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Leads: The Next Generation

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Anxious to connect the dots between their marketing efforts and sales—and thereby quantify their role in revenue growth and business success—b-to-b marketers increasingly are focusing on lead generation and lead quality. And they are turning to their media partners for help.

"It's all about accountability," said Tom Gensch, chief growth officer at Cygnus Business Media. "Clients want to measure the results their advertising spending is bringing them."

Even though lead generation, on its own, may not be as useful as some marketers seem to think, most b-to-b publishers have given up trying to argue with their clients' demands. Among the drawbacks: Contact information is a precursor to a lead, not a lead itself; and huge numbers of leads are useless if salespeople can't handle them. "Lead gen is right for the customers who are set up to reap the benefits," said Doug MacDonald, executive director of online sales development at Penton Media. If they don't have a CRM system to follow up on the leads, they won't get results."

Even among clients seeking leads, there are variants. "There's a tension right now between the lead-generation model designed to generate a mass quantity of leads and programs that target specific types of leads," said Warren Bimblick, senior VP of Penton's Financial Services & Marketing Media Group.

Part of the problem may be what's being measured, said Dan Hirsh, VP-online development and custom media at IDG's Network World. "Most marketing groups are still being measured on lead generation, not lead conversion," he said. "But they are getting a backlash from sales." And although it's not yet widespread, "marketers are starting to ask for a number of leads against a particular demographic profile," he added.

Stacy Money, director of custom media for the 1105 Government Information Group, is responsible for many of the company's lead-generation initiatives. "Vendors are finding it more and more difficult to find decision-makers," she said. "They're looking to us for lead and inquiry capture more than ever before."

Because government purchases tend to involve groups and committees rather than a single decision-maker, Money said vendors "are looking for more targeted demographics." She added, though, that they are not asking for lead scoring yet.

If the first generation of lead generation was about lead volume, the next, now dawning, will be about quality.

For example, generating a big list of names of people interested in a particular topic—whether or not they have the intent or ability to buy—may not take much more effort than posting a white paper or conducting a webinar. But locating prospects for a b-to-b product or service who are decision-makers with purchasing authority requires a very different process. It involves weeding out the unqualified, harvesting the hot leads and nurturing the rest.

Another key component is developing relationships with potential buyers so that they voluntarily provide information about their purchasing role, requirements, budgets and time frames.

"What we're really doing is using media to move prospects through the sales cycle, so that we can qualify and prioritize high-value leads for the marketer," Hirsch said." Like many others, he pointed out that multiple types of media have roles in the lead-generation process.

"Research has shown that print is best for raising brand awareness," Hirsch said. "Online is for researching and comparing solutions. Live events allow prospects to ask final, individualized questions. We see the various media working together all the time in our metrics."

Jeff DeBalko, chief Internet officer at Reed Business Information and president of Reed Business Interactive, summarized the impact on his media company this way: "As the marketplace becomes more sophisticated about lead generation and ROI, there's a rapid move toward quality in everything we do."

But as clients drive to obtain more leads, it's the b-to-b publisher's responsibility to apply the brakes when necessary.

"There are ramifications to using a lead-generation strategy," Hirsch said. "For example, if vendors aren't set up to follow up with leads quickly—within 48 hours, according to third-party research—they can actually tarnish their reputations."

Publishers can avoid downstream problems with their clients by clarifying what the word "lead" means to each client and for each program. "As publishers, we need to become more sophisticated," Bimblick said. "It's incumbent upon us to ask questions and find out what clients are looking for in a lead."

In many ways, lead-generation programs give b-to-b media companies an opportunity to shine, Bimblick added. "It's a core capability of b-to-b media to take a large mass audience and filter it down to find our customers' clients," he said.

Moving content to the forefront

As advertisers gravitate toward lead generation, an entire industry has emerged to provide lead services. Among those involved are vertical search engines, online directories, advertising agencies, consultancies and software companies. As a result, b-to-b media companies are relying more than ever on their content-creation capabilities and marketplace insight to differentiate themselves from the pack.

"We're definitely finding that the content has to be better than ever before to cut through the clutter," Bimblick said. "Whether it's a webinar, a white paper or a blog—it better be compelling."

"Content drives engagement," DeBalko agreed. "This is even more important in lead generation than in advertising." He said the more the content is targeted to a small, specialized niche, the more likely the prospect will trade personal information to receive it.

"In our case, we have people who understand how to create great content and who also have deep knowledge of the vertical markets," DeBalko said.

A lead-generation program that incorporates multiple media to spin out qualified leads is costly to implement. So how are b-to-b publishers charging for these programs?

For the time being, they have shied away from pay-for-performance programs such as cost-per-lead (CPL) and cost-per-action (CPA).

But DeBalko, for one, expects to see the more sophisticated marketers moving in that direction. "I think it's inevitable that this model will become more prevalent as lead generation matures," he said.

Among the media companies interviewed for this report, only one has been involved in this type of program—and it was a print, rather than online, advertising program.

"We tested a new paradigm: performance payment," Cygnus' Gensch said. The client, a large financial institution, paid a fee for each lead that connected it to the elusive small-and-midsize business segment, he said. "We also offered a corporate buy across the breadth of our publications, which in itself is unusual," he said.

The CPA campaign came out of a partnership between Cygnus and ID Media, a direct response-services company. Gensch said the test went well enough that Cygnus plans to pitch similar programs next year.

At 1105 Government Information Group, Money said, "We don't do CPL. We prefer to put together an integrated program with a target number of leads, but we never guarantee a number."

SourceMedia is not offering CPL programs, said Anne O'Brien, exec VP-marketing and strategic planning. "We don't have the information ourselves to ascertain the client's CPL. Also, we have no control of how the client follows up."

On the other hand, O'Brien now has enough experience to feel confident about making some types of guarantees. "Over the last three years, we've built up enough of a history that we can say, `Providing you follow our direction, we can guarantee X number of leads.' But the program is still designed as a package that costs `x dollars' for all the components."

The package includes branding and exposure for the sponsors through a promotional program that includes print advertising, banner advertising and e-mail blasts. "Even though the client's goal may be lead generation, the total program will also provide reach and frequency," O'Brien said.

Using events to capture live leads

Although white papers and webinars are by far the most popular content types used for lead generation, custom live events are gaining traction.

The live events are typically tied to a product launch or a new service. "These are held in multiple cities, and we invite a very, very targeted group of people," said SourceMedia's O'Brien. "In most cases, the sponsoring company is using us as a conduit, so it's branded by them.

1105 Government Information Group's Money said she is having success with live events. "One trend we're seeing is the use of custom events to capture registrants," she said. "Our custom events business has increased 35% over last year."

Even in print, b-to-b publishers are not immune to the demand for lead generation.

At ALM's legal division, print advertising, not online, is still the primary buy for law firms, said Steve Lincoln, VP- advertising and national group publisher for the division.

But that doesn't mean these advertisers aren't interested in obtaining leads. In conjunction with Intelligent Data Services, ALM launched a program last year that uses telemarketing to gather purchasing authority and intent, time frames and focus directly from subscribers. Leads are passed along to advertisers based on the purchasing categories in which readers have expressed interest.

"Webinars are the first step into online lead generation," Lincoln said. "We've seen an increase in interest in webinars, and we will be doing a lot more with digital media in general in 2008 and beyond."

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