Technology Questions Every CMO Must Ask

Marketers today encounter a mind-boggling array of technologies. CMOs I talk to are swamped by meeting requests from technology vendors, and most feel an acute pressure to climb on the tech bandwagon. But they worry about the massive distraction of full-scale technology assessments—and about the risk of buying expensive tools that don’t live up to their potential.

My colleagues and I believe CMOs can make better technology sourcing decisions by asking five fundamental questions. The first two focus on avoiding the all-too-common trap of treating each technology decision in isolation.

1. Will the technology advance a critical marketing priority? This seems like an obvious consideration, but we often see the technology tail wagging the marketing dog. Plenty of the new tools have the potential to add value in an absolute sense, which is why they appear on CMOs’ radar screens in the first place. But the real question is how much value the tool under evaluation adds relative to other possibilities.

Marketers who ask this question make individual technology assessments in the context of the overall marketing priorities that a given tool will address. It’s hardly rocket science. But this common-sense discipline often falls victim to a combination of poor planning and siloed decision-making—for example, when individual marketing teams independently make narrow, channel-specific technology choices without accounting for interdependencies and appropriate sequencing.

2. Will the tool add balance to the marketing technology portfolio? It’s useful to categorize marketing technologies into three buckets. The first helps a company deliver more personalized marketing content and experiences to customers and prospects (especially through digital media). The second allows marketers to use data and analytics to reach better decisions. The third improves the effectiveness and efficiency of core marketing workflows. These buckets are interlinked. For example, marketing automation technology helps deliver personalized content and offers to large numbers of individual customers on a scale that would be unfeasible using traditional manual processes.

Over time, marketers should strive to build a technology portfolio that is balanced across the three buckets. So any individual technology assessment needs to account for how a given tool fits into the architecture of the overall portfolio.

In many ways, acquiring a new technology is the easy part. The harder part is getting people to use it—which raises three additional questions.

3. Is the organization culturally ready to adopt the new technology? Like technologies elsewhere, marketing technologies can unsettle long-held views and ways of working. Changing these attitudes and behaviors requires a multi-pronged approach: championing by senior leadership, evangelism by believers on the marketing front line, and active involvement of middle managers in encouraging the change. This “sponsorship spine” is at the core of effective change management and raises the odds of disciplined, deliberate adoption. Success requires identifying desired adoption behaviors, anticipating resistance and challenges, and having a deliberate mitigation plan — all before acquiring a new technology.

4. How readily can current marketing workflows integrate the new technology? To take one example: a number of new technologies can improve the analytic power of marketing test-and-learn processes. But many marketers still treat test-and-learn as an adjunct to their main creative and campaign-management workflows. If test-and-learn remains a sideshow, the impact of these new technologies on marketing outcomes will necessarily be limited. It’s only when core marketing processes are overhauled to integrate ongoing testing and iteration (so-called agile marketing) that the value of the new technologies will be realized.

5. Do potential users have the skills they need to benefit fully from the technology? Even when marketers are excited about a new tool, they may lack the skills and capabilities to use it. While most vendors do provide training and support, it may be inadequate to an organization’s needs. Additional training and other support—even new hires—may be required to bridge the capability gaps. Hence, the technology assessment needs to include a plan (and a budget) for whatever additional training and capability investments are needed.

Questions like these are part of the playbook of technology buyers in other parts of the enterprise, who have been adopting new technologies for more than two decades. Marketing is a relative newcomer to this game, which is why so many CMOs feel overwhelmed. The good news is that a well-planned technology diligence process—a process that anchors individual decisions in a larger context and focuses on creating the right environment in terms of sponsorship, process changes, and capabilities—can significantly improve the odds that marketing’s many new technologies will deliver on their promise.

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The Most Innovative Companies Don’t Worry About Consensus

Consensus is a powerful tool. When CEOs set out to conquer new markets or undertake billion-dollar acquisitions, we’d hope they’d at least sought out some consensus from their trusted advisors. We hope they’d be as sure as possible that their teams are ready, that their strategies are sound, and that they’d done their diligence.

The problem with consensus is that it’s expensive. And while it’s worth the cost of consensus in the pursuit big, bold moves, it’s often crushing to small experimental ones.

