How much marketing best practice are you practising on your sales team?

What if we started to treat sales and marketing alignment as a marketing challenge – not just an organisational one?

September 23, 2019

How much marketing best practice are you practising on your sales team?

As B2B marketers today, we spend most of our time thinking about strategies for engaging external audiences – and how we can apply the latest trends and best practices to doing so. It’s our job. It’s how we contribute to the business bottom line.

However, there’s another engagement challenge that data shows can have an equally significant revenue impact for our business, but which we often completely ignore. Breaking down the barriers to more effective collaboration between sales and marketing is now a priority for every B2B business. However, we very rarely train our marketing skills in this direction. We treat it as an organisational challenge: something to be solved by how we structure our days, whom we have meetings with, what targets we set and what skills and roles we have in each team.

What if we started treating it as a marketing challenge as well?

I believe we’d start to see some real differences if we started to apply the latest trends in B2B marketing to the way that we engage with our sales colleagues. In fact, every B2B trend that’s working its way onto marketing department agendas at the moment represents a two-fold opportunity for engagement with sales. Any new initiative represents an opportunity to integrate sales into your marketing planning. And every new trend should involve a challenge as to whether we’re applying the same principles to engaging our sales audience.

B2B Marketing Trend Number 1: Video
You only have to glance at your LinkedIn feed to see how video is exploding as a B2B marketing tactic. It’s being used throughout the funnel from building brand awareness to communicating product details, driving in-depth consideration, and providing customer support. And it’s playing these roles as everything from short, 6-second teasers and longer brand documentaries of minutes or more.

So what happens when we apply the principles of a video marketing strategy to our sales audience? And what happens when we start to build our video strategy in collaboration with sales?

A video-inspired playbook for communicating with sales
Planning video content throws up several opportunities for closer collaboration with sales: from pooling insight on the customer decision journey and where video can make most difference to supporting new launches with intro and how-to films, to identifying relevant experts within your sales team and incorporating them into brand documentary-style content. There’s also the opportunity to offer support to sales in developing video selling strategies, which use video content as a way to introduce reps and build their personal brands.

Just as important though, is applying the principles of effective B2B video marketing to engaging your sales audience. Let’s consider some of the characteristics of the most effective B2B video:

·      It engages and tells stories visually (the obvious ‘talking head’ approach isn’t usually the most effective)

·      It respects the audience’s time and communicates concisely

·      It takes attention seriously, with a structure that captures it early and maintains it

·      It often uses emotion to cut through: humour, drama, tension

·      It benefits from familiar formats and content brands – a regular video content brand (like our own Live with Marketers) helps to drive recognition and engagement

Now what would happen if we started integrating video and the principles of video marketing into how we communicate with sales? We’d think about whether we could communicate those points with more impact if we did so visually rather than just through long emails. We’d force ourselves to prioritise messages, distil what we need to communicate, and find a creative and impactful way to get the key messages across.

We’ve actually had some considerable success at LinkedIn when we create video content to introduce new initiatives to sales. We haven’t had budgets to play with – but when we focus on creating something entertaining and engaging, we’re rewarded with more attention – and it helps to bring our teams closer together. We did this recently for the launch of the LinkedIn Marketing Awards, which has been one of the most successful examples of sales and marketing collaboration to date.

Let’s imagine you’re launching a new campaign and you want to raise awareness among sales, encourage them to amplify it, and suggest ways they can follow up. What if you asked the Head of Sales to interview the team behind the campaign on camera, embrace their inner Paxman, throw in some hardball questions about what difference this initiative can make for their colleagues? Or how about a monthly game show that tests sales and marketing on how well they’re aligned with one another’s quarterly priorities?

There’s a real opportunity for marketing to let its guard down, demonstrate creativity – and demonstrate the value that they attach to engaging their sales colleagues. Don’t underestimate the strength of the signals this can send.

B2B Marketing Trend Number 2: Account-Based Marketing (ABM)
It goes without saying that sales should be engaged with your Account-Based Marketing (ABM) programme – after all, that’s a big part of the purpose of ABM. However, it’s a real trap to assume that this will happen automatically, just because you’ve added ABM to your to-do list.

