“You had me at hello” – How to nail personalized marketing in B2B

An avatar of the author

Ryan Skinner

04. 09. 2012 | 7 min read

“You had me at hello” – How to nail personalized marketing in B2B

7 mins left

Get the newsletter

Raw, unfiltered, too-hot-for-Wordpress B2B marketing insights, straight to your inbox, every month.

You see some marketing and you involuntarily say “Yes!” One of the secrets to that kind of marketing? Personas. Yes, personas.

Say “persona” to a marketer and 9 times out of 10 he or she will need to fight an involuntary eye-roll reflex.

On the “Grande Farting-About Scale of Marketing”, talking about personas is filed by many next to interpretive dance and Christmas card design.

Consider this post a one-man mission to turn personas into the sexiest topic you work with. Yeah? Hell yeah!

I’m going to cover a few dead simple ways to apply personas so that people see your marketing and think “Damn. I wish I did that.”

How do you recognize excellent persona work?

You probably don’t. That is, you recognize that something’s great about a piece of creative or a campaign, but it’s hard to say why. A good creative planner can recognize it in an instant though. What is it that tells them that great personas work has been done?

They see it when a piece of work hits you (the target audience) like Bruce Lee ramming his palm in your solarplexus.

It’s as if the person who made the story knows you, knows what makes you feel special and uses that knowledge against you (and you like it). You smile, chuckle, shake your head and – like Homer Simpson – weep “it’s funny cos’ it’s true.” People will often say that this kind of work “really talks to me”.

What’s guaranteed to f**k your persona work?

Inside and outside of every marketing organization are people who say “our argument is logical; we only need to appeal to reason.” No. Wrong answer. Don’t come back for round 2.

All great marketing stems from emotions. At the heart of every logical conviction is an emotional conviction (the reason to believe the logic).

Personas work is about nailing the emotional side of the equation (take it from this lifelong, tried and true left-brainer), and applying it to the logical side.

So great marketing starts with an admission that you’re dealing with emotions, and that your personas work will tap into those emotions. (Actually it’ll hit heartstrings like velvet sledgehammers).

Even the bank executive who needs to make a highly rational choice based on the numbers uses emotions to take his decision (his emotions are just moving in a faster, tighter orbit, so to speak).

So how do make the persona magic happen?

There are countless processes to do personas. We included personas in our B2B Content Marketing Strategy Checklist as the Target Audiences section. We’ve also done a round-up of persona resources. MLT Creative has even done a groovy little online app that walks you through a process and delivers you a profile.

I’ll give you a deadly potent short process. Start with a half-dozen decision-makers who control your fate – I’ll assume you know who they are (if you don’t, go back two or three steps).

Ask yourself these questions of each of these six people:

  1. What’re the kinds of professional fears he would not even share with his team?
  2. What’s the fastest-moving force of change in his professional life?
  3. What does utter and complete professional success look like from his perspective?
  4. On which resources does he depend the most?
  5. What have been the greatest disappointments and positive surprises in his profession/field during the past year?
  6. And, what’s the kind of thing that would automatically bring a smile to his lips if he found it on his desk in the morning?

Answer those six questions creatively and instinctively, and you’ve got a persona that’s worth working with.

Now how do you use a persona

“Give it to your agency” is a good start. Actually your agency should be all over this like white on rice – most of our projects start with personas work, either explicitly or not, in some form. (Because of the eye-roll reflex, we just call it “market research” or “customer interviews”).

But this is about how you use personas work in anger – that is, the application of emotional insight to shock and awe the decision-maker. I call it:

A Copywriter’s Seven Secrets to Cozying Up to the Persona

I. The Sycophant – Shameless praise
When you know someone, you know best how to ingratiate yourself shamelessly (but effectively). The copywriter will use details in the persona to make the reader feel like a god among men. An example (copy for an IT administrator):

No one knows your company like you do. From the way Peg in finance changes her email avatar daily to the way the marketing boys spend their whole day streaming video, you’re the man in the know. Your CEO should know so much.

In some cultures, the sycophantic approach will work best when it’s played straight. In cultures where straight praise is embarrassing, it can still be done, with tongue in cheek, such as this British commercial for a breakfast cereal.

We employed this technique for Hyperion – an asset management firm based in Australia – in a video we produced last year.

II. The Common Enemy – Pouring hate on their hate
Nothing tells someone that you’re on their side more than pouring spite on the other side. The copywriter looks for issues that create headaches, stress or trouble, and sticks pins in those issues like a kewpie doll. An example (copy for a webmaster):

Web content tags. They’re supposed to be your friends. But, the moment you turn your back, they betray you. They multiply, fragment, fail or simply disappear. We say: Put your tags back in their place.