Consider the story of Nick. Nick is a typical manager at a one of the world’s most successful widget companies. He’s well respected, but far from the top of his organization. The good news for Nick’s company is that Nick has some great ideas; ideas for new ways of producing and distributing widgets that have never been thought of before. Nick’s company is also lucky that Nick has read The Lean Startup. Nick readily grasps the value in testing his ideas before asking for any full-scale operation.

Like a good student of the lean start-up, Nick plans out a cheap test for his latest idea, “Widget 2.0.” He determines that he can take just $10,000 to determine if Widget 2.0 has legs. If the test goes well, he’ll figure out the next step. If not, he’ll get back to his day job.

Inside most companies, this is where the problem kicks in.

Nick’s company is like most companies — only a small number of key executives have real authority to distribute cash and try new things. Everyone else is happy to defer responsibility (generally terrified of approving a failed experiment). But like most hierarchical organizations, Nick’s managers and their managers expect to be informed of his ideas before they make their way to the big boss. Even though there is only one check writer, there are a lot of potential naysayers. So Nick sets out to convince his key “stakeholders” to support his test plan for Widget 2.0. He has meeting after meeting and slowly gets people on board. Finally they approve his $10,000 dollar test.

The test fails, and Nick goes back to his day job. Success, right?

Not really.

In the last few decades executives have started to get wise about the value of systematically testing new ideas. Whether it was Rita McGrath explaining the importance of identifying risk in inherently risky ventures, Rosabeth Moss Kanter encouraging leaders to let their small experiments proliferate, or Eric Ries and Steve Blank teaching us the value of systematic experimentation and innovation accounting, the message has been clear: constantly testing new ideas is vital in the search for organic growth.

The reason testing is so vital is because it minimizes the investment required to eliminate uncertainty. In so doing, you increase the speed of innovation and decrease the cost of failure.

In the case of Widget 2.0, Nick’s company appeared to understand the value of his experiment… but their process got in the way. Consensus didn’t just slow Nick down, it dramatically increased the cost of his test. If Nick made $120,000 a year and he spent just a month trying to drive consensus around the project, the cost of his salary during the month of meetings doubled the cost of the experiment. If Nick had a small team working for him, seeking consensus may have quadrupled the cost of the experiment. And that’s not even accounting for the executives’ time that he had to sit down with.

Again, consensus can be a powerful tool. Consensus can be used to ensure multiple perspectives are looked at in any decision process. Consensus can help us honor fiduciary responsibilities. But it’s is slow, it’s messy, and it’s expensive. It eats away at the value of experimentation.

Milton Friedman once argued that the beauty of private capital is that it streamlines the act of experimentation in a capitalist society. Instead of driving consensus, “the market breaks the vicious circle [of having to convince a variety of stakeholders].” Individual entrepreneurs only need to persuade a few empowered parties that their ideas “can be financially successful; that the newspaper or magazine or book or other venture will be profitable.” To drive those same benefits inside our firms, consensus needs to be sought only where necessary.

So the challenge to managers is determining how to manage the consensus tax. How do you avoid investing in mediocre ideas, but still act with the speed and efficiency that helps you increase your ROI and get more at bats?

1. Acknowledge that not all investments are the same. Some investments are inherently complex and difficult to test systematically or at low cost. Often, these investments require that we drive consensus and be as sure as possible before we experiment. Others, however, are far less risky. If I can spend $10,000 for a one-day experiment that will tell me if a product won’t work in the future — that’s cheap. (That’s basically the same cost as the pro-rated salaries of a 100-person business unit on a 90-minute call.)

Managers in the modern organization need different processes for different types of investments. If your organization has one pathway for funding you’re doing it wrong. Either, you’re not considering the complex investments deeply enough or you’re crushing the small ones.

2. Push decision authority as low as possible. Senior executives are busy. As much as they want to control everything in the organization, it’s simply not realistic. To be nimble and innovative, part of the key is pushing decision authority as low as possible (but not lower).

What’s as low as possible? That’s going to change from situation to situation. But the key is acknowledging that the more senior you make your decision makers, the more waste you’ll require of those looking to experiment. It’s much better to have a slightly less qualified decision maker that is empowered to act on a much shorter timeline than to force decisions all the way to the top. If the latter is your approach, the only thing that will happen is your execs will end up drowning in a sea of meetings and nothing will ever get done.

