June 1, 2016

Qualifying Leads by Applying Friction to the Buyer’s Journey

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Maximizing reach and frequency to expand the prospect pool is the marketing focus at many startups. Once a company matures and begins to scale, however, the focus should shift towards qualifying leads. 

In other words, volume and velocity are beneficial to your pipeline, but so is friction. Without friction, you’ll end up passing boatloads of mildly-qualified leads (at best) to sales. Driving demand and introducing friction are both important tactics, but they apply at different stages of maturity and require a vastly different approach. 

First, let’s look at demand.

The Myth of the Rational Consumer

According to psychologist Dr. Peter Noel Murray, there exists a “myth of the rational consumer.” Murray suggests that while we think the purchase process “involves rational evaluation of a product’s features and attributes … it is perceived emotional end-benefits that make us decide to buy.” According to Murray, brands exist as emotional constructs; if the mental picture of a brand or product is made up of only attributes, features, and other information, there are “no emotional links to influence consumer preference and action.”

In other words, while marketing materials such as case studies, product comparisons, and other fact-laden documents are certainly useful, they are boring. Boring does not sell, if we accept Murray’s theory that emotion, rather than logic, triggers purchase decisions. Take Febreze, for example, which turned its brand around by focusing on three emotional cues: house guests put off by a stinky home, home owners unaware of their home’s odor, and the joy of completing a task (cleaning). Febreze is now worth more than $1 billion.  

The conventional wisdom about using emotional appeal to reach and engage prospects usually centers around the emotional end-benefits your product or service provides your customers. Some of the most successful “clickbait” email subjects or article headlines make it easy for the reader to imagine themselves using your product to solve some problem in their personal or professional lives. As UserOnboard.com puts it, “People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.” They also made this cool graphic:

Super Mario UserOnBoardWhere Emotional Appeal Falls Short

Appealing to your prospects on an emotional level and “selling” a better version of their business will certainly help you generate demand. As people identify with your content and offers, finding little to disagree with, minimal risk, and no obligation, you’ll probably see conversion rates rise.

Does that mean you’re succeeding? Well, kind of. But not really. The real proof is in the fate of those leads after the initial conversion. What happens when they make it to sales? Do they generate opportunities? Yield revenue?

If you’re bombarding your sales team with unqualified leads, you need to stop worshiping at the altar of conversion rate optimization (CRO). In fact, when you work to increase lead quality, there is often a decrease in conversion rates . . . and that’s a good thing (click to tweet). 

According to research from Cirrus Insight, the average salesperson spends more than half of their time on non-sales activities. Don’t waste what little time they spend actually selling by sending them prospects who aren’t ready.

This is a good example of how even conversion rates can be vanity metrics. You may generate a lot of form completions, but if those form completions don’t eventually become sales, your campaign failed. Any initial decline in revenues from a reduction in conversion rates should be offset by an increase in lead velocity and/or deal size.

READ MORE: What to Do When Sales Hates Your MQLs

Applying Friction to the Buyer’s Journey

How, then, do you increase lead quality through a reduction in volume? By applying friction. 

Research and common sense say that gated content on a website reduces conversions, so why do a multitude of successful B2B companies (including TechnologyAdvice) gate, or require a form fill, to access some of their content? Aren’t we supposed to reduce unnecessary friction?

Sure. But the keyword in that sentence is “unnecessary.” Introducing friction can be a good thing, as it is a small way to verify a prospect’s interest in your product. Someone that provides a name, email, and phone number via a web form in order to access a piece of content usually does so because they have a genuine interest in the product described. Most people understand that providing contact information means they’ll be contacted.

In the same vein, we ask users of our Product Selection Tool to answer various questions about their unique situation and the solutions they’re looking for. This, of course, helps us narrow the field, but it also helps ensure those who complete the process are truly interested in a solution. We have to be careful to not introduce too much friction, as we do want some conversions. Finding a happy medium can be tough, but A/B testing will help you identify the proper amount for your process.

Lead Nurturing

Even lead nurturing can be a way to introduce friction. Forrester Research’s oft-quoted statistic, “Companies that excel at lead nurturing generate 50 percent more sales-ready leads at 33 percent lower cost,” can be taken to mean that nurturing increases volume. But separate research from HubSpot suggests that lead nurturing emails have a higher unsubscribe rate than one-off emails. Those leads that churn during the nurturing process probably had no intention of buying in the first place. Hence, the friction of lead nurturing helps you better qualify leads before they reach sales.

READ MORE: 5 Lead Nurturing Best Practices (and Worst Practices)

Sales Enablement

Your sales team knows the types of questions to ask a prospect to determine whether or not they’re a lead — to both increase and decrease conversions. Use those two abilities to work together on sales enablement content, or emails, whitepapers, and other assets your salespeople can use in their process. While many of these assets should focus on the “better version” of your customer your product can deliver, you’ll also need to create content that separates the matched, qualified from the unmatched, unqualified. 

Ask your sales manager, client success managers, and even customer service reps for traits they’ve seen that can be used to identify customers who aren’t a good fit or are likely to churn late in the game. 

* * *

Generating quality leads at volume is the modern marketer’s primary mission. But it’s easy to forget the utility of friction when planning your content calendar, especially since persuasive content is more fun to write and promote. 

Persuasion will always be the primary focus of sales and marketing, but it’s important to balance demand with quality. The funnel is tapered for a reason. Wasting precious sales resources on unqualified leads just to see a better conversion rate or higher MQL total is self-serving for your ego and ruinous for your company.

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