The Big Difference Between Challenger Marketing and Thought Leadership: An Interview with Brent Adamson

5 minute read

Team Kapost

the difference between thought leadership and challenger marketing

“What do you do when the customer looks you in the eye and says, ‘I agree with you,’ and still doesn’t buy?”

This is the point in my conversation with Brent Adamson, Managing Director at CEB and co-author of “The Challenger Sale,” when the choice between Challenger Marketing and thought leadership seems stark—like choosing between being smart and being successful.

The issue with tirelessly pursuing thought leadership is that it often fails to deliver on the true objectives of the business, which is selling your product or service, Adamson says. Organizations believe thought leadership will lead to higher win rates or bigger deals, “when it really leads to people thinking your smart,” he says.

Interview with @brentadamson: What’s the difference between Challenger Marketing and thought leadership?

Much of thought leadership, Adamson says, fails to compel buyers—not because it isn’t poignant or well-packaged, but because it doesn’t truly challenge the buyer.

But let me back up for a moment. Why was I having this early phone call with Adamson from a hotel room in Austin, TX anyway?

Along with his colleague Matthew Dixon, Adamson wrote “The Challenger Sale,” which is textbook for sales teams at some of the top businesses out there. Its message is to move away from the “relationship sale” and focus on leading customer conversations by delivering insight. In other words, the best sales reps challenge buyers to think differently about their industry and business.

Now Adamson and CEB have turned their attention to marketing. They’ve outlined an approach naturally called “Challenger Marketing.”

Since we’ve discussed content marketing’s role in the Challenger Sale, I asked Adamson to lend me an hour of his time to explain what differentiates Challenger Marketing from, well, marketing. Here’s a sampling of what I learned from our talk.

It’s About Delivering Commercial Insights, Not Just Thought Leadership.

challenger marketing delivers commercial insights

At this point, you can probably tell Adamson isn’t advocating doubling down on thought leadership. Instead, he says marketers need to focus on delivering commercial insights to buyers.

So what’s a commercial insight? CEB’s official definition is “a compelling, defensible perspective from a supplier that materially impacts a customer’s performance and directly leads back to their unique capabilities.” Adamson put that in question form: “What do our customers currently not know their about their business, but should?”

If marketers focus on developing content that delivers these kinds of insights—rather than strict thought leadership—they’ll enjoy more success, Adamson predicts. Insights outperform because they tackle any business’s number one competitor: complacency.

“Many customers will say, ‘What I got is good enough.’ That’s who were really competing against: good enough,” Adamson says. Thought leadership, he says, extols the virtues of an alternate course of action; commercial insights present the painful costs of not acting. Challenger Marketing explains why the customer needs to act, rather than why it would be so much better if they chose to act. Insights create urgency.

What Challenger Content Looks Like

If commercial insights represent the heart of Challenger Marketing, then content is the arms and legs (and probably the mouth). I asked Adamson how he spots content that meets Challenger Marketing standards.

Content should “look the customer in the eye and tell them what they’re currently doing is wrong.”

“The litmus test,” he says, “is simply if you provide me a piece of content—whether an infographic, a book, or sales collateral—show me the moment, the paragraph, the bullet where you look the customer in the eye and tell them what they’re currently doing is wrong.”

The purpose of the content isn’t to paint a rosy picture, it’s to drive home the price of ignoring change, that sticking to the status quo costs organizations money and exposes them to risk.

But every new blog post, eBook, video, infographic doesn’t need to deliver a brand new commercial insight. It isn’t feasible. A typical company might develop one or two commercial insights, then let those insights guide the creation of content.

“Start with the commercial insight and then build all your content off that insight,” Adamson says. “Create all sorts of different content objects that lead—like a trail of breadcrumbs—towards that core insight.”

Challenger Marketing Is Not Synonymous with Sales Support.

Adamson is keen to point out that Challenger Marketing isn’t just about stellar sales enablement. A lot of people believe Challenger Marketing “is sales support, because that’s where they first hear about it.” But that perspective is off-base.

Challenger Marketing is not sales support.

In fact, Adamson says, assigning different departments responsibility for different sections of the pipeline is a mistake. Many organizations envision the pipeline as if “there’s a vertical line where marketing owns everything from the left and sales owns everything on the right,” he says. In reality, “there’s a roll to be played by sales and marketing at any given point.”

Content, then, isn’t just about steering leads toward a conversation with sales. It’s about guiding the conversation from the outset, making buyers understand the cost of not acting.

Adamson is now spreading the message of Challenger Marketing. But one thing is clear: insight is at the core of practice—and getting those insights out to the market quickly, ahead of our competitors, in the form of cogent content marketing, will be the real challenge for marketers.

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