To push decisions down, you need to limit your downside. Make sure that you hire smart people who you’d trust to make a good decision (not just order-takers). Make sure that you clearly define what success is for an experiment. And make your corporate mission and boundaries well known and well defined. If you do each of those things and distinguish between experimental investments and more meaningful operational investments, you’re already going to be in a good spot.

3. Don’t punish failure. Punish waste. Most executives are happy to point up the chain in order to avoid retribution. They’d rather not make a decision, because decisions can fail to pay off. It’s a lot easier to coordinate an additional meeting than to take the heat for another investment.

If you truly want to innovate, it’s important not to punish failure. Similarly, it’s not alright simply not to punish people at all. The type of punishment that I’ve seen work well is punishing waste; those who waste resources by failing twice the same way or those who waste time by being satisfied sitting in meeting after meeting without getting anything done. If you have an intrapreneur out there pushing the boundaries, learning new things, and adapting, you’re likely to have success in the future.

As Joe Bower once explained to me – “In pursuit of the novel, small is beautiful.” I’m more convinced than ever that he’s right. In part because small limits downside. But in part, because it also limits the need for consensus. In your search for innovation, it’s vital that you use consensus with some discretion. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s not for every occasion.

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The Chief Innovation Officer’s 100-Day Plan

Congratulations! Your energy and track record of successfully launching high-impact initiatives scored you a plum role heading up innovation. Expectations are high, but some skeptics in the organization feel that innovation is an overhyped buzzword that doesn’t justify being a separate function. So, what can you do in your first 100 days to set things off on the right track?

Over the past decade we’ve helped dozens of leaders through their first 100 days. Based on our experience, augmented by in-depth interviews with a few of the most seasoned practitioners with which we have worked, we suggest that innovation leaders put the following five items on their 100-day punch list.

Spend quality time with every member of the executive committee. This should go without saying, but it’s vitally important to develop relationships with the CEO, business unit leaders, and other key executives to understand the company’s strategy, so that the innovation approach and projects you pursue align with overall corporate goals. Brad Gambill, who over the past few years has played a leading role in strategy and innovation at LGE, SingTel, and TE Connectivity, believes the first 100 days are an ideal time to “ask dumb questions and master the basics of the business.” He particularly suggests focusing on the things “everyone else takes for granted and thinks are obvious but aren’t quite so obvious to people coming in from the outside.” So don’t be afraid to ask why a decision-making meeting ran the way it did or challenge the wisdom of pursuing a certain strategy or project.

It is particularly important to understand these executives’ views of two things – innovation’s role in helping the company achieve its growth goals and your role in leading innovation. Is innovation intended to improve and expand the existing business, or is it meant to redefine the company itself and the industry in which it operates? Do executives expect you to establish and incubate a growth businesses, act as a coach to existing teams, or focus on establishing a culture of innovation so that new ideas emerge organically?

As you invest time with top executives, you should begin to understand the organizational relationship between your innovation work and the current business. Are leaders willing to give up some of their human and financial resources to advance innovation? Are you expected to recruit a separate team from within and beyond the company? Or are you expected to spin straw into gold by working without dedicated resources? Will leaders support you if you propose radical changes to people, structures, processes, and roadmaps, or are you supposed to change everything but in a way that no one notices?

Zero in the most critical organizational roadblocks to innovation. Chances are, you won’t get the same answers to these questions from everyone you talk to. Those areas where executives disagree with one another will define the most immediate (and often the most fundamental) challenges and opportunities you’ll face in your role.

As quickly as possible within your first 100 days, therefore, you will need to understand where the fault lines lay in your company. Pay particular attention to the three hidden determinants of your company’s true strategy – how it funds and staffs projects, how it measures and rewards performance, and how it allocates overall budgets. A clear understanding of where leaders’ priorities fail to match what the company is actually funding and rewarding will help you identify the biggest hurdles to achieving your longer-term agenda, and where short-term workarounds are required.

