The number of companies practicing inbound marketing (or content marketing, as some call it) has grown dramatically in the last several years, and there is research to prove it. According to Marketing Profs and the Content Marketing Institute (see their 2015 B2B Content Marketing Study), 86% of B2B companies and 77% of B2C companies are using some form of inbound marketing.

Many of these companies are seeing substantial increases in website visitor traffic and leads as a result of their efforts. The 2014 ROI of HubSpot report found that companies practicing inbound marketing with HubSpot reach, on average 2.4 times more website visitors per month and 5.99 times more leads per month within the first year of implementing their inbound marketing strategies.

Despite these successes, there is a disconnect. While the ROI of HubSpot report found that 69% of customers saw an increase in sales revenue as a result of inbound marketing, the CMI/Marketing Profs study found that only 37% of B2B companies and 37% of B2C companies consider their inbound marketing to be effective.

What is going on here?

Interestingly, while the HubSpot report asked about sales and lead-to-customer conversions, the CMI/Marketing Profs study did not address the issue of sales at all. When it comes to measuring the value of inbound marketing, sales is a key part of the equation. After all, you can generate lots of leads through inbound marketing, but if you can’t convert them into customers, what’s the point? And the responsibility for converting leads to customers ultimately falls on the shoulders of your sales team.

Sound simple? You do inbound marketing, you generate leads, and your sales team closes them, right? Nope. It’s just not that simple in practice.

The reality is that in most companies, sales and marketing don’t play well together. In fact, only 8% of b-to-b companies surveyed by Forrester Research said they have tight alignment between sales and marketing (see the B2B Sales and Marketing Alignment Starts With the Customer report). This is a problem when it comes to inbound marketing, which requires a well-coordinated hand-off between the marketing team, which generates inbound leads, and the sales team, which needs to close them. If this hand off isn’t executed well (or at all, as is sometimes the case), the company won’t close inbound leads and won’t see ROI from its inbound marketing spend.

How to improve sales and marketing alignment?

There are several factors that contribute to alignment issues. According to the Forrester research, the greatest obstacles to achieving tighter alignment between sales and marketing are:

  • Long-term thinking by marketing vs. short-term thinking by sales (58% said this was an important factor)
  • Different goals and measurements (46%)
  • Not enough time (45%)

In my 10+ years as a marketing agency owner, I’ve seen all of these and worked with clients on overcoming each of them.

Here are some strategies and tactics you can use to address these challenges and improve alignment.

1. Change the structure of your sales team

Salespeople are by nature short term thinkers who are highly motivated to close deals quickly so they can earn commissions. The problem is that not all inbound leads are going to close quickly. Think about it. Buyers are out there doing research on Google, asking for advice from friends and colleagues on Facebook or LinkedIn, reading online reviews, etc. Traditional leads have already done all of this by the time they talk to a sales person and therefore are much further along in their buying process (60 – 70% according to some statistics). This means that when your sales team engages with them, the time to close is relatively short when compared with the entire length of their buying journey.

Inbound leads, on the other hand, tend to be earlier in the buying cycle. Why? If you’re doing inbound marketing right, your content is what they’re checking out when they do their Google research and to get it, they have to fill out a form and identify themselves. Based on the information they provide, you may consider them “marketing qualified” (perhaps because they meet certain demographic requirements, etc.) and decide sales should reach out to them.

If your salespeople are used to working traditional leads, they are inevitably going to feel frustrated that inbound leads aren’t farther along in the sales funnel and therefore require more effort – and time – to close. When this happens, there’s a good chance they will simply choose not to work those leads and instead focus on the traditional leads because they’re easier and and will result in commissions more quickly. This disconnect leads to that frustration felt by 58% of companies that marketing looks long term while sales looks short term.

One way to solve this issue is to change the structure of your sales team. No, I’m not suggesting a major shakeup. That would be a disaster. In fact, I’m actually not suggesting changing much at all with your existing sales team.

Assuming they are performing, let your sales reps continue to work the traditional leads and assign someone else to work the inbound leads. This type of inside sales rep position has proven incredibly effective in working early-stage leads and nurturing them to the point that they are ready to be handed over to your outside sales reps and closed. Assigning one or two people to specifically work your inbound leads, creating a commission structure that aligns with inbound leads’ longer buying horizon, ensuring a smooth hand off from marketing, and training them on how best to engage with inbound leads will improve your lead-to-customer conversion rates and generate greater ROI from your inbound marketing strategy.

2. Educate your sales team

Its pretty striking that 46% of companies blame poor marketing and sales alignment on different goals and measurements. This leads to situations where marketing thinks they are doing everything right and knocking it out of the park, and sales is thinking “these leads suck.”

