10 Signs Your CEO Has an Outdated View of Marketing

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Nataly Kelly
Nataly Kelly



We’ve all been there -- stifling a laugh or trying not to look horrified when the CEO puts forth an opinion any modern marketer would find abominable. However, it isn’t necessarily the CEO’s fault. After all, many chief executives simply don’t come from a marketing background, and even if they do, their knowledge is unlikely to be current.

Just as a non-technical CEO might put forth ideas that just aren’t technically sound, a CEO without experience in the latest digital marketing techniques will often do the same.

→ Click here to download leadership lessons from HubSpot founder, Dharmesh  Shah [Free Guide].

The difference, really, relates to the fact that most CEOs will defer to their technology leaders as technical experts. But with marketing, which has traditionally been viewed as a “softer” field requiring less technology knowledge, CEOs are more likely to push back when told that their idea actually isn’t, er, that great.

The fact is that marketing has evolved to become increasingly technical, whether your CEO knows it or not. Here are 10 suggestions CEOs commonly make that indicate that their views of marketing are stuck in the past.

1) “I want more press releases!”

It's not a good sign when the CEO clamors for more press releases, especially the dreaded “vanity release.” This kind of release usually makes some sort of self-serving, inward-looking “announcement,” often devoid of real facts that anyone external to the company would care about. Instead, they are full of hype, posturing, and meaningless adjectives (often superlatives) that are unverified by third parties.

Public companies often do press releases because the market expects them to, but small and medium-sized businesses should err on the side of limiting releases to things that are truly valuable and interesting, as part of a broader PR initiative. The vanity release serves no purpose whatsoever except to generate a Google Alert for a very small group of people who happen to have gone to the trouble to set up an alert for your company -- usually, the CEO and a few of your employees, investors, and competitors.

How can you show the CEO that most press releases, especially vanity releases, are not worth it?

At first, don’t fight the fight. If your CEO has unreasonably strong beliefs about the supposed power of press releases, go ahead and do a couple -- it will help you demonstrate exactly why they don’t work. Then, use these as examples to highlight their futility and show your CEO the negative ROI.

Overlay your website traffic data with the dates of your press releases to show that these releases rarely make a difference in the acquisition of new traffic. Then show that cascading “non-effect” carries through to your leads, qualified leads, opportunities, and new customers. Point out the cost of doing a release, including the number of hours involved from your team, and show how you would reallocate that budget toward efforts that are bound to be more effective at getting media coverage, such as creating an awesome piece of content. 

2) “Our blog should talk more about how great we are.”

Oh, if we could turn back time to when SEO was less complicated. Companies could blog about themselves all day long, and that was sufficient to get them a little bit of traffic and rankings on keywords for which not much content existed anyway. But today, modern marketers know that if all you do is talk about your own company, you’ll repel people instead of attracting them.

Just like the guy at the cocktail party who only talks about himself and never asks you a single question, if your blog focuses on your company all the time and not on your customers’ needs, you’ll get the business equivalent of having the reputation of being “that guy” no one wants to stand next to. Hopefully your CEO will understand that comparison.

But if not, go ahead and indulge the CEO’s desire in the short term so you can prove another important point. You might dedicate a section or category of your blog to “Company News.” Or, perhaps you create a ratio of, say, only one company-focused post for every eight posts that you think people will actually want to read.

Then track your stats. How much traffic are those posts getting compared to ones that are helpful to customers? How many social shares are they getting? And what about the number of leads and customers they generate? Soon, you’ll have the data to help you make the case to the CEO that company-centered posts simply don’t perform well.

3) “Social media is a waste of time.”

Even though you know how important social media is (especially when it comes to influencing search traffic), most CEOs are skeptical. It often takes an SEO expert to clearly articulate the role of social “signals” that are used by search engines to determine how a given page should rank in results for specific keywords. Already, the content of this discussion is way too into the weeds for a typical CEO, and it begins to sound to them like non-scientific, speculative, marketing mumbo-jumbo.

Many marketers also get tripped up when they try to prove the ROI for social media by showing the percentage of traffic from social. For most companies, it’s the smallest segment of traffic, leading the CEO to say, “See? I told you it doesn’t matter.” And, making the brand awareness argument is even worse since it isn’t always easy to attribute, even when you carefully track impressions from social.

