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My Netflix account categorises the film AlphaGo as ‘Inspiring’. For about two-thirds of the movie though, I wasn’t sure. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is something I’m fascinated and excited by. The way I see it, human beings have been trying to create technology that can transform our abilities since the beginning of time. We’ve designed tools to make tasks easier, quicker and more efficient – and to achieve things that would have been unimaginable without them. AI is the latest and potentially most thrilling step in this process. However, it also generates the most fear. And AlphaGo helps to show why.

This documentary reveals how DeepMind’s AI team spent two years building an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system to crush one of the world’s greatest players of the world’s most complex game. It explains how AlphaGo’s three layers of neural networks interact to replicate the workings of the human brain; how it can ‘see’ so many more different outcomes, possibilities and courses of action in the game of Go than even a 9-Dan Go master. But is something being lost in the process? Is DeepMind’s team of computer scientists taking something ancient, mysterious, contemplative and beautiful – a game that is almost a form of meditation – and putting it out of people’s reach? Is Go still the same game if a machine can almost always play it better than a human can?

As marketers, we face similar dilemmas. We’re very aware of the competitive advantages that AI has to offer. We know that we can’t afford to be left behind – and we’re interested in any opportunity to apply AI to different areas of strategy. However, there are inevitable misgivings too. When AIs like AlphaGo are able to turn even the most remarkable human brains into just something to prove their superiority over, what chance is there of our ideas and creative contributions being valued over those of an AI system? Are we relegating ourselves to a supporting role in the future of our profession?

Why AlphaGo should inspire marketers
I don’t believe we are. And the reasons why are perfectly captured in the final third of AlphaGo. This is a film that’s fundamentally optimistic – and surprisingly human. It inspired me about what our future relationship with technology can be – and I hope it inspires you too. Because there are already plenty of opportunities to apply that technology in the way that we approach business and marketing today. These applications aren’t the kinds of things you’d create a Netflix movie about. However, they are still applications that can make us far more than we would be without them – provided we respond to them in the right way.

In AlphaGo’s tale of human vs machine, the heroes aren’t just the programmers and computer scientists. Even more heroic are the two Go players that their machine beats during the course of the story. In their different ways, they show how human experience, creativity and empathy will never be redundant when it comes to getting the most out of AI. Even better, they show how AI can unlock people’s potential – helping us to become more, not less.

Fan Hui and the importance of interrogating how AIs think
The first of these players is Fan Hui, a European Go champion and a 2-Dan player in a ranking system that goes up to 9-Dan. Fan Hui is very confident about beating AlphaGo when the DeepMind team invite him to play a match against the machine. Instead, he’s crushed by a piece of technology that’s far beyond the Go-playing simulators he’s encountered before. This affects him deeply. His sense of self-worth is threatened. However, he rebounds to help the DeepMind team overcome a fundamental problem with any machine learning system.

At this point in the film, AlphaGo knows far more about Go than any of its creators do. It’s therefore impossible for them to know how good it really is. Is it reaching new levels of ability – or is it coming up with flawed ways of playing that will quickly be exposed by a true Go master? When Fan Hui looks for weaknesses in AlphaGo, he discovers that the system’s deep learning is actually very patchy. There are areas of the game that it’s understood brilliantly – but there are others that it’s effectively ignored. Without the skill and imagination of a human expert, AlphaGo would have ended up limiting its own capabilities, with none of its creators being any the wiser.

As AI systems become increasingly advanced, and do more of their learning themselves, this type of human intervention will become increasingly important. Without a Fan Hui to challenge it, there’s no accountability for an AI system – and no guarantee that it is really producing the best possible results. On the other hand, Fan Hui himself seems transformed by being reconnected to the AlphaGo project. His skill levels are looked down on by other Go professionals earlier in the film, but by working with the machine he is taking the game itself to another level. By the way he rises to the AlphaGo challenge, Fan Hui transforms the impact that his own skill and passion can have.

When humans respond to the challenge of AI
The ultimate test that Fan Hui helps to prepare AlphaGo for is a five-match series against a 9-Dan Go master: Lee Sedol, one of the greatest players in the world. Like Fan Hui, Lee Sedol is supremely confident in his ability to beat the machine – and as with Fan Hui, that confidence turns out to be badly misplaced. AlphaGo defeats him in the first three games, settling the series at the earliest possible opportunity. The expert commentators fronting global TV coverage are stunned. The Go world is in shock. And Lee Sedol? A gentle, dignified man who’s been elevated from his background in rural Korea by his incredible gift for the game? He seems completely bewildered, shocked, almost to be falling apart on-screen. It feels cruel. It’s painful to watch.

Then, though, something truly extraordinary happens. Lee Sedol searches deep within himself. He replays the games with friends and fellow experts. He somehow finds a way to get under AlphaGo’s skin. He wins the fourth game in the series by making a move that is so unprecedented it becomes instantly legendary in the world of Go: the ‘God’ move, as commentators refer to it. AlphaGo itself has calculated the probability of a human being able to make it as 10,000 to one.

By the end of the film, the game of Go hasn’t been reduced to just another thing that machines can do better than people. Instead, it’s been expanded. As one expert puts it, people have been playing this game in a particular way for thousands of years. AlphaGo has revealed whole new ways to think about and play it.

Something similar has happened to Lee Sedol himself. In the course of just a few days, he’s been able to rise to this unprecedented challenge and somehow achieve a deeper level of understanding of a game he’s played his entire life. He remained undefeated at Go for years afterwards – arguably as a result of the leap forward he was able to make. However, his dignity, courage, commitment and creativity under pressure achieve something else just as significant. The popularity unleashed by this highly publicised contest reportedly led to a shortage of Go boards worldwide. In my view, those new players weren’t inspired by AlphaGo itself – but by the spectacle of the man straining every sinew of his mind to compete with it.

Why AlphaGo’s opponents are models for marketers
I would argue that Lee Sedol and Fan Hui both provide role models for how marketers, and any other professionals, should aim to work with AI. In fact, they remind me very much of the ideas in one of my favourite books at the moment, Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine.

The author of that book, the mathematician Hannah Fry, points out both the huge advances and potential flaws in a world run by algorithms. Her argument is that AI can be a powerful force for good in the world – but only when working together with humans. If we put too much trust in something we don’t understand, leave it to make all the decisions and no longer push ourselves, the results could be disastrous.

The two Go players in this film show how this can work. On the one hand, they demonstrate how human ingenuity, craft and skill is essential for keeping AI systems honest; to ensuring that the answers they come up with actually fit the questions being asked; that they are not missing anything important. They also show how even the most advanced and intimidating AI systems don’t make human thought and human creativity redundant. They open up new possibilities – and these possibilities can be explored most creatively by human minds.

DeepMind spent two years developing an AI system that could beat Lee Sedol – one that he’d never encountered before and had no real way of preparing himself for. It then took Lee Sedol days to find a previously unimaginable way to beat that AI at its own game. That’s breathtakingly quicksilver creativity. Machines can’t compete with such speed and flexibility. Their value comes in provoking and inspiring it.

Let’s not take AI insight for granted
As marketers in 2019, we’re operating at a time when the availability of AI-driven insight is growing extremely rapidly. It’s easy to take it for granted, even when the predictions we’re being given would have seemed magical just a few years ago. IBM’s Watson-derived systems can predict which emotive words in an email subject line can increase response rates. It can even generate different versions of the subject line for you. Among other things, Amazon’s Rekognition technology can quantify the different creative elements in a video campaign: the types of characters, use of light, different visual elements, and how these different elements combine to capture human attention. On LinkedIn, the new Objective-Based Advertising interface is able to predict the results your campaign will generate – and the amount it will cost – based on the way that you define your target audience. That’s really, really impressive – and really, really useful.

