Solutions that report on marketing results have been around for decades. Demand for useful data has produced mature marketing automation solutions at prices that make them affordable for companies of every size.

So why do marketers still struggle to gain credibility for their results? Why can’t anyone tell me how much revenue they are generating?

As I see it, the problem with attributing revenue to marketing results can only be partially addressed by technology, especially in B2B companies with complex sales cycles that extend for months or even years.

We can easily measure the number of marketing touches: how many times prospects downloaded a white paper and who attended a webinar, for example. With the right technology, we can even say how many times a particular person visited our website, where they went, and how long they stayed.

In short, we have access to plenty of data about “what” buyers are doing. Big data promises even more answers to this question. The problem occurs when we try to attach meaning to those statistics. As Mark Twain famously reported in his autobiography, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

The holy grail of marketing metrics requires us to prove that a given marketing interaction had an impact on whether we won or lost that buyer’s business. If we understood that cause and effect relationship, we could assure our stakeholders that doing more of X will generate N qualified sales leads and Y revenue.

I’ve spent decades presenting results based on these marketing metrics. I’ve run A-B tests and crunched numbers in an attempt to relate our investment with the desired (or undesired) results. But correlations are not proof of cause and effect, a fact that I’ve personally had to admit far too many times. Who’s to say that the deal wouldn’t have happened anyway?

As it turns out, the missing piece of the puzzle is a byproduct of the interviews that are required for the Five Rings of Insight about buyer personas. Because marketers are interviewing recent evaluators of the company’s solutions (including wins and losses), they can ask probing questions about what influenced the buyer to make a particular choice.

By merging these persona findings with data from their marketing automation systems, these marketers gain unbelievable clarity about their marketing ROI.

Here’s a completely made up example about a company that is marketing laptop computers to small business owners (note that we can never publish real insights for buyer personas because our clients wouldn’t want their competitors to have this information).

In this example, we see that our PR and LinkedIn activities are working well. The Small Business Owner was impressed by the coverage we got in the The Wall Street Journal and told the Office Manager to include us in the evaluation.

But then our marketing automation solution tells us that only 20% of office managers who did that evaluation continued to include us in their “top 5″ options. Through the buyer interviews, we learn why: that the Office Manager, not the Small Business Owner (economic buyer), is our target buyer persona at this critical phase, and that she’s relying on case studies and blogs to determine that the battery life and size of our laptops doesn’t meet her needs. Our marketing activities need to improve in this area.

We also learn that our displays at Best Buy and sales training are working with the subset of buyers who do continue to evaluate us. The Office Manager is impressed with the feel of our keyboards and screen resolution – features that our website is effectively communicating.

By combining this information with the Five Rings of Insight for each of these buyer personas, this team knows what type of content they need to deliver (top priority: address erroneous data about size and battery life) and that they must get case studies and blogs working to their advantage.

Best of all, the team has transcripts of interviews with actual buyers to prove that these insights are impacting revenue so they can rally the company around a strategy to fix the most critical issues.

What is your experience? Have you asked your buyers to tell you their story about their buying experience, probing beyond their obvious first answer to get to the truth about why they chose you? Are you using these insights to fill in the gaps in your knowledge about your marketing ROI?

I hope you’ll share your comments, questions and experiences.