The Art of Selling (Without Acting Like It)

March 30, 2016 Mark Emmons


How do you sell stuff without actually selling?

Now that’s a trick. But here’s one way. Design a strategy of producing content that rarely mentions your company or its products. And, yes, that sounds counter-intuitive.

But when Adam New-Waterson recently was a guest on the ContentPros Podcast, he explained how a marketing approach of “not selling” has helped LeanData to increase its Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) by four-fold and establish the company among the leading voices in the emerging Account-Based Marketing sector.

New-Waterson quickly put that content idea to work after joining LeanData as the chief marketing officer in 2015. He hired a veteran newspaper reporter as the first addition to his new team. He had simple marching orders. Don’t pitch. Act like a reporter. Teach readers. Above all, tell good stories.

“I gave him full reign to come in and write things that were interesting, well-written and were not intended to be sales-y at all,” New-Waterson told podcast hosts Randy Frisch and Chris Moody. “One of the things that I harp on a lot at LeanData is that I don’t want to be sold to. I want to be educated. And out of that process, I will naturally want to learn more about our products and services. But first, help me learn something more.”

That concept has been the centerpiece of New-Waterson’s marketing strategy over the last few years. In most blog posts on the company’s website, LeanData often will receive only a passing mention. Instead, most content — both written and webinars — falls into three general categories.

  • Focusing on LeanData customers
  • Educating on account-based sales and marketing practices
  • Exploring issues that affect salespeople and marketers

New-Waterson sums it up this way: if you give people something interesting to read, they will come. Once there, perhaps they will want to learn more about how LeanData possibly can help their business.

For instance, LeanData blog posts have focused on industry leaders. Social selling evangelist Jill Rowley shared her mantra that “if you suck offline, you’ll suck more online” in an article about 8421806383_4f30b974b2_zengaging sales prospects through social networks. Maria Pergolino, the senior vice president of marketing at Apttus, explained how she turned a car-giveaway into a savvy ABM campaign. Joanne Chen, a partner at Foundation Capital, gave her views about why marketers are under more pressure than ever to prove they are revenue-generators.

Other posts have centered around how companies like EverString, Namely, BloomReach and Invoca are doing innovative things that might provide a roadmap for other businesses interested in account-based strategies. And some have focused on universal issues such as the challenge of finding good target accounts and hiring strong sales reps.

Another initiative was the customer advocacy program that New-Waterson christened the LeanData Trailblazers. Part of that strategy includes a series of customer profiles patterned after the kind of articles that once were a staple of newspaper business sections.

“One of the most successful things that we’re doing right now is what people have called influencer marketing,” New Waterson said. “We’re just highlighting our most successful customers. We’re not talking about our products. We’re not talking about how they use our products. All we’re doing is talking about their life story. Where did they come from? Why have they arrived at this particular moment in their life? . . . The content is just so widely consumed by people who also are learning more about LeanData. The numbers prove it’s a great strategy to embrace.”

Sangram Vajre, the co-founder and CMO of Terminus, told of how he arrived in the United States with just $350 in his pocket and worked his way into becoming one of the most influential marketers in the ABM movement. Another profile showed how Jin Daikoku, director of inside sales at Netskope, was a successful collegiate runner before channeling that drive into sales development. World-traveler Kenny Lee detailed how he found his perfect role as vice president of marketing at the hotel tech company Revinate.

Other content pieces have been thought-provoking. A blog piece examined the backstory of ABM. A recent post explored how the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors use analytics — something that could get the attention of data-driven sales and marketing professionals. Knowing that Silicon Valley has been fixated on the debate about a possible tech bubble, LeanData interviewed a Yale professor with a provocative idea: building skyscrapers are one indicator of a looming economic bust.

None of this, by the waIMG_2019y, is content-for-content’s-sake. The LeanData marketing team rigorously measures how well pieces are being received. What target accounts are being activated? What bookings are being influenced?

For New-Waterson, that is the epitome of data-driven marketing.

“We needed to be able to see what were the things that had the biggest impact,” he added on the podcast. “So we looked at the actual revenue coming into the company. What were some of those top items? . . . We’re looking at the individual pieces of content to see which ones were most successful either at sourcing new pipeline or helping us close existing revenue.”

But even when something doesn’t appear to have a sales motive, there is a plan. Last November, the LeanData marketing team embarked on a pair of multi-part series of blog posts. The first was about how sales and marketing teams could be impacted by chilly economic conditions as venture capital investment slowed. The second was about how businesses need to be more focused on accurate marketing attribution.


That reporting was laying the groundwork for a new attribution product — Clarity — that LeanData didn’t unveil until February. Those two blog series, which also were rolled up into eBooks, helped make the case of why marketers are missing out if they don’t have a reporting tool to help them spend more wisely during a time of shrinking budgets.

There is, after all, a time for selling. The idea of any business is to make money. But you have to be purposeful when you do it, New-Waterson said.

“Our idea was to get potential customers ready,” he added. “We were trying to educate our prospects about what is happening in our world long before we even started talking about our product. We thought it was important to set the stage and explain the need for our product.”

Much of this is straight out of the content-marketing playbook, of course. Books that line New-Waterson’s desk about content techniques all preach the theme of communication over selling. One of them, Joe Pulizzi’s “Epic Content Marketing,” advises that “Your customers don’t care about you, your products, or your services. They care about themselves, their wants, and their needs. Content Marketing is about creating interesting information your customers are passionate about so they actually pay attention to you.”

Let’s be honest, though. It’s difficult to resist the urge to figuratively twist the arms of potential customers when you know your solution or product can improve their business lives. But shouting from the mountaintop can have the opposite effect, New-Waterson argues.

“It just alienates your potential customers if all you do is sell, sell, sell, you’re not helping them,” he said. “That’s not the kind of content people want to consume.”

And it’s not what ultimately helps sell your product.

Main image courtesy of Sarah Scicluna

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