A Layered Approach to Lead Nurturing in B2B Demand Generation
This afternoon I am speaking at the Boston-area Silverpop B2B Marketing University on the topic of “Succeeding with the Nurturing Dialogue.” It’s a critical topic. I truly believe that in the emerging era of Buyer 2.0 – i.e., in the era of a Web 2.0-empowered B2B buyer, who is now in the driver’s seat – it’s more important than ever for us to drive successful content-based dialogue at the core of our demand generation programs. And lead nurturing is the holistic activity of managing this dialogue in a way that ties the buyer’s process to the marketing and sales organization’s ‘funnel’ – orchestrating our demand generation efforts.
How important is lead nurturing to B2B marketers?
If you polled a group of B2B marketers that have purchased marketing automation platforms, I’m sure 100% would say one of their top objectives is to drive email-based lead nurturing programs. We know B2B marketers send out a lot of email. In fact, approximately 89% of B2B marketers leverage email in their marketing efforts, according to Forrester at their Forrester Marketing Forum 2010. And I’m sure an even higher percentage of this group is on the hook for supporting (at least) some portion of top-of-funnel lead generation via a combination of tactics that include email.
These B2B marketers adopt marketing automation and set up lead nurturing programs because of the fundamental reality that demand generation is a numbers game with not-so-great numbers:
- According to MarketingSherpa’s “2010 Email Marketing: Benchmark Report,” at any given point in time only about 44% of net new leads coming in via demand generation efforts will close in the next month to quarter – which is a challenge for our sales colleagues.
- Add to this the even more-dramatic numbers unveiled by SiriusDecisions at their 2010 ‘Summit’ in Scottsdale: Only 2-5% of raw inquiries coming into the top of the B2B marketing and sales ‘funnel’ ultimately convert to sales. Moreover, 25-30% of B2B marketing databases have bad or incomplete records.
- And this is on top of the recent observation by Chris Koch of ITSMA that he’s “… never seen anyone claim that marketing contributes anywhere near 50% of the leads that turn into sales. Most anecdotal estimates I’ve heard range from 10-35%.”
Being ‘in the right place, at the right time with the right message’ clearly is critical to overcoming these numbers and thus is a critical discipline for successful B2B demand generation.
Yet we’re really bad at lead nurturing as B2B marketers. In fact, among marketing automation adopters, only about 1 in 3 believe they ‘have an effective lead nurturing process,’ according to research from Bulldog Solutions/Frost & Sullivan I cited in a blog post earlier this summer.
So what’s the deal, folks? Why are B2B marketing organizations failing at lead nurturing? This is a critical element of demand generation, and we need to get it right.
Let’s take a look first at what it we seem to ‘not get’ about lead nurturing, and then I’m going to suggest a new model – my layered model – for lead nurturing that I think helps to change how we think about this activity.
What is it we do not get about lead nurturing?
I think at the core of B2B marketers’ inability to succeed with lead nurturing are a couple of points that seem to get missed:
> Nurturing is a strategic activity, not a tactical one: This is an important starting place. This past June I wrote a post on the Silverpop Demand Generation blog that asked, “How Can You Make Nurturing More Strategic in Your B2B Demand Generation Efforts?” I noted in this post, “Too often we make nurturing synonymous simply with basic email nurturing or with drip nurturing campaigns — both tactical activities — but we miss the bigger picture.” Eloqua CTO Steve Woods adds to this perspective in a post on his Digital Body Language blog, “Lead nurturing can be a very powerful way to stay engaged with future potential prospects, and in doing so, successfully establish buyer preference and understand buyer timing.”
Yet lead nurturing somehow winds up too often as a tactical afterthought.
To me, core nurturing logic should define your entire demand generation program. It combines a pattern of content offers, alongside ‘progressive profiling’ efforts to capture insights into the demographics, behaviors and timing of prospects to improve our chances of being in the right place, at the right time with the right message. And marketing automation enables us to power this logic. This leads us to the second point …
> Nurturing balances targeted buyer education with buyer qualification; it is two-way communication: This is the whole point of my presentation at B2B Marketing University today. In a Buyer 2.0 world, nurturing IS dialogue with B2B buyers. That means we can’t succeed with lead nurturing unless we conceptualize it in this fashion.
“A prospect you are nurturing may not enter a buying process for many months, if not quarters,” notes Woods in his blog post, above. “However, if you can educate prospects, and by doing so, guide their thinking slightly to incorporate key requirements and ways of analyzing the market, when they do become buyers, you will be much better positioned.” Meanwhile, you should be collecting both demographic and behavioral information that gives you a sense of exactly where that buyer is in his/her process.
