How to Fix a Broken Lead Nurturing Strategy

When you’re a content marketer who writes about content marketing, you start to see marketing analogies everywhere.

I was reading about the glacial history of New York City the other day. Fifty thousand years ago, a sheet of ice one thousand feet thick sat right on top of the five boroughs. Its far end extended down across Brooklyn and Queens, pushing soil, boulders, and anything else in its path up into a huge mound.

It’s fascinating how a glacier that disappeared tens of thousands of years ago still affects millions of people today. When the ice melted, the ridge of debris at its far end remained and is now the home of neighborhoods with names like Crown Heights, Bay Ridge, and Jamaica Hills.

Here’s where my marketing brain kicks in:

The way a glacier moves feels a bit like lead nurturing. (Or at least, lead nurturing in a perfect world.) In this metaphor, the ice serves as our nurturing efforts, pushing leads along with the overwhelming weight of our email prowess. The process might be slow, but the boulders in our path are powerless to our brilliant marketing.

But, truth be told, we’re less like a glacier and more like a wave crashing on the shore. Sure, we pick up a few shells as we move, but a vast majority of the sand we roll over stays put. A good number of the shells we push forward get sucked back out to sea as the next wave rolls in.

Marketing automation software is a powerful tool, but many of the companies that use the software to create nurture campaigns attempt to turn leads into customers through brute force.

Ultimately, consumers are the ones paying the price. Nurture emails that are barely distinguishable from seedy spam messages stuff our inboxes. In a must-read piece from Velocity Partners, Doug Kessler said we shouldn’t even call it “nurturing,” since that’s not what we’re doing:

“For the rest, you may call what you’re doing ‘nurturing’ but it’s really just blabbing, spamming, small-talking and, at best, influencer-stroking.”


Conventional wisdom tells us to put new subscribers in a drip campaign, send some product-focused content, wait for them to click on a pricing page, and then have a salesperson cold call them as they’re about to eat lunch.

But is that working?

The answer seems to be a resounding “meh.” Only one-fifth of B2B marketers consider their lead nurturing efforts to be “very successful” and content effectiveness consistently ranks as a top challenge for marketers.

This would seem to indicate a disconnect between desired and achieved outcomes.

So what does a successful nurture program look like? And more importantly, what can marketers do to be more successful?

Automate or prospect?

Nothing warms the cockles of a CEO’s heart like hearing the words “automate” and “scale.” Lead nurturing lends itself well to automation; many of the tasks involved are repetitive, and an automated process allows you to test hypotheses and improve your methods.

“The biggest benefit of automated lead nurturing is the mass personalization that it enables across the entire lifecycle of a prospect or customer,” said Gabe Paley, former senior manager of marketing operations at InsightSquared and current deputy data director for the Colorado Democratic Party.“It’s no secret that you’ll have more success getting someone’s attention if you can market to them as individuals.”

For most companies, some form of automated nurturing is a necessary part of a sustainable business model. With constant pressure to keep acquisition costs down, a well-planned nurture strategy is a great way for marketers to free up time. Automated nurture campaigns can also react to customer behaviors instantly, and we know that timing matters with leads generated online.

Still, an automated process has its drawbacks.

“The downsides to automated lead nurturing come in their complexity and the potential for error that that complexity causes,” Paley said, “Creating hyper-specific segments in your email marketing program is great, but when you have twenty to thirty segments, it’s nearly impossible to make sure everything is going swimmingly and everyone is getting the right emails.”

Low barriers to entry mean that more brands, from Etsy shops to multinational corporations, send automated nurture emails. Prospects are inundated with automated messages from brands, so their guard is often up when checking email. Besides giving marketers a bad name, this impersonal touch can make things a bit tricky for salespeople when it’s time to connect.

“The good thing about automated lead nurture is that it actually gets done, versus leaving it to chance that you remember it,” said Scott Britton, sales expert and co-founder of the CRM chatbot tool Troops, “But sometimes, it can come off as impersonal and canned, which never engenders the same rapport as a personalized note.”

An alternative to a fully automated nurture program could be an inbound prospecting system, in which SDRs research new contacts that look at content, connect with them to learn about their needs, and filter them into a nurture campaign based on that prospect’s timeline and pain points.

This is a more labor-intensive (and costly) process. While much of that work can be outsourced, it does increase customer acquisition costs and eat into margins—which can present problems for companies attempting to scale their marketing machine. But this approach does allow you to actively pursue opportunities rather than waiting for a prospect to display interest.

But even this strategy requires a certain level of lead intelligence and automation. SDRs need to gauge, at a minimum, if a lead is in the general ballpark of their target market. For B2B brands, this typically means knowing job title, industry, and company size.

