Investing Strategically for Marketing Performance in 2021

In 2021 as we return to a new normal, how do we strategically invest to maximize pipeline creation and close?

Challenge: In 2021 as we return to a new normal, how do we strategically invest to maximize pipeline creation and close?

With vaccine shots going into arms around the world, we can see a return to ‘normal’ in the coming months and years ahead. But what will this new normal look like and how do we prepare best for it? Many trends were accelerated with the pandemic: work-from-home and online shopping to name a few. But I believe the buyer’s journey has also changed fundamentally which, in turn, requires us to change how we prioritize our investments. 

For many years, we have talked about the customer journey – and even recognized that 70% of this journey happens before a prospect ever engages with our brand. So we responded by creating early, mid and late stage content to make relevant offers building awareness and engagement. 

However, in the years before the pandemic, consumer application technologies have increased expectations of the buying process. With a few clicks on your phone, you can get a ride (Uber/Lyft), get food delivered (Postmates/Grubhub), transfer money (Venmo/Paypal), buy groceries (instacart/Amazon Fresh), and more. The most precious thing our prospects have is their time — and they have less of this than ever as their job responsibilities have expanded. And the pandemic has only accelerated both their expectations with these services and the demands on their time (going from Zoom meeting to meeting). 

This is the new normal environment that will be slowly returning over the coming year. So how do we meet these new demands from our prospects?  I believe there are four key areas for investment in 2021: Deep and Relevant Content, Smart Sales Outreach, Multiple Product Demo Options, Improved Product Experience.  

Deep and Relevant Content:

As B2B marketers, we know that we need early, mid and late stage content: infographics, explainer videos, blogs, case studies, whitepapers, eBooks, analyst reports, ROI calculators, and more. All too often, this content is written by marketing people who don’t live the experience of the prospect – whether they be a security engineer, data analyst, software engineer, CFO, supply chain director, etc.  

What our prospects really need is useful content that teaches them something and not a 10 page graphical eBook that barely scratches the surface of the topic at hand. Imagine content that actually educates them about the challenges they face with relevant information. This could take the form of code snippet samples, security breach mitigation recommendations, tips and tricks for handling month-end close, excel pivot recommendations to cleanse data, etc…  

We expect the prospect to ‘tune-in’ to our channel of communication — but why would they do so unless there is something in it for them? I realize that this advice might mean making their life easier with their current solution — but it builds awareness and trust of our brand. Isn’t that what we wanted after all? Certainly it’s OK to insert content that shows the benefit of our solution, but if we only insert promotional content — we should only expect engagement at the very end of the buyer’s journey when they are really considering alternatives. Therefore we need to invest in deeply relevant content that builds engagement earlier with our prospects.

The challenge here is to create more deeply meaningful content which likely requires our internal subject matter experts to write or create content. Therein lies the challenge. We can’t have people who are removed from our prospect experience to write insightful and enlightening content. They can assist our subject matter experts (likely who are not writers) but the source material must come from a subject matter expert. Getting these SME’s to create this deeply relevant content should be part of your 2021 plan.

Smart Sales Outreach:

Who likes getting an unsolicited call? Anyone? These calls are an interruption of your day — and we must remember this as we make our outbound call plans. To make matters worse, often B2B BDRs are calling on sophisticated prospects with little more than scripts, qualifying questions and a request to set up an appointment. No wonder we get a bad reputation here. 

Imagine if the callers were more deeply educated on the buyer persona, the challenges and the solutions faced by their prospects. If they can ask smart questions, provide relevant information and actually help the prospect in some way, the call becomes actually more interesting.  As a demand marketer receiving unsolicited calls, when a BDR called me with an understanding of the challenges I face, asked smart questions, listened and offered relevant solutions, then I would gladly set an appointment. But they only had 30 seconds to earn my trust and two minutes to prove they could help me. If they just wanted to set an appointment – b’ bye. 

