Lead generation is an important function, yet one of the least understood and most mismanaged in many organizations. Why is that so, and what can you do to put in place a best-in-class lead generation program?
Here are six keys to success that I have formulated over years of working with B2B companies to get lead generation right.
1. Get sales and marketing on the same page
Lead generation is a strange animal. It is usually executed and owned by Marketing, yet its success is really judged by Sales. When you go to the board meeting, you can show how great your programs are and how many leads have been generated, but if the sales VP says your leads are no good, that's what the board will hear.
For a lead-generation program to be successful, its goals must be clearly agreed upon by both organizations. That's not an easy task, but it's doable. The agreement between Marketing and Sales ought to spell out which leads should be passed to Sales and which should remain with Marketing.
To reach an agreement, both sides must make an effort to leave their fixations behind. Marketing has to realize that salespeople care only about leads that are ready to engage in the sales process. At any given time, the amount of leads that should be passed to Sales is probably no more than 5-15% of all leads generated.
At the same time, Sales expectations must be realistic and match market reality. In an early market, Sales should not be looking for leads that have well-defined needs, budget, and authority. There are just not enough of them out there. Your salespeople must be willing and equipped to start the sales process with prospects that have a latent need and work them to the point they are ready to buy.
2. Offer content that delivers value to buyers
People love buying but hate to be sold. Naturally, they are suspicious of anything that smells like a sales pitch. They are looking for credible sources to help them make an informed decision. They want to be educated, and if possible even entertained—two things that can be rarely achieved by your typical sales pitch.
So rather than telling them how great your product is and offering them brochures and datasheets, you can help buyers get educated by enlisting the help of more credible third-party sources, such as industry experts and analysts.
The most obvious and credible source you can use is your existing customers. Customer success stories are always effective, but some are more powerful than others. Make sure the story describes the problem that the customer is solving with your solution. Try to get into the details so readers get a real flavor for the problem and how it is solved. If the story sounds like an infomercial, you lose credibility. Use the customer voice as much as possible. Make the customer the hero, not your product.
Once you have the story written, get it placed in an industry publication. Publications are usually hungry for content, and it will carry much greater credibility in the eyes of your prospects.
3. Put in place the process and tools
Lead generation is a process, not a once-and-done project. Just like your salespeople can't stop selling, you cannot stop filling up their pipeline with new opportunities to pursue. And just like you cannot time the stock market, you cannot time the sales process.
You need to constantly reach out to each prospect, so when the time comes for them to start the evaluation process they have you at the top of their minds. You want to contact each prospect at least once a month, preferably 2-3 times. Don't worry about overdoing it. As long as your content delivers value, your prospects will appreciate it. And the few that will opt out probably wouldn't have been be buyers anytime soon anyway.
Frequent use of your list gives you an opportunity to optimize your response and conversion rates over time to make the most out of each outbound campaign. You can and should continually optimize the message, the format, the day and time you send your messages, and how you segment your list.
Touching each prospect 2-3 times each month means that you need a good database to manage your prospect data. You cannot manage all this activity without some automation.
That doesn't mean everything has to be automated from day one and in a single system. Rather than rushing to pay big bucks for an all-encompassing system that automates everything, first figure out the process, then put in place the systems to support it.
You might start with a collection of a few small systems stitched together by some manual steps before you know what you really need and are ready to invest in a more complex, enterprise-type system. It is important that you figure out how the system can help you connect Marketing and Sales and whether the two organizations will use a single system or two separate but integrated systems.
4. Ensure timely follow-up
Many good lead-generation efforts go to waste due to poor follow-up. Some research shows that if left up to Sales, up to 90% of the leads would never be followed up. A "hot" lead that is not followed up in a timely manner will cool down very quickly—some studies show that response rates to a follow-up call can diminish by 50% if you wait just 48 hours, and as much as 90% if you wait a whole week.
The number-one problem with lead follow-up is ownership. Marketing assumes that Sales will do it, while salespeople are too busy closing deals and chasing their own prospects. They also don't trust the quality of Marketing's leads and often see them as a waste of time.
The success of your follow-up is tightly related to the alignment between Marketing and Sales. Once salespeople are confident that the leads they get are ready for a sales conversation, they are more likely to follow up on these leads and can be held accountable for it.
To make sure they get only the leads that match your criteria, you need a way to qualify all incoming leads. You can collect qualifying information in your registration forms, although in many cases a follow-up call to verify some information would still be required. This could be the job of Inside Sales, but it works better if you have a special lead-development function that reports to Marketing.
5. Have the metrics to measure success
Your metrics should reflect the three steps that lead up to sales, which are reach, response, and conversion: how many people you reach, how many of them respond, and how many of these responses you are able to move to the next stage in the sales cycle.
Most marketing departments do a decent job of measuring reach and response. Once you have an agreement that leads should be passed to Sales, measuring conversion becomes relatively straightforward as well.
Not every campaign will generate the same numbers. Some campaigns have a broader reach and response with lower conversion rates; others are more focused but generate higher conversion rates. For example, you might have a whitepaper campaign that will generate many responses from early-stage leads, and follow it up with an evaluation offer to a smaller portion of the database that will get a lower response but higher conversion rate.
As long as you define a clear goal for each campaign, you can design a mix that will address all three metrics and allow you to measure the results against your goals.
6. Find your lead-gen champion
As with everything, it all boils down to people. You need people who are dedicated to lead generation. They need to have the right set of skills to manage lead generation. And they have to be passionate about it.
Most companies have no problem hiring additional salespeople but fail to staff the lead-generation function adequately. The truth is that finding people with expertise in lead generation is still tough. Most people that are looking for marketing positions think of themselves as the creative types, while lead generation is 70% process and 30% creativity; so you might have to go outside the traditional marketing talent pool to find your lead-generation champion.
Why do organizations fail?
Your lead-generation program is only as strong as your weakest link. If any of the above is missing, your entire program will be compromised.
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From what I have seen, not many organizations are able to master these keys to success. At the end of the day, it all comes back to the fact that most senior managers still don't have a good grasp of lead generation. They may understand sales, they may understand marketing, but lead generation is a strange animal that requires specific expertise, which most of them still lack.
The good news is that lead generation is a discipline that can be learned; so if you can recruit one expert, either as an employee or a consultant, she or he can pass the knowledge to others and help you build a best-in-class lead-generation program.