Lead generation 101: The guide to generating sales leads
Figuring out how to generate leads can be almost as hard as converting them. Learn everything you need to know about lead generation with our comprehensive guide—and watch your sales pipeline fill up with high-quality leads.
Published April 16, 2021
Last updated October 24, 2022
Trying to earn a sale without generating a good lead is like expecting a garden to grow without watering the seeds. Sales reps must patiently nurture their leads, cultivate the relationships, and watch them sprout into customers.
With so many different ways to qualify potential leads and attract prospects, lead generation can quickly become overwhelming—but it doesn’t have to be.
Put on your gloves, grab your watering can, and follow along as we shine some sunlight on the basics of lead generation. Our guide offers valuable tips, examples, and strategies to help you earn your green thumb—and ensure your sales flourish.
- What is lead generation?
- What is a lead? Types of qualified leads
- Inbound lead generation vs. outbound lead generation
- How lead generation works: 4-step process overview
- Lead generation examples: How to do it across channels
- Lead generation outsourcing
- How to create the most effective lead gen strategies for your business
- Tips for generating leads
- What comes next? How to qualify a lead
- How lead generation tools and an end-to-end CRM can simplify the process
What is lead generation?
Lead generation is the process of initiating interest in your products or services. The purpose is to generate high-quality leads to fill your sales pipeline, giving you a constant flow of leads who are primed and ready to buy.
Ultimately, lead generation is meant to make a sales rep’s job as easy as possible. The benefit of having a lead generation approach should be obvious—it’s easier to sell if your sales pipeline is populated with people who are genuinely interested in your offerings.
Why is lead generation important?
Without sales leads, it’s hard to maximize your revenue and grow your business. Lead generation builds relationships, trust, and credibility between your brand and potential customers.
The goal is to attract prospects organically. When consumers initiate the relationship with your business, it makes for a more natural transition from prospect to customer. With a proper strategy, you can drive more prospects to your brand, resulting in more revenue.
What is a lead? Types of qualified leads
“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.”
That’s all you need—a few contact details, and suddenly a stranger becomes a lead. There are four types of leads:
- Marketing qualified leads (MQLs): MQLs are passive leads that are likely to make a purchase once a relationship has been formed. They’ve usually shown interest and engaged with your company through a call to action, like subscribing to a newsletter or downloading content.
- Product qualified leads (PQLs): Product qualified leads are prospects who’ve used your product—usually from a free trial or free version—and expressed interest in taking the next steps to upgrade.
- Sales qualified leads (SQLs): SQLs are active leads that have engaged directly with your company through their channel of choice and demonstrated interest in your product or service. SQLs should be prioritized and fast-tracked through your sales funnel.
- Service qualified leads: Service qualified leads are prospects who have advised your service team that they’re ready to upgrade. These types of leads should be passed off to the sales team immediately for conversion.
Inbound lead generation vs. outbound lead generation
Email marketing is another common lead generation strategy. There are two methods for capturing a lead via email: inbound and outbound.
Inbound lead generation is where the lead comes to you. This involves creating content and an advertising strategy to attract consumers to your products or services and entice them to initiate contact.
Features and techniques to attract inbound leads can include:
- SEO and content marketing
- Social media marketing
- Landing pages
- Web forms
- Visitor tracking
Although inbound lead generation naturally has a more receptive audience, you may still have to compete for attention. If prospects are finding you and reaching out, they’re probably engaging with your competitors, too.
Outbound lead generation involves contacting potential customers who might be unaware of your product or service. Because these are unsolicited emails and calls, outbound leads can easily ignore or dismiss them. But there are some ways to make “cold emails” stand out in a crowded inbox, as well as free templates you can follow.
Standard outreach methods include:
- Pay-per-click (PPC) ads
- Direct mail
- Email automation
- Cold calling
- Sales prospecting emails
- Sales dialer
- Contact management software
- Sales CRM
How lead generation works: 4-step process overview
Generating your own leads requires convincing people to willingly share their contact information with your organization. That responsibility usually falls on your marketing team. It’s their job to produce content and materials that will encourage potential customers to complete each step in the lead generation process:
- Awareness: The consumer becomes aware of your business through a marketing channel. They may have read your blog posts, visited your website, or interacted with your social media accounts.
