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Major B2B purchasing decisions are typically made high up in the organization, most often in the C-suite. This poses a particular challenge to B2B marketers: how to connect with an audience that is unlikely to click on an online ad, respond to an unsolicited email, or even take a meeting with a sales representative.

In this fourth of five articles on the top concerns we’re hearing from our clients, we look at ways B2B marketers can overcome these challenges to engage decision makers at the very top of the org chart.

Focus on teams.

For large B2B purchases, decisions are typically made by teams, not individuals—no matter how senior. This is because these purchases—whether a new software platform, a new office or manufacturing facility, or even a major corporate acquisition—affect virtually every corner of the organization. It’s why, for instance, a CIO will often bring in the CMO or CFO when considering a technology purchase, or why a CEO will consult with the entire C-suite before making decision on an acquisition—or even an important new hire.

For B2B marketers, the implications of this team-oriented decision process are clear: look beyond the direct decision maker to engage those individuals who will be consulted on the purchase. As importantly, develop targeted messages for each person. For a software purchase, the CIO will be most interested in features and functionality. The CFO will focus on return on investment. The CHRO and CMO will want to know how the software will impact their departments.

Tell them something they don’t know.

Even at the highest ranks of a corporation, the need for information is acute. And executives didn’t get where they are by making decisions in a vacuum.

The authors of Selling to the C-Suite, Nicholas A.C. Read and Dr. Stephen J. Bistritz, found that executives want to be contacted because they thrive on “fresh ideas from outside their companies.” The key word here is ‘fresh.’ No one, least of all top executives, wants stale marketing messages or warmed-over information. As one CIO told the authors, sales representatives calling him “better be prepared to tell him things he can’t get from his own people.”

A Quartz survey of more than 1,300 global C-suite executives found that they are very responsive to content from sources they perceive as experts in their industries, especially exclusive data and analysis.

Influence the influencers.

How much of the typical workday does your CIO spend conducting vendor research? Reading about emerging tools in your field? Watching product demos? Probably a lot less than the people one or two levels down in their management team. While the ultimate decision maker may consult their peers in the C-suite on a major buying decision, they will almost certainly look to staff members for input. This means that the best way to get to a C-suite decision maker is often through the people who influence them—typically one or two levels down on the org chart.

The good news is that reaching these influencers is a bit easier that trying to engage with their leader. But once contact is made, how can you ensure that they become advocates for your company or offering? There are two important ways to do this. First, recognizing that you may never directly engage the top dog, give the influencers the tools they need to make the case for you. This means providing more than generic fact sheets and templated proposals; to really convert influencers into your proxy, provide them with customized information on the impact your company, product, or service will have on their business—essentially, what you’d say in an in-person presentation if you ever got the chance to be in front of the C-suite. Format this information in the way that the influencer wants it; this might be in the form of a presentation for them to deliver, a detailed, customized email they can forward, or a printed piece of target-specific collateral.

Second, position the influencer to be the hero. Demonstrate how choosing your product will make them look good and advance their career. In recommending one offering over another, an influencer is putting their neck on the line; reassure them by explaining the support you’ll provide and developing scenarios to help them visualize what success could look like … for the company and for them personally.

Focus on insights, not information.

While it’s true that executive are hungry for fresh content, they are positively ravenous for insights. The difference is subtle but critical. Information essentially refers to observations on what is happening—to a company, an industry, even the world. Insights explain why this is happening, and help to define the strategies that can be used to respond to—and capitalize on—the development. Insights look beyond raw data to show why it exists and what can and should be done about it. Insights connect the dots between seemingly unrelated observations and data points to illuminate potential paths forward.

So while we are big fans of using content to engage the C-suite, and in particular, using proprietary research to carve out a unique thought leadership position, it is too often the case that B2B marketers stop short of showing how their content can drive action … and results. This requires translating information into insights.

Make it personal.

Top executives are well aware that they’re a sought-after audience for B2B marketers. So when meeting anyone for the first time, they expect that person to know who they are, what the company does, and the challenges it faces. They want solutions, not questions. And they expect you to know that their time is very valuable, and very scarce. To connect with these leaders, your communications need to be hyper-targeted to an audience of one. In much of branding and marketing, developing personas to categorize market participants into groups is a valuable tool. But not for the C-suite.

Often, the best approach is to focus a communication, whether a letter, email, or phone call, on a specific development within the company. Has there been a recent acquisition? A change of leadership? A new product launch? Show that you’ve done your due diligence right up front, and then follow this up with specific ideas for adding value.

Create an experience.

It’s lonely at the top. C-suite executives may have large teams working for them, but they generally don’t have many peers within the company who truly understand the pressures they face. That’s why creating events that bring together top executives can be so effective in engaging these hard-to-reach decision makers. Think Davos or Allen & Co’s Sun Valley conference. These events never have trouble recruiting the most elite executives to travel long distances to participate.

Beginning several years ago, we partnered with an investment banking client to create an annual event that attracts CEOs of companies with revenues of $500 million and up—a cohort that every financial services firm wants to reach, but few can. The event featured a wide range of speakers, some widely known, others experts in specialized areas. But the real draw was the opportunity to share perspectives and pain points in a casual atmosphere away from the office. While the goal of the event was to generate awareness among CEOs, in the first year, it paid for itself in new business opportunities.

C-suite executives are a tough audience to reach, no doubt about it. But if you understand the unique dynamics of how they make decisions, and tailor communications to their specific needs, you can break through.

About the author

Seth Margolis

Seth Margolis is a Senior Strategy Director who has spearheaded branding efforts for financial services, professional services and technology companies, as well as for not-for-profit organizations.

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