I’ve seen it happen – a lot! In fact, I’ve seen it happen enough times with my clients that we’ve changed our whole process and are now kicking off new inbound marketing engagements with a “Culture of Content” workshop.

What is a “Culture of Content” workshop? Basically, its an all-hands-on-deck, two to three hour workshop in which the entire organization comes together to learn how buyer behavior has changed, why Google play such an important role in today’s buying journey, how educational content can influence buyer behavior, and why it is so important for companies to practice inbound marketing.

These workshops aren’t just rah-rah, motivational events. We get very specific on the role that salespeople need to play in a company’s inbound marketing strategy, from generating ideas for content, to creating content, to following up on leads. The goals is to develop buy-in and make sure everyone is on the same page about what the company is doing, how it is going to do it, and what it is trying to accomplish.

Done right, a Culture of Content Workshop will lay the foundation for establishing common goals that sales and marketing can both get behind. The workshop needs to be followed up with a working session in which marketing and sales sit down and actually hammer out a service level agreement (SLA) that specifically documents the following:

  • How will you define a marketing qualified lead (MQL)?
  • How will you define a sales qualified lead (SQL)?
  • How many MQLs and SQLs will marketing commit to generating each month?
  • How will sales follow up on those MQLs and SQLs?
  • What lead-to-customer conversion rate should sales be achieving?

By documenting each of these things, companies can eliminate the disconnect that occurs when marketing and sales have different definitions of goals and measurements and ultimately strengthen alignment. When alignment is stronger and there is greater organizational buy-in for inbound marketing, watch out world – your team is bound to succeed!

3. Involve sales in content creation

I don’t care what industry you’re in, your sales people have greater insights into what your customers are looking for, the questions they have, and their pain points, than your marketing people do. Why? Because they spend more time communicating directly with customers and prospects than marketing does.

In most organizations, who creates content? Marketing, right?

See the disconnect?

If sales people have the greatest insight into customers’ needs, but marketing people are charged with creating content, then clearly sales needs to have greater involvement in content creation.

I’m not talking about shifting the responsibility for content creation from marketing to sales or even requiring sales people to blog (although it would be awesome if they did!). Instead, I’m talking about finding a way to tap into the knowledge that sales people have about buyers’ needs and interests and weaving that into the blogs, ebooks, infographics, webinars, case studies, etc. that marketing is creating.

With 45% of sales people citing a lack of time as the reason for poor marketing and sales alignment, you may think that increasing the involvement of sales people in content creation is unrealistic. In fact, this is something I hear a lot from C-level execs that call us looking for help with inbound marketing. They say things like “we want to get more leads but I don’t want this to become a distraction for my sales people.”

Given this concern, how can you involve sales people in content creation without overburdening them? Actually, they are already creating content and you just don’t realize it. If they’re like most sales people they send lots of emails every day to customers and prospects who have questions, and the information contained in those emails is inbound marketing gold.

Marcus Sheridan (aka The Sales Lion) has an ingenious solution for capturing this information, and we’ve copied it to a great degree of success with our clients. It’s so simple. Just create a new email address like “[email protected][yourcompany].com” and ask your sales team to blind copy it whenever they are sending emails that contain educational information, or answer prospect/customer questions. Then, make sure the emails get delivered to your marketing department, which can save them all for a time when they need content inspiration.

This works because its easy, it takes no time at all, and it doesn’t require your sales team to change the way they work. When we introduce this idea, most sales people are willing to give it a try. Because the biggest challenge is getting them to remember to do it every time, we’ve actually created custom mousepads to serve as a reminder to BCC [email protected] before they hit “send” on their email. This is something any company can easily copy.

There you have it

I’ve offered three easy solutions to immediately begin addressing the issue of sales and marketing alignment. These are really just the tip of the iceberg. The point is that if your company is going to make an investment in inbound marketing, you can’t forget to address the role that your sales team will play. Think about it like baseball – its no good getting a hitter to third base if you can’t get him to home plate.

Achieving strong sales and marketing alignment isn’t simple and, in my opinion, the mandate for it needs to come from the top down to overcome departmental turf battles. Getting your C-level exec to buy-in to the need for these changes is a good place to start, and then educating your whole team about the importance can help pave the way for change to take place.

Have you faced challenges getting your sales and marketing teams to work together on your inbound marketing campaigns? How did you overcome them? I don’t have all the answers and would love to know what others are doing to solve this issue. Share your strategies with me in the comments or tweet me @workmommywork.