Sunday, August 21, 2016

What Makes Thought Leadership Content Effective?

The Economist Group recently published a report that provides several interesting perspectives on the development, use, and effectiveness of thought leadership content. Thought leadership disrupted:  New rules for the content age is based on a survey (conducted in association with Hill+Knowlton Strategies) of 1,644 global marketing and business executives that was fielded in April 2016.

Survey responses were segmented based on whether the respondents were marketers (those who plan, develop, or manage thought leadership content) or executives (those who consume thought leadership content). In this post, I'm focusing on the survey data relating to executive respondents.

To set the stage for the data, it's important to understand how The Economist Group defined thought leadership. Here's the definition the firm asked survey participants to read before they took the survey:

"Thought leadership is the practice of influencing a community of interest by developing information, analysis and insight that helps its audience understand its world and plan for the future. It can be delivered through any medium, and can help companies raise awareness, shift perception and increase the status of their brand."

Obviously, this definition is fairly broad, and it gives survey respondents some room to apply their own interpretation of what constitutes thought leadership.

Executives are Becoming Selective

More than two-thirds (68%) of executive respondents said they consume thought leadership content at least weekly, and almost as many (63%) said they have increased their consumption of thought leadership content over the past 12 months. But 75% of the respondents also said they have become more selective in their content consumption over the past 12-24 months, and 82% said that the volume of thought leadership content available is what has made them more selective.

The increased selectivity on the part of executives has made it harder for marketers to create break-through thought leadership content. Surveyed executives reported that, on average, they engage with only about 25% of the thought leadership content they see every day.

What Drives the Consumption of Thought Leadership Content?

The Economist Group also asked executives to identify three factors (from a list of 15) that drive their consumption of thought leadership content. The following table shows the top five consumption drivers chosen by the surveyed executives:

What Makes for Good (and Bad) Thought Leadership Content?

When executives were asked what qualities made thought leadership content compelling, the most popular qualities were:

  • Innovative (40% of respondents)
  • Big picture (36%)
  • Transformative (36%)
  • Credible (35%)
When executives were asked what words they associated with poor thought leadership content, the top three choices were superficial (34% of respondents), sales-driven (31%), and biased (28%).

The Impact of Thought Leadership

The value of compelling thought leadership to sellers is abundantly clear. Seventy percent of executives said that good thought leadership content led them to consume additional content from the same source, and 72% said they are more inclined to do business with organizations that are thought leaders.

Top image courtesy of Abhijit Bhadurl via Flickr CC.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Does Personalization Undermine Consensus Buying?

In an earlier post, I discussed some of the findings of a recent research study by Demand Metric that focused on the state of content personalization in B2B companies. Demand Metric found that the use of personalized content was widespread among its study participants. Sixty-eight percent of survey respondents said they personalize content for industry verticals or other market segments, and 61% said they personalize content for specific buyer personas.

Marketing experts have long argued that personalized messages and content improve marketing effectiveness, and the participants in the Demand Metric study overwhelmingly agree with this view. Eighty percent of the survey respondents who use personalized content said that it is "more effective" or "much more effective" than content that isn't personalized.

Not everyone, however, believes that personalization is always beneficial. For the past several months, CEB has been arguing that personalization can actually make prospective customers less (not more) likely to buy. The essence of CEB's argument goes like this:

  • B2B products and services are usually purchased by groups of people, not individuals.
  • These buying groups must usually reach a consensus before a purchase decision will be made.
  • Personalization strategies can make the individuals in the buying group believe more strongly in their own point of view and less willing to compromise, thus making consensus more difficult to achieve.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Karl Schmidt, Brent Adamson, and Anna Bird (all with CEB) wrote:

"Conventional wisdom holds that the more personalized a message is, the more effectively it will drive a sale. And indeed, CEB's surveys found that individual customer stakeholders who perceived supplier content to be tailored to their specific needs were 40% more willing to buy from that supplier than stakeholders who didn't . . . But personalization has a dark side. When individuals in a buying group receive different messages, each one stressing that an offering meets his or her narrow needs, it can highlight the diverging goals and priorities in the group, driving a wedge between members and hindering consensus."

CEB goes on to argue that selling companies need tactics and resources that are specifically designed to help buying groups reach a consensus. In addition, CEB contends that selling companies will usually need the help of a champion inside the prospect organization to drive the consensus-building process. CEB calls these internal advocates "mobilizers" and describes the best mobilizers as people who (a) are motivated to improve their organization, and (b) have the organizational clout to bring decision makers together.

