In this, the second post on the use of strategic content to boost B2B sales, I focus on a common challenge all vendors face at the outset of the sales process, namely the need to identify unqualified leads from a much larger group of raw prospects – the initial step in the sales pipeline schema shown below.  It’s a volume game: since typically only 10% to 15% of identified leads end up as closed contracts, getting a good number of such folks into the pipeline is a prerequisite to generating the desired number of dollars at the end of it.  So increasing the yield from such efforts can result in a big payoff.

Getting lists of raw prospects is a straightforward matter.  Sources include sales professionals’ networks, purchased email lists of professionals in the target market, and attendees at industry events (when they can be held).  Existing clients provide another valuable source of leads. 

By my definition, raw prospects become unqualified leads, meaning that they enter the sales pipeline, when they express interest in a vendor’s solution.  “Express interest” means that they say, in some way, “tell me more about the product”.  Strategic content helps vendors identify such individuals more efficiently, and with a higher success rate. 

 In the series’ inaugural post I defined “strategic content” as material, ranging from blog posts to white papers, that is aligned with a vendor’s sales strategy.  The post also established the sales pipeline shown above as my framework to describe the goals of strategic content at different stages of the sales process.  

Unqualified leads don’t care about a vendor’s product – so grab their attention, and do it quickly

Given that the generation of unqualified leads occurs early in the sales cycle, my working assumption is that prospects are not deeply interested in a vendor’s product.  Indeed, they might not even have heard of it.  Or if they have, they probably don’t think it’s relevant to helping them solve their problems. 

This unpromising backdrop means that the key aim of the content is to grab readers’ attention, and to do it fast.  It’s a familiar challenge: an old marketing adage states that you have a maximum of eight seconds to engage the interest of a raw prospect, since that’s the most time they will spend determining if a website or email is of interest to them.  This is compared, unfavorably, to the attention span of a goldfish, which is held to be nine seconds.  The part about the goldfish doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but the point about the need for quick engagement remains a valid one. 

Make them care, but not about the product – at least not initially

The content a vendor uses to identify unqualified leads should not feature their product, counterintuitive as this might be.  Instead, to grab readers’ attention it should start with a “hook” of some sort.  I’ve found that content built around an event that’s in the headlines works well, simply because it’s appealing to a topic that’s top of mind for readers.  Alternatively, the content can reference a well-known problem or development in the target market.  Regardless of the approach, only after a reader is engaged – and the eight-second rule hopefully overcome – is it safe to introduce the product and its ability to solve client problems (with an emphasis on the latter). 

A current example might be “how to cope with the impact of the coronavirus on revenue and operations”, followed by swift pivot to how the product’s features mitigate the fallout from the pandemic.  Other examples of industry challenges are the impact of new technology or the introduction of a new regulation.  In these cases, the content positions the product as the solution to the problem to hand. 

Writing points and content formats

There are other ways to keep readers engaged, aside from leading with a headline event.  List-based content (“Five ways to…”) is an old stand-by, and breaking the text up with subheads and making copious use of graphics in the form of charts, graphs, and summary tables always helps.  At least one of the graphics should be based on data contained in the product.  Not only does this illustrate power and relevancy, it’s a good way to shift readers’ focus from the headline that initially engaged them to the product and its benefits.

The blog post is the obvious choice of format.  The length can vary, but short write-ups — perhaps 700 to 1,000 words – are more likely to attract readers.  Posts can also be repurposed as stand-alone documents and Linkedin articles. 

Last but certainly not least, the post should contain a call to action (CTA), one that brings benefits to both readers and thus to the vendor.  The most common CTA is an invitation for readers to provide their contact details in order to receive more information to help deal with the issue to hand.  For vendors, this step provides them with permission to contact a prospect – an essential step in the process of “qualifying” a lead, i.e., determining if it meets the requirements to buy the product and is thus worth the investment in time and resources to advance it to the next step in the sales pipeline.

This involves confirming – or not – that an unqualified lead has the budget, authority, and need for the vendor’s product, as well as a timeline, or sense of urgency, related to obtaining a solution to a problem the product solves.  Marketing mavens will recognize these criteria as the familiar BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, Timeline) framework.  There are many such approaches, reflecting the critical nature of this stage of the process and its inherent challenges.  In our next strategic marketing post I will address how strategic content can help vendors overcome these issues.