This takes ongoing training to raise the level of our BDRs or AE’s to make smart calls. This is a significant investment in training by internal subject matter experts and the creation of supporting materials for the BDRs. We can hire BDRs for critical communication skills and process, but we need to enrich them with the detailed knowledge that will be useful to our prospects. [As a side note, some organizations actually hire target personas to become BDRs or AE’s – preferring to then train them on sales and communication skills.] So investing in your BDR skills to truly understand the challenges and issues faced by your prospects should be a key investment area for 2021.

Multiple Product Demo Options:

Full disclosure – I am a fan of product led growth. If we claim our product is better than the prospect’s status quo — let’s show them directly. Now some products lend themselves more easily to a freemium experience than others. For larger, integrated solutions requiring significant deployment services, it may be impossible to provide freemium or similar experience. However, there are many different options to consider because customers expect the ability to explore on their own – especially if they are not ready to speak to a sales person. 

I advocate creating a number of different experiences to drive early engagement with your product:

  • Recorded product demonstrations 
  • Turning ‘features’ of a solution platform into freemium products of their own
  • Screenshot demo as step-by-step, guided tour
  • Short-lived, virtual instance of your fully deployed product for exploration
  • Customer webinar recording of their deployment and benefits
  • Weekly live demo webinar one-to-many

Most products have different use cases which then would require different versions of these product experiences above. Well, that is the hard work that needs to be done in 2021. Identify these use cases and the best options to display this to your prospects and get to work on creating this extremely helpful content. No doubt it will take time from systems engineers and product marketing, but the resulting assets can be used repeatedly at various stages of the customer journey.

I encourage you to be creative in thinking about how you can create various types of product experiences. Prospects today want the ability to explore on their own and ‘see’ your product in action. The real challenge is for us to consider how we create these compelling experiences as part of the revised journey.  These experiences need to create a ‘goose-bump moment’ — that moment where the prospect clearly sees how your product fixes their challenges. If you can deliver this — you will drive further consideration and likely some direct engagement with sales. Invest in 2021 in creating new and compelling product experiences appropriate for various stages of your customer journey.

Improved Product Experience:

The product engagements defined above assume that the prospect’s product experience is compelling. Sometimes we need to look critically at our own solution, compare it to alternatives and be honest with our assessment. I recommend you go through the complete onboarding and usage process to really understand what your prospects will see as they become customers or as they trial your product.  You do not want to accelerate prospect engagement with your product if this demonstrates that your solution is non-intuitive, clunky, hard to use, etc…

So, spending time to identify and improve the product experience is worthy of marketing effort. If these experiences are not compelling, I would rather take marketing headcount and/or funds to accelerate remediating these issues. It may be time to slow down demand generation to fund key improvements before stepping on the accelerator. So my recommendation for 2021 here is to have an honest assessment of the product relative to both the prospects current solutions and to your competitors.

So There you have it — four strategic recommendations for guiding 2021 investments that will take advantage of the new normal. Give your prospects more of what they want as part of their buying journey. These tips should help your content, communications and engagement have greater impact — all while helping you scale.

Lesson: With prospect demands to get relevant information when and how they want it, in 2021 you can provide: Deep and Relevant Content, Smart Sales Outreach, Multiple Product Demo Options, and Improved Product Experience.  


Drip Email Nurturing – Who Wants to be a Drip?

Challenge:  Drip email campaigns often are not customer responsive

It is common for marketers today to identify customers with common characteristics and drop them into a drip email program because it’s easy and can automate outreach to thousands of customers.  The drip campaign creative can be tightly tied to a product or specific value proposition.  However, all too often the process is something like this:  ‘Prospects with this criteria/engagement are ideal for this product so let’s drop them into the ABC drip series.’  On the surface, it sounds like good marketing: targeted list, customized messaging and marketing automation. 

