Why ideal prospects are the only prospects that matter

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Doug Kessler

20. 09. 2017 | 11 min read

Why ideal prospects are the only prospects that matter

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I’ve been seeing a lot of ‘Mega-Influencer Roundups’ that ask the question, “What single thing would make the biggest difference to every B2B marketing strategy?”.

None of them have asked me yet, so I’ve decided to ask myself myself. And here’s my answer:

The single thing that would make the biggest difference to every B2B marketing strategy is to write a detailed profile of your ideal prospect and get everyone in Sales and Marketing to sign it. In blood. (Or, like, red ink).

I really do believe it’s the one act that will make the most impact on your marketing. And even though it sounds obvious—and you may feel you already do it—it’s incredibly rare in B2B.

This post is my endearingly naive attempt to change that, making the world a better place not just for marketers but also for every victim of marketing (including you and, especially, me).

A thought experiment

You’re about to give a short pitch to an auditorium full of people.

No: two pitches to two audiences. One in Room A, one in Room B.

Room A is full of people who your products are literally made for. Every one of them suffers from the acute pains that your products alleviate. They all have the perfect job titles in the right size companies in your target industries. They hate the things you hate and love the things you love. These are your people.

In Room B, the audience was chosen at random from a bunch of people who are milling and mingling in and around your market. Homo Sapiens. The sentient. A few of them might even be good prospects. Hard to tell.

Now think about how much easier it will be to talk to the audience in Room A. How much more rewarding when they start to nod in agreement as you sketch out their world and list their biggest challenges. How confident you’ll feel as you outline how your solutions slam-dunk those very challenges. How validating when they clap.

Now think of how deadening it will be to talk to the people in Room B. No real response. An oil painting. Maybe one guy in row Q looks up from his Android and coughs. No one asks any questions. You get feeble, polite applause (if any) as you slink off stage.

Well, today, we’re all spending a fortune to market to Room B.

Most B2B companies are so scared of closing down anything that just might, might, might turn into an opportunity (spoiler alert: won’t) that we cast the World’s Widest Net with the world’s smallest holes.

We try to appeal to absolutely everyone in our ‘addressable universe’, saying nothing that might alienate even the tiniest micro-segment.

Weirdly, this obsession to appeal to everyone virtually guarantees that we actually resonate with no one.

There’s a better approach and it’s the exact opposite one: instead of widening your net, narrow it.

Focus entirely on your ideal prospects.

Every B2B marketing team feels it has a good grasp of its target audience.

After all, there’s that detailed-but-kinda-dusty persona document lying around somewhere. In it, there are little stock photos of ‘Scott the IT Guy’ and ‘Miranda the Procurement Asshole’ (just me?). We even gave them cute little kids (Brett and Kayla) and token hobbies (Scott’s into carp fishing. Miranda likes pulling the wings off of flies.).

But these stereotypical snapshots are just job titles with false identities. Shady, out-of-focus characters enrolled in some kind of Prospect Protection Program.

They’re nowhere near your ideal prospects.

Who are your ideal prospects?

Your ideal prospects are defined by two things:

  • They’re the people MOST likely to buy your stuff – Not a little more likely, dramatically more likely. For a whole host of reasons we’ll touch on in a sec.
  • They’re the customers most likely to love you once they do buy – This is not the same as the first group.  It’s a subset of the first group. They’re the people for whom your products are a perfect fit.

These people are as different from your generic personas as my mother is from a cardboard cut-out of a stock photo of an 83-year old man with the word “Doug’s Mother” scrawled across it.

Ideal prospects don’t just differ from ‘pretty good prospects’ in one or two ways (company size, industry). They’re different in about a dozen ways – from the superficial to the absolutely critical.

Bob Apollo from Inflexion Point produced a great guide on this topic called Identifying Your Ideal Customers. (When I’m elected Most High Emperor of the Council of B2B Elders, reading it will become mandatory. And there will be a quiz.)

In it, Bob helps you tease out all the many different dimensions that make a prospect ideal. He groups the dimensions into handy buckets, including:

Demographic – the company size, industry etc (where most marketing personas end but where ideal prospect definitions start).

For Velocity, our ideal prospects are B2B tech companies over a certain size (though size isn’t always that important a factor).

Structural – their market position, growth strategy, competitive products used…

For us, it tends to be disruptors shaking up their markets. Companies driving change in their own markets. They’re also way more likely to have CRM and marketing automation in place (if not yet firing on all cylinders).

Behavioural – this is about their decision-making processes, their appetite for innovation, etc.

We add beliefs and ‘psychographics’ to this category, so for us it’s: confident, ambitious marketers with some power inside their companies. Data-driven, results-monkeys who know why a strong brand and clear voice are important things.

