As marketing professionals, we frequently feel like we are at war with the financial decision-makers of our organizations.
The CEO, CFO, and CRO seem like the villains keeping us away from the funds needed to do our best work.
We ask for buy-in on exciting initiatives that, we think, will exponentially improve our work’s impact, only to hear a dismissive “no.” We describe the results of our campaigns, just to be questioned about the “actual ROI”.
Worse yet, we might feel like Natalie Marcotullio, head of growth and operations at Navattic.
- “Marketing is just often seen as a cost center since we’re not directly bringing in revenue like sales or customer success,” Marcotullio said.
To find out why this happens, and whether that gut feeling is actually true, I spoke to fellow marketing practitioners as well as people who have crossed over to the other side – marketers who turned into CROs and CEOs themselves.
Here are four things I learned from those conversations:
- Marketers feel trapped and suffocated by the controlling and overbearing behavior from executives and finance teams.
- Executives do indeed doubt whether marketing departments are actually doing useful work.
- Both sides have fallen into dysfunctional and toxic communication patterns, giving up on the hope of ever finding common ground.
- Despite this lack of understanding, both marketers and executives are actually pursuing the same goals.
Let’s examine how poor communication affects buy-in for our work as SEOs, content professionals, or other marketing specialists. And, who knows, maybe we’ll discover a way to finally break out of that self-perpetuating cycle.
Why we’re afraid of executives and decision-makers
Have you failed to get budget approval for an SEO campaign recently?
If you’re anything like most marketers I talk to, that question might have caused you to shiver with dread. If you’ve been asked to prove the impact of your SEO work, whether you work in-house or as an external consultant, you have probably struggled to do so.
You put together a slide deck with all the new keywords your website recently ranked for, added graphs showing an upward trend of impressions and clicks, and maybe even threw in some competitor analysis for that extra oomph. Then, as you talked through those undeniable results of your hard work – a terrible feeling began to creep into the back of your mind.
Your boss or client stared at you with a skeptical glint in their eyes. They impatiently asked for you to “get to the point.” They didn’t laugh at the clever joke that you placed on Slide 7.
And then, once you finished walking them through the entire slide deck, your boss crossed their arms, sighed, and asked the most terrifying question of all:
- “So, how does any of this impact our revenue?”
*Cue the sound of shattering glass and whimpers of broken self-esteem*
Proving impact of marketing work is freaking difficult
Unlike sales or product, marketing can feel like a much more nebulous function. Getting a better SERP ranking, or even improving a website’s CTR, only indirectly connects to revenue.
SEO can be a more difficult channel for demonstrating a clear ROI: user journeys tend to involve search either at the initial exploratory phase or at the final comparison step.
In most cases, the first time someone clicks on our link from a search is very distant from the moment they decide to make a purchase.
- “We know today that marketing takes a lot of touchpoints (LinkedIn, email, communities, WOM) to influence prospects. It can be hard to figure out the influenced ROI of channels that had an impact, especially if they were not the first or last place where a prospect found you,” Marcotullio said.
We often can’t point to our activities and correlate them to how much money came into our organization in a particular quarter. And because we aren’t able to clearly connect those dots for decision-makers, they might end up dismissing our work as not relevant to core business functions.
- “Marketing can often be an afterthought. In many instances, it’s still seen as a creative support function to sales, not as a function that has bottom-line impacts.” said Brooke Duffy, a fractional CRO for B2B SaaS.
We’re incentivized to avoid risks
Without a clear ROI, we suffer the consequences of not being trusted.
Not all executives will even give marketers the benefit of the doubt, as Duffy learned the hard way in a previous role.
- “The CEO couldn’t get past his old-school mentality of a sales-led organization, which resulted in marketing getting cut. It’s one thing to work for someone who doesn’t understand marketing, but it’s another to work for someone who doesn’t believe in it. I’ll never do that again!” Duffy said.
Key decision-makers don’t see the value in marketing, so the lack of trust spills over into individual functions.
I’ve seen content and SEO programs gutted by an insistence on avoiding any risk, repeating past tactics, and minimizing any chance of creative input.
Ever wonder why so many results on any given SERP sound the same?
Many organizations have turned their content operations into an assembly line, pumping out predictable, stable and utterly uninspired algorithm-pleasing content.
And we do that because we have to, for fear of getting punished.
Dig deeper: SEO is marketing
We don’t get opportunities to be creative
The content we create is so bland because often we are actively discouraged and prevented from expressing any creativity. We can’t take creative risks when those creative risks might come with an order to pack our bags.
