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How Can You Make Nurturing More Strategic in Your B2B Demand Generation Efforts?

by: Adam Needles (@IBMforMarketing)
23 June 2010

Yesterday I spoke as part of BtoB Magazine's Leading Edge demand generation virtual conference -- talking about "Connecting the Dots:  Leveraging Content Marketing and Lead Nurturing Together for B2B Demand Generation."  I really like the topic, but I particularly like the idea of helping B2B marketers 'connect the dots' -- something we try to do at Silverpop's B2B Marketing University series (Twitter: #B2BUniversity).  BTW -- we are at the Dallas B2BMU event today.

With all of the strategic and technological insights flying around the B2B marketing universe these days, cutting through and figuring out where you should be investing your time and money can seem as challenging as tackling your actual B2B marketing projects.  To that end, one concept I believe is misunderstood in the current environment -- and with which we still very much need to connect the dots -- is that of nurturing. 

Too often we make nurturing synonymous simply with basic email nurturing or with drip nurturing campaigns -- both tactical activities -- but we miss the bigger picture.  Nurturing prospect/customer relationships in B2B marketing and sales is not new, nor is it merely tactical.  Arguably, nurturing has been at the center of nearly all B2B marketing and sales activities for decades.  But as you might suspect, 'something' seems to have changed; the nurturing dialogue and the nurturing activities we're talking about these days seem very different from those in the past.

Today we're less likely to reach out to a prospect to invite him/her to spend time with our sales representatives at our box seats at a baseball game, and we're more likely to offer a series of relevant, content-based tools -- such as a best practices workbook, an analyst report or an ROI calculator.

Things are changing, but what is driving this change?  Two major forces:

  • Changing information consumption patterns of buyers:  On one hand, the methods through which buyers prefer to interact with our companies has changed.  Buyers are less interested in the qualitative relationship than in the past, and they are more focused on the substantive and quantitative relationship than ever before.  Content -- substantive content -- matters, as does when and where buyers seek this content.  This content is more critical than ever to buyers' decision-making, and with an overabundance of third-party and peer-to-peer content, the content we produce as B2B marketers must clear a higher and higher bar.  Also, whereas in the past buyers might have called our sales representatives to get this information -- or may have waited for these representatives to reach out to them directly -- today they seek out this information proactively, on their own, via Web-based online, search and social media channels, and at their own pace.  Today they call our sales teams last.
  • Changing B2B marketing technology and tools:  On the other hand, the tools at our disposal for communicating with and managing relationships with buyers have significantly changed.  More than ever, our ability to reach Web 2.0-empowered buyers -- via Web, social tools, email and mobile -- has been augmented by CRM and marketing automation technology.  This has helped us better engage buyers on a one-to-one basis.

The need to nurture in B2B marketing and sales has not changed, but the way we nurture -- especially on the marketing side -- has changed substantially. 

Nurturing more than ever must be aligned with buyers' decision-making processes; it must be integrative -- leveraging engagement both via marketing and sales activities; and it's most likely to be digital-content-centric for a substantial portion of the upstream engagement with a prospect, before a sales team member gets engaged.  Today, "[t]he primary goal of lead nurturing for B2B marketers is to build a better relationship with your prospective buyers in their ‘upstream’ decision making," explains Carlos Hidalgo of The Annuitas Group in a recent guest post on this blog.

Nurturing must be viewed strategically.

So what do you need to know to better understand this environment and to take your nurturing game to the next level?

I've pulled key data from a number of blog posts and several recent presentations -- including my BtoB Magazine presentation yesterday -- and have put together a list of key insights to consider, as well as some recommendations on implications for finding success with B2B nurturing.

What are the keys to successful B2B nurturing in a Buyer 2.0 world?

Here are several key insights that will help you better grasp nurturing in the current environment and make it more strategic:

> Nurturing is not technology; nurturing is the coordinated and dynamic process of buyer-centric  B2B demand generation (which technology can help power). 

Modern B2B nurturing is the art of engaging the buyer in an effort that is at once both proactive and reactive -- proactive in that you've anticipated and thought through different content needs and potential dialogue with a prospect, but reactive in that you should not be serving up this content and/or engaging in this dialogue until a prospect does something to signal (s)he is ready -- via some sort of explicit/demographic, BANT (budget, authority, needs, timing) or behavioral cue. 

