Challenger Marketing: How To Succeed In Today’s B2B Battleground

20db5d9“Our biggest competitors are our customers.”

This was one of the bold statements Brent Adamson, co-author of “The Challenger Sale,” and the recently released book “The Challenger Customer” made during his kick-off presentation on challenger marketing at the Content2Conversion Conference last year.

After seeing his new book released I wanted to see what Adamson had to say about Challenger Marketing and some interesting insights on the CEB website and also in this video online.

According to CEB’s website:

“B2B buyers are learning on their own and delaying their contact with suppliers until late in the purchase. Most B2B marketers are fighting back with thought leadership—but this simply won’t work.”

The video presentation was particularly interesting for me based on my own experience and views on the role of thought leadership in B2B Marketing.

But first . . .

What is Challenger Marketing?

According to CEB, Challenger marketing is a new approach to content marketing and lead generation that helps companies stand out from the crowd. Challenger marketing aims to “un-teach” customers something they already know or believe about how their business currently operates, to change the customers’ direction in the buying process in the marketer’s favor.

Back in 2009, CEB conducted a study to try to understand what sets apart the very best sales representatives from everyone else. They ran an analysis looking at 55 different attributes, behaviors and knowledge of sales reps all over the world, and they came to two very interesting findings.

One, virtually all sales professionals have a tendency to fall into five profiles:

  • Hard Worker: An individual who always goes the extra mile and doesn’t give up easily
  • Challenger: An individual who has a different view of the world, who understands the customer’s business and is not afraid to push the customer out of their comfort zone
  • Relationship Builder: An individual who builds strong customer advocates and gets along with everyone, and is generous with their time to help others out
  • Lone Wolf: An individual who is self-assured and independent, and follows their own instincts
  • Problem Solver: An individual who is detail-oriented, reliable and ensures all problems are solved

The second finding was that, when the five profiles were compared to performance, the Challenger profile was outperforming everyone while the Relationship Builder profile was falling behind.

This was a huge surprise to many heads of sales and marketing because, for decades, sales reps were trained to be relationship builders, and have always been taught to focus on getting what customers had wanted or needed.

Challengers, on the other hand, they are out there challenging customers’ thinking, and they use their debating skills and knowledge to teach customers something new and taking them a bit out of their comfort zone or way of thinking.

But what does this mean for marketers?

We can’t do marketing the way we used to do it.

For the last 15 years, marketers have gone on the same journey, a customer-centric journey. Our marketing strategies have all focused on putting our customers at the center of everything we do, so we could better understand what they needed in order to sell solutions that would help solve their needs and challenges.

We try to satisfy customers by providing a product or service that they can’t find anywhere else. And we do that through customer surveys, Net Promoter Score (NPS) tools and the like, to try to build a deeper understanding of our customers than anyone else. And to get customers to share this information, we work hard on building better customer relationships with them. All of these activities aimed to add more value to customers. And this all made sense then.

But today’s customers have changed. Our customers are different now, and they are buying differently. Consumers today can do things they could never before. They can now learn on their own before making a purchase decision.

An ongoing CEB survey on customer buying behaviors found that . . .

Individuals involved in B2B purchases are 57% of the way through their purchase decision before they proactively reach out to companies.

This means before consumers email or pick up the phone to contact us, they are already identifying and prioritizing their needs on their own, figuring out the capabilities they need, which companies can provide those capabilities, and how much those companies cost. Things our sales and marketing teams used to be able to do in-person with customers early on in their purchase process.

But now, by the time we’re pulled in, our customers have figured mostly everything out already and there’s very little left to discuss other than price. We’re no longer competing with our competitors, but with our own customers.

So how do we do compete with our customers?

We need to crack that 57% and disrupt their journey to learn on their own. We have to show consumers that, despite all their research, somewhere along their learning journey they missed something that is extremely important to their business, whether that’s saving or making more money, mitigating risks, or penetrating new markets.

Furthermore, we need to know where our customers are learning on their own, and whether we are present at where their learning is taking place. If we’re not in that space, we’re handing over customers to our competitors. And if we are in that space, are we teaching or un-teaching them?

Thought leadership content shares something new consumers don’t know about, or teaches them something about what they could be doing in their business. But thought leadership content is not the same as commercial insights.

Customers may find the thought leadership content interesting or helpful, but it does not necessarily inspire them with action.

Commercial insights, on the other hand, disrupt customers’ learning journey and “un-teaches” them about what they know, to give them a good reason to change.

How do marketers do that? We need to first understand customers’ business better than they know it themselves. Then we need to “un-teach” customers by teaching them something about their business needs and challenges that they have failed to learn on their own.

Commercial insights are frame breaking. They break consumers’ views of the world and show something consumers are currently doing is wrong or flawed, and is exposing them to more risks, costs, or problems. Commercial insights juxtapose the cost of consumers’ current behaviors with the potential of alternative action. And this alternative action should lead consumers to your product or service, showing them how you can help solve their needs better than anyone else can. Commercial insights are about you understanding what you do better than anyone else.

To help marketers create commercial insights, Adamson suggests doing a content audit on every content piece you’ve published, and seeing if it is about what consumers are currently doing (current behaviors/beliefs) or what they could be doing (desired behaviors/beliefs).

You will likely find that most of your content marketing is about the desired behaviors or beliefs. But before you can get to that, you need to first show customers what they are currently doing that is costing them money, or exposing them to more risks or problems, than they ever realized. Adamson points out that ADP, one of their clients, likes to say, you need to show your customers that “the pain of same is greater than the pain of change.”

And how do you do this? You need to build a mental model of how your consumers see the world and how they think their world or business works. Once you have this mental model, take it to your customers and trusted advisors and ask what they would add that you missed. Then you take that commercial insight to build a content ecosystem, where each piece of content is built along the path toward the commercial insight you have, leading your consumers to the action you want them to take.

Adamson suggests this approach:

  1. Create blog posts to spark initial concern or intrigue, raising questions your consumers never thought about before or sharing things that they are currently doing which are hurting their business.
  2. Offer whitepapers, videos, infographics, or presentations to introduce the problem in detail.
  3. And finally, you personalize the pain by using cost calculator and benchmarking tools, showing how the problem directly applies to your customers and how your solution can help solve that problem.

If you want to cut through the clutter and move the needle on lead generation and sales, you need to create content that leads to commercial insights and disrupts a customer’s buying process.

So when developing your content strategy, ask yourself if every piece of content you produce leads to a commercial insight? Does it disrupt the way customers are thinking about their business? If it doesn’t, chances are it will only add to the noise that’s already out there, and you won’t get heard.

What are you doing today to “un-teach” your customers?

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

4 thoughts on “Challenger Marketing: How To Succeed In Today’s B2B Battleground

  1. Great insights Michael! This seems to be the next logical step to getting the head nod from target buyers that their challenges are understood … and to re-engineering their perception of key causes and the effects too of action / inaction. I am doing a bit of a content audit now and will apply this thinking. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great post. I really learned a lot. Thank you for sharing about what challenger marketing is but what i enjoyed reading the the most is about the commercial insights. From what I understand is we get our customers out of their own way, in order for them to change. It is somewhat a more difficult approach since it’s hard for consumers to un-learn something. But if it’s more beneficial for both the marketer and the costumer then I think there’s no harm in trying. Thanks again for sharing. I will definitely try this approach.

    1. Thanks Tony, yes it’s a little against the conventional wisdom to challenge customers but I can see how this approach pays off for getting them to see the need to change and act. All about creating urgency and buy-in.

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