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Article 17 min read

Lead generation: what it is and how to master it

Figuring out how to generate leads is almost as hard as converting them. Use this comprehensive guide to lead generation to pack your sales pipeline with quality prospects.

By Patrick Grieve

Last updated June 2, 2021

Sales reps know nothing’s harder than patiently nurturing a lead, establishing a relationship with them, and carefully converting them into a customer – nothing, of course, except finding a good lead in the first place.

Lead generation is often a huge challenge for sales and marketing professionals. But it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools and advice, anyone can become an expert in how to generate leads.

What is lead generation?

Lead generation definition: lead generation is the process of initiating interest in your company’s products or services. Various advertising, marketing and sales strategies can be used to spark interest and generate leads.

Lead generation (or lead gen) is all about creating more leads for sales reps to pursue – something that’s easier said than done. While lead generation may seem pretty straightforward, it encompasses a wide array of lead generation strategies. There are many different ways to entice potential customers and various ways to qualify potential leads.

To get a handle on it all, let’s start by answering a pretty basic question: what’s a lead?

“Generally speaking, a lead is someone who has potentially expressed interest in your company or appears to be a good fit”, explains Josh Bean, Zendesk’s Senior Director of Product Marketing. “It could be someone who filled out a form on your website or someone [whose information] you bought from a list. Usually a lead is at least an email address, first name, last name and phone number.”

Getting leads

You can generate leads organically or buy them from another company. While paid leads can be worthwhile, there are some downsides to that approach. In addition to the expense, paid leads haven’t shown any interest in your brand, so your outreach efforts are more likely to be ignored.

If you’re not paying for leads, though, you need to somehow convince people to willingly share their contact information with your company. That responsibility usually falls on your marketing team; it’s their job to create content and materials that will encourage potential customers to complete each step in the lead generation process:

  1. First, a consumer becomes aware of your business through a marketing channel. That could be by reading one of your blog posts, visiting your website or interacting with your social media accounts.
  2. Next, the consumer follows a call to action (CTA), or an image or message that encourages the reader to click on it in exchange for some offer. Your CTA could be a link to a downloadable piece of gated content or a big ‘Start free trial’ button on a web page.
  3. After clicking on the CTA, the consumer is presented with a lead generation form that they must fill out to access the offer. These forms will typically ask for personal details such as the individual’s name, profession, company, contact information and so on.
  4. Once they’ve filled out the form, the prospect is able to access whatever the CTA offered. That could be valuable information, such as an ebook or exclusive data report. It could be useful content, like free templates or courses. Or it could be a free trial of the product or service you provide. The type of offer that a lead pursues can tell you a lot about their level of intent.

Qualifying leads

After capturing a lead’s information, the marketing team is able to qualify them. This qualification process often involves lead scoring, or assigning points to a lead based on the demographic or firmographic details they provide.

Companies often develop lead scoring models that reflect their ideal customer profiles. In lead generation B2B, a company typically targets businesses of a certain size, type or industry, that should be reflected in their criteria. For example, if SMB leads convert for a B2B company at a higher rate than enterprises do, then that company might assign more points to a business with fewer than 500 employees.

Similarly, a lead’s job title likely reflects their decision-making power, so a C-level executive would be scored higher than a mid-level manager. And because certain actions imply more interest than others, a lead who starts a free trial would score higher than one who only downloads a white paper. (Other types of web activity, such as visiting a pricing page, can also be scored.)

Scoring systems can help marketing teams determine whether or not a lead is ‘qualified’ – or worth pursuing in your lead generation strategies. If a lead scores high enough, they become a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) and are passed on to the sales team to become a Sales Accepted Lead (SAL).

Bean explains, “Marketing basically says, ‘We think this person is a good fit – sales, do you think this is a good fit?’ And then sales typically says, ‘Yes, this is a good fit’, after qualifying it further with bands like budget, authority, need and timing.”

A lead becomes a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) once it’s been determined that the lead can be contacted by a sales rep. Leads often become SQLs by doing something that indicates a strong interest in a company’s product or service. For example, if a lead starts a product trial or fills out a form asking specific questions about the product, they’re usually ready for a rep to reach out to them.

Tracking leads with a sales CRM can help automate a great deal of the lead generation B2B process and prevent any prospects from falling through the cracks. A CRM will also track the number of MQLs that are successfully converting into SALs and SQLs. The conversion rate is a good indicator of your lead scoring method’s effectiveness.

Bean recommends measuring your company’s conversion metrics but cautions against comparing them to industry benchmarks. “The reality is, you can find numbers all over the place because everyone defines their MQLs, SALs and SQLs slightly differently”, he says. “So, you have to take it with a grain of salt.”