Define your intent firmly but flexibly. You don’t need to have all the answers perfectly formulated from the beginning. But you should have a perspective – even on Day 1 – regarding how your role as the innovation leader can help the organization achieve its overall strategy. Look for ways to stretch the boundaries of current innovation efforts, but remember you are not the CEO or CTO. You need them to want to support you, not worry that you are gunning for their jobs. Gambill suggests one way to build this trust is never to bring up a problem without also proposing a solution. The CEO “has lots of people who know how to point out problems; it is important to establish yourself as a problem solver and confidant as quickly as possible.”

Determine how you plan to balance your efforts between developing ideas, supporting initiatives in other parts of the organization, and creating an overall culture of innovation. Those are related, but distinctly different, tasks. Don’t get too rooted to your initial perspective. Be as adaptable in your approach as you will be when you work on specific ideas.

Develop your own view of the innovation landscape around the company. Colin Watts, who has played a leadership role in innovation and strategy functions at Walgreens, Campbell Soup, Johnson & Johnson, and Weight Watchers, suggests getting a “clear market definition ideally grounded in customer insights.” Companies tend to define their world based on the categories in which they compete or the products they offer. However, customers are always on the lookout for the best way to get a job done and don’t really care what industries or categories the solutions happen to fall into. Understanding how customers make their choices often reveals a completely different set of competitors, redefining the market in which your company operates, its role in the market, and the basis for business success.

Watts also suggests zeroing in on the adjacencies that have the potential to shape your market. As he notes, “There is no such thing as an isolated market anymore.” Through an innovation lens you are likely to see early signs of change that the core business might have missed.

Develop a first-cut portfolio of short and longer-term efforts, with a few planned quick losses. A key component of your job, of course, will likely be to advance a set of innovation initiatives. Some may already be in progress. There may be a backlog of ideas waiting to be developed. Or the raw material might be a bit rougher, existing primarily in people’s heads. Regardless, in the first 100 days you want to come up with a clear view of some of the specific things on which you will plan to work. Some of these might be very specific initiatives, like identifying product-market fit for a new technology. Some might involve investigating broader areas of opportunity (for example, “wearables”). Some may involve developing specific capabilities. One specific capability Watts suggests building as an “investment that will pay back for years to come” is a “fast and cheap way to pilot ideas and products.”

Savvy innovation leaders place some long-term bets that they start to explore while also quickly addressing some more immediate business opportunities to earn credibility. If your portfolio is all filled with near-in ideas, some people in the core organization might naturally ask why they can’t do what you are doing themselves. And you are probably missing the most exciting and possibly disruptive ideas in your space. But if the portfolio is filled only with further out ideas, you run the risk that organizational patience will run out as you do the long, hard work of developing them.

When considering quick wins, don’t avoid quick losses. True innovation requires an organization to stop avoiding failure and see the benefits of learning from it. But failure remains very scary to everyone. Have enough things going on that you can tolerate a quick loss without damaging your overall pipeline. As Watts says, “You may be able to do it fast or do it cheap or do it reliably but not likely all three.” Make sure that you and your executive sponsors loudly and proudly celebrate the first project you stop when it becomes clear it won’t work.

That feels like a lot for 100 days, and it is. Innovation has the power to positively transform an organization, but no one said it was going to be easy.

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A Process for Human-Algorithm Decision Making

Think for a moment about how an organization makes a decision. First come the facts, the data that will inform the decision. Using these facts, someone formulates alternative courses of action and evaluates them according to agreed-on criteria. The decision maker then chooses the best alternative, and the organization commits itself to action.

Advanced analytics can automate parts of this sequence; it offers the prospect of faster, better-informed decisions and substantially lower costs. But unless you’re prepared to transform how people work together throughout the decision-making process, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Take a simple example: a company’s collections function. In years past, dozens of collection agents would receive hundreds of randomly allocated delinquent accounts every day, each one with a few facts about the customer. Each agent then reviewed a standard list of alternatives and decided how he or she would try to collect what was owed.

Today, an algorithm can assemble many more facts about the accounts than any human being could easily process: lengthy payment histories, extensive demographic data, and so on. Using these facts, it can separate the accounts into simple categories, say red-yellow-green.

Now the alternative courses of action are simpler. Red ones — low value, unlikely to pay— go straight to a collection agency. Green ones — high value, likely to pay — go to specially trained callers for white-glove service. The yellow ones require a careful review of alternatives and much more human intervention before a decision is reached.

