Ryan Bednar

By Ryan Bednar (CEO of RankScience)

Still taking a traditional approach to B2B lead generation by creating free, gated content for each stage of the sales funnel? You’re letting potential deals fall between the cracks. Here’s why, and what you should do instead.

How most companies still do B2B lead generation with SEO

For nearly a century, marketers have relied on a B2B lead generation funnel built to drive leads into the sales pipeline and compel them to make a buying decision.

Here’s a quick refresher of how modern marketers try to shape content strategy to a traditional (and mostly fictional) B2B buying process:

 A sample buyer-persona template depicting Sales Director Dani

Meet Dani, director of sales at an enterprise company. She’s your buyer persona –– your only buyer persona. In a traditional B2B marketing funnel, she’s the main decision-maker, who supposedly follows a direct customer journey that looks like this:

Experiencing a problem —> Learning about solutions —-> Deciding which solution to use —> Purchasing product/service

To ensure that your marketing material meets Dani along this journey, your content marketing team creates a strategy that looks like this:

Infographic of the traditional B2B Sales and Marketing Funnel

1. Top of funnel

  • Content: Social media, blog posts, podcasts, videos
  • SEO targeting: Short-tail keywords on general, pain-aware topics (terms like “sales training ideas”)
  • Distribution/Promotion: Social media, SEO, content marketing

Let’s say Dani is planning a sales meeting. After searching for “sales training ideas” on Google, she clicks on a link to a listicle on your blog. A pop-up for a free “Ultimate Sales Training Guide” ebook appears, and Dani signs up for it. She has now entered . . . the funnel zone.

2. Middle of funnel

  • Content: White papers, webinars, thought leadership
  • SEO targeting: Long-tail keywords on specific, solution-aware topics (terms like “enterprise sales training tools”)
  • Distribution/Promotion: Email lists, SEO, PPC, demand generation, ad retargeting

Once Dani reads your ebook (which extols the importance of choosing the right software for remote sales management), she researches “enterprise sales training tools for remote teams.”

She receives an invite from your company to a webinar: How Our CEO Used Remote Sales Training Tools to Grow Enterprise Customer Revenue by 10x.

She signs up. Dani has converted from “lead” to “marketing-qualified lead.”

3. Bottom of funnel

  • Content: Sales enablement material, case studies, proposals, product comparisons
  • SEO targeting: Brand-centered keywords on product-aware topics (terms like “Gong vs. Lessonly”)
  • Distribution: Account-based marketing (ABM), email outreach, blog, review sites

Your marketing team passes Dani’s contact info to the sales team for a postwebinar follow-up. Dani responds to an outreach email by scheduling a consultation. The sales rep follows up with recommendations, a case study, and a proposal.

Dani decides to sign up. Congrats! You have a new customer.

Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is.

How does this funnel actually work for B2B lead generation today?

If you ask anyone involved in buying decisions with a company –– even a small business –– they’ll tell you that the path to a purchase is nowhere near as simple as the B2B lead generation funnel.

According to HubSpot, 65% of businesses today say generating traffic and leads is their biggest marketing challenge. Nearly half of businesses — 48% — say that nurturing a lead into a sale is a long cycle with many influencers.

In other words, in most B2B purchases, Dani is just one member of a group of people who take a meandering path toward a buying decision.

And, as you’ll see in a moment, that path looks nothing like a funnel.

Why most B2B leads don’t turn into sales

In 2019, Gartner released a report that revealed the new reality of the B2B buying journey. The bottom line: the traditional B2B lead generation funnel reflects a buying process that no longer exists (if it ever truly did).

It also ultimately serves the needs of the sales team rather than the needs of the customer, which goes against the values of customer-centered marketing.

Here are some of the hard truths that we need to face as marketers:

1. The typical buying group for a B2B solution involves 6 to 10 decision-makers.

Six members of a B2B buying group: CTO Tina, IT Director Devon, VP of Operations Olivia, Sales Director Dani, Customer Success Manager Carey, Field Rep Frank

That’s right: Dani has at least five other coworkers and supervisors who need to be a part of the decision to buy for your product. Each person has four to five pieces of information they’ve gathered independently.

At some point, this group, armed with a stack of content and faced with an overwhelming amount of options, has to find a way to come to a consensus.

No wonder more than three-quarters of B2B customers describe their purchasing process as “very complex.”