To effectively use mobilizers, companies need to identify the right people and then motivate those individuals to play the mobilizer role. Just as important, companies need to provide mobilizers the resources they need to effectively drive the consensus-building process.

What do you think? Can too much personalization hinder rather than help? If so, how much personalization is too much? I'd like to get your ideas on this issue. Please comment on this post, and share your thoughts about whether personalization can actually undermine the consensus-building process. 

Image courtesy of HORANCapitalAdv via Flickr CC.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sales Enablement Best Practices and Challenges

Sales enablement has been one of the hottest topics in B2B marketing and sales for the past few years. Last year, CSO Insights launched a new research study devoted specifically to sales enablement, and last month, the firm published the results of the 2016 edition of its study.

The 2016 CSO Insights Sales Enablement Optimization Study provides valuable insights regarding how companies are implementing sales enablement and how well it is working. The 2016 study is based on input from 400 survey respondents, a majority of which (58.9%) are based in North America. Most of the respondents were affiliated with small and mid-size companies. Nearly three-fourths (73.6%) were with companies having $250 million or less in annual revenue, and 42.5% were with companies having less than $10 million in annual revenue.

(Note:  This research focuses primarily on sales enablement best practices, so I think we can assume that all of the survey respondents had implemented sales enablement in some form. In other research, CSO Insights has found that a growing number of companies are implementing a dedicated sales enablement function. In the 2016 Sales Performance Optimization Study, 32.7% of survey respondents said they had a dedicated sales enablement function. That was up from 25.5% of respondents in the 2015 SPO study and 22.6% in the 2014 SPO study.)

Here is a quick summary of three of the major findings of the 2016 sales enablement study.

Sales Enablement is Still a Work in Progress

CSO Insights asked survey participants to assess the effectiveness of the sales enablement initiatives they had implemented during the past two years. Only 31.3% of respondents said their sales enablement programs had met all, or at least a majority, of their original expectations. Another 44.8% said that their sales enablement efforts had met at least some of their expectations.

Formal Planning Matters

In the 2016 study, 9.6% of respondents said they treat sales enablement as a series of one-off projects, 39.5% said they have an informal sales enablement vision, 35.7% said they have a formal sales enablement vision, and 15.3% said they have a full-blown sales enablement strategy (charter).

The study found that formal planning increases the odds of sales enablement success. Over half (51.3%) of the respondents with a formal vision or a formal strategy said their sales enablement initiatives met all or a majority of their expectations, compared to only 34.7% of respondents who had an informal vision or who treated sales enablement as one-off projects.

Sales Enablement is a Multi-Faceted Function

Most companies that have implemented sales enablement treat it as a  multi-faceted business function that encompasses a diverse set of services. CSO Insights asked its survey participants what services for salespeople were part of their sales enablement function, and the table below shows how they responded.

The CSO Insights study contains far more insights than I can discuss in a blog post. I encourage you to take the time to review the full study.

Top image courtesy of Tomas Sobek via Flickr CC.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why You Need to Understand More Than the "Buying Process"

Understanding how potential customers make buying decisions is critical for successful B2B demand generation. But research shows that this is a big challenge for most B2B marketers and salespeople. For example, in its annual sales performance optimization surveys, CSO Insights asks participants to rate their ability to understand their customer's buying process. The following table shows the percentage of survey respondents who said their understanding of the customer buying process "exceeds expectations" in each of the past five annual surveys.

Part of the problem is that most models of the B2B buying process make it appear to be less complicated than it actually is. For example, the SiriusDecisions model that is shown below is a great high-level representation of the B2B buying process. I've used it several times in this blog to illustrate various points. However, even the SiriusDecisions model doesn't reveal the true complexity of the process. There's a great deal going on in those steps called "loosening of the status quo" and "committing to change," and most of what's happening has little to do with buying a specific product or service.

What most models don't make clear is that the B2B buying process is really a part of a larger change management process, as the following diagram illustrates. This is particularly true when a major solution-type purchase may be involved.

We understand parts of the buying process reasonably well, but the change management process is difficult to decipher for several reasons. First, most change management issues relate primarily to the prospect organization. They have very little to do with the selling company or its products or services.

Second, every prospect organization will have a unique set of change management issues, because many of the issues arise from the culture and the "political" environment of the organization, and from the relationships among the organization's decision makers.

