Q: How do you sell more?
 A: Try Content Selling

Q&A

Content marketing is generally considered an approach used primarily by the marketing department. It’s designed to achieve marketing objectives such as stronger brand awareness and loyalty that, over time, contribute to bottom line results (check out this Inc. article that explains why content marketing can be so effective).

What often gets overlooked, though, is that content can, and arguably should, also be used directly by the sales team as a tactical tool to grow sales and stem redemptions and defections. Properly used, content selling can answer three of the biggest questions salespeople ask when trying to increase their net sales:

  1. How do I create more opportunities to sell?
  2. How do I demonstrate why a client/prospect should choose my products/services (which is especially important when selling intangibles like financial and professional services as well as technology solutions)?
  3. How do I reduce redemptions/defections?

As a former salesperson myself, I can talk from direct experience about how content selling can help meet these challenges.

But first, let’s clearly define content selling. To me, it’s a two-fold process made up of 1. developing insight or perspective (aka, content) that’s of high value to your client or prospect, and then 2. packaging that content in ways that the sales team can distribute and use directly with their clients and prospects, whether through PowerPoint, email, white papers (or shorter derivatives), tweets, posts, or whatever.

So given that definition, let’s look at how content selling can answer these three sales quetsion.

How do I create more opportunities to sell?

In my previous life as a mutual fund wholesaler serving financial advisors, and later in my efforts to sell professional services and technology solutions, one of my biggest challenges was having a good reason to call/meet my prospects and clients. It wasn’t enough, to take an example from my mutual fund days, to provide market or fund/product updates – that information was readily available online and wasn’t necessarily timely or insightful – in other words, it wasn’t that valuable. What I needed was something that would help my clients/prospects with their “higher order needs” – needs that went beyond the product or service I was selling and related to bigger, more important, issues related to their overall business challenges. Developing the right content, based on insight that is relevant, timely and valuable to advisors (often related to their bigger business challenges), would have helped me earn the right to have more conversations/meetings in the first place. And the more conversations I could have had, the more opportunities I would have had to sell.

Not only that, but providing valuable content on an ongoing basis may alone create sales opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. According to one financial advisor I recently spoke with, one of the wholesalers she deals with (but doesn’t yet do a lot of business with) is so good at adding value that she’s finding reasons to do business with him, despite his company not being on her preferred list. Content selling can be the process that enables a salesperson to add enough value that their prospects will find reasons to do business with them.

How do I demonstrate why a client/prospect should choose my products/services?

This is one of the biggest challenges that exist in all of business because today’s environment is defined by commoditization and an over-abundance of product/service options to choose from. In that situation, how does a salesperson express what makes their product/service/organization valuably different so that the business is given to them?

When content selling is done properly, the content developed is based in part on the  organization’s competitive advantage – it needs to tie back to the things that the organization does best (see my post on the Three Simple Circles of Content Marketing for more details on how to create effective content). When I was selling professional services, the most important thing for me to know was how our services differed from the competition and could better help our clients/prospects with their challenges. With that known, content was then created that always explicitly tied back to our competitive advantage, clearly demonstrating why our clients/prospects should choose us over the competition.

How do I reduce redemptions/defections?

By having a history of conversations in which really valuable content is shared for the betterment of your client/prospect, you become more of a business partner than just a sales person (as cliche as that may sound). The benefit of that change in status is that In times of difficulty, when your product or service isn’t meeting expectations, it is this status of “business partner”, based on a historical provision of value, that will motivate your clients to cut you more slack than they may have otherwise – assuming the failures are short term in nature (there’s no getting around a poor product or service).

Going back to the earlier anecdote, if a financial advisor is trying to find reasons to do business with you before even becoming a client because you’re adding so much value, imagine how many chances your current clients will give you if you or your products/services do mess up, based on the history of value you’ve provided. Your client’s patience won’t be infinite but you’ll definitely have more time to fix the problems before she redeems/defects than you would have had without a history of providing really valuable content.

And that’s the potential for an effective content selling approach – not only does it earn you the privilege to have more conversations in the first place, as well as the ability to clearly differentiate you from your competition, it also helps you develop a relationship that warrants second and third chances in the off chance they’re needed.

And that leaves only one question left for your client to answer: where do I sign?

Managing conflict like a master

red belt

“Everything has a force.
Embrace it or deflect it – why oppose it?”
- Red Belt

In David Mamet’s great martial arts flick Red Belt (“one of the best!” raves Garrett Taylor), the above words are spoken by the martial arts master in reference to dealing with conflict. As a student of aikido, which is based in part on the principle of using your opponent’s energy against them through deflection in some cases, these words piqued my interest, and over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about whether they are words to live by or just meaningless dialogue. Thanks to a recent situation with my two-year-old daughter, I’ve come to believe the former.

