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Reaching the elusive, lucrative CXO niche

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It's no mystery why so many marketers want to get their messages in front of C-level decision-makers: Senior business executives—namely the C-suite—make or influence decisions to spend more than $1.2 trillion a year on corporate purchases in the U.S., according to Ipsos Media's 2006 "U.S. Business Elite Survey."

Unlike with some other audiences, mass media work in engaging CXOs, marketing experts say. "Top business executives are hungry for information to fuel their business lives and personal desire to `stay on the pulse,' and they consume a wide range of media channels," said Simon Staplehurst, associate director for Ipsos MORI Media.

The Ipsos "U.S. Business Elite Survey" reports that top executives regularly turn to network TV for entertainment; cable TV first for breaking news and sports; national newspapers for reliable, in-depth news analysis; business magazines first for general business news; and the Internet first for up-to-the-minute financial news. Some 68% of the nearly 630,000 senior business executives surveyed claimed that they were influenced by mass media advertising when it came to making corporate purchasing decisions.

Broad channels, specific roles

The challenge for marketers leveraging these broad channels to reach this lucrative audience is to recognize the individual role each medium plays and to tailor their messages to build brand awareness and respectability in each of them, said Peter Koeppel, founder and president of marketing agency Koeppel Direct.

"Since CEO types are bombarded with solicitations and offers, you really need to cut through the clutter when trying to reach them," he said. "And this is exacerbated by the fact that they have so many gatekeepers protecting them from what are deemed unimportant or unwanted messages."

Gatekeepers are indeed a difficult roadblock for those wanting to reach and engage top executives. Phone calls, direct mail and even e-mail often never get past an executive assistant. "Over the last five years, it seems the solution to every marketing program out there has been to aim at the C-suite, whether it's the right target or not," said Mike Neumeier, principal at marketing communications agency Arketi Group. "If you really need to engage that audience, you have to stand out in a way that proves you're relevant and important while pushing everyone else competing for their attention in your field aside."

TV has long been considered a way to circumvent gatekeepers, and build brand and product or service awareness both inside and outside the office. "TV advertising is very important and effective with CXO types of executives," said Allan Steinmetz, CEO of Inward Strategic Consulting. "It is less about selling a message and more about building credibility, trust and confidence behind the people and the brand. In addition, based on the reach and frequency of the targeted media buys, the CPMs can be very cost-efficient."

The Ipsos "U.S. Business Elite Survey" reported that 33% of senior executives watched CNN daily, 29% watched Fox News daily and more than half watched network programming?including entertainment programming?daily. Surprisingly, the No. 1 show watched on a weekly basis was "60 Minutes" and on a daily basis, "Today."

TV not for everyone

However, TV isn't for every marketer.

"In our niche, as more of a specialized and smaller firm, TV makes little sense, since I cannot afford the massive outlays required to continually put my brand in front of C-level execs using the shotgun approach," said Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a Harrison, N.Y.-based project performance consultant. "Rather, I position myself as a `trusted adviser' through more targeted and less costly media, such as getting quoted in appropriate news sources."

Thought leadership?which Gray achieves for his company through media relations?is one vital way of gaining stature in the mind of CXOs, as well as access to them. "Senior executives are most concerned about working with partners that have integrity, a great reputation and a track record of success in their industries," Koeppel said.

Writing relevant and challenging columns, blogs and white papers, speaking at industry events, conducting research and sharing case studies all resonate with C-level audiences, Neumeier said. "One of the biggest benefits of thought leadership is that most executives enjoy talking about their company and enjoy sharing their own thoughts," he said. "So if you can engage them in a mental discussion, rather than a feature/function [pitch], you will gain traction and stand a better chance of staying relevant and on their radar."

Gray emphasized that most business services targeted at the C-suite are eventually sold on relationships, not on thought leadership or mass media branding awareness. "Even if you have significant mind share through your subliminal-level TV advertising, it's rarely enough to seal the deal on its own," Gray said. "Accenture or IBM may get a seat at the negotiating table based on their TV advertising, but even a small firm like mine can still outfox them without having spent millions of dollars on ads."

Today's CXOs are far different than yesterday's, said independent branding consultant Rob Frankel. In fact, fewer C-level executives can be reached and engaged by traditional media venues and tactics, Frankel said. "You'd be amazed at where today's CXOs hang out," he said. "Everyone tosses out The Wall Street Journal and such, but you're increasingly more likely to hit them in lifestyle publications such as Rolling Stone, Esquire, FHM and such. I know advertisers and media buyers would like to believe that CXOs are all business, all the time. But this generation of managers doesn't subscribe to the traditional norms."

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