Lead generation is now largely a marketing function instead of one of sales. The shift over the last few years has been driven by an evolution in buying patterns brought about by the internet and Google search in particular. Clients now find information online that used to be obtained only through interacting with salespeople, hence fewer willing interactions with salespeople.
The direct result of this shift has been the rapid rise of content marketing (sometimes called inbound marketing, which is the term I’ll use here to contrast nicely with the sales-based activities of unsolicited enquiries that I’m packaging up under the term outbound.) Good content is the bait that generates inbound enquiries.
The disruptive nature of good inbound marketing led many, including me, to declare that outbound was on its last legs, with death imminent. Alas, one more prediction of mine that never came to pass. Instead, I’ve observed that firms that struggle with lead generation are at either end of the outbound spectrum: those who do nothing but outbound and those who do none.
Clearly, outbound on its own delivers increasingly diminishing returns, but those who abandon it completely seem to suffer, too. It’s got to be part of the lead generation mix, then. But how much? And how? Let’s explore.
The Benefits of Inbound
If you were to make a list of every lead generation activity you can think of and then rank those activities highest to lowest in terms of how each might position you in the mind of the prospect, you would see some patterns.
The first is the activities at the top of your list – the ones that best position you as an expert in your field and thus give you more ability to lead in the sales cycle – are the various inbound activities of writing and speaking. These are the things you do today to drive inbound enquiries tomorrow. They prove or validate your claim of expertise.
You’ll notice the activities at the bottom of your list are the unsolicited enquiries of cold calling and emailing. The lesson is that inbound lead generation activities not only drive leads but they help to position you for the conversations that follow, increasing your ability to lead throughout the sales cycle, derail a pitch and command higher fees. Yay for inbound!
Inbound Opportunity Cost #1: Immediacy
Now make a second column to the right of your list and label that column Immediacy. You will see a clear pattern of increased latency as you climb up your list. The higher you go, the larger the gap in time between when you initiate the activity and when you start to see results. Inbound takes longer.
If you need leads now, nothing beats picking up the phone or sending an email. Yes, response rates are abysmally low today but with selectivity and proper technique, you’re far more likely to deliver results sooner through outbound than inbound.
Inbound marketing is like a flywheel that takes Herculean effort to get moving, but once it’s going it’s easy to maintain the momentum with minimal effort. You have to be willing to invest the effort up front believing it will pay off eighteen to twenty-four months in the future. That’s a lot of patience and faith.
Most firms have to be doing some level of outbound in the first two years of their transition to inbound marketing and then be willing to go back to it in slow times.
Inbound Opportunity Cost #2: Specificity
Inbound is designed to attract those looking for your expertise, but most of us can think of a small number of coveted prospects with whom we would love to be forming relationships now regardless of their stage in the buying cycle. Inbound can do little to help build relationships with prospects who are not actively seeking information, but outbound excels at going after specific targets.
All firms, including yours, should have a Top Twenty list or similarly sized “A” List of its most desirable prospect organizations to whom it devotes special attention. You get to define these twenty however you like – the point is you mark them out as special prospects who will get special attention from you.
Build your list of the organizations, build out the key contacts in each organization and then begin a relationship with them. That means a conversation. It can happen via email (the client’s preferred method) or telephone (more meaningful if you can make it happen) but make the commitment that you will introduce each of these key people to the firm, ask if you can be of assistance and then keep in touch via your thought leadership and appropriate, periodic, direct contact.
A Top Twenty program should be mandatory in your firm.
Inbound Opportunity Cost #3: Timeliness
Related to immediacy and specificity, timeliness is about taking advantage of specific opportunities when they arise, such as a change in leadership or decision makers at a prospective client company.
Every firm should be keeping an eye on its market, ready to call or email when a prospect changes significant personnel, expands into new markets, shifts their strategy or provides some other talking point that just might be the impetus for a change that it can help navigate. Observation and responsiveness are key; little real effort is required.
Good Inbound Makes Outbound Easier
A true cold call is an attempt to reach someone on whom you have only a little bit of demographic data and no real behavioural data. That is, you know some things about them like company, job title, location etc. but you don’t know if they have a need or interest in a certain area because you have no data on what information they’ve been consuming.
Your inbound program can warm up many of these cold calls by mining your web analytics and marketing automation for behavioral data, allowing you to call out to a list of people whom you know have been interacting with your content, even if only marginally.
A Little Outbound Goes a Long Way
Of course your lead generation plan should be built around inbound or content marketing. Start with an area of focus (positioning), add a perspective (point of view) and create and deliver content on that focus from that perspective. While you’re doing all of this however you should also be working your Top Twenty list and you should be reaching out to timely opportunities based on company-specific changes you see happening in your market. On top of all of that, in slow periods when you need leads quickly, there’s no substitution for a flurry of well-constructed emails and phone calls.
Outbound isn’t dead, it’s just no longer the focus of your lead generation efforts. View it instead as powerful augmentation to shore up the holes in your inbound strategy.