The debate between branding and lead generation is as old as, well, the battle between sales and marketing. Sales is, of course, interested in filling the pipeline today, especially in tough economic times, because that's how they're rewarded. "Never mind that fluffy stuff," they say, "we need leads." Marketing, on the other hand, tends to take a longer-term view and sees building the brand as an essential element of sales. That's particularly true with business to business (B2B) products and services, where the decision process takes a long time and requires a great deal of nurturing.
Yet, the reality is the two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive. Following are some ideas of how sales and marketing can work together to generate leads and build the brand as part of the same effort.
Increase your "findability"
According to Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, authors of "Inbound Marketing," pushing information out to customers and prospects is not nearly as effective as it once was. Instead, you have to make sure they can find you when they're looking. That's why you must establish a 24/7 online presence through directories, specialized search engines, and industry websites.
Prospects with clearly defined needs search for solutions whenever and wherever they deem convenient for them -- not you. So, invest in making it easy for potential customers to find you and understand your value. That's how you brand your company and generate leads at the same time. It's a marketing mix that translates your best leads into your best customers.
Focus on the right fish
Sales may say it wants to fill the pipeline, but what they often fail to add is "with quality leads." So, when marketing gets the call to produce leads rapidly, B2B marketers often blindly cast as wide a net as possible in the hopes something good will come in. Unfortunately, while it may pull in a volume of leads, most are unqualified, making them a waste of the salespeople's time and further driving a wedge between sales and marketing. Before long, the perceived value of the lead-generation campaign plummets in the hopeful eyes of management and the sales team.
To dodge that trap, skip the net and instead put lines in the water aimed at attracting specific, qualified "fish." Identify the needs and challenges of your ideal customers and deliver messages that explain how you meet their requirements and solve their problems. This approach will build the brand for the long-term while attracting more of the right leads today. And even if you don't lure the specific customer you want, you're likely to attract one that is pretty close to the profile, delivering more of the results you want.
Create quality content -- rinse and repeat
The internet is a hungry beast, and its "food" is content. There is a constant need for fresh insight and information. That can work in your favor since most B2B products and services require an education process. Help prospects learn about your industry and product category as a whole by producing a regular stream of quality content and you can generate leads while building the brand.
You want to make some available for free, with no strings attached, as a "taste" of what you have to offer. Then offer the rest to those prospects willing to complete a short form with basic lead-qualifying questions. For example, start an industry blog that is open to anyone, but also offer webinars, white papers, application notes and other information -- available to those who fill out your form. Promise to treat their information with care and respect in the text of your form. Resist the urge to transform what should be a quick questionnaire focused on their needs like an in-depth survey focused on yours.
Nurture those leads like a garden
Once your pipeline of prospects has found you and sampled what you have to offer, it's time to start nurturing them along. Research shows that, in the B2B world, up to 70 percent of business comes from long-cycle sales leads. Since you don't know much about them yet, it's best to use a mix of outreach methods until you can narrow down their preferences.
The most efficient way to make prospect lists aware of your offerings is sending links to your content via email. You also can post information to your website and contact reporters and bloggers who write about your space.
But keep the human touch in mind, too. A well-timed call as a courtesy to let your best prospects know when new, relevant content is available can lead to more significant opportunities.
Regardless of the methods you choose, put the word out. Be sure that every contact includes a call to action. While you may not want to use a "buy now" message, making your email address and phone number handy to prospects that want more information is an easy way keep dialog moving.
Differentiate through branding
If you're competing with products or services that appear similar on the surface, branding becomes important as a differentiator, especially in tough economic times. You want to be considered a "safe" choice; branding can help you do that.
Consider investing in marketing programs that offer lead generation and branding at the same time, such as a visible presence in online directories or sponsorship opportunities for e-newsletters or online events. The more you spread your marketing mix, the more familiar your brand will become to prospects.
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