The challenge for marketers is to make sure that we respond to these insights in the way that Fan Hui or Lee Sedol would. It’s pointless and depressing to think of ourselves in competition with machines. We need to take their outputs as a starting point – and apply our imagination to making maximum use of them.

With Objective-Based Advertising on LinkedIn, that can mean marketers pushing the boundaries and finding new, creative ways to target an audience. If IBM Watson suggests email subject lines for you, then use those suggestions as a starting point – and strive to find alternatives that might work just as well, for reasons an AI wouldn’t consider. Once AIs like Amazon’s map out more of the science of how people respond to video, we’ll have a choice: follow the obvious formula it suggests – or twist it in new directions and come up with something more creative, more unexpected, more game-changing.

Just as with AlphaGo, it’s the technology that sets the foundation for something inspiring to happen. But it’s the human who inspires.

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In early April, we asked you to nominate your acquaintances and peers for our first annual Real Faces of Sales Awards. We wanted to discover those under-the-radar selling stars who may not get the recognition and notoriety they deserve. 

You all really delivered. 

We received so many amazing submissions and learned about so many inspiring examples of modern salespeople who are mastering the critical arts of researching, prospecting, relationship-building, and driving results. Choosing winners proved to be a considerable challenge for our panel of judges, but that was a nice problem to have. So, thank you.  

Today, we are excited to unveil our selections across three categories. Read on to learn about real salespeople who are making a real difference. 

The Real Faces of Sales Awards: 2019 
Our goal with this initiative was to highlight “great sales pros out there doing amazing work that goes largely unnoticed.” After sorting through a number of candidates, we settled on three winners:

Prospecting Star, Insightful Seller and  Consultative Seller.

Here’s a look at our panel’s choices, and what made them stand out. 

Prospecting Star: Andy Cowdrill, Business Application Lead at Microsoft

Congratulations to our new Real Face of Sales! 

Insightful Seller: Ewan Alexander, VP of Sales - Europe, Middle East, India & Africa at Crane Worldwide Logistics

Congratulations to our new Real Face of Sales! 

Consultative Seller: Lisa Cowan, Director of Growth Strategy – EQGlobal, Equiniti

Congratulations to our new Real Face of Sales! 

Facing New Challenges and Keeping It Real 
Going through all of these nominations, and reading about these esteemed sales pros, was honestly an invigorating experience. Sometimes, it seems like those cringeworthy tales of “sales fails” and faux pas are always the ones gaining viral visibility, but there are many more salespeople out there illustrating the way it should be done, today and going forward. This was a powerful reminder of that. 

Thank you once again to everybody who took the time to nominate a peer, colleague, or connection, and congratulations to our inaugural field of winners. Huge thanks also to our judges, who put a lot of thought into these evaluations: Josh Graff, UK Country Manager & VP EMEA & LATAM at LinkedIn and Karim Iskandar, EVP Sales at JRNI.

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What happens when there are fewer people in the office at your target accounts? It means that those in the office have a lot fewer meetings, receive a lot fewer messages and emails – and have a lot more opportunity to catch up on the tasks that tend to get pushed to one side. It means that at some point this summer, you will have more of your buyers’ attention than at any other time of the year. It’s a crucial opportunity that it’s important to make the most of.

Here are some of the ways that you can use LinkedIn to make the most of the quality time that both you and your buyers have available:

Target buyers’ moments of attention with personalised InMail
Fewer messages means less competition for attention in people’s inboxes, more time to engage with those that seem interesting and a far greater likelihood of prospects responding. The challenge during the summer months is timing: making sure that your message arrives when a prospect is in the office and paying attention. That’s why InMail is such a powerful option for reaching out at this time of year. The real-time delivery feature ensures that it appears at the top of your recipient’s inbox when they are actively engaged on LinkedIn. It connects you to the moments in the summer when your prospect has time and space to think about what you’re saying – whether they are enjoying a more open schedule in the office or checking LinkedIn while on holiday.

Maximise the effectiveness of InMail by using insights about a prospect from their profile or feed. In LinkedIn’s recent State of Sales study, 90% of B2B buyers in Europe said that a clear understanding of their specific role was an important factor in deciding whether to engage with a seller or not. LinkedIn Sales Navigator users benefit from icebreaker suggestions when composing InMails that draw on relevant profile data, LinkedIn posts and activity in the feed.

Curate holiday reading lists for your prospects on PointDrive
More time allows prospects to think strategically, and read through the interesting content that they’ve been meaning to come back to when their calendar clears up. A lot of professionals take the opportunity to do this when they are out of the office and in a more relaxed frame of mind – and many of them expect trusted sales contacts to contribute to their strategic thinking. B2B buyers in Europe describe sales reps sharing applicable content as one of their most powerful motivating factors for engaging, with 88% agreeing that it’s important. In Germany and France, top sellers rank the ability to provide ‘strategic counsel’ as one of the most important factors helping to close deals.

That makes the start of summer a valuable opportunity to share content that can help to shape buyers’ thinking. The PointDrive feature in LinkedIn Sales Navigator helps you create customisable reading lists of relevant content assets – and share these via a personalised link rather than through difficult-to-read attachments. You’ll be able to track engagement with the content throughout the summer, with alerts when your prospects open different assets – and when they share them with others.

Be the conduit for intriguing content
It’s not just your business’s content assets that can help to strengthen buyer relationships. This is a great time to take on a role as the conduit to interesting content that your connections might easily miss while they’re away from their desk. Sharing a great TED talk, or posting your thoughts from an event that you’ve attended will help to raise your profile and establish your thought-leadership credentials. Recording your thoughts as video is a great way to communicate your personality and start the process of building a human connection.

Set your strategy for the second half
It’s not just buyers who have more time available over the summer. If you’ve got fewer meetings scheduled, it’s worth investing the extra time to set you up for the second half of the year.

Start by activating the CRM Synch feature in Sales Navigator, which enables you to save all of your LinkedIn activity to your CRM – and means you can seamlessly integrate CRM insights into your Sales Navigator activity going forward. Being forced to work with sub-standard data and correct names, titles and contact information is one of the biggest threats to sales productivity. You can do away with it in just a few clicks.

Taking extra time now can help to lay the foundations for more efficient outreach later on. That could involve exploring promising accounts that match the criteria of deals you’re already closing – and using the advanced search and suggestions in Sales Navigator to surface the likely decision-makers at those businesses. You can plot your route into new accounts by identifying common connections and the people able to refer you to buyer and influencers. Lead recommendations will help you with multi-threading and strengthening relationships at existing clients too – and the more you use these features, the more recommendations you’ll receive. 

It feels like time has a different quality in the summer months – and that’s especially true when it comes to sales. You may be filling the hours in your day differently but they are no less valuable for that. Use the summer months for creating quality moments with quality prospects. It will help you to feel as fired up and recharged as the time you spend out of the office.

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It’s hard to believe today, but in 1987 very few people believed that Disney would ever produce another blockbuster animated movie. The last Disney animation to take over $100 million at the global box office had been The Rescuers, released a decade earlier. More recent films had struggled to make the same impact, facing intensified competition from the rival Don Bluth Productions, which had been started by a team of disgruntled Disney animators. Disney itself had narrowly escaped a hostile takeover, had moved its animation studios to a temporary lot to make more room for live-action filmmaking, and was getting the lion’s share of its income from theme parks. It seemed a classic case of a once-great brand on borrowed time, and being forced to abandon its core strength.