Situational – they’ve recently experienced some kind of trigger events, like a change in management, new investment round, big market shake-up…

For Velocity, this might mean a new CMO, a recent acquisition or a plan to enter a new market. Also, maybe a failed or faltering demand-gen initiative.

Bob’s piece then helps you build a table where you score each of the dimensions you’ve identified (and spot things that ‘qualify out’ a prospect). Then shows you how to turn that table into a short narrative.

As you think about your prospects in this way, something weird starts to happen. That fuzzy target you’ve always been aiming at suddenly snaps into focus.

And once your ideal prospect is clearly in focus, the zillion decisions you make every day as a marketer become a lot clearer.

Re-thinking your metrics when you focus on ideal prospects

The most important metrics in sales and marketing all get dramatically better when you stop focusing on ‘bipeds who walk upright’ and start focusing all your efforts on ideal prospects.

Opens, clicks, bounce rates, time on site, pages per session, conversion rates, email sign-ups, product trial rates, trial-to-purchase rates, product usage, loyalty, renewals, positive reviews…all go up.

Yes, a few vanity metrics might go down: web traffic may decrease. But the traffic you do get will be so much better that you’ll run around showing the declining Google Analytics chart to everyone.

(Joe Chernov, the uber-smart VP of Marketing at InsightSquared, said that, when he took the job, his goal was for his blog traffic to stay flat or decrease a bit—but for the traffic to be replaced with people from their named account list. How brave is that to say out loud?)

Also (and this may be tough to think about) the number of so-called “Marketing-Qualified Leads” might go down. That’s probably because it was a lie anyway. These leads were no more qualified than if you threw a rock into the crowd at an Anthrax concert and plucked out the guy it hit after bouncing off the guy it hit first.

If your leads really were MQLs, then the number won’t go down much when you focus on your ideal prospects. But if they were actually just people who downloaded a whitepaper, then, yes, you will pass fewer of these to Sales. As well you bloody should.

(You may want to buy Sales a frappuccino to discuss this new, ‘a-bit-fewer-but-way-better’ dynamic. Otherwise, it could get ugly.)

The big upside of focusing on ideal prospects

Let’s look a bit more into the benefits you get when you stop worrying about attracting everyone in the market and start focusing on the best fits:

You multiply your chance of resonating with these most important people. Pause to consider that: you multiply your chance of resonating with the people most likely to buy. You want this. You definitely want this.

Your sales cycles will accelerate – Selling to every shlump who stumbles over your welcome mat is hard work. Selling to ideal prospects is largely a matter of answering their questions as quickly and truthfully as you can. Salespeople really prefer this and will thank you for sending them more of these and fewer shlumps.

Average order values go up – Because these folks value what you do.

You’ll get a lot less churn – When you sell to the wrong people, they tend to figure it out… and leave. When you sell to the right people, they tend to stick around… and spend.

Which means more and louder customer advocates – Happy customers tweeting and instagramming their enthusiasm are worth their weight in Bitcoin. They’ll also be more willing to give you a case story, act as a customer reference and speak at your events. Ka-ching.

And marketing’s stock within the company shoots up – Because the revenue pipeline you create and influence has real revenue in it instead of imaginary revenue (the kind that makes up 86% of most ‘pipelines’ out there).

All this goodness happens when you concentrate your budget on the people most likely to buy and love your stuff instead of spraying your budget in a fine mist across some job titles.

The downside of focusing on ideal prospects

There are some downsides to the obsessive focus on ideal prospects—but they’re far outweighed by the value we just talked about.

Re-focusing your marketing machine in this way will require some change. And change demands change management: talking to all your stakeholders; getting executive sponsorship; evangelizing the need to change; marketing your successes…

Frankly, it’s a pain in the arse. But not nearly as much as the alternatives.

Remember: when you focus on ideal prospects, you still get plenty of heat radiating out from this hot center. You aren’t refusing to sell to anyone else, you’re just laser-focusing on ideal prospects. Others loitering nearby will hear that conversation, and some will be compelled by it into becoming ideal prospects themselves.

Still others will continue to approach the edge of your funnel… and some will fall in.

A virtuous circle

As you find your ideal prospects and serve them slavishly, you kick off a feedback loop that keeps making your company better.

Think about it: if your product marketers get their feedback from a mixed bag of happy and not-so-happy customers, the product development will get distorted accordingly. Making your product decreasingly appealing to the next ideal prospect.

But when they gather feedback from ideal customers, the product roadmap will become increasingly ideal-customer-optimized. Your products will get better and better for the people who matter most.

That feedback loop works inside the marketing team too. Your laser-focused efforts will be rewarded while your blind punts will not. So you’ll do more of the focused kind.

How your ideal prospect focus will shape your content marketing

Marketing in general—and content marketing in particular—is a game of choices. Lots and lots of choices.

When everyone is marching under a flag with the picture of your ideal prospect embroidered on it, those choices get a lot simpler.