The fact is, a lot of ABM programmes are still very M-led. They are initiatives that are driven by marketing, and involve marketing planning and executing marketing activity in the same way that they always have – but then just targeting it at an account level.

If you want to engage sales properly in ABM, it’s vital to respect the essential first-steps and foundations, before you leap into execution. This involves consciously and intentionally engaging sales with the ABM strategy.

Work with them to define exactly what the objectives of ABM are for your business, whether you’re tailoring marketing to a handful of top-priority accounts or taking a more scaled approach with different priority tiers. It’s equally important to align on how you prioritise accounts and select them for inclusion. The credibility of your programme depends almost entirely on sales buying into this – and in most cases, leading on it.

An ABM-inspired playbook for communicating with sales
You’ll find ABM planning a lot easier and more effective if you’re already applying the principles of an ABM programming to the way that you build and engage with sales in the first place.

An effective ABM strategy depends on your ability to profile your target accounts, understand the role of different stakeholders in those accounts, figure out how decisions get made, and deploy marketing content that addresses each stakeholder’s priorities. How many of us can honestly say that we’ve devoted the same level of planning to how we understand and communicate with our sales teams?

Applying an ABM strategy to sales involves challenging ourselves on the following key questions:

·      Have you met and spoken to every member of the sales team?

·      How well do you understand their different roles?

·      Do you know how the sales team is structured?

·      What additional or hidden responsibilities does each person have within the team?

·      How do your sales colleagues make decisions?

·      Who sets and influences the priorities?

·      What are the major challenges and barriers faced by each team member and the team as a whole?

·      What are different people’s personal pain points?

Just as with your external ABM strategy, this is about identifying the key influencers who can drive engagement across the team as a whole, and then developing a personalised engagement plan to fit with each of those stakeholders’ combination of personal priorities and business objectives. As marketers, we increasingly understand that this is how you influence company-wide behaviour and decisions. It applies to team-wide behaviour and decisions too.

B2B Marketing Trend Number 3: Podcasts
Do you remember when podcasts were declared dead as a content format and a marketing tactic? It’s got to be one of the worst diagnoses ever.

Podcasts are growing exponentially – in the US, the number of listeners has doubled in the last four years – and their role within B2B marketing is growing exponentially too. In last year’s Demand Gen Survey of B2B Buyer content preferences, 64% of buyers said podcasts were a content format they valued in the early stages of the marketing journey – that’s higher than pretty much any other format besides infographics.

Podcasts are a powerful tactic because they are built for a voice world – and a voice world is where we are headed. But that’s not the only reason. They also work because of their sense of rhythm and their sense of value. Podcasts are a content format that encourages people to check in regularly because they are confident in what they’re going to get. A big part of that value comes from the fact that podcasts are built around guests – external experts, which research tells us adds important authority to thought leadership content. And another source of strength comes from their accessibility. This is content that can be consumed in people’s own time, offline or online, often on the move.

A Podcast-inspired playbook for communicating with sales
The strengths of this format, the reasons why it resonates, hold some real lessons for how we seek to engage sales colleagues. Can you give sales a compelling reason for setting aside 15 or 20 minutes to hearing from you, either as a video or audio podcast? Can you build something that’s easy for people to download and listen to offline, on their commute? And can you find a way to promote it internally?

A podcast-inspired approach to communicating starts with thinking about the sales team’s definition of value and what would motivate them to set aside time on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis, then balancing this value with the key messages we’re looking to communicate. This could include entertaining formats – or featuring credible experts as guests that your sales team will want to make time for.

Besides using podcast-inspired principles to engage sales directly, you’ll also have several opportunities to integrate sales colleagues into the planning of any external-facing podcast programme you run:

·      Are there experts within your sales team that you could bring insight and value to your podcast episodes? Don’t be afraid to be selective here – credibility is everything and being discerning can attach greater value to being involved

·      Are there clients or prospects who would make insightful guests – and provide the opportunity to strengthen sales relationships?

·      Are their priority issues, hot topics or particular barriers that sales are facing, which you could address on the podcast through third-party experts?