The studio did have a classic animated fairy tale in development – but it had been in development for a long, long time. The Little Mermaid had been one of the first films planned by Walt Disney in the 1930s but had never made it off the ground. Even with production moving ahead again, studio executives were managing expectations and warning it would underperform their last animated feature, Oliver and Company.

Then somebody decided to persuade Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to write the songs for the film. And everything about the future of Disney changed.

A song-writer who did far more than write songs
Howard Ashman was the lyricist in this song-writing team. He and Menken had made their name on Broadway, and were best known for the stage hit, The Little Shop of Horrors. He could have taken his brief at face value, delivered some tunes for the new film, and left it at that. Only that wasn’t the way Howard Ashman operated. He was a craftsman, supremely passionate about every detail. And that meant taking an active interest in how those songs would be delivered. Ashman had views about the role his songs played in a plot, the characters that were delivering them, and whether that whole experience would add up for the audience. He couldn’t help but influence the films he was contributing to. In just a few short years, that would make him one of the most important figures in movie history.

One of the first things that Ashman insisted on was a voice cast for The Little Mermaid that had serious musical theater credentials, who could act through their singing. Then he reworked the plot of the film so that it revolved around showpiece songs that moved the events forward. The result was a Disney movie that recaptured the magic most had thought long gone, and which went on to take more than $200 million worldwide – a spectacular return at the time. Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg knew where a lot of the credit rested. He approved Ashman’s pitch for a musical version of Aladdin, complete with the three songs he and Menken had written for it.

Before production could kick off on Aladdin though, Disney had another ask. Another animated film, Beauty and the Beast was going nowhere as a non-musical. Could Ashman fix it?

It turned out that the timing was terrible – because in a tragic twist, Ashman’s health had started to fail badly. He’d been diagnosed as HIV Positive in 1988. The development of Beauty and the Beast would involve Disney animators flying out from California to Ashman’s home in New York, where he was growing progressively weaker. However, his determination to create the best possible songs and the best possible film around them, never changed.

Howard Ashman’s masterpiece – Beauty and the Beast
It was Ashman who insisted that the Beast’s castle should be filled with friendly talking objects – because otherwise, who would be there to sing the songs he was writing? It was Ashman who demanded a village full of people to perform his opening number – and the villainous Gaston to deliver another of his show-stopping tunes. He took what had been a sombre, moody piece and turned it into one of the most complex, intriguing and infectiously joyous Disney films of all time.

Ashman took the standards he set for The Little Mermaid and raised them to new heights. He cast opera singers (Richard White as Gaston) and accomplished Broadway performers (Paige O’Hara as Belle, Jerry Orbach as Lumiere and Angela Lansbury as Mrs Potts). He demonstrated emphatically that a commitment to perfecting every detail delivered something so much more than the sum of those details. Because Ashman took such ownership of the content he created, Disney produced a film that was unlike any animation previously seen – and the first to be nominated for The Academy Award for best picture.

If you want a sense of this creative leader and instinctive craftsman at work, watch the backstage clips of Orbach and Lansbury recording Be our Guest (arguably the most famous Ashman song of all) and feel the respect, passion and attention to detail of everyone involved. It’s very hard to imagine that this was all co-ordinated by a man with only months to live. Ashman lived and breathed his craft so completely that to stop work because he was dying would just have meant dying earlier.

Howard Ashman never got to see the final version of Beauty and the Beast. He passed away in March 1991, shortly after Disney executives had visited him to say just how well the press screenings had gone. His contribution to the studio was tragically short – but hugely profound. Katzenberg has referred to Walt Disney and Ashman as the two guardian angels touching every note and frame that Disney produced from this point onwards. Just think about that for a moment: the idea that the Disney media powerhouse you see today might owe as much to the man asked to write a few songs for a low-priority film as it does to its famous founder.

A content hero for content marketers
Why is Howard Ashman my content hero? It’s partly because I’m a huge Disney fan, and the mother of another huge Disney fan. It’s partly because the feeling of unbridled joy I get watching Beauty and the Beast still almost brings tears to my eyes. However, it’s also because I am a content marketer and as a content marketer, it’s easy to feel torn between the demand to get content out there – and the demand to make sure that content is the best it can possibly be. I think that the story of Howard Ashman and Disney makes it a whole lot easier to deal with this dilemma.

For Ashman, content was never something you pushed out when it had reached a standard you could get away with. No detail was unimportant, and it was his attention to every one of those details that elevated his songs, his films and the studio he created them for to another level. He proves that, when you’re a great content creator, you can create far more than just content. You create value – and that value can last for a very long time.

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Editor's Note: This article originally featured in Raconteur's Sales Performance Report in The Times. You can see the full report here.

No matter how innovative or disruptive your business, its growth still depends on sales people who can build trust, demonstrate value, negotiate effectively – and close deals. That’s why Persuasion is currently the most sought-after soft skill in EMEA – and Sales Leadership ranks in the top ten most in-demand hard skills. Technology may be changing the nature of sales – but there’s no substitute for sales professionals who have the skills and strategy to use those tools effectively.

The key question is: what do these salespeople look like in 2019? What marks out top performers from the rest? And how can sales organisations go about maximising the potential of their sales teams?

LinkedIn’s annual State of Sales survey provides the answers. A key element of this research involves identifying the sales professionals who exceed their quota by 25% or more and then comparing their tactics, tools and techniques to those of peers who meet quota but don’t out-perform to the same degree. This analysis helps to illuminate the secrets of the most productive sales reps – and the sales organisations behind them.

What drives top sales performance in the UK today? Here are some of the key themes:

Top sellers earn trust while acknowledging price pressures
Sales professionals worldwide agree that trust is the most important factor helping them to close deals – and top sales performers in the UK agree, with 33% ranking trust as the most important factor. However, top sales professionals are also quick to acknowledge the price pressures that UK buyers are under in economically uncertain times, ranking price as more important than their peers in Europe. The value of trust often comes from the ability to make a case for a given price delivering ongoing value and ROI to a customer – even when budgets are tight.

Top sellers use more sales technology – and use it more often
The use of sales technology is the most striking characteristic of the UK’s top sellers. They use a greater range of sales tools, use them more often, and attach greater importance to them in the selling process. Three quarters (74%) of top sellers say they are spending more time using sales technology this year than last. They are 59% more likely to use productivity apps, 41% more likely to use email tracking, 29% more likely to use sales intelligence technology and 23% more likely to use enterprise communication tools. Top sellers are twice as likely to use LinkedIn Sales Navigator for networking and sales intelligence, with 63% of them doing so, compared to 33% of their peers.

Top sellers attach a far higher priority to social media
Social media has become a key part of the buyer journey – and a key part of the sales process. Among the UK-based B2B buyers in the State of Sales survey, 77% use social media to learn about products and services, 70% say they’re more likely to consider products or services when sales professionals have an informative LinkedIn profile, and 63% say they’re more likely to consider them when a sales person reaches out on LinkedIn. In the UK, sales performance increases when sellers align their approach with how buyers use social. Top sales performers are significantly more likely to describe social networks as very important for closing deals, with 69% doing so compared to 40% of their peers.

Top sellers have sales organisations focused on alignment with marketing
How can organisations best support their sales teams to help elevate performance? The State of Sales research makes a strong case for paying close attention to sales and marketing alignment. Across every market, top sellers consistently report a closer working relationship with marketing – and this is particularly pronounced in the UK.

