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Building Relationships
10 min

Lead generation: Targeting the self-directed buyer

by John Simpson December 31, 2015

Lead Generation. 78% of B2B marketers say it’s their biggest challenge, according to a MarketingProfs study. From a financial perspective, lead generation is the marketing activity that contributes most directly and concretely to the bottom line. So, is it any surprise that so many B2B marketers feel that generating actionable leads is the best way to prove their value?

But before you reallocate your marketing budget to “lead generation” activities and tools, it’s important to understand why it now ranks higher than all other marketing activities, such as brand awareness, communications, and public/investor relations.


Rise of the self-directed buyer

Consider for a moment the act of buying an automobile in the 1980’s. Generally speaking, unless you were an avid Car and Driver or Motor Trend reader, the most readily available source for information on your car(s) of interest was the automobile dealers themselves. The job of the dealer was to understand your need and qualify you as a buyer. If you passed the “sniff test,” you were awarded a beautiful full-color brochure containing real paint and leather samples in exchange for your name and phone number. BOOM! Lead generated.

Now let’s think about the act of buying a car today. From our mobile phones, we have access to everything we used to get from the dealer: the auto manufacturer’s website, consumer reviews and reports, online videos of owners discussing their cars, and price aggregators showing you exactly what other buyers have actually paid. The full-color brochure has been replaced with an online car configurator that allows you to see all the various exterior and interior color permutations, options, as well as the exact MSRP for the car you want. Your experience with the auto dealer now looks a lot different. You access the dealer only after you’ve narrowed down your choice of vehicles. You’ve researched the dealers themselves and know how to get the best deal. In fact, the only reason you really even need the dealer is to perhaps provide a test drive and handle the financing paperwork. Just ask Tesla.

So, what’s changed? Today, we see a self-directed buyer. Buyers are better informed, connected and skeptical than ever before. They want to be in control of their buying process, not the other way around. Think the self-directed buyer issue is only a B2C phenomenon? Think again–the Corporate Executive Board found that the average B2B buyer is 57% through the purchase decision before engaging a supplier sales rep.


A “lead generation” example in professional services

I recently chatted with a CMO of a large professional services organization. She was under immense pressure to pivot her department from traditional MARCOM and branding to “lead generation.” She had just purchased a very hot, cloud-based marketing automation platform to help bring leads to the table.

After circling back with her a few months later, she relayed that her efforts to generate leads had returned less than expected results. As it turned out, her lead nurturing campaign consisted almost entirely of directing unknown users to landing pages where they could sign up to receive more information, download a white paper or perhaps be contacted by someone at the firm. She was shocked that more users weren’t “taking the bait.”

Is it that the marketing automation platform didn’t do its job? Is it that the landing pages weren’t designed well? I would say no and no. So, what went wrong with this lead generation campaign?


The relationship-based business: Targeting the self-directed B2B buyer

At One North, we specialize in working with “relationship-based businesses.” In short, these are businesses that are characterized by long, non-transactional sales cycles where potential clients experience brands through analog and digital channels many times before a relationship is formalized.

It’s our view at One North that relationship-based businesses like law firms, investment banks, consulting firms, etc. need to engage the self-directed buyer differently, and that starts by understanding the following:

The blended agenda

How many times has your organization marketed a white paper, press release or webinar only to be underwhelmed with the results? In a time when buyers are self-directed, understanding the buyer’s agenda – i.e. what they want to learn about you and when – is absolutely critical. Spend time thinking about what your buyers really want to learn about you in order to make a purchase decision. Hint: It’s not always that you’re a great subject-matter expert. Better examples might be:

  • Cultural fit
  • Ability to deliver ROI
  • Your vision
  • Your talent
  • Your understanding of how you impact their business

Now that we’ve thought about the customer, let’s consider the company’s goals to generate a lead. For example:

  • Allow us to pitch
  • Request a proposal
  • Attend a company-sponsored event
  • Extend our work to a new business area, or new geography

Aligning the two agendas, the marketer can identify where there is overlap between the potential customer’s goals and the firm’s. You may find, for example, that what you want the customer to do (i.e. read a white paper or press release) has no obvious overlap with the buyer’s agenda. In this case, asking users to sign up to read the white paper, or bombarding them with a myriad of calls-to-action to read it, will only frustrate the user. Your challenge is to link what they want out of you to what you want out of them in a way that is natural and productive.

In short, smartly identifying what you want to achieve in lead generation, and how or if that aligns with the buyer’s agenda, can be the difference between wasted marketing dollars and new leads.

Lead generation is still about building trust.

Self-directed buyers, by their very definition, will only identify themselves to you when they absolutely have to. And, as the Corporate Executive Board discovered, that is often when they are very far along in their decision-making process.

So what are we to do? One North believes that we should focus less on end-of-cycle “conversion” (i.e., committing to buying services) and more on engaging the customer wherever they are in the buying cycle. Measuring your success by how many new names you pack into your CRM is misguided. Firms should start by looking at “engagement” – is the buyer interacting with your content, how often and are they coming back? Moreover, what does engagement look like at each stage of the buying cycle? How can you measure progression through the buying cycle at each stage before the end purchase?

New software platforms like Sitecore enable organizations to plot the success of their relationship development efforts using engagement values. The marketer’s job is to increase engagement over time. As self-directed buyers become more engaged, they build trust with your brand and, in turn, reveal themselves on their schedule, not yours.

Over the past four years, we’ve written and spoken extensively about The Relationship Cycle, One North’s philosophy on how our clients should approach relationship development, represented in this figure here:

The One North Relationship Cycle

In short, B2B organizations should focus more on how to provide value throughout the potential client’s journey through the cycle, rather than trying to convert them to a “lead” as soon as possible. These companies should focus on creating planned user experiences that span:

  • Strong targeting
  • Relevant content
  • Cross-channel user experiences
Lead generation snowballs–It starts small and ends big!

Okay, I have to admit; from time to time, I do hear from my clients tales of securing a client who found them via a Google search, called the switchboard, and hired their organization for a major piece of work on the first call. But let’s face it: that is the exception, rather than the norm, in a world of selling high-end relationship-based business services.

Marketing executives who expect quick results from lead generation campaigns need to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. The longer the firm makes a concerted effort to align its content with the agenda of the user, and the more the firm concentrates on building trust online, the more success they will have in developing “leads.” In fact, our own research indicates that, on average, a prospective clients need to experience a brand (i.e. attend a firm webinar, speak live with a professional at the firm, etc.) eight times before they convert to a lead.


Embracing the self-directed buyer

Within this post, we’ve discussed three ways to better engage the self-directed buyer. Perhaps the most important point, however, is that we should think about the self-directed buyer differently. Don’t judge the success of “lead generation” campaigns by the number of new, potentially interested contacts added to your database. Instead, rate the lead generation process by its ability to bring qualified, empowered and knowledgeable self-directed buyers to you at the time when they most need you.

John Simpson
Chief Executive Officer

At the time of publishing, John was Chief Executive Officer at One North.