Just look at how Kiran Shahid, a freelance B2B content writer, gets assigned work:
- “Established brands often give writers minimal room for creativity. Very rarely do I get the chance to create outlines – most of the time I get the keyword and outline and it’s a ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ approach.”
The fill-in-the-blanks strategy is frequently excused away with SEO, as we fixate on what has already ranked for a given keyword.
We turn to AI-powered content planning tools, turning a writer’s unique perspective into “another re-hashed post made to tick off keyword lists and word count goals,” as Paul Woodland once wrote on my agency’s blog.
“This is above and beyond SEO indicators” shouldn’t be the sole standard by which we measure creativity, original thought, or value delivered to our prospective customers. Yet, that’s how we justify our short-sightedness:
How well do you think this cookie-cutter approach will actually serve you now that the helpful content update has fully rolled out?
Google is going to incentivize unique, high-quality, and expert pieces. Not garbage that was Frankenstein-ed from competitor articles already ranking on SERPs.
If we want our SEO work to deliver real business impact, we must take risks.
- “There is so much noise in every channel, creativity makes sure your brand and product actually get noticed,” Marcotullio said.
Remember: making your site rank well on search is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
We increase visibility with SEO to help our businesses with overall financial objectives. And acting like everyone else won’t help us stand out from the crowd.
Why executives don’t trust us
But why are executives making our lives so difficult?
Marketing is an essential business function, so don’t the people leading our organizations want us to do our best work? The actions of CEOs and CFOs who question our judgment and cut our budgets can seem counter-productive, if not downright absurd!
To try and truly understand what drives the other side to act this way, I turned to one of the world’s best experts on the topic.
Mark Stouse, chairman and CEO at ProofAnalytics.ai, has interviewed more than 300 CEOs and CFOs of Fortune 1000 companies about marketing impact. And he graciously agreed to share what they said:
- “They’ve been frustrated for decades on this issue of ‘I’m spending, and whatever I’m spending on marketing – how do I know that I’m getting anything of value? How long does it take for things to pay off?’”
And that executive frustration, after brewing for years and decades, has turned into a much more destructive emotion.
- “Disgust. That’s probably the truly accurate phrase or word to use, with the way that a lot of marketing teams actually keep their books. That they are perennially over budget, that they don’t really know how much they’re over budget until it’s too late,” Stouse said.
It’s a hard reality to face. Your CEO or CFO might feel literally disgusted with the way that you and your team have been spending your money and time. That isn’t an emotion that can be countered with even 1,000 SERP snippets.
How did executives get so upset with us?
Well, some tension boils down to how most CFOs think, according to Stouse. When faced with someone who doesn’t know how to manage spend, a CFO might take it personally:
- “If you’re the kind of person who goes into finance, you’ll find those attributes of anyone to be kind of almost like a personal affront. It’s almost like a character flaw.”
You can be the best SEO in the world. But if your CFO figures out that you can’t put together a P&L, they might not care to give you a chance to say anything else.
So, if you want to be taken seriously, you might need to get involved more directly in the financial processes of your organization.
- “Marketing should be in forecasting, budgeting, reporting, and strategy meetings. If that occurs, then marketing needs to build trust by communicating value clearly, for the right audience, through use of data & analytics,” Duffy said.
You might already be resisting the idea. I suspect that some of you are currently thinking: “why should I bother to connect with those decision-makers if they feel disgusted by me?”
And that’s a fair question. Thankfully, one answer to it can be found in a 20-year-old business book.
How ‘crucial conversations’ can help us find a way out
Marketers and executives want the same thing. We are all working toward making our organizations more successful.
And when we can finally show how our marketing efforts contribute to business success, nobody is going to minimize that.
Once a financial model for establishing impact is put in place, everyone is happy:
- “When the analytics come back, everyone is sort of nonplussed in different ways. The finance teams are like, ‘dang, that’s better than we thought it was gonna be’. And the marketers are lightning cigars and saying, ‘yeah, we know, we just couldn’t prove it,’” Stouse said.
So how can we get to the point of setting up analytics and explaining impact, so executives are truly satisfied?
By paying attention to “crucial conversations”.
As explained in the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” by Crucial Learning:
“A crucial conversation” is “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.”
Unfortunately, when emotions are high, we are often on our worst behavior. We’re scared, so we try to protect ourselves from harm. But in becoming defensive, we put up walls and forget to listen to other perspectives.
The personal vs. shared pool of meaning in dialogue
Each person participating in a conversation has a “personal pool of meaning” made up of “opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand.” The information available to any one person informs and influences what actions they’ll take.
