9 Ways to Sell Your Ideas to the CMO

April 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This guest post was contributed by Steve Goldhaber, Founder & CEO, 26 Characters.

It can be frustrating if a great marketing idea ends up going nowhere, getting rejected due to CMOs and other internal decision-makers being “not interested” or “too busy.”

Here are four main reasons I’ve witnessed throughout my career on why some ideas never see the light of day.

1. The idea is perceived as too risky.

Unfortunately, when CMOs evaluate your ideas, they not only think about whether they will work but also the political risks they take on by pursuing these ideas. They consider several other factors as well, including the financial health of your company. After all, if the company isn’t performing well, it may be too risky to spend money on something new.

2. The company is focused on business-critical work such as M&A or restructuring.

I've personally experienced this one before, and it's hard to pick up on because any type of corporate restructuring or M&A is usually confidential. Even if you have a great idea, it may not work in the new organizational model. Another possibility is that the C-suite is too focused on pursuing a merger or acquisition to devote time to your concept — even if they ultimately want to pursue your idea.

3. The idea isn’t good.

This one is hard to process, because it's tough to admit that an idea of yours isn’t good enough. But if people aren't excited about your idea, it’s probably not a good one. Great ideas tend to have a snowball effect. They keep rolling and gaining momentum once others put in their suggestions, which improve the idea over time. If you're sharing your idea and people aren’t getting excited, it might be best to let it go (which can be hard, I know). If you're not getting any traction, have an honest conversation with yourself and prepare to hold off on the idea.

4. You didn’t sell your idea properly.

This may be the biggest reason why ideas aren’t implemented. People are so enamored of their idea that they assume it will sell itself. This is possible but highly unlikely. It's important to spend just as much time selling the idea as you did coming up with it. It's not just about how you think but how your CMO thinks too. On another level, it's not just about how your CMO sees it, but how their respective stakeholders evaluate new ideas.

Since we have the most control over how we sell the idea, let’s focus on that from here on. Let’s start by getting into the mind-set of CMOs so that we can appreciate what they’re up against. First, they’re under pressure to deliver on several short-term initiatives that the CEO has requested (these requests are probably unplanned by the way). Second, according to research from Spencer Stuart, CMOs’ average tenure is 44 months. This means they’re probably thinking about their next job, purely as a precaution. Third, they don’t spend most of their day on marketing. Rather, they’re tied up in meetings to talk about human resource issues, budgets, and other non-marketing issues.

So it makes sense that we often struggle to get their attention in the first place. Even when you do get their attention, you’re up against a variety of factors. I’ve always been of a fan of something called the PRE-decision-making model, which suggests that every decision we make is filtered through three lenses: Political, Rational, and Emotional.

Every company culture is unique, and every individual you’re trying to persuade is seeking a balance among these three elements. If you happen to know which one or two of these three lenses are more important to the CMO and can provide them the information that satisfies those concerns, your idea is more likely to get the green light.

In that spirit, here are nine techniques that will help you better sell an idea.

An important note before we start: Don’t try to apply any of the following techniques just because they sound good. A technique has to fit the type of idea you have come up with and the context of the CMO and company.

1. The “Case Study”

This technique works well with CMOs who are less prone to take risks, or when your CMO or CEO is fond of the way another company does their marketing. This technique is all about attaching your idea to something that another company does. This reassures the CMO that they’re not the first to venture into the unknown; they are simply following someone else who already took the risk.

I’ve heard from so many marketers out there who use this technique to their advantage. A friend of mine joked about this by saying, “My leadership is open to new ideas, as long as they’re first published in the Harvard Business Review.” The “Case Study” approach also explains why so many RFPs ask for case studies. It’s because companies constantly look for an insurance policy—in this case, that someone else has already done what they plan to do.

2. The “Experiment”

The good news is that, in theory at least, Silicon Valley culture has made its way into most of the Fortune 1000 companies. If the idea you’re suggesting is too radical for your company, you can position it as an experiment. After all, experiments are about testing a hypothesis and learning from the results.

So tell your CMO that you want to conduct an experiment. They’ll feel less threatened. Reassure them that it’s going to be OK. After all, learning from failure is an acceptable outcome when you conduct an experiment, isn’t it? If you frame this request to your CMO as, “Are you open to conducting an experiment?” it’s harder for them to say “no.”

3. The “Helping Sales Out” Approach

This technique is especially helpful if you work for a B2B company. You'll need a partner in crime on this one, and that person has to work in Sales. Start the conversation with your CMO by saying how closely you've been working with Sales, because you want to figure out how to support them more effectively. Then frame your idea as something that Sales wants to pursue. As long as you have a decent idea that doesn't conflict with your CMO’s agenda, it’s more likely to be approved.

4. The “You’ve Inspired Us”

This one is cheesy, but it can work. It’s all about connecting your idea to something that the CMO has recently brought up. It goes like this: “I remember the meeting we had last month where you talked about XYZ. The one thing that really struck me was when you said ___________. We've been thinking a lot about it lately, and it's inspired us to create a program that does XYZ. We're really excited about implementing it. What do you think?”

5. The “We’re Playing It Too Safe” Technique

You can start by saying how you’ve been reflecting on changes in the marketplace, what your competitors are up to, and so on. Once you’ve provided that context, build up to the notion that the company should be doing more, taking more calculated risks, and/or trying out new programs.

Once you’ve put that notion out there, conclude with how the company is “playing it too safe.” Then, share your idea and explain your recommendations.

6. The “Data Doesn’t Lie”

If your CMO is all about data (and hopefully they all are), this is a pretty straightforward technique. Start the conversation by discussing the key metrics that you should be focusing on over the next 12 months. Then get your CMO to agree that the next step is to explore programs that help you meet your goals.

Come back in one or two weeks with a few ideas. Before you share any of them, tell your CMO you would like to test all three of them, because you’re not sure which one will have the most impact. Wait for them to give you feedback on this idea of testing three programs before you explain them. This may feel awkward, but if they first say yes in principle to testing all three, you’ll have a better chance of approval after revealing the actual ideas.

7. The “Competitor Catch-Up”

This approach can be extremely powerful, because it plays up the battle between your company and the competition. I've seen many companies sit on ideas until a competitor does something similar, and then suddenly they start playing the me-too game. Include “Our competitor is launching something related to our idea” in your conversation with the CMO. Mention this is a program that you've been wanting to pursue, and now it’s table stakes, since a competitor is ahead of you.

8. The “First Mover’s Advantage”

This technique is the opposite of the “Competitor Catch-Up” approach. This is about framing an idea so you can have a first-mover advantage. Set the idea up by saying: “I believe this window of opportunity will be open for only X months. If we don't take action, one of our competitors will beat us to it.” This plays into the competitive spirit and is likely to get more attention. Just make sure your idea is actually based on something that a competitor may actually working on; if you’re just saying that as a way to spin your idea, it’s not going to work.

9. The “FYI”

I’ve saved the boldest approach for last. This one takes a lot of courage and may get you in trouble, so be cautious if you really go for it. It follows the spirit of the famous Admiral Grace Hopper pronouncement: “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”

Here’s how it works. Put together an email that summarizes your idea and its key benefits. Don’t ask for buy-in. Just communicate on the assumption that you’re moving forward with the idea and are proactively sharing it with the CMO just so that it’s on their radar. Don’t worry—if they want to stop the idea from going forward, they will. But it’s usually harder for someone to stop something that’s already in motion.

Since it’s a high-risk move, you definitely want to use this as a last resort. But who knows? You might get rewarded when your idea delivers results!

To keep pace with the latest ideas in digital marketing, subscribe to the LinkedIn Marketing Blog today.