The Brandon Agency’s Cary Murphy recently caught up with two other marketing-industry veterans to talk about leads, along with best practices for capturing and cultivating them. Their engaging and informative conversation is summarized below. (Some of the names have been changed, but the people
and the content are 100% real.)
Before we dive in, let’s introduce the pundits:
● “Austin” is a VP of Marketing for an $11 billion global industrial equipment manufacturer and boasts over 20 years in the business.
● “Rick” is currently a Marketing Director managing a $500 million portfolio of brands. He has over two decades of marketing-industry experience, including time spent with several Fortune 500 companies, primarily in the B2B sector.
● Cary is a Regional President and B2B category leader at The Brandon Agency. He is closing in on 30 years of marketing experience and has worked with dozens of B2B companies of all sizes and across different industries.
Question: Why are leads important in B2B?
Austin: Our equipment can be expensive and can represent a large capital expense, so as a result, our sales process can be very long. From a marketing standpoint, we always need to be filling the funnel. But to that point, what is a lead? Where are they in the funnel? Have we intercepted them halfway through their journey, or are they just starting to research? Segmentation tools are invaluable to us. Our Sales people are really looking for the bottom-of-the-funnel leads.
Rick: Leads are really the lifeblood of the (sales and marketing) organization. Our marketing efforts are different than in B2C — it’s much more specific in B2B, and our customers digest information differently. Leads matter to marketing because they are often the metric we use to measure success, helping us to better direct our efforts.
Cary: Leads are almost always the goal with our B2B clients. Every business is different, and our approach to increasing leads is never exactly the same — but leads are usually the end game. As Rick says, it’s the KPI that we’re keeping the closest eye on. Beyond that, what we’re really after are high-quality leads, but we’re about to get into that …
Question: Are you more focused on Quality or Quantity of leads?
Austin: Definitely quality — ideally from our top targets seeking large-ticket products. We’re most focused on and have the best results with leads where people are committing to something — if they’re coming through the website, for example, and have signed up to download some gated content. It would be great if leads were always black and white, but they are usually shades of grey. Filtering is important — if we’re passing too many unqualified leads through to sales, it becomes harder for them to sift out the goods ones.
Rick: It depends on what we’re trying to do. With a new product or service, we might be looking to generate awareness and be less focused on overall lead quality. As we mature with a product or service, then we have a better understanding of our customers … and our marketing becomes more targeted, we have crafted our messaging, and we’re more likely to be focused on quality.
Cary: These guys are in different businesses, but there is a similar theme throughout this conversation. It comes back to how well we know our customers. What are their pain points? Understanding their profiles and personas, segmenting our audiences, and trying to provide them with the right information at the right point in their purchase journey are all important elements of success. This, ultimately, is the best way to deliver the highest quality leads at each stage of the funnel, and end up turning over high-value leads to your sales team.
Question: What is the biggest challenge in generating new leads?
Austin: Our best leads still come from our own website, so the biggest challenge is to maintain the traffic, and then finding the right balance between the information you provide for free and how much is gated. We want to provide just enough to keep them moving through the funnel. Also, when it comes to leads, referrals are always the best, so seeking ways to encourage your advocates to spread the word in B2B is an interesting challenge.
Rick: We’re managing multiple brands serving different parts of the industry in our business, so the challenge is usually with understanding the different customers and their unique challenges. As we launch new products, we need to get this information first and make sure we get our messaging right. The messaging really needs to be on point.
Cary: What I see across all my different clients and industries is a chronic lack of time. There is so much that goes into marketing, beyond just earning leads, and there are so many different tools and tactics that companies need to understand and deploy. I’ll be the first to point out that, ideally, all these different tactics are being put to work and are all working seamlessly together! That’s certainly one area where we, as an integrated agency, can help. CRMs and Marketing Automation, which we’ll talk about later, offer the promise of an all-in-one solution, but they all too often become yet one more tool that isn’t being fully utilized (due to lack of time, resources or both).
Question: What tactics have been most effective in generating leads?
Austin: Overall, in B2B, the hard sale does not work … customers don’t want to be “sold to” with pushy tactics. We find the most success with permission-based marketing — asking customers questions, providing them with training and education, giving them useful tools. We can’t start the conversation with our product, it needs to be focused on the customer’s challenge.
We’re successful when we can influence timing — providing decision-making tools that can accelerate the purchase process.
