One change which we’re all seeing to some extent is perhaps an increasing recognition that the ‘old’ ways of selling may not be working any more. Wherever you look, there are people offering to help you ‘sell’ your business online, using social media, harnessing the power of the web and so on. But is all this really new, and what do businesses really need to do to move with the zeitgeist?
With customers being increasingly well-informed, there is a different role for sales reps in persuading customers of the merits of their products. Rather than just compete on traditional terms, some companies are choosing to use their sales reps differently: to influence and become opinion-formers and key spokespeople for their company. Instead of following a process, they are asked to become creative in the way in which they help the company to sell.
Buyers as advocates
But is it only company employees who can become thought leaders? Of course not. Perhaps the holy grail of marketing is so-called evangelists: customers who are so pleased with their purchase, whether product or process, that they become evangelists for it. They spread the word to other companies and individuals about the benefits of the product. Unlike employees, who are motivated by their salaries or commission, evangelists have the benefit that they are wholly sincere about the benefits of the product. They are, apparently, motivated only by the desire to improve the world, by persuading more people to move to that particular product, service or process. And if they are influential with those around them, that will lead to sales.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about this. Viral marketing, the idea that you could market by word of mouth, was first used as a term in the mid 1990s. The idea back then was that you could ‘infect’ a user, who would spread the word about your product. However, the mere fact that the term has now become ‘evangelism marketing’ gives some idea about the relative importance of the person spreading the word, as compared to the word itself. Back then, the idea, product or system was all important. Now, it is all about the individual, and particularly about identifying the key opinion formers within groups.
Grooming your evangelists
Companies actively seek out individuals like this, for example through market research. If you’ve ever done any market research surveys, for example, through companies like Global Test Market, you will know that one question which turns up frequently is ‘My friends and family ask my opinion before buying new [insert name of type of product]’, with a Likert-type scale (agree strongly, agree, neutral, disagree, disagree strongly). And why do they seek out these individuals? Getting opinion-formers on your side for free is good news. Why do people who write influential blogs that are read frequently by large numbers of people are offered products for free? It’s in the hope that they might review them favourably, and influence their readership. Thought leadership is big business. And social platforms such as Twitter have provided another opportunity for opinion formers to express their opinions to their followers. Many trends have taken off on the back of a tweet from an influential celebrity, and B2B tech vendors are eager to get in on the act. But how can they do this?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many consultancies and individuals out there who offer to help companies to market their products using social media and influence. However, the very nature of opinion-formers is that they make up their own minds, so trying to influence them can backfire quite unpleasantly. Which is why we have formalised our work in this area. Carsten Schmidt has discussed thought leadership, and how the crucial element of selling nowadays is influencing decision-makers. The Henry Thought Leadership programme helps companies to structure the training of individuals as influencers for their company and inject a programmatic approach.
Free advertising, for example by a celebrity tweet mentioning your product, has to be worth a good few sales. If your product really is the best thing since sliced bread, it will happen without much prompting. And of course you can hasten the process slightly by sending out free samples. However, for a B2B company, training employees as influencers rather than sales reps, seems a more likely opportunity to increase sales. After all, whatever new technology and cultural changes bring, relationships remain the cornerstone of any business opportunity.