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Webinars a good draw for leads

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When carefully targeted and produced, webinars can be a digital marketer's key lead-gen channel. Many marketers find online presentations, both live and archived, can augment other tactics, including search, e-mail and, most recently, social media.

"Webinars drove the largest proportional amount of our leads in 2009," said Dan Ziman, director of marketing programs at Lithium Technologies, a builder of social communities, blogs and forums for its corporate customers. "We generally have 400 to 800 registrants for every webinar, and 45% to 50% attend."

Beginning in late 2008, the company—which previously had staged webinars only occasionally, when they might support a particular product launch, for example—decided to invest in them regularly.

"Now, we do about two webinars per quarter minimum, putting in the dates and then looking for hot topics and speakers," Ziman said. The company rigorously screens attendees and scores them as potential buyers at particular buying stages before handing them to sales.

"It's extremely cost-effective for us, one of the lowest cost-per-lead channels we have, in the $30 to $50 range," Ziman said. In the year since its webinar series began, he said, Lithium's net new leads increased 20% to 25%.

The role of webinars has changed over time. First seen as a novelty, then as a cost-effective stage for conveying thought leadership and customer solutions, webinars are now increasingly perceived as a lead-generation and lead-qualification platform.

"At first there was a gee-whiz factor about them, and a lot of companies took webinar leads and gave them directly to the sales team to set appointments," said Todd Davison, president of Bulldog Solutions, which provides lead-gen services, primarily via webinars. "But people got sick of getting annoying sales calls after each one. Now, marketers are seeing webinars are part of the buyer's journey, of a contact point on a roadmap."

Davison uses his own webinar services as a marketing tool, but not so much for rounding up any and all prospects. Instead, he said he finds that webinars are more effective deeper in the sales cycle, when attendees are nearer to signing a deal. Used this way, webinars—combined with dynamic nurturing, lead scoring and routing, and an analysis of other prospect behaviors—yield stronger leads.

"Marketing has to be responsive to that," he said. "If you're just jumping into it with the expectation that you'll get 200 people at a webinar to fill up your pipeline, you're setting yourself up for disappointment."

Another aspect of webinars that has matured is its technological capabilities, which are staying abreast of overall marketing trends. While most webinar platforms possess rudimentary reporting—attendee volume, drop-outs, basic engagement, etc.—the leading platforms now can link to marketing automation solutions for deeper dives and lead qualifying.

"Marketing partners can gather Web and e-mail stats, registrations, attendance, live feedback and other interactions, and engagement via surveys," said Maria Pergolino, senior manager-inbound marketing with marketing automation company Marketo. The company's automated solutions can connect via APIs with most webinar platforms, she said.

"And for those people who registered for the webinar but had a conflict and couldn't attend, the marketing automation is sophisticated enough to follow up but not bother them about things they actually did watch," Pergolino said. "Then, it can wait two months and automatically offer a chance to re-engage with the missed webinar on-demand, archived on a Web site."

The picture isn't completely rosy, however. Given the plethora of webinars these days, it isn't altogether surprising that some companies report a decline in attendee registrations.

"In 2009, we saw a slightly lower registration rate, and a very big decrease in attendance-to-registration ratio," said Kristin Hambleton, senior director of marketing for marketing software provider Neolane Inc., of the company's webinar series. "Attendance for us was down 10% to 15% in 2009. There is some fatigue out there."

Hambleton attributes some of the drop-off to the "new normal" mode of companies maintaining productivity with lower staffing, "so people don't have much time anymore," she said.

Nor are all marketers satisfied with webinars as a lead-gen tool when compared with other one-on-one marketing channels.

In its most recent study of the market ("How To Make B2B Webinars Deliver Better Leads"), released in 2009, Forrester Research found that webinar use is on par with inside sales and face-to-face events, but that as an effective lead-generation tool it lags: 33% of marketers said it's highly effective compared with 40% for inside sales and 52% for face-to-face events.

However, this dissatisfaction may be due to marketers' misuse of the channel, wrote Laura Ramos,VP-industry marketing, Xerox Global Services , in the report.

"Marketers use webinars to attract a pack of prospects but leave sales with the job of sorting out the purchasers from the posers," Ramos wrote. Despite some misgivings, many companies report excellent results with webinars as their primary lead-gen tool.

VFM Leonardo Inc., which serves video clips to travel-booking sites on behalf of the company's hotel clients, has found webinars particularly attractive to the general managers and marketing directors at individual properties, said Director of Marketing Shawn De Souza.

"The big thing we try to sell to webinar attendees is that they need to lift themselves out of that list of sameness on Travelocity or Expedia," De Souza said. "We try to explain these concepts by bringing in experts like Forrester Research Travel Analyst Henry Harteveldt."

Interestingly, VFM Leonardo uses its webinars to acquaint completely cold prospects, filling the top of its sales funnel. After the webinar, the company conducts a four- to five-week nurturing program, using e-mail to reach the webcast registrants.

Having staged webinars for a year and a half, De Souza said the tactic has become the company's No. 1 lead-gen approach, and has dramatically shortened sales cycles.

"Our typical sales cycle is six or seven weeks, but some deals have closed in less than a week due to our webinars," he said.

Originally published Jan. 18, 2010

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