Long, complex sales cycles are often misunderstood by marketing staff. Marketers at companies with lengthy sales processes, such as software and technology companies, typically focus exclusively at the very top of the sales funnel, mistakenly believing that their only job is to "generate more leads."

These misguided marketers happily create expensive advertising campaigns and execute programs designed to drive more people into the cycle. Then they simply tie a pretty ribbon around the leads they generate and toss them over the cubicle wall to the sales department.

This strategy is ineffective.

Savvy marketing professionals understand that sales and marketing must work together to move prospects through the sales pipeline. This is especially important in the complex sale, with long decision making cycles and multiple buyers that need to be influenced. The good news is that Web content drives people through and shortens the sales cycle for any product or service—especially complex ones that have many steps and take months or even years to complete.

First, understand your sales process in detail

All sales processes are definable, repeatable and understandable, and effective marketers use the Web to move people into and through the process. You need to get together with salespeople, sales management and product managers to understand exactly what happens in the sales cycle.

You should answer questions such as these: How do people initially find your company or product? When does the sales person first contact a potential buyer? When do they talk about your company's products? When do they offer a price quote?

Understanding the process in detail allows you to create a definable, repeatable and understandable process that Web content can influence.

Segment your prospects right from the home page

A very effective technique is to segment prospects by using "self-select paths" right from the home page. Consider links based on the buyer persona, perhaps by job title or by industry. A prospect is much more likely to enter the sales cycle by clicking a link that is designed especially for her.

Create thought-leadership content at the top of the sales funnel

People in the early stages of the sales cycle need basic information on the product category, especially "thought leadership" pieces. Don't just write about your company and your products at these early stages. When doing initial research, people don't want to hear about you and your company. They want information about them and their problems.

Make Web content, at the early part of the sales process, free

The job of Web content in the early stages of the sales consideration process is just to get a prospect interested in your organization. The best way is to provide valuable content that addresses their problems. You want to build empathy.

At this early stage, avoid forcing people to register their name and contact details. The best thing at that point is for your prospect to think: "These guys are smart. They understand my problems. I want to learn more."

Provide compelling and detailed content to get people to 'raise their hand'

Once you've developed an online rapport through Web content, it is time to deliver something of value that you can trade for a registration form. Remember, if you are asking for someone's name and contact details, you must trade that personal information for something of equal or better value to your prospect.

At this stage, a compelling white paper, online event (such as a webinar), or online demo is appropriate to move your prospect further down the sales process—and she will happily "raise her hand" to express interest by filling out a form. At this point, you're still not ready to sell a product or service (yet).

When you pass a name to the sales department, provide as much detail about the prospect as you can

Congratulations. Now you've gotten the name of a prospect that a salesperson can contact. But you need to provide sales with as much detail as possible based on the content your prospect accessed. Together with the form she filled out, tell the salesperson details like "She clicked the 'I'm a financial executive' link from the homepage and then requested our white paper." When your salesperson contacts the prospect, he will already know details about her besides those just on the lead form.

Now that you're working the sales prospect, offer even more content

When a prospect is actually talking to sales, your marketing job is not done. Those further along in the process want to compare offerings and need detailed specifications and lists of features and benefits. You should create Web content to help your sales department move the prospect toward a close. Add her to your email newsletter list. Invite her to a webinar. Alert her to your corporate blog. Working with your salesperson, offer her online ROI calculators, feature comparison charts and other tools for the middle and latter portions of the sales cycle.

And don't forget to make certain that your salespeople know about the content you're providing so that they can coordinate by pointing prospects there, too.

Measure and improve

Measure what content is being used and how. Understand through Web metrics what's working, and constantly tweak the content to make it better. Meet regularly with salespeople to gain insights into the sales cycle and how your Web content is helping the process. The good news is that the Web is that it is iterative—you can constantly make adjustments on the fly.

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In an increasingly competitive marketplace with a complex sales process, Web content will unlock success, even in highly competitive industries where smaller players are beset upon by larger, better-funded competitors.

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image of David Meerman Scott

David Meerman Scott, B2B marketing powerhouse and fandom strategist, spotted the real-time marketing revolution in its infancy and wrote five books about it including The New Rules of Marketing and PR, with more than 400,000 copies sold in English and available in 29 languages.

Now, David says the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of superficial online communications. Tech-weary and bot-wary people are hungry for true human connection. Organizations have learned to win by developing what David calls a "Fanocracy"—tapping into the mindset that relationships with customers are more important than the products they sell to them.

Prior to starting his own business, he was vice president of marketing for several publicly traded B2B technology and information companies.