One of my favorite days as a marketer was when a CEO called to inquire about our training services after reading one of my blog posts.
The sales cycle lasted two days. He wasn’t in our system and didn’t fill out a form.
I’m not sure how he found our website and my post. (I probably should have asked.)
Had I not been regularly creating thought-leadership content, this opportunity would never have materialized. The CEO wasn’t looking for a training solution, and there’s no way an advertisement or product content would have caught his attention.
The problem with the product-centric content that lives behind a landing page with the intention of capturing someone’s contact information (lead generation) is that it’s out of sync with how today’s buyer wants to research.
It’s too early in that process when they’re “just looking” and don’t want emails and phone calls from the vendor’s sales reps.
The way you win in B2B is to take the long-term view to engage, educate, and participate in the ecosystem. Not only will that generate demand over time, but you’ll also spend fewer dollars to get higher quality inbound leads that have a preferred position against the competition.
Thought-leadership content should be created for engagement, not lead capture—but its measurement is much more nebulous.
That creates a dilemma for CMOs whose leaders are accustomed to the past measurability of marketing qualified leads (MQLs) as a predictor of buyer intent and are unwilling to fund what they deem unmeasurable.
Therefore, moving the organization toward a more demand-centric model requires satisfying sales’ short-term appetite for buyer intent identification while simultaneously developing the long-term thought-leadership content required to penetrate the dark funnel.
Wait, what is the dark funnel?
It’s a given that buyers use the internet to research products and services—but they’re doing it differently today than they were a decade ago.
Back then, searches predominantly started with Google, which is why most content marketing strategies for lead generation focused on optimizing buyer intent keywords and phrases.
SEO strategies worked because the buyer would find the content there, leading them to websites where the anonymous traffic could be converted by downloading a white paper that promised to give them the solution. That lead was then handed to sales to pursue, nurture, and book appointments.
It worked so well that the majority of B2B companies jumped on the bandwagon. Today, because buyers are bombarded with content and sales emails, they’ve largely tuned out. Now they start searches by asking peers, whether that’s a direct message or participation in a network.
Latané Conant, chief market officer for 6Sense.com, describes this “dark funnel” as “all of the ideal customers that are looking for a solution like yours, are potentially buying solutions like yours, and you cannot reach them. You’re not getting them to your website, you’re not seeing their patterns, you’re not engaging with that buying team.”
The result is that your ideal customers are in-market for what you do, and you have no idea.
You can’t sell your way to growth anymore
Peter Drucker said in Management (1973): “There will always, one can assume, be a need for some selling. But the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.”
He expanded on this by saying, “Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy. All that should be needed then is to make the product or service available, i.e., logistics rather than salesmanship, and statistical distribution rather than promotion.”
That’s where I see the progressive definitions of an MQL going today—only counting the sales-ready hand-raisers—at which point there should be no reason to insert a sales development representative (SDR) in the middle to qualify and pass to an account executive.
(Which is why many companies are moving SDRs to work under marketing where they aren’t incentivized to set appointments and are instead tasked to figure out how to advance the individual’s buyer journey.)
That’s a hard pill to swallow for many who have invested heavily in the predictable revenue model, so they continue to promote product-oriented content to generate leads and let their SDRs chase them down by sending a bunch of emails, calling, and berating them into taking a meeting.
Too many times they find that when those meetings happen, there’s no budget, authority, need, or timeline (BANT). They may be interested in the product, but there’s no opportunity and it falls flat.
It’s hard to make that model work at scale anymore because it’s out of sync with how the buyer wants to buy. They want to consume information anonymously and reach out for a demo or to talk to sales when they’re ready.
Vanquish (most of) your landing pages
The movement is to create a better buying experience, and that means getting rid of most of your landing pages. They cause friction, increase bounce rates, and most importantly, create a poor experience for the buyer.
If you’ve ever hesitated to download a “free” white paper because you didn’t want to be added to a list, you know what I’m talking about.
The drive for MQL conversion is also symptomatic of a lead generation culture where the role of marketing is viewed only as sales enablement instead of as a strategic driver of the business.