Rick: All of the tactics we’re doing with TBA, of course. We’ve been moving toward more digital, measurable tactics. We’re trying to get closer to our specific customers: What do they read? Where are the trends being published? How do we reach them and stay in front of them? But the shift from unmeasurable print ads to more targeted (even geo-targeted) digital ads has been a very positive step.
Cary: What works is always different, but I think the most neglected tool for lead generation (certainly not with these gentlemen) is the business’s website — and more specifically, a dedicated, consistent effort toward SEO and content creation. B2B is research intensive — and you can easily find out how your customers are searching. Being strategic with identifying these keywords and providing useful, relevant information to answer your customers’ questions is a path to victory. It’s not the fastest path — and you’re going to need to do other things — but it is the surest long-term path to connecting with customers and eventually landing high-quality leads.
Question: Speaking of tactics, can you rank the top 3-5 most effective tactics for generating leads?
Austin: Number one would be content; two would be SEO; three would be email marketing — but only if you have the database and it’s properly segmented; four would be paid search; five would be social media, in our case LinkedIn.
Rick: Content. Content is great for positioning yourself as a subject-matter expert, and then to leverage for PR. Next, paid search. We want to make sure we’re at the top of the page when potential customers are searching for us or our products. Next would be LinkedIn. We do have some B2C, and it’s a good way to reach both audiences. Email would be last. It’s a struggle, because decision makers’ inboxes are so crowded — we’re all flooded with offers, and most of us ignore them.
Cary: I’m so glad to see these guys putting content first. And it’s probably important to note, as they are both clients, that we’re taking a very integrated approach with content. Create it once, and use it everywhere. “Content” becomes what you put on your site, what you use for email, what you share on social media, and ultimately what you use for earned media and PR.
Also, as noted, I’m a huge fan of what we call SEM (search engine marketing), combining both SEO and PPC. We also call it harvesting online intent: Know what your customers are searching for, and make sure they are finding you and your relevant content at each stage in their journey.
Last question! Do you use a CRM application and marketing automation, and if so, how critical is it to your marketing efforts?
Austin: Yes, we use HubSpot, and it’s critical to the way we work. It brings validity and tracking to our marketing funnel and allows us to show the organization that our customers — and our biggest customers at that — are regularly engaging with our content.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s really about the segmentation. It’s connecting all the different pieces to get a better picture of our customer and then sorting out where they are in their journey.
Marketing automation is about much more than just sending email. If you have 25 customers, you shouldn’t be sending mass emails, you really should be taking the time to send them individually. When we do use automation, we go out of our way to make it clear that this IS a mass email, none of this fake personalization.
Rick: We use Salesforce and Pardot. It’s critical — you really have to use it. In our case, our marketing team is just as likely to use it as our sales team. We can use it to better understand our customers and how they are searching for us — it’s extremely important.
There’s a lot to it, though. There is a lot of activity. It can become cumbersome for sales at times.
Cary: We end up working in a lot of different CRM/marketing-automation platforms. They’re all very similar, and from a marketing standpoint, it’s all in how you use them! I most often see clients using pieces and parts of these tools (sometimes due to limitations within the organization) and not able to get all they are worth out of them. As Austin mentioned in a sidebar conversation, these platforms are ideal for “big data,” and if you have a large number of customers and content. If you’re a smaller organization and don’t have access to one of these expensive platforms, fear not — we can replicate most of the automation features through less expensive and less cumbersome tools.
Cary: It was a real pleasure to take a pause and just talk marketing with these guys. They are both incredibly knowledgeable and talented. I did not give them questions in advance, they just riffed it top of mind. We had such great discussions, I really should have recorded them and made a podcast.
Personally, I like the way Seth Godin describes B2B marketing. He refers to it as tension and release. Your first job as a marketer is to create tension, to make someone see something that they want — and in B2B, that is often a big-ticket purchase. Now there is tension … I want this thing, but it’s expensive. If I make the wrong decision, I could be fired. If it works out, I could be a hero. This is tension, but it’s good tension.
Once you have tension, your job is to provide the release. Give the customer the information they need to ease this tension. Build the case and convince them that they are making the right decision. Don’t be pushy, but have some empathy — this is a big decision. The tension will be highest RIGHT before the purchase is made.
Good luck, fellow marketers. We’d love to hear your thoughts as well.