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The CEO Perspective on Marketing: 5 Key Takeaways from 5 CEOs

Mike Sweeney | February 17, 2011

As I listened to the steady hum of vacuums and watched the headlights dart out of our office parking lot last evening, I realized something important. We – as a company – have had a great couple of weeks. A client received a new round of funding. We started working with new clients. We built the official launch plan for our new service. (If this were the Grammys, this is when I would issue a Diddy-esque shameless plug telling the audience EXACTLY when the new service was dropping. Since we’re not part of the Bad Boy Records family (yet), we’ll just keep that date to ourselves.)

What else has made the last couple of weeks great? We’re talking to CEOs. 5 in the last week. I am not title-dropping, but acknowledging that a key sign of business progress is speaking directly with the head honcho – it proves we have achieved a level of visibility that extends beyond the marketing department.

We’re not talking about Fortune 500 CEOs. Most of the 5 would consider themselves leaders of small and medium-sized businesses, but all have resumes full of notable career and company accomplishments. The group of 5 includes both clients and prospective clients.  It includes B2B and B2C oriented companies. It includes CEOs ranging in age from their mid 30s to mid 60s. It includes revenue numbers ranging from pre-revenue/startup all the way into the $50 million neighborhood.

When we go through a series of meetings like this, we always make sure we review and reflect, with the goal of learning what we can do better moving forward. While each conversation addressed a different topic and took on a different tone, each shared common themes:

1. CEOs are still a bit skeptical about social media and its marketing ROI.

Make no mistake. All of these CEOs acknowledge that social media must be addressed, if for no other reason than the audience volume in channels like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

Yet they’re not certain exactly how to budget for and measure the effectiveness of social media staff, dollars and other resources.

2. The true concept of “content marketing,” as opposed to “content creation,” requires deeper explanation for CEO types.

As marketers, and particularly B2B marketers, we toss around the term “content marketing” as if it’s reached the acceptance level of “website” or “email.”

It hasn’t.

As with social media, the argument to put an emphasis on content marketing cannot be based on the premise that “other companies are doing it.” We – as marketers – need to do a better job of explaining exactly what content marketing is, why it deserves a budget, and where it fits into the marketing mix.

3. If you – as a marketing executive, staffer, department or outside firm – cannot track and prove value, you won’t get the CEO’s attention.

Notice that I said “track and prove value” and not “report on data.” Some marketers get caught in the trap of showing lots and lots of numbers, and thinking that a board room is going to be impressed by the mere presentation of data.

To communicate with the CEO, you have to be able to show how your numbers contribute to the overall growth goals of the company. You have to be able to show that the marketing “lever,” if pushed in the right way, can influence the numbers that the CEO cares about.

4. The CEO doesn’t want to have to deal with any misalignment between marketing and sales; that’s why he or she hires marketing and sales leaders.

Yes, CEOs like well-designed websites. They still enjoy creative ad campaigns. They love positive media coverage, and sometimes all media coverage.

You know what they really, really like? Revenue.

CEOs – more than ever – recognize the value of marketing as it relates to revenue generation. That’s why the VP of Marketing and the VP of Sales now sit on the same side of the conference room table in well-run organizations. CEOs don’t want to hear about the lack of alignment between marketing and sales; they just want the problem fixed.

5. Every CEO speaks a slightly different language; if you’re not multi-lingual, avoid CEO meetings.

This applies to any personal or business relationship. Never assume you know the CEO’s needs or pain just because he or she looks and feels like another company or leader you’ve dealt with.

Listen first. Understand the language the CEO is speaking. While many speak the same language, the dialect is always different.

Any CEOs out there care to offer some other tips for marketers who want to initiate CEO discussions?  How about folks on the marketing side – any other observations to add to these five?

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