“If you aren’t able to discern this with data in an easy way, you should focus on improving that process to help an SDR more easily make the decision to reach out,” Britton said.

But what if we could reliably predict this information without manual prospecting?

Lead scoring

The difference between an effective and an ineffective lead nurturing strategy often comes down to good lead scoring.

The temptation for many marketers is to put all top-of-the-funnel leads into a nurture and let the ones who are a good fit naturally flow to the bottom. But this spray-and-pray approach ignores buyer context and personalization.

Here’s Kessler again in his piece on nurturing:

“An awful lot of B2B demand generation teams are still doing intensive marketing automation without actually scoring their leads. That’s just spamming while wearing a white lab coat.”

It’s impossible to create a recipe for scoring that works for every company, but there is a resource marketers can use to get insight into what triggers a prospect to move down the pipeline: your existing customers.

“The first step in identifying buying behavior is (surprise!) to study the behaviors of your existing customers as they went through the buying process,” Paley said. “This will be different for every company.”

At InsightSquared, the team realized people who downloaded one of their free apps were far more likely to become paying customers, but rarely was that action the first step they took. Rather than pushing leads immediately toward a purchase or even a free app download, Paley said they identified the behaviors that led up to that stage and created stories to encourage those behaviors.

Metrics and behaviors that indicate fit or product interest could include standard qualifying data like job titles, industry, and company size, but an automated nurturing program should also take into account things like website pageviews, email engagement, social media engagement, referral source, and other types of data.

Once you learn this information, you can then run experiments that replicate your buyer segment in a scalable way—things like retargeting campaigns across social media and banner ads, event invitations, special offers, and more.

It’s also important to note that this path is rarely simple or clean. Nurture campaigns are often complex and segmented, and feature multiple paths that require careful planning. You may want to get product-focused content in front of prospects as quickly as possible, but there are other steps to take first that can make or break a nurture program.

What to send and when

Content marketing allows you to remain engaged with prospects across long buying cycles.

Unfortunately, poorly calibrated nurturing programs can spoil that engagement. Consumers now have more control over advertising exposure, and that often means opting for a lot less of it: adblockers are increasing in popularity, Facebook users can customize their ad preferences, and people will just unsubscribe from a newsletter if a brand emails them too frequently.

This landscape paints a pretty bleak picture for marketers hoping to move a prospect down their pipeline, and reiterates the importance of helpful, targeted content.

“You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date.”

“These prospects are valuable but are at the top of your sales funnel, so you want to treat them as such and warm them up by showing them relevant information,” Paley said. “You wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, and neither should you be advertising your pricing plans to someone who hasn’t demonstrated even initial interest in your product.”

This system will differ depending on the type of lead. Some may land on your blog, explore a product page, and request a demo all in one sitting. Others may subscribe and read for months before taking the time to look at your product. There will also be people in your market who never buy from you but still want to consume your content.

It’s important to plan for each of these segments. For prospects who still have time before they’re ready to make a purchase decision, educational content can help you build relationships and stay top of mind.

“The key at this stage is to build trust in your product and your team by offering value in the form of education about your core competency,” Paley said, “Let’s say I’m thinking about buying a house for the first time but am nervous about the wide variety of options as well as my lack of expertise in this area. I google around and land on a real estate website that has written about ‘How to tell if the time is right to buy your first home.’ If that company then maintains that relationship with me and keeps in touch through periodic email updates or retargeted ads, I’ll be more likely to remember them and call them up when I’m farther along the buying process.”

Even though email frequency can cause consumers to unsubscribe from newsletters, readers do still want to hear from relevant brands on a semi-regular basis (weekly or monthly).

The key is making sure those messages stay relevant to their needs. This is no easy task, but a well-planned automation strategy can keep that relationship between buyer and seller healthy. Marketing automation tools can help you identify the topics specific users click on the most and send them content that matches their interests.

Rolling down the river

Ultimately, a successful nurture program can be measured on a single scale: revenue.

“If your nurture programs generate lots of leads but you can’t tell whether those leads are becoming customers, it’s difficult to call those programs successful,” Paley said.

Revenue metrics should extend beyond customers. You should include things like upsells, renewals/retention, and buying timeline. While growing an engaged audience is great, it’s important to keep a pulse on these lower-funnel metrics in order to prove content ROI and make a case for further funding and support.

While most brands will never become a marketing glacier, forcibly moving everything in their path, we can aspire to be more than repetitive waves. Instead, our nurture campaigns could resemble river systems—smaller tributaries feeding into your larger customer segment, consistently and predictably flowing and delivering value downstream.

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