Win Without Pitching®: Thinking

My inbox is filled with spam these days. It’s getting on my nerves, but it begs the question, is all outbound marketing spam or is there a way to do this properly?

I make the helpful generalization that you can either be viewed as the expert in your relationship with clients and prospects or you are viewed as a vendor. The former has power to shape the sale, the price and the engagement and the latter lacks this power and takes whatever they can. Should experts be doing outbound at all or does this marketing tactic automatically shift the power dynamics away from you to the client?

Personally, I think there are ways to do outbound respectfully and effectively, without giving up the expert’s high ground.

Understanding Lead Tiers

I use the idea of three tiers of leads to explain their quality and value to you, with tier I at the top (like the gold medalist on the podium) tier II in the middle (silver) and tier III at the bottom (bronze). 

Tier I Leads: Inbound

Tier I leads really are gold. These are inbound leads that you drive through referrals, press, awards, and, most commonly, through your marketing. Marketing-driven tier I leads can themselves be ranked based on the status they confer (with leads driven by free content ranked higher than leads generated by paid media, as an example) but for this discussion we will lump all inbound leads into the same tier I. 

A tier I lead reaches out to you and says “I know what you do and I need some of that. Let’s talk.” Any creative firm or expert practice strives to get to this place where it’s all inbound all the time. Few get there, however, so the reality of the younger firm, the poorly positioned and those who have not made the investments in time, effort and money to get to this vaunted place is they must drop down a tier to make up the lead shortfall. 

Tier II Leads: Warm Outreach

That brings us to tier II leads, the most underappreciated place on the podium. The saying “you don’t win silver, you lose gold” explains why the bronze medalist always seems happier than the silver medalist. There’s a bit of that going on here, too. But there’s gold on that silver tier, and too few firms are mining it. 

A tier II lead is someone who demonstrates their interest in your firm by engaging in your content, typically on your website. 

Reaching out to tier II leads is straightforward. You can choose to reference their activity (e.g., “I see you are interested in our case study on one of your competitors. Would you like to have a conversation on how we might help you with the same challenge?”) or you can omit the reference to their behavior, knowing that everyone understands that if they have converted on your site then you have visibility into their activity on it. This approach sounds more like an introduction. “Hello Susan. I am the principal owner of XYZ agency, we specialize in (focus). We have a particular expertise in (subject matter they were exploring on your site).” Then a similar offer to help. “Feel free to say no if you don’t see a fit, but would you like to have a conversation on how we might be of assistance to you in this area?”

Like tier I leads, these people know who you are and are engaging with your content. There is an implied interest (recognition that they might have a problem or opportunity), possibly even intent (a decision to hire a firm like yours to help) but they haven’t reached out. So you should. 

Respectful outreach with an offer to help is not only appropriate for an expert firm here, failure to do so is a lead gen crime of neglect. Someone on your team should have responsibility for monitoring traffic and appropriately following up on these tier II leads. 

Too few firms have this function assigned and tracked. Others, however, are overzealous, supporting David’s view that outreach is unprofessional and unbecoming of the expert firm. The keys are in determining what level of engagement merits outreach (hint: it’s not one page view!) and the content and tone of that outreach. Note the language in my example above.

The bottom line with tier II leads is there are nuggets in your web traffic and you should have a plan for mining them responsibly. 

Tier III Leads: Cold Outreach

Tier III leads are names on a list—demographic clues to a possible sale, with no behavioral data attached. Cold outreach to your LinkedIn connections or any other source of contact information for people who are in your target market but who have not demonstrated (as far as you can discern) an interest is mostly the domain of spammers. But this, too, can be done respectfully, in a manner befitting the expert. It rarely is, however.

The respectful approach is the introduction language modeled earlier. Here’s who we are. We help organizations like this solve problems like that. The reason I’m reaching out to you is because of (valid reason, specific to lead). Are you interested in exploring how we might help?

Tier III outreach is tricky and I cringe while writing about this because most of the new generation of spam in my inbox follows this approach fairly closely, with one exception: it’s automated.

Automation: The Line Separating Outreach from Spam

I recently received an email with the subject line “Doggerland University Pride.” Doggerland was once arable land but it has been under the North Sea since the end of the last ice age. According to 23andMe, my ancestors hail from Doggerland (I’m basically from Atlantis), hence the fake Doggerland University on my LinkedIn profile. 

The spammer begins, “Hey [FirstName], I see you went to [FakeUniversity]. That’s a great school – I’d be interested to hear how it influenced your direction in your career. 

I came across [Company] and I have a question. Would you be up to making 2023 a year of mad success?”

We can laugh at this example because of the fake university and the obvious disconnect between the opening and the promise, but add just a little ChatGPT-like AI functionality and even the most vaunted and noble expert firms will be tempted into the spam business. Your inbox is about to blow up and it will be harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. The net result, I suspect, is an even further decline in open and response rates. 

David and I effectively agree that cold outreach to tier III leads is the domain of spammers. I personally believe there is a small window left for experts to do this properly, which means we’re just quibbling over the timeframe. 

Tier II leads however are where the real opportunity lies. This is where experts can reach out directly to someone who is engaging in their content and showing signs of interest. How that is done will be the key to success. Here too you will be tempted to automate this outreach, but that mistake would put you smack into the spammer camp.

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Blair Enns
Blair Enns is the Win Without Pitching founder and CEO and the author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour.
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