However, this process neglects the fact that these prospects are not uniform in any way.  No matter how tightly we segment our lists, each prospect is truly unique.  In common practice, drip email campaigns are static, having a fixed number of messages at somewhat fixed intervals with fixed messaging.  Those that operate at a higher level have some activity-driven content to alter the messaging throughout the drip to more tightly align to the prospect, but this is as far as most drip programs have progressed.  However, with effort, we can aspire to much more targeted marketing.  Take Amazon, for example, where recommendations are made based on recent purchases and web visits.  I love Amazon because it is timely, relevant and easy to use.

What we need to strive for is something much more responsive.  We need to integrate a broader set of inputs to drive a more relevant set of messages for each prospect.  These other areas of input may include: last website visit date, website pages visited, other contacts at the same company visiting the website, organic/paid search terms, previous products purchased, industry, and more.  Unfortunately this creates more complexity for the marketer, but it creates a more relevant and timely set of messages for the prospect, which is far more important. Additionally, marketers should consider alternate outreach vehicles like a call or mailing. 

While the typical drip program is better than ‘spray and pray’ email marketing, the goal should reach higher.  Think of prospects who look forward to receiving email messages.  Imagine doubling open and click-through rates.  This can only happen with significant changes that make your messages much more relevant to your audience.  What this takes is monitoring key data elements available in your marketing automation system and leveraging these to send the right message with the right offer at the right time.  This is certainly a tough task – and one that will increase complexity over a static drip program.  However the result will be dramatically higher engagement levels.  

So drip nurturing can make the sending company look like a real ‘drip’! 

Lesson: Let’s strive to optimize our outbound programs by including a variety of inputs driven by the actions of the prospect to ensure timely and relevant contacts that move the relationship forward.

Lead Qualification Call Architecture

Challenge: In B2B lead prospecting, how should you design your follow-up calls to quickly assess the prospect and maximize progress on the call?

Lesson: While the wording does not have to be exact, the call architecture above will quickly get to the key data points you need to put the prospect down the right lead qualification or sales path.

Challenge: In B2B lead prospecting, how should you design your follow-up calls to quickly assess the prospect and maximize progress on the call?

Every B2B sales process is unique. However, there are many common elements that provide a common approach to designing your lead follow-up strategy by your lead development representatives. You cannot assume that, left to their own methods, they will find the optimal structure. You need to get feedback from your reps, design a call flow, enforce usage, and then assess the feedback to optimize the structure. Following are a few common elements that will help script an initial follow-up call. Let’s assume that the rep is calling a new prospect that has entered your system from a marketing program – a tradeshow, a whitepaper download, a channel partner registration, a website visit, etc.

Step One: Opening

Make sure your prospect is shown all necessary respect by telling them who you are, and why you are calling and most importantly, keep it shortA pretty standard opening would be: “Hi, my name is Larry Stein with ABC Corp., and I’m following up on your recent download of the XYZ whitepaper from our website.” Don’t add words that diminish your value (e.g. ‘I am just calling you…’) – there’s never a need to apologize for your call. You are calling to help them. You may choose to add a few more words if your company/brand is not well known, in order to help them remember their interaction with your company: “Hi, my name is Larry Stein with ABC Corp. We make the ABC product called the Widget, and I’m following up on your recent download of the XYZ whitepaper from our website.” 

Step Two: Initial Question

You want to stop talking quickly and get them talking. So get to the first open-ended question. My favorite is: “Can you tell me more about your interest in ABC Product/Area?” We don’t care if they read the whitepaper or liked your tradeshow demo. We don’t care how they’re feeling today (let’s face it). This person acted on their own to interact with your company and we want to learn why. There is some business reason that drove them to show up as a lead in your system (remember, we’re not addressing cold calls here). It could be that their boss directed them to look at your product. It could be that they are researching options to solve a problem. You may also find that the person wants to learn more so they can make a job transition or other personal reasons. That’s fine – but let’s get around to understanding this quickly so we can disqualify this lead.

