The Reality of Inbound Sales in the Age of Commoditization

Inbound Sales in Age of Commoditization
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When I tell my sales counterparts at other startups that my leads are 100% inbound, they typically look at me with wide eyes and open mouths and ask, “Really? I don’t understand how you can do that.” And, what’s funny is that from my perspective, I honestly don’t understand how they can’t. There are two ways I know how to systematically generate marketing qualified leads: content marketing and channel partners.

While I recognize and can appreciate that millions of companies have built their businesses on outbound prospecting – whether that’s through good old-fashioned door-to-door sales, or by arming entry-level sales reps with modern-day tech tools it sure sounds like a lot of extra work, time and money that I simply do not have right now.

Let’s look at the facts. B2B buyers have changed. Really.

Also, Pearl Jam is now considered classic rock (I know, it’s freaking me out too).

Rock Music Preferences United States

And, if you’re in tech, your buyers have greater expectations than ever. In fact, according to Google’s B2B customer study last June, 78% of B2B tech buyers agreed that a brand’s thought leadership was extremely important when looking to make a purchase on behalf of their company.

Moreover, the American Marketing Association reports that “the conversations salespeople have with prospects and customers are often the last bastion of competitive differentiation in today’s rapidly commoditizing markets.” Translation = Someone else is probably selling a nearly identical product or service.

Thus, your prospects don’t want to spend their time hearing from even the friendliest voice or reading your carefully worded email when all they have to do when they have a problem is open a web browser from any number of devices in front of them, in their pockets, or attached to their wrists, and search for an answer.

How many calls do you have to make to uncover a marketing qualified lead? How many marketing qualified leads do you need to produce to feed your sales team? I hate to quote the proverb “you’ll attract more bees with a teaspoon of honey than a gallon of vinegar,” but it’s true. When you’re at an early stage startup, every dollar and every minute count.

Actually, isn’t that true for any size organization? Time is money, and success is (let’s face it) measured by revenue; therefore, successful organizations are wise about how their employees spend their time.

I know that these are bold, confident words, so let’s take this from theory to actual practice. In fact, I’ve already done it once in my career and I’m happy to share both my results and my secret sauce.

When I joined my last company, over 80% of sales came from channel partners. But the CEO saw a real opportunity to also grow the company’s direct business. So, the company pivoted and decided to position itself as a best-in-breed product rather than solely as a complementary offering to the partner’s product.

They dropped a couple hundred grand on trade shows, bought lists, made cold calls, and sent out email blasts {shudder}. And, they saw a bit of a lift. The market responded. But, it took a lot of work and a lot of money to get these preliminary results.

Enter Inbound Marketing

I’m going to skip ahead now and share some results with you because in this case, numbers might speak louder than words. And, it’s important to note that our average enterprise sales cycle was between 6 and 12 months.

Here’s what we did in one year:

415% increase in direct sales leads.

92% increase in closed units.

89% increase in direct sales revenue.

The board did not complain. In fact, they asked, “What do you need from us to do more of this?” We went all-in on what had worked and started to grow exponentially.

So, how did we do it, and how do you do it too? Here’s a high-level hit list of the inbound activities that, in my experience, yield the best results:

  • Identify your buyer personas (no more than 4 or 5) and workshop them with the team — both the sales and marketing team. This has to be the first step, and it cannot be skipped. Inbound marketing relies on a strong understanding of your buyer personas.
  • Identify themes that resonate with at least one of those personas (if not all), and make sure those themes are 100% educational in nature. What will your buyer persona learn?
  • Start writing toward those themes. Yes, you. Not a writer? I don’t care. Try it, get some thoughts on paper, and then leverage a professional writer or editor to help make it sing. Or, talk into a recording device or app, or participate in an interview. But do not outsource your content 100%. YOU are passionate about your company. YOU understand the value you bring to your customers. YOU need to be the authentic voice behind that content.
  • Promote the content you write. Social media is a wonderful vehicle for this, both organically and through paid promotion. One caveat — it’s not just up to the marketing team to share content. This is an “all hands on deck” activity. Consider this: Would you be more likely to engage with a piece of content that was shared by someone you know and trust, versus a brand you’ve never seen? How much more likely would you be to engage in that same individual added his or her own comments to the content?
  • Calls-to-action (CTAs) are critical. Insightful, authentic content is the first step, but what next? The most effective CTAs for inbound marketing offers the reader an appropriate next step. My recommendation is to offer a complimentary piece of content that holds a greater value or to engage the reader with a piece of interactive content like a quiz or survey of some kind. This is the point where you begin collecting contact information to build your prospect database, so make sure you’re offering them something that’s worth their contact information.
  • Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose! Have authors partial post their blog on their own LinkedIn profiles and share pieces of the content in the places and spaces where your buyer personas spend their time. Again, this isn’t a job for the marketing team. This is a task for everyone because people like to talk to people and like to buy from people. Where the marketing team CAN add a ton of value is by transforming content into “new-to-you” pieces. Take a series of blogs and spin them into an ebook, a webinar, an infographic or a video. Then, you guessed it, re-engage the team sharing and start upping your CTA offers. The better the offer, the higher your conversion will be.
  • As you collect contact information, it’s important to track the types of content that your newfound friend has consumed and then base all of your follow-up communications on that data. That means you should rarely, if ever, send the same email message to all of your contacts. And, be sure to expose this data to the salespeople who will eventually be in contact with these prospects.

Listen, there’s no easy button — it takes some effort. But in my experience, the thing that’s easy isn’t necessarily what’s most effective. While inbound marketing and sales takes some work on the front end, it’s totally manageable for even the smallest of teams (I’ve never had a team of more than three people, and up until very recently, I was a powerhouse of one). Most importantly, it’s extremely scalable even on an extremely lean budget.

This is a sponsored guest post from a Sales Hacker partner.

Jen Spencer is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for SmartBug Media™, a globally recognized Intelligent Inbound™ marketing agency of experts in digital strategy, design, PR and marketing automation. Over her career, Jen has built several demand generation and sales enablement programs from the ground up and has experience working within tech startups, publicly traded companies, mid-market organizations, and the not-for-profit space.