- Call to action: The consumer follows a call to action (CTA), which is usually an image or message that encourages them to click on it in exchange for a special offer—your lead magnet. Your CTA could be a link to a downloadable piece of gated content or a big “Start free trial” button on a web page.
- Lead capture: Once they click on the CTA, the visitor will see the lead capture form, which they must fill out before accessing the lead magnet.
- Access: After they fill out the form, the consumer can access the lead magnet. That could be valuable information, such as an ebook or exclusive data report. The type of offer a lead pursues can tell you a lot about their level of intent.
Lead generation examples: How to do it across channels
Below are a few lead generation examples of how companies entice potential customers to offer up their information while gaining valuable insights into their interests.
Lead magnets: Discounts and free offerings
Typically, your business has to offer something of value in exchange for a consumer’s contact information. This can be a promotional discount on their first purchase, an ebook that’s relevant to their industry, or any other free resource that’s attractive to your target customer.
These incentives are called lead magnets, and they’re very effective at attracting new leads. In fact, 50 percent of marketers reported higher conversion rates after they started using lead magnets.
Not only do good lead magnets help you capture contact details, but they also provide insight into what makes your potential customers tick—information your sales team can use to increase their chances of closing deals.
B2C lead gen example: The free checklist
A high-end outdoor gear company has a line of three camping tents, each designed for a particular climate. To generate leads for this product line, the marketing team creates a lead magnet in the form of a free downloadable and printable packing checklist for an outdoor camping trip.
The lead magnet is placed in various places across the company’s website and social media accounts. Whenever an interested party comes across the offer, they submit their email and download the printable checklist.
To make this lead magnet especially appealing, the company’s marketing team decides to offer three packing lists, each featuring packing items for a different climate. That way, when potential customers enter their email to download the free checklist, the sales team not only obtains a new lead but also knows what kind of tent to pitch to them.
B2B lead gen example: Free video course
A software development company recently discovered that many of its leads come into the pipeline with a poor understanding of the industry. The leads ask salespeople basic questions about software features, and the sales team spends a lot of time trying to educate leads instead of closing deals with them.
The company decides to produce a series of free educational webinars. It hires a production team and uses in-house experts to film 10 short videos, each explaining a basic component of the software it develops. Now, the company can generate better leads by offering access to the videos in exchange for a name, email address, and basic information about the prospective buyer’s business needs.
Site or blog content and lead capture forms
The best lead generation strategies make it easy for leads to provide their contact details. After creating an enticing lead magnet, you need a way for the consumer to share their information. That’s where lead capture forms come in.
Lead capture forms are online forms that leads can fill out in seconds. You can customize these forms to gather any kind of information you want—but keep in mind that if you ask for too much upfront, prospects will likely abandon the form before they submit it. You must always consider what your ideal buyer is willing to do to get your product or service, and then not cross that line.
Once they submit information through the lead capture form, the lead magnet is made available to the person in whatever format was promised.
B2B lead gen example: Gated content
Along with blog posts, you should also provide high-quality, valuable gated content that the lead can only access after submitting their contact information.
This gated, downloadable content (DLC) should go beyond what your target audience can find elsewhere for free. Examples of gated content include:
- White papers: short reports about a specific topic that positions your brand as an expert or thought leader.
- Original research: reports or studies your company conducted to provide readers with authoritative data (for instance, the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report).
- Ebooks: long-form content, usually a detailed guide on a broad topic.
Once a visitor downloads the gated content, send them a thank you email.
B2C lead gen example: Chatbots
What if, instead of moving a lead toward a form, they’re greeted on your site by a friendly AI-powered chatbot? Chatbots can use a conversational approach to guide a lead in the buying process, collecting the lead’s information along the way.
You can program chatbots to answer a lead’s questions and gather information. At any point, the lead can ask to speak with a sales rep and the bot will hand them off to a human agent. The chatbot will document the full conversation, providing the agent with the context they need to seamlessly jump into the conversation.
