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8 Steps to Optimizing Your Lead Nurturing Program
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Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll is founder and CEO of InTouch, a B2B marketing firm and one of the first companies to provide lead generation services for the complex sale. Brian is a recognized expert in lead generation and author of the popular book, Lead Generation for the Complex Sale (McGraw Hill, 2006). 

Brian's been profiled and regularly quoted in numerous publications and he speaks to thousands of people a year on improving sales effectiveness, marketing and lead generation strategies. His acclaimed, B2B Lead Generation blog , was named the Best B-to-B Marketing Blog by MarketingSherpa readers and is read by thousands each week. Follow Brian Carroll via Twitter

During this Webinar, Brian Carroll presented 8 steps critical to developing a successful inbound lead nurturing process. Don’t be tempted to skip over one of the steps; the steps are presented in the order of importance and each step is just as important as the other in the process.

Here are two partner case studies that show just some of what organizations can do with the proper lead nurturing program in place.

Case Study #1 

Before Lead Nurturing: This organization generated a lot of activity, but the lead-to-sale pipeline conversion rate was less than 2 percent. Without a closed loop process, Marketing felt leads went into a “black hole.” This organization was unable to consistently measure ROI. Ultimately, InTouch discovered that Sales didn’t pursue a majority of the leads and there was a total lack of consensus on the definition of a lead.

After Lead Nurturing: The new program closed the loop on every “sales-ready” lead and was better able to measure and prove ROI. Once InTouch began to actively nurture early stage leads they were able to grow the lead-to-sales opportunity rate from 4% to 12%, adding 200% more opportunities in sales pipeline. And, the bonus: results were achieved without a significant budget increase.

Case Study #2 

Before Lead Nurturing: This organization was not actively nurturing any early-stage leads. Only one contact was engaged per company with only two touch points per contact - with only 40% of contact’s email addresses provided. There was a 21% lead to opportunity rate (sales pursuit after hand-off) and a 4% lead-to-sale rate (sales converted from marketing leads).

After Lead Nurturing: There was not an inbound lead generation process present in this organization. We wanted to help them get more leads qualified. InTouch began actively pursuing 88% of the early-stage leads with three or more contacts engaged per company and eight touch points per contact. The new program required regular marketing pipeline analysis and sales reporting, closed loop feedback, and conversion rates by stage. The organization saw an 89% increase in lead-to-sales pipeline conversion rate and a 75% increase in lead-to-sales conversion rate.

Lead Nurturing Defined

Leads represent people. Lead nurturing is ultimately about creating relationships. Misguided and well-meaning organizations may simply start sending out more emails in an attempt to nurture their relationships. However, true lead nurturing is a relevant and consistent dialog with viable potential customers, regardless of their timing to buy. It’s about being a resource to them.

Is it worth ramping up lead nurturing efforts in this economy? Absolutely. The DemandGen Report Benchmark Survey says that more than 1/3 of respondents indicated that sales/buying cycles have been delayed as a result of the economic downturn. In response to deals extending over longer periods, industry insiders argue that lead nurturing and qualification will become even more essential components of sales and marketing strategy.

Aberdeen’s  “Lead Nurturing: The Secret to Successful Lead Generation (2008)” says organizations deemed “best-in-class” see double the bid to win ration on nurtured leads compared to peers. Furthermore, nurtured leads delivered 47% higher average order values than on nurtured leads.

Here’s where you can see the real value in lead nurturing. Some 80% of leads that are disqualified by sales go on to purchase a solution in the next 24 months – that’s according Sirius Decisions. Organizations can market to leads they have already spend money to acquire  and effectively reach them with target marketing messages – keeping them engaged until they are ready to buy.

An effective lead nurturing program means sticking with it. This chart shows that customer needs develop over time. Some 44% of the leads converted in less than 24 days; however, a significant portion of level three leads did not convert for 100 or more days.  

Executing Inbound Lead Generation

Here are few practical rules of thumbs to think about. True lead nurturing will include:

  • The human touch via teleprospecting
  • Tools that make it easy to continue conversation and make appropriate offers based on behavior and engagement.
  • Lead nurturing automation tools that support  lower volume and ad hoc delivery while tracking all touch points such as phone, email, online efforts and personal contact.
  • The measurement of nurturing results such as:
    • Depths of contacts in sphere of influence
    • Contacts that “opt-in” for nurturing
    • Contacts that become “sales ready” leads 

The goal of inbound lead generation is to move people from leads to customers. This chart shows a simple inbound lead generation process. InTouch is used as the example. The prospect conducts a search for “teleprospecting” and comes to our landing Page. They fill out a simple form which is put into our lead qualification process. We ask ourselves, does this need to be nurtured or can it be sent on to sales?

