The dangerous confusion of sales and content marketing

sales and content marketing

By Tom Webster, {grow} Community Member

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a keynote speech by Daniel Pink, author of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, at the Inbound conference in Boston. In his speech, he asked an audience of roughly 14,000 marketers “How many of you sell?” Nearly every hand went up–it seems like a reasonable thing to agree with these days, right?

Pink went on to talk about how sales used to be in the days prior to the Internet by giving the example of the used car salesperson. Twenty years ago, if you walked into a dealership, the salesperson had ALL the information—what the invoice price was, how much the options really cost, how much your car was worth, and so on. The buyer, however, had little information. In short, it was a time of information asymmetry, which resulted in a profitable situation for the seller.

Today, however, a car buyer walks into a dealership with near total information—sometimes more than the salesperson! So how can the seller succeed? Pink argues that salespeople need to become “servant sellers,” providing helpful information, answering questions, and generally providing a good experience—before any sale is made.

Sounds a lot like content marketing, doesn’t it?

Why you should be worried about content marketing

In fact, that’s exactly what content marketing does, and Pink left that audience of 14,000 marketers fired up with the charge to become helpful, servant sellers by creating content that is helpful and useful, so that the well-equipped buyer will inexorably come to the right decision—to buy our products and services.

Think about what actually happened after that speech, however: 14,000 marketers left the room fired up to take what a good salesperson is supposed to say to a customer, and…uh…write it down.

Are we sure that’s marketing?  Because it sounds like what sales has become, only without a commission.

Frankly, I’m worried about content marketers. The field has taken Google’s Zero Moment of Truth stat, that online buyers consult 10.4 pieces of information prior to a sale, a little bit too close to heart.  Try this: Google “how to create a content calendar” and tell me how many answers you get. Look also at the authors of those articles—the first 10 pages are all companies that want to sell you something related to building a content calendar, right?

Sometimes all you want is a burger, hold the content

Now think of an electric car you want to buy (if you do.) Dollars to donuts you WANT to buy a Tesla, and you didn’t read 10.4 pieces of jack squat to get there.

You want a Tesla, because you WANT a Tesla.

We are irrational actors, and we certainly don’t need 10 pieces of data to decide to buy. We do, however, consult 10 pieces of data AFTER our irrational brain comes to this decision, in order to justify a purchase decision that we’ve likely already made.

Don’t believe me? Consider that the year before Google’s 10.4 stat, in 2010, that number was a little over 5. Did our brains change? Did our cognitive processes really require twice as much information as they did the year before? Patently absurd. Yet someone is out there, writing article number 577,000,001.

Does content really contribute to sales?

The proliferation of nearly identical content has reduced the value of that content to something approaching zero, which leaves the odds against that content actually contributing to a sale in a meaningful way as quite slim, indeed.

Think about this: what would cause you to lose your job? What would have to go down? You very likely had one of two answers: Sales, and Leads.

Consider the former. If Sales are down, and marketers get fired, doesn’t that seem a little perverse? Shouldn’t the sales team get the blame here? These metrics do not help you—and only serve to confuse the sales and marketing functions in ways that don’t help you, help your organization, or help you with the goal of ANY business: to create a customer.

That leaves leads—which seems more reasonable, right? If we are providing more leads, but the sales team doesn’t close those leads, we’re safe, aren’t we?

Am I really a lead?

Well, consider this: have you ever signed up for a webinar or white paper, and then gotten an absolutely cringeworthy, ham-handed sales call as a result? I sure have. For a long time I blamed the sales team—their training, hiring, and (frankly) ability to interact with humans. But I’ve come to a different realization.

If I watch a webinar to learn something, am I really a lead for that company?

Overwhelmingly, those of us who sign up for these content pillars have NO interest in buying from the company. We just want the content. But marketing dutifully delivers our contact info into the hands of the sales team regardless, to give us a one-degree-warmer than cold call.

Who’s really to blame when those leads don’t convert?

The quantity and quality of leads is a trailing variable, and not the end itself. Our goal as marketers is to understand the consumer, speak with their voice at the highest levels of your company, and create a marketing-led product that people (and not your product team) WANT. It’s not to serve as a bullhorn for the company, pointed out into the ether—it’s to be a bullhorn for the customer, pointed at the CEO, the product team, and yes—the sales team.

The dangerous confusion of sales and marketing has turned many content marketers into Smarketalsers: salespeople without the upside. And what gets lost here is what the central goal of Marketing-With-A-Capital-M really is: uncovering or creating demand. It’s not to “sell” a product created by a passionate founder or product team in a vacuum, but rather to ensure that every product we create is so imbued with the needs, wants, and desires of our customers that a sale is inevitable.

I leave you with this: “A good deal of what is called ‘marketing’ today is at best organized, systematic selling,” a quote that perfectly sums up my argument. Those words were written by Peter Drucker — more than 50 years ago. Drucker also wrote that “Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

Unique and distinguishing. It’s a high bar, but it’s the right bar—and the key to fighting the dangerous creep of Smarketalesing.

tom websterTom Webster is a Vice President of Edison Research and co-host of amazing The Marketing Companion podcast.

Illustration courtest Flickr CC and Jim Linwood

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