Make Content Your Most Valuable Sales Rep: Marketing-Sales Alignment Tips for Engagement With Your Audiences & Boosting Closing Rates

4 Nov
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As much as it’s wise and wonderful to “stop and smell the roses”, as the end of fiscal year approaches many companies realize it’s just as valuable to return to a careful examination of “What are we really doing, where are we going and why?” along with considering whether all functions are aligned to handle the heat of the coming year. For B2B organizations Marketing-Sales being in alignment is mission critical. A major benefit of strong marketing-sales alignment is that you are able to develop stronger and more meaningful content. Content is becoming companies’ most valuable sales rep. To empower your prospects and help them to choose your solution you need to build an infrastructure to reach and engage your audiences with relevant and personalized content. In this article our virtual panel of experts from various industries takes us into the nuts and bolts of marketing their businesses and deliver details and insights guaranteed to teach or remind you about something critical for your own continued marketing artistry. Check the integrated demand generation process flow we’ve designed for you and download the presentation to learn about our LeadGen Journalism as a new demandgen method…  Then read our interviews with experts  to learn about methods and tools other companies use for testing and optimizing their engagement and sales processes, and how they handle their cross-team priorities.

Participants in this conversation:

Jay Millard, COO, Amadeus Consulting, a company that builds custom technology solutions for their customers.

Randy Littleson, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Flexera Software, a company that provides software licensing management, software compliance, installation and application packaging solutions.

John Sarich, Vice President of Strategy, VUE Software, software solutions for the Insurance Industry.

Joseph Lininger, Senior Vice President, Marketing at Guardian Protection Services, a security company dedicated to life safety and protection of properties.

Coleen Reardon, Director of Marketing, Deer Valley Resort, a resort known for revolutionizing ski area service and hosting corporate teams.

SocialAgenda Media:According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, 60 percent of buying decisions are completed before prospects engage with a supplier’s sales representatives. What strategies and tactics do you utilize and what processes do you have in place to empower your prospects and help them to choose your solution?

John Sarich: We have an overriding strategy in place that initial customer contact happens via our website. Of course, we do plug in personal contacts that occur at a trade event or in the normal course of business, but our primary objective is to make that first impression via our website and our web content. We only sell, by the way, to insurance organizations in all segments of insurance (property & casualty, life & annuities, and health) so we are pure B2B and focused on one major industry. All of our marketing is aimed at delivering our message, emphasizing thought leadership, and providing a prospect with actionable options and information. We utilize SEO and Web metrics that enable us to understand a visitor’s role / persona, type and size of organization, and use that information in the course of follow-up via inside sales. Our initial goal is to develop a marketing qualified lead for sales that can be turned into a sales qualified lead.

Joseph Lininger: We make sure that we engage our prospects from the very first touch point and we strive to supply them with up to date information in order to help them make educated buying decisions. We are continually surveying in order to find out what are the most asked questions, what information the public wants and/or needs in order to make a buying decision. Being seen as a trusted resource for industry related information positions us as a logical choice when the buying decision occurs.

Jay Millard:  We are a services company, so this question is a bit different for us than a product company.  However, we offer two clear avenues.  One is a very quick and easy user experience online to expedite interaction with one of our employees.  We focus on speed to human interaction, and minimizing the instances someone would reach out and not make connection with a team member.  Our second approach as a services company is a thoughtful information architecture of our primary site which is augmented by a strategic content distribution strategy. We have a significant number of client success stories that are segmented by client type, technology, business need, and several other categories, so for the more thorough advance scout we employ a strategic content strategy that empowers a prospect to reinforce their choice with the reference guide from other people like them.  Through blogs, case studies, videos, and other online content, we organize a very robust and comprehensive approach to storytelling which reinforces our key distinction points.

Randy Littleson: We’re big believers in this statistic.  We agree with sales on the target buyer personas then marketing conducts research on where these personas “hang out” to discuss these topics and where they go to get their information as they research.  We then create content – most of it NOT pitching our products but educating the market on issues, best practices, etc. – and distribute it into these locations.  This takes the form of YouTube videos, white papers posted to LinkedIn, our own blogs, etc.

Coleen Reardon: Winter is by far the busiest season at Deer Valley, therefore the majority of our marketing efforts focus on promoting destination ski vacations, both domestically and internationally.  Our season begins in December and runs through the second week in April, but our winter marketing push begins August.  We have learned from our research that our guest’s decision regarding choosing a destination takes place well in advance of the actual booking, as much as four months prior, with the actual booking taking place an average of 30 to 45 days prior to arrival.  Our marketing efforts include a mix of traditional public relations, social media strategies that include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram along with print, direct mail, digital and email campaigns, all aimed at gaining the attention of potential first time visitors as well as return guests during their planning cycle.  We also focus heavily on educating our outside sales force including tour operators and travel agents on our products beginning in late summer so that they can, in turn, easily sell the Deer Valley vacation experience.

