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Subscribers to Free Content are NOT Leads

I’ve heard some of my manufacturing clients call their subscribers to free content leads. I’ve also read articles by other industrial marketers where they recommend using free content to generate new leads.

That is good advice and it is a proven tactic for inbound marketing. However, I do have a problem with classifying these new subscribers as leads.

IMO, these people have merely raised their hands to indicate some interest in your company, content and the free offer. They are prospects by my definition.

Let’s face it; you are going to get a few sign ups just because it is free. They found your content interesting and valuable but are not likely to become customers ever. Some of them may even be your competition.

Visitors who sign up to download your white papers, eBooks and other free content definitely grow your list of contacts but calling them leads without taking the next step is premature at best if not a costly mistake.

The step I’m referring to is ranking these new contacts and segmenting them according to pre-defined scores. This is a critical step in making your lead generation and management an objective, quantitative process instead of a purely qualitative exercise.

Developing an effective scoring system requires marketing to work closely with sales. A close alignment between sales and marketing is crucial to your success, and lead scoring is a step that brings the two together. (See SAL is the Glue that Binds Sales and Marketing in Lead Generation).

Lead scoring should be done using a combination of BANT (Budget, Authority, Need and Timeframe) and behavioral information (site interactions). Sales knows best about demographics and marketing has insights into visitor engagement through web analytics.

Sales and marketing must agree on a numerical score that a prospect must reach in order for him/her to be ranked as a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) before being handed off to sales for follow up action for conversion.

Subscribers that score below the SQL threshold need to be put on a lead nurturing track. I would suggest taking this a step further and creating two separate tracks.

Track 1 should be for those prospects that you believe are good early stage non-SQL leads. Send them valuable content that will help to move them to the next step until they are sales ready. One example would be inviting them to a webinar. It will give you the opportunity to interact with them at a more personal level than just passive reading of a white paper on their part.

Track 2 should be for nurturing those prospects who meet your general demographics but have not scored high enough to receive content meant for the middle of the funnel such as case studies, application notes and product comparison guides. Add them to your monthly eNewsletter list and continue to monitor their interactions and adjust their scores accordingly.

Depending on your situation, you may need a full-blown Marketing Automation (MA) package or you could get by with a manual system using Excel spreadsheets, Google Analytics and auto responders from your email service provider (ESP).

The key takeaway here is that you may be making a very costly mistake if you treat all new subscribers to free content as leads. You will need some sort of lead scoring to rank and segment them if you want to maximize your lead generation ROI.


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