Create awareness with 'top dog' to open doors

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Like many other savvy marketing experts, Jeremy Porter realizes how important—and lucrative—it can be to target C-level executives. But he also knows you can't break through to them by traditional means; extremely busy schedules and layers of gatekeepers block the way for even some of the most welcomed marketing tactics.

"Getting your foot in the door with a C-level prospect can be nearly impossible," said Porter, president-CEO of Atlanta-based communications agency Reaction Marketing Group. "I know one successful salesperson who would send a shoe to a CEO and a message saying that she literally just wanted to get her foot in the door. Crazy as it might sound, she heard back from half of the CEOs she sent a shoe to."

While Porter doesn't advocate always taking such drastic measures, he shared some more practical insight into reaching and engaging CEO audiences.

BtoB: What are the opportunities in targeting your marketing to CEOs and other senior executives?

Porter: If you can establish awareness and/or interest at the CEO level, you will enter the value chain from the top down, versus trying to work your way up the chain to gain access to the C-suite. You will always get more sales and faster sales by going from the top down. This has long been the strategy of successful sales organizations, but marketing efforts often go directly to the actual silo decision-maker. Marketers can qualify prospects more efficiently by targeting the top dog at their prospective business customers first.

BtoB: What are the challenges of going after a CEO audience?

Porter: By establishing contact and interest with the CEO, you're automatically going over the head of a lot of primary, line-level influencers at a business. Nobody likes it when you go over their head, but it can be a good thing since your success will often be greater by having C-level support. However, your relationship could be strained with the primary influencers since they are being forced to consider your solution/offering, rather than finding it on their own. Many silo managers may have existing relationships with vendors that they like, creating friction when their superiors recommend your offering as an alternative. Of course, the most significant challenge is getting the attention and interest of the CEO?probably the more targeted and protected decision-maker in the value chain.

BtoB: So how do you cut through the competition to reach and engage them?

Porter: You have to understand the individual target and your competition. You're not likely going to get the CEO to respond to a business reply card or e-mail solicitation. You have to be unique and creative, and you probably need to spend a little money. If possible, target your marketing on a one-to-one basis. If the executive enjoys NASCAR, invite him to a C-level social event at your luxury box at Daytona. If she's a wine buff, send her a unique and hard-to-find bottle. You can spend the same amount of money targeting a smaller CEO audience that you would targeting hundreds or thousands of individual functional managers; but your ROI could be far greater if you win the attention of the CEO.

In reaching top executives, you've got to get past more complicated filters and gatekeepers than you would with line managers. This is why customized communications and high-ticket items work, because the CEO is more likely to actually open the communication. I know of one marketer that sent bowling balls to CEOs?it not only got their attention but many reported keeping the balls in their offices as conversation pieces; it's not that easy to throw one away.

BtoB: What are some mistakes and pitfalls to avoid when targeting CEOs and other senior management?

Porter: The big question you need to answer is: Do you need access to the CEO? This is the most common mistake we see?targeting senior executives when they aren't involved in the decision-making process for your product or service. You have to research the organization, learn from your peers in the industry on what has been historically successful and target top execs where they will most likely review and respond to your communication.

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