Despite a vibrant U.S. economy and an ever-expanding arsenal of technologies to help both salespeople and marketers reach more prospects, many companies continue to struggle to grow sales. Why? And what can you do about it?
Control Over the Sales Process Has Shifted
The sales game has changed, and many companies have failed to adapt. Simply put, salespeople no longer control the sales process from start to finish.
In the pre-Internet universe, salespeople held all the information prospects needed to make purchase decisions, from pricing to detailed product information. This put the salesperson in control. Conventional tactics like phone calls and trade shows were effective because prospects had no other means to engage with salespeople. Prospects had to talk to salespeople, whether they wanted to or not.
But today, prospects are in control. They expect to find what they need to know online, and they usually succeed in finding it—including product and company reviews, comparison tests, competitive pricing, alternative options, and much more. The net result is that your prospects don’t need your salespeople to get the information necessary to make an informed purchase decision. This isn’t meant to imply that salespeople are no longer valuable—quite the opposite is true, in fact—but they are no longer the gatekeepers of information and conductors of the buying process.
In theory, informed buyers could be a good thing for you. When prospects know exactly what they want and have reasonable pricing expectations, sales cycles can go much faster and make the salesperson’s life much easier. But it rarely works that way. The problem is that your competitors are lurking on the Internet trying to find these prospects while they’re researching online to steer them their way using paid search, ad retargeting, SEO and other tactics. And some of the “information” your prospects are discovering online is inaccurate or misleading.
Marketing to the Rescue?
As the Internet exploded with information in the 2000s, marketing organizations attempted to “control the conversations” about their companies that were occurring online. PR firms and branding consultants proliferated, and blogs and social media became all the rage. The broad strategy was to provide air cover to Sales—to sprinkle seeds of awareness and preference for a company’s solutions throughout markets. Presumably, this tactic would cut through the competitive clutter on the Internet and nudge prospects to engage with the company.
The longer-term results of this strategy were mixed, at best. When after a while every company seemed to be issuing the same press release, prospects stopped reading them. It turned out that social media wasn’t the panacea many hoped it would be to drive B2B sales. The B2B media industry collapsed (or evolved, depending on how one looks at it), taking with it as victims many popular industry journals, media-sponsored trade shows, and targeted industry websites. Companies invested heavily in Web marketing, but when every website is just one click away from the next, it’s hard to keep people on one for long.
In the end, while online marketing tactics may have delivered some branding benefits, they rarely catalyzed sales conversations directly, or with any urgency. They rarely sparked conversations with the right people, in the right context.
Content Gets You Invited to the Dance
The old-world tactics of both the sales and marketing realms are no longer effective for most companies. But one thing hasn't changed: salespeople still play a pivotal role in closing business, and their involvement can help deliver higher average selling prices and better-structured deals.
You still want prospects to dance with your salespeople. But it’s a dance that your prospects—not you—are leading. You need to be invited.
That's where compelling content comes in. Your prospects are hungry for content that’s educational, helpful and informative in tone. White papers, articles, infographics, and videos are effective content assets in this regard. Of course, you need to offer content to prospects. And they’ll welcome it, as long as it’s targeted to the right audience, relevant (i.e., speaks to their pains), done well, and isn’t salesy.
To oversimplify it, there are four basic steps to this approach:
- Create a library of high-quality content assets.
- Build a database of appropriate decision-makers.
- Offer new additions to your database a compelling initial content offer via email.
- Continue to nurture that list with more and more content.
Repeat steps 1-4.
Step 4 is particularly important. The goal is to “touch” suspects not once but repeatedly, over a prolonged period. During that time, you’re keeping your company top of mind for the prospect while priming them to buy from you.
When your prospects are ready, they will engage with your salespeople. But now they’ll have an instilled preference for working with you. They (and your salespeople) will be positioned to have a more fruitful sales conversation, accelerating the sales process and improving the likelihood of a win.
Content is part of the solution, though it is only one part. Remember, “content marketing” isn’t about tangible deliverables, nor is it a one-time event—it’s a process that gets you invited to the dance and can help you build your sales pipeline.