What is a lead?


In my interactions with prospects and clients about online marketing; it is inevitable at some point that the word “lead” will be in the conversation, or likely the focus of the conversation. Typically it will be used in the context of “lead generation”; statements like – I’m in interested in generating leads or we’re looking for more leads or how many leads can we generate if we work with you etc…

In the 10+ years of conversations I’ve had on this topic, I’ve learned the hard way that the first thing I absolutely have to do is get on the same page as my client / prospect as to what their definition of lead is. Simple common definition issues can really create problems or expectation issues down the road; or even kill the sale altogether.

What I’ve found is most times when folks say lead in the context of online– what they really mean is sales lead, or transactional leads (RFPs, RFIs or RFQs). That might seem obvious – but in order to talk about marketing strategies and tactics and program recommendations, I need to know if someone either cares or places value on earlier stage leads (see my blog post on understanding the buying process online).

If someone is focused only on the tail end of the buying process online (either intentionally or ignorantly) – I need to understand why. It could be they are resource constrained; and therefore unable to follow-up appropriately and nurture early stage leads or they’ve just never thought the whole issue through, to no fault of their own. Hopefully, I’ll gain a chance educate them on the importance and opportunities missed and potentially help them work through resource issues or internal constraints.

Depending on the specifics of that discussion; the topics of “lead nurturing”, “lead qualification” and “lead scoring (what makes one lead better than another)” often come up as well; making the entire conversation so much more meaningful in the long run by engaging me in more aspects of their business and putting me in a stronger position to really integrate my recommendation into their current (or future) business practices.

 So back to the topic at hand – what are the common factors in my definition of a “lead” – regardless of the stage?

Well in my experience; early stage and late stage leads should all have the following information in common:

  • Contact Information: Enough so you can either nurture it further through “re-marketing” efforts (follow-up tactics) or so you can figure out who in your sales organization should get it for more immediate follow-up. E-mail address at a minimum; but add in full name and mailing address and perhaps even a phone number or fax and now you have the ultimate in contact information with multiple options and means for follow-up.
  • Demographic Information: At a minimum, you should know the company the individual is from and hopefully their industry focus and job role; which can help you determine their potential application and can set both the tone and manner of your follow-up.
  • Category of Interest: What is it that they are looking for or at? Are they downloading a white paper? Looking for more information on a specific product? Asking for Pricing? Or are they just curious about your company? Again; this will help set the tone and manner of your follow-up sales, re-marketing or drip-marketing efforts.

 That’s it….you get these three pieces of information; and you have yourself a lead.

 To determine the qualification of that lead; e.g. is this  a “transactional” lead or other sales lead vs. perhaps an earlier one – there is a slew of additional information you might need; some of that information can be gleamed through lead-qualification processes that will be a subject for future blog posts, but through these processes you can ask questions focused on:

  • Preferred Means of Contact
  • Timing
  • Budget Availability / Influence / Ability
  • Level of Interest
  • Competitor Options under Consideration etc.

If you are still struggling to get on the same page as either your vendors or even internally about what makes an online lead a lead and how important it is to place value on early stage vs. just focusing on late stage leads; take the discussion out of the context of online and take it offline, use a tradeshow analogy.

When someone registers to attend a tradeshow you are exhibiting at…are they a lead? In most people’s opinion; at best they are a suspect.

How about when that individual actually shows up at the exhibition hall? Probably not; perhaps still a suspect…maybe a prospect.

How about when they begin to flip through the directory that features your company or they start to walk down the aisle where you have a booth and signage?  Getting closer…but still not a lead?

How about when they stop and read your signage or view your booth and display…if even at a cautious distance? Warmer still…

How about when they drop a business card in the bowl or hand you their badge for scanning? For most folks…this is a lead now, everything that happened before then held little to no value.

Is this right the way to view lead generation? Am I fairly evaluating my trade show experience or even maximizing my trade show investment by only counting those cards I acquired or badges I’ve scanned?

The truth is – my prospect was a potential lead the moment they registered to attend the show itself. The person was an early stage lead for sure, but they were curious enough about my industry to register to attend a show that I felt appropriate to exhibit at. In a perfect world, if I could market and nurture that individual along from the beginning, I would have “bettered my chances” of them being among those who dropped their card or had their badge scanned vs. waiting for them to discover me on their own.

It all points back to the buy cycle (again, see my earlier posts). While evaluating marketing options and strategies, it’s important to remember that customer conversions (new sales) are the outcome of multiple influences over time.

From a sales & marketing perspective, being discovered as early in the process as possible is critical; as the impressions and results from the first few exposures and searches create the baseline criteria that the buyer will use to compare all options under consideration as final selection and purchase timeframes gets closer.

As always, I hope this post at least triggered some thought if not discussion.

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