The Inbound CMO's Biggest Hurdle? Selling the Rest of Their C-Suite

by Corey Eridon


June 5, 2013 at 9:00 AM

inbound-cmoNot too long ago, HBR published a post outlining the challenge the 'Digital CMO,' or what we call the 'Inbound CMO,' faces. "There's a digital disconnect in the executive ranks," author Jake Sorofman writes, "a leadership vacuum created by a mismatch between expertise and authority. Like so many other revolutions, digital marketing has taken hold from the bottom up."

The challenge they outline is real. Some of today's CMOs have catching up to do to keep pace with current marketing trends. Many, for example, have reported feeling unprepared to manage the influx of Big Data available in today's digital world, with 70% saying they lack true insights into their own analytics, making it difficult to justify any new or added expenditures. But this challenge transcends just their own self-education -- their job has become one of educating the rest of their C-suite, too.

In short, even if you're bought into digital transformation, it doesn't mean the rest of the fellow decision-makers are. Today's CMO needs to convince not just him or herself, but also the rest of their C-suite, if they hope to transform their organization into a modern-day, inbound organization.

The First Blocker Inbound CMOs Face: Themselves

As Sorofman's analysis rightly points out, the first barrier to digital adoption in an organization is adoption by the CMO. There's some self-education that's necessary for this transformation: Does he understand inbound marketing? Does she understand the way consumers research and consume information? Does he know how to appropriately allocate budget to meet these ends? That challenge -- transforming oneself into a CMO who is comfortable with the new way of doing marketing -- can be a big leap for someone who brought him or herself up in a different marketing world, sometimes starting multiple decades ago.

But for CMOs who are not already digital natives, fading into irrelevancy is not the only option. Like Sorofman says, the Digital CMOs out there today are different from their analog counterparts because "They experiment aggressively."

Brian Kardon, CMO at Lattice Engines, found himself in this exact position and similarly chose to adapt, and to adopt. "I am not exactly a 'digital native.' My marketing career began when marketing was the 'arts and crafts department.' Collateral, colors, events, no real measurement. But I have always been an early adopter and knew that marketing was changing. Fast. I was early to adopt web analytics. I integrated marketing automation in 2005. I saw the tsunami of social media fairly early in the cycle, and have been blogging and tweeting for years @bkardon."

Because of his propensity toward experimenting with new technology and adapting to industry shifts, Kardon shared that he was able to successfully build new capabilities on top of his previous ones. And it all comes down to just rolling up your sleeves and diving in to what may seem like a foreign world.

"Doers rule. There is no substitute for doing. I write my own blog posts. I try new apps and tools all the time. I am engaged in the details of our lead scoring and nurturing programs. The more you do, the better you get. As CMO, you have to be a role model for the rest of your team. Don't be afraid to ask questions and learn new things."

Getting past this is the first stage to garnering C-suite buy-in -- you can't convince detractors of something you don't fully understand yourself.

Inbound CMOs Face Blockers From the Rest of the C-Suite

That first challenge is one of self-education, and when you're the only thing standing in your own way, it's easy enough to get out of your own way, too. But it doesn't end there. Inbound CMOs, even if they understand the dire need for a shift in perspective, need to get the buy-in from the rest of their C-suite. The vision has to come from the top-down, and that can't come from Marketing alone.

It turns out, many C-level executives know there's a shift taking place, it's just not clear in exactly what -- which is why it's even more important than ever for the marketing executives to possess a crystal clear understanding of it.

Blair Lyon, VP of Marketing at Monetate, saw a similar shift taking place within his own executive team. "Our leadership knew that digital was going to be central to our strategy; what they didn't know was what a next generation marketing strategy would look like. Website, email, search, paid placements, webinars, etc. are all important tactics, but investing in an aggressive content program takes somewhat of a leap of faith."

The CMOs that can convince their C-Suite that the leap of faith is worth it will still encounter resistance on practical matters, like the headcount and resources necessary to make the shift. The Inbound CMO will have an advantage, getting access to data quickly that can justify these investments. 41% of marketers, for example, secured more budget for more inbound marketing initiatives because of the ability to prove past ROI. Additionally, CMOs report that they plan to allocate 10% of their budget to Big Data -- up from 6% -- over the next three years. This investment in gaining insights around the ROI of their marketing activities will help make the case for inbound to their C-Suite even smoother.

"The way I dealt with it was to outline the broad strategy and the steps required to get us there, then along the way showcasing the wins we had," Lyon said. "Each tactical program could be directly tied to lead gen, new opportunities, and closed business. With the clear connection between activity and ROI, trust from leadership grew along with the funding to build out the program."

inbound-maslowBut Lyon notes that if you're not dealing with a C-suite willing to take a leap on those initial investments needed to prove ROI, it's going to be particularly difficult to get started building an inbound organization. Some CMOs are dealing with those types of barriers, however, by simply joining companies with a C-suite that already has these digital proclivities.

Chris Welham of Space Age Technologies, for instance, joined an IT service provider with a reputation for leading the adoption of new technologies and ideas. But even then, there were adjustments to be made with leadership -- and the biggest one was with content. "Changing our marketing strategy to digital, and specifically inbound marketing, meant that we needed to write about our experiences, in a sense documenting what we do. Our company is made up of mostly technical people and of all the technical people I know, documentation is not a strong point. In fact, most will avoid it like the plague."