The situation was one that many parents with multiple kids have probably found themselves in: during bath time, my two-year-old daughter decided it would be funny to splash daddy as I sat by the tub. After a few requests in babytalk to stop (“daddy says no splashing please”), her older and wiser four-and-a-half-year-old brother then decided to encourage her, even while I was trying to stop her from splashing and him from telling her to do it more. Not only was I getting wet, but so was the floor, and the bigger principle of my authority was being tested. And I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet. What to do?

Going back to the movie quote, it seems I had three options: I could oppose what she was doing directly, embrace it, or deflect it. If I opposed it, by raising my voice and telling her to stop for example, the likely result would be her stopping but at the cost of her crying, which may result in my son crying, which would just make an already long day longer; if I embraced what she was doing, I could just say f-it, get wet and clean up the bathroom later – not a terrible solution but, again, at the end of a long day, not my preference; or I could deflect it by using another toy to distract her from splashing.

So what did I do? Without reflection, I channeled a prototypical 1950s father and began to raise my voice (I really didn’t want to get wet) until my red-belt wearing wife, zen master that she is, picked up a toy and waved it in front of my daughter, who then took the toy and forgot about the splashing. Without a catalyst, my son went back to doing whatever he was doing – silently. Case closed. While I had attempted to oppose my daughter’s force, which was only seconds away from causing unnecessary tears, my wife deflected it perfectly. And now, whenever my daughter feels the splashing spirit, I quickly grab a toy to distract/deflect.

I’d argue these words have broader application to conflict management as a whole, not just with bathing toddlers. Let’s say your boss (at work, not your spouse) has just harshly chastised you because your team missed a deadline. Not your fault of course (Jim on your team has really been dropping the ball lately), but as the leader, definitely your responsibility. So again, you have three options: oppose the reprimand, embrace it, or deflect it.

If you oppose it, you could defend yourself and start making excuses – Jim’s under-performing, resources are lacking, expectations are unreasonable, etc. While each one may be true, it will probably just piss off your boss and make it sound like you’re not listening nor willing to admit your mistake. On the other hand, you could deflect it (what about Jill and her team? She’s gone way over budget!) but again, probably not what your boss wants to hear. Finally you could embrace it by apologizing for missing the deadline, empathizing with your boss’s situation (“I know you have a big board meeting next week and this is the last thing you need”), and promising to investigate the reason and correct it so it will never happen again. Your usually reasonable boss probably feels listened to, trusts that it won’t happen again since it’s rare for you to disappoint, and maybe, thanks to your apology and empathy, apologizes to you for flying off the handle. Or maybe not. Either way, sounds like the best result of the three options for dealing with this  situation.

“So what’s the lesson?” the hero in Red Belt asks his martial arts class during the movie (and a question my own sensei often indirectly asks): never directly oppose an incoming force – embrace it or deflect it to get the best results.

Of course, as with any principle, there are always exceptions – maybe a direct confrontation offers other benefits that outweigh the costs of direction opposition. But overall, whether it’s with your kids or your boss, these seem to be words to live by.

Questions are the answer in career decision making

question marks

Over my nearly 20-year career, I’ve faced more than a few career transitions, and each one has inspired me to think deeply about what kind of career I want, and ask, “what I should do next?”

Over time, I’ve found myself more and more in the (arguably) enviable position of having a few options to pursue due to my growing experience and skill set – not necessarily a lot of offers, mind you, but a few options to consider vs. just one (to be clear). I say “arguably” because although having a large number of choices would seem, at first, to be a first world problem, there are downsides to having too many choices when making career decisions.

The “paradox of choice” is defined by Barry Schwartz, author of the identically-named book, as “the fact that in western developed societies a large amount of choice is commonly associated with welfare and freedom but too much choice causes the feeling of less happiness, less satisfaction and can even lead to paralysis,” (emphasis mine). One example of the negative impact the paradox of choice can have on people is detailed in a widely-read research study in which consumers were found to be 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam on display when the number of choices was reduced from 24 to 6. It’s theorized that when prospective consumers were faced with too much choice (24 different types), their brains just shut down from overload, i.e. became paralyzed, and rather than get stressed about how to make a decision given so many options, the brain just opts to make no decision at all and bypass the purchase, relieving the stress. However, when the choice of jams was reduced to a number that the brain was capable of analyzing (six in this case), effectively eliminating the stress of too much choice, a decision was easier to make and therefore made more often, resulting in increased sales.

