By Abby Sorensen, Chief Editor
“I feel like a patient in a hospital. After becoming acquainted with the various diagnostic equipment, I’m expected to diagnose and treat my own illness.”
That’s from the introduction to Buyer-Centered Selling: How Modern Sellers Engage & Collaborate With Buyers by Thomas Williams and Thomas Saine. It’s referring to the feeling buyers get when they interact with sellers who only pitch products and services.
But it also applies to how B2B sales teams feel when marketing sends over a spreadsheet of leads generated from content. Sales is left wondering, “What do all of those clicks and downloads mean? What are we supposed to do next in our outreaches?”
Sales might not be converting content leads because they don’t know how. It’s up to marketing to give guidance on what to do with content leads. Plenty of well-intentioned content marketing plans have been abandoned when this guidance is lacking.
Content marketers tend to forget how challenging it is to execute a follow-up plan after content is created and distributed. What follows is not a playbook or a prescriptive list of best practices. It’s meant for B2B sales and marketing teams facing complex deals with long sales cycles and large buying committees. These are just some of questions you’ll need to answer to create an effective lead follow up process.
These questions will require you to take a long, hard look at the resources at your disposal, the capabilities of your team, and the goals of your content marketing strategy.
#1 - What part of the buyer’s journey are you trying to impact?
Before you answer, you might want to pause for five minutes and read our refresher about what, exactly, the B2B buyer’s journey is.
Let’s say you want thought leadership content to influence buyers early in their purchasing process. Do you have marketing automation, CRM, and sales training systems in place first? Are you prepared to nurture these leads with valuable content for months, or even years, before they are ready to buy? Or are you going to end up with a spreadsheet of leads that you don’t know what to do with?
Or are you trying to impact the late stages of the buyer’s journey with the hopes of generating ready-to-buy leads? If so, do you have a large enough internal sales team ready to help those buyers. Or do you have only one new SDR hire whose skills are limited to appointment setting? If you did get a sudden influx of ready-to-buy leads, do your products and services have the capacity to scale with new customers?
#2 - How often can we send truly valuable content to make the buyer’s journey easier?
This question is notably different than asking, “How often should we send follow-up messages?” A good rule of thumb is that you should only contact your content leads if you have something helpful to say. So the answer to question number two is, “As often as you can afford to send high-quality content that is specifically relevant to them.” That will obviously depend on your ability to create, refresh, and tailor content to each member of a buying committee.
This definition of thought leadership from LinkedIn and Edelman’s “2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study” can be a guidepost for what is considered valuable: “Free deliverables organizations or individuals produce on a topic they know a lot about and feel others can benefit from having their perspective on.” Note the word free means you should deliver it without requiring a form-fill.
Once you gauge how often you can help buyers, then you’ll need to determine how long to keep that lead in your nurture stream. That will largely depend on your sales cycle. If a typical deal takes six months to close, don’t send a series of seven once-monthly messages and then stop. Instead, you’ll likely need at least a year of this cadence, since not all of your leads will be active buyers right away. Don’t just force-feed messages until a lead opts-out. You’ll want to invest time in good data hygiene practices.
#3 - When should we send outreaches to content leads?
First, use common sense before you spend hours debating whether your next email should go out at 10 a.m. on Tuesday or 1 p.m. on Thursday. You can play around with A/B testing send times, but just know every buyer will have different habits for reading emails.
Then, let research dictate how soon you should send a follow-up message. Consider the findings in Netline’s “2020 State Of B2B Content Consumption And Demand Report For Marketers.” Netline defines the “consumption gap” as, “the time between the moment content is requested and the moment it’s opened for consumption.” Of the varieties of B2B job levels researched, the shortest average time between requesting content and engaging with it was 20.9 hours (for senior director titles), all the way up to 40.3 hours (for owners). Your buyers have lives, and they need time to digest your content before you hit them with even more content. Keep that in mind if you have nurture campaigns triggered to reply instantly, or even in a day or two.
Also keep in mind that buyers have different tolerances for message frequency. Even if you had an unlimited library of helpful content, daily messages would be overkill. And with so much noise cluttering your buyers’ inboxes and social feeds, a monthly outreach might not cut it. Find that sweet spot with testing. This will, again, boil down to what resources you have to queue, test, send, and report on follow-up messages.