Chatbots can also monitor and record the behavioral details of your website visitors, including:
- Visited pages
- Abandoned carts
- Web browser
Word-of-mouth and referral incentives
Word-of-mouth marketing and referrals are incredibly valuable to businesses. Prospects trust peers who recommend your brand, product, or service, which increases the likelihood of a purchase. Offer incentives to encourage referrals that will bring in new leads.
B2C lead gen example: Rewards through referrals
Leads value what other buyers think about you. Most customers read reviews before making a purchase, and 92 percent trust recommendations from their friends and family. Customers referred by a friend are also 16 percent more likely to become repeat customers.
Referral rewards programs offer an incentive for customers to refer someone. For example, Cash App’s Invite Friends program gives an existing customer $5 if they refer a friend who creates a Cash App account using their referral code.
B2B lead gen example: Trusted reviews
According to G2’s B2B Sales & Marketing Report, 92 percent of businesses are more likely to buy a product from a company after they’ve read a trusted review. And 94 percent said they’ve avoided a brand because of negative reviews.
Business lead generation relies heavily on influence—so much so that there’s an entire industry based on social influencing. Offering an incentive in exchange for a review can motivate customers to write one. Unfortunately, you won’t have control over the content of the review, so prioritizing a great customer experience can help keep those reviews positive.
Here are a few ideas to help persuade customers to write a review for you:
- Early access to products
- Loyalty points
- Free stuff
Long-term clients or loyal customers are usually more than happy to write a review of your brand, product, or service. Those positive testimonials can be used on your marketing materials to generate new leads.
Social media and targeted ads
More and more businesses are taking advantage of social media marketing. Making your brand appealing on social media is a great way to attract casual and target customers and keep your pipeline packed with leads.
B2C lead gen example: Social media marketing
TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn—these platforms all provide lead generation opportunities for your brand. In fact, 71 percent of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand when they’ve had a good social media experience. Here are a few ways to use social media to your advantage to generate leads:
- Offer lead magnets: Provide something valuable, like discount codes, to encourage social media users to offer their contact information.
- Share testimonials: Social proof goes a long way, so when you get a chance to share customer stories, showcase them to attract leads.
- Practice social listening: Customers will post about your brand, and what they say might not always be good. Monitor platforms regularly to see what people are saying about you and why—a practice called social listening—to receive honest, valuable feedback from customers.
Lead scoring can help you understand which social media platforms would generate the best-qualified leads for your business. But the best way to engage your target audience? Create good, sharable content. Make it engaging, compelling, and above all else—interesting.
B2B lead gen example: Targeted social media ads
A targeted advertising strategy on social media can be highly effective for generating leads. Based on user behavior, you can tailor ads to display on their social media channels. Promoting relevant content or advertising discounts and time-sensitive offers can entice your targets to click your offer.
Along with your ads, you can also include pre-filled lead generation forms—these are already populated with the user’s information—to make submitting more convenient.
Lead generation outsourcing
Some companies prefer to outsource part or all of their lead generation activities. That’s what lead generation services are for—they gather lead information, often by running a website that attracts a target market. They then sell that information to businesses whose ideal buyers are in that market.
If you decide to outsource, be sure to vet the company that will be doing the work for you. Make sure they don’t prioritize quantity over quality and that they fully understand your ideal customer profile.
You can also hire lead generation companies to push your content on other channels, giving smaller businesses the advantage of their long reach. They’ll use social media, online advertising, and other tactics to drive viewers to your site.
Of course, hiring a lead generation company comes with a price. That’s why many businesses decide to simply invest in lead generation software tools and generate their own leads.
Here are a few situations where outsourcing for lead generation makes sense:
- When you have limited resources to hire and train an internal marketing team
- When you want to focus on cold calling or personalized email prospecting to schedule appointments
- When you’re launching a new product or service
- When you’re rebranding
How to create the most effective lead gen strategies for your business
Here are some lead generation strategies for getting the most qualified leads in your pipeline.
Map and match your customer journey
Developing a successful lead generation strategy first requires a deep understanding of your buyer’s journey.