In some of my career transitions, I’ve felt this psychological paralysis first hand and it’s led me to question how I can make decisions in a career context of too much choice – how do I know which direction (of several) is best given my priorities at the time? I’ve read many books on, and talked with many people (both professionals and lay people) about, choosing a career yet I haven’t found any comprehensive frameworks or processes that can consistently help me make career decisions in an environment characterized by 1. extensive choice, and 2. my own changing priorities over time (for example, my priorities changed as a result of having kids).

I have learned, though, that the answers can be found inside us – they’re just psychologically blocked or hidden for whatever reason. It’s the act of uncovering the answers or unlocking the doors that hide them that’s key (pun intended). For me, the best way to uncover those answers is by asking myself the right question(s) that happened to resonate with me at the time of need – and those questions changed as my life changed (what helped me five years ago has been different that what’s helped me more recently).

Unfortunately, though, I haven’t been able to find any one resource that contains a big list of different questions that I could try out to see what resonates with me at the time to help me uncover some answers. Fortunately for you, though, I’ve decided to aggregate all the questions I’ve come across over my years of thought, reading, and discussion in this blog (amongst other topics) so you have a one-stop-shop of career decision-related questions to use in uncovering your own answers.

So stay tuned – more questions to come, and hopefully one or more of them will help you uncover the answers you’re looking, offering the insight you need to make the right career decisions for you.

 

To make better organizational decisions, define your brand

In my last post I talked at a high level about how your brand can be used as a management tool (not just a marketing tool) to create a more effective and successful organization. But that may leave both of my avid readers asking, “how exactly can you do that?”

One of the best ways is by using your brand strategy as a framework for decision making. When defined properly, your brand strategy identifies (among other things) what business you’re in, the needs you’re addressing, and the characteristics and behaviours that make you different and better. Specific elements like your value proposition and positioning statement should already contain the information you need to ensure that everyone’s making decisions that are aligned with each other and have the same shared intent.

For example, let’s say your brand is defined by innovation and the development of leading, next generation products. Operationally, this may translate into a culture that takes calculated risks and follows a “fail fast, fail often” approach in order to find its next winner. It only makes sense, then, that when an employee is considering starting a test project with risk attached, that they use this brand characteristic to guide their decision about whether to proceed with the project or not. In this case, if the project allows for a “fail fast” result in a worst case scenario, then it would make sense to move forward. For another company with a more conservative brand and a longer-cycle/risk averse approach to product development, this decision would not align with the brand, so the employee should not start the project.

Or consider the company defined by its world-class customer service. For an HR department responsible for hiring front-line staff, whether it’s for a call centre or in-person customer contact, it only makes sense to hire people with experience or capabilities that will result in that customer experience. That may seem obvious but one of the less obvious implications is that it could mean hiring people with no experience whatsoever in your industry or functional area but who have that desired world-class customer experience mentality. Without the brand to guide these decisions, potential employees without industry experience but who have the desired customer service experience or capabilities may be passed over in favour of those with advanced industry knowledge but less experience delivering world-class customer experiences.

Since an organization is just a collection of people ultimately working toward the same goal, it’s just good business to make sure that the decisions being made throughout the organization are based on the same criteria or characteristics. To help everyone in your company make better decisions, then, make sure that the brand has been effectively defined and everyone truly understands that definition.

Brand is a Management Tool, Not Just a Marketing Tool

In the past I’ve described the Three Simple Circles approach to content strategy that includes asking and answering the following questions:

  1. What is/are the competitive advantage(s) of my organization?
  2. What are the higher-order needs of my clients and market?
  3. What are the themes/topics that address those higher-order needs that also reinforce the competitive advantage?

The first question about competitive advantage could easily be re-phrased to ask, “what’s my brand?”, and knowing the answer to this question will not just help you develop an effective content strategy but it could also lead to a more effectively run company.

The reason is that once you’ve identified those key characteristics that define your brand/competitive advantage, you have also implicitly defined the guard rails within which your organization should be managed. In other words, you’ve created a plan that you can use to align your entire company, based on those key characteristics. Your brand has become a management tool, not just a marketing tool, which is how most view it.