2. Each stakeholder performs multiple jobs within the buying group.

Gartner research identified six B2B buying “jobs.” These are the activities that customers say they need to fulfill either individually or as a group before they can finalize a purchase. In a buying group, each job isn’t exclusive to one person— a group member can perform all six jobs while another only performs one:

Alt text: B2B buying jobs as reported by Gartner Source

  • Problem identification: Company experiences pain. “We need to do something.”
  • Solution exploration: Buying group researches possible solutions. “What’s out there to solve our problem?”
  • Requirements-building: Buying group does internal needs assessment. “What exactly do we need the purchase to do?”
  • Supplier selection: Buying group evaluates products/services. “Does this do what we want it to do?”
  • Validation: Buying group tests their hypothesis for how to solve the problem. “We think we know the right answer, but we need to be sure.”
  • Consensus creation: Buying group seeks agreement/approval on next steps “We need to get everyone on board.”

These jobs may resemble the phases of the traditional funnel, but keep in mind that all of this can happen simultaneously and more than once before making a buying decision.

3. B2B buying journeys don’t play out in a linear path from “top to bottom.”

The same Gartner report shows that the B2B buying journey is more complicated than ever. Customers loop around from stage to stage, referring back to content and sharing it with more members of the group. They seek to deconflict, build consensus, and get buy-in from one another through the entire process. The B2B sales process looks less like a funnel, and more like the flight path of a hummingbird.

Alt-text: A modern nonlinear B2B buyer’s journey from start to purchase decision, as illustrated by Gartner
Source

4. B2B buying activities aren’t performed in order of “importance.”

A B2B buying group distributes its time fairly evenly between activities while working simultaneously. While one person may be learning more about a problem offline at a conference, another member of the buying group could be meeting with potential suppliers and then doing further online research.

Alt-text: The distribution of time between buying activities
Source

Distribution of buying groups’ time:

  1. Researching independently online: 27%
  2. Meeting with buying group: 22%
  3. Researching independently offline: 18%
  4. Meeting with potential suppliers: 17%
  5. Other activities: 16%

How to evolve your B2B lead generation strategy for today’s buyer journey

It’s time to adopt a more realistic, helpful way of meeting buyers where they are. Here are some ways your organization can adapt to the new reality.

No more lead handoffs from marketing to sales (and later, sales to customer success)

Almost all (90%) of all buyers reported revisiting‚ or looping back to at least one job as part of their overall purchasing process. That means they interact with marketing and sales multiple times before making a buying decision, and customer success isn’t introduced until they’ve agreed to a purchase.

From the customer’s perspective, getting passed like a baton from marketing to sales and then to customer success means repeating the same conversations again and again. It also means more surprises that lead to uncertainty and eventually churn. For example, sales may promise a capability that customer success ultimately can’t support.

It’s more important than ever that your marketing, sales, and customer success teams work in tandem from the beginning of the journey. Rather than acting like a relay team, they can approach the customer relationship as a group of advisers/consultants that guide buying groups and connect them with resources.

Customer success platform Vitally advises introducing Customer Success early in the sales process to make buying jobs easier and to make the transfer of responsibility as seamless as possible once a deal closes.

“The fear of a complicated implementation process is a significant obstacle for some prospects to overcome,” says Kevin Fu, head of revenue at Vitally. “CSMs have been through it all and can explain to the potential customer, with firsthand knowledge, what the implementation will look like.”

Determine what type of buying group you need to sell to

 Three levels of buying scenarios: committee, consensus, independent

While Gartner reports that a committee of 6 to 10 participants makes larger B2B purchase decisions, Forrester’s SiriusDecisions has observed there are different types of buying journeys, depending on the complexity of the purchase and the culture of the industry you’re targeting.
image.png Source

Committee

  • Executive leadership makes the buying decision.
  • A group of 6–10 stakeholders develops a purchase recommendation for executive leadership.
  • There are five or more roles within the buying group (e.g., initiator, gatekeeper, influencer, user, decider, buyer).
  • The purchasing time frame can take more than two quarters.

Consensus

  • Multiple teams, functions, or departments need to agree to buying decision.
  • The buying group is three to five people from various teams/functions.
  • They perform three or four buying roles (e.g., initiator, decider, buyer, user).
  • The purchasing time frame is one to two quarters.

Independent

  • An individual makes the buying decision.
  • The buying group is one or two people.
  • They perform one or two buying roles. (i.e., buyer, user).
  • The purchasing time frame is eight weeks or less.

Create personas of everyone in the buying group