The philosophies of inbound, however, were enough to ease this transition, because they naturally aligned with the executives' vision for their company. In other words, the tactics could be overcome because the mission made sense.

"We had already tried push marketing. Not only was it only marginally successful, but the method really went against the grain of who we are and how we operate. For example, we do not have salespeople, we have solutions consultants, all of whom were technicians before and wanted to work closely with clients to understand their needs and build IT solutions for them. These people are not incentivized by commission and are expected to only provide a client with what they need. So when we discovered that the philosophy behind inbound marketing was educating the market and helping the client, there was an immediate resonance with the strategy."

The idea that transformation is needed isn't relegated to tech-savvy companies, though. Lattice Engines' CMO, Brian Kardon, noted that all his fellow executives were mired in digital change, even if they were "generally oblivious" as to how marketing was changing. "The CIO was dealing with new cloud-based applications and 'bring your own device' challenges and, of course, security and privacy issues. The head of sales was dealing with social selling and sales enablement. It wasn't just the CMO that was facing new digital challenges." In fact, the CMO will likely be outspending that very same CIO by 2017, according to Gartner. The key to success with Kardon, and other executives pushing for that kind of inbound transformation, seems to be a willing and trusting C-suite with a bit of a risk appetite -- just enough to get a new program running, and able to prove ROI.

"The key is measurement," Kardon says. "You can't manage by anecdote. You need the data. I have always tried to foster a strong relationship with my CFO. The CFO is the keeper of all metrics. So, when I was starting to plan marketing metrics, I teamed up with the CFO: What's the best way to measure cost per lead? How can we calculate the return on this event? How can I best measure my Google PPC program? When the CFO has a hand in designing the metrics, that's one important validation!"

How do you garner executive buy-in for inbound and digital marketing initiatives?

Image credit: smswigart


Chris Welham - c-suite is alreayd bought into digital, works for IT company.

1.       Being an IT service provider, and specifically one that has a reputation for being a leader in terms of adopting new technologies and ideas, there was not a big adjustment from the point of view that we were going digital specifically. What was, and really still is, a big adjustment for all of us is the content generation aspect. Changing our marketing strategy to Digital, and specifically to Inbound Marketing, meant that we need to write about our experiences, in a sense documenting what we do, what we advise our clients and generally provide guidance to our market using the knowledge and skills we have. Our company is made up of mostly technical people and of all the technical people I know, documentation is not a strong point. In fact, most will avoid it like the plague!

2.       We had already tried many different strategies to market our company – all were some form of push marketing. Not only were they only marginally successful, but the method really went against the grain of who we are and how we operate. To give you an idea of what I mean, we do not have sales people. We have solutions consultants all of whom were technicians before and wanted to further their careers not by becoming highly specialised in a specific technology, but by working closely with our clients to understand their needs and build IT solutions for them – using their technical experience to build great solutions. These people are not incentivised with commission and are expected to only provide a client with what they need – even if the solution brings less revenue to our company. This approach builds a very long term, trusting relationships with our clients.
So when we discovered that the philosophy behind Inbound Marketing was about educating the market and helping the client decide what to buy, based on what is best for them, there was an immediate liking for this strategy. It made so much sense to us and so all I needed to do to get buy-in was to show them that this is how Inbound Marketing, or Permission-based Marketing, works. I put together a presentation on Inbound Marketing, what it is, how it works, and compared it to Outbound Marketing – showing the pros and cons – and presented it to each team in the company. At no stage did I encounter a resistance to the change I was proposing.

3.       They need to get their people to “see” the buying stages everyone goes through. I found using an example that all would relate to helped – in my case, I used purchasing a smartphone. In South Africa, most people buy a phone as part of a 2 year contract. This means there are stages during each 2 year period when people are open to messaging for a new phone (typically nearing the end of the 2 years) and when they are not at all open to this messaging (typically just after they have signed up a new contract). Once I could make people see how they are sometimes open to messages for a certain product or service and sometimes not, and when they are open, there are varying stages of that “openness”, then they clicked.
Next, I reminded them how they prefer to buy something when they have gone through these stages themselves, rather than had the feeling they were sold to, or pushed into the sale. They also agreed that they were very likely to recommend a vendor to a friend or colleague that allowed them to make the decision by providing the information they needed as and when they needed it. They were equally likely to either actively discourage, or would just not recommend, when they had been pushed into a sale.

4.       Even in our case, although we were digitally aware and the whole approach of Inbound Marketing made so much sense to us, there was that feeling of intimidation – of the unknown. So what we did was hire a consultant who was steeped in Social Media marketing, already believed in the idea of providing valuable content to the market through blogs and email and had a deep understanding of SEO and PPC. I am sure many people at HubSpot know who this is, because she has made a huge effort to understand the HubSpot platform and to evangelise about Inbound Marketing here in South Africa. This person is Bettina Horvath, of My Biz Performs ( She became a HubSpot expert while helping us along the path of Inbound Marketing. There is no doubt in my mind that, without such a person who is already so passionate about the need for companies to share their knowledge with the market to build a community of followers and to leverage social media to spread an authentic, believable story, making this journey would have been harder. I believe we would still have made it, though, because of how it so closely aligned with our DNA, but the road was certainly smoothed by having such a person to help us learn the ropes.

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