So the goal is to make the dialogue two-way – providing content offers and then paying attention to buyers’ explicit and implicit responses via progressive profiling, which captures and enables us to act on this insight.
Below are two charts from my presentation today that help depict what I’m talking about.
We have to be careful about the trap of overly-simplistic, one-size-fits- all, linear drip nurturing, or totally interruptive, traditional email campaigns. “Sure, you could deploy a drip campaign, but that’s not lead nurturing,” comments Carlos Hidalgo with The Annuitas Group in a recent post. “That’s simply delivering the same message to a broad audience (mass marketing). It doesn’t allow for the 1-1 engagement that yields the best results.”
Email newsletters are a good example of what is wrong with lead nurturing today. “Newsletters break the primary rule of effective email marketing, that is: you need to segment your list to make messages relevant,” comments Jep Castelein (a.k.a., “The Lead Sloth”) in a recent blog post. “A monthly newsletter is undifferentiated, and won’t please anybody.”
> Successful nurturing is aligned with, and supports the buying process: Hey B2B marketers, lead nurturing is not about you, it’s about your buyer. I hope everyone heard that. So much of the rationale for adopting lead nurturing is rooted in the challenges faced in demand generation programs – by the marketer – but the most important challenge and opportunity is to ensure that your lead nurturing is in fact providing the content and interaction a buyer needs, when (s)he needs it, according to his/her buying process. This is how we propel an empowered Buyer 2.0 forward.
That’s why we need some context and a framework for thinking about our lead nurturing efforts.
How can we take a ‘layered approach’ to lead nurturing, and in doing so be more successful with designing and managing our lead nurturing programs?
Successful lead nurturing requires thinking in terms of a matrix of potential content offers and reactions on the part of the B2B buyer – all of which are designed to help support the buying process, accelerate decision-making and orchestrate content dialogue with that buyer. In the ideal case, you offer the buyer the ideal/right content at each stage of his/her buying process, you collect the right profiling data and everything flows forward in an efficient fashion. That’s the ideal case.
What is more likely is that you’ll get moving in the right direction but at some point things won’t go as planned, and you’ll need some additional work to keep things flowing forward. That’s why you need more than just one layer of lead nurturing – and more than one type of content offer. Beyond any type of branching logic in any given layer, you need to have nurturing layers that play different roles in your overall demand generation effort. In fact, if you tried to design the perfect decision path – envisioning every potential branch – you would be constantly failing with lead nurturing. It’s impossible to envision every single choice a buyer will make in every situation, but you can understand if a buyer is ‘on track’ or off, and have an approach to getting buyers back on the right track.
When I was at the Pardot Elevate user conference a few weeks ago, COO Adam Blitzer talked about how his company manages lead nurturing. He said they worked in terms of a ‘hierarchy’ of lead nurturing campaigns, with various levels of suppression – so there is always a ‘preferred’ nurturing track, and when you’re in a more-preferred track, you are suppressed from less-preferred tracks. This is a good way to visualize this layered approach.
When I build lead nurturing programs for clients, I develop three layers of lead nurturing logic:
- Buying cycle content track: This layer is the path of least resistance – the ideal set of content offers and progressive profiling that enables a buyer to move forward in his/her process and that enables you to vet the buyer as efficiently as possible. This is the lead nurturing track that leads to the most efficient production of leads that are ready to go to sales. It’s constructed and refined over time by understanding the ideal, critical path that the majority of your targeted buyers move down. Now, clearly buyers deviate at some point, and that’s why you have a first layer of safety net in the ‘promotional content track.’
- Promotional content track: This is the most dynamic layer. The purpose is to have an ever-changing set of content offers that take buyers that have gotten off track, re-engage them and get them back on track. These offers should be considered a layer, but the nature of the promotional content nurtures will depend on the stage in the buying process where the targeted buyer is stalled. Ideally, a well-positioned promotional content offer is all it takes to get a buyer back on track, but buyers can go cold, and that’s why you need a second layer of safety net in the ‘drip content track.’
- Drip content track: This is the layer where, if all else fails, you continue to keep putting content in front of a buyer. Maybe this is just an email with links to your blog. It depends. The goal at this point is just to keep top-of-mind and to help enable serendipity – looking for that constant angle, that buyer behavior that will open up an opportunity for a promotional offer that can get things back on track. That doesn’t mean send just anything to the buyer. You need to continue to keep it targeted; however, you should also set reasonable expectations that a drip content track is not necessarily going to yield high conversion rates.
Below is a slide that visualizes this matrix and gives a macro-level view of what an iterative, layered lead nurturing program looks like.
What do you think?
What do you think of my layered approach? How do you approach lead nurturing? What are the gaps we face, and what model have you adopted to bridge these gaps? Please share your thoughts and experiences.