Unless you have very compelling ROI data for social media, I suggest that you appeal to your old-school, unconvinced CEO by simply pointing out that social media doesn’t take up a lot of time. Now, granted, we know that it can take up as much time as we allocate for it, but if your CEO is truly doesn’t get it, playing down the time commitment is probably your path to least resistance, so that you can remove a temporary roadblock and have one less battle to fight.

4) “What do you mean I can’t fight back on Twitter?”

If your CEO has a presence on social media, that’s generally a good thing if it leads to positive interactions and a greater understanding of what people in your industry are talking about. However, many CEOs are tempted to respond when they or their company are the subject of what they consider an “attack” by someone on social media. In the past, such a comment might have never even reached the CEO’s eyes -- it would have been relegated to someone who picks up the phone or receives incoming complaints via email (or in the days of yore, snail mail).

The increased transparency and access that your CEO has on social media is helpful in some ways, but if your chief executive has a flair for the negative, or worse yet, the combative, you may want to try a few things.

First, make sure the CEO knows that your team will be happy to craft helpful responses or to review them prior to publishing. Obviously, you want the posts to be genuine, but everyone can use a second pair of eyes.

Second, show the CEO some other profiles of executives on social media, showcasing those who are good about ignoring haters and interacting with fans.

Third, encourage the company to use any negative comments to highlight areas that actually may be important for the business to pay attention to.

5) “That piece of content will never lead to a sale.”

If your CEO makes a comment like this, it highlights a narrow and short-sighted view that does not take into account the longer-range perspective that marketers must take in order to generate the necessary volume of leads that sales relies on. Many CEOs are very focused on the bottom of the funnel, especially when their businesses are struggling and they are missing their financial targets.

What they often don’t understand is that the content you create today generates long-term traffic that, at the right volumes and as part of a bigger content strategy, will result in sales in the future. It takes time to build up such a program, generally more time than non-marketing-savvy chief executives are willing to wait. It also requires looking further up to the top of the funnel than many CEOs are willing to look.

If you’re just ramping up your content creation, try educating your CEO one step at a time. One thing you can do is selectively share a “prequel” behind a new customer win from time to time, highlighting the pages, videos, and other content on your website that helped lead to a sale. Once you’ve issued a good and impressive selection of these “prequels” to the sale, start identifying clear trends -- for example, “34% of the new customers we closed last quarter clicked on our best practices guide,” or “81% of new customers visited our blog at some point during the sales process.”

Bottom line: Your CEO needs you to connect the dots between content and customers before they can see the light.

6) “Let’s get demand gen up by attending more trade shows.”

All together now: “Demand generation is not the primary goal of trade shows.”

Every modern marketer knows this, but your CEO might not understand that the likelihood of you meeting a new prospect and closing them at a trade show or within a short time period afterward is lower than perhaps ever in history. And yes, while you’re sure to pick up some new leads at a third-party event (so long as you choose them wisely), you have to do them at massive scale and expense to really make any impact on your sales pipeline.

Why do trade shows matter less for demand gen nowadays? Today, the majority of buyers do their research online, not at trade shows. Trade shows can be helpful at the very top of the funnel, to generate brand awareness (albeit very expensively compared to more cost-effective, inbound methods). Depending on the industry you’re in, and especially for ones where buying decisions don’t require multiple stakeholders, trade shows can also be helpful at the bottom of the funnel, so that salespeople can meet with prospects they’ve already been in touch with to close deals in person. But they’re not good for generating new demand.

If your CEO has this common misconception about trade shows, pull the data. Show the true, net cost of attending trade shows -- not just the actual costs for exhibiting, collateral, and travel costs. Also show all of the hours involved in organizing such a presence, including the opportunity cost. If salespeople spend three days talking to cold prospects at a trade show, how much more valuable would it be for them to spend that time focused on warmer leads instead? Likewise, how much time will your marketing team devote to this instead of activities with greater ROI? If your CEO insists on trade shows, agree to allocate your team’s time in accordance with your brand awareness goals, or in line with the percentage of revenue obtained from past shows.

7) “Listening to market feedback is a waste of time.”

This is one of the worst mistakes that far too many companies make -- not listening to the market and more importantly, to their customers. If your CEO won’t let you survey your customers or do any market research, it’s a sign of a lack of understanding that today, the customer is in control of your brand more than ever -- not vice versa. Some CEOs, especially those who consider themselves visionaries, believe that they can tell the customer how to think and what type of product or service will make their lives better. While there is some truth to this, it’s also important to balance innovation with customer needs.