Step Three: Probing Questions to Identify Pain

You may get useful information from your first question – but they may side step the answer initially. That’s OK, in just 2-3 sentences and in less than 30 seconds you have now introduced yourself, your company and why you are calling. Game on! Now you can ask them some initial questions to help guide your qualification. Without identifying a pain point, you cannot sell them anything. Your questions need to get at this area quickly. These will vary – but common questions are:

  • What products or services are you using today to address PRODUCT AREA?
    • If they don’t know the answer, you are likely speaking to the wrong person.
  • What are the primary challenges you face in PRODUCT AREA?
    • If you can’t identify pain points, then the prospect likely needs more time/development.
  • Do you have an IMPENDING EVENT coming up in the near future?
    • Is there something coming up that’s a good target point for you to start a sales engagement? E.g., Office move, acquisition, planned upgrade, etc.

You get the idea. You need to have a few (3-4) well-crafted questions to really probe for pain points or impending events that will enable you to deliver a solution for the prospect.

At some point in this process you can insert your value proposition. When they describe their current solutions or issues they face, you can then respond with a quick, 3-sentence solution overview. This builds on the short introduction you gave to your company and starts to embed the nature of your solution and why you are calling. Keep it short – you have not yet earned the right for a monologue.

Step Four: Seeing is Believing

If the call is going well and worthy of deeper investment of time, now is the time you should get your product in front of your prospect. A picture is truly worth a thousand words. This could be a 5-minute web demonstration via phone, a canned video or some other tool that will make your solution come alive for the customer. Given that this will frequently extend the call by 3-10 minutes, this step should only be taken with qualified prospects. The objective of this demonstration is to solidify their interest. Ideally you want to get them to experience a ‘goose-bump moment.’ This is the moment when a prospect clearly understands how your product would make their life easier/better. Make it personal and visceral.

Step Five: Next Steps:

So now you’ve learned about their needs and gauged their interest in your solution. Next, set the hook for their next call to action. You need to get your prospect to commit to a next step in the sales process. They need to actively take steps to evaluate and learn about your solution. By taking an action, your prospect will become more positively disposed to your solution (see the blog post “Power of Persuasion”). This could be to attend a one-hour web demonstration, to have an onsite visit/demo, to gather data and send back to you, or other important steps. You must close the prospect for this step and schedule the timeframe. Set a date and time for this action and set a follow-up discussion date/time. You are now off to the races!

Lesson: While the wording does not have to be exact, the call architecture above will quickly get to the key data points you need to put the prospect down the right lead qualification or sales path.

Lead Qualification Compensation Strategies

Challenge: How do you provide incentives for your lead qualification reps?

Lesson: Simplicity, leverage and breadth can reinforce what is most important in the lead development role.

Challenge: How do you provide incentives for your lead qualification reps?

I strongly believe that the most important forms of ‘compensation’ are feedback on the job and work environment. Employees generally do not leave for 10% more pay. However, they will leave when they do not feel appreciated or when they can’t see how their efforts support the organization as a whole. That said, designing a compensation plan is an important factor in providing incentives and demonstrating what is truly important in the position. The compensation plan should reinforce what management demands from its employees and supports the work environment.

My top recommendations for compensation plan design are simplicity, leverage and breadth. The most important aspect is simplicity. The plan should be easy to understand so reps can easily see how they should organize their activities to maximize the plan. Simplicity creates clarity of purpose for the organization and makes it easy for the reps to make trade-offs with their time. After all, time is the only resource any of us will never get back. So much time can be wasted discussing complex plans and identifying ways to maximize results. Complex plans also create back-end processes which are difficult to manage, are open to interpretations/questions, and require more time to support.