Getting started

Organizations aren’t going to nurture every contact that comes into their database. All inquiries need to be qualified first. When InTouch studied what actually moved the sales needle, it wasn’t just more leads. It was having leads that were ready to speak with someone. Things to think about:

  • Remember less is more. Quality rules over quantity.
  • Consolidate and centralize inquiry information. Create a database where the qualification process can be documented. There needs to be one source for everyone to work from.
  • The best way to qualify a lead is to pick up the phone. Often, it’s better to get information over the phone. Email isn’t always the best way to gather it.
  • Document a clear “hand-off” process for each lead
  • Measure “sales pursuit” on every lead

For more information on how to optimize the lead qualification process, read “What’s a Lead? Improve ROI With a Better Lead Qualification Process.”

The 8 steps involved in building a successful inbound lead nurturing process include:

Step One: Define the Ideal Customer Profile
Step Two: Define the Universal Lead Definition
Step Three: Lead Qualification
Step Four: Understand and Capture Audience
Step Five: Message Development
Step Six: Build Lead Nurturing Library
Step Seven: Develop Lead Nurturing Tracks
Step Eight: Executing Lead Nurturing

Let’s start breaking down the steps into practical how-tos:

Step One: Define the Ideal Customer Profile

Organizations should know who their ideal customers are based on key data points. They should clearly define their target market and create ideal customer profiles (ICP).  The ICP is the basis for defining a sales ready lead. Ask Sales what they need to know before this lead goes into the database. By prescreening potential customers based on the unique attributes of an organization’s prime customers they can determine the set of criteria that will serve as the basis of conversations.

Organizations will need to:

  • Define the sweet spot for the organization; define what the ideal fit is to define the best opportunities.
  • Include common criteria such industry code, revenue, employee size, trigger events and sphere of influence.

Step Two: Define the Universal Lead Definition

Now that organizations know whom they want to target, they need to know their ideal idea of what a lead is. That’s where the Universal Lead Definition comes in. Organization’s trying to measure lead generation without a Universal Lead Definition simply are not capitalizing on their opportunities. The benefits of qualifying all leads against a ULD are tremendous. Higher standards on qualifying inquiries to actual leads positively impacts conversion with lead to pipeline and lead to sale. The Sales force will experience less frustration and will see an increase in their effectiveness. There will be better funnel management leading to more accurate and consistent ROI metrics. The biggest reason Sales doesn’t act on “leads” is because they don’t feel they are actual leads yet.

A company’s ULD will:

  • Allow leads to be scored and prioritized
  • Define the degree of sales readiness
  • Require buy-in from Sales and Marketing: everyone has to agree to the definition

Marketing needs to have a goal such as which leads to nurture before handing them off to Sales. Below is a Spectrum for Sales Lead Readiness

Most leads start at Level 1. Level 1 represents someone who has responded to a webinar or downloaded something. Before they can move to Level 2, there needs to be a meaningful interaction and there needs to be a fit. Sales don’t want the leads until they reach Level 3. By this point there is a clearly defined need for what the company offers. At this Level, Sales really just wants to know if these folks are ready to talk. Have a process that determines this. Level 4 and 5 is going deeper into the process. These buyers may have a process that is more defined.

For more information, read “How to Precisely Define a “Lead” Before Marketing Begins”

Step Three: Lead Qualification

Once organizations have their customers identified and have a lead definition clearly defined and agreed upon by everyone, the next step is to qualify those leads.

Most Marketers use inquiry forms to gather potential leads. It could be a registration form to download a white paper or a registration form for a Webinar. Marketers have a tendency to require too much information from their inquiries. They try to get all the information they need to qualify someone from one form. There needs to be a balance.

Here’s an example of the first form:

InTouch has learned that you need to break it down into a two step process. In fact, during a study, we found an 89% increase in the amount of people who filled out the form by simply making the form a two-step process. The first form is giving someone a chance to raise their hand and tell you they need something. We get some very basic information from them.

Once they know that at some point someone will be contacting them, we follow up with second step that includes the confirmation and a thank you, but also gives inquiries the opportunity to provide us with more information. This step provides information that will help us understand the request and be more relevant in any subsequent touches.

Here’s two examples of the second form:

The next touch InTouch has found is the most read email in the entire qualification process. It’s the automated response message. And because it’s the most read, InTouch makes the most of this opportunity by customizing the message. We provide valuable information while getting ourselves more exposure through another InTouch resource. The goal is to connect people with your organization.

Here’s our Automated Inquiry Email:

There’s another qualification step…some sales are more complex than others. At this point, the prospect has agreed to be contacted by someone.  Organizations need to set up a schedule for these emails. Notice the first automated response email was from Brian Carroll, InTouch CEO. The follow up email is from a member of Sales. Now, the phone is the gold standard for following up at this point; however, most prospects are leary of providing numbers. This email explains why InTouch would like to have their phone number and we request that they provide it in this message. We also provide a link to our blog – it’s just another way to set ourselves up as a resource.

The phone provides the human touch. It remains the backbone of a successful lead nurturing process. Once organizations get that phone number, use it to develop relationships. Use a phone call to:

  • Confirm information on inquiry
  • Ask for missing information from form
  • Get permission to “opt-in” for nurturing
  • Identify qualified leads

Here’s our Follow Up Inquiry Email

Step Four:  Understand and Capture Audience

The last four steps are fundamental to driving the most effective nurturing process. At this point, companies need to determine who they are nurturing and understand who’s involved in the buying process. That inbound person could be an information gatherer for their company or they could be a decision maker. Sometimes they are the economic buyer. Build a database based on that person’s role. The goal isn’t to build the biggest database, but to build one that is going to be most relevant.

