. Approaches rooted in old principles of product marketing and purchasing for buyer personas are outdated.

2 – Market-based vs. Account-based

In the 1980’s, the idea of major and national accounts gained traction in sales. Account-based sales were the rage in the ‘80s ‘90s. and early 2000’s. In the last two years, we have seen the concept of account-based marketing take hold. Which, is not very different in thinking from when the idea of “account-based” was first introduced. And, buyer personas are sought to identify the roles to target for account-based marketing. The era of digital transformation is making this a flawed concept.

Why?

Sixteen years ago, organizations were staunchly hierarchal. Largely driven by a workforce of layered middle management, manual processes, and arcane approval policies. What we are seeing today, enabled by digital transformation, is companies and divisions within large enterprises, operate like markets. Entrepreneurial and not within the conventional large organizational reporting structures of the past. Where the proverbial org chart was a mile long. Acting inter-dependently and intra-dependently with other divisions as both suppliers and purchasers to succeed in their own markets.

This flaw can have a dramatic impact. Here is one voice of a VP, Sales for an $8b entity:

“This is going to sound harsh but I honestly am convinced we lost one of our largest customers due to going overboard on account-based marketing. We overly focused on how we thought decisions were made up the chain and missed out on how the customer was really operating. Basically, we wound up focusing on the wrong people and didn’t get it right.”

If persona development is approached in this same way, the result may very well be a flawed picture and understanding of customers.

3 – The Rise of the Digital Platform Economy

In the past five years, we have seen the emergence of a rapidly growing platform economy. Creating new platform-based markets, business models, infrastructures, and ecosystems. Altering and reorganizing how people and businesses work, compete, create value, socialize, interact, and ultimately earn profits. Proving to be a major force behind an accelerated pace towards globalization on many fronts. History may look back at the rise of the platform economy much in the same way history has treated the Industrial Revolution.

Platform-based models have had a dramatic impact on consumer-oriented markets. Some of the well-known examples include Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb. Since the arrival of the Internet, B2C digital development has served as a forerunner for B2B. We are already seeing and can predict that growth in B2B digital platforms will accelerate. Some of our oldest institutions are seeking ways to develop platforms specifically for ensuring the success of their customers. A case in point is John Deere’s My John Deere Operations Center. Enabling connected farm operations amongst equipment, fields, and personnel.

The notion of buyers as different from users, once again, is being drastically altered. The way people and business engage in work activities and decisions will need to be viewed through the lenses of an emerging digital platform economy. Pre-Internet conventions related to understanding buyers and customers through the lenses of buying criteria and separation between buyers and users can no longer apply in a digital platform economy.

4 – Digital Interaction Will Matter More Than Content

When personas first began, specifically user personas, they did so within the context of what was then called interaction design. Which looked at the design of products or services in terms of human interaction with computers. In the era of digital transformation and the emergence of the platform economy, more than ever, organizations will need to pay heed to how it designs its interaction with its customers in the future.

Much attention has been paid to content marketing and more recently customer experience in the past five years. However, many organizations are attempting to grow through these means without attending to what matters first and foremost – the design of digital interactions, environments, and systems. The results have been a decline in content marketing effectiveness. Problematic is the putting on of new clothes for older concepts, such as content marketing and then trying to shoehorn them into less than optimal digital interactive environments.

As the era of digital transformation evolves and the platform economy expands, the desire for truly interactive environments will grow. Organizations stuck in neutral on thinking that producing more content to absorb is the path to growth will be left with the one thing they dread – no people or business interacting with them.

Rethinking Buyer Personas

These four trends are reshaping the concept of how organizations will need to understand customers to survive in the era of digital transformation. What executive leaders will need to adopt is a market development mindset going forward. Focusing on addressing existing markets undergoing radical change. And, embarking on new market development initiatives to stay competitive in a digital-centric environment.

As we rethink persona development for understanding the customer of today, the need arises to understand networked market ecosystems. More specifically, digitally networked market ecosystems. Where account-based and role-based thinking is replaced by market-based and ecosystem-based thinking. Whereby the emphasis is not on a separate buyer or user personas but on networked market personas and their interaction in a digital market ecosystem.

An important outcome and concept for businesses to now consider are:

As digital transformation increases exponentially, the need for human insights will increase exponentially.

The following is a video where Amy Bernstein, Editor of Harvard Business Reviews, explains how leaders will need to be more flexible and understand the importance of context in a world of digital transformation.

(On a personal note, I have taken a reflective two month period recently. It has been sixteen years since the concept of buyer personas was founded and first introduced. Heavy engagement in the past two years in new digital platform markets has led me to believe that reinvention and rethinking is important for the future use of personas in strategy and marketing. I look forward to sharing more on new thinking and approaches in subsequent articles.)