Top sales performers in the UK are almost twice as likely (59% vs 31%) to describe working very closely with marketing – and as a result, they are almost three times more likely (60% vs 22%) to describe the quality of marketing leads as ‘Excellent’. Across all of the factors that distinguish the top group of sales people from the rest, it’s this quality of marketing support that stands out as statistically the most significant.

A closer working relationship with marketing cuts both ways. Top sellers benefit from significantly higher-quality leads – but they are also far more likely to credit marketing with a major role in their success. They are 30% more likely to rate the importance of marketing in closing deals at 8 out of 10 or above. This suggests organisations that have succeeded in building a positive culture of collaboration across the two functions.

Top sellers deliver on buyers’ priorities
In working effectively with marketing, using technology for meaningful sales intelligence, and focusing on building trust, top sellers are delivering the precise experience that B2B buyers are looking for. Among the UK’s buyers, at least 89% say they are more likely to consider products and services from sales reps who understand their business’s needs, understand their own specific role, and personalise their approach to fit. A similar proportion (85%) describe consistency across sales and marketing as important. Trustworthy, meanwhile is the single most valued quality in a sales professional, nominated by 48% of buyers.

Top sales performance comes from skill and charisma in building trust, the expertise to approach buyers with valued insight, all supported by sales organisations that provide the technology, tools and marketing support to enable sales reps to shine. Above all though, it comes from aligning the use of these assets with the experiences that buyers most value. This has always been what marks out the top sales professionals – and this hasn’t changed.

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Diversity matters: for both businesses and the brands they depend on. Research such as McKinsey’s annual analysis of diversity and financial performance, increasingly links a diverse company leadership to commercial success and profitability. We know that diversity is critical for building compelling employer brands and accessing business-critical skills. It’s also essential for aligning businesses with the customers they depend on for growth, making the representation of diverse groups in marketing departments, advertising agencies and campaigns a priority for the industry.

However, diversity is also a complex issue, with new challenges emerging and consensus sometimes hard to come by. Attention inevitably focuses on the areas of diversity that are easiest to measure, and this can obscure a lack of progress in other important areas. We know a lot about progress on gender equality – far less about how much is being made on ethnic diversity, or the representation of LGBTQ groups. Analysing the diversity-related content generating the greatest engagement on LinkedIn, as we have done for this latest edition of LinkedIn Content Intelligence, shows the real struggles that businesses still face in making real progress on diversity – and ensuring that the image they present in advertising reflects the reality of how they work.

We’ve taken a detailed look at engagement with diversity-related content on our platform over a six-month period from October 1st 2018 to March 1st 2019. We analysed the diversity-related topics that drive the greatest engagement, and the different issues and priorities that posts around those topics reveal. In this way, we can get a sense of progress in different areas, perceptions of the barriers that still exist and awareness of the value of tackling them.

In this report, you’ll find positive stories and negative ones, robust reports on levels of diversity and areas where data is still lacking. It’s a snapshot of the state of awareness around different issues – and just as importantly, the opinions that are shaping the thinking of leaders and decision-makers.

Who’s engaging with diversity content?

The growing importance of diversity within business strategy and success is reflected in who engages with diversity-related content. LinkedIn insight shows greatest engagement coming from Partners, Directors, VPs and the C-suite, with Partners 4.6x more likely to engage than the average LinkedIn member. Interest peaks among venture capital and private equity firms with PR and Communications and management consulting also strongly represented. This demonstrates the importance of diversity for businesses seeking funding, for those advising on engaging audiences and building stronger brands, and for those charged with finding new sources of growth.

The key diversity themes - ranked

When we rank diversity themes by engagement, it’s clear that gender dominates the conversation. Gender equality is the subject of the greatest number of diversity-related posts – and those posts generate the highest average engagement.

1. Gender diversity: data leads the conversation

Data is more readily available on gender than any other aspect of diversity, and this is reflected in the nature of the most popular content on LinkedIn. Leading studies include research from Accenture on equality and innovation in the workplace; a study of the relationship between gender diversity and business productivity; analysis of how female support networks correlate with greater diversity; and rankings of the most gender-diverse businesses and top female leaders.

Other key themes in the gender equality conversation include International Women’s Day (evidence of the impact that a global awareness campaign can have), the need for male allies in promoting gender equality, and worrying evidence that industries such as technology have lost ground in this area.

Inspirational female leaders are a key trend among influential diversity-related posts, with stories of women in leadership positions making up more than 12% of the top 50 most engaging posts.

2. Ethnic diversity: tales of discrimination set the agenda

Ethnic diversity represents the second most engaged-with issue – and two themes dominate content in this area: shocking revelations about discrimination in recruitment and the workplace, and individual stories of those overcoming it. Content highlighting cases of discrimination include IBM’s apology for using insensitive ethnic labels in a job application menu, CNN’s report on a General Motors plant where offensive racial language and threats had been part of daily life, and research showing that applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK had to send 80% more applications on average, to get a positive response from an employer.

When positive stories are reported, they stand out – and drive significant engagement. Whether that’s the story of tech investor Priyanka Chopra or reflecting on Japan’s attitudes to race through the rise of tennis star Naomi Osaka.

3. LGBTQ rights: individual stories predominate

Content dealing with LGBTQ rights tends to focus on individual stories and experiences. These include role models such as Beth Ford, the first openly gay woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook and Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick. Not all stories are positive, however. Posts that talk about the negative impact that coming out can have on careers, and the difficulties of challenging discrimination in the workplace, are equally prominent.

4. Age diversity: advertising and tech lead the way

Advertising and technology are leading the way in raising awareness of the dangers of sidelining older workers, with posts dealing with the two industries representing five of the top 20 generating greatest engagement. These include reports of a Campaign survey showing that 42% of advertising, marketing, media and PR employees have witnessed ageism towards a colleague – and 32% have experienced ageism themselves. A key theme of age-related diversity pieces is the challenge of balancing the value of older workers with the need to create opportunity for younger ones. While the most popular piece of content in this category takes a positive view (Chip Conley’s TED talk on the benefits of mixing different generations), the second-most popular raises more challenging issues, in Harvard Business Review’s exploration of What Happens to Younger Workers When Older Workers Don’t Retire.

5. Cognitive diversity: celebrating early momentum

Awareness of the business benefits of cognitive diversity has accelerated rapidly in recent years – and the positive tone of the most influential posts in this area reflects as much. Engagement is growing from a relatively low base, with content focuses on raising awareness of the value that ‘differently wired’ people bring to the workplace, including those with autism, ADHD and dyslexia.

6. Diversity in marketing and advertising

If businesses are to realise the benefits of tackling the barriers to diversity, they need a marketing and advertising industry that’s attuned to the value of representing such diversity. Campaign’s coverage of TfL’s plans to break the industry silence on the menopause and Channel 4’s prize of free airtime for ads featuring diverse groups (won this year by Engine’s campaign for the RAF), show how the industry is responding.

The 10 diversity-related posts generating greatest engagement on LinkedIn

1.     Promote women because they’re good, not because they’re women

This opinion post generated huge engagement by arguing that the way gender equality initiatives are presented to employees, and the response they generate, is as important as the numbers they achieve when it comes to getting more women into senior roles. It’s a provocative view that addresses challenging issues and potential blockers for diversity initiatives – and generated comments expressing a wide range of views on positive discrimination.

2.     This Indore girl started up with just Rs 3.5 lakh in 2014. This year, she will rake in Rs 100 cr in revenue

The story of Nidhi Yadav, the woman behind ethnic clothing brand AKS, touches on many different aspects of diversity, including the importance of female entrepreneurs, the challenges of working mothers, and ethnic diversity within the fashion industry.