Within the yellow and green categories, sophisticated test-and-learn experiments can inform the decisions that remain. Agents can discover from these experiments which channels and messages generate the greatest financial return while minimizing costs and customer dissatisfaction. They can thus optimize their choices about how to pursue delinquent accounts.

The new way of doing things is better and more efficient. But look at how it changes the process itself — and what’s expected of the people involved:

  • Software now assists with the collection and analysis of critical information, eliminating tasks once done by human beings. But people have to determine which facts to collect and how to weight them.
  • Red-yellow-green or other simple categorization schemes can speed up the formulation of alternatives. Advanced analytic models can incorporate the experience of an organization’s best decision makers, helping to eliminate alternatives that are less viable than others and focusing the evaluation on the most promising courses of action. People will require training in how to use the insights from the new decision-support tools.
  • Within the yellow and green groups, test-and-learn results can dramatically improve the quality of decisions an organization makes. People will still need to figure out what experiments to run and then interpret the results.

The new decision procedures are likely to require investments in technology — for example, software that embeds rules and new decision logic into the workflow systems. They’ll also require redesigning people’s roles to fit with the new process. The possible need for new skills could mean extensive retraining and may require hiring new talent altogether.

The use of analytics can hugely improve the quality of your decisions and can increase decision process efficiency by as much as 25%. When executed well, it leads to higher customer and employee satisfaction. But analytics alone won’t achieve these results; the decision process needs to change, with people learning new skills and taking on new roles. The transformation is organizational as well as technological, and is more extensive than many companies imagine.

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9 Habits That Lead to Terrible Decisions

Several years ago we came up with a great idea for a new leadership-development offering we thought would be valuable to everyone. We had research demonstrating that when people embarked on a self-development program, their success increased dramatically when they received follow-up encouragement.  We developed a software application to offer that sort of encouragement. People could enter their development goals, and the software would send them reminders every week or month asking how they were doing, to motivate them to keep on going. We invested a lot of time and money in this product.

But it turned out that people did not like receiving the e-mails and found them more annoying than motivating. Some of our users came up with a name for this type of software. They called it “nagware.” Needless to say, this product never reached the potential we had envisioned.  Thinking about the decisions we had made to create this disappointing result led us to ask the question, “What causes well-meaning people to make poor decisions?”

Some possibilities came immediately to mind – people make poor decisions when under severe time pressure or when they don’t have access to all the important information (unless they’re are explaining the decision to their boss, and then it is often someone else’s fault).

But we wanted a more objective answer. In an effort to understand the root cause of poor decision making, we looked at 360-feedback data from more than 50,000 leaders and compared the behavior of those who were perceived to be making poor decisions with that of the people perceived to be making very good decisions. We did a factor analysis of the behaviors that made the most statistical difference between the best and worst decision makers. Nine factors emerged as the most common paths to poor decision making. Here they are in order from most to least significant.