There are two components of this buyer-centric approach:  First, it requires a focus on middle-of-the-funnel dynamics -- i.e., a shift away from the traditional idea of gauging and targeting marketing efforts only based on first (lead source) or last (promotional activity) points of interaction.  We need to be thinking multi-touch and sequenced interactions, and we need to be integrative both in campaign design and in our measurement.  Second, it requires a mindset that is more one of education than of selling -- i.e., recognizing you can't move a sophisticated B2B buyer faster than (s)he is ready to move, but you can do things to influence the buyer's perceptions and the eventual outcome by delivering up the right content at the right time.

All of this helps to align your engagement with a prospect in the right place and at the right time.  "The process of lead nurturing helps companies focus on prospects, instead of on themselves.  And that's what matters to your buyers," explains B2B marketing guru and author Ardath Albee in a recent blog post, titled "Staying Top of Mind Is Not the Goal for Email Marketing."

What does this look like in practice?  Well it substantially changes the look of our marketing campaigns.  A modern nurturing campaign, powered by marketing automation and CRM, is dynamic and buyer-led -- i.e., it is iterative and engages buyers in a continual fashion until that buyer provides you with explicit or behavioral data points that indicate (s)he should be approached by a live member of your team.  Below is a slide I delivered in my BtoB Magazine presentation that gives you a sense of what this iterative 'loop' looks like -- illustrating the nurturing process and both marketing and sales team roles in this process.

[caption id="attachment_792" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Source: Silverpop; click to enlarge graphic"]Source: Silverpop[/caption]

One note is that your email follow-up is not just you asking "So are you ready to buy yet?" via email?  It's not just about staying 'top of mind,' as Ardath Albee notes in her blog post from above.  Rather, it is leveraging email as a vehicle for making iterative content offers -- particularly for downloads and live/virtual events. 

Another note, as you can see in my slide, is that there is another element to consider -- i.e., what your nurturing looks like from an inbound/passive perspective, versus an outbound/active perspective.  A critical element in today's B2B marketing environment is the integration of the two.  “[C]urrently, more than half of all new inquiries are generated through the Web; we believe that by 2015, this number will rise to nearly 75%.  Inbound marketing [is not] new in theory, but ... marketers must plan for it ...,” comments SiriusDecisions in a recent report -- a point they also elaborated on at their recent SiriusDecisions 2010 Summit in Scottsdale

This means the front end of your nurturing must consist of external community engagement and thought leadership that you may not be able to immediately track or control, but that through capture points, such as registration/download offers, you can link into and use to trigger follow-up content offers and email nurturing.  In this sense, inbound marketing should actually be an integrated part of your nurturing -- serving as the way to sense when/where buyers are starting their buying process.  Below is an example in which I've sketched out two hypothetical buyer routes and showed this inbound (orange) to outbound (blue) integration.

[caption id="attachment_793" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Source: Silverpop; click to enlarge graphic"]Source: Silverpop[/caption]

> Nurturing is an iterative process; it transcends 'funnel' concepts and helps you meter out your own engagement at a pace that is right for the buyer.

Numerous statistics point to the fact that buyers are engaging in purchasing decisions on their own time frames, which cannot be hastened, and that these time frames do not typically align with our own monthly and quarterly sales targets. 

MarketingSherpa, for example, reported in their "2010 E-mail Marketing: Benchmark Report" that nearly 2/3 of prospects in your pipeline will make a decision in a time period greater than three months out.  This means that 2/3 of your prospects won't close this month or this quarter -- something problematic for the targets and timelines that your sales organization likes to work within and that shareholders are accustomed to.

[caption id="attachment_794" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Source: MarketingSherpa; click to enlarge graphic"]Source:  Silverpop; click to enlarge[/caption]

So you need to have differential nurturing to differential buyers that are at different stages of their buying process and that anticipate different time frames for eventually closing -- also delivering different content at different phases.  The Annuitas Group explained in a post on lead nurturing on their blog that the 2/3 that won't close in the next 90 days "... are solid, but 'not right now' opportunities and they should be treated as such."  Such an approach also is critical to making a 'good first impression' with your nurturing outreach, as my colleague Kristin McKenna wrote in a past blog post.