Every conversation also has what the book calls a “shared pool of meaning,” or information that is openly and explicitly shared with every participant in that conversation.
And when the reasons behind our desired behavior are allowed to develop from the shared pool of meaning, it’s a lot easier to get buy-in. As explained in the book:
“They understand why the shared solution is the best solution, and they’re committed to act.”
How dialogue breaks down
But why do conversations so frequently become unproductive?
When we argue with executives over the importance of our SEO work, and they respond with disgust, that doesn’t feel like a great way to add to our shared pool of meaning.
Conversations break down into a dysfunctional mess with little notice. Most frequently, this happens because at least some participants no longer feel safe. And when we don’t feel safe, we would rather not be vulnerable or honest.
“Crucial Conversations” states that when people don’t feel safe, they turn to one of two behaviors:
- Silence: When participants are withholding meaning from the shared pool.
- Violence: When participants decide to compel others, forcing their meaning into the shared pool.
Neither of those options is particularly conducive to healthy dialogue or rebuilding trust.
You can’t discuss your budget or explain why a particular strategy was effective if the other person is already shutting down and feeling attacked!
Dig deeper: 7 proven methods to explain the value of SEO
How to establish safety before jumping into explanations of your work
Alright, so if you notice others turning to either silence or violence during an important conversation, what can you do?
Your priority should be to help re-establish safety with other conversation participants. Make them feel a little less overwhelmed, and start reflecting on what you truly want. And yes, this applies even to decision-makers and executives. No matter how much power they might hold, they are still humans.
To begin establishing trust, you should try what the book calls “starting with the heart”. Essentially, take a moment and reflect on your actions and what you truly want. Here are four questions that they suggest:
Question 1: What do I want to achieve for myself?
Is your goal to prove that your particular backlink strategy was superior, or to actually get the CEO to resonate with the principles that convinced you of that approach?
Or is your goal to prove yourself right and take out your frustration on that CEO for the times they didn’t make your life easy?
When we get emotional, it’s easy to lose sight of what we are actually trying to accomplish and begin defending ourselves at all costs.
Question 2: What do I want others to achieve?
Are you trying to prove the CFO wrong, or are you actually aligned with their goal of spending the marketing budget in the most effective way?
Sometimes, you might think that you disagree with someone when, in reality, you share a common purpose.
Question 3: What kinds of relationships do I want with others?
Might it be worth giving up a portion of your content optimization spend to preserve trust and goodwill?
Long-term, showing that you’re capable of changing your mind and listening to the executives’ concerns might actually help you get buy-in faster.
Question 4: How would I act if I really wanted those results?
Now that you know what you want for yourself, for the executive on the other side, and for your relationship with them – what do you really want out of this particular situation?
It’s easy to bottle your concerns, fuming with coworkers, or even blame the other side directly. But will that help you achieve any of the goals that you set for yourself?
Try to push past your anger and truly reflect on what actions you can take to achieve your desired outcomes. Perhaps you might realize that it’s worth trying to truly listen to your CEO or CFO and empathize with their frustration. As Stouse suggested:
- “Have you done anything to connect with your internal customers using their language? To help them understand your value? Or are you going to sit there with your arms crossed?”
Yes, tensions run high. Perhaps you have been treated unfairly. But if you want that decision-maker to change their mind – perhaps try to speak their language first?
By showing that you’re willing to listen to them, you’ll make them more likely to listen to you. And speaking their language would likely include learning to read a P&L statement, as boring as they sound.
Remember: Executives aren’t one-dimensional villains (usually)
It’s tempting to imagine the people who question our skills, interrogate us about ROI, and withhold budgets as villains.
We might picture our CEO sitting in their office, maniacally chuckling while their shadow expands behind them, just like Scar’s does in the original Lion King. But that’s not true, is it?
Deep down, you know that the executives in your organization aren’t simply one-dimensional. They aren’t out to get you because they have a personal vendetta against SEO.
But when you come in and mention domain authority, featured snippets, or the latest core update – those executives might get lost in the sea of specialized concepts. As Duffy described it:
- “Throwing a bunch of acronyms and data points at everyone without good reason can actually seem like a smoke screen, decreasing trust.”
Remember, when people seem to get angry and act unreasonably, it’s because your communication has broken down. Stop, pause on talking about your marketing work, and focus on establishing safety.
When both you and your executives feel safe and confident that all perspectives will get heard, getting buy-in can become all that much easier.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.