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Outsourced B2B Lead Generation: Cautionary Tales from the SEO World

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According to a 2020 HubSpot study, 67% of companies rate the success of their marketing campaigns solely on how many leads those campaigns generate. That’s why many B2B companies choose to outsource their marketing: partnering with an expert is a simple and effective way to get a promising list of potential new customers.

Unfortunately, not all marketing agencies know what they’re doing. I’ve heard nightmare stories from business owners who have worked with marketing agencies that:

  • Use black box systems.
  • Don’t understand their client’s brand or industry.
  • Prioritize lead quantity over lead quality.
  • Promise unrealistic results.

Hiring a marketing agency that’s guilty of any of the above could produce a campaign that’s not just ineffective, but actually harms your other lead generation efforts. To help companies make better decisions about who to partner with, I explain why these four cautionary tales are so important to remember and how business owners can avoid making the same mistakes. My examples are all from the SEO and content marketing world, but the same principles will apply to any marketing firm you choose to work with.

Cautionary Tale #1: The SEO Agency That Uses Black Box Systems 

Scenario: During your first meeting with an SEO agency, the sales representative tells you that they have a secret formula for generating leads. They claim that no other agency uses this system or that they have discovered a way to “hack” Google’s algorithm to get their clients’ pages at the top of search results. The agency shows you all sorts of graphs and charts but doesn’t explain where these figures came from or what their lead generation strategy involves. 

here is no quick and easy secret to effective outsourced B2B lead generation. There are only basic rules, guidelines, and strategies companies use to generate leads—and often this information can easily be found online (just look at one of our many guides to lead generation best practices).

However, there are marketers out there who will tell prospective clients that they are the only ones who know the magic formula for generating the most leads. This is a giant red flag. The precise mechanisms behind Google’s algorithm, for instance, are a very well-kept secret and there isn’t an SEO agency on the planet that can “hack” this algorithm. The best we can do is rely on our observations and produce high quality content that we know readers want to see in search results.

Any black box system—that is, a system where the internal workings are obscured—should give you pause. Outsourced B2B lead generation experts should be transparent and honest about exactly what steps they take to gain leads.

SEO agencies, for example, should also provide a detailed list of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and other benchmarks they track to determine how successful the campaign is and whether they need to make adjustments. A good potential partner will show you: 

  • Tangible examples of success from prior campaigns;
  • The tracking, attribution, and reporting tools they use; 
  • Their planned keyword strategy;
  • An SEO automation strategy to generate steady leads over time; 
  • How to track these metrics yourself so you can verify these figures.

A reliable partner is one that sets you up for long term success and doesn’t force you to be entirely dependent on them. I think of my partnership with clients like operating a printer. I provide the ink and paper (the content and keyword strategy) and teach the client how the printing process works. If our contract ends, my clients now have the knowledge they need to keep the printer running by supplying their own ink and paper.

Doing your own printing is a lot more work, which is why our loyal clients stick with us long term. But our goal is still to empower our clients and help them understand how outsourced B2B lead generation actually works.

Alternative: The SEO agency teaches you how to generate leads using quality content, transactional keywords, and lead generation benchmarks. Nothing about the process is a mystery. You hire the agency to do all of the legwork upfront so you can focus on converting new leads into sales. 

Honesty isn’t the only quality companies should look for. In the next cautionary tale, I’ll discuss a scenario that B2B companies commonly face: marketing firms that don’t understand their clients’ industries or the services they provide.  

Cautionary Tale #2: The Content Marketer Who Doesn’t Understand Your Brand or Industry 

Scenario: You hire a content marketer to help you generate qualified leads, but you’re not seeing great results. Something feels “off” about the content the marketer is publishing on your website and you keep getting leads that are looking for services you don’t provide. The marketer’s writers make the same mistakes over and over and consistently misrepresent basic aspects of your industry. 

Even if a marketer is open about their outsourced B2B lead generation strategy and has an effective system in place, this isn’t useful if they don’t understand the customers they’re marketing to. When it comes to SEO, for instance, writing thought leadership content is the best way to generate leads and increase conversion rates. But that’s only true if the content is well-researched and engaging for the target audience.

Here are just a few signs that a marketing agency—content marketing or otherwise—isn’t a good fit:

  • They don’t understand your services or products; 
  • They’re targeting customers or audiences outside of your core client base; 
  • They make no effort to interview your subject matter experts to improve the quality of their work; 
  • They don’t make any suggestions on how to improve the website (user interface, split testing, etc…);
  • There’s no plan for building brand equity or value.

I’ll add two more that apply specifically to working with content marketers:

  • The content they produce is full of errors or fundamental misunderstandings, and the marketer makes no efforts to correct these mistakes in future articles; 
  • The tone and branding of the content is wrong for your audience (too pushy, salesy, or perhaps too simple for a savvy audience).

In order to understand what you need from a lead generation strategy, the marketer must understand your potential clients as well as the value proposition of your brand. They’ll need an onboarding period during which they carefully research both your company and your industry as a whole, only beginning to produce content after they have a solid understanding of your entire business. And they should actively seek out your feedback, making sure that their campaign is aligned with your messaging and appropriate for your brand.

