From the beginning of our marketing careers, we've had it drummed into our heads that inbound leads are the Holy Grail of our marketing efforts.

We perceive them to be the quickest and most effective leads to convert, so we idolize them: We view them as the ultimate way to showcase all of the time we've spent optimizing content and crafting killer CTAs to hook prospects.

But when you filter out "leads" stemming from partnerships, job seekers, and college students and researchers, is what you have left really "hot" inbound leads? Are they truly at that sweet spot buying stage? Did they follow the content path you've laid out and respond to call to actions and contact forms you intentionally placed for them to find along that path?

It's pretty likely they just stumbled onto your company at some random point and added you to their list of potential vendors. Worse, you may have entered their consideration set while they were already negotiating with someone else and just needed one more bid to secure a competitive offer.

My stepdad once said, "Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut." As marketers, let's not be blind squirrels sorting through inbounds until we eventually find one solid lead.

Reality-check: Inbound is too late

By the time buyers virtually raise their hands, they've already done research and they have a pretty good idea of which solution they're going to pick. So, if you're waiting around for them to fill out a form before engaging, you're already behind.

As marketers, we have to understand what buyers value and what they're searching for before they raise their hand. That information empowers us to greet accounts with the right content, at the right time, through the right channels, and spend more time focusing on "in-market" accounts—the ones with the highest buying propensity.

The ability to analyze which accounts are in-market offers a sense of control over our leads and eliminates the arbitrary need to wait for them to come to us. No more missing "hot" leads because we didn't get there soon enough; instead, we'd have the power to effectively influence their entire buying journey.

However, the process of determining when a buyer is in-market and contacting them at the ideal time is easier said than done.

The good news: intent signals and predictive analytics offer insight into the full prospect journey and which personas play a role in executing purchasing decisions at every stage. That "pre-pipeline" journey includes five stages: Target, Awareness, Consideration, Decision, and Purchase.

  1. The Target stage is when you've classified accounts in your Ideal Customer Profile, but they haven't yet demonstrated buying activity. Therefore, it's best not to waste valuable sales and marketing resources here.
  2. The Awareness stage features accounts starting to realize they have a problem. They haven't put the pieces together on how to solve that problem or even really thought about solutions. So, our goal here is to ensure they know us. We want them connecting solving their problem with our brand and approach.
  3. Things really liven up in the Consideration stage. Accounts here know they have a problem and want to figure out possible approaches to solving the problem. At this point, we want them to learn from us: Ideally, we want them consuming our high-value commercial teaching content.
  4. Next, in the Decision stage, accounts move "in market." They go from wanting to learn how to solve their problem to actually engaging with potential solutions. When an account goes from Consideration to Decision, a critical window of opportunity opens up for us as marketers, and we want to be the first to engage.
  5. Engagement could be email exchanges, event attendance, high-value content consumption, chat, or webinar attendance. Ultimately, though, we want accounts to progress from Decision to Purchase, which means meeting and becoming qualified pipeline.

Using buyer insights, we can follow prospects throughout this entire journey and develop a connection with them through high-value outreach based on insights about the account, buying team personas, their buying stage, and the keywords they care about most.

Treat in-market like inbound

When an account is considered in-market, it's not a guarantee; it's not pipeline. It's an indicator of the best place to focus your time. These accounts still must be worked, which is why business development rep (BDR) or sales development rep (SDR) teams are critical.

Take the following steps to reach buyers "in the pocket," so you can optimize resources and set your BDRs up for success:

  • Construct a service level agreement (SLA) for in-market outreach. Most marketers consider their marketing and sales teams as non-aligned. The key to closing the gap between the two departments is to construct an SLA. This contract defines expected deliverables from the two parties; 65% of marketing departments that have implemented such a system have achieved higher ROI on inbound efforts, according to HubSpot.
  • Prepare BDRs with content and talking points using insights on what you know about the account, persona, keyword searches, and buying stage. Understanding why the account is in-market is the first step to apply intent signals in uncovering the who, what, and why. BDRs can then use this information to match relevant, timely content to accounts.
  • In our new account-based world, you need to reach out to the correct personas at the right stage. That means you must prioritize more than just one persona by setting up an opportunity model that continues to be refined and redesigned over time using customer feedback. These resources update the buying team on when accounts move through the stages of the buyer's journey, cueing them to align information with Marketing and engage with customers.
  • The nature of inbound marketing is defined as an approach to attract prospects to a company rather than spending large sums to go find them. No matter what business you represent, take strides to implement in-market inbound tactics. Effective avenues include personalized emails, optimized keywords, videos, calls, and social outreach.

The process of adjusting your marketing approach may seem like a lot of extra work, but the benefits make the time and effort invested more than worthwhile.

Again, the blind squirrels eventually find a good nut—but the process is not predictable and it's not going to get you double-digit growth numbers. Instead, we need to take a page out the early bird's playbook to secure that worm before anyone else.

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B2B Leads: In-Market Is the New Inbound, Here's Why

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image of Latane Conant

Latane Conant is CMO of 6sense, a leading AI-powered account engagement platform.

LinkedIn: Latane Conant

Twitter: @LataneConant