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The Challenger Sale for Marketers

(This post originally appeared on It’s presented here with a few edits.)

In my earlier post, I wrote that leading marketers are creating content that teaches customers something new about their business, and that motivates action.  They then structure that content into paths that progressively disrupt the customers’ thinking about their own business.  In this post, I want to lay out what these disruptive content paths actually look like and how they work using an example based on real practice.  It’s a long post, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

To get into disruptive content paths, we first need to take a step back.  Based on years of CEB research, we’ve observed leading commercial teams orienting their sales activity to what we have come to call “commercial insight”.  A commercial insight is an insight about the customer’s business that re-frames the way customers assign value to the areas where the supplier outperforms competitors.   My colleagues here at CEB, Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson, have written extensively about commercial insight in a book called The Challenger Sale. (Shameless plug—it actually makes for pretty good plane reading, so look for it at the next airport bookstore you find yourself in.)

For purpose of illustration, let’s take a hypothetical example* of a commercial insight.  Let’s say you supply ultrasound medical equipment to obstetricians.  You have a unique design and manufacturing capability that enables you to develop especially lightweight, ergonomic ultrasound equipment.

Your commercial insight involves absenteeism rates for ultrasound technicians.  Using their hands and wrists all day causes techs to get carpal tunnel syndrome, which leads them to call in sick fairly frequently.  Most obstetricians view this absenteeism problem as just a cost of doing business.  They believe it happens because any human being using their hands and wrists like that all day long is going to suffer from carpal tunnel.

But, being a savvy marketer, you dig in further.  Through research, you discover that this carpal tunnel is actually caused more by the ultrasound equipment than by the hand and wrist motions.  Relatedly, you find that with lighter, ergonomically designed equipment, you can dramatically reduce the incidence of carpal tunnel.  That’s your commercial insight.  You can use the insight to teach the customer something new about their business that they didn’t appreciate before.  You have re-framed the way the customer thinks about her business in a way that favors your competitive differentiator.

Notice how commercial insight goes well beyond thought leadership.  In the ultrasound equipment category, most thought leadership would focus on development of new technologies, perhaps development of portability in ultrasound devices.  It would be very technology-led, high on features and benefits of the technology.  It might inform the customer about something new, but it would fall far short on actually changing the customer’s view of their own business, and motivating them to act.

We’ve developed a hierarchy of the different types of commercial information we see marketing teams putting into the marketplace.  To qualify as thought leadership, information needs to pass a credibility/relevance test, as well as a newsworthiness test in the minds of customers.  It needs to tell the customer something new.  But that’s not a very high bar.  Insight and commercial insight are about changing the way the customer thinks of their world (i.e., it “breaks their frame”), and in a way that leads back to you uniquely as a supplier.

Okay, so that’s commercial insight.  Now, at bare minimum, as a marketer at this hypothetical ultrasound manufacturer, you’d want to equip your salesforce to deliver this commercial insight in a really compelling way.  Again, that’s all well detailed in The Challenger Sale.

But that’s not enough.  Because in today’s information environment, most of your customers have long since landed on their key buying criteria by the time they’re talking to your sales reps.  Influencing them away from those criteria is like trying to re-shape already dried cement.  Ain’t gonna happen.  Especially if the customer’s procurement team is involved in the sale.

That’s where we found leading marketers using content marketing in a very specific way.  They engineer a “disruptive content path”, which is a series of connected content items that accomplish three things with the customer:

  1. Sparks the customer to explore her existing mental model about how something works in her business.
  2. Introduces a disruptive idea that upsets that existing mental model.

Confronts the customer with the disruptive idea in the customer’s terms.

So, to take the ultrasound equipment example, here’s what a disruptive content path might look like.

Spark—the kinds of content you’d have here include:

  • Infographics, blog posts and the like on the average yearly cost of ultrasound tech absenteeism to a typical practice.
  • Content that teases the link between absenteeism, carpal tunnel and ultrasound equipment.

With this content, you’re just trying to get that obstetrician to reconsider the cost of absenteeism in managing her practice, and to provoke her into exploring a little more.

Introduce—here you might have content like:

  • A short white paper with evidence about the hidden impact of absenteeism on patient satisfaction.
  • A video testimonial of an obstetrician talking about the tech absenteeism problem in her business, and how there were some hidden costs she didn’t fully appreciate.
  • Third party medical studies on the link between ergonomic design of tools and severity of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The content here dials up the pain of the problem.  It also introduces the disruptive idea, which is that ultrasound equipment is actually the main culprit behind tech absenteeism, not the nature of the tech’s job.  For your customer, the obstetrician, this content suggests that a really painful problem in her business is actually much more controllable than she appreciated.  You just taught the customer something new about her business.

Confront—this is where you’d want content like:

  • An online benchmarking tool that invites the obstetrician to share a little about her practice and in return receive comparative information on how absenteeism affects other practices like hers. Or,
  • A pain calculator, where the obstetrician can plug in a few parameters about the size of her practice, how many techs she has, how many patients she has, and then get an estimate of how much absenteeism is costing her, including hidden costs.

This is information the customer can’t easily get herself, and she’d have a tough time debating it!  You’ve just enabled the customer to size her own (underappreciated) problem in her own terms. Now you’ve given the customer motivation to act.

Spark.  Introduce.  Confront.

That’s what your content needs to do.  If you’re creating content that doesn’t clearly lie on a disruptive path like this, we’d argue you should stop it.  Kill it.  Never create it in the first place.  Period.

Too much mediocre content is being created in the name of looking smart or being helpful.  We know that doesn’t move the commercial needle (see my last blog post on the two qualities of Content Marketing that Matter Most ), and only adds to the noise.

That’s a high level view on what your content should be doing to your customers, and what the leading Challenger commercial organizations are doing with their content marketing efforts.  For those readers who have read the Challenger Sale, this is in many ways what Challenger Marketing looks like.  If you’d like to take a deeper dive to learn more about our findings, drop us a line.

*By hypothetical example, I really do mean that this is made up strictly for purposes of illustration.  I don’t actually know if there is an ultrasound tech absenteeism problem.  I’ve seen parallels in other healthcare fields, so this is very plausible.  But please don’t quote me on knowledge of ultrasound techs in the obstetrics field.

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