Alternative: The marketer starts by speaking with you and your subject matter experts about your industry, core audience, and the tone you want for the content. During the campaign, the marketer continuously makes improvements to the content based on your feedback and avoids making the same mistake twice. They generate not just leads, but excitement over your brand as well as industry trust. 

The initial investment may seem like a lot, but it’s well worth it when you factor in the increased quality of the leads you’ll bring in. This brings me to my next cautionary tale: avoiding marketers that only care about the number of leads they net their clients. Impressive numbers don’t tell the full story. 

Cautionary Tale #3: The Marketer Who Prioritizes Quantity Over Quality  

Scenario: During the initial sales pitch, the marketer emphasizes outsourced B2B lead generation statistics. They show you benchmarks from past clients related to how many leads they generated for that client over time. The numbers are flashy and persuasive. However, a few months into the campaign, you’re not satisfied. Sure, you’re getting a lot of leads (as they promised), but none of those leads are converting into actual sales. 

When you work with a marketer who cares only about the volume of leads they can claim they’ve generated, it feels like running on a treadmill. Everyone is working hard, but ultimately the campaign isn’t going anywhere. More important than the number of leads the company gets is the quality of those leads and how likely they are to convert into actual sales.

For example, one of our B2B clients in the manufacturing industry had found that leads who were startups and entrepreneurs were much more likely to result in a sale than leads who were more established companies. Upon hearing that, we tailored our campaign to specifically target a startup audience. This not only led to a much higher conversion rate overall, but our client’s total cost per sale also dropped as a result of the lower investment needed in each lead.

That’s not to say lead generation statistics don’t matter. Instead of looking only at the total number of leads an agency generates, also consider those leads’ conversion rate. A high total number but low conversion rate means that there’s something wrong with the core audience being targeted. A low total number with a high conversion rate, on the other hand, can indicate that your focus is too narrow.

Alternative: The marketer discusses outsourced B2B lead generation statistics and testimonials with you, but emphasizes quality and conversion rates. During contract negotiations, the marketer proposes a detailed content strategy for gaining leads from the sources you most want to target and shows you how they plan on tracking this progress over the course of the campaign. 

Detailed discussions like this are the cornerstone of a successful campaign strategy. I’ll go into more detail about this in the next cautionary tale. 

Cautionary Tale #4: The SEO Agency Who Promises Unrealistic Results 

Scenario: An SEO agency claims they can get all of the articles they publish onto the first page of Google search results. They also promise to increase your Domain Authority (DA) ranking from 12 to 25 in the first quarter. This, they say, will generate dozens of leads over the next six months. However, six months roll by and your DA ranking has only improved by two points. You have a few articles on the first page of search results, but most of them are on the second, third, or fourth page (some don’t even show up in the first few pages of results). You fear you’ve been duped. 

Whether a marketing agency works uses traditional paid advertising, social media, targeted mailing lists, or SEO, the hard fact is that there are no guaranteed results in B2B lead generation, only best practices.

Let’s take a look at SEO again. There are steps SEO agencies can take to generate leads, such as: 

  • Improving DA ranking; 
  • Getting quality content on the first page of search results for transactional keywords
  • Interlinking to landing pages designed to get visitors interested in the service or product; 
  • Including clear Calls to Action (CTAs) in every blog post and landing page. 

However, any SEO agency that promises specific, overly-ambitious results may be setting their clients up for disappointment. Generally, an SEO campaign will see slow, steady results like improvements in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), domain rating, clickthrough rates, bounce rates, the number of leads generated, and conversion rates for those leads. But those agencies cannot reasonably promise:

  • To get every single blog post or landing page on the front page of Google—they can say which keywords are most likely to get on the first page based on search volume and competition, but this is still an educated estimate, not a promise; 
  • To bring DA rankings up more than a few points during the first year of the campaign—it takes time to build website trust; 
  • To get companies a certain number of leads in a specific timeframe—they can set a quarterly goal, but so many factors impact lead generation (including external ones like market performance) that it’s impossible to give an exact, reliable figure. 
Alternative: The marketing agency emphasizes slow, steady lead generation progress and offers reasonable expectations for the first three, six, and 12 months of the campaign. The agency explains that results for their campaigns typically pick up momentum at the four-month mark and grow exponentially from there. The marketer also offers client testimonials highlighting results. 

Outsourced B2B lead generation is effective and easier to manage than trying to generate leads without any help from the experts. However, to use this method effectively, you need to partner with the right agency that specializes in generating leads for your industry. 

Choosing the Best Outsourced B2B Lead Generation Expert  

Your partner should do more than just avoid the horror stories above. They should also provide you with the tools and knowledge you need to continue generating promising leads into the future, allowing you to take ownership of the lead generation process to become an industry leader

At First Page Sage, we have over a decade of experience using thought leadership to create personalized and sustainable lead generation systems for our B2B clients. If you’d like to know more about outsourcing your business’s lead generation, feel free to get in touch.

Evan Bailyn

Evan Bailyn is a best-selling author and award-winning speaker on the subjects of SEO and thought leadership. Contact Evan here.

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