Use an Emotional Appeal to Open the Executive Suite

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We've come to call them "C-level" executives. They're the chiefs: chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer and chief marketing officer. They make the decisions in corporations.


If you have ever tried to contact C-levels with a sales message, you've probably found that they take great care to protect themselves from you. Before your message reaches them, it's likely to encounter several layers of diligent screening, with each layer designed to keep your marketing message away from your C-level prospect.


The following are the keys to ensure more of your message gets through, gets read and gets acted on by the folks with executive authority:


Get one thing clear. Make sure you're doing one thing, and you are crystal clear on what that one thing is. Whether that single objective is accepting a sales appointment, attending a conference or even accepting a premium for taking a survey, ask them to do only one thing. If you find yourself sitting in a strategy meeting and anyone says anything like "while we're at it," put the brakes on. Whether you're trying to generate a qualified lead or close the sale, be extremely wary of "objective pile-on."


Use your lists as the valuable tools they are. You might think that there's a single list of C-level execs in the United States. Once you have it, you're done. That's not the case. Even at the highest executive levels, there are more lists than you can shake a proxy vote at. Some are compiled from a variety of sources. Some have been extensively massaged and worked. You'll find lists with demographic overlays that may be the key to versioning your mail for a winner. You'll also find lists that are next to rubbish. The only way to tell them apart is to test a variety of lists until you find which gives you the response numbers you want.


You also may find it useful to compile your own list from various internal and external sources. You can use mail or outbound telemarketing to further enhance and target your audience.


Hit hard with high-impact formats. There are many ways that your mail piece can have a big impact on your targeted "C." To show you the range, consider these recent examples.


One of our clients is a large human resources outsourcing firm that sells to multinational corporations. The decision to buy its solutions had to be made at the highest level because of the size of the investment. This meant our packages had to get through the gatekeepers and hit hard from the first glimpse.


For this client, we made an impact by using not only creative power and offer, but also brute package size. We sent a box that replicated the container a global positioning system would come in. No one, no matter what level executive, could resist opening a GPS box. And no gatekeeper - secretary or executive assistant, for instance - would dare fail to show this important package to the boss. The package opened the door, and we were in. Our client still uses this high-impact package format to bust down the executive doors.


Creative packaging doesn't always cost a fortune. If cost concerns limit your per-package cost, but you need to get past the gatekeeper every time, try a USPS Priority package. It's a relatively inexpensive way to give your message undeniable importance.


At the farthest possible end of the format spectrum is the more traditional, but universally appealing, skinny and highly personalized package. We have used this technique with one of our insurance clients on a very limited budget that needed to talk with CEOs.


The key to success with a personalized package is message. It must come from the CMO or other appropriate C-level at the sending company. This executive-to-executive communication gives the piece the feeling of a real personal note when it incorporates an offer to help on issues that only an executive at that level could understand.


To keep costs low for our insurance client, we used a package that looked like it had been produced by the executive's assistant. The word "confidential" was typed beside the recipient's address. This helped the package get past gatekeepers.


We also made sure that the letter spoke to the receiving executive on a strategic level, dealing with the insurance issues that he or she would be worried about - keeping the company moving, innovation and cost.


Make your offers to people, not titles. We're all human. We all like to be surprised and delighted. Keep that in mind when considering your offer strategy. But also remember that your offer value must match the commitment you're asking your prospect to make.


If you're asking for a two-hour sales meeting, don't offer to show up with a pen, unless it's the nicest pen ever devised. We've found that offering to show up to a sales meeting (a major time commitment) with a very generous offer in hand is a very effective way to get through those big executive doors.


Get emotional! Most writers do something very interesting when they're corresponding with senior executives. They tend to write copy using an important, executive voice. Unfortunately, this makes the letter sound like an executive robot. If you do that, it will only make you look like a robot, and you'll get a robotic response - straight into the trash bin.


Direct mail is an emotional medium. Don't be afraid to be emotional in your copy and creative. I don't mean unprofessional. I mean appropriately enthusiastic and creative. Without emotion, your letter is never going to make anyone do anything. The bottom line is that emotion sells, and there are many emotional options to choose from - greed, anger, fear, guilt or even exclusivity, to name a few. Fear of loss and desire for gain are core human issues, and executives are very human. Use the ephemeral if you want to win awards, but choose the visceral if you want to sell.


One last tip. While we're talking about unexpected creative and copy approaches, consider testing a long-format letter. The common, uninformed wisdom is that executives don't have the time to read more than a few lines. I'm an executive, and I control the amount of time I spend reading my mail. If I don't like it or it doesn't relate to me, I'll toss it no matter how short it is. If I'm intrigued (and that's what the right package, offer and copy will do), I'll stick with it through to the last detail on the back of your brochure. The point is: I choose, so if you have a story that'll sell with details, go for it. By giving me more detail, I may feel like you're giving me more value in your package.


Spyro Kourtis is president of The Hacker Group, Bellevue, WA, which creates direct marketing programs for several Fortune 500 clients. He can be reached at 425/454-8556.


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