We’ve used this technique in two separate rants – one for NetSuite [gated by a form], and another for Mediaplex [Note: this link will open the eBook].

III. The Wild Success – Quotidian success taken to absurd lengths
We’re all in the rat race, but we find our wins where we can. If you understand your audience well, you can identify one of those little wins, celebrate it and blow it out of all proportion. An example (copy for a small business director):

First you bought the right logistics software. That increased your supply efficiency 10,000%. So your biggest competitor folded. Then Richard Branson asked for a merger. And you’ve leapt to the front of the line of space tourists. Not a bad day’s work.

IV. The Fetish – Exploding interest in professional minutiae
You don’t have to have OCD to obsess over little things – we all do it. To show that you understand your audience, show that you understand their fetishes. What do they obsess over? An example (copy for a CTO):

Error logs tell stories. They reveal the character of a system. They look right into the soul of automation. Written between the lines are the answers…to everything; you know it (even if no one else does).

V. The Jargon Play – Spinning rhetorical circles in jargon
Marketers are often told to shun jargon, but jargon’s a powerful tool. Nothing says “I’m in the brotherhood” better than knowing your CTA-ROI from your LPO-CMS. An example (copy for a e-marketing manager):

You can calculate your ROI, but what’s your Return On Pain? How do you rebound from a hard bounce? What goes “Click-click-click-boom!”? This is life in the e-marketing trenches.

VI. The Grandiose Comparison – Putting their life into a heroic context
We all like to see our lives in the broad brushstrokes of history, even if we’re self-diagnosed small cogs. But understanding how to apply the brushstrokes depends on a good understanding of the persona. An example (copy for a supply chain manager):

Your warehouse is your army. To achieve greatness, you will need every soldier in his place, drilled to perfection and ready to die for your quarterly report. You’re the Sun Tzu of spreadsheets.

*Be advised the grandiose comparison can get lost in silly metaphor land. Make your point, then move on (and, for the love of god, don’t immediately introduce a new metaphor).

VII. The Nailbiter – Recounting a story close to them with gusto
Every profession, every field and every business has its iconoclastic stories. These are the stories that have changed/are changing their world. Show you understand your audience by narrating their stories. An example (copy for an online advertiser):

AdWords changed everything. It powered PPC into the mainstream. As a result, advertising’s no longer about mindshare. Now it’s all revenue share. What doesn’t get clicked does not have value. Overnight you became a click-hunter.

And when do you use a persona?

A persona is not just a thing to pull out of your bag of tricks when writing copy. The persona is a practical little tool that fits in many smart places, such as:

  • Messaging & Positioning: You need to understand where you live in the world you’re trying to inhabit (your target audience’s mindset). Given their baggage, history and experience, what will they think of you and your products?
  • SEO: This was the simplest and earliest lesson that SEOs preached. Call yourself what your market calls you. If everyone says you’re “accounting software”, you will only confuse people by calling yourself “real-time financial holdings management solutions”.
  • Emails: When do you send them, how often do you send them and how many times do you potentially resend them? All questions that can be answered if you know your persona.
  • Invoicing: This may be going beyond the scope of many B2B marketers, but pricing’s squarely in marketing’s turf. Making your product or service easy to pay for is often a question of understanding how your persona likes to pay.
  • Others? I am sure there are others. Feel free to share.

An anecdote to finish

Much of the marketers’ job is to understand what people will like, and applying that well. Persona work is about understanding your particular kind of people. And then applying the hell out of that.

Last week a very successful marketer* speaking at a convention was tweeted extensively. The quote?

He’s right. Do great persona work and you’ll know what shit to squeeze.

*Yes, I’ve quoted Gary Vaynerchuk. Because of course.

Enjoyed this article?
Take part in the discussion

Opt into our crap

We will send the latest stuff written just for B2B content marketers exactly like you. Sound good?

illustration of a an envolope

Related blog/content

How to break free from the benchmark trap

If you’re turning to industry benchmarks to set your performance goals – make sure you’re asking these two questions.

Agustin Rejon | 06. 09. 2023


  1. Bhaskar Sarma

    September 7th, 2012

    As a copywriter who obsesses over personas to what I suspect an unhealthy degree this is awesome. I love how you have broken down what kind of copy to use in various situations.

    This almost makes me want to revise the copy on my persona post, or write another post stealing your idea (with full attribution and backlinks).

    Regarding that tweet, I recall someone lamenting how Pinterest started out as a place to share food pr0n and photos of shoes but has not been taken over by greedy marketers peddling infographics. That cracked me up

Leave a comment/reply

Hey look: a teeny-tiny cookie request. Would you mind? It’d help us out. Click here to read our privacy policy to see why. Or hit “customize” if you’re fancy like that.