For example, if your brand stands for premiere customer service, then you know that every aspect of your organization should be focused on creating that experience – you need that alignment throughout the company to be successful. That knowledge has tremendous impact on how every aspect of your organization is led and managed:

  • For HR, it means you need to hire people with core competencies and skills that will result in excellent client service; it also means your rewards and incentives need to be aligned to motivate behaviour leading to that experience
  • For Marketing, Sales, and Client Service it means that every message sent and platform used needs to focus on and reinforce a value proposition and positioning of excellent client service. One specific application could relate to Twitter – if you’re on it, you better have someone closely monitoring it because clients are using it to voice issues that need to be resolved quickly and efficiently in order to be considered a premiere client service brand
  • For IT, it may mean using a top notch CRM system so you can track and anticipate the needs of your best clients
  • For Product Development, it means that any new products developed need to further the experience of premiere client service

The list could go on but I think you get the idea.

By using your brand as a management tool, you’ll be better able to ensure alignment throughout your organization around a shared idea or goal, resulting in a more effective and profitable company.

And you thought brand was just for marketingl…

If client-centricity is your holy grail, content should be your chalice

For many of the most successful organizations, becoming more client-centric is the holy grail. Think of Zappos, The Four Seasons, Starbucks, even Apple (arguably). These organizations have realized that it’s not about their products or services – which have often become commoditized – but about the client’s/prospect’s needs; “the market” is not looking for your product or service but rather a solution to a problem they have, the ‘ole “don’t tell me about your grass seed, tell me about my lawn.”

As a member of the C-suite (CEO, President, CMO, etc.) or the VP coterie looking to make your marketing efforts (and organization) as client-centric as possible, and get the best possible long-term return on those efforts, content marketing should be one of your key vessels, if not the key vessel, to deliver those returns.

The reason is that, when done well, content marketing is about understanding the higher order needs/challenges/knowledge gaps of your clients and prospects, and creating/distributing content that will address those needs/challenges/gaps in the most direct way possible – client-centricity is inherent in the best-in-class process, as I’ve often talked about. Many organizations, however, tend to focus exclusively on how best to position their new product against the competition or how to spin their current product features into benefits. Both are important exercises to do, but both are really about your company, not the client.

The more successful alternative to being client-centric is…(and this shouldn’t be surprising)… to get a deep understanding of the key needs of your market! This requires a little more investment in acquiring that knowledge but will always result in more insight into said client. When this insight is applied by using great content, it often results in a longer term relationship with the client/prospect and higher level of trust because they see your organization as a source of valuable information that they return to over and over. And if your content is deemed valuable, that will increase the probability of being included in the consideration set when a purchase decision is to be made because your content is top of mind.

And this doesn’t even consider the benefits strong content offers on a tactical level. When you have a problem, what’s the first thing you do? You probably Google it and the results that are featured are generally those that many others have found to be the most helpful/valuable. To be the most helpful/valuable (i.e., client-centric) you need content that is judged as such, which is where the research comes in since your content should be guided by it – an approach that, as I previously mentioned, is inherent to the best content marketing programs.

By creating and distributing content created based on deep insight into your market, your level of client-centricity should soar and, from a brand and business growth perspective, your cup should runneth over. Here! here!

The secret sauce of content marketing success has little to do with content marketing

It’s kind of like jumbo shrimp or efficient government – a contradiction in terms.

But the reality is, the secret sauce of running an effective content marketing program isn’t about content marketing at all but about getting senior executive buy-in – without that, it’s very difficult to achieve any lasting success, and stakeholders will soon lose their taste for the investment.

Executive buy-in occurs when the c-suite – CEO, President, CFO, CMO, etc – are all dipping into the same sauce (so to speak) and 1. understand the benefits that content marketing can achieve, 2. appreciate the sometimes-extended time it takes to get initial results, and 3. trusts the leader running the program. In other words, the c-suite is committed to investing the time and resources into a program and willing to give the it enough time to succeed and prove itself.

Without this executive buy-in, you may experience one or more of the following:

  • a desire by the c-suite for broad consensus regarding the content itself that inhibits timely production and distribution and, in some cases, the ability to create true thought leadership (can you really be a thought leader through consensus, which is often just the middle ground or “average” of different perspectives?)
  • a need for hands-on involvement in the editorial development by people whose time would be better spent elsewhere (is the CFOs time really best spent editing a whitepaper if the relevant subject matter experts have been consulted?),
  • resistance from others within the organization whose expertise is required to develop content (the aforementioned subject matter experts),
  • ultimately, the premature shut-down of the program before results have been generated.

With executive level buy-in, many (if not all) of the above challenges will either be avoided completely or can be relatively easily managed, meaning that you never get to the last bullet (literally and figuratively).

