Lead generation: What it is and how to master it

Figuring out how to generate leads is almost as hard as converting them. Use this comprehensive guide to lead generation to pack your sales pipeline with quality prospects.

By Patrick Grieve

Published April 16, 2021
Last updated April 16, 2021

Sales reps know nothing’s harder than patiently nurturing a lead, establishing a relationship with them, and carefully converting them into a customer—nothing, of course, except finding a good lead in the first place.

Lead generation is often a huge challenge for sales and marketing professionals. But it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools and advice, anyone can become an expert in how to generate leads.

What is lead generation?

Lead generation definition: Lead generation is the process of initiating interest in your company’s products or services. Various advertising, marketing, and sales strategies can be used to spark interest and generate leads.

Lead generation is all about creating more leads for sales reps to pursue—something that’s easier said than done. While lead gen may seem pretty straightforward, it encompasses a wide array of strategies. There are many different ways to entice potential customers and various ways to qualify potential leads.

To get a handle on it all, let’s start by answering a pretty basic question: What’s a lead?

“Generally speaking, a lead is someone who has potentially expressed interest in your company or appears to be a good fit,” explains Josh Bean, Zendesk’s senior director of product marketing. “It could be someone who filled out a form on your website or someone [whose information] you bought from a list. Usually, a lead is at least an email address, first name, last name, and phone number.”

Getting leads

You can generate leads organically or buy them from another company. While paid leads can be worthwhile, there are some downsides to that approach. In addition to the expense, paid leads haven’t shown any interest in your brand, so your outreach efforts are more likely to be ignored.

If you’re not paying for leads, though, you need to somehow convince people to willingly share their contact information with your company. That responsibility usually falls on your marketing team; it’s their job to create content and materials that will encourage potential customers to complete each step in the lead generation process:

  1. First, a consumer becomes aware of your business through a marketing channel. That could be by reading one of your blog posts, visiting your website, or interacting with your social media accounts.
  2. Next, the consumer follows a call to action (CTA), or an image or message that encourages the reader to click on it in exchange for some offer. Your CTA could be a link to a downloadable piece of gated content or a big “Start free trial” button on a web page.
  3. After clicking on the CTA, the consumer is presented with a lead generation form that they must fill out to access the offer. These forms will typically ask for personal details such as the individual’s name, profession, company, contact information, and so on.
  4. Once they’ve filled out the form, the prospect is able to access whatever the CTA offered. That could be valuable information, such as an ebook or exclusive data report. It could be useful content, like free templates or courses. Or, it could be a free trial of the product or service you provide. The type of offer that a lead pursues can tell you a lot about their level of intent.

Qualifying leads

After capturing a lead’s information, the marketing team is able to qualify them. This qualification process often involves lead scoring, or assigning points to a lead based on the demographic or firmographic details they provide.

Companies often develop lead scoring models that reflect their ideal customer profiles. So, if a B2B company typically targets businesses of a certain size, type, or industry, that should be reflected in their criteria. For example, if SMB leads convert for a B2B company at a higher rate than enterprises do, then that company might assign more points to a business with fewer than 500 employees.

Similarly, a lead’s job title likely reflects their decision-making power, so a C-level executive would be scored higher than a mid-level manager. And because certain actions imply more interest than others, a lead who starts a free trial would score higher than one who only downloads a white paper. (Other types of web activity, such as visiting a pricing page, can also be scored.)

Scoring systems can help marketing teams determine whether or not a lead is qualified. If a lead scores high enough, they become a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) and are passed on to the sales team to become a Sales Accepted Lead (SAL).

Bean explains, “Marketing basically says, ‘We think this person is a good fit—sales, do you think this is a good fit?’ And then sales typically says, ‘Yes, this is a good fit,’ after qualifying it further with bands like budget, authority, need, and timing.”

A lead becomes a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) once it’s been determined that the lead can be contacted by a sales rep. Leads often become SQLs by doing something that indicates a strong interest in a company’s product or service. For example, if a lead starts a product trial or fills out a form asking specific questions about the product, they’re usually ready for a rep to reach out to them.

Tracking leads with a sales CRM can help automate a great deal of the lead generation process and prevent any prospects from falling through the cracks. A CRM will also track the number of MQLs that are successfully converting into SALs and SQLs. The conversion rate is a good indicator of your lead scoring method’s effectiveness.

Bean recommends measuring your company’s conversion metrics but cautions against comparing them to industry benchmarks. “The reality is, you can find numbers all over the place because everyone defines their MQLs, SALs, and SQLs slightly differently,” he says. “So, you have to take it with a grain of salt.”

How lead generation fits into the customer journey

Developing a successful lead generation strategy requires a deep understanding of your buyer’s journey.

The customer journey charts all the experiences a consumer has with your company. That encompasses every single interaction—including ones that happen before they’re even a customer. It’s a journey that begins with awareness of your brand, eventually leads to purchase, and continues for as long as they remain loyal customers.

Many businesses use customer journey mapping to outline a consumer’s arc with their company. These can be extremely intricate flowcharts that take every possible pathway into account or be something as simple as a sales funnel.

