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Mike Lieberman, CEO and Chief Revenue ScientistTue, Oct 13, 2020 15 min read

Little-Known Lead Nurturing Best Practices: Care And Feeding For Marketing-Qualified Leads

MQLs Are Important; What You Do With Them Could Make Or Break Your Program Performance

There is a heated argument among marketers: Gated or ungated content? This means marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) or sales-qualified leads (SQLs). Yes, if you ungate your content, you can kiss MQLs goodbye. I’m not ready to say goodbye to 90% of the net new names we drive into our prospect database.

You might not be ready for that either.

There are a few good reasons why I want to keep generating MQLs. First, roughly 90% of the people coming to your site aren’t ready to talk to sales. In fact, Marketo reports that number is as high as 96%, so leaving MQLs behind means you might never get to know these people.

Next, if I do a good job creating compelling educational content, these visitors should be happy to provide me with some basic contact information in exchange for that content.

Finally, and most importantly, I know with solid lead nurturing I can convert these MQLs (people earlier in their buyer journey) into sales opportunities down the road.

It’s these lead nurturing campaigns we’ll be digging into today.

But first, let’s make sure we have solid data to support the time and money we’re going to invest in lead nurturing strategies:

  • 67% of B2B marketers say they see at least a 10% increase in sales opportunities through lead nurturing, with 15% seeing opportunities increase by 30% or more (Demand Gen Report)
  • Gleanster reports that using lead nurturing showed 15% to 20% of the "not yet ready to purchase" opportunities converted into sales
  • Lead nurturing emails get four to 10 times the response rate compared to standalone email blasts (Demand Gen Report)
  • According to Forrester Research, companies that excel at lead nurturing generate 50% more sales leads at 33% lower cost per lead (Demand Gen Report)
  • Gleanster reports that 74% of top-performing companies use automated lead nurturing
  • Nurtured leads produce, on average, a 20% increase in sales opportunities versus non-nurtured leads (Demand Gen Report)

The data is in: If you properly nurture MQLs, you’ll turn them into sales opportunities quickly and efficiently.

Here’s the Square 2 playbook around lead nurturing and turning MQLs into solid sales opportunities.

Understand The Buyer Journey Through Signaling

If you’re not using a buyer journey model to keep track of your prospects, you’re trying to find your way home without a map or GPS. You’re flying blind.

Our Cyclonic Buyer Journey™ has eight specific stages. Most of your prospects and MQLs are likely to be very early in this buyer journey (Awareness, Education or perhaps the Consideration Stage). Knowing where in this journey your prospects are will help you develop lead nurturing campaigns that create more sales opportunities.

If your website and your content marketing efforts are designed properly, then it’s very possible to have prospects signal to you exactly where in the buyer journey they are and when they move from stage to stage.

Let me illustrate this for you.

Certain pages on your website should be created to help people in all stages of the buyer journey. When people visit those pages, they’ll be signaling their stage data. If you align educational content offers on those pages, when prospects convert and download that information, they’ll be sending another signal.

Finally, if you have chat turned on and people are engaging with you while on certain pages or while digesting strategically aligned content, you’ll get yet another signal.

All of these signals tell you where your prospects are today. It allows you to help move them through the buyer journey and allows them to send additional signals as they move. All of these signals tell you how well your marketing (and in particular, your lead nurturing campaigns) is working.

Personalize The Nurtures As Much As Possible

Everyone likes to see their name in an email message. That’s why personalized emails improve click-through rates by 15% and conversions by 10%.

The more personal you make your lead nurture campaigns, the better the results. But this is more than just adding someone’s name. Personalization could mean adding their company’s name, adding industry references, including industry- or role-specific content links and creating a one-to-one communication with your prospects.

Since these are one-to-one emails, and they will look like personal emails (as opposed to HTML marketing emails), the more personal they are, the better this tactic will work.

Lead Nurturing Best Practices

Leverage The Right Content At The Right Time

But beyond personalization, what additional content you offer has been proven to make or break the performance of your lead nurturing program.

One approach we like to use for clients is to try and pull prospects through the buyer journey by offering next-stage buyer journey content in lead nurturing campaigns.

For example, people who are in the Consideration Stage get offered opportunities to talk with someone and move into the Evaluation Stage.

For people in the Awareness Stage, we offer content geared for the Education and Consideration stages.

When prospects convert, we know they’re moving through the journey and our campaigns are pulling them along.

By designing your lead nurturing campaigns with this proactive pull-through in mind, you can use advanced techniques like lead scoring to add quantitative measures along with the qualitative data we’ve been talking about.

Use Lead Scoring

Signaling strategy 101 includes website page and content download or engagement data, but lead scoring can be an advanced signaling strategy.

Lead scoring models can have a small handful of elements that create a score or a much more comprehensive and numerous collection of data elements to build a lead score.

Simple scoring models might include a few behavioral signals, like website pages visited, conversion on key offers or number of pages visited. These simple scoring models could also have demographic info included, like role, size of firm or industry.