3.     Julie Sweet of Accenture Could See Her Future. So She Quit Her Job.

The New York Times’ interview with Accenture’s North America CEO Julie Sweet acts as both an inspiring career story – and a discussion of the enduring nature of unconscious bias and other barriers to gender equality.

4.     Women in the Workplace 2018

McKinsey’s annual survey of the state of gender equality sounded an alarm call that progress towards gender equality at every level of business life has stalled, and more concrete action is needed.

5.     What baby boomers can learn from millennials at work – and vice versa

Chip Conley is a hospitality entrepreneur and the author of Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. His influential TED Talk helped to push the issue of age diversity up towards the top of the business conversation.

6.     Women in IT Awards 2019 finalists revealed

The announcement of the shortlist for Information Age’s Women in IT Awards is one of three posts in the top 20 that are related to diversity rankings, including Reuters’ diversity and inclusion index, and The Financial Times’ list of the 10 most influential BAME tech leaders in the UK.

7.     Recruiting at Netflix – Podcast episode

This discussion with Netflix’s VP of Talent Acquisition Nellie Peshkov explored how an admired brand approaches diversity and inclusion through its recruitment process, and the benefits that it gains in terms of innovation.

8.     Elite Law Firm’s All-White Partner Class Stirs Debate on Diversity

This New York Times article explored the limits of diversity at big law firms by analysing recently appointed partners at Paul, Weiss.

9.     How do you get from diversity to inclusion? Ask these 4 questions about your meetings

In this TED feature, social psychologist Dolly Chung distinguishes between diversity, which is easily tracked through official statistics, and inclusion, which underpins progress on diversity but is far less visible through data.

10.  University launches sports hijab for female Muslim students

The story of how Brunel University tackled a key barrier to religious inclusion in sport, by developing a sports hijab that respects religious beliefs while keeping female athletes far cooler and more comfortable than traditional cotton versions.

Editor's Note: Research findings originally published on Campaign.

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Editor's Note: This article originally featured in Raconteur's Sales Performance Report in The Times. You can see the full report here.

This week, I had the opportunity to appear in Raconteur's Sales Performance Report in The Times, to discuss how technology is changing buyer-seller relationships. It’s a fascinating subject – because the more you explore it, the more you realise that this isn’t a case of tech tools automating the sales process. Analyse what the data on buyers and sellers shows, and it’s clear that traditional selling skills still matter. What technology has changed is the scope and impact of those skills. In a digital world, buyers’ trust in sales people takes different forms – and it’s earned in different ways. The role of the seller has been elevated, and so has the value that it can provide on both sides of a transaction.

What does this mean in practice? Here’s my take – from the interview that appeared in Raconteur's Sales Performance Report in The Times:

How has technology impacted buyers’ trust in sales people?

Trust has always been essential in sales - and that hasn’t changed. Sales people themselves know that it’s the most important factor helping them to close deals. They prioritise it and they work very hard to earn it. Technology certainly hasn’t made trust any less important. What it has done is change what buyers are placing their trust in.

A decade ago, sales professionals were often the only source of information that a buyer had. The trust they felt or didn’t feel in a salesperson was based on whether they believed what they were being told... or not. Today, things are very different. Buyers are self-directed and self-informed. They can get a lot of the information they need from websites and social media before talking to a salesperson – and they can certainly check the validity of almost anything a seller tells them. What they want from a sales professional is bespoke insights that are based on a real understanding of their requirements, what their business actually needs, and the role a particular service or solution can play for them. It is within this expertise that they need to place their trust.

What are the most important changes that you’re seeing in sales?

With buying cycles becoming more complex, sellers are being much more consultative in the way that they sell. They’re no longer focused on telling people about their products and solutions; instead they put the emphasis on how those solutions fit into the market and how the market itself is changing.

Technology has a vital role in empowering this consultative approach. Sales intelligence tools and social media help to build a seller’s understanding before they reach out to a prospect. This enables them to deliver greater insight and value from the start. We can see the impact of this in the impression that buyers now have of sales people. In LinkedIn’s State of Sales research, 81% of UK buyers describe their sales contacts as trusted advisors.

In this new world of technology, do traditional sales skills still matter?

People buy from people, so it's not that the fundamental sales skills have changed. It's that sales tools are now there to elevate them. They provide sellers with levels of insight they wouldn’t otherwise have, and this enables them to create far more relevant, personalised experiences for their buyers. Technology takes sales performance to another level, but it’s still the sales person who’s performing. I like to call this Augmented Intelligence. Technology can dramatically multiply the impact of traditional sales skills – but it can’t replace them.

No matter how much insight you have, you still need the ability to reach out in compelling ways, build trust, read people’s responses, empathise with their needs and communicate value. These things haven’t been automated, and that’s why LinkedIn data shows skilled sales people have never been in greater demand than they are in 2019.

Other than trust, what characteristics separate top sales people today?

Top sales people don’t just have the skills. They use those skills in a positive, consultative and constructive way. Sales today has nothing to do with manipulation or tricks, it looks nothing like the Netflix show White Gold. It’s about forming genuine relationships, based on genuine understanding that can deliver genuine value on both sides.

If you want to be a top sales performer, pay attention to your listening skills. They’re the basis of rapport and trust, and they also establish authority far more effectively than a one-sided conversation can. Being an informed listener starts with your understanding of a business and its market. This enables you to ask meaningful questions that lead to meaningful answers. Listening-led conversations provide you with the insight to make personalised recommendations, and they earn you the right to make those recommendations.

Because buyers actively search for insight on social media, these conversations often start in this space. But you have to respect the rhythm of social too. Don’t attempt to sell straight away. Focus instead on establishing rapport and shared interests. Respond when your prospects comment on content on LinkedIn, read their posts, reference a shared experience, or point them to a piece of third-party content that you know can help. You can also use your network for warm introductions that establish trust and give you the opportunity to listen. Finally, and I know this sounds like an obvious thing for me to say, but you also need to make sure your LinkedIn profile is building the right kind of selling brand. Buyers will head straight to your profile to validate what kind of person they’re dealing with. If they find it’s focused on how much revenue you generate or how many deals you close, they’re going to conclude that customers’ interests aren’t really your priority. Focus your profile on the value you create for others – and you’ll dramatically increase the likelihood of buyers seeking value from you.

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It was my great pleasure recently to host an evening at LinkedIn’s London offices, with three of the most important thinkers in marketing today: Professor Mark Ritson, Les Binet and Peter Field. In two hours of presentations, discussions and questions, we explored some of the most important choices facing our profession, with an audience of marketing and agency leaders. Most intriguingly of all, we got a first look at striking new data from a joint research project with LinkedIn. It’s a study that starts to answer some of the key questions that B2B marketers have always struggled with. How do you balance the top and the bottom of the funnel? What proportion of budget should you spend on brand and activation? What’s the real role of emotion and reason in B2B buying? And what’s the formula most likely to drive sustainable growth for your business – and sustain your own career?

If you work in the UK, then Mark Ritson probably needs no introduction. His weekly columns for Marketing Week inform, entertain and (he insists) irritate most of our profession every Thursday. Les Binet and Peter Field don’t enjoy quite the same level of brand awareness – but if you’ve read their seminal study of how to balance brand and activation in B2C marketing, The Long and the Short of It, then you’ll know they deserve to. They’ve brought academic rigour to questions of marketing strategy that have all too often been settled by gut instinct, received wisdom, and the pressing need to keep the C-suite happy.

