Down and Out, Bottoms Up: Why It’s Not About The C-Level

Legions of B2B marketers and sellers have been trained to aim their sites at the C-level decision-maker.  Search Google for “selling to C-level executives” and you’ll get 2.6M links to articles, books, blogs and other forms of advice providing everything from timing tips (“call early in the morning!”) to crafting an elevator pitch (“make it simple and impactful”).

And for the longest time, I was a firm believer that nothing happened without a C-level engagement, and that our marketing and selling efforts should be directed towards only the most senior decision makers. Don’t waste time with people who can’t sign the seven figure checks, went the thinking.

But there have been a number of developments over the past few years that have flipped this thinking on its head, and more and more businesses are embracing a marketing and sales approach that runs completely counter to the traditional wisdom.  Let’s take a look at some of the big changes in the purchasing ecosystem:

Decision-making is being pushed down and out across the organization

Last week I pointed out that businesses have changed the way they buy, with one of the biggest outcomes being the rise of the consensus-based sale, something the Corporate Executive Board has been talking about for quite some time and reference in their book, The Challenger Sale (which I highly recommend be read by all marketing and sales execs).  The idea is that in a world where C-level tenure is shorter than it’s ever been, executives are generally far more risk-averse than ever, and as such, want buy-in from a wide array of constituents within their organizations to not only ensure the purchased solution is actually going to be used, but to ensure that there is shared accountability for the decision. That’s a very different dynamic than the one that existed as recently as 15 years ago, where the C-level was not only the most senior decision-maker, he or she was often the only decision maker.

A second piece of the puzzle is that decision-making is being pushed down and out across the organization.  This is in large part a response to the need for businesses to become more agile and responsive to rapidly changing markets and to minimize the decision bottlenecks, and as a result individuals and business units have far more authority and decision-making power than ever before.  This has been a great development for many business marketers: they sell to individual business units who can be more efficient in their decision-making, acquire ROI & proof-point data from that unit, and enlist that unit in taking the solution to others within the company. Much of this fueled by freemium and free-trial approaches, which leads to the next point.

The Rise of Bring Your Own

Consumerization of IT (CoIT) gets its unfair share of coverage, so I won’t belabor the point here but its impact deserves to be underscored: for the first time, people are using technology outside of their companies as much, if not more, than inside. Think about that: that is one of the most fundamental changes to the work/life dynamic in the past 50 years.  It used to be that work was the only place most people were exposed to technology. Now, people are discovering, using and mastering technology outside of work at a rate far faster than most businesses are implementing and deploying.

Today, this typically manifests in two forms: bring your own devices (BYOD) like phones, tablets, and even computers, and increasingly bring your own software (BYOS) like expense apps and file-sharing apps. As more and more solutions become software-based, employees are bringing more and more software and cloud-based apps into the company, eventually producing enough individual licenses where senior executives take note and make moves to gain savings through an enterprise agreement.  Business like New Relic, 37Signals, Asana, BoxYammer and Nimble have leveraged bottoms-up models that target employees first who then bring these technologies into the enterprise.

As a result, marketers and sellers are aiming more of their efforts at finding “catalyzer” employees who will quickly see the value of their offerings, put the freemium or free trials to work, then evangelize the products.

Employee Networks as Marketing Platforms

Companies large and small are increasingly implementing collaboration networks that allow employees to better share, connect and work together. These internal collaboration networks are not only a boon for the host business who benefits from increased productivity, but also for marketers who are able to connect to and leverage these platforms to increase distribution within a company.

In some cases this may be an API integration; for example, TripIt integrates into platforms like Salesforce Chatter, making it easy for one employee to promote TripIt to other employees by virtue of travel updates pushed into the Chatter stream. In other cases, the application itself prompts the employee to invite more individuals to join, and typically makes it easy to do so by integrating with employee address book systems.  Again, this is a revolutionary development that simply didn’t exist 5 years ago.

The C-Level Still Matters, But There’s a Better Way to Sell to Her

To be clear, the C-Level executive still plays a key role in large purchases, for a whole host of reasons that Ben Horowitz outlined a couple of years ago.  The good news is that now you can build a base of actual use cases, proof points, and champions within her company before making that initial outreach – the hottest form of warm calls.  In the past, we had to rely on ROI calculators and elaborate sales pitches to convince a buyer; now, for many marketers, they can demonstrate the value that is already being delivered before a purchase is even made.

For many marketers, the target profile has drastically changed: it’s no longer all about the C-Level. Now it’s about the end users.  Not only will this result in the “consumerization of marketing,” but it’s going to become more and more evident in the actual product design itself, as more and more developers pursue a user-centric design philosophy aimed at increasing usage and evangelism of their offerings.


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