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Today, I wanted to talk to you, my theoretical readers, about something that doesn’t get brought up much by the online marketing community: lead qualification. If you’re extremely busy and just want the how-to, click here to go right to the good stuff. Otherwise read on.

The reason this isn’t brought up much is because most of us in the online world assume that our clients are either a) small enough where they’re happy to have ANY leads coming in, or b) large enough that they have a sales department with a qualification team whose sole job it is to assign value to leads. This is so wrong it almost circumnavigates Bizzaro Earth and comes back around to being right. Almost. Lets look at these two assumptions individually:

Small businesses can’t be too picky!: I’m a small business. Well, not me personally, but you know what I mean. I’m extremely picky with my clients, and getting more so every day. If I feel like a client will not match with our company, either with the culture and brand image we’re cultivating here at S&G or working with them looks like it will be more trouble than it’s worth for any number of reasons, I will not work with that client. Many small businesses are in similar situations: in order to grow and succeed small companies need the right type of lead that will allow them to do what they do best without expending valuable time and resources on client management. Which leads us to the second point: small businesses are small. Their resources are finite and limited. Pulling someone off project-critical assignments in order to respond to every lead that comes in could end up costing the company more money than every single lead they get would bring in. Product development would suffer, morale would go down the toilet, and customer service would probably resemble the Ocean Marketting [sp] disaster (Link is probably NSFW, unless you work for us)  of late last year. No one wants that, let alone your clients.

My client is so huge, they probably have 30 people whose sole job is lead qualification!: Maybe. Maybe not. You’d be surprised how many sales teams don’t really have a formalized lead qualification process. More importantly, why should they have to qualify your leads? Are you an online marketer or a high school senior handing in half a research paper because senioritis has set in? Finish what you started. Since you’re (probably) creating the content and the plan that is bringing in these leads, you are in a unique position to screen incoming leads to ensure your client only gets to see the best of your work. Because at best, your client has a team and your leads are just getting thrown in the que with with the rest of their prospects, creating more work for the qualification and sales teams. At worst, their sales team is running around chasing their tails following every lead you send them even though half are spam trying to sell your form robot junk masquerading as “herbal medicine”, a fourth are leads far too small for the company to even bother pursuing, and maybe the last fourth are legitimate, actionable leads.

 So why aren’t you qualifying leads?

Now, I’ll be honest – I have not done a full survey of online marketers to find out the exact reasons, but I did run a very rigorous poll of myself, our office Spider Plant, Charlie, and my cat Tiberius. These are the results, in order from pitiful excuse to bald, naked truth:

Our clients aren’t looking for that from us: That may actually be true, sort of, but only because you never made that option available to them. I’m positive that if you went to your client and asked them if they wanted to see every single name that came through your funnel OR if they wanted to see those leads ordered from most to least relevant and likely to convert, they would go for the latter option.

If we only send them the good leads, we don’t look nearly as good: Sure, if you’ve structured your project goals in such a way that all you’re measuring is incoming leads. Which, quite frankly, is stupid. Leads coming in are good, but you also want to look at revenue generated, clients acquired, ROI reached. THAT is why the client is paying you big money. If they could meet their revenue goals from one lead, they wouldn’t care how many leads you brought in. Looking at the end-goal metrics allows you to throw out a lot of the cruft that comes in by way of the internet and create a stronger value proposition when it comes time to renew that contract.

It’s hard, and since no one expects it from us, and since high lead numbers make us look good, we just don’t want to do it: Bingo! It’s hard, so why do it? Well, for starters, it lets you charge more. Or if you work in-house, it lets you ask for a bigger raise. Getting better leads and pre-screening them for the sales team is a huge value-add. It also provides a better service for your clients, and really, isn’t that the bottom line? Lastly, it gets you away from thinking of inbound marketing in terms of quantity and start thinking in terms of quality. Quantity is a hard sell. It’s a complete commodity. A shady man in a leather jacket with connections in China can promise you quantity. Quality, on the other hand, is a much easier sell. Quality is something unique to you and your brand.

So now that we have that out of the way, we can get into the good stuff and answer the fundamental question: how do you screen leads in an automated, inbound marketing system?

Ladies and gentlemen I introduce you to the Mouravskiy Sieve, or M-Sieve for short, because how often do you get to name something after yourself? The M-Sieve is a process of attempting to qualify a large quantity of inbound leads using nothing more complicated than off-the-shelf email software and some targeted content. Lets dive in, shall we?