The five-stage sales funnel

What matters most is understanding how customers tend to interact with your brand at each stage of the journey—lead generation is all about getting potential buyers to take those first steps.

“In the early stages of the customer journey, a buyer is typically just looking for general information,” Bean says. “They’re looking at a brand and asking, ‘Can they do what I need? Are they within the right price point? Are they good at what they do?’ ”

It’s up to your company to decide how and where to best answer those questions. The information could be provided through your website experience, blog posts, social media, or (most likely) a combination of channels.

“You typically want to be where your audience is,” explains Bean. “So, if I’m selling a B2C product, I want my lead gen to be very social based—probably Instagram, Facebook, and (if I have the budget) ads. If I’m a B2B, maybe my strategy is more focused on LinkedIn or on direct outreach through email.”

Lead generation is focused on piquing a potential buyer’s interest and giving them reasons to investigate further. This is typically accomplished through a variety of methods.

“I like to think about lead generation on a channel basis,” Bean says. “Because most people will say, ‘Oh, I want inbound marketing, let’s just turn it on.’ But the reality is that all the channels work together. So, it’s a combination of having good search engine optimization (SEO) and ranking for posts, and then once someone reads that post, having some kind of gated content that pertains to that topic. You want to continuously drive them until they’re a Marketing Qualified Lead.”

How to generate leads through blogs, email, web, and social media channels

Generating leads through social media, email, web, and blogs

Lead generation marketing is the way you draw in prospects and get them on your landing page. There are multiple promotional channels you can use for lead gen, but they should all have one thing in common:

“Before you even think about the channels, first you need to decide on the core topic you want your brand to stand for and rank for,” Bean advises. “For example, at Zendesk, we want to take a stand on sales pipeline management. So, I would start by deciding what I want my foundational piece on sales pipeline management to be, and then write it. Then, I’d have to ask: How do I apply this to different channels? If I’m using social media, maybe it’s 20 different tweets that I’m going to post with small snippets. If it's a video, maybe I’m going to adapt this thought leadership piece into a YouTube clip. If it’s organic [search], maybe there are specific key pages I need to break out and try to rank for.”

What matters most is solidifying the message before you start distributing it. Then, be sure to stay on-message across your channels. That way, no matter how a potential buyer interacts with your brand, it all funnels back to the same core idea.

How to generate leads through blogs

Content is a great way to get your target audience’s attention. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2020 B2B Benchmarks Report, 70 percent of B2B brands use content marketing to generate leads.

You can start a blog and publish useful advice articles that cover topics relevant to your customer base. Put some time and effort into keyword optimization, and you may be able to rank well for your chosen search terms.

Blogs are easy to share on social media, too. B2Bs might ask employees to promote pieces on LinkedIn, while B2C businesses can share content on Twitter and Facebook.

Additionally, blogs and CTAs go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Imagine a survey software provider writes a piece on how to conduct employee engagement surveys; it wouldn’t be hard for them to work in a CTA for a trial of their own software. It’s pretty common for a blog to conclude with a sales pitch—though that shouldn’t be the only place the CTA appears.

Blogs and CTAs go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

“When you put in your product CTAs, don’t just leave one at the very bottom of the piece,” Bean cautions. “You should also include one somewhere in the top third of the content because only a fraction of people will read the article all the way to the end.”

Bean also recommends developing a robust internal linking strategy. Referencing and linking to other articles on your site will flesh out your content and entice visitors to linger longer.

“When you go to Wikipedia to read a random article, you could easily go through that site forever because every single article is linked,” he says. “And that’s helpful for the user if they want to learn more.”

Including search bars can also make your blog easier to navigate. Overall, it’s beneficial if you try to present your articles the way a media company would.

“If your objective is to get views and tell stories and get people to engage, you need to build out your site to accomplish that,” Bean explains. “So, don’t approach it as a library—make it look like the sites that people already use to consume content. Let CNBC, Yahoo, or ESPN do all the work on UX patterns and how to structure data, and apply that to your own blog.”

How to generate leads through email

Generating leads through email

When it comes to using email for lead generation, there are two different strategies: outbound and inbound.

Outbound emails are messages you send to potential customers who haven’t asked you to contact them. Because these are unsolicited emails, they can easily be ignored or dismissed as spam. But there are some ways to make “cold emails” stand out in a crowded inbox as well as free templates you can follow.

Inbound emails, on the other hand, are messages you send to leads who have expressed some interest in your brand. If a consumer, for example, requests a demo or signs up for a newsletter, they have essentially opted in to receiving inbound emails. That naturally makes them a more receptive audience, though you may still have to compete for their attention.

“For inbound emails, think about what kind of value you can add to your email list,” Bean recommends. “For example, let’s say I have a bunch of executives I’m targeting with my software. Maybe instead of just sending a monthly newsletter with all my top posts for the month, I try to provide something more relevant. If I know that they’re going to be doing a ton of planning going into Q1, maybe I can make a planning template for them.”

