The Best B2B Lead Generation Strategies for 2020
The following report, based on original research conducted by First Page Sage between 2015 and 2020, attempts to cut through the chaff on the Internet and deliver the most useful modern tactics for attracting B2B leads.
First, 3 important definitions:
A B2B lead is a serious inquiry, by e-mail or phone, from a decision maker at a mid-size ($10m+) or large ($500m+) organization. We did not focus our research on stakeholders at smaller firms.
Inbound lead generation means attracting potential customers to your business by creating something appealing or interesting to them. It’s like opening the doors of a bakery so the smell wafts into the street, causing people to wander inside. Inbound lead generation includes SEO, PR, speaking at conferences & executive events, and networking.
Outbound lead generation means proactively asking potential customers to turn their attention to your product. It’s like wearing a sandwich board outside a bakery, beckoning people to come inside. Outbound lead generation includes all forms of advertising, telemarketing, e-mail marketing, and direct mail.
Which is better: Inbound or Outbound B2B Lead Generation?
Generally speaking, you would prefer to succeed in inbound lead generation over outbound because it is far less expensive and, when done expertly, far more impactful. Most forms of paid advertising and marketing are engineered to cost the highest amount you are willing to pay, as the most popular outbound marketing programs are run by public companies like Google and Linkedin, who have a duty to give maximum financial benefit to their shareholders. In contrast, inbound lead generation programs are more organic, and, like a viral video, can garner a lot of attention for a relatively low cost.
To be clear, you can get an edge in outbound marketing — advertising, let’s say — through precise targeting and tracking. For instance, if you have a target market of 2,000 CFOs and can a) identify where they’re spending time online and b) serve them precisely-worded advertisements, it’s possible to turn the economics in your favor.
For most B2B companies, outbound marketing is not a game worth playing. If you think about the number of times you’ve worked with a company who has advertised to you versus a company you encountered in a more organic way, such as through word-of-mouth or your own research, you’ll quickly understand how much more effective inbound marketing is. That said, inbound marketing does have one downside — it requires a higher degree of creativity and industriousness on your company’s part. However, that downside can be solved through effective hiring or outsourcing.
How to Generate B2B Leads
In the tables below, I describe the most common B2B lead generation strategies, including their cost, benefits, and drawbacks; and separately, the less-common, but most effective, B2B lead generation strategies.
The Most popular B2B Lead Generation Strategies
|Search Advertising (Google AdWords; Yahoo!/Bing)||$3k – $30k monthly advertising budget + $1k-$3k / month management fee (if outsourced)||The most popular form of outbound marketing for B2B companies, online advertising means either/all of (a) renting space at the top of the search results, (b) running ads on websites, or (c) re-targeting campaigns||If managed correctly, can bring in leads immediately; easy to track results||Can become expensive quickly if not carefully managed and monitored; successful campaigns require careful keyword research, testing, and refinement on a monthly basis|
|Trade Shows||$10k – $300k one-time cost depending upon details of booth/exhibit space and sponsorship||Attending or exhbiting at industry trade shows is one of the oldest ways to attract attention and keep abreast of happenings in your field. Some conferences are more valuable than others.||Quick, tangible way to get exposure and do market research; in-person contact has deeper resonance with potential clients; good opportunity for disparate teams to gather||Can be expensive; hard to stand out amongst hundreds of other companies there for similar reasons|
|Direct Mail||$1.5k – $10k per mailing, depending on marketing collateral costs; parcel size; and length of contact list||Direct mail is your classic, paper-in-envelope form of marketing, typically associated with analog, B2C businesses||Targeting your audience and tracking results is fairly straightforward; in today’s digital age, can almost feel like a novelty||Most decision makers at busineses have their mail pre-screened and are thus unlikely to receive mailing|
|Cold Calling||$3k – $6k per month for one full-time cold caller + reporting and follow-up||One of the more classic forms of lead generation, cold calling involves trying to reach decision makers by phone without any prior relationship.||Immediate way to see leads; some people prefer the human touch; forces you to be able to concisely explain the benefits of your product||High-level decision makers universally screen their calls; warmer introductions are more likely to lead to closed deals|
