By Roanne Neuwirth published May 8, 2012

How to Reach the C-Suite with Content

Content marketers spend lots of time and money creating just the right content to engage their customers and prospects, but much of it goes unheeded by the most coveted of audiences — the C-suite. Executives are a challenging audience, but because of their clout and buying power, it is well worth cracking the code on executive content. This is particularly true for B2B marketers, where executive relationships are so core to big ticket, ongoing spending. 

The executive challenge

Why are executives different? From our work interviewing hundreds of C-level executives every year, we at Farland Group have extracted the key elements that define the C-suite difference. Their relentless schedules and need to sell and defend decisions make them very focused on outcomes and a clear path to value for the time invested. This group relies even more heavily than others on the advice and perspective of their true peers and those they perceive to be authentic experts. They know the information they need and value, and do not want to waste time with “salesy” pitches and lightweight stories.

So how does this translate into successful content for executives? Focus on these elements to start:

  1. Hard facts drive credibility… and credibility is key. Content based on data makes an impression on executives; peer-based insights and stories add to the credibility of the data collected. Invest the time to do the research and gather input if you want your story to be heard and respected. Data can come from surveys, conversations, or third-party analyses. Just make sure it helps to make the case on why your points matter to executives and provides supportable and thought-provoking insights.
  2. Provide actionable and timely information on issues that matter, in formats that allow ready extrapolation. There has to be a “so what” that comes out of the data and it needs to be up-to-the minute, on topics relevant to the executive’s business, role, and current challenges. Case studies, use cases, pointed summaries of key actions all gain attention from executives if they are built on a credible perspective.
  3. Summarize, summarize, summarize. Executives have short attention spans and need to get to value quickly. Deliver your ideas with targeted summaries, succinct points, where the bottom line ideas and actions are easy to extract and consume.
  4. Channel matters. With executives in particular, the content has to be easy for them to access, wherever they are — on their iPad during a flight, in a printed paper to peruse after dinner, or in a short video while waiting for a meeting to start. And executives’ interests change as channels change so stay on top of what’s new and what works.
  5. Push beyond the common wisdom and top-of-mind trends. Executive content needs to present a provocative vision for future possibilities. Executives seek intriguing, surprising or useful ideas that highlight opportunities to come in areas that tie to their greatest business challenges. Find consistent ways to gather insights from executives on both problems and solutions, and then invest in extracting the most useful output and data to create a story of action and innovative ideas.
  6. Evolve from technical to strategic. Executives care about how they can solve business problems and enhance revenue and profit. They are not interested in reading about technologies and products—those are only a means to an end and are readily delegated to others to review and purchase. Position solutions in terms of the bottom line and what can help grow the business. Bring in peer stories to lend credibility to these business cases.

Match content and format to channel

When you publish executive-level content, take a multimedia approach. Ideas can be presented, pulled apart and repackaged in different formats — online and offline, audio, video, the written word — to reach the audience members where and how they most prefer it. Just make sure that the content is appropriate for the channel. A few examples:

  • Executives like to hear from peers in a select number of high-value, high-touch, in-person events; use cases make very effective fodder for these venues.
  • White papers can work with executives but they need to be short, to the point and contain compelling data.
  • Third-party publications — if they are the ones C-level executives actually read — are great for placing compelling stories of what other executives have done or detail data that shows it’s time to pay attention to a trend or an opportunity.

McKinsey Quarterly: Zen masters of C-suite attention

One of McKinsey & Company’s most powerful marketing tools is its business journal publication The McKinsey Quarterly. It has expanded from a print quarterly journal into an ongoing content series on key global business topics, and is now considered a must-read by many senior executives at the world’s largest companies. It is the focus on the following four elements that contributes to the success of this content in connecting to the target executive audience and demonstrating the power of the ideas.

Data-driven credibility. Whether a survey of hundreds of technology executives or interviews with 15 chief strategy officers, McKinsey starts with peer  insights and gets compelling facts on which to build their content.

Actionable, relevant, timely information. McKinsey focuses on leading-edge management topics that are  top of mind for executives and shares cases, examples and stories of how other executives have taken action on the opportunities and challenges presented. It’s easy to see how to take these ideas into other environments.

Succinct insights. McKinsey extracts the key points, the most relevant highlights and the most provocative  ideas in the layout and design making the key takeaways easily identifiable and consumable.

Channeling their audience. McKinsey moved its  model to a stronger focus on online formats (audio, video, print) and shifted the print publication to quarterly round-ups. It has integrated a strong social and email strategy to ensure that the content gets to executives in formats that matter.

The bottom line: Get out and listen to your executive audience members, research and understand their challenges and needs, link your story to value, and reach them where they are.

Office image via Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free print subscription.

Author: Roanne Neuwirth

Roanne Neuwirth is client-focused marketing leader, passionate about helping companies engage their executive clients and build deep relationships. She has more than 20 years of B2B experience driving business value through client-focused marketing and research programs. Neuwirth has worked with a wide-ranging client base, including IBM, GTE Sprint, Wells Fargo, and Chevron. Follow her at @RoanneNeuwirth.

Other posts by Roanne Neuwirth

  • dougkessler

    Excellent summary.  It does make sense to treat C-suiters differently and I think you’ve nailed the essentials.

    We’ve found personalisation to be a great door-opener, too.
    Even if it’s just changing the cover or intro of an eBook to spin it towards an individual.

    • Roanne Neuwirth

      Thanks Doug and good point about the personalization- that is a good add. Thanks for commenting on this.

  • Janice King

    One thing your article alludes to is the importance of content design in engaging in attention of busy executive. Too many pieces directed to this audience use just narrative text with perhaps a few stock photos or brand graphics. Structuring the key information into sidebars, summary boxes, and other visual elements seems to be a technique in line with your advice.

    • Roanne Neuwirth

      Janice- you make a great point and that really does make a difference.  That is one thing that contrbutes to the success of the McKinsey content with executives. Thanks for your comment!

  • Jane Hiscock

    Recently a CEO told me that he wasn’t interested in the curation of content.  I thought this was interesting since we seem to read a lot about the power of content curation and many of us curate content for the c-suite.  He explained that content curation only gave him back what he already had read – he was looking for an added dimension of customization that was designed to meet his specific needs.  This is a challenge to do at scale, but shows that as content creators we will need to meet this ongoing demand from our customers to be treated as individuals not as large demographic segments.  I’m wondering whether you or others are experiencing this as a trend or was this just one person’s request?

  • Rob Leavitt

    Thanks for this, Roanne; it’s a great piece. I agree with all your points, but my main reaction is that connecting with executives requires the kind of hard, focused work that few marketing organizations are well equipped to do, especially with so many groups being stretched thin trying to cover an ever expanding list of “must do” programs, channels, audiences, and tools. 

    Most challenging, in my experience, are having the skill and taking the time to really understand “issues that matter” and then developing points of view that go beyond conventional wisdom or half-baked opinion. McKinsey and some other consulting firms certainly do this well but it’s rare that other marketing organizations commit the resources and maintain the focus to do the serious research, build the relationships, and develop the viewpoints that are necessary to sustain the types of content you cite. 

    And for all the discussion about what types of content work best, I think your point about high-touch events may be the most important. Partly this is because executives often prefer face-to-face but also because being able to present and discuss your points of view face-to-face is the acid test. We can fool ourselves in thinking that publications might be effective, but when you’re presenting live to one or more executives and they start paying more attention to their iPhone, you know you’ve failed the test.

  • Dave Young

    “do not want to waste time with “salesy” pitches and lightweight stories”
    I love it.