Inbound Lead Generation: From Beginner to Pro
Only few people convert on their first visit to a website. That's where the logic of lead generation comes in.
Instead of a sale, a lead is the next best thing: a person 'proving' their interest in what you have to offer by leaving their contact information.
At that point, either a sales team takes over, or you have an automated process that 'nurtures' your lead towards a sale. Or you have a hybrid of the two.
Within inbound lead generation, there are many different strategies and tactics. I believe that inbound lead generation is valuable for almost all types of businesses, but you should definitely be following an approach in line with the nature of your business.
In this article, I'll be giving you a 80/20 walk-through of the most important things to know of inbound lead generation. I'll be contrasting our own experience with inbound lead generation as a B2B software solution with examples from B2C ecommerce.
- What is inbound lead generation?
- Inbound vs outbound
- Why inbound wins
- The inbound lead journey
- Our process for generating inbound leads
1What is inbound lead generation?
Inbound lead gen is a strategy designed to attract leads, usually through the use of relevant and educational content. Unlike outbound lead generation, which is about actively finding potential customers, inbound is all about letting them find you.
2Inbound vs outbound
Inbound lead generation differs from outbound in a number of key areas.
Marketing principles. For starters, inbound and outbound operate on a different set of marketing principles. While inbound is all about being found by people searching for something, outbound is about pushing your messages out to your target audience – even though they're not actively looking for something.
Methods and channels. Inbound and outbound marketers use different channels to run their campaigns and initiatives. Inbound lead generation relies on content marketing, SEO and paid search to attract leads, while outbound lead gen uses methods like cold email, cold calling, and advertising to find potential leads.
Timeline and ROI. Generally speaking, inbound lead gen takes longer. When outbound lead gen is more akin to hunting, inbound lead gen is more like farming.
One of the pros of outbound is that it allows you to discern the results of your efforts (good or bad) relatively quickly. If you'd implement a cold calling initiative or put money in a display advertising campaign, you could get a sense of the results rather quickly. This makes it easier to measure ROI.
Not so with inbound marketing. You could publish an article on your blog today, but it may take months for it to start ranking in the Google search results. Once it does, however, the visitors and leads that you attract will likely be of higher quality. They are actively searching for what you have to offer, making them receptive to your message.
3Why inbound wins
Just think about the present-day information landscape for a moment. It's over-saturated. People are turning to digital minimalism just to keep sane.
If your customers' informational cups are overflowing, what are the chances of you winning their attention through a shouting contest with your direct (and indirect) competitors? What are the odds of that ad getting through?
That's why we focus on inbound, and why it makes sense for most businesses to do the same. It earns you voluntary attention.
And although it might take longer to reach leads with inbound efforts, once you do, the process to paying customers tends to go much faster than with outbound.
When we started Userlike, for example, Timoor and I dipped our toes in cold-calling (i.e. outbound lead gen). Our process was simple. We'd Google a certain industry (e.g. "beauty shops"), look up their phone number on the website and give them a call.
After 100-200 or so failed calls, we decided to change course. Thirteen months later, however, we did hear back from one little-known beauty shop by the name of Douglas. Website chat had recently become a relevant topic, and we had been so lucky that the gatekeeper had noted down our name.
So... great success! Thirteen months is a long time to wait, however. With the inbound strategy that we pivoted to, we aimed to let businesses find us.
Those businesses that are looking for a chat solution have already gone through a big part of the necessary decision-making and internal organization. At that point, it's just about convincing them that we are the best solution out there (easy ;) ). Still today, our inbound leads convert on average 4 times as fast as outbound leads.
This is a key insight. Compared to outbound marketing — which interrupts people with messages that they weren’t looking for — inbound lead gen ends up being more effective. The catch is that it requires patience and discipline.
In terms of costs and ROI, inbound tactics tend to win over the long term. According to Demand Metric, content marketing generates 3x more leads than traditional marketing and costs 62% less.