Overall, my preference is to make the base compensation less than 50% of total target compensation (TTC). This creates a strong incentive to achieve the variable compensation component of the plan – or leverage. Assuming lead qualification is the primary focus for a lead development rep, I recommend tying 50% or more to the number of qualified and accepted leads – possibly up to 80% of the variable plan. This emphasizes the simplicity of the plan in that reps clearly understand how to make their TTC. Breadth is achieved by adding in two additional components – albeit significantly smaller. The first is a component tied to revenue – which reinforces the help that lead development reps play in ensuring follow up to their leads and assistance to their sales reps in other ways. The second component is a quarterly goal objective which the manager assigns to each rep. The reps have learned much about the optimal way to qualify leads – and therefore they are in a great position to create tools to make the team more effective. Objectives can include creating vertical intro pitches, reference sheets, pulling stats/reports for the team, running online demonstrations, creating call lists, testing call scripts, etc.. These all help the team to be more effective over time.

Lesson: Simplicity, leverage and breadth can reinforce what is most important in the lead development role.

Without a Map, Any Road will Take You There

Challenge: Defining operations where marketing meets sales.

Lesson: A tight definition combined with a solid acceptance process is a recipe for marketing and sales harmony.

Challenge: Defining operations where marketing meets sales.

Even with a tight definition of a qualified lead, the process can still easily break down. Leads delivered but not follow up on are the very definition of a leaky funnel. In other cases, leads can be passed without truly meeting the lead criteria. The process needs real checks and balances.

A lead development rep needs a specific set of procedure steps to follow in order to successfully pass a lead to the sales rep. This includes placing a time stamp on the lead showing the exact time it was passed to the sales rep. The sales rep then has a limited time to engage with the lead and then approve or reject the lead. After all, leads don’t get better with age.

There must be discipline in this process so that a lead accepted by sales is required to be converted into an opportunity the sales team will manage starting at an agreed-upon sales stage. This will enforce sales discipline on the subsequent follow up of these accepted leads. This also puts ‘skin in the game’ for the sales rep that they cannot accept any lead – as they will be queried by sales management about the status of this new opportunity.

On the other side, specifying the criteria does not let marketing off the hook if a prospect fills out a form and identifies themselves as meeting the criteria – e.g., they have budget or plans to purchase in six months. Prospects regularly inflate the numbers when they fill out these forms and these prospects need further qualification to ensure they meet the criteria. This may often involve a phone call – but could also require further inquiry via email, IM or subsequent offers. The lead development rep must ensure that the criteria are met BEFORE the lead is passed to the sales rep. The intent of having lead qualification reps is to increase the overall productivity of the sales reps. If the lead development rep passes on junk leads, sales efficiency is reduced.

Lesson: A tight definition combined with a solid acceptance process is a recipe for marketing and sales harmony.

Where Marketing and Sales Meet – A Qualified Lead

Challenge: Breaking down the barriers between sales and marketing.

Lesson: The first step in breaking down the walls between sales and marketing is to develop lead qualification criteria.

Challenge: Breaking down the barriers between sales and marketing.

All too often marketing and sales do not work hand in hand. The relationships fall apart as sales accuses marketing of delivering garbage leads and marketing accusing sales of not engaging seriously with their leads. This problem is unproductive and easily solved. The first step is to define a qualified lead.

First, marketing and sales need to agree on the criteria for a qualified lead. One time-tested method is BANT – Budget, Authority, Need and Timeframe. Other criteria may include willingness to meet with a sales rep, viewing a product demonstration, and having a product installed or confirmation of demographic information. The actual definition needs to meet the realities of business and must be customized.

Also, the description of the criteria for a qualified lead should be as objective as possible. For instance, ‘willingness to meet’ is very objective – if the prospect does not meet with the rep, the lead cannot be qualified. Other criteria can be massaged a bit, such as  budget. This could mean that the company needs to have the project already budgeted before it is categorized as a qualified lead – or it could mean that the prospect knows the budgetary figures and has agreed to push for budget approval. Again, this needs to fit the specifics of the product and market.

Even after marketing and sales agree to the specific standards for a qualified lead, there will be exceptions. The first step is for the sales rep to work with their lead qualification rep and explain the issue. If this does not work out, they need to escalate to a common person so that these issues can be resolved quickly and, if necessary, further criteria added to a qualified lead.