Problem:

Inbound marketing automation has allowed for rapid and mostly autonomous lead generation through online content marketing. Dealing with all the incoming leads, however, is time- and resource-intensive and undermines a lot of the principles involved in a fully automated sales/marketing funnel. A screening process that could filter out the most high-quality leads would complete the marketing automation from top-of-funnel through to the sales team, and result in higher returns with less resources invested.

Resources:

One brilliant marketer/marketing team; One standard commercial email software; A good knowledge of your target demos and what they like; Highly-targeted content.

Process:

For ease of use, and because I love bullet points and lists, I’m going to break this down into steps-

1) First, the initial set-up. Ideally, you will begin with a conversation with your client or sales team about exactly the kind of person who is likely to convert into a good customer. Most business owners have a pretty good idea of who this person is, and you will want to collect as much information from them as possible, including any data or analytics they have. We’ll call this Group Alpha.

2) Formulate a content strategy. Actually, formulate two content strategies. The primary one will be very tightly focused at group Alpha to the point where few outside the group will react to the content. So, for example, if you are trying to sell to engineers in the aerospace vertical, plan to create very heavy and technical specification docs or white papers about obscure minutia involved in building jet engines and rocket-ships. The second content plan will revolve around lighter material that is of less interest to Alphas and will instead target the hangers-on, we’ll call them Omega. These are people interested enough in your product to sign up for the mailing list, but either not decision makers in their companies, or work for companies too small to market to, or for any other reason are close but not quite good enough to join the Alphas. They are still an important market, and can still push sales towards your clients by working as connectors and pushing along your content to Alphas you haven’t yet made contact with.

3) You will need to create a cohesive group of emails. Test data on optimal group-size is pending, and will be the subject of a separate post once it’s in, but based on other research and past experience, 4-5 emails is probably the best size. The emails should be structured in such a way that each email has at least two links, one going through to a piece of Omega content, and one going through to the Alpha content. If you plan on including more than two links, try to structure them so that each falls squarely either into content strategy Alpha or Omega to discourage wasted clicks.

4) Automate it! The first email should go out immediately on sign-up, and subsequent emails should go out at pre-planned intervals until the series is finished.

5) Segment! Check out who’s clicking on your links. Pay attention to the people clicking on Alpha links. Take them and segment them out. As they work through the series of emails, pay attention to which subscribers are clicking the Alpha links in multiple emails. Chances are good that it’s your target.

6) As an added bonus, once you have a list of people you THINK qualify, you are in a position to send them a request for more information, preferably with the carrot of some sort of exclusive reward, be it a trial version of your product, a webinar focusing on their field, etc. Incentivize them to provide more details. If they’ve stuck with you through 4 or 5 emails, they should have no problem with this. Especially since you know have a much better understanding on who these people are and what they’re looking for. Don’t be shocked if this list is a LOT smaller than your total email list. There’s a lot more coal than diamonds in a diamond mine, too.

7) Take the people who didn’t make it into this exclusive list of Alphas and keep them in your general mailing list. Keep sending them quality content. They might not fit your needs now, but they can either move into roles that more closely match your criteria, or forward your information to someone who would be an ideal fit. Periodically throw in a piece of Omega content, and segment people who click on it into a third group. If they click on two or more Alpha links, consider moving them to that segment.

And that’s it. Really, that’s all there is to it. It’s a simple screening process, and while it is not 100% perfect, nor will it give you as detailed a report as a full qualification team might, it is still significantly better than once a month turning over a list of 1000+ unorganized names. Your client will thank you, you will produce better results, and everyone will make a lot more money. Just as importantly, you will be pushing marketing automation to the next step and unifying the marketing and sales process in a way that allows both you and the client to focus more time on the core aspects of their business. What’s not to love?

This is a very rough guideline, and it’s a continuous work in progress. If anyone has anything to add, or suggestions, or wants to tell me what blindingly obvious thing I missed that renders this strategy completely worthless, by all means let me know either through email, Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments. All I ask is that we keep the name M-Sieve. Years down the line when my daughter is going through Marketing 101 at Princeton, I want her to stand up in the middle of lecture and say, “You know, this was named after my dad!” Because living vicariously is what kids are for, right?

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