Over the past decade, buyer response to traditional sales outreach has plummeted.

We all know that the Internet is behind this. Buyers don’t have to interact with sales just to get information, they can now do all their research online.

Many sellers have reacted to this new reality by making a shift of their own over to inbound marketing. They will post many resources on their site, some of it requiring contact information to access. The premise is that search engines index the free content on a vendor’s site and as prospects use search engines, they’ll visit the site and self-identify as leads to access the gated content.

It’s true that inbound marketing, often known also as content marketing, helps bring buyers to you, but it takes more than that to close an inbound lead. They think differently than traditional leads and will react badly if they are subjected to the same tactics you have always used. Remember the old Saturday Morning Schoolhouse Rock cartoon with that animated character, ‘Bill’ that went through the process of becoming a Law? Inbound leads never want to feel like “just a lead, only a lead.” They will flee at the first sign of a lead-management process; and they can spot traditional sales tactics from miles away.

Inbound marketing is a viable way to generate leads. It’s my opinion that we must handle these leads differently at a few key stages. Here are a few strategies for doing this.

The Right Product, at the Right Place

Let’s start by reflecting on our motive behind using inbound content. Inbound is used most heavily on products that are costly or complex – called ‘considered purchases.’ People do their homework before making these purchases, by turning to online content. If you have this kind of product, content can work for you, but you should be careful to balance helping the buyer with helping your own SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Thanks to Google Analytics, both we and Google can see how visitors behave on our site. The truth is that Google can tell content that actually helps visitors versus content made solely for SEO. The system can’t be gamed, nor should it.

…At the Right Time

Marketing speaker and author Jay Baer believes inbound marketing can have SEO benefits, but he doesn’€™t oversell it. Search Engines, for example, can’t satisfy people who aren’t aware of a new product/category’s existence. It’s understood that people only notice a product’s PPC advertising or a mention of it on social media at the Interest stage of the process. In the same way, people only use Search Engines after they’€™ve become aware that you (or your competitor) has a solution to their problem. By the time prospects go to a search engine, they already have a notion of what they are looking for. Jay put it this way, “€œNobody goes to Google and says ‘€˜I want to buy something, but I don’t really care what. Just surprise me’.”€

Jay states, “€œInbound marketing doesn’t create demand for your products or services, it fulfills demand, and it connects demand to resources. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, it is incredibly important but if you just say, ‘we are going to be great in Google,’€™ your ability to grow your business exponentially is zero because you are not introducing your concept to new people.” Where are these new people congregating? It depends, but the point is that wherever these prospects are, you need to be there. It’€™s not where you choose to be present, it’™s where they are present that counts. Don’t just look to search engines to generate inbound leads, look online for greenfield communities that don’t already have a solution to their problem.

Copious Content, Consistent Experience

Those in a buying cycle rarely content themselves with one-time visits to vendors’ websites for evaluations. While we may draw a single funnel to chart them – it’€™s rarely that linear. Instead, a prospect may behave erratically: they may be browsing on LinkedIn and see you, then after a while they’€™re Googling you from their phone, glancing at your site and then after more time, they might contact you to talk to sales. According to Mathew Sweezey, prospects go back and forth between Google and your site an average of 3 times before they identify their interest to you.  The point is, a buyer may have one or many starting points, but if your marketing staff are active across this broad swath of platforms, it will result in leads for the sales team. When it comes to inbound lead generation, sales and marketing need each other more than ever.

As you won’t know what stage of buying a site visitor is at, it’s more important than ever that a marketer maps out the sequence of questions a prospect asks as they go through the buying process and make content that answers those questions in a logical order. If you are going to restrict access to some content, ensure that you put enough openly accessible content out there so prospects can rationalize completing an email registration form in exchange for getting that content. A small portion of the leads you receive may be bogus leads, but those who are seriously interested in you will put their real business contact information into your form. Give those leads priority.

Sales: Get used to Having Less Control

By definition, inbound marketing prevents you from controlling the stage at which a lead enters the funnel. They usually don’t enter at the top, but usually come sideways into the middle of your sales funnel. Duct Tape Selling author John Jantsch calls this process Inbound Selling.

Sales is used to taking charge of conversations, but they should take the opposite stance when inbound leads call. If the prospect is motivated enough to initiate contact with sales, it’€™s because they have burning questions. So salespeople fielding these calls shouldn’t start with education (as they do with sales-found prospects), instead they should listen carefully to the prospect and answer their questions. Doctors do the same today when a patient comes in claiming to have symptoms matching an illness they read about on the Internet. The salesperson may end up agreeing with them, but not before asking qualifying questions to validate the prospect’s diagnosis.

Set Your Expectations

If a lead that has self-served all their research and rightly understood how your product meets their needs, you need to be ready to fast-track the conversation straight into an opportunity. Remember that even when the prospect knows a lot about you, you can’t expect a sale until you have built trust with them.

Remember, these leads don’€™t guarantee closed business, content marketing’s strength is it’s ability to bring in quality leads. Alternatives like cold-calling bring leads in large quantity, but is the quality there? When is the last time you heard of a sales rep calling a cold prospect and hearing “€œI’€™m so glad you called. Please sell me something!”

Conclusion

Inbound has become an important means of acquiring new customers. Whether you have to rework your entire process or not, it’s important to approach inbound marketing programs as a tool that uses influence, not interruption, to get leads. Think about how your company can move inbound leads through the sales process in a way that achieves maximum success for everyone.