The trick is to think about the specific pain points that your target audience is experiencing, then position yourself as a thought leader on that subject or provide a helpful resource they can use.

“You can also test messaging through email,” Bean adds. “For example, you can test different subject lines to see which has the higher open rate. You can even test value propositions because you know that you have an email list that represents your target market. So if you’re wondering what your website’s slogan should be, for example, that’s another way to A/B test it—just look at open rates to see what resonates.”

How to generate leads through social media

Social media platforms have become hugely important to companies over the last decade. Businesses can use social to gauge feedback and public perception, provide convenient customer service, and promote their brand identity.

Most platforms make it easy to include a CTA in your post. Instagram Stories have a swipe-up option, and tweets can include short Bitly links for viewers to click on. Social media is also useful for promoting other lead generation channels, such as blog posts and downloadable content.

The challenge? Calling attention to your social media posts. “With social, you’ve got your organic content and you’ve got your paid content,” Bean explains. “Lots of platforms stifle your organic reach, so you have to pay to promote it. The best success I’ve seen on social media is when you can actually bring your audiences there.”

Businesses can use social to gauge feedback and public perception, provide convenient customer service, and promote their brand identity.

For example, if someone visits your website, you can use cookies to target them through social media. Then, they’ll see your brand’s posts while they’re looking at Twitter or Instagram, which will drive more awareness.

“Basically, someone visits your website, and you automatically start advertising to them,” says Bean. “That’s a lot cheaper than saying, ‘Hey, LinkedIn, show this ad to a thousand sales leaders.’ So, having the channels play together like that is very useful.”

Getting employees involved is another great way to spread your brand’s reach and help put a face to the content. “This is where Gong does a really nice job,” says Bean, praising the revenue intelligence platform. “When they write a new blog post, employees will share it first on LinkedIn, which makes it feel more personal. The company won’t share it until a couple of days later.”

That approach helps Gong better target an audience of potential leads while also establishing their employees as thought leaders in the community.

How to generate leads through web experience

Generating leads through email

Your company’s website can be a pretty big lead generation channel of its own.

For starters, your site is usually where you host blogs, landing pages, and gated content. But it’s also likely to feature pricing pages, product descriptions, customer testimonials, and other content relevant to interested leads. All those pages are ripe for simple CTAs, such as “Download a free trial,” “Talk to sales,” or “Book a meeting.” (Try to avoid “Contact us,” which sounds too vague to work as a direct CTA.)

In terms of web copy, Bean believes companies shouldn’t shy away from the competition.

“Sometimes, folks are scared to talk about their competitors on their website,” he says. “I understand that, but it’s not like if you don’t mention your biggest competitor, visitors will never find out about them. It’s better to confront it head on and have an honest conversation about what makes you different or better. That way, you can set the narrative rather than letting your competitor set it.”

He recommends being similarly upfront about pricing and packaging.

“It used to be the sellers who held all the power,” Bean adds. “They could say to buyers, ‘If you want pricing, references, or reviews, you need to fill out this form and go through my sales process.’ But now the power is flipped, and buyers will often say, ‘I know how much you cost, I know what plan I need, and I’ve already seen the reviews. Can you just send me the contract?’ ”

It’s important to recognize this new dynamic and create a web experience that caters to the customer’s perspective and need for information.

Create lead gen forms that minimize friction

One of the biggest hurdles to clear in lead generation is getting prospects to fill out a lead capture form.

A typical lead capture form

A typical lead capture form.

Not only do some people hate sharing personal information, but many are also annoyed at the “extra step” of having to complete a form just to receive an offer. And while businesses want to get as many details as possible, longer forms just further test a lead’s patience.

Fortunately, there are a few tactics that can keep leads from bailing. Progressive forms, for example, are a great way to coax more information out of potentially hesitant leads.

Bean explains, “A progressive form will start by asking questions that are really easy, like: What’s your company’s name and how many people work there? Then, the questions start to get a little bit more in-depth, until finally the form asks for your email and phone number.”

At that point, people are so pot committed that they’re willing to share their contact info rather than walk away.

Or, you can take the opposite approach and rely on form enrichment, which asks visitors only for their email address and then fills out the rest for them.

“[A tool like] Clearbit can help with this a lot,” says Bean. “If someone only enters their email address, there’s a lot of information out there for enriching their title, role, company size, and other details. So the form hides those additional fields, unless it can’t enrich any of them, in which case the person will be prompted to fill the fields out.”

With form enrichment, leads only feel like they’re handing over their email address, but your company is still capturing all the information it needs.

Do more with lead generation software

To best capture, organize, track, and engage leads, your company should utilize a powerful CRM. Zendesk collects demographic, firmographic, and channel information about leads, so it can automatically assign a numerical score to identify MQLs and SQLs. And with Zendesk’s lead generation and engagement tool, you can create targeted prospect lists that will help you identify potential buyers. You can even automate customized email sequences and cadences for different lead types at different stages of the sales cycle.

The lead gen process may have a lot of moving parts, but it gets easier once you put them all in one place. Start reaching more leads than ever before and see how your company grows.