  1. Laziness. This showed up as a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input. Basically, such people were perceived to be sloppy in their work and unwilling to put themselves out. They relied on past experience and expected results simply to be an extrapolation of the past.
  2. Not anticipating unexpected events. It is discouraging to consistently consider the possibility of negative events in our lives, and so most people assume the worst will not happen. Unfortunately, bad things happen fairly often. People die, get divorced, and have accidents. Markets crash, house prices go down, and friends are unreliable. There is excellent research demonstrating that if people just take the time to consider what might go wrong, they are actually very good at anticipating problems. But many people just get so excited about a decision they are making that they never take the time to do that simple due-diligence.
  3. Indecisiveness. At the other end of the scale, when faced with a complex decision that will be based on constantly changing data, it’s easy to continue to study the data, ask for one more report, or perform yet one more analysis before a decision gets made. When the reports and the analysis take much longer than expected, poor decision makers delay, and the opportunity is missed. It takes courage to look at the data, consider the consequences responsibly, and then move forward. Oftentimes indecision is worse than making the wrong decision. Those most paralyzed by fear are the ones who believe that one mistake will ruin their careers and so avoid any risk at all.
  4. Remaining locked in the past. Some people make poor decisions because they’re using the same old data or processes they always have. Such people get used to approaches that worked in the past and tend not to look for approaches that will work better. Better the devil they know. But, too often, when a decision is destined to go wrong, it’s because the old process is based on assumptions that are no longer true. Poor decision makers fail to keep those base assumptions in mind when applying the tried and true.
  5. Having no strategic alignment. Bad decisions sometimes stem from a failure to connect the problem to the overall strategy. In the absence of a clear strategy that provides context, many solutions appear to make sense. When tightly linked to a clear strategy, the better solutions quickly begin to rise to the top.
  6. Over-dependence. Some decisions are never made because one person is waiting for another, who in turn is waiting for someone else’s decision or input. Effective decision makers find a way to act independently when necessary.
  7. Isolation. Some of those leaders are waiting for input because they’ve not taken steps to get it in a timely manner or have not established the relationships that would enable them to draw on other people’s expertise when they need to. All our research (and many others’) on effective decision making recognizes that involving others with the relevant knowledge, experience, and expertise improves the quality of the decision. This is not news. So the question is why. Sometimes people lack the necessary networking skills to access the right information. Other times, we’ve found, people do not involve others because they want the credit for a decision. Unfortunately they get to take the blame for the bad decisions, as well.
  8. Lack of technical depth. Organizations today are very complex, and even the best leaders do not have enough technical depth to fully understand multifaceted issues. But when decision makers rely on others’ knowledge and expertise without any perspective of their own, they have a difficult time integrating that information to make effective decisions. And when they lack even basic knowledge and expertise, they have no way to tell if a decision is brilliant or terrible. We continue to find that the best executives have deep expertise. And when they still don’t have the technical depth to understand the implications of the decisions they face, they make it their business to find the talent they need to help them.
  9. Failure to communicate the what, where, when, and how associated with their decisions. Some good decisions become bad decisions because people don’t understand – or even know about — them. Communicating a decision, its rational and implications, is critical to the successful implementation of a decision.

Waiting too long for others’ input. Failing to get the right input at the right time. Failing to understand that input through insufficient skills. Failing to understand when something that worked in the past will not work now. Failing to know when to make a decision without all the right information and when to wait for more advice. It’s no wonder good people make bad decisions. The path to good decision making is narrow, and it’s far from straight. But keeping in mind the pitfalls can make any leader a more effective decision maker.

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The Right Way to Present Your Business Case

You’ve already put a great deal of work into preparing a solid business case for your project or idea. But when it comes to the critical presentation phase, how do you earn the support of decision makers in the room? How do you present your case so that it’s clear and straightforward while also persuasive?

What the Experts Say
Without a winning delivery, even the best-laid business plans are at a disadvantage. “The idea may be great, but if it’s not communicated well, it won’t get any traction,” says Nancy Duarte, the author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations and CEO of Duarte, Inc., a company specializing in presentations and corporate messaging workshops. A memorable presentation transforms “numbers on a page” into something more tangible, says Raymond Sheen, author of the HBR Guide to Building Your Business Case. “It becomes a business opportunity that we’re grasping, a problem we’re resolving, a step forward for the company.” Here’s how to create a persuasive pitch.

Craft an emotional story
You may be tempted to stick to facts and figures to do the persuading for you, but great presenters know that the best way to hook an audience is through a story. This ‘story’ can be as simple as outlining the need, impact, and solution; the key is to present what’s at stake through a clear arc. But the more you can inject an emotional appeal or human connection into your narrative, the stronger and more memorable your case will be. That could mean illustrating the effects of a proposed customer management system with testimonials from actual customers, or describing how the data-sharing project you want to expand helped keep employees connected during a major outage. “With a business case, odds are that you’re trying to insert change,” says Duarte. “The first reaction to that change is typically fear,” and the only real way to get your audience to overcome their reluctance is to “appeal to the heart and not the mind.”

Lead with the need
In order to grab the attention of your audience from the outset, immediately identify the business need you are trying to address. Begin by asking yourself, “What is the message that I’m trying to get across?” says Sheen. Is there a market opportunity the company is overlooking? Does the firm need a new IT system? Clearly articulate this need as soon as you begin, because no matter how well researched or innovative your solution, you won’t get support if the need isn’t apparent or convincing. “Make sure you also show how that the need aligns with corporate goals and strategies,” Sheen says. “Just because you see an opportunity doesn’t mean that the business will want to pursue it.”