4The inbound lead journey
How exactly do inbound leads become paying customers? The inbound lead journey generally involves the following stages:
The first stage of inbound lead generation is to be found by potential customers.
These people might be looking for a solution you offer. In inbound terminology, these people are further down the AIDA funnel (awareness - interest - decision - action), at the "interest" stage.
It's of course highly valuable if you manage to be found by people in this stage, but it's also highly competitive. For us at Userlike, prospects in this stage search with keywords like "live chat solution." Ranking for these keywords organically is hard; ranking for them through ads is expensive.
The nice thing about the inbound lead generation process is that you can also target customers higher up the funnel – people who aren't aware yet that they need a solution like yours. You can do this by creating content that helps them with related issues.
If you know your customers, then you will know what issues they struggle with. One of our main target audiences at Userlike are online marketers. We know that many of them look for a solution like Userlike to help them with their lead generation efforts.
So, we write helpful articles on this topic for these potential customers – like the article you're reading now. Once you have your desired audience's attention, it's relatively easy to make them aware of your solution.
But mostly, they won't be ready to buy from you just yet. They first have to transition from awareness to interest, and this takes time. That's why it makes sense to offer people higher up the funnel an alternative call-to-action than sign up or buy now.
You can "capture" these early leads by offering a whitepaper download, an email course, a simple newsletter subscription, etc. People who follow you on social media (e.g. YouTube subscribers) can also be considered as early leads – as long as you have a deliberate system in place to "nurture" these leads towards from awareness to interest to decision.
Next up is the nurture stage, where you cultivate the relationship you have with your leads in order to move them down the marketing funnel.
The nurture stage typically involves automated email sequences, e-courses, and other forms of ongoing communication. Depending on your marketing initiatives, you could send leads educational articles, links to your case studies, and other content that’s meant to help them get to know your company, products, and services.
This is your opportunity to gain people’s trust and “indoctrinate” them into your narrative – getting them to look at things from your point of view.
At Userlike, for example, we strongly believe in "messaging first": that website chat and mobile messaging are the best customer communication channels, and that businesses should prioritize these channels over traditional ones like phone and email.
We back up our philosophy with theory and research, and we communicate it consistently. We don’t just mention this perspective once in one article – they are repeated throughout our communications. They come back in many articles on varying topics. So someone who follows or subscribes to our blog, in a way gets indoctrinated by them. In a positive sense, because what we say is true :)
We encourage you to do something similar. Rather than putting people in uninspired nurture sequences and hoping they convert, use the nurturing stage as a chance to further educate leads about their fields of interest and how your brand fits in.
When you do this well, you’ll not only convert leads into paying customers; you’ll turn people into brand advocates who believe in — and get tremendous results from — your offerings.
If you don't have a well thought-out "narrative" yet, I recommend you to check out the book Building a StoryBrand. Because stories drive the world.
Next up is the conversion stage. Inbound leads are generally easier to convert than outbound leads. Since outbound involves interrupting people to push your brand’s message, convincing them of the value that you bring is an uphill battle.
Well-nurtured inbound leads, on the other hand, will recognize the value of your products and services. As such, the conversion stage typically involves answering any lingering questions and making sure that your products or services are correctly set up for their specific situation.
Our own website chat solution Userlike is often used by businesses ( our customers ) for this conversion stage. Once your leads have been properly nurtured, a certain percentage will be interested in your products or services. At this point they are warm leads, and they will likely have questions specific to your offerings. The on-site and low-barrier nature of chat makes it perfect to catch those leads and guide them to becoming customers.
5Our process for generating inbound leads
Now that we’ve covered the background of inbound lead gen, let’s move on to the ways that you can attract more leads and customers.
Below are some pro inbound lead generation tips to incorporate into your marketing strategy.
Produce high-value content that ranks in search and attracts readers
SEO is a critical component of any good inbound marketing strategy. The best way to get in front of your target audience is to engage them when they’re searching for what you have to offer — i.e., when they’re Googling relevant topics.
