A view from the trenches
As the VP of Operations of a 23 year B2B lead management services firm, I have been directly involved with hundreds of B2B sales lead campaigns resulting in many millions of individual interactions with prospects on behalf of our clients for whom we generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales pipelines. This article is an attempt at sharing some of the insights gained by being a first-hand witness of the marketing evolution of the last 20 years with the hope of helping firms understand where the challenges are in the midst of so many and sometimes confusing trends.
The shifting front lines
Lead generation has always been impacted by the periodic appearance of new tools promising to be panaceas for the perceived high costs of B2B lead generation. Direct mail and mass email marketing are examples of two now almost defunct approaches in the B2B world. In more recent years, the buzz has been around Marketing Automation (MA) which, because it is targeted (sometimes…), seems to be a more rational and effective way of generating inquiry level leads. However, like its predecessors, it often falls short in producing the truly “sales-ready qualified leads” for those with a complex selling process. This is frustrating many lead pipeline managers.
In tandem with the above, we have seen many firms attempting to create in-house pre-sales lead development groups or are thinking about doing so. While, in principle, this makes good business sense, it requires a special skill set to do it successfully. There are issues related to costs, staffing, hiring, training, software tools, management and efficiency that not everyone takes into account when implementing or considering such a move.
At the upper management level, patience is in short supply in today’s environment and that poses a challenge to marketers everywhere. Nevertheless, the understanding that no single approach will resolve the issues associated with the constant need for qualified sales leads is evolving , and obtaining them is going to require smarts, effort and, unavoidably, time.
It takes an army
A certain degree of mythology has developed around the effectiveness of automation for lead generation. To think that sales-ready qualified leads will be produced immediately by giving away content such as white papers is quite appealing…and cheap. The reality however, is very different. Many contacts obtained in this manner are researchers, students and vaguely interested parties that do not meet even the most basic lead criteria. In addition, significant numbers of false names and addresses are used to game the system.
At a more sophisticated level, Marketing Automation will not generate sales-ready leads unless extensive “human” contribution is employed. It should be understood that to implement MA and fully extract the benefits it offers, several elements need to be in place:
- A sustained (long term) commitment
- Management support
- Clean and up-to-date database
- Well thought out scoring system
- Content generating resources
- Analytical abilities
The absence of one or more of these prerequisites may render the effort ineffective. Also, MA only captures those who are willing to engage in an on-line environment and a healthy number of potential leads may exist among those who did not respond to any of the MA touches. Consequently, a means of reaching non-responders (such as an outbound telemarketing effort) should be planned to run concurrently with the MA campaign. Ideally, any serious marketing effort should also encourage and facilitate the qualification of prospects who wish to call in directly. This can be achieved by putting in place an inbound response team.
When done right and in conjunction with other supporting programs, MA will generate important intelligence gathered by analyzing and scoring the on-line actions of potential prospects. However, on its own, the resulting number of (lightly-qualified) leads worthy of a follow up is invariably small. Consequently, Marketing Automation needs to be supplemented with a formal, human based, nurturing/qualification program to obtain an appropriate number of truly qualified sales-ready leads.
Because there are no magic bullets, an important foundation for the implementation of a successful demand gen marketing campaign rests with having a good understanding of the target market, your resources’ core competencies and the capabilities of all the available tools. Since email activity ranking is too crude a method to be considered the exclusive lead gen source, a more complex approach, that will include well-timed sequences of automated and human touches, is generally needed.
Ideally, marketing campaigns should be designed to elicit an inbound response. Experience (and results) tells us that inbound calls have the highest conversion rates to sales ready qualified leads. Yet, many firms shun this in favor of the digital-only handling and wonder why they don’t have higher conversions.
We have also found that a common issue with many projects is that, while generating significant numbers of sales-ready leads, they often involve low value opportunities. In other words, they miss their profitability sweet spot. This is generally the result of poor planning and targeting. These are some questions that should be asked prior to the launching of any demand gen undertaking:
- What are the sales revenue targets? Is this long or short term?
- What is the minimum opportunity value? (Big fish, small fish?)
- Are the targets realistic? If over-ambitious they may lead to failure.
- Has the entire lead-to-sales process been aligned and received buy-in from all parties?
- Have all the means of reaching potential prospects been considered (online, offline, events, webinars, banner adds, etc.)
- Is there an appropriate prospect list available? Is the data clean and accurate?
- How much should be invested in human follow up? What is lost by not doing so?
- Has an inbound inquiry response team been considered/planned/set-up, and tested?
- What must be done with those who do not meet the minimum lead criteria?
- Are all touch points backed by a compelling offer/value proposition and relevant content?
- Have performance metrics been created to measure the process’ effectiveness all the way to sales?
- Can an ROI be tracked?
By addressing these critical questions, the marketer will have a better planned campaign and a much greater probability of increasing lead production, consequently meeting or exceeding sales goals. If any of these items are not addressed, the risk of failure can be high. When in doubt, consider partnering with a lead management expert.