What can you do? Play the Steve Jobs card. I’ve rarely met a CEO who doesn’t want to be the next Steve (or Stephanie) Jobs, often citing his oft-misunderstood quote, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” If your CEO is a Steve Jobs wannabe, point out that Steve Jobs actually cared a lot about the views of customers, and that Apple is actually an avid user of NPS surveys.

8) “We should rebrand to better communicate our value.”

Uh-oh. If your CEO thinks that merely rebranding will solve the problem of clearly communicating who you are and what problems you solve for your customer, I’m sorry to say they are behind the times. In modern marketing, rebranding carries even more risk than it did in the past, back when the world was less interconnected and companies had greater control over their brand and how it was perceived.

How is your brand built? In today’s world, it’s built one interaction, one message at a time. If your CEO feels that the value proposition isn’t clear, coming up with a new logo and a new tagline isn’t going to help. However, rebranding is a tempting “solution,” because it supposedly offers a quick and easy fix. Just pay an agency, and they’ll develop a completely new image and a set of messages for you to run with. Right?

So, so wrong. If people don’t understand the value of what you offer, an updated positioning strategy is likely what you need, not a rebrand. If your logo is outdated or sends the wrong message (which you should actually validate with market feedback, not just gut assumptions), likewise -- you can evolve the brand without incurring the wasteful costs of a total rebrand.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, many branding agencies are novices in SEO, and thus, won’t be looking out for you in that regard. If you make major changes to your messaging, you risk un-doing any SEO work that you’ve embarked upon so far. While you probably understand this if you’re a modern marketer, your CEO likely will not. You’ll need to clearly articulate the importance of this unless you want to put your lead flow from organic search at significant risk.

9) “We need a new homepage.”

While it’s true that your homepage is still the front door of your website, it’s no longer the single most important page for most companies. In the past, homepages of websites were more like billboards containing clever slogans. Today, your homepage serves more as a signpost with arrows pointing visitors in the various directions they may want to go.

Each page you create on your website with new content is a “side door,” and nowadays, the hundreds of side doors you have created in the form of blog posts, sub-pages, and so on likely account for more of the initial visits to your website. 

To get your CEO to see your home page as something other than an online billboard, make sure that your design strategy is clearly outlined and that you’re following best practices for homepage design. Also, make it clear what pathways you’re offering to homepage visitors, and how often you’re swapping out promotional content to drive visitors to take certain actions. If your CEO has an appetite for it, you might even discuss the importance of SEO and your site architecture.

10) “Friction between Sales and Marketing is normal.”

Well, your CEO is right about this. Friction between Sales and Marketing is, in fact, the norm -- but it shouldn't be. 

And that's where your CEO needs to step in. He or she must ensure that Marketing and Sales are aligned and working toward the same goals.

Unfortunately for marketers, many CEOs are more inclined to align with Sales than with marketing because up until recently, marketing was viewed more as art than science. Without clear, easy-to-understand closed-loop reporting, marketers were often easy to scapegoat when things went wrong on the Sales side. Sadly, even nowadays when marketers have more tools and data at their disposal to prove that “things are working,” CEOs often don’t have the patience to learn how to interpret the data.

If your CEO isn’t going to help you much with alignment, you’ll have to build a strong ally in Sales. Meet with your Sales counterpart frequently and walk through the funnel metrics together. Look at recent successes that you can co-present to your CEO to highlight which areas are working, allowing equal time for the marketing side of the equation. Then, jointly show your CEO the number of visitors hitting your website, the number of leads, opportunities, and deals. If your CEO has the patience for it, show the conversion rates between each stage of the funnel as well as your overall lead-to-customer conversion rate.

Be the change you wish to see.

These 10 examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to CEOs not understanding the intricacies of the marketing that drives growth for their companies. It’s a painful reality for many marketers that prevents many businesses from moving forward and realizing their full potential.

However, don’t forget to put yourself in their shoes.

CEOs can’t be experts in every single department, and marketing has become exponentially more complex in a very short time. As a marketing leader, take your share of responsibility for bridging the gap between outdated notions and modern mindsets.

And, don’t underestimate the power of building allies in other departments. The more you can shed light on modern marketing techniques by raising awareness in other areas of the company, the more likely your CEO will be to support you when the time comes to embrace a change for the better. 

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