That’s why it’s so exciting that Binet and Field are partnering with LinkedIn to extend their research on how different types of marketing combine to drive growth. This new study looks specifically at how brand and activation work in B2B marketing, and the creative and media strategies that businesses should adopt. It’s early days with a small sample, which is why Binet and Field are not planning on publishing their work – just yet. However, the early data should make any serious B2B marketer sit up and take serious notice. It shows that the long-running assumption that B2B marketing appeals to its audience only on a rational level is wrong. It shows that B2B marketers are consistently under-investing in building brands. And it shows that the long-term success of even fast-growing B2B businesses risks being undermined as a result.

Sustainable growth in B2B depends on branding, mental availability and fame

The Long and the Short of It proved that, in B2C marketing, mental availability is the most powerful driver of growth. If you’re the brand that everyone talks about, and that springs most readily to mind, then you have a serious advantage over any less familiar competitors. You are always an obvious answer to the question of what to buy.

Binet and Field’s preliminary research shows that many of the same rules hold true for B2B brands. Being the ‘no-brainer’ option – the most obvious answer to the questions that B2B buyers and influencers ask themselves – has great value. It maximises the efficiency of your marketing, strengthens your pricing and increases your profitability. It’s why people still don’t get fired for buying IBM, for example. Over the long term, it has a far greater influence on these things than activation activity focused on generating leads and closing deals. As a result, sustainable growth for B2B businesses depends on branding.

Throw the word brand at most marketers in a quick-fire word association game, and they’ll probably come back with the word, “awareness.” However, Binet and Field’s work makes it clear that awareness isn’t enough. It’s important that people know about you, but it’s even more important to build on this and create levels of brand salience and, if you can manage it, brand fame. In B2C, being the brand that everyone talks about, the most famous brand in a category, increases marketing efficiency by a factor of four. There’s reason to believe something similar happens in B2B.

Building brand saliency and fame depends on investing in the right types of marketing activity over the right timeframe. However, it also depends on boldness and creativity when it comes to managing brands. Ritson, Binet and Field all agree that marketers overestimate the importance of their brands in their audiences’ lives. The biggest challenge they face is indifference, and they don’t focus enough effort on keeping them front-of-mind. They also don’t make them distinctive and recognisable through consistent codification (applying consistent design cues, colours and other facets of the brand). All argued that taking risks and being bold in pursuit of fame is worth it. They also pointed out that B2B brands often have a closer and more authentic relationship with their customers than B2C ones do – and this provides more options for building positive mental availability.

Sustainability as a B2B marketer depends on balancing brand and activation

‘Long’ brand effects are the most valuable investment that a B2B marketer can make because they don’t decay over time in the way that activation activity (which nobody remembers) does. However, branding also takes time.

Part of the reason that marketers in general focus less and less on brand is that they have immediate targets to meet – and immediately available data that shows when they’re not meeting them. This is why a smart B2B marketer needs to balance the long with the short stuff of activation, and targeted campaigns designed to generate demand and quality leads for sales.

Success depends on getting the combination right, hitting immediate targets as efficiently as possible so that you can free some budget each month or each quarter, to build the brand that will underpin your long-term effectiveness. As Peter Field pointed out, the ‘Long’ of this balancing act will benefit the ‘Short’ over time by making lead generation more effective. However, the ‘Short’ can’t benefit the ‘Long’. Activation marketing can’t build a brand for you, no matter how much you spend on it.

Effective B2B marketing involves two types of targeting

Because B2B marketers need to balance brand activity, which plays out over a longer timeframe, and activation, which plays out in the short term, they need to master different types of targeting.

Binet and Field are famous for their 60/40 rule, a formula that shows B2C businesses grow most effectively when they devote 60% of their budgets to mass reach brand advertising, and 40% to narrowly targeted, segmented campaigns focused on immediate sales. Their research now shows that a very similar rule applies in B2B. The proportions are slightly different on average – much closer to 50/50. However, the principle is the same.

As a marketer, you need to be able to target particularly relevant or interested buyers through relevant messaging that can generate quality leads for your sales team and lead to a measurable Return on Investment (ROI). Otherwise, you could end up out of a job. However, you also need the ability to reach all of the people who could be involved in buying decisions over the longer term. Because branding is a long game, it can’t be hyper targeted. It has to take the most inclusive possible view of your relevant audience. It may be years before they are considering your business for a purchase – but that’s how long it takes to build a compelling brand to influence that decision. Waiting until they are ready to be tightly targeted at the bottom of the funnel is waiting too long.

Performance marketing is important, acknowledged Peter Field, but if it’s the only thing you do then it should probably be called underperformance marketing – because that’s what it will eventually lead to. Your targeted performance marketing has to be supported by more mass reach brand activity to keep driving results.

Your share of voice predicts your future growth – or decline

There’s a simple rule that applies to B2C marketing. A brand’s Share of Voice tends to predict its future Share of Market. When a brand’s Share of Voice within a category is larger than its market share, it is very likely to grow. When its Share of Voice is lower than the market share, it will most likely shrink. Guess what? A similar rule applies to B2B. As Les Binet explained, the more people you are reaching, and the more people who are talking about you, the greater your opportunity to maintain or grow your market share. If you’re achieving less reach and impact than your position in your category suggests you need, then there’s likely to be trouble ahead. It’s a simple rule, but it’s one that’s all too easily forgotten if you push too hard for efficiency over effectiveness.

Emotion has more influence over B2B buying than logic

Adjusting your strategy to equally balance brand and activation is one part of the formula for more sustainable growth in B2B. However, media isn’t everything. What you say through the brand opportunities that you create is equally important. And Binet and Field’s new research is already showing that most B2B marketing doesn’t have the right balance. We place too much emphasis on rational messaging – and not enough on emotion.

Just as in B2C, it’s emotional impact that creates the long-term brand effects that drive profitability, outperformance and growth. Appealing to the rational side of B2B buyers can work for immediate activity driving sales and leads. It makes sense for short-term activation. However, it’s hard to build a brand that will give you long-term competitive advantage if you can’t generate creative ideas that resonate with audiences on an emotional level.

Emotion in B2B marketing won’t necessarily take the same form as emotion in B2C. Mark Ritson calls it emotion with a small ‘e’. It doesn’t need to be heart-wrenchingly dramatic. It might be most effective when it’s subtle and understated – but it has to be there. Hope, aspiration, confidence and fear of failure are all in play in the B2B buying mindset. As B2B marketers we need to invest in understanding the relevant emotions for our buyers and their relationship to our brand.

Your need for branding changes over time – and start-ups can’t afford to be complacent

Businesses will benefit from brand advertising at any stage in their growth and development. However, the effects of that advertising and the results that it delivers, will vary at different points.

Les Binet pointed out that if you are bringing a genuinely innovative product to market (as many B2B tech marketers are, for example), then you can benefit from a brand that builds itself – at least in the beginning.

Because people are talking about you, and because you are by definition distinct and differentiated from competitors, you can focus more on activation and driving leads. To some extent, you can rely on word of mouth to do the brand work for you. It’s easy for B2B marketers to look at the early growth figures they are generating and conclude that investing largely in activation is all they need to do. However, Binet had two important warnings. The first is that, however quickly your business is growing it can almost certainly grow faster with a long-term investment in brand. The second is that the window of opportunity for brand-free growth is time-limited. After two years if not before, organic growth levels off and competitors (including established brands) enter the market to destroy your natural differentiation and eat into your share. If you haven’t invested in building a brand by this point, it may be too late.