When you are debating how often to follow up with leads, assume your messages are not being read. Don’t just send your most helpful eBook once and then move on to the next message. Send it again, and again, and again with different subject lines, formats, and highlights.
#4 - What should we say to our buyers?
First, you’ll want to know exactly what is already sent to content leads. “Sales Follow-Up: Where B2B Content Marketing Goes Wrong,” highlights why this is important. Chances are that current outreaches are more focused on your products/services and less on helping the buyer.
Your follow-up messages should always keep the buyer’s journey front and center. Slow down, provide more helpful content on a related topic, and build trust before going straight to selling.
Of course, there is a time and a place for follow-up messages to tell buyers about your products/services. But first, you need to show buyers that you care about their challenges, not just about how you solve those challenges. Showing a buyer you care does involve more than saying, “I hope you are doing well during these unprecedented times.” Showing that you care means providing advice, help, and guidance without asking for anything in return.
Here are a few things to try when reaching out to content leads:
- Provide a variety of content in one message. This allows buyers to self-identify their stage in the buyer’s journey. Think of it as a “choose your own adventure” model. Send a message centered around one topic/theme that includes a thought leadership article (it can even be the same one that lead engaged with), a case study, an on-demand webinar, and product/service info.
- Set the reply address to go to a real human (instead of an info@ mailbox). Or, at the very least, make sure a real human is responsible for monitoring the reply address. Don’t expect a flurry of replies to follow-ups, but do have a way to ensure that if a buyer has questions that there is a system for quickly connecting them with the appropriate contact.
- In addition to your marketing automation emails, make time to send personal messages. This, of course, depends on your available resources and bandwidth. These should be one-to-one messages coming from a real person in marketing or sales. It’s especially important to do this when following up with a lead who engages with late-stage buyer’s journey content. Skip the fancy templates and corporate branding – remember, you are sending this type of message from one human to another.
- Not every message needs a call to action. This is counterintuitive for marketers obsessed with measuring conversions and for sales reps eager to get on the phone. A buyer who clicks on your case study sees a version of this at the end of every email: “I saw you are interested in topic A. Let me know if you’re free next week to discuss how we can help with topic A.” Instead, offer to connect the buyer to a subject matter expert who is not on the sales team. Try, “I’d be happy to connect you with X, who is our in-house expert on topic A and can speak to some of the trends and challenges we’re seeing in the industry.” This can be especially effective if you are collaborating with subject matter experts to create the content that generates leads.
Have Patience While Writing Your Own Playbook
Every sales/marketing team will have different answers to these four questions. There is no single playbook.
Think of it this way: If Tom Brady is your quarterback, you can run a certain playbook. The New England Patriots used that playbook very successfully for the 20 years Brady was on their roster. Now imagine being a Miami Dolphins fan, a team that won a measly two AFC East championships compared to New England’s 17 titles during Brady’s tenure.
The Dolphins could have had the exact same playbook as the Patriots and they still would have underperformed. That’s because the Dolphins did not have Tom Brady as their quarterback. They simply didn’t have the same resources as the Patriots, so it would have been pointless to copy their playbook.
Your lead follow-up playbook will largely depend on your resources. Your tools, capabilities, timelines, and desired outcomes will dictate your process.
Even once your playbook is spiral-bound and ready to implement, you still need to manage expectations of how content leads will respond. Do not expect an earth-shattering improvement in a direct engagement rate. That’s not the fault of your content or your follow-up process; rather, it’s the reality of B2B buying. This research from “Selling To The C-Suite” to illustrate that reality: "At any given time, only 4 percent of your market is actively buying, 40 percent are ready to start looking at options, and 56 percent aren't ready or don't have a current need."
Even the best follow-up messages only average a 15-20 percent open rate with a single-digit percentage point link click-throughs. Those numbers won’t double or triple by revamping your follow-up efforts, and they might not double or triple ever. But if you are willing to commit to testing and to making incremental improvements in your content follow-up process, it will lead to more wins from that 4 percent of active buyers. If you have patience, it will help the other 96 percent of right-fit buyers eventually start a buyer’s journey that ends with you as their supplier.