The Annuitas Group integrates the concepts of a nurturing loop together with the idea of a sales funnel or 'waterfall' as the folks at SiriusDecisions like to refer to it in the following graphic.  I think this graphic subsequently does a good job of visualizing that nurturing almost as a spiral.

[caption id="attachment_796" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Source: The Annuitas Group; click to enlarge graphic"]Source: Silverpop; click to enlarge graphic[/caption]

> Nurturing requires constant information exchange; progressive profiling is the appropriate process for doing this on an automated basis. 

One of the most critical aspects of the nurturing loop -- as I illustrated above -- is continually capturing information on your buyer -- both explicit/demographic information as well as behavioral and BANT information.  The challenge is that buyers don’t like to give up this information until they trust you, and so we need a technique for capturing more and more information each time we engage with a prospect -- a technique known as progressive profiling.

The reality is that B2B marketers often are liars -- at least on our online forms, a topic I've blogged on in the past and a data point you can see supported in the results of a MarketingSherpa study of nearly 3,000 technology buyers.  This study indicated that at initial stages of contact, buyers only provide accurate and complete information on the most basic of information they're asked to supply for things like white paper downloads.  Only name, email address, industry, company name and job title have high rates -- i.e., greater than 50% of the time -- of being 'always' completed correctly.  What about those questions we use to further qualify potential leads?  According to the same study, technology buyers say they 'always' provide accurate answers to 'custom questions' only 29% of the time.  That means 71% of the time there's some degree of 'lying' going on.

[caption id="attachment_797" align="aligncenter" width="308" caption="Source: MarketingSherpa; click to enlarge graphic"]Source: Silverpop; click to enlarge graphic[/caption]

So what can we do?  This is where information capture should be as iterative as your nurturing emails and content offers.  You should iteratively capture more information at each stage of the process -- starting with name and email, and working your way down.  This is progressive profiling at its core.  Given the data above, one way to conceptualize this is the slide below, which I used in my BtoB Magazine presentation.

[caption id="attachment_798" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Source: MarketingSherpa, Silverpop; click to enlarge graphic"]Source: MarketingSherpa, Silverpop; click to enlarge graphic[/caption]

> Nurturing is not merely a singular marketing or sales activity; successful nurturing requires continuous, seamless and integrated interactions and handoffs between both marketing and sales teams.

This is critical.  It starts with a basic and common understanding of what you're trying to accomplish with your nurturing activities, at what point handoffs occur and what these handoffs mean.  "[S]it down with sales and AGREE on the definition of a lead — what marketing passes to the sales team," comments Craig Rosenberg (a.k.a., The Funnelholic) in a recent blog post.  And then once you've done so, "... you also need to agree on sales’ activities after you pass them a qualified lead. Do this."

Then the continuity must continue in your email and online interactions.  Carlos Hidalgo with The Annuitas Group explains this further in a past guest post on this blog

[W]hile the nurturing of prospects is something many organizations have adopted as practice, many are still falling short with their nurturing programs at a ‘holistic’ level — i.e., as part of their larger lead management strategy.

Why is this?

One big reason is they are nurturing their prospects only to the point of getting them ’sales ready,’ and once in the hands of sales, i.e. loaded into the CRM system, the communication stops. The communication flow then becomes the responsibility of the sales rep and the development of the relationship slows at an abrupt pace — not a good way to build continuity of the relatoinship and of the dialogue with the buyer.

Organizations that want to get the most from their nurturing programs need to look at lead nurturing beyond just the marketing/pre-sales phase and continue this practice throughout the entire prospect and customer lifecycle.

To be fair, this type of continuity is not necessarily easy to accomplish.  "[U]nfortunately, there’s no quick and easy route to lead nurturing nirvana," comments Sean Donahue in a recent MarketingSherpa blog post.  "The process requires a lot of work – collaboration between sales and marketing, planning and development of automated campaigns, monitoring and analysis of data, and routine testing and modification of your process, among other tasks."  But building this type of relationship and establishing this type of continuity in your nurturing activities is critical and something you should constantly be working on.

BTW -- Jep Castelein (a.k.a., The Lead Sloth) recently recorded a video in which he does a whiteboard session with some ideas about how to get going with lead nurturing and that is a good resource.


What do you think?

What are your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities to leveraging nurturing at a more strategic level? 

I'd love to see comments on experiences -- especially around what has worked well and what hasn't.


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