How To Sell Your Ideas To The C-Suite

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It seems my open letter to CEOs about marketing hit a nerve with many readers. With CMO turnover rates at an all-time high, it’s no wonder marketing leaders are feeling undervalued and unappreciated.

One of the questions that arose from some lively LinkedIn discussions that followed the article begged this question: How do I sell my ideas to the C-suite? Specifically, how can marketing leaders more effectively  get their peers and leadership on board with what it actually takes to market in the digital age, aside from hoping that they stumble onto that article! 

To that end, here are my top five tips on how to sell your ideas to the C-suite. Whether that’s convincing them to stop chasing MQLS and focusing on profitability or convincing them to invest in share of voice and PR. After all, recall drives revenue. 

Think Like an Investor.

First, you have to take on this persona.  A savvy investor makes decisions by projecting forwards. The approach is highly fluid, and the focus is on reading signals, pricing in the risk of failure, and doubling down on success based on data and agility. They have to be able to take a certain amount of risk. With this mindset, you move away from the myth that every marketing investment has to pay off instantly, and that you should be able to measure the success of each initiative (investment) at every juncture because that’s hardly how the world of investing – even the most successful investing – works. Then, you can train the C-Suite to start seeing marketing as less of an on-demand collateral factory to an internal investment division because that’s really what good marketing is all about in the first place – choosing which resources to deploy when and where. Successful investing includes wins, short-term losses, strategic experimentation and more. And, that’s acceptable because we expect that of investments. In traditional marketing, decisions are made looking backwards. Hence, why so many companies continue to attend trade shows when a much better ROI could be achieved elsewhere. 

Expand your Vocabulary.

Once you’ve taken on the internal investor persona, you need to start using vocabulary that matches your lens and leads to more aligned support based on the investor vs. marketer persona. Instead of a marketing spend – ask for an investment budget with a spread of strategies. Before you bring new ideas to the C-suite, ask your team, “what is our appetite for risk?” Inevitably some companies will have a greater appetite for risk than others based on how fast they want to grow or if they want to enter new markets. However, higher the risk, higher the reward. Now, as a marketer, you know that what sometimes feels “risky” to most of the C-suite isn’t actually all that risky. But, this will take away the pressure that every tactic has to be a bullseye, and instead puts the focus on end of year ROI. When proposing new ideas, position them as “scalable experimentation.” By setting the right tone and expectations from the beginning, your wins will be much more celebrated and your “short-term losses” will be understood as opposed to the gross pressure to measure the unimportant just to be able to present some KPIs that make the board feel good. 

Create Attribution for Both Demand Creation and Demand Capture.

Most of the C-suite is familiar with demand capture: How many of the buyers looking for services in our category find and choose us. With demand capture, you have SEO, adwords, partners, direct traffic…all the tactics which can be measured by flow of the demand. However, you need to separate marketing into two separate categories – and help the C-Suite understand the distinction – so you aren’t judged unfairly (…or at all) for the demand you CREATE. By focusing on how much of your audience views you as the category leader (Share of Voice) and length of sales cycle (buyers ready to buy from YOU vs. those who are already shopping around and are over 60% through the buying cycle before they even reach out to you), you create the paradigm by which you and the team will judge your success. You can set specific KPIs for “category leader,” which you define and report on. 

Learn to Assess the Timing.

The above three ideas will not work if the company is hand to mouth. Meaning, GOOD marketing is a privilege. If the company is underperforming or very much under the gun, no matter what you do, innovation and new ideas will take the backseat to short-term tactics – no matter the actual cost. You have to create a baseline and meet your team where they are before you can guide them to where you want them to go. Getting agreement on key KPIs beforehand will go a long way in helping you establish a baseline. From there, watch and wait for the right timing.The best time to get approval on your next idea is on the tail of a successful one.  

Focus on Influence, Not Control.

This is a tough one because you can’t make anyone actually listen. I know this because I have a two year old whose favorite sentence is “no, mama, bye.” I don’t try to control him because I can’t. I take this same approach with clients. What you CAN do is inspire and connect where they (toddler or C-suite) feel aligned and hence choose to listen and follow of their own free will. This means accepting that there are things you can control and things you can’t. If you work with leadership that, despite your best efforts, is entrenched in their beliefs, there isn’t much you can do except walk away. There are toxic corporate cultures that no matter how good you are at your job or selling your ideas, it isn’t worth it. It’s the business equivalent of “should I stay or should I go?” There are relationships where you can work it out and others where no matter what you do, it isn’t going to be what you want. The difference is always knowing which is which and then having the courage to act on it.

Although some of these strategies are easier said than done, you can more effectively pitch your marketing ideas – and even more – help your company see themselves as a market-led company. When a good product or service becomes table stakes, marketing takes on a whole new level of importance. Sometimes the tide of change is slower than we’d like, but this is one fight worth fighting.

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