Casey Carey, CMO of Kazoo HR, says, “It makes me sad when I see that marketing is viewed as a service organization to the company, in that they’re doing one-sheeters for sales, or they’re doing a webinar, or the CEO wants a press release. [And you’re left with a list] of tactics that just come out of nowhere. I think sometimes we fall into this trap of wanting to please everyone and do all the things. But it’s a recipe for failure.”
Not that providing leads to sales isn’t an important marketing function. But you need to get in sync with sales to define what the MQL handoff should look like so there’s zero hesitation in pursuing it. (And so they can’t blame marketing for low quality leads.)
Carey’s number one objective for content is engagement—not lead generation.
He says they’ve stopped looking at whether a singular piece of content created any MQLs, and instead focus on whether it’s generating engagement within their target audience.
“One of the things we did was look at our MQL quality,” says Carey. “We recently received an inbound email that started, ‘We’ve done an exhaustive review. Kazoo is in the top three. We would like to schedule a demo, and please cover these ten points.’”
Ken Lempit, president of demand generation agency Austin Lawrence Group, adds, “If you want people to consume your content, consider you, and believe it’s potentially a good fit for their business requirements, you need to make their education process as friction-free as possible. And trust me, sales will quickly pursue any leads that match their ideal client profile and are motivated to talk to them over your recent white paper downloads business cards dropped in a fishbowl at a trade show.”
Granted, this progressive MQL definition will result in lower quantities, but you should be able to demonstrate higher close rates and decreased customer acquisition costs. And when you focus on education over lead generation, it frees up marketers to focus on demand generation and eliminates the unnecessary fakery in data analysis.
In other words: Marketing—inclusive of all four Ps in the mix (product, place, price, and promotion).
Jane, get me off this crazy thing!
The writing has been on the wall for at least five years as the whole lead-to-conversion process has broken down. It’s led to bad marketing practices, high turnover in sales, and missed quota attainment.
While the old metrics for lead generation may still look good in the boardroom, the aftereffects will not. It’s setting up either sales or marketing for failure, depending on who does a better job at deflecting blame.
Overall, it creates a culture of short-termism that won’t achieve long-term growth objectives, nor will it position marketing as a strategic driver of the business.
If you’re stuck on the lead gen hamster wheel and want to change the dynamic, you must first prove that no sales process fits in the nice, linear box we think it should.
Marketing in this new world should first help sales identify those opportunities using available signals that indicate buyer intent as quickly as possible and concentrate on the long-term strategy that creates customers and brings them to the table ready to buy.
There’s a lot of waste that’s inherent in the current system, and if you look at the truth behind the numbers, it should be easy to find.
Asking every customer and prospect where they found you is a good start. And second is dissecting all closed won deals to determine their genesis.
Don’t rely on your CRM or other software attribution that indicates where the lead came from. Even when it says it from a direct search, it probably came from someone recommending they look, at which point the prospect went to Google and searched the name of the company directly.
Make sure you’re in complete alignment with sales as to what a good lead looks like and when the handoff should take place.
Realize that the closer to sales-ready you set that MQL definition, the fewer leads will be generated.
Make sure everyone understands that while the quantity will be much lower, the quality will be much higher. If you’ve done the research, it should be easy to demonstrate that the lead-to-close ratio on white paper downloads and advertising clicks in no way justifies the cost of customer acquisition associated with pursuing them.
Create marketing initiatives like podcasts, videos, articles, publications, etc. that require you to talk to buyers, thought leaders, subject matter experts, analysts, and prospects. That will allow you to evolve alongside the buyer and discover what they truly care about so you can create customers and not just respond to existing demand.
And when someone is ready for a demo or to talk to sales, hand them off to someone who’s qualified to answer their questions, not an SDR who’s going to ask BANT questions to pass off to an AE.
Let’s face it—marketing and sales have ridden the gravy train for too long.
It’s past time to use better marketing and sales practices that engage buyers on their terms instead of converting them into our sales funnel, which is what we should have been doing all along.