How lead generation fits into the customer journey

Developing a successful lead generation strategy requires a deep understanding of your buyer’s journey.

The customer journey charts all the experiences a consumer has with your company. That encompasses every single interaction – including ones that happen before they’re even a customer. It’s a journey that begins with awareness of your brand, eventually leads to purchase and continues for as long as they remain loyal customers.

Many businesses use customer journey mapping to outline a consumer’s arc with their company. These can be extremely intricate flowcharts that take every possible pathway into account or be something as simple as a sales funnel.

The five-stage sales funnel

What matters most is understanding how customers tend to interact with your brand at each stage of the journey – lead generation is all about getting potential buyers to take those first steps.

“In the early stages of the customer journey, a buyer is typically just looking for general information,” Bean says. “They’re looking at a brand and asking, ‘Can they do what I need? Are they within the right price point? Are they good at what they do?’.”

It’s up to your company to decide how and where to best answer those questions. The information could be provided through your website experience, blog posts, social media or (most likely) a combination of channels.

“You typically want to be where your audience is”, explains Bean. “So, if I’m selling a B2C product, I want my lead gen to be very social based – probably Instagram, Facebook and (if I have the budget) ads. If I’m a B2B, maybe my strategy is more focused on LinkedIn or on direct outreach through email.”

Both lead generation B2B and B2C is focused on piquing a potential buyer’s interest and giving them reasons to investigate further. This is typically accomplished through a variety of methods.

“I like to think about lead generation on a channel basis”, Bean says. “Because most people will say, ‘Oh, I want inbound marketing, let’s just turn it on’. But the reality is that all the channels work together. So, it’s a combination of having good search engine optimisation (SEO) and ranking for posts, and then once someone reads that post, having some kind of gated content that pertains to that topic. You want to continuously drive them until they’re a Marketing Qualified Lead.”

How to generate leads through blogs, email, web and social media channels

Generating leads through social media, email, web and blogs

Lead generation marketing is the way you draw in prospects and get them on your landing page. There are multiple promotional channels you can use for lead generation, but they should all have one thing in common:

“Before you even think about the channels, first you need to decide on the core topic you want your brand to stand for and rank for”, Bean advises. “For example, at Zendesk, we want to take a stand on sales pipeline management. So, I would start by deciding what I want my foundational piece on sales pipeline management to be and then write it. Then, I’d have to ask: how do I apply this to different channels? If I’m using social media, maybe it’s 20 different tweets that I’m going to post with small snippets. If it’s a video, maybe I’m going to adapt this thought leadership piece into a YouTube clip. If it’s organic [search], maybe there are specific key pages I need to break out and try to rank for.”

What matters most is solidifying the message before you start distributing it. Then, be sure to stay on-message across your channels. That way, no matter how a potential buyer interacts with your brand, it all funnels back to the same core idea.

Create lead generation forms that minimise friction

One of the biggest hurdles to clear in lead generation is getting prospects to fill out a lead capture form.

A typical lead capture form

A typical lead capture form.

Not only do some people hate sharing personal information, but many are also annoyed at the ‘extra step’ of having to complete a form just to receive an offer. And while businesses want to get as many details as possible, longer forms just further test a lead’s patience.

Fortunately, there are a few tactics that can keep leads from bailing. Progressive forms, for example, are a great way to coax more information out of potentially hesitant leads.

Bean explains, “A progressive form will start by asking questions that are really easy, like: what’s your company’s name and how many people work there? Then, the questions start to get a little bit more in-depth, until finally the form asks for your email and phone number.”

At that point, people are so pot committed that they’re willing to share their contact info rather than walk away.

Or, you can take the opposite approach and rely on form enrichment, which asks visitors only for their email address and then fills out the rest for them.

“[A tool like] Clearbit can help with this a lot”, says Bean. “If someone only enters their email address, there’s a lot of information out there for enriching their title, role, company size and other details. So the form hides those additional fields, unless it can’t enrich any of them, in which case the person will be prompted to fill the fields out.”

With form enrichment, leads only feel like they’re handing over their email address, but your company is still capturing all the information it needs.

Do more with lead generation software

To best capture, organise, track and engage leads, your company should utilise a powerful CRM. Zendesk collects demographic, firmographic and channel information about leads, so it can automatically assign a numerical score to identify MQLs and SQLs. And with Zendesk’s lead generation and engagement tool, you can create targeted prospect lists that will help you identify potential buyers. You can even automate customised email sequences and cadences for different lead types at different stages of the sales cycle.

The lead generation process may have a lot of moving parts but it gets easier once you put them all in one place. Start reaching more leads than ever before and see how your company grows.

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