November 30, 2016

The Evolution of B2B Lead Generation

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Most marketers would agree that B2B lead generation is a nebulous thing. The practice grew out of standard B2C marketing practices, but it has grown over the past several years into a broad, competitive discipline that not only helps companies grow faster, but also self-sustain.

ALSO READ: The Art of Demand Generation Meets the Science of Lead Generation

Modern marketing budgets are on the rise, presumably because companies see a correlation between increased spend and increased ROI. Marketers also have a lot of channels to cover in order to position themselves as leaders, which means more advertising dollars.

But how has the world of B2B lead generation changed over the past 20 years? And where will it go in the next 10? Let’s take a walk.  

1995

The world of marketing in general hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, and B2B lead generation won’t really come into its own until the new millennium, when the Internet becomes a household and workplace staple. B2B marketers are stuck buying leads from other companies and hoping they catch a warm one somewhere. Lots of sales teams go without coffee.

Print media is still a good way to generate leads from lots of sources, especially the Yellow Pages and trade magazines. Print ads, billboards, and direct mail flyers bring in potential clients and introduce new customers to your brand. Unfortunately, you spend a lot of money designing and implementing marketing efforts with minimal ROI.

In a lot of ways, 1995 looks a lot like 1965 for marketers.

In a lot of ways, 1995 looks a lot like 1965 for marketers. Search engines are just beginning to take hold, but only 0.4 percent of the world’s population uses the internet by December 1995, compared to over 50 percent twenty years later. Some brands see the value of the internet and make amazing mid-90s websites you should definitely see. If you’re looking for a nostalgic web search experience, check out 1995’s IFINDIT. Good luck finding anything.

What is the effect on B2B marketing? What we don’t know hurts us. Since there isn’t a lot of data on what works and what doesn’t (how can you track the effectiveness of a Yellow Pages ad?), there also isn’t a reliable system of measurement. The result is a wide top of the funnel with lots and lots of missed opportunities.

2005

By 2005, internet usage is up to 15 percent worldwide, which means companies have been advertising on the web for several years. It’s still the Wild West, though, with ubiquitous spam, unhelpful content, keyword stuffing to get pages to rank on search engines, and no consistent tool for finding reliable information. Google started in 1998, so search engines, rankings, and SEO-driven marketers are still finding their places in this new frontier. Google rolled out paid advertising in 2000, refined their programs, and in 2005 rolled out the Google Advertising Professional program to train marketers.

Right in line with the growth of the internet, email becomes the new newsletter, taking the place of expensive and hard-to-track physical mailings. There are more metrics with email, but the data still leaves a lot to be desired. The prevalence of block-happy spam filters means a lot of permission-based mails are filtered out and blacklisted.

By this time, marketers have discovered more targeted lead generation and use “hover” (pop-up) ads on lead pages. If you don’t know how to code these for yourself, many online companies build them for you. Marketers use these because they yield higher lead capture rates than normal contact pages, but it’s still primitive. Many of these completed forms directed you to a “Thanks for asking! We’ll contact you soon!” page. Dead-ends like these tell consumers they have reached the limit of your online knowledge, and many surf away.

Keyword strategies and corporate blogs are taking off (Merriam Webster named “blog” the word of the year in 2004). Relationship marketing and customer feedback are still king in B2B, as companies continue to use tried-and-true outbound marketing methods (like making cold calls to company stakeholders) for the majority of their leads. Inbound marketing is coined this year by Brian Halligan of HubSpot to describe the practice of using product and niche-specific content to gain leads.

Data doesn’t yet drive the majority of online business decisions. Site hit counters show how many users visit the site, but nothing else. Early tagging analytics companies like Ominture and WebSideStory track site usage by placing JavaScript tags on pages, but this technology is expensive, and not many companies see the value. Google buys Urchin in 2005 to form Google Analytics, but doesn’t release it to the general public until November. It immediately crashes due to overuse.

In 2005, we continue to see marketing and sales departments in separate silos within companies. But things are about to change.

2015

While some marketers still engage through traditional channels like TV, radio, and print, internet advertising has taken off in a big way. To increase data analysis and efficiency, all industries move away from paper and toward digital campaigns. The proliferation of cloud computing gives rise to the software-as-a-service (SaaS) industry, and B2B lead generation explodes.

Another big change in B2B marketing is the rise of the mobile buyer. By 2015, more than 68 percent of U.S. adults use a smartphone, and by mid-2015 Google announces its plans to make mobile-readiness a ranking signal for websites. This means that all website content needs to be mobile-ready, including paid ads. Without it, you’re missing out on 68 percent of the U.S. population (some of whom are so immersed in their phones they get hurt).

Professional marketers and laypeople now have increased access to analytics and data. Shared internet culture is built on the social proof of likes, shares, and replies, and B2B marketing is no different. Marketers hope to strike gold with viral posts and build their audiences with educational thought leadership.

The increased access to data extends to how we market to individuals. Cookies and pixels saved on your computer allow marketers to follow you around the internet, showing you individualized content based on your search and browsing history.

SaaS and machine learning now equip marketers to build complex, automated systems that push leads down the sales funnel and gather more information than ever. Companies collect and buy large amounts of data on prospects, website visitors, and leads, then use this data to build personalized campaigns at scale. This same data also drives high-level decisions about content, go-to-market, and retention strategies. 

The fusion of content management, customer relationship management (CRM), analytics, email marketing, and predictive analysis programs mean marketing teams have an infinite variety of software choices that surpass the wildest dreams of their predecessors — integrated product suites, best-of-breed apps, browser extensions, mobile tools, even apps designed to help integrate other apps.   

Because marketers are able to collect, store, analyze, and automate so much data about their customers and processes, they start to see real differences between B2B and B2C marketing techniques. B2B marketers focus more attention on account-based marketing (ABM), where relationships with multiple contacts at a company help create consensus and bring decision-makers through the funnel.

2025

What can we expect for the next 10 years? Well, Skynet isn’t forecasted to take over until 2029, so lead generation has at least another four years to live. Here are some other possible scenarios for the state of B2B marketing in 2025:

  • Drones provide real-time surveillance of companies and key contacts for ABM strategies. 
  • Robot office mates will run data analysis, office management, and probably accounting departments at peak efficiency. Marketers will have more time for “newsjacking” and lander button optimization. 
  • The internet of things (IoT) including wearables and phones will provide up-to-the minute information about people, including movements, actions, heart rate, digestive health, and reading preferences, gifting us with limitless, if gratuitous, personalization.
  • People will spend most of their time strapped into virtual reality headsets, which will replace televisions and movie theaters with personalized haptic experiences from the privacy of one’s own home. Probably an opportunity for some kind of ABM campaign there. 
  • Retargeting ads and lead generation content will find their way into every portion of our lives, from self-driving cars to our VR headsets.

A Brave New (B2B) World

B2B lead generation has come a long way since 1995, but it still has far to go. We can expect that the workdays of B2B marketing and sales teams will become increasingly data-driven, personalized, and account-focused.

At least until the technological singularity, when our robot overlords no longer need marketing.