What does branding in B2B look like? It looks like LinkedIn…

Our discussion of the importance of emotion and brand in B2B led to one obvious question from our audience: what is the go-to brand channel for B2B marketers? Where is the environment that they can invest in building brand awareness with the confidence that consumer advertisers have traditionally invested in TV, outdoor and other channels? How can they achieve relevant mass reach without wastage?

Mark Ritson had a very clear, very simple answer to this – and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Quite simply, the go-to channel for B2B marketing is LinkedIn, because of the immense flexibility that LinkedIn targeting provides. You can reach the mass audience of all potential participants in your category that your brand needs – and you can balance this with the relevant, immediate targeting that drives ROI through activation.

Here’s how he puts it. I think it’s a great way to sum up:

“The reason I’m here is because LinkedIn is a phenomenal tool for that [mass reach in B2B]. They’re not paying me to be here. I’m here because I think it’s fantastic. LinkedIn is the top of the funnel B2B marketing tool. It’s super exciting because it’s targeted but it’s not targeted. You can get both – and I think there’s a real potential there.”

There’s more than one way to use LinkedIn in B2B marketing – and as this new research shows, there’s more reason than ever to explore everything you can do.

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Evidence of the value of modern selling is increasing rapidly across Europe. In LinkedIn’s latest State of Sales survey, 90% of sellers in the region describe sales technology as important for their ability to close deals. Social media powers both sides of the buyer journey, as the favoured option for buyers researching their choices and the environment where three quarters of sellers seek insight on their prospects prior to reaching out. Top-performing sellers are noticeably more likely to depend on professional social media, use a broader range of sales tools, and prioritise sales intelligence technology.

The numbers show that modern selling offers massive competitive advantage. However, it doesn’t happen magically overnight. When you’re managing a sales team that’s working flat out to contact clients, make meetings and achieve their quotas, it’s tough to find the necessary time to invest in new platforms, set out a strategy and support your reps with the training they need. After all, the pressures of admin and internal meetings mean that sales professionals across Europe only get to spend around 40% of their time actually selling. Time is at a premium for most of the year.

That’s why the next three months are the most important opportunity you have to unlock the potential of modern selling for your organisation. The summer months mean fewer client meetings – and more time for your team to engage in building a modern selling strategy from the ground up.

Here are five ways to use the time and opportunity effectively:

Benchmark your use of sales tools and technology

Are your sales reps heading into the field with the same level of tech support as their competitors? The State of Sales survey provides some important points of comparison. Three types of sales tools are used by over half of all sellers in every market: CRM platforms, social networking and collaboration tools. Top sellers who exceed their quota by more than 25% use up to 50% more tech tools than their peers. And more than half the sellers in Europe expect their company to increase its investment in sales technology over the coming year.

Model integrating tech into selling routines

It’s not just the range of sales tools available that decides competitive advantage – it’s also the extent to which they are integrated into selling routines. Across Europe, around 80% of sellers use technology at least every week – and in France and the UK, a third use sales tech every day. If you’re investing in new sales technologies, don’t just leave reps to get on with using them. Integrate tech tools into team meetings, celebrate those making most effective use of them, and aim to model modern selling from the top of your organisation down.

Invest in Sales Intelligence tools – which mark out top sellers from the rest

Sales intelligence technology is quickly emerging as a point of difference for the top-performing sellers in Europe. Those who exceed their quota by 25% or more are significantly more likely to use tools like LinkedIn Sales Navigator as a key part of their prospecting strategy. In France, 58% of those using sales intelligence tools spend three hours a week or more with them. This matters when B2B buyers across Europe consistently demand that sales reps reach out with bespoke insights tailored to their needs. In the UK, 78% say they won’t engage with a sales rep who lacks business-specific insight.

Encourage a learning culture

Targeted training can help your sales team to unlock greater value from the tools they already have available – and summer is a great time to work on encouraging a learning habit. LinkedIn Learning offers popular courses on getting started with Sales Navigator and social selling foundations, plus essential training for Europe’s most popular CRM and collaboration tools. However, it’s not only technical skills that can benefit from a learning mentality. Across Europe, sellers consider the ability to establish trust as the most important quality for closing deals. Soft skills-based courses such as the Science of Selling detail how to build that trust using insights from modern sales tools.

One of the great advantages of LinkedIn Learning is the flexibility that it provides for your team to consume content in bite-sized chunks, via mobile or desktop, whenever they have time available. However, you won’t build a learning culture among your colleagues just by providing them with training content and leaving them to their own devices. Try using the extra time you have over the next few months to organise learning sprints, setting aside an hour in the office each week. Making time for group discussions of courses keeps things interactive, provides room to share insights from personal experience – and makes learning far more effective.

Make time to move forward on marketing alignment

The State of Sales study highlights another clear source of competitive advantage in modern sales: effective marketing alignment. Across Europe, top sellers are up to three times more likely than their peers to rate the quality of their marketing leads as ‘Excellent’. B2B buyers demand consistency between the messages they receive from sales and marketing, with 78% describing this as important. And yet standards of sales and marketing alignment still vary significantly. In France, 40% of buyers report a lot of overlap in the data used for targeting. This drops to 31% in Germany and 25% in the UK.

The quieter summer months can provide the breathing space that you need to sit down with marketing colleagues and check that the objectives of the two teams are properly aligned: are you targeting the same audiences? where do your views of the buyer journey diverge? And how can you use shared data sources to bring them back together? Perhaps most importantly, does the way that marketing qualifies leads fit with the priorities and expectations of your sales teams? Making the time for open dialogue over the summer will help to identify practical steps for more meaningful sales and marketing orchestration going forward.

Becoming a modern selling organisation isn’t a case of making one investment or unveiling one new strategy. It involves making a habit of trying new tools and learning new techniques. Setting aside time to do so during the summer won’t just help you find competitive advantage this year. It’s a habit that will help your sales team stay successful as modern selling continues to evolve.

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It tops almost every B2B marketer’s agenda: how can we meet our lead generation targets? We’re judged on the number and cost of Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) that we deliver – and if that flow doesn’t keep up, we come under pressure. Leads matter. However, not all leads matter in the same way.

As marketers, we don’t just want impressive lead generation performance – we need impressive and measurable revenue performance. If we can demonstrate the value of leads as well as the quantity and the cost, we find ourselves in a far stronger position. That’s why the most effective lead generation strategies don’t just optimise around generating more leads. They optimise around generating the leads that are most likely to convert to valuable customers. They integrate with and support sales to help those conversions happen.

For this latest post in our case study series, I’ve pulled together six of the most inspirational stories of B2B marketing teams deploying smarter lead generation to help their businesses grow. These are businesses that don’t just smash their lead generation targets; they deliver profits, sustainable growth, and boost productivity and morale in the process. Every single one of these businesses has been able to transform the value of lead generation by focusing their strategy on LinkedIn:

·      Templafy generated 25 MQLs a week for a 475% Return on Investment (ROI)

·      Reed Exhibitions used LinkedIn to generate 20% of all revenue for its SNSR risk and security expo

·      Matmatch built the business model for its engineering materials platform, by growing its pipeline of suppliers 10x

·      Alliance Manchester Business School filled courses faster with benchmark-beating click-through and engagement rates

·      Comarch filled its new business pipeline two years ahead of schedule to drive growth in a new market

·      Audi built a pipeline of high net worth buyers for its new A8 model through a video view rate of 35% and a click-through rate of 5.7%

The stories of these six businesses show how sophisticated lead generation strategies do more than just keep sales happy – they drive measurable business growth. Here’s how they did it:

Effective lead generation builds on awareness and engagement

Lead generation is a lot easier when people know who you are – and know the type of value your solutions can provide. That’s why many of the strongest-performing lead generation campaigns on LinkedIn have two elements to them. They drive awareness of what a business has to offer through targeted video, ads and content in the feed, and combine this with a direct, personalised call to action, often through Sponsored InMail.