And finally, change management issues are often difficult for decision makers to directly confront, so they aren't always discussed openly inside the organization, much less with an outsider.

For these reasons, it's difficult for marketing and sales leaders to develop accurate generalizations about their customers' change management process. In reality, you can't develop a detailed picture of the change management environment in an organization until you have spent a fairly significant amount of time interacting with the organization's decision makers. That being said, there are some change management issues that arise in most organizations.

  • Does the organization have a problem (or a need or a challenge) that needs to be addressed?
  • Does the problem (or need or challenge) need to be addressed now?
  • How will any potential change affect the existing organizational "system" (people, processes, and technology)?
  • Who must be involved in the decision to change?
  • Can the problem (or need or challenge) be addressed using internal resources?
  • What issues or concerns (whether expressed or unspoken) must be addressed in order to get buy-in from all necessary parties?
Until these and other similar issues are satisfactorily addressed, it's highly unlikely that any change will be made or that anything will be bought. So it's important for sellers to provide content and tools that will help decision makers work through their change management process. Some examples could include:
  • An assessment tool that helps decision makers quantify the financial implications of their problem, need, or challenge
  • A white paper that describes the limitations of potential workarounds and/or the challenges involved in developing an internal solution
  • A case study that demonstrates how the potential solution can be implemented with minimal disruption of existing operations
For marketing and sales professionals, the important thing to remember is that before you can help prospects buy, you must help them navigate their change management process.

Top image courtesy of Daniel Olnes via Flickr CC

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lies, Damn Lies, and B2B Marketing Surveys

Research surveys and their associated reports have become important marketing tools for many kinds of B2B companies. They are particularly popular with companies that provide marketing services and marketing technology solutions. Many of these companies conduct or sponsor surveys on a fairly frequent basis, and they feature the survey reports in their marketing efforts, which are usually directed at B2B marketers.

Survey reports can be valuable sources of information about industry trends and emerging marketing practices and technologies, but they can also be misleading. So it's important for B2B marketers to carefully evaluate the research reports they encounter. It's always a good idea to approach any research report with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. As Mark Twain once wrote, "There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics."

In my work, I review lots of survey reports. I make extensive use of survey results and research reports when I'm developing content resources for clients, and I frequently describe survey findings in this blog. Over the years, I've developed a mental checklist of questions that I ask and things that I look for when I'm reviewing a research report. In this post, I'll discuss the first two questions that I ask when I start to review a survey report.

What is the Agenda of the Research Firm and/or the Research Sponsor?

Because many companies now view surveys and survey reports as marketing tools, I always begin by assuming that a research report has been designed to support a marketing agenda. The existence of a marketing purpose doesn't automatically mean that a survey or report is flawed or has no value. It does, however, put me on high alert for indications of bias in the design of the survey or in the presentation of the results.

Are the Survey Respondents a Representative Sample of the Target Population?

Sampling is a complex subject, and I won't attempt to explain it fully in this post. The most important thing to remember is this:  If the survey respondents are not a representative sample, the results of the survey cannot be "projected" to the overall target population. In essence, those results are only valid for the group of people who responded to the survey.

Unfortunately, some report authors either ignore this limitation or use language in the report that fails to make the limitation clear. For example, I recently reviewed a survey report that deals with the use and benefits of "predictive marketing analytics" by/for B2B companies. The report was based in part on a survey of 150 B2B marketers, and the report does not claim that the survey respondents are a representative sample.

Forty-nine percent of the survey respondents said their companies are using predictive marketing analytics, but the report contains the following statement:

"Forty-nine percent of companies are currently using predictive marketing analytics." (Emphasis added)

The problem is, this statement isn't supported by the survey results because the survey respondents aren't a representative sample of marketers in all types of B2B companies.

Very few of the surveys that I review are based on representative samples, so this issue almost always exists. These types of surveys can be useful, but they can also easily be misused, because unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to focus on the specific survey findings and forget the limitation.

In a future post, I'll discuss several other issues that B2B marketers need to watch for when they're reviewing survey reports.

Illustration courtesy of Daniel Oines via Flickr CC.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Activity Metrics Still Matter in Measuring Marketing Performance

Faced with growing demands by senior business leaders to demonstrate the value that marketing brings to the business, marketers have made measuring marketing performance one of their top priorities.