The customer journey charts all consumer interactions with your company—including ones that happen before they’re even a customer. It’s a journey that begins with awareness of your brand and eventually leads to purchase—and continues for as long as the buyer remains a loyal customer.
Many businesses use customer journey mapping to outline a customer’s arc or path with their company. Your customer journey map can be an incredibly intricate flowchart that takes every possible pathway into account or something as simple as a sales funnel.
Whatever lead generation methods you choose, make sure they align with and match the customer journey you’ve already created.
Identify the first steps
Lead gen is all about getting potential buyers to take those initial steps, which are usually the most basic.
“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?’”
You can’t generate leads by throwing everything at them at once and hoping the right information will reach the right people. Instead, decide what information potential customers are looking for, then determine how to deliver it in a way that will make you look good—and entice them to give you their data.
Meet your leads where they already are
However you decide to engage your potential customers, you need to ensure it’s through a channel they’re already using. You should also be prepared to adapt and learn new platforms as trends continue to shift.
“You typically want to be where your audience is,” explains Bean. “So if I’m selling a B2C product, I want my lead generation strategies 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 direct outreach through email.”
Make them want more
Lead generation is all about piquing a potential buyer’s interest and giving them reasons to investigate further. You can accomplish this 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 SEO and ranking for posts, and then once someone reads that post, having some kind of gated content that pertains to that topic. You just want to continuously drive them until they’re a marketing qualified lead.”
Tips for generating leads
Now that you have a solid grasp of what lead generation is and how it works, here are some tips for giving your lead generation strategies and tactics a boost.
Take advantage of social media
Social media channels are becoming increasingly important for sales lead generation. Businesses can use social media to gauge feedback and public perception, provide convenient customer service, and promote their brand identity.
Most platforms make it easy to add a CTA, too. Place link stickers in your Instagram Stories, and include short Bitly links in your tweets for viewers to click on. Social media is also useful for promoting other lead generation channels, such as blog posts and downloadable content.
But calling attention to your social media posts isn’t always easy.
“With social, you’ve got your organic and you’ve got your paid content,” Bean explains. “Lots of platforms stifle all 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.”
“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 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.
Build a library of well-written blogs
Content is a great way to grab your target audience’s attention, especially if you’re doing B2B lead generation. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2020 B2B Benchmarks Report, 70 percent of B2B brands use content marketing to generate new leads.
Start a blog and publish useful articles that cover topics relevant to your customer base. Put time and effort into keyword optimization, and you may be able to rank well for your chosen search terms. You can then share your blogs on social media, where they can get more eyes on them.
It’s common for a blog to end with a CTA—though that shouldn’t be the only place where one appears.
“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,” Bean says. “And that’s helpful for the user if they want to learn more.”
Find opportunities on your website
Your company’s website can be a pretty big lead generation system 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, as customers can easily get that information from other sources, including the competition.
Create engaging videos and webinars
Video is an extremely engaging and powerful lead generation tool. The video software company Wistia reviewed data from over 250,000 accounts and found that videos with lead generation forms in them converted at a rate of 16 percent. In other words, for every 100 times a video was played, it generated 16 new leads.
Wistia also found that videos where the form appeared within the first 20 percent of the video had a whopping 43 percent conversion rate. That means if a two-minute video has a form in the first 24 seconds, over 40 percent of viewers will submit the form and become new leads.
Of course, viewers may not fill out a lead gen form unless they feel it’s “worth it” to access richer, lengthier content such as a webinar. You can embed your form at the beginning of the webinar as a requirement for watching it or insert it after an intro or “cliffhanger” moment to whet the lead’s appetite. Wistia provides a Turnstile email collector that can gather email addresses from leads within your videos.
Try to cast a wide net by posting your videos across multiple channels, including your brand’s YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Make the most of your customer support tickets
Marketers and sales reps are the ones who are typically tasked with lead gen, but what if you could get another department involved in lead generation strategies?
Your customer support team is already engaged in a form of lead nurturing by constantly communicating with current and potential customers. Agents know the types of questions and concerns your target audience is regularly expressing. So, they’re in a unique position to turn customer service conversations into sales lead generators. All you need to do is bridge the gap between your service and sales teams.
