‘What did happen in Vegas?’ Challenger marketing and the buyer journey revisited

In late October, CEB gathered their tribe at the CEB Sales and Marketing conference in Las Vegas. This annual event has become an important marketplace of ideas for B2B enterprise leaders.

If there was a discernable macro theme of the conference, it would be this: The traditional role and task boundaries between sales and marketing departments are not well aligned with today’s B2B buying behavior.  

Giving context to the conference are ideas introduced to most through CEB’s challenger books: The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer. The message of these books, co-written by CEB’s brain trust of Pat Spenner, Matt Dixon, Brent Adamson and Nick Toman, is an argument about B2B sales and marketing that shakes conventional wisdom and methodically dismantles related practices that are still called 'best' in other circles.

For the conference attendees and CEB’s broader tribe, it’s a compelling theory predicated on a synthesis of three well-documented trends among B2B buyers—their preference to do their own research before engaging a sales organization, their habit of making decisions in groups, and their tendency to wrestle, early in the buying journey with achieving consensus on the problem to be solved and the type of solution appropriate to that problem.  

For the attendees I spoke with, challenger theory was highly regarded personally, but still in early stages of organizational adoption. Quite a few of these conversations dealt with risks and barriers to adoption. And this year’s conference program recognized that state of mind. Topics built upon the edifice of challenger theory with deeper practical applications of that theory—in customer insight methods, account-based marketing, content marketing and metrics.

With challenger thinking as a backdrop, some intriguing ideas emerged in Vegas:

The demand waterfall crumbles

For a period of time, the metaphor of a 'demand waterfall' has helped order the respective zones of activity of sales and marketing. But the waterfall metaphor was challenged in Vegas. As ABM interfaces with challenger marketing and sales, sales and marketing are working opportunities together from beginning to end. The demand waterfall is now more like a demand whirlpool, and sales and marketing are in it together.            

The buying journey revisited

A textbook marketing idea—the buying journey organized in a tidy sequence of A.I.D.A. (awareness, interest desire and action) burnt to the ground under the glare of evidence and Brent Adamson’s withering wit. In its place, guest speaker Bob Moesta built something far more localized and context-sensitive: his 'jobs to be done' framework for gathering and making sense of information about why people buy.

It’s a root-cause analysis, based on qualitative research describing both motivators and demotivators of purchase decisions. The complicated, messy, even contradictory, nature of the dataset is the sort of thing that salespeople have long had to wrestle with on their own. Moesta was making a case for product developers and marketers needing to understand customers’ reality through this lens.  

This argument makes sense if the buying journey is more than half completed before customers engage a sales channel. It makes even more sense if marketing is supporting the aales organization with challenger marketing and sales resources. 

How marketing should be measured

Marketing has been making great strides in measurement. But a provocative argument offered from the podium in Vegas is that most marketing metrics are really about activity, not outcomes and that marketing’s performance should be measured on the basis of sales metrics—or at least—sales-qualified leads. Could this drive better sales-marketing alignment? I can imagine that organizations who go down this road will have marketing teams that are hungry for sales input at multiple stages in the development of ideas and programs.  

Content or ideas?

In recent years, there has been much emphasis in B2B marketing circles on content marketing, and for most of that conversation, the underlying assumption has been that more content is better. A case, presenting a challenger marketing program that was achieved through a three-part collaboration of CEB, Hilton Hotels and their agency partner Gyro put some distance on that assumption. CEB’s Pat Spenner, laid out the architecture of the program – emphasizing the importance of head-snapping simplicity, and the need to hold back key parts of the message in the initial stages of the campaign. 

Later in the content architecture—the delivery channel was the sales force itself. If we follow this case to its implications for the role of sales and marketing—the sales organization may a bigger consumer of ideas generated by the agencies—and consequently a more important stakeholder in their selection. The corollary observation is that the value agencies offer may lie less in the volume of content they produce—and more in the strategic coherence of ideas they share with the sales and marketing organization to weave into the buyer’s journey from end to end.  

Over the last three years of these conferences, I’ve watched CEB’s challenger framework evolving from an exciting body of research to a far-reaching explanatory theory, to a set of increasingly integrated practices. Not everybody exposed to this thinking is ready just yet to set aside the ideas and practices it displaces.  

But, as John Maynard Keynes once said: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”  The CEB tribe assembled in Vegas—seems intuitively aware of an analogous problem in conventional sales and marketing practices—and they are working deliberately to avoid it. I admire that. And I think it bodes well for their future business results.