Various closing tools and offers are made available to our Vacation Planners in our Reservations department.  Research we conduct also told us that 80% of our visitors who call our Reservations center first went to our website to research their lodging options.  A major focus for the Marketing department is to work with IT to build a website that allows our guests to book their entire vacation online.  Currently about 12% of our visitors book online and we would like to see that number in the 30% range.  As you might imagine, a ski vacation is a very complex booking typically beginning with a lodging decision involving many types of condominium style accommodation options.  We have made great strides with our website and guests are now able to book their lodging, lift tickets and ski rentals online and also make evening dining reservations.  Our future plans include adding ski school products in the next two years.  It is also exceedingly important for us to keep our website content and look and feel current and inviting as it is the call to action for all of our efforts.

Packaging of products (lodging, lift and dining) to affect bookings during need periods is an important tool for our Vacation Planners and offers us great promotional value in selling our destination, whether on the web or in person.  We believe that all of the efforts above really contribute in meaningful ways towards influencing a guest to select Deer Valley.  The number of impressions a guest experiences across mediums during their vacation planning contributes greatly to both influencing them to select Deer Valley and also to hopefully validate their decision once it’s made.

SocialAgenda Media:For companies, content is becoming their most valuable sales rep. What methods and tools do you use for testing and optimizing your engagement and sales processes from the prospect’s first contact with your content, to closed sales?

Randy Littleson: We measure.  We have a pretty extensive set of reports that measure the marketing qualified leads (MQLs) we produce from all our campaigns and content, how much pipeline we can attribute to them (both sourced and influenced) and the bookings that result from them.  We also analyze keyword searches that bring traffic to our website and blogs and then increase content based on popular terms.

Jay Millard: We typically employ A/B testing approaches where two different models for communicating a message are employed and compared.  We measure a wide variety of user experience analytics, which we watch through an online dashboard we designed for our team.  We also customize a version of this platform for clients we support.  Based upon the more effective option, we focus on enhancing the more successful approach. So in a sense, we let our clients “vote” every day.

John Sarich: We view content as king and strive to keep our content current, topical, and directed at articulating business problems and solutions to those problems. We also pride ourselves on thought leadership and are regularly cited in trade publications. Our people author numerous by-lined articles on various issues in the industry, and we have enormous credibility with our clients and prospects. We repurpose that content via Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and other social media sites which gains us more mentions at a personal level for our audience.

Coleen Reardon: Content is definitely king.  We are in the process of adding to our staff a Content Coordinator who will provide fresh, current, engaging and fun content for our social efforts as well as consistent copy and messaging throughout the various departments in the Marketing division.  Tracking, although a real challenge for all marketing efforts, is becoming much more sophisticated.  We are currently able to track our specific campaigns via digital efforts utilizing Google commerce.  The tracking is based on the lodging packages (i.e. a guest goes to our site from our digital efforts and purchases the package promoted) which we can track from web visit to conversion.  We are in the process of implementing a better tracking process through funneling the guest information and their behavior on the web so that we can begin tracking conversion no matter what product our guests purchase.

Our CRM company is able to track our email and direct mail campaigns to conversion utilizing a test group to validate the information.  They have added Social CRM tracking and reporting to their product mix this year and we will be testing the program this coming season.

Joseph Lininger: Our business intelligence and CRM solutions allow us to follow each prospect from inquiry to closed sale. We segment each promotion and content channel in order to track performance. Over time we have been able to project certain KPI criteria that we use for testing and optimizing each new content channel and publication.

SocialAgenda Media: Each organization must measure how well different pieces of content perform across various channels, for each vertical, for various buying personas and revise their plans accordingly. What metrics and analytics tools do you use to optimize audience engagement and how?  

Coleen Reardon: Content for the various channels needs to be consistent but also tweaked so that it is appropriate for the specific audiences.  Monthly reports are run for all of the social media mediums we currently implement.  Our goal is to see an increase in participants and engagement as a result of hiring a Content Coordinator.  Being able to monitor our guests engagement while on property will also help us to quickly resolve service issues in the moment, thereby hopefully lessening negative comments on sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp and also on comment cards submitted by the guest.

Jay Millard: We have built a proprietary tool (we are of course a technology solutions company).  We segment campaigns when we create them and even use a variety of tracking coding for different content types.  We capture key data in the online path a prospect takes, and we auto upload all prospect data pre-segmented for this analysis into our customer relationship management tool.  Then via the integration to our proprietary tool, we output the data into decision tools. Phone data is also managed the same way incorporating dynamically generated phone numbers.

Randy Littleson: As mentioned above, we’re not very good yet at persona-based content – we prioritize and hit the biggest one’s – but certainly don’t to all of them yet with specialized content.  It’s a goal to improve here.   We do have a very detailed set of reports though that analyze campaigns and content for leads, pipeline and bookings – factoring in ROI based on bookings/spend.