Does that piece of content reflect everything we know about our ideal prospects?
How likely is it to resonate with these specific people?
Are we casting too wide a net, hoping to get lucky?
Do our ideal prospects hang out where we’re promoting our content?
Are the issues we’re discussing the ones they care most about?
Are we talking the way they talk?

Typical B2B marketing tries to not alienate anyone (including your ideal prospects).

Ideal-prospect-obsessed marketing tries much harder to resonate with the few—by being willing to alienate the many.

How an ideal prospect focus worked for Velocity

Nothing is more liberating than a clear idea of who will love your company and its products and who will just look at them and go, ‘Meh’.

We know this because this exact strategy transformed our own business (okay, we call it a strategy now, but it was really dumb luck).

When we started out as an agency, we looked across our client base and noticed something: for some clients, we did great work, had a ton of fun, made good money and had a happy, productive relationship.

For other clients, everything was like pulling teeth. Projects were painfully slow. Our margins disappeared. The team got demoralized and the clients weren’t happy.

So when we started to publish our own content, we wrote it for the former types (confident, ambitious marketers who had earned some power in their companies). We did it knowing that we’d probably actively alienate the second kind of client: the ones we’d be out of sync with. We weren’t just okay with that, we were eager for it.

As we were increasingly approached by our ideal marketers, the business changed dramatically. Today, our dance card is filled with the kind of marketers we love working with. They have the same ideas about what makes for great marketing. They’re up for trying new things. They enjoy marketing the same way we do.

Turns out, that’s not just a whole hell of a lot more fun, it also leads to way better work and a much stronger business.

(This effect is probably magnified because we’re in a relationship business. Getting it wrong is a high-ticket mistake. But the same principle applies to makers of ball bearings: if you sell to sphere-o-philes who desperately need to reduce rotational friction while supporting radial and axial loads, you’re on a better-smarter-faster track than if you sell to ‘people who need metal things’).

So focus.

If you don’t have a super-clear idea of who your ideal prospect is, everything you do in your sales and marketing will be much, much harder.

But if you do have a clear idea, everything gets much, much easier.

So I urge you to do that.

And align.

Focusing on your ideal prospects depends on everyone agreeing on what an ideal prospect is.

So it’s critical to get everyone who will ever review or comment on or benefit from your marketing to agree on this ideal prospect profile.

Achieving alignment around this might be hard work. But it’s important work. Probably the most important work you will ever do.

Let us know how you get on.

Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • B2B Demand Generation

  • B2B ideal customer profiles

  • b2b-lead-generation

  • ideal prospect definitions

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  1. Andrea O

    September 21st, 2017

    Yup yup yup! So true and obvious. I don’t know why it seems so hard for some companies to follow that simple principle. It is much more fun to work with customers you love (and they love you back, yay). Having worked for many B2B (esp large, probably too large) companies I know its not easy but its possible. I just kept challenging it and tried to proof with the happy customers and successful non marketing BS approach that it works to leave the non-ideal customers out and most of the times it actually is more cost effective esp once you factor in the most important valuable time of people in meetings (or worse confcalls and even time that people put in by writing for too many emails, and so on and on) .

    Thanks Doug for another great article that shows there is hope out there (amen).

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 23rd, 2017

      Thanks, Andrea.
      I agree: it’s very much a resource focus issue.

      If your budget is unlimited, you can target every potential prospect.
      If it isn’t (whose is?), focusing is the best plan.

  2. Luella

    October 19th, 2017

    Doug, I completely agree. I have clients who think this way, and clients who don’t. Of the 2 who do, they dominate their markets (in terms of market share and revenue).

    1. Doug Kessler

      October 20th, 2017

      Thanks, Luella. I’m not surprised. I think this is the defining characteristic of the best B2B brands.

  3. Lionel Binnie


    January 29th, 2018

    Am I too late to comment on this?
    A blast of fresh cold truth about focus, positioning.

    1. Doug Kessler

      February 1st, 2018

      Never too late, Lionel.
      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Lionel Binnie


    January 29th, 2018

    Doug, when is your book coming out?
    You need to write one., if you haven’t already

    1. Doug Kessler

      February 1st, 2018

      Thanks — I’m scared of book-length anything!
      Just waiting for a topic that warrants it… (Thanks).

  5. gomovies

    February 2nd, 2018

    The single thing that would make the biggest difference to every B2B marketing strategy is to write a detailed profile of your ideal prospect and get everyone in Sales and Marketing to sign it.

    1. Doug Kessler

      February 6th, 2018

      Hey, gomovies, you just quoted a sentence from the post.
      You’re not a bot are you?
      Are you a bot?

      Well, I just edited your URL from gomovies.com to gomovief.com so you won’t get link juice from this site, Hah!

      Still, thanks for the comment and come back soon.

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