More complex lead scoring models can capture full buyer journey signaling, like email opens, webinar attendance, chat engagement, video views and more. The demographic data can also be much more comprehensive, including geography, time in role and more.

These scores then dictate lead nurture workflows. The higher the score, the shorter the nurture and the more active the sales team is with their personal outreach. The lower the score, the longer the nurture and the less active the sales team would be in this scenario.

Using lead scoring to keep reps focused on the best prospects is a key element of every lead scoring system. But using lead scoring to launch lead nurturing campaigns is a key best practice.

Automate Rapid Responses

All over, consumers readily report that the faster potential suppliers respond to them, the more comfortable they are with the supplier as a new partner. People pick partners based on who is the quickest to respond.

When it comes to lead nurturing, quick response can easily be built into the program, and the automated nature of most lead nurturing campaigns makes rapid response a must-have.

But you also need to consider the buyer journey for your prospects. Typically, how critical is the pain associated with your product or service? If it’s highly acute, I would respond quickly. If it’s not typically too acute, I might wait a day or two before my lead nurture launches.

I would also take the typical sales cycle into consideration. Shorter sales cycles (less than 30 days) should have lightning-fast responses. Longer sales cycles (more than 90 days) might warrant slower response times.

Keep this in mind: If you jump on your new prospect, it might feel like you’re hyper aggressive and very sales-y. This isn’t a feeling you want to portray in any situation.

On the flip side, you do want to be responsive and show you care about them, so balance out your response times and test the performance of your campaigns in a variety of timed-out sequences.

Lead Nurturing Best Practices

Keep Your Workflows Tight (And Shortish)

Response time isn’t the only element of timing you need to consider. The other is the length of the nurture and the gaps between touches.

I’ve seen lead nurturing workflows that include 15 touches or more and are planned for months and months. That isn’t going to work.

Keep them simple. Remember, if you orchestrate your marketing correctly, you might have prospects hopping from one nurture to another based on the content they’re consuming. Also, keep in mind that solid marketing includes regular “air cover” emails, too.

You shouldn’t rely on any single nurture to carry your story. I’m a big believer in the rule of three.

The rule of three is based on the principle that things in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying or more effective than any other number. When used in words, either by speech or text, the reader or audience is more likely to consume the information if it is written in threes.

This idea dates back to ancient Greek rhetoric, but to fully understand the importance of this directive for digital content, it is easiest to just look around the world today.

Think about it. The rule of three is everywhere.

We have three acts as the dominant structure to screenwriting. We have the “comic triple” for surprise punch lines. We have the three clusters of time (past, present and future).

There are three little pigs, three Musketeers, three wise men and the three Stooges. Consider “blood, sweat and tears,” “mind, body and spirit” and the infamous, “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.”

With that in mind, our research shows that lead nurture campaigns that run in a series of three, with three days in between, outperform almost every other configuration.

Here’s what the sequences and workflows would look like:

  • Day 0 – Initial conversion
  • Day 0 – First nurture (this shows responsiveness and, if the pain is acute, allows the prospect to respond accordingly)
  • Day 3 – Second nurture
  • Day 6 – Third nurture

If you have a very long and complex sales cycle, I would consider adding three more nurtures along the same sequences:

  • Day 9 – Fourth nurture
  • Day 12 – Fifth nurture
  • Day 15 – Sixth nurture

I don’t typically recommend anything longer than this. One alternative would be to spread out the nurtures so more days are in between nurtures. Again, this works for companies with longer sales cycles.

Track, Measure And Optimize Monthly

One of the most important aspects of this is the tracking, analyzing and optimizing around lead nurturing campaigns. You can argue the length, the timing and even the content in each nurture, but the data should be the end-all.

If the data shows it’s not working, make changes. If the data shows it’s working, work to make it better. The days where opinions, attitudes, perspectives or who has the loudest voice in the meeting mattered are over for good.

Set goals for the open rates, click-through rates and overall conversion rates. You’ll want to track MQL to SQL and then SQL to sales opportunities. You should also try to track conversion rates for each stage of the buyer journey. Your lead nurturing campaigns should be improving these rates month over month.

The only other number to consider tracking is the sales cycle in days, as defined as the time in days from first visit to your website to final signed agreement or contract.

Our recommendation would be set up a series of lead nurture dashboards that allow you to quickly see email stats, conversion stats and sales cycle data all in one or two quick-view dashboards.

Remember, the goal of data is not about collecting it, getting reports or building dashboards, but about deriving insights that inform your ongoing optimization action plans. Dashboards like this give you the best chance to uncover insights and take action.

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Mike Lieberman, CEO and Chief Revenue Scientist

Mike is the CEO and Chief Revenue Scientist at Square 2. He is passionate about helping people turn their ordinary businesses into businesses people talk about. For more than 25 years, Mike has been working hand-in-hand with CEOs and marketing and sales executives to help them create strategic revenue growth plans, compelling marketing strategies and remarkable sales processes that shorten the sales cycle and increase close rates.