Address your audience’s concerns
Addressing the individuals concerns of stakeholders in the room will go a long way toward winning you allies. “If the finance person frets about keeping expenses under control, discuss expense numbers,” says Sheen. “If you have someone who is interested in growth in Asia, show how your project helps the company grow in the region.” Research past presentations and the outcomes to make sure you have your bases covered. If there are “issues that other projects have had, you should have an answer for those,” says Sheen. You might also consider giving decision makers a preview of your presentation ahead of time, and asking for their input. You can then salt their recommendations into your presentation, which will increase their investment in your success. “When you let people feel like they co-created your content, then they’ll not only support you but then they’ll feel empowered as ambassadors,” says Duarte. “They’ll feel like they’re representing their own idea.”

Find the right medium for your message
Well-presented data can do wonders for persuading an audience. But overwhelming slides with needless detail or trotting out tired visuals will also quickly lose you favor. Think carefully about the message you want to convey. Does a bar graph, table, or pie chart more effectively present your position? Are you able to circulate documents ahead of time, which might affect the data you want to emphasize in the actual presentation? Or will a unique, more entertaining route be more persuasive? “You have to know the best medium for the information,” says Duarte.

Don’t forget to connect
But above all, make sure you avoid “relying so much on your slides that you forget to make that human connection,” says Duarte. It might also be worthwhile to use colorful metaphors, videos, or other multimedia to make your point stand out. But sometimes simpler can be better, says Duarte. One of her clients convinced his CEO to fund a multimillion project by relying on basic graphics he drew on a whiteboard. The real power of his presentation, she says, was in the strength of his narrative.

Have an elevator pitch ready
No matter how much time you’re allotted to present, you won’t know until you walk into the room whether you’ll actually have 5 minutes — or 50. It’s critical to have a short elevator pitch ready in the event your time is short. “Know which one or two slides you’re going to pull out, the ones that can tell the story,” says Sheen. By the same token, you may be asked to do a deeper dive into one facet of your case in the middle of the presentation. That’s when having some appendix slides can be helpful, so that you can expand on certain elements of your case. You don’t need to have every data point memorized, Sheen says, but if someone asks, ‘What happens if we expand into Eastern Europe?’ you need to know what the general effect might be. It’s critical to “plan for short,” says Sheen, “and be prepared to go long.”

Principles to Remember


• Tell a story — it will make your case more persuasive and memorable
• Spell out the business need — it gives the audience a reason to listen
• Have both a short and long version ready — you never know how much time you will have


• Overlook stakeholders’ pet concerns — address them directly to win allies in the room
• Overwhelm your audience with needless detail
• Read directly from your slides — no one wants to attend a boring read-along

Case study #1: Build buy-in ahead of time
Erik Mason, the marketing communications manager for an aesthetic skin laser company in the Northeast, felt the firm needed a new image. “Other companies with slicker marketing were gaining market share even though they had inferior technology,” Mason says.

Mason decided to pitch a total rebranding — a new logo, new tagline, and new copy and photography for ads and communications — to the new executive team brought in to prep the company for an IPO. The price tag? An 8-fold increase in the marketing budget. “Marketing was a bit of a nebulous concept for the executive team,” he says. “They knew they needed to do it,” but they weren’t sure why or what tangible effect a new marketing strategy might have.

To build support for his case, Mason approached executive team members individually to ask them what they thought competitors were doing right, and how that compared with their own company’s strategy. Those conversations “gave me a roadmap of sorts for how I needed to present the recommendations to them,” Mason says, “so it felt tailored to them based on their input.”

He crafted the presentation as a story of each of the company’s primary competitors, showcasing their branding and visuals side-by-side with their marketing spending and earnings. That analysis not only showed those with the most compelling brands and integrated marketing support had impressive revenues, but also the most positive performances on Wall Street, a helpful fact given the company’s IPO aspirations. “The cases showed how a marketing investment pays ahead, especially when it comes to shareholder value,” says Mason, now the head of his own marketing firm.

Not long after, the executive team approved a full funding of Mason’s initiative. And in short order, the company achieved consistent double-digit sales growth — and a successful IPO.