|Basic SEO||$2k – $4k per month||Basic SEO is a common service offered by all manner of digital agencies, and typically involves making the website more Google-friendly by changing meta tags; can also include link building and occasional blogging||Websites that are already established with Google will gain more traffic even from the most basic SEO changes||Without a consistent, high quality content aspect, basic SEO has almost no value; and even if content marketing is part of the strategy, it must cross the High Quality Content Line|
|Social Media Posting||$1k – $2k per month||Social media posting involves sharing company news and industry thought leadership on the major social platforms that decision makers use, such as Twitter and LinkedIn||Keeps your company top of mind if the posts are seen by, and engaging to, both potential and current customers||Low conversion rate; more of a reminder of your company’s existence than a lead generator; most posts are never seen|
|Outdoor Advertising||$10k – $40k per month||Outdoor advertising typically refers to billboards and/or digital signs along the major corridors where decision makers travel||Your brand is near certain to get noticed, which can be effective in particularly crowded fields||Can be very costly; results difficult to track; more associated with branding than directly capturing leads|
While the above approaches are popular for a reason — they generally can get an ROI when carefully managed — the strategies below are far more effective. Our research found that their effectiveness comes down to their more organic nature; they are closer to word-of-mouth, which remains the most effective overall lead generator.
The Most Effective (Highest ROI) B2B Lead Generation Strategies
|Executive Events||$2k – $10k per month||Can include being a part of an executive group or peer advisory group; or sponsoring and speaking at an executive event||Face-to-face interaction with decision makers; ability to develop trusting relationships that translate well into leads||Time intensive; requires a highly knowledgeable and charismatic person|
|Thought Leadership Marketing||$7.5k – $15k per month||The creation and consistent publication of engaging, high-level written content on your website — preferably written with SEO in mind. Includes blogging, white papers, videos, reports, and presentations.||Easy to target people looking to buy your product; low customer acqusition cost; augments your brand; content can also be used for email marketing and social media posts||If done in-house, requires some wrangling of would-be writers and careful scheduling; if outsourced, finding a firm that can adapt to your industry and voice is challenging|
|Webinars||$5k – $10k per month||Webinars are essentially online, video-based educational presentations, which occur live but are generally recorded, with access given in exchange for an e-mail address or other remuneration||Exhibits your company’s expertise in a thought leaderly way; is closer to an in-person connection because of the video element; trustworthy because they are marketed as a form of education or training for businesses||Creating presentations is time-intensive; requires a presenter that is both knowledgeable and charismatic; requires facility with video and web conferencing technology|
|Email Marketing||$1k – $3k per month||E-mail marketing remains a popular and effective B2B lead gen strategy. It requires having e-mail marketing software, building (or buying) a contact list, crafting marketing e-mails, and tracking||When a targeted list has been built organically over time, can be high ROI; particularly useful as a steady, occasional reminder of your business to current and potential clients||Contact lists deteriorate over time due to changing e-mail addresses; buying e-mail addresses can be sketchy and inconsistent. Proper messaging is crucial and can be difficult to achieve|
|PR||$10k – $50k per month||PR involves an individual or team, usually former journalists, crafting a message and reaching out to members of the media to share that message and secure media placement||People tend to trust what they read, see, or hear on the news; many media platforms have very large user bases that allow for instant exposure of your brand||The best PR firms require a significant investment; quality from firm to firm varies widely; results are not guaranteed|
|Trade Shows||$10k – $250k one-time cost depending upon details of booth/exhibit space and sponsorship||Attending or exhbiting at industry trade shows is one of the oldest ways to attract attention and keep abreast of happenings in your field. Some conferences are more valuable than others||Quick, tangible way to get exposure and do market research; in-person contact has deeper resonance with potential clients; good opportunity for disparate teams to gather||Can be expensive; hard to stand out amongst hundreds of other companies there for similar reasons|
|LinkedIn Advertising||$5k – $20k per month||LinkedIn ads appear either on the side of the screen or within users’ personal feeds||Users are already in a business mindset so are more likely to click on ads for B2B products; advertisers can target specific job titles, locations, industries, and companies||Expensive compared to Google; cannot target users specifically looking to hire companies like yours like you can with Google|
Now that both the most popular and the most effective B2B lead generation strategies have been laid out, let’s look at all of them in one list, ranked first by cost and then by ROI.