But despite all of the attention given to marketing performance measurement, recent research indicates that many marketers have more work to do to prove the value of marketing. In the Marketing Performance Management Study 2016 by VisionEdge Marketing and Demand Metric, only 23% of survey respondents said their CEO's would give marketing a grade of "A" on its ability to demonstrate its value and contribution to the business.

Many experts contend that the disconnect between marketing and the rest of the C-suite exists because marketers focus primarily on measuring marketing activities and the immediate results of those activities, and they don't put enough emphasis on measuring the impact of marketing on strategic business outcomes.

Some commentators have started calling activity measures "vanity metrics," so it's tempting to think that measuring activities and immediate results is no longer important.

It's clearly vital for marketers to measure the impact of marketing on strategic business outcomes and to communicate that impact to senior company leaders, but that doesn't mean that marketers should ignore activity metrics altogether. Measuring the impact that marketing has on strategic business outcomes is a critical aspect of managing marketing performance, but an effective performance management system for marketing must support several functions. For example, it should:

  • Measure the performance of individual marketing activities and programs so that marketers can make sound investment and marketing mix decisions
  • Enable marketers and other business leaders to evaluate how well their marketing strategy is working
  • Support both strategic and tactical decision-making
  • Enable marketing leaders to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of operational marketing activities and processes
In order to support all of these functions, a performance management system for marketing will necessarily include several types of metrics, including activity metrics. More specifically, an effective marketing performance management system will include:
  • Financial and non-financial measures
  • Metrics for leading and lagging performance indicators
  • Measures that focus on the strategic impact of marketing and metrics that support tactical decision-making
  • Measures of ultimate business outcomes and measures of activities, outputs, and intermediate outcomes
  • Revenue and cost metrics
When communicating with C-level executives, marketers should emphasize metrics that demonstrate the impact of marketing on strategic business outcomes, and it's usually a good idea to omit any detailed discussion of activity metrics. But activity and other operational metrics still play a vital role in managing the marketing function and improving marketing performance.

Think of it this way. For most of us, the primary reason for exercising regularly (our "strategic outcome") is to improve our health. We periodically monitor our health through physical exams and various tests, but many of us also track and record the results of our daily or weekly workouts, because they provide an indication of our health and physical condition. Our spouse or significant other is much more interested in the results of our latest annual physical than he or she is in how far we ran yesterday. But exercising regularly and monitoring our improvement are still important to a healthy lifestyle.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why B2B Marketers Need to Care About "Casual Learning"

Much of the conversation in the B2B marketing world over the past several years has revolved around the emergence of empowered and independent buyers. A wealth of easily-accessible information now enables buyers to perform research about business issues and possible solutions on their own. The most widely-discussed result of this development is that many - though by no means all - buyers are postponing direct interactions with potential vendors until later in the buying process.

Information abundance has also led to a dramatic increase in what I call casual learning. As I'm using the term, casual learning refers to learning and information gathering activities that occur before an intentional buying process has begun.

Most traditional models of the B2B buying process assume that the process begins when a company's leaders or managers recognize a need or problem, and decide to address the issue in some way. These "buyers" then gather information about the need or problem and possible solutions, they evaluate the available options, and they may or may not decide to purchase a product or service to address the problem or need.

So, our traditional view of buyer behavior is that most information gathering occurs after an intentional buying process has started. Today, however, information is so abundant and readily available that many business people routinely consume information about business issues long before they have formed anything close to a "buying intent."

In their book, Absolute Value, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen call this type of information gathering "couch tracking," and they argue that couch tracking is one of the major emerging trends in consumer decision-making. The same abundance of easily-available information that drives couch tracking by consumers also drives casual learning by business decision makers.

The growth of casual learning has important implications for B2B marketing, but many marketers have not fully appreciated its significance. Most B2B marketing tactics and programs are designed to identify business people who are ready to begin a buying process, or to encourage those already involved in a buying process to move toward a buying decision. At any given time, however, most of the people affiliated with potential customers are more likely to be "casual learners" than "buyers."

Creating relationships with casual learners is important because the impressions they form during casual learning remain influential when they become involved in a buying process. Therefore, if a company can create and sustain positive relationships with casual learners, it will have a competitive advantage when those casual learners turn into buyers.

Unfortunately, most B2B companies don't have marketing programs or content resources that are specifically designed for casual learners, and therefore, they aren't particularly effective at building relationships with this important group of "embryonic buyers." In a future post, I'll discuss how B2B companies can successfully engage with casual learners.

Illustration courtesy of Craige Moore via Flickr CC.