Case study #2: Impress with unique visuals
When the 2008 financial crisis necessitated painful cuts at a Silicon Valley insurance company, chief information officer Jag Randhawa knew he needed a creative solution to boost morale and keep employees engaged. He decided to try to launch a bottom-up innovation program, which would allow IT employees to submit ideas to improve customer service, business processes, and products. But first, he needed the approval of management.

Randhawa didn’t yet have data to illustrate how the program might work, only anecdotal evidence from companies in other industries. He knew that if he wanted to persuade management, he would have to make an emotional appeal.

When it came time to present, Randhawa began by asking his audience to do a selective attention exercise, also known as the “invisible gorilla” exercise. The task involves watching a video and counting how many basketball passes are made between players wearing white jerseys. Most viewers are so focused on counting the passes that they completely overlook the man dressed as a gorilla who walks through the frame. Randhawa’s audience was no different.

Not only did the video lighten the mood, “it was also very relevant to my core message,” says Randhawa. “It demonstrated the need to have extra sets of eyes on a problem and the importance of diverse perspectives that employees can offer.” As the management team asked questions about how the program might work, it was clear that Randhawa’s hook had worked. There was already a “clear sense of collective ownership,” he says. In the end, he received an overwhelming “yes” to implement the program.

For more on how to build a business case from scratch, see the HBR Guide to Building a Business Case Ebook + Tools.

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Make Your Marketing Content Useful

Marketing messages are for consumption, just like products. Your audience will value your brand and engage with it if you create content that’s more meaningful than all the listicles and other hackneyed advice out there — content that’s worthy of publication in its own right. That’s not to say you should recycle your white papers and expect people to ferret out what’s useful. Good content meets audiences where they are, and it’s tailored to them.

John Battelle alluded to all this in his 2009 prediction that agencies would become publishers, and vice versa, and I just knew he was right. So I began writing books and digital content to help my firm’s target audience address a pressing need — creating and delivering effective business presentations. That decision transformed my company. Until that point, we had done no formal marketing. In the few years since, we have experimented with almost every possible publishing channel.

One of the first things I learned is that readers don’t like it when you try to sell them something. If the content itself isn’t useful, people won’t consume it and your pitch will be lost on them anyway. You can sell more overtly through other avenues, but trust that your readers are smart enough to associate the value of your message with your brand. They’ll know where to look when they need the goods or services you provide.

For example, take Red Bull, the energy drink maker. Though it uses traditional marketing tactics, such as sponsorships and commercials, it also produces The Red Bulletin, a monthly magazine (print and digital) that delivers stories about sports, adventure, music, and other topics its target audience cares about. Whether or not you purchase Red Bull energy drinks, you can connect with the brand and lifestyle.

Offering content like this for free doesn’t mean taking a loss. My firm initially released my book Resonate as a multi-touch digital offering on iTunes for $17.99. When we changed the price to free, people downloaded more books in the first week than we sold the entire previous year. Because it got a lot of traffic, the book was promoted on the iBooks homepage, which exposed it to an even broader audience. And our business saw a huge bump in inbound project queries, which trumped the revenue we would have received from book sales.

Distributing through channels with analytics is key, though. In the traditional publishing model, the publisher and reseller retain the names of your readers, but when you are the publisher of your message, you get “paid” in loyalty and data — lots of data. Use marketing software to make sense of all that information and to look for patterns in who is consuming your content, which pieces people spend the most time reading, and so on. If the content is compelling enough, readers will willingly give their e-mail addresses to get it. That’s more valuable than cash, because unlike a transaction, ongoing communication creates and strengthens connection.

The more shareable the media, the better. If you create a great slide, for instance, people will pass it around and reuse it. It’s a self-contained, easy-to-copy bit of insight. One of our publishing experiments was to release a full-color, full-length book for free in PowerPoint. The book, Slidedocs, established guidelines for using presentation software as a publishing tool, and the numbers showed that the market was hungry for that information. To date, it has yielded 145,288 views on SlideShare, 100,000 views on our website, and 21,420 e-mail addresses. We offered a piece of useful content, and we were rewarded with an outstanding new community of fans, followers, and friends.

A good book seems to sell itself. Ideally, marketing content should function the same way. Your material will be read — and spread — if it’s useful to others. So find out what your target customers are craving, and feed it to them.

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