B2B Marketing Trend Number 4: Quality environments
Concerns about ad fraud and brand safety have led marketers to re-focus on the value of quality media environments and the signals they send to audiences. Newsworks data shows that quality media environments are 42% more cost-effective than cheap ones. JPMorgan Chase recently slashed the number of online sites it advertises on from 400,000 to 5,000 – and delivered the same results.

The message is clear: don’t prioritise bombarding an audience anywhere you can. Focus on the quality of each opportunity and the signal that opportunity sends about your brand.

A quality media playbook for communicating with sales

The same principles apply when it comes to a communication plan for sales. Don’t bombard your colleagues with quickly dashed off emails. Don’t prioritise hammering a message home so that you can get it off your to-do list. Stop regarding sales as an audience that you’re effectively delegating to, moving stuff off your desk and onto theirs.

The way you communicate with sales sends extremely strong signals about how you really see the relationship – more so than what you actually say. If you really do value their time and their attention, if you really are committed to enablement, if you really have invested in their priorities, then this needs to come across in your choice of communication opportunities.

We’ve seen this first-hand at LinkedIn since we started a programme for launching our external-facing brand campaigns internally. We aimed to create and leverage media opportunities in and around our offices that would send a clear signal about how serious we were about getting sales on-board – and doing so in a way that fitted with their habits, routines and priorities.

We focused on in-cafeteria opportunities to talk to people in their down-time, leveraged coffee cups and bathroom mirrors as media opportunities, organised early morning desk drops and took over poster sites on the routes our sales colleagues took to work. It had a big impact on the level of internal engagement around our campaigns – the the role our colleagues played in amplifying them. A thoughtful media strategy helps to achieve the obvious goal of getting your message across – but it also sends an equally important signal about the value that you attach to your sales colleagues as an audience.

B2B Marketing Trend Number 5: Data Science
B2B marketers are increasingly focused on how to use data more effectively – and find new sources of data to use, often with a focus on how we can incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) effectively into our strategy.

This has led to some rally valuable developments in marketing strategies. We’re being more intentional and more imaginative in how we conceive of data, how we identify the insights that we need and the best way to generate them. There’s a real focus on using data to predict and optimise, collecting it with a purpose, and trying to do more with it rather than just gathering more of it.

I believe there are huge advantages to be gained, if we apply just a fraction of this type of thinking to the way that we approach engaging our sales audience.

A data science-inspired playbook for communicating with sales
The most valuable AI systems are prediction machines – they are focused on detecting rhythms and patterns in data that are significant because they are replicable. We may not have the same technology available when it comes to studying engagement with sales – but we can use the same principles:

·      Identify the best metrics available for tracking successful engagement and alignment with sales: Can you track open and response rates for your emails? The proportion of the sales team that your marketing team is connected to on LinkedIn? How often your sales colleagues engage with, like, comment on and share marketing content?

·      What data are you tracking on outcomes? Your target may be defined in MQLs but you don’t have to make those the only metric you monitor – what about the rate at which MQLs become SALs? The rate at which they convert? The speed of conversion compared to leads sales source for themselves?

·      Once you’re armed with relevant data sources, what significant patterns can you find? Which styles / lengths / formats of emails engage best? Which sales reps engage most often? What to those reps have in common? Which content engages and enthuses sales most consistently?

We have no excuse for not studying our sales teams with the same level of interest that we apply to external audiences – because we should have more potential data sources available to us. We just need to be more imaginative about what we use and how we use it.

A final thought
Applying marketing best practice to communicating with sales is a challenge – and it’s a challenge that we grapple with at LinkedIn as well. I’d be misleading you entirely if I claimed that we’ve got all of this worked out, and that we’re already applying best practice in all of the areas I’ve mentioned here. However, what I would say is that setting out these challenges, being open about them, and acknowledging where we’ve failed to value our internal audiences’ attention in the past, is a really important first step.

As marketers, a brief to engage an audience that’s hugely valuable to your business is something we live for. Our sales audience is no exception. Applying imagination, creativity and the latest thinking on B2B marketing is the least they deserve from us.

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