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Managing Your Inbound Marketing Sales Funnel

January 31, 2013

whole brain marketing blog author

Posted by Greg Linnemanstons

managing_sales_funnelAnyone with even a casual knowledge of Inbound Marketing knows its foundation is the art of qualified lead attraction. We often talk about filling the sales funnel with qualified leads, as if the sales funnel were this automated machine or process that turned a steady diet of leads into a predictable output of wonderful new customers. Oh, that it were so simple!

No, it's not simple or easy, but it's also not rocket science or splitting an atom. It's about creating and implementing processes that take advantage of available tools to effectively manage the contacts and activities that make up your sales funnel. Before I get into process, a few definitions:

Top of the funnel (TOFU) This refers to all of the traffic that finds its way to your site, hopefully due primarily to your great content strategy, SEO discipline, and social media plan. The funnel is widest at the top (DUH!) because you're working to attract relevant traffic without deliberately or actively filtering or discouraging.

Middle of the funnel (MOFU) When a visitor fills out a form to get a content download, they've converted from visitor to lead. It usually means that something they saw on your site was relevant enough for them to offer some of their identity in exchange for content they valued. Even though they've become a lead they don't have business value until you identify them as a qualified lead. (see below) MOFU is the most complicated funnel stage because of the broad diversity of interest and urgency represented by people here.

Bottom of the funnel (BOFU) This is when someone is both qualified and ready to buy, the latter based on observed behaviors that are clearly "kicking the tires" activity. Asking for demos, seeing 3 or more people from the same company doing multiple downloads, frequent visits to pricing pages, and rapid checking out of your LinkedIn profiles are all indications someone's got you on their short list. When a lead is clearly at BOFU stage they're an Opportunity. They're ready for a proposal or a Statement of Work or whatever is appropriate in your business to give a prospect the ability to say "Yes" to becoming a customer. 

With those definitions, some thoughts on how to evaluate and process leads.

Qualifying and Scoring

There are lots of ways to look at the first part of this process. However you do it, in the end you want to separate the wheat from the chaff, or the Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL) from the bad and/or ugly. As a sales and marketing team you need to decide whether attractiveness or engagement is more important in qualifying. Lead attractiveness are those facts that are typically used to describe your ideal targets:

  • Number of employees
  • Annual revenue
  • Specific industry (SIC code)
  • Title of the contact
  • Annual capital spending
  • Geography
  • Membership in a specific trade association

Engagement level is a judgment based on observing behaviors, things like pace of activity on your site, number of pages viewed, and direct requests for information or samples/demonstrations. So stating it really simple, attractiveness identifies prospects that would make great customers, and engagement level flags them as ready to buy from you.

Personally, I think attractiveness and engagement should be viewed as different dimensions, since attractiveness is a relatively constant measure (they either are or they aren't) while engagement is dynamically time sensitive and changeable, where leads with low enagement today have the potential to become more engaged in 90 days or 6 months or a year, as their situation changes and they learn more about you. In some industries (consumer electronics, for example) people probably are either buying soon or they're not. So they have a limited time to research and learn before they buy. Pretty uncomplicated. But in things like capital equipment (manufacturing lines, control systems, fire engines) a lead could be urgently looking to replace dying equipment, finalizing their RFP list, completing an appropriations request, or researching for next years budget submission. Systematically gathering that information based on the timing stages your industry experiences becomes especially valuable in lead scoring.

Scoring leads is something you do as a way to prioritize MQLs. You'll want to do this because as TOFU traffic grows so too will the number of MQLs in your funnel, inevitably leading to the situation where your sales team becomes concurrently overwhelmed with the sheer number of MQLs and potentially frustrated by the inability to identify the best prospects within the bunch. We're a HubSpot user and reseller, and that platform includes qualifying and scoring tools.

Sales Qualified Leads (SQL)

SQLs (sometimes called Sales Accepted Leads) are MQLs that score high enough that sales people are confident they're leads that are worth their time and effort to pursue. So your scoring mechanism should be structured to give the highest scores to the best opportunities, based on your actual experiences with leads who became customers. Here are the SQL categories I would want to see as a sales person, ranked from best to not-so-good:

  1. Most attractive, fully engaged. These are senior decision makers from companies that are your best targets, who by their behaviors are signalling you that they're ready to make a purchase. Go get 'em!
  2. Most attractive, moderately engaged. Again, the best targets but they're not showing a readiness to buy. Depending on your industry, these might be highly valued by sales people because of fit and the confidence that interest will be there soon enough, with the right stimulation. Nurturing campaigns should be created that recognize segmentable differences within this cohort. This category should be watched most closely for behavioral changes that signal increasing trust and readiness to buy.
  3. Moderately attractive, fully engaged. These targets meet some basic requirements like company size and purchasing power, but maybe their needs aren't a clear match to your solutions or the contact doesn't have final authority. But if they're very interested they probably have value to your sales team, and should be a priority. Depending on the industry some could argue this group should be #2 priority.
  4. Most attractive, not yet engaged. They may be ideal targets, but they don't know you and trust yet, and maybe the timing or conditions aren't right for them to be buyers. Give them Class A nurturing, with close attention to subjects most interesting to them, and watch their behaviors for any signs of warming up. Segment with foresight to developing a valuable relationship.
  5. Moderately attractive, moderately engaged. Put them on low maintenance nurturing, and if they become fully engaged they're worth putting more sales effort against them.
  6. Not attractive, fully engaged. Should only be approached if the sales team doesn't have enough in categories 1-5. The good news is they're ready to buy; the bad news, they'll likely be a customer you'll regret.
  7. Moderately attractive, not engaged. Same as #5, with a longer horizon.
  8. Not attractive, moderately engaged. Purge from your contact database.
  9. Not attractive, not engaged. Cut them loose!

I would be misleading and exaggerating if I implied that we had lead qualifying and scoring completely figured out. On the contrary, we're still experimenting and analyzing based on 18 months of our own experience with Inbound Marketing, and learning from other pioneers and leaders within our industry. I'm eager to hear about others' experiences, and I promise that we'll continue to share as we advance our own best practices.

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Topics: Inbound Marketing, Inbound Sales

whole brain marketing blog author
Written by Greg Linnemanstons

With 18+ years in senior management roles at Fortune 500® and medium-sized companies, he has deep marketing and sales experience with CPGs and manufacturing. Greg leads strategic initiatives with clients and is involved in developing client inbound marketing plans. Greg holds an M.B.A. from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and a B.A. in Economics from Lawrence University.

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