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Elevating your message to target the C-suite

Rob Mitchell

When we start planning a thought leadership project, one of the first questions we ask our client is: who is the target audience? And nine times out of ten, they say that they want to reach the C-suite or executive board within large, multinational companies.

It’s become almost a default reaction within the thought leadership sector. Most B2B companies want to elevate their message within the corporate hierarchy and have high-level dialogue with the people who really make the decisions within a business.

This is understandable, but can be misguided. Consider the numbers. According to the Corporate Library, there are around nine members on the average executive board and roughly 2,000 companies around the world with revenues in excess of $1bn. This means that the vast majority of thought leadership is targeted at fewer than 20,000 people globally. With so many companies trying to communicate their message to so few people, is it any wonder that most B2B content doesn’t land its message?

Of course, sometimes it’s entirely justifiable to view this group as your target audience. But we believe it’s important to challenge this thinking.

In our conversations with clients about their target audience, we think it’s important to consider the following issues:

Challenge the brief

It’s a knee-jerk reaction to aim for the most senior people within a business. But it’s not always the right approach. A company that sells cloud computing software, for example, may say they want to attract CEOs and CFOs, yet this may not be the right audience at all. In many cases, the C-suite will influence the selection of suppliers, but they are not the buyers. These decisions are made one, two or three levels below the board so, if the goal of your thought leadership is to deliver commercial benefits, then it’s much better to target those individuals instead.

This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the C-suite. Content that speaks to their role as influencers in purchasing decisions is important but requires a different focus. The C-suite may not be as interested in the commercial benefits of adopting a technology such as cloud computing, but they will engage with some of the broader strategic issues that surround it, such as digital disruption and cyber risk. Tilting your topics so that they align with what matters most to different stakeholders within a business is the key to encouraging deep engagement.

Think about the dynamics

Big purchasing decisions within large corporates are typically made across a leadership team. Thought leadership campaigns, therefore, need to speak to each of these different stakeholders as individuals. What matters to a CEO will be different from what matters to a CTO or a CFO. Thought leadership geared to the C-suite must take these different perspectives into account, often with separate, targeted messages.

Stay focused and get personal

Thought leadership audiences are all about quality, not quantity. Within the 20,000 members of the C-suite in multinationals globally, there may be just a handful with whom you really want to have a meeting. At FT Longitude, we’ve worked on numerous thought leadership campaigns where the ROI was delivered by a single meeting, which led to a large consulting engagement or IT purchase.

In these cases, an account-based marketing approach can pay dividends. This means thinking deeply about the needs of a carefully targeted number of individuals within key accounts, and what will matter to them.

Buyer personas, in this context, will not cut it. Instead, it’s vital to understand the specific business context for these individuals, as well as their own interests, needs and traits. Ensure these are taken into consideration when planning the content and it’s far more likely that your message will resonate.

Make sure the topics matter now

C-suite executives have so many issues jostling for their attention that they have to be ruthless when it comes to deciding which to prioritise. At any time, there will be a handful of “must know” topics, which demand their urgent attention, a number of “like to know” topics, which are interesting but not top priority, and a bunch of “delegate” topics, which may be important but can be handled by someone else. If you really want to target the C-suite, then it’s vital that your themes fall into the “must know” category, otherwise your thought leadership is likely to get left on the pile.

Explore our guide to developing your thought leadership strategy for your go-to resource for on planing, developing and executing a strategy.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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