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Growth is back at the top of the corporate agenda. And where growth is a priority, marketing can be, too.

But this time around, we're talking about a different kind of marketing than in the past—especially in business-to-business (B2B) marketing. Our experience is telling us that there's a new priority emerging for marketers, and that is sales acceleration: Finding disciplined and repeatable ways to move existing customers as well as prospects from "why?" to "buy"—more rapidly.

Here are tips on how marketers can prove their value and work together with sales to accelerate the sales cycle and positively impact the bottom line.

1. Work with sales to clearly define objectives

B2B marketers have a serious credibility issue with B2B sellers that stems from a long history of sellers' receiving materials from marketing that are lacking in any real substance to effectively answer the prospect's questions.

The crux of the issue lies in the reality that most marketing communications (marcom) people don't have a direct relationship with their sellers. So, while they receive content from product marketing, they don't have a clear understanding of how the sales force and channel partner community use that content to move prospects through the sales cycle. Conceptually, they understand the sales funnel and what kinds of tactics are appropriate at each stage, but without the linkage to sales to receive additional input and validation, the end materials often fall flat. The content isn't dialed in to address the realities that the sellers face in day-to-day sales situations.

Earlier collaboration in the planning process will help marketing and sales define what they want to accomplish together and what roles they'll play in delivering results. Start the dialog by ensuring that each group's objectives are aligned. On paper they might look like they align, but seeking further clarification via open communication can lead to a deeper understanding of what sellers really need to get the job done. At the same time, it can shine a light on areas where marketing can make a huge difference.

For example, when marketers understand exactly how sales defines a lead or opportunity, they can develop more effective lead-nurturing programs that help to cultivate contacts and move them through the sales cycle until they are ready to engage with a salesperson. Without the details, leads may get passed to sales too soon—and likely to land in the trash can. That is bad news on many levels, especially for the marketer who has to report on the cost of those leads that landed in the garbage.

Another huge opportunity for marketers to make a difference is to work closely with sales to clearly define objectives and processes for how new products and services are launched—and define marketing's role in ensuring that the sales team has the pre-launch education as well as the market-facing information necessary to get new offerings off to a fast start. Don't guess what they need. Ask. Make a plan and get them on board.

Then, keep the dialog going to gain further clarification on what is working and what isn't in terms of content and deliverables. Conduct interviews, send out surveys, and get invited to meetings where sales people will be. Consider inviting representatives from sales—both direct and channel—to participate in the message and content development process. Most importantly, communicate back. Let them know that they have been heard, what you are doing about it, and when they can expect to see the changes.

2. Identify credible metrics to measure success

If revenues increase, no one will conclude that it was the result of successful marketing. Increased revenue is not a metric that marketing should try to claim as a direct measure of its success. There are far too many variables from the time a lead is passed from marketing to sales to the close of the sale.

Instead, marketing should be evaluated by criteria for which it can be held accountable, such as number of qualified leads delivered to sales and the ratio of leads to close. The higher that ratio, the better marketing is nurturing and qualifying the lead before it is handed over to sales.

An area that regularly gets overlooked in measurement is sales collateral. Typical advertising and lead generation measurements don't apply, but that doesn't mean that you can't measure it. If you haven't already done so, consider implementing a digital asset management system.

By making sales collateral available to the direct sales force and channel partner community via an asset management system, you can track and report on exactly what is getting used, how often, in what geographies and by whom. Even more critical, you can also see what is not getting used so you can stop spending money on producing it and revising it every six months. Or, you can conduct a little research to determine why it isn't getting used. Perhaps the content just needs to be more targeted.

3. Focus on the things that matter

Most marketers have a list of priorities a mile long. In this environment, the key isn't how much you do, it's how much you help your organization achieve. Conduct this exercise: Ask yourself—and answer—the questions that will help you hone in on the real priorities. Which products/services drive the majority of our revenues? Which clients? Which channels? What about service attach rates? What products and services do customers naturally tend to buy together?

In today's world of sales acceleration, it's a good idea to drive some quick wins along with longer-term strategies such as strengthening the pipeline. Campaigns that target existing customers for up-sells and cross-sells are a great place to start.

Determine what matters by talking to sales and mining your CRM system for the data. What's the point of having a system that collects massive stores of information about customers and the business they are doing with us if we aren't going to do anything with the information?

It can seem overwhelming, but don't try to boil the ocean. Start with something simple, like making sure that you have a program in place to communicate with your customers on a regular basis about things that are important to them. You CRM system can tell you who they are, and with a little analysis you can figure out what's important to them, such as relevant information about their industry, associated products and services that will offer additional benefits to what they already have, or upcoming seminars that may educate them.

4. Invest to make your products and services more compelling

Let's face it, we all work in crowded markets. There's plenty of competition, which makes it hard to be compelling. And what constitutes compelling in B2B anyway? We've found that it takes a balance of rational and emotional discipline to make offerings compelling. It starts with a clear understanding of the target customers, their needs, their priorities, their alternatives, and the benefits a product or service delivers.

But it can't stop there. You have to overlay the customer context with the competitive environment. That's where positioning and unique value propositions come in. Next, you have to ensure it all fits within the context of the overall company brand and its promise of value. With the rational foundation in place, you're free to add the creative expression—the emotional connection that makes the message memorable.

A great place to gather data is from the sales force. No one is closer to your market than they are. Sellers will be able to tell you what is really different or compelling to the target audience and what is just a bunch of marketing fluff. This isn't a substitute for doing the marketing research, it is part of the marketing research.

5. Customize your content to match the buying cycle

The most effective marketers do two things very, very well. They target content to the multiple audiences, including decision makers and influencers, who are involved in B2B buying decisions. And they provide relevant information at each stage in the sales cycle, from information gathering to consideration to evaluation.

Various marketing communications tools, such as thought-leadership pieces, whitepapers, customer case studies, technical briefs, and interactive demonstrations, can be used in conjunction with campaign activities to lead a prospect through the sales cycle.

Clearly, our professional landscape is changing. We're watching as our priorities are reset once again. This year, across the troika of brand building, demand generation and sales enablement, the overriding theme will be sales acceleration. That means everything we do will be measured against how it helps to move the sales cycle along faster.

CEOs want to ensure that their investments in marketing are paying off in tangible ways—preferably by affecting sales this quarter and certainly the next. That's some serious pressure. But having watched our profession rise to the occasion every time the landscape shifts, I'm confident we'll deliver. And we'll do it by building a bridge to our sellers. Hope springs eternal—I'm a marketer after all.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sherri Leopard is founder and CEO of business-to-business marketing firm Leopard Communications (www.leopard.com), a wholly owned subsidiary of OgilvyOne North America.