Many successful lead generation campaigns are also very successful brand-building campaigns. Matmatch and Comarch both fall into this category, building awareness among audiences that had little familiarity with these businesses to begin with. What distinguishes them from other successful brand campaigns is the way they focused on building that awareness among a specific target audience that they had identified as part of the lead generation strategy.

When the engineering materials platform Matmatch needed to increase the number of its enrolled suppliers, it started by distributing strongly branded, animated videos that showed how signing up could provide access to new customers. It then followed up by targeting the same audience with Sponsored InMail offering a free demo of the platform.

Similarly, when Reed Exhibitions launched the SNSR Expo, a new risk and security conference for the Middle East, it led with thought-leadership content on risk and security issues and then used engagement with this content as the starting point for the lead generation and nurturing process. Reed Exhibitions used LinkedIn conversion tracking to identify the businesses whose employees were engaging with the content, and then used LinkedIn Sales Navigator to identify and reach out to the most likely decision-makers at those businesses.

Effective lead generation takes different routes to the right audience

To generate quality leads, B2B marketers need the ability to reach a relevant audience at scale. They can reduce cost per lead (CPL) when they are able to develop distinctive approaches to targeting that audience. By building bespoke segments, and defining their audience in different ways, they can avoid bidding on the same targeting characteristics as other marketers – reducing the amount they have to pay.

Luxury auto brands traditionally target established luxury consumers by focusing on likely indicators of affluence such as age and seniority. However, Audi realised that this approach wouldn’t fit the likely profile of buyers in the Middle East, where luxury consumers are often younger. It focused on another indicator of buying power by targeting those working in government-related jobs, and then used the LinkedIn Insight Tag to confirm that those engaging with its campaign fitted the luxury buyer profile.

Matmatch mixed different approaches to reaching relevant engineering materials suppliers, using LinkedIn profile data to target at scale while also leveraging account targeting to reach out to specific businesses attending trade shows. This provided an alternative route to likely prospects – and by securing meetings in advance, it helped to maximise the business’s investment in the trade shows themselves.

For Alliance Manchester Business School, which was once forced to base its lead generation campaigns on unreliable email lists, it’s the range of targeting approaches available on LinkedIn that enables more efficient lead generation. The marketing team is able to test different targeting approaches and optimise around those that prove most effective. The digital transformation partner Comarch also tested different targeting approaches for key sectors like retail, travel and hospitality as it aimed to accelerate growth in France. It was then able to switch budget to the targeting approaches that performed best.

Effective lead generation personalises content to audience priorities

Segmentation plays a crucial role in effective lead generation, enabling businesses to personalise content to the most pressing current priorities of different audiences – and provide compelling reasons to engage. The ability to call out a specific target audience in Sponsored Content delivers a measurable uplift in engagement and click-through rates – and by tailoring campaigns to different segments, marketers can also personalise the ongoing journey, and increase the chances of leads converting to revenue.

Comarch has been able to maximise the impact of its lead generation budget by investing in research that demonstrated the specific value of digital transformation for retail businesses. By releasing eye-catching data at key moments in the year for retailers, Comarch was able to increase engagement around its content – and increase the flow of leads.

Templafy is one of the fastest-growing software businesses in Scandinavia, offering a software-led solution to the problem of keeping documents on-brand and legally compliant. The addressable audience for these solutions is broad and varied, which has enabled the business to take different approaches to targeting and engaging its prospects.

Templafy targets general campaigns at IT and marketing functions in enterprise-level businesses – people who will instantly understand the problem of brand consistency. At the same time, it uses an Account-Based Marketing (ABM) approach to target insurance businesses with tailored content – and take advantage of the huge specific opportunity in a sector that produces a large amount of customer documents.

Effective lead generation optimises around lead value

“I’d far rather have one lead from the right kind of prospect than 100 less relevant ones,” says Templafy’s Traffic Manager and Growth Hacker Casper Emil Rouchmann. “When it comes to measuring the value of campaigns, we’re not interested in vanity metrics like clicks and impressions – we’re interested in Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR). When we evaluate our channels in terms of lead quality, sales opportunities and lifetime customer value, LinkedIn comes out on top by a very wide margin.”

By optimising lead generation activity around the value of leads rather than focusing on lead quantity and CPL in isolation, Templafy has been able to generate massive ROI. LinkedIn targeting has reduced CPL by 55% - and the quality of those leads has also reduced cost per sales opportunity by 43%. Overall, the projected value of Templafy’s LinkedIn-sourced pipeline represents an ROI of over 475%.

Other top-performing lead generation campaigns take a similar approach to optimising around the quality and value of leads rather than just the cost and quantity of them. The approach that Reed Exhibitions took to qualifying leads and planning follow-up through Sales Navigator led to a conversion rate from leads to signed exhibitor contracts of over 30%.

Matmatch has switched the vast majority of its budget for targeting suppliers to LinkedIn, because of the lead quality that the platform delivers. “When we compared different channels’ performance on cost per lead (CPL) for the quality of leads that we needed, LinkedIn was miles ahead,” says Matmatch’s Head of Growth, Ben Smye. “As a result, we’ve stopped using some other social channels in our strategy – and LinkedIn is now our main source of leads for suppliers. It’s the only place we can reach the specific audiences we need and drive quality leads at the right cost.”

Effective lead generation removes friction from the journey

LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms are common to many of the most successful lead generation campaigns, removing friction from the process. For Templafy, LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms play a critical role in helping to capture the telling details like location and function that enable personalised lead nurturing. For Matmatch, Lead Gen Forms generated over 1,000 leads and grew the business’s pipeline of suppliers by 10x.

Effective lead generation doesn’t end with lead generation

Sophisticated lead generation strategies don’t just have the goal of delivering relevant leads to sales. They aim to integrate the onward journey into their planning, providing sales with the details they need, or integrating sales into the lead generation process itself.

Templafy uses the data from LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms to develop bespoke nurture streams for different locations and functions, enabling it to personalise both follow-up content and outreach from sales.

Reed Exhibitions integrated sales into the lead generation process itself. Its campaign took engagement with content as a signal of interest from an organisation – and then used LinkedIn Sales Navigator to prospect those organisations. The sales team was able to identify the most likely decision-makers and reach out with personalised content. This approach to accelerating the journey through the funnel. helped to deliver ROI of 19x for LinkedIn activity, with 20% of all revenues for the SNSR Expo coming from the platform.

Comarch’s use of LinkedIn Sales Navigator to follow up on leads delivered a seamless experience for prospects that helped fill the new business pipeline in France two years ahead of schedule. “You can do the best advertising campaign, but if there’s no co-ordinated follow-up action it’s likely to be a waste of time,” says Comarch’s Chief Marketing Officer, Matthieu Lacroix. “Building our sales networks has been the big change for us. We not only have a sustainable business pipeline for both our retail and travel business units, but I’m now confident that our contact network means we’re discovering all of the relevant opportunities for our business. We’ve got a long sales cycle that can easily last nine months, but despite that we’ve already closed between five and ten deals as a result of engagement that began with our LinkedIn campaign.”

These are just some of the most recent stories of businesses using lead generation on LinkedIn to accelerate growth. You’ll find more on our Customer Stories hub.

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