Lesson: The first step in breaking down the walls between sales and marketing is to develop lead qualification criteria.

My Sales Reps Sell but Don’t Prospect

Challenge: Building a Team to Build Your Sales Funnel

Lesson: There’s more than one way to build a lead qualification team – it just takes a consistent and thoughtful approach.

Challenge: Building a Team to Build Your Sales Funnel

Companies hire sales reps frequently based on their ability to manage the sales process and close business. In fact, it’s rare to find sales reps equally adept at prospecting as they are at closing. Even those who can do both well find it difficult to manage their time between these two activities because the pressure is focused on selling. The result is spikes in sales productivity as sales reps move their focus between prospecting and selling.

In many cases, the solution is to hire lead development reps who work focus exclusively on marketing program leads in an attempt to qualify new sales opportunities for their sales reps. I have seen two different successful models of hiring lead development reps. The first is to hire the more rare individuals who have made a career out of lead qualification. These people typically enjoy the hunt, the task of sorting thru large numbers of leads to find those that will qualify and turn into real sales opportunities. They have familiarity with marketing and sales automation systems, know how to build lists, understand how to manage their time, have an appreciation for the larger sales process, can navigate organizations, etc. However, they are more difficult to find AND they are much more expensive. The benefit is that they can quickly deploy and ramp up without much supervision. These individuals are ideal in very early stage ventures because they can learn/adjust and then teach others in the organization, and they can be co-located with their sales reps or even deployed in remote locations. They are easy to identify by their resume background – but there are fewer of these reps overall.

The alternative is to hire more junior talent and provide the necessary training and support. In most cases, you are hiring the personality because the individual has less work experience. Typically, I like to see someone who is somewhat competitive, has held a sales role (e.g., mortgage brokerage, internet service provider sales, commercial real estate) and is a great communicator. This type of rep will need much more daily guidance in the form of joint calling sessions, feedback from sales reps on lead quality, technology solution training, sales channel education, and more. However, in the right environment, a company can build a pipeline of these reps to serve as a feeder for their sales reps so there is a consistent flow of talent into the company and up the sales ranks.

Lesson: There’s more than one way to build a lead qualification team – it just takes a consistent and thoughtful approach.

To Accept or Not to Accept – Lead Acceptance Policies

Challenge: How to ensure leads passed to your sales team are truly qualified.

Lesson: The tighter the lead qualification and acceptance rules, the less leaky your sales funnel.

Challenge: How to ensure leads passed to your sales team are truly qualified.

“We want the Glengarry leads!” Have you heard your sales team complaining about the quality or quantity of leads? Are the leads you’re delivering turning into actual opportunities in your pipeline? These are common issues and they’re resolved by defining clear expectations and points of handoff.

The solution is relatively simple but requires tight integration between sales and marketing. It starts with a clear definition of a qualified lead. While never truly a science, you can set qualification requirements like buying timeframe, budget allocation, identified pain point, willingness to meet with a sales rep, etc. These need to be clearly communicated to both your lead qualification reps and your sales reps so everyone is on the same page and has the same expectations. Once in place, lead development reps can deliver a qualified lead to a sales rep in the salesforce automation system that’s notifying the sales rep.

The real trick here is to have an enforcement mechanism where the sales rep has a defined time interval to accept or reject the lead. If the time passes, either the reporting or the lead development rep needs to raise focus on this qualified lead that has no sales feedback. If the sales rep rejects the lead, they need to identify which qualified lead criteria were not met. Once accepted, your sales reps must create opportunities in the salesforce automation system. This prevents sales reps from accepting any lead because they will be held accountable for these opportunities in their sales forecast reviews. However, you need your sales operations manager to ensure that all accepted leads are indeed converted into opportunities.

Lesson: The tighter the lead qualification and acceptance rules, the less leaky your sales funnel.