Particularly in the second version of the table, you will notice that a few strategies — executive events, thought leadership marketing, trade shows, webinars, and e-mail marketing — stand out as having a very reasonable cost given their high ROI. You can see this effect more clearly when plotting the strategies on a graph that compares cost to ROI.
Implementing High-ROI B2B Lead Generation Strategies
At this point, you should have some ideas of which strategies are worth trying to see the results for yourself. However, as we noted earlier, the highest-ROI lead gen strategies do require a creative, industrious marketer or marketing firm to execute them. When companies are effective at managing inbound marketing campaigns, they typically take one of the following two approaches:
Build the team in-house. Depending on which combination of inbound marketing strategies you feel would work best for what you sell, you’ll want a VP, Marketing or similar position to supervise a small team that has experience in building content experiences that educate while infusing your brand with credibility. This is the art of Thought Leadership, and applies to all four of the most effective B2B marketing strategies: executive events, webinars, trade show presentations, and thought leadership marketing.
Outsource to specialized firms. Our research found that all but the largest companies find it difficult to build in-house teams around the most effective B2B marketing strategies. Assembling the requisite in-house talent to excel in thought leadership marketing, for example, is far more difficult than finding it in a firm that specializes in that approach and can offer pricing that reflects economies of scale.
Along the same lines, while using an agency is the most common approach for outbound, advertising based campaigns — and it’s certainly more convenient to have all marketing activities managed “under one roof” — we found that smaller, more specialized companies were the most effective outsourcing partners for high-ROI inbound marketing approaches such as PR, Linkedin advertising, and Thought Leadership Marketing / SEO.
A Note About Creativity
In studying what makes companies succeed in their marketing implementation, one qualitative note kept appearing over and over: no matter who implements your strategy, there must be at least one creative individual present who is willing to take risks and try new things. All of the above strategies were once new and able to be exploited to a much greater extent than they can be today. Ranking #1 on Google used to be as simple as collaborating with other webmasters to strategically link to each other’s websites. Getting hundreds of thousands of eyeballs through LinkedIn used to be as simple as writing a long, image-rich article and tweeting the article with a particular hashtag to a specific member of LinkedIn’s content team. Even Google AdWords used to allow advertisers to get valuable clicks at a fraction of the cost by buying niche keywords that Google didn’t yet understand the value of. While it’s important that your marketing campaigns be sustainable over the long term, disproportionate benefit — and revenue — can come from studying the latest places your target audience convenes and maintaining a few small investments in these novel marketing avenues at any given time.
In my 14 years of research on marketing, I’ve come to feel that most marketers tend to stay on the tried and true path, comfortable with a reasonable, safe ROI; and a small minority utilize ingenuity and trial-and-error to get a much higher ROI. Spending a bit more time finding a person or company that is willing to get creative with you and can be a phenomenal investment.
Our research found that (1) inbound marketing strategies focused on educating your target audience created a more organic interest in brands and therefore produced a higher ROI; (2) outsourcing inbound marketing campaigns to small, specialized firms tended to fare better than building expertise in all areas of marketing in-house OR employing a catch-all marketing agency); and (3) retaining a creative individual or firm who is willing to explore new communities that your target audience is engaging with gives you an opportunity for a dispropotionately high ROI.
Evan Bailyn is the CEO of First Page Sage, a marketing firm specializing in SEO and Thought Leadership Marketing.