In our business there certainly seems to be a trend of companies wanting to allocate more of their time and money to reaching the most senior executives in target customers’ organisations: the C-suite. The logic goes that if you can get someone like the CEO interested in your product then the rest of the company will fall in line and sales will be simple.

Not everyone is trying to do this: we worked with a fastener manufacturer (i.e. they made nuts and bolts). Trying to get senior executives excited about these products is really hard, as they are unlikely to consider such components worthy of their time. Well they won’t consider them worthy until a cheap component fails and one of their products breaks, but crisis management is a different matter.

Some of the Coolest Start-ups Ignore the C-Suite

I find the desire to influence senior executives interesting as many of today’s coolest customers almost arrogantly ignore executives in their marketing. This is particularly true of many SaaS companies: Dropbox, Slack and Box are all companies that have built their success from grass-roots adoption, rather than getting executive sponsors.

Of course, as these companies have grown, they have attracted the attention of the executives and expanded their marketing. The reality, however, is that they are much more likely to be adopted in a company by individuals or department managers, rather than those in the wood-panelled corner offices.

Why do so Many Companies Want C-level Interest?

It’s certainly true that many companies are suppliers that deserve interest at the highest levels of their customers. It’s inconceivable that the CEO of an airline wouldn’t want to be involved in deciding between Boeing and Airbus as the aircraft supplier of choice, and so it’s essential for those companies to have C-suite campaigns.

If you’re making commodities or low-value products that aren’t considered important technology, you might not worry about attention from the top bosses, but there is definitely a grey area. I’m seeing a lot of companies that frankly know they are not important enough to interest board-level execs, but would like to be that important so they embark on expensive campaigns to reach this difficult audience.

Why Reaching C-Level Influencers is so Hard

It should be pretty obvious why reaching the C-level is so difficult: they have so many calls on their time and need to be concerned about the entire business. Their attention is valuable, and they know it, so if you don’t have something that is compelling to them, they won’t see it.

In fact many CEOs and executives have gatekeepers reading email and filtering the post, so it’s even tougher to reach them: you’ve got to first convince the PA that they should forward to the executive and then engage the exec in a blink of an eye, which is about as long as they will give you and your communication.

The Right Approach: Simply Good Marketing

Like most things, the answer to questions about how much time and month should be allocated to reaching the top-level of targets, prospects and existing customers is not a simple yes or no. We recommend that marketers consider two things:

  1. Does the C-suite have influence?
  2. Can the C-suite be made to care?

The first question is answered by considering the customer journey for your particular product or service. Will a purchase be discussed by members of the board? Is this amongst themselves, or with their team? Just because the CFO is interested, it doesn’t mean that they will talk to the CEO or CIO about the decision. So maybe you care about one member of the C-suite, rather than all of them. To put it another way, work out your audience and target them.

It’s also important to consider whether you can make executives care about your product or service. The brutal truth might be that thee CFO will approve a purchase, but he’ll just rubber-stamp it and won’t have any influence. In this case you probably don’t want to waste too much effort trying to make him feel good about choosing your company as he just won’t care. If they don’t have a role in the decision-making unit (DMU), then they are not important to you.

It’s certainly possible to run campaigns that grabs the attention of a particular audience and makes them care about an issue, product or service. If customers are concerned about the environment and you’re the first company in your sector to offer a truly “green” product then perhaps it’s time that you linked your product or service to an issue they already care about: sustainability. Don’t think it’s going to be easy: it takes a lot of work to change perceptions and it’s even harder when you’re trying to change the perceptions at the top level of companies.

Can C-Suite Campaigns Work?

This question has an easy answer: YES! It’s absolutely possible to get great return on investment from these campaigns, particularly if they are well-planned. It’s also getting easier to reach the executives with digital channels, particularly LinkedIn and often through CRM retargeting. If you’ve done the analysis and it makes sense to influence C-level contacts, go for it. But don’t feel bad if your analysis shows that you don’t need to address them: just consider yourself in the same group as some of the coolest billion-dollar start-ups!