That’s why creating high-value SEO content should be a major part of your inbound lead generation strategy.
Do keyword research
The first step to beefing up your SEO strategy is to perform keyword research. There’s no point in creating content if there’s no one searching for the topic or keyword that you’re writing about.
Use keyword research tools like Ahrefs to surface topics that are worth creating content for. The key is to find keywords that have decent search volume but aren’t too competitive. It’s a tricky balance, and it can take some digging to find the search terms.
Ahrefs makes it simple to carry out this process. The software’s overview report displays the keyword’s estimated monthly search volume as well as keyword difficulty score, so you can easily determine if a search term is worth targeting.
Reflect on the topic before looking at other sources
After settling on a topic, the standard tip of many content creators out there is to first research the content that's already out there. I reject that tip. It's probably one of the main reasons why there is so much mediocre content out there.
Instead, at Userlike we always first reflect on the topic. What do we know about it? What are our thoughts on it? Once you've looked at how others do something, it's hard to come up with something unique.
So only after writing down our own thoughts, do we start looking at what external sources have to say on the topic. And instead of searching with what Google has to say, we use trusted sources (e.g. Harvard Business Review, in our case).
Research the content that’s already out there
The next step is to look at the top-performing web pages, and take note of:
- How they address the searcher’s intent
- How the content piece is structured
- Any gaps or shortcomings in the content
Produce unique and insightful content
Use the insights you’ve gained from the previous step to inform the angles, style, and outline of your content piece. From there, you can move on to production.
The right content flow or structure depends on your topic, but as a rule, the webpages that tend to perform well in search results are those that effectively address the reader’s intent. Google determines this using a number of signals, including how long a user stays on the page and whether or not they hit the back button to click another search result.
With that in mind, see to it that the content you produce addresses the needs of your audience. You want them to find what they’re looking for on your website, so they don’t have to search for anything else.
Doing that could mean:
- Producing a comprehensive piece that answers all the reader’s questions
- Weaving in research and data to enlighten readers and offer insights they didn’t previously have
- Adding images, video, or interactive content that encourages readers to stay on the page
Create an irresistible lead magnet that encourages people to provide their info
Lead magnets are another important component of inbound marketing. Lead magnets are resources that entice people to provide their contact information. They can come in the form of ebooks, whitepapers, courses, webinars, and more. The right format depends on your target leads. Tap into your audience and persona data to determine the right lead magnet to produce.
The lead magnets that work well are ones that:
- Address a major pain point of the audience
- Are delivered in a format that appeals to the users
Let’s say you’re a software provider that offers HR tools. Based on your research, you know that your target customers struggle with high employee turnover. And upon further digging, you determine that your audience prefers to consume content via video.
With that in mind, you could decide to create an on-demand webinar tackling the ways that employers can reduce staff turnover.
Leverage multiple channels when promoting your content
Cover your bases when it comes to delivering and promoting your inbound content. It takes a lot of resources to produce inbound marketing assets, so strive to get the most out of them.
Just because an article was created for SEO purposes, it doesn’t mean that it should only be leveraged for search. You can, for example, take that same piece of content and repurpose it by creating images for social media or by using the material in a whitepaper or webinar.
Similarly, you can take your top-performing pieces and drive traffic through channels like Google Ads. Since search ads target users that are searching for specific keywords, they can help you get in front of the right audience and accelerate your inbound lead generation efforts.
Nurture leads with insightful content that reinforces your narrative
Attracting leads is just the first step. See to it that you have systems in place to nurture and convert them at the right time.
A big part of doing that lies in harnessing the data you have about your leads. Who are they? How did they find you? What content pieces did they consume? The answers to these questions should determine the journey of your leads. For example, a prospect who downloaded a case study is likely farther along in their buyer’s journey than someone who subscribed to your blog. As such, these individuals should be nurtured differently.
Inbound lead generation is a strategy that every business should consider. Done right, it allows you to get in front of people who are already looking for your solutions, and are thus more likely to convert.