Joseph Lininger: We use a myriad of tools to optimize audience engagement – from Google Analytics to proprietary onsite tracking scripts. Social tracking tools like HootSuite Pro, Facebook Insights and others.

John Sarich: We first look to see what content is being accessed and downloaded. We also look at the use and value of microsites, as well as roles and scoring of individual visitors. We use Pardot, Google, and other tools to quantify our web marketing efforts.

SocialAgenda Media:What challenges do companies confront today while establishing infrastructure to reach and engage their audiences with relevant and personalized content, and how does your company solve those challenges?

Randy Littleson: For us, targeting by persona at various stages of the sales cycle is very tough given the amount of specialized content relative to our resources.  Our best approach to dealing with this is prioritization – we can’t do everything, so we focus on that which is highest priority based on impact.  Another challenge we have is engaging the entire company – all our thought leaders – in contributing to our efforts.  What we’ve found works here is some awareness of the results and recognition for those who are our biggest supporters.  The third big challenge is reporting.  We’ve invested heavily in a reporting infrastructure to monitor our results, but it’s a continuous effort to get the team to adhere to standards that support consistent reporting and to invest the time in using the insights gleaned from the reports to make continuous improvements.  We have quarterly business reviews and other training mechanisms to keep this front and center for our people.

John Sarich: Probably the biggest challenge is to completely understand your customers, your competitors, and your position in the market. Again, in the B2B world, many people think that social media and personalized content is verboten. After all, in a B2C context we understand the personal aspect. However, in B2B, ultimately it is a people to people business. And, if I am selling to a business, on a personal level I want to be visible and helpful to the key decision makers. In times past, that was the purpose of belonging to a golf club – so you could develop and nurture business relationships. All social media has done is to modernize that same relationship and make it available 24/7 and not just at the golf club. So now there are tweets, forwarding items of interest via email, belonging to various interest groups, and other aspects to cultivating that important business relationship.

Joseph Lininger:  The initial buy-in on the real value of content marketing as a long term customer acquisition/nurturing channel was one of the biggest challenges. Once a value could be associated with the initiative the next hurdle was staffing appropriately and attracting the highest level of talent.  Finally, and probably the greatest challenge (which never ends) is analyzing the engagement of our audience — testing new topics and initiatives and coming up with new ideas for engagement channels, creative, etc.

Coleen Reardon: Things change so quickly that it is difficult to stay current regarding the latest and greatest in social mediums and digital offerings.  Attending seminars, research, reading articles and engaging with peers are all helpful in becoming educated. Deciding which social media and web efforts to embrace, we try to determine which efforts will be most meaningful to our guests. Staff resource is a real issue.  Information moves quickly and you need a staff member on it at all times.

Jay Millard: It is getting relatively easy for companies employing sophisticated marketing techniques (usually leveraging agencies) to convey substance, without necessarily having true organizational capability to deliver on their promises.  So in other words, there can be a lot of noise in the social conversation, muddied by those without genuine value being commingled with those with great value.  The good news is this issue puts the utmost pressure on our team to demonstrate clearer evidence of our promises and to focus on distinction.  Our content and value communication through multiple channels is focused on storytelling through the lens of our clients’ success using our services.  We provide clear proof of our abilities, in a real world context, told from the perspective of our clients.

SocialAgenda Media: What main processes do you have in place to ensure that your content team is aligned with and serves the needs of your sales team?

Randy Littleson: We have a regular process to ensure that sales/marketing are aligned on our market segmentation – which companies, personas and levels are we targeting – to ensure that we’re all focused on the same companies/individuals.  This keeps our campaigns and content focused.  We have a service level agreement (SLA) with our sales team holding marketing accountable to MQL delivery and sales to follow-up.  Marketing also participates in regional sales team quarterly business reviews (QBR) where alignment is also discussed.

Jay Millard: We have what we call a daily scrum where for 15 minutes our entire marketing and sales team get together to focus on our messaging strategies and our current cross-team priorities.  We all stay current, and on message.

Joseph Lininger:  Among processes that we have in place to ensure that our content team serves the needs of our sales team are weekly status meetings with both sales and marketing representatives to affirm alignment on current projects, quarterly goal setting meetings with sales and marketing executives and required feedback from field and inside sales representatives.

John Sarich: This may be the single most important question. Marketing-Sales alignment is mission critical. No organization can excel if the marketing function is disparate from the sales function. You have to understand, you have ONE team and that team requires various skills and talents in marketing as well as various skills and talents in sales. Sales goals are marketing goals. Any marketing organization that does not incorporate the annual sales goal/objective in bright lights and make it ever present is not going to be successful. A very key aspect of aligning sales and marketing is to make sure that marketing people accompany sales executives on actual sales calls and client calls. Another aspect is to verify business trends via sales debriefs, and customer feedback. A major benefit of strong marketing-sales alignment is that you are able to develop stronger and more meaningful content.

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