Lead-nurturing is the process of building a relationship with your leads and moving them down your sales funnel until they are ready to become customers.

When new visitors arrive at your website, you have two ways to seize the opportunity and guide them toward becoming customers. Both opportunities can evaporate in the blink of an eye if you don't have the proper systems in place.

Lead Nurturing 101

Lead nurturing starts by collecting a visitor's contact information in exchange for something she deems valuable but not risky. Often, that entails some form of useful information or a product trial intended to help solve the visitor's problem.

Email, RSS subscriptions, and similar methods of engagement keep a visitor's memory and impression of a company or product at the forefront. Later on in the lead-nurturing process, you can use a visitor's contact information to educate, inspire, or otherwise engage her as a potential new customer. The goal is to encourage both return visits and, eventually, sales.

Behavioral Marketing 101

Behavioral marketing collects information about what a visitor does while on your site, and appropriately engages the visitor before she clicks away. For example, a visitor might land on your homepage, see a button about a product of interest, and click to learn more.

Now imagine that her activity on your site could automatically produce targeted messages that announced special incentives, additional useful information, tips, or other enticements.

Behavioral marketing uses your visitors' behavior, both on and off your website, to select just the right message at just the right time. If a lead should mention a competitor in a tweet on Twitter, for example, or use specific keywords, you can automatically direct-message that lead via Twitter.

If she downloads a document but does not return to your site within a set time frame, you can arrange for an automatic email to be sent, asking her to review the document. Each of those examples illustrates how to engage leads and bring them back to your website.

Together, lead nurturing and behavioral marketing help increase conversions and provide the building blocks needed to transform leads from visitors to paying customers.

Three Necessary Stages for Gaining a New Customer

Nearly every marketing expert will agree: For a visitor to become a customer, you must take the visitor through three basic stages. Those stages are know, like, and trust. In other words, before expecting a visitor to buy or invest money, you must do the following:

  1. Know. Provide an opportunity for the visitor to learn about the company, product, or service.
  2. Like. Help the visitor identify with, relate to, or see a need or use for a particular company, product, or service.
  3. Trust. Help the visitor come to trust the company, the product, and—most important—her decision to risk money on it.

Lead Nurturing Automates the Three Stages

Offering an email address, subscribing to a newsletter, or connecting via social media demonstrates a visitor's interest. The visitor has taken the initiative to engage, much like starting a face-to-face conversation offline. With automation tools, you can continue the engagement in a hands-free environment while still participating in the conversation.

Emails, new content notifications, RSS feeds, and social media updates can all be automated to regularly deliver valuable information to previously engaged visitors. Again, the visitor is not taking a large risk; she is merely learning more and becoming more familiar with a company, product, or service. In essence, automatic tools can take over the three-stage process needed to move a lead along.

Effort vs. Results

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of lead nurturing is the ability to automate. The effort to create an environment that encourages conversions is expended once, yet it repeatedly produces results. It is the equivalent of producing a TV commercial once, and replaying it dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times for each lead.

When done well, the process won't feel automated for the visitor. Each instance of engagement, such as a series of informational or training emails, provides a gentle nudge toward becoming a paying customer without the business's having to exert additional effort. Work once, and reap the benefits over and over again.

Feedback and Forwarding

Lead nurturing provides the opportunity to not only move a visitor toward becoming a paying customer but also gather feedback and referral opportunities. Business owners and key management personnel can see what visitors do, how they respond, what messages they open, and what links they click.

That insight provides a wealth of opportunity to tweak the process to best meet the needs of your target market. Test new content, experiment with targeted or segmented promotions, request feedback on services, or engage customers in the decision-making process.

Social media sharing, email forwarding, and similar actions taken by leads can also provide a plethora of forwarding opportunities. Produce outstanding content, send it to your leads, and those leads can potentially market your information for you.

People are naturally prone to sharing information and solutions they feel meet the needs of their friends, family, coworkers, supervisors, and colleagues. Lead nurturing, when executed properly, can encourage sales as well as generate more leads via forwarding and sharing.

Build Loyalty by Listening and Responding

How many times have you bought a product and loved it, but couldn't remember where you bought it? How many times have you thought a product could be improved, but didn't say anything because you didn't feel someone would listen? With the right lead-nurturing system, you will never leave your customers feeling like that. Staying in front of previous customers via continued lead nurturing helps them remember how valuable you have been to them in the past.

Providing customers a platform on which they can regularly interact gives them a voice. It also allows you to hear what they have to say and to respond in a timely manner with improved products or processes, more interesting content, or a better information-delivery schedule. Do they want to know more, hear from you less often, or express an idea for a new feature? Lead nurturing helps provide the means they need to stay engaged with you and your offerings.

Shorten the Time Between Initial Contact and the Sale

According to Market2Lead, the sales cycle is 23% shorter for nurtured leads. That means a visitor engaged in immediate contact via lead nurturing will risk money on a product or service nearly three-quarters the time that a traditional lead will. Faster sales cycles mean increased revenues and less effort on the part of Sales. A warm lead, as any salesperson knows, is easier to convert than a cold lead.

According to Genius.com, the top marketing misalignment occurs when vendors rely on cold calls and sales personnel in the early stages of lead development, a time when leads rely on their own research and prefer low-pressure engagement.

Less than 10% of customers surveyed by Genius reported buying from a company as a result of cold calls. In fact, buyers listed vendor websites and whitepapers or e-books as two of the top three influences that helped them feel confident enough to make a purchase.

Lead nurturing combines those influential marketing tools to help maximize lead conversions.

What It All Means

Considering the value of lead nurturing, you have to ask yourself whether your current strategies are working. Look at your website statistics. How many of your visitors click away after reading just one or two pages?

Consider what might happen if you were to take a popular knowledge article or whitepaper that currently accounts for a large percentage of your traffic, expand it to a short e-book, and then offer it as a download in exchange for a visitor's contact information?

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Never Waste an Opportunity: The Value of Lead-Nurturing

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Sookie Shuen is community manager at inbound marketing consultancy Tomorrow People, where she handles community activities based on the Zoober Inbound Marketing methodology. She also authors the Tomorrow People blog. You can reach her via Google+ and Twitter.