So, how do you ensure you have this buy-in? You can do a few things:

  • do some deep probing at the start of the initiative with key stakeholders to assess their level of understanding and commitment to the program,
  • “socialize” (i.e., talk with lots of people, formally and informally, about) the benefits of content marketing and the problems it solves throughout the organization, especially at senior levels
  • try to establish, and get agreement from key stakeholders on, concrete goals, budget, and timelines of the program,
  • keep key stakeholders in the loop on progress to show momentum, even if its progress in development of the strategy, and
  • set some relatively easy goals, either internal or external, to earn some quick wins, again showing progress and momentum.

If buy-in is effectively achieved, then stakeholders throughout the organization will treat your program like my favourite sauce, Frank’s Red Hot – they’ll want to put that sh*t on everything!

The best content marketers are servant leaders

When done well, content marketing is about helping clients and prospects. You can think of the role it plays as filling a knowledge gap or helping to solve a problem or need experienced by the audience (preferably, a higher-order need). It is one of, if not the, most client-centric approaches to marketing/business.

To help maintain this approach in practice, many content marketers think of themselves as educators or problem solvers vs. marketers or sales people. This frame reminds them of what their ultimate goal is – to educate or solve problems, not to sell products or services (although this is what naturally results when done well). In this same vein, the concept of being a “servant leader” can also be a useful concept to use.

A servant leader (or one who practices servant leadership) is defined by its originator Robert Greenleaf as one who “…focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid…” In other words, a servant leader puts “the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Traditional leadership may achieve this same goal but it would be seen as a means to a leadership end or a by-product, whereas servant leaders consider it the end itself.

It is this definition of servant leadership that aligns almost perfectly with the best content marketing. Both have an audience first perspective; both are focused on helping that audience and consider helping the end itself, not just the means; and both often see organizational success (whether it’s leadership or selling) as the natural by-product of their efforts.

So if you want to become the best content marketer, start thinking of yourself as a servant leader.

 

The List: best-in-class content marketing examples and resources

In my travels I’m often asked to provide examples of best-in-class content marketing and sources of information/guidance on how to “do” content marketing.

As a result, and for a while now, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for good case studies to share and good books/resources to recommend. So, without further ado, here’s my list – enjoy!

[As a side note, you'll notice that this list is heavily skewed to financial services - not because the category has cornered the market on this stuff but because that's the industry I'm in. Regardless, though, the companies mentioned below still demonstrate the principles of good content marketing: knowing their competitive advantage, addressing lower and higher order needs, and publishing themes and topics that reinforce their advantage and address the needs.]

Best in Class Examples

Toyota video

Financial Services
http://www.frankbyocbc.com/index.html (retail bank based in Singapore)

https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/explore/

http://brighterlife.ca/ (by Sunlife)
http://www.thefinancialist.com/ (by Credit Suisse)
https://globalconnections.hsbc.com/canada/en (B2B)
http://www.thinkmoneytrader.com/ (by TD)

Technology

http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/stories/index.html

https://www.custedge.com/ (by SAP)

http://www.gereports.com/

Consulting
http://www.content-loop.com/ (by Cap Gemini)

Other B2C

http://www.redbullmediahouse.com/

Books
Epic Content Marketing, Pullizzi
Content Rules, Handly, Chapman
Inbound Marketing, Halligan
Youtility, Baer
The Challenger Sale (there’s also a site called Challenger marketing which has a great case from Xerox about leveraging higher order needs: http://www.executiveboard.com/exbd/marketing-communications/challenger-marketing/index.page?)

Blogs/newletters
Inbound Hub – Marketing
The Content Strategist
Ann Handly – content Marketing
Content Marketing (Forbes)
Content Marketing Institute
Copyblogger
Heidi Cohen
Inbound Hub – Insiders
Marketo marketing blog
Social media today
Sparksheet
Marketing profs
Contently
Opentopic
Openview weekly

 

 

 

Don’t trust native advertising? Blame the brand, not the publisher

The title of a recent post by Contently asked the question, “Can publishers convince consumers to trust native advertising?” Unfortunately, I think Contently is putting the onus on the wrong party.

Publishers like The Globe and Mail or New York Times shouldn’t have the sole responsibility for trying to convince their readers to trust native advertising – they shouldn’t even have the majority ownership of that problem. It should be the primary responsibility of the companies who have developed the sponsored content. It’s their job to create a brand that is so trusted by the market that readers will still trust that the sponsored content has their best interests in mind, because that’s the real problem. When a reader sees that content is “sponsored”, they immediately think someone’s trying to sell them something – I know I do. Without that trust in the brands themselves - or in other words without trusting that the brands have the readers’ best interests  at heart - it will be difficult for any publisher to convince a reader that native advertising isn’t there to sell them something.