We've all been through it. You know, the moment you're about to dig into the best darn pile of spaghetti and meatballs you've ever seen.
Just as you twist your fork in the pasta, spear a mouth-watering meatball, and go in for the first savory bite ... the phone rings. "May I speak to Aaahnooom Hahsahn?" says the telemarketer on the other end. "This is an important message regarding your oven preferences."
This frustrating interruption is exactly why we're here to discuss inbound lead generation. What is inbound lead generation? It's a solution that can save your business or organization from being that annoying, disruptive cold caller who is ruining spaghetti nights for pasta lovers all over the world.
Let's start with defining a lead, and then we'll get into what lead generation is, why you need lead generation, how you qualify someone as a lead, how you generate leads, and why inbound lead generation is much more effective than simply buying leads.
What is a Lead?
Let's start with the basics. A lead is a person who has indicated interest in your company's product or service in some way, shape, or form.
In other words, instead of getting a random cold call from someone who purchased your contact information, you'd hear from a business or organization you've already opened communication with.
For example, maybe you took an online survey to learn more about how to take care of your car. If you got an email from the auto company that hosted the survey on their website about how they could help you take care of your car, it'd be far less intrusive and irrelevant than if they'd just called you out of the blue with no knowledge of whether you even care about car maintenance ... right?
And from a business perspective, the information the auto company collected about you from your survey responses would help them personalize that opening communication to meet the existing needs of the potential client.
What Is Lead Generation?
Lead generation is the process of attracting and converting strangers and prospects into those leads we just talked about.
Whenever someone outside the marketing world asks me what I do, I can't simply say, "I create content for lead generation." It'd be totally lost on them, and I'd get some really confused looks.
So instead, I say, "I work on finding unique ways to attract people to my business. I want to provide them with enough goodies to get them naturally interested in my company so they eventually warm up to the brand enough to want to hear from us!"
That usually resonates better, and that's exactly what lead generation is: It's a way of warming up potential customers to your business and getting them on the path to eventually buying.
Why Do You Need Lead Generation?
By showing an organic interest in your business, it's those strangers and prospects that are initiating the relationship with you -- versus you, the business, initiating the relationship with them. This makes it easier and more natural for them to want to buy from you somewhere down the line.
Within the larger inbound marketing methodology, lead generation falls in the second stage. It occurs after you've attracted an audience and are ready to actually convert those visitors into leads for your sales team. As you can see in the diagram below, generating leads is a fundamental point in an individual's journey to becoming a delighted customer of your business.
How Do You Qualify Someone as a Lead?
As you now know, a lead is a person who has indicated interest in your company's product or service. Now, let's talk about the ways in which someone can actually show that interest.
Essentially, a lead is generated through information collection. That information collection could come as the result of a job seeker showing interest in a position by completing an application for the job, a shopper sharing contact information in exchange for a coupon, or a person filling out a form to download an educational piece of content, like an ebook, kit, podcast, tool, trial, or something else. (Here are 23 types of lead generation content to inspire you.)
Below are just a few of the many ways in which you could qualify someone as a lead. Each of these examples also highlights the fact that the amount of information you can collect to qualify someone as a lead, as well as the that person's level of interest in your company, can vary. Let's assess each scenario:
- Job Application: Any individual filling out an application form is willing to share a lot of personal information because he/she wants to be considered for the position. Filling out that application shows their true interest in the job, therefore qualifying the person as a lead for the company's recruiting team.
- Coupon: Unlike the job application, you probably know very little about someone who has stumbled upon one of your online coupons. But if they find the coupon valuable enough, they may be willing to provide their name and email address in exchange for it. Although it's not a lot of information, it's enough for a business to know that someone has interest in their company.
- Content: While the download of a coupon shows an individual has a direct interest in your product or service, content (like an educational ebook or webinar) does not. Therefore, in order to truly understand the nature of the person's interest in your business, you'll probably need to collect more information -- you'll need enough information for a sales rep to actually understand whether the person is interested in your product or service, and whether they're a good fit.
These three general examples highlight how lead generation differs from company to company, and from person to person. You'll need to collect enough information in order to gauge whether someone has a true, valid interest in your product or service, but knowing how much information is enough information will vary depending on your business.
Let's look at Episerver, for example. They use web content reports for lead generation, collecting six pieces of information from prospective leads:
As you can see, Episerver asks for:
- Full Name: Basic information needed for communication with the to-be lead.
- Email: The email address will allow your business to communicate with the to-be
lead through your email marketing campaigns.
- Company: This will give you the ability to research what the business does and how the lead might benefit from your product or service. (Mainly for B2B)
- Role: Understanding an individual's role in the business will help you understand how to communicate with them. Every brand stakeholder will have a different take and perspective on your offering. (Mainly for B2B)
- Country: Location information needed for qualifying the to-be lead and sending it to the correct sales team, if applicable.
- State: Location information needed for qualifying the to-be lead and sending it to the correct sales team, if applicable.
If you'd like to learn more intermediate-level tips on information collection and what you should ask for on your lead-capture forms, read our post about it here. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Now back to the basics ...
How Do You Generate Leads? The Mechanics of Lead Generation
Now that we understand how lead generation fits into the whole inbound marketing methodology, let's review the actual components of the lead generation process.
- Landing Page: A landing page is a web page a visitor lands on for a distinct purpose. While a landing page can be used for various reasons, one of its most frequent uses is to capture leads through ...
- Forms: Forms are hosted on landing pages. They consist of a series of fields (like in our example above) that collect information in exchange for an ...
- Offer: An offer is the content or something of value that's being "offered" on the landing page. The offer must have enough value to a visitor to merit providing their personal information in exchange for access to it.
- Call-to-Action: A call-to-action (CTA) is an image, button, or message that calls website visitors to take some sort of action. When it comes to lead generation, this action is (you guessed it!) to fill out the form on the landing page and redeem the offer.
See how everything fits together?
(If you're looking for a free lead capture tool, take a look at Leadin by HubSpot, which lets you set up contact and lead capture forms on your website and/or sync your existing forms. It's really easy to set up and you don't need to be a HubSpot customer to use it.)
Once you put all these elements together, you can use your various promotional channels to link and drive traffic to the landing page so you can start generating leads. Here are some example pathways for lead generation:
Why Not Just Buy Leads?
Marketers and salespeople alike want to fill their sales funnel -- and they want to fill it quickly. That's where the temptation to buy leads comes in. Buying leads, as opposed to generating them organically, is much easier and takes far less time and effort -- despite being more expensive. So why shouldn't you just buy leads?
First and foremost, leads you've purchased don't actually know you. Typically, they've "opted in" at some other site when signing up for something -- and didn't actually opt in to receiving anything from your company. The messages you send them are therefore unwanted messages, and sending unwanted messages is intrusive, not inviting. If the prospect has never been to your website, indicated an interest in your resources, products, services, or even industry, then you’re interrupting them ... plain and simple.
If they never opted in to receive messages from you specifically, then there's a high likelihood they could flag your messages as spam. This is quite dangerous for you. Not only does this train their inbox to show only emails they want to see, but it indicates to their email provider which emails to filter out. Once enough people click flag your messages as spam, you go on a "blacklist," which is then shared with other email providers. Once you get on the blacklist, it’s really, really hard to get back off of it. In addition, your email deliverability and IP reputation will likely be harmed.
It's always, always, always better to generate leads organically rather than buy them. Read this blog post to learn how to grow an opt-in email list instead of buying one.
Want more lead generation insight? Download our complete guide to lead generation for even more lead gen tips.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in July 2013 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.