The dangerous confusion of sales and content marketing

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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

Book link is affiliate link.

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  • Chris Marr

    Tom, if you were to summarise this whole article in a single sentence, what’s the major point you are trying to make?

  • Hi Tom,

    I love the point of this article because that’s the way inbound marketing is understood by many people I know (and how it’s sold)! Thank you!

  • Far be it from me to speak for Tom, and pardon my intrusion, but I had an instinctive reaction to your question: Marketers are going deep down the sales funnel rather than striving to create demand.

  • Hi Tom, I loved this post. It is so very, very, very true. Marketing and sales are two fundamentally different professional disciplines, serve fundamentally different purposes and when they function properly together, it is an awesome experience. But, because of lack of clear focus and understanding, many of the content marketing (and marketing in general) attempts we are seeing are nothing more than content spam and all of that hard work ends up just filling “junk” folders. As this escalates, these content marketing (I love the term
    Smarketalsers”Smarketalsers” BTW) attempts actually degrade brand value.

    Now, I will argue one key point. I don’t believe Smarketalsers are sales people without an “upside”. Why? Because referring to them as “salespeople” assumes they actually know how to “sell”. Most don’t. They are sales “wannabes”. Unfortunately, what they haven’t yet learned is the fundamental fact that “Telling is not Selling”.

  • What’s really great is when you register for a white paper or webinar from a direct competitor, and the sales team doesn’t even bother to look at your website before making that cringe-worthy call or sending the email pitching the exact same services you provide.

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  • A very good blog post indeed , and you have very clearly made the difference between sales and marketing activities, as customer knows more and wants more then you have to provide a quite efficient service to him to get the product.

  • Thanks, Sophia–appreciate the read!

  • This happens all the time. So much, in fact, that the next sales call I get from someone who actually nails what we do, I’m buying. Gauntlet thrown, people!

  • A great salesperson is a gift to any organization, no matter where they come from. They are uncommon enough that today they stand out even more, I think, given how many “smarketalesers” there are.

  • It’s pretty rare to be able to subsist on purely inbound marketing. Even the people who sell inbound marketing platforms know that! Thanks for your comment!

  • Thanks for doing my job for me, Frank 🙂

    I’d only add that marketing’s current infatuation with driving leads is putting the discipline out of balance. Sales is responsible for Sales. Marketing is there to drive Demand.

  • Make marketers convert their leads to sales and you’ll see better marketing generating better qualified true leads.

    I’m a rare marketer who has sold millions too, so I bridge the gap between this two frequently contentious departments, who finger point and blame when sales are down. They have to work together!

    My biggest peeve with Dan Pink is he lumps in ALL sales people as being equal and that is so not true. B2B is highly sophisticated selling as compared to his B2C example of the stereotypical sleazy sales guy – the used car sales person.

    You will never close a million $$ deal just by good marketing – you still need that sales professional to personalize the proposal through good questions and ask for the order.

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  • Kitty Kilian

    Tom, you state that content is useless. ‘The proliferation of nearly identical content has reduced the value of that content to something approaching zero.’ But that is clearly not true. You are writing content right here, and for a clear purpose.

    What do you really want to say? Should large corporations not make so much content? That we are all flooding the web? – yes we are, and we all know it. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t still work. Just less so, hence the podcasts.

    You say: ‘We just want the content. Who’s really to blame when those leads don’t convert?’ But that is beside the point. I will never buy research from your firm, yet I listen to the podcast and I promote Mark’s content. I won’t buy from Mark either. Mark profits indirectly from my promotion. That’s the whole idea.

    What don’t I get?

  • benworx

    The deep purpose of marketing is to give meaning to a product. To create or point out the reason why to actually buy the product.

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  • You have derived no value from my content, it seems. Your witness.

  • The deep purpose of marketing is to understand a customer so well that a product is created that sells itself. You can’t give meaning to a bad product, you can’t polish a turd. But yes, if there is a good reason to buy the product, it’s incumbent on marketing to make that reason clear.

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