The database is the hub. Make sure all information comes together into one spot. Take all the information that at this point has been stored in an Excel sheet and put it in the company’s CRM, capturing all the touchpoints.

Step Five: Message Development

Once an organization knows who is coming to them they can begin segmentation to make the conversation relevant to their position and their role. A lot of this information is readily available on company’s websites and a phone call is not usually required to gather this kind of information.

This step represents a genuine understanding of the customer’s business situation, needs and desires. The goal is to make it clear to those in the buying process that you “get them” by being relevant.

To be relevant ask:

  • How do they work?
  • What is their functional role?
  • What are their anticipated needs?
  • What are their priorities and challenges?

Message mapping is a great way for organizations to tie in what they are selling with what the buyer’s key issues are. It helps to address individual concerns. When creating the map, consider the problems prospects need to overcome each day. Consider their top priorities right now. Ask what the prospect worries about. Define what message your organization wants to communicate. The content should be relevant to their issues.

Here’s an example of a message map based on role:

Step Six: Build Lead Nurturing Library

Building content. It’s tough, but here’s an example of where you can get content:

Here’s how to do it:

  • Gather and filter relevant content based on message map. It could include:
    • Third-party articles, relevant topics, research reports
    • Vendor agnostic podcasts, webinars, blogs and case studies to position Sales as a “trusted advisor”
    • Company-specific white papers, success stores or webcasts
  • Lesson Learned:
    • Reuse available content before creating new content
    • Filter third-part content for a nurturing "library" using free sources such as Google Alerts.

Use email to share content. Some Marketers will declare email is dead. It’s simply not true. It’s an effective way to touch base with prospects.

Build a template based on third party content. Here’s an example template:

Step Seven: Develop Lead Nurturing Tracks

Once a library of content has been assembled, then map out the tactics for sharing content.

The example below shows a three-track lead nurturing program InTouch assembled for a client.  It relies heavily on email and phone. We were also able to use current and past events as well. Remember to keep it simple. It’s a process: crawl, walk and then run. We built up to 18 tracks for this particular client.

Step Eight: Executing Lead Nurturing

Always track each touchpoint  and include the history in your database. Include all information pertinent to the touchpoint such as: the date, what form the touch was in whether email or phone, and the results of the touch was a message left, did you have a conversation, what was the subject of the email).

In the example below the chart shows the touches that happened to a company InTouch was pursuing before it became a lead. It started with Slyvie Jones subscribing to my blog in January of 2008. It then shows the calls we made to her which resulted in finding two other names to call. In March of 2008, we sent Sylvie and Joel an email and we were able to see that Sylvie clicked on a link within that email. That resulted in one of her team members submitting an inquiry, which resulted in multiple conversations and emails being sent before this touch finally became a lead in April of 2008.

I want to point out that although there is a lot of emphasis on lead scoring, lead scoring does not equal sales readiness. You should instead focus on a lead engagement score. You can use this score to prioritize your follow-up with the human touch (the phone). Some things you should be tracking for a lead engagement score are:

  • Email interactions (clicks and replies not opens)
  • Website visits (product or service pages)
  • Collateral downloads (registration or clicks)
  • Event attendance (webinar, tradeshow)
  • Request info (contact us form, email request)

Below is a checklist for Marketers as well Sales. This represents the must-haves for an optimal lead nurturing program.

Marketing To-Dos:

  1. Develop universal lead definition with sales team
  2. Develop internal lead qualification process
  3. Pass only qualified leads to sales team
  4. Revisit your value proposition for your core audience
  5. Catalog value added content for your nurturing library
  6. Get input from sales on target companies and names
  7. Get sales team input to co-develop nurturing campaigns
  8. Connect sales and marketing in same database
  9. Leverage teleprospecting to add the “human touch”
  10. Conduct close-the-loop meetings

Sales To-Dos:

  1. Develop universal lead definition with marketing team
  2. Provide marketing target companies and names
  3. Pass back leads that are not active in your active pipeline
  4. Regularly update lead records in your database
  5. Define how you will close the loop with the marketing team
  6. Provide feedback to marketing regularly on your leads
  7. Develop a lead nurturing plan (with marketing)
  8. Regular close-the-loop meetings

Much like a savvy investor who buys when the market is down, smart marketers can capitalize on this opportunity (and beat competitors), by bringing focus and attention to their lead generation efforts. Keep in mind that leads always represent people. And people will develop whether you nurture them or not. So stop ignoring your leads and start building relationships by sharing your expertise, and be prepared to do so regardless of the prospect’s timing to buy. Use these eight steps as your guide to show your prospects that you are an expert and that you can help them. They will appreciate all your efforts, and you’ll appreciate the growth in sales opportunities.

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