For example, imagine a support agent receives an email from a potential customer who has questions about your company’s pricing plans. If the support agent doesn’t know who the appropriate sales contact is, they might fail to forward the email to them.
But with a sales CRM like Zendesk Sell, a support agent can click a “Notify sales” button whenever a lead or upselling opportunity arises, automatically notifying the right sales rep. And if there’s not already a customer record for the referral, the agent can create one with just a single click.
Zendesk Sell gives customer support agents more insight into the sales process. It also allows sales reps to directly access support tickets to see every conversation a lead has had with the company.
Personalize the experience
Personalizing your sales emails can help you generate more leads—meaning more opened emails and a higher click-through rate. Using sales automation tools to personalize email outreach can save your sales reps time so they can focus on other tasks.
Zendesk Sell provides sales email automation tools that enable you to create customized email templates so you can quickly and efficiently engage with prospects. You can save these templates and conveniently use them again for new outreach campaigns.
Features like merge tags also allow you to add a placeholder for personalized prospect info—like name, title, and company name. Your sales CRM can automatically pull customer profile data and populate these merge fields with the appropriate information. With one click, you can schedule or send personalized mass emails.
Building great relationships is key to any successful sale. The best way to make connections is through networking.
You can start in the digital space and connect with fellow industry professionals, businesses, and potential prospects on social media sites like LinkedIn. This allows you to interact and engage through posts and DMs, forming a virtual bond that can help spread the word about your business, secure referrals, or attract a future customer.
You can also get involved in your community by attending in-person events or meetups. Networking isn’t limited to only professionals in your industry. Connecting with small business owners can be effective for sales lead generation and sending referrals your way.
Once you’ve made these connections, it’s important to maintain the relationships. Passing out your business card and gaining a follow on social media is one thing—cultivating the relationship and connecting on a deeper level will reap more rewards.
What comes next? How to qualify a lead
Before you can start selling, you must first qualify your leads. There isn’t a perfect method for lead qualification, so try different strategies to determine which ones work best for you and your sales team.
Engaging with your leads and asking them questions can help you figure out whether they’re qualified leads. If they’re interacting with you, odds are they’re probably a good lead. Find a balance of communication to keep the lead engaged without overwhelming them with questions or information that could potentially drive them away.
Here are a few questions to ask when qualifying a lead:
- Are you looking to purchase a [product or service]?
- Would you like to learn more about [topic, product, or service]?
- What are your immediate and long-term goals?
- What challenges are keeping you from reaching those goals?
- What are some pain points you’re currently facing?
- Are you using a solution to help with your pain points?
- Are you satisfied with that solution and its price?
Effective CRM software can help you document your conversation and track your correspondence so you can:
1. Personalize future conversations.
2. Avoid asking the same questions.
Enable lead scoring
Lead scoring is a point-based system that requires little-to-no interaction with a prospective buyer. Points are assigned to a lead based on factors like:
- Job title
- Seniority level
Although lead scoring models aren’t personalized, they help you identify and prioritize the leads that are most likely to convert. Remember not to eliminate potential customers that don’t score at the top of your list. Someone who meets some of the criteria could still be a solid lead.
Use CRM software
CRM software can simplify lead generation and lead management while saving your sales team a lot of time and effort. Through automation, Zendesk Sell organizes, qualifies, and tracks leads through the sales pipeline, from initial interaction to customer loyalty—the entire customer journey.
How lead generation tools and an end-to-end CRM can simplify the process
Lead generation entails many moving parts. It involves people from different teams creating materials, coordinating messaging, strategizing distribution, and monitoring results. The point is, lead generation requires the right tools if you’re going to do it yourself.
Luckily, there are numerous options. Some of the most popular sales lead generation business tools are:
- Website visitor tracking tools
- Email search tools
- Landing page and lead capture form builders
- Team collaboration and data-sharing tools
- Automated follow-up email tools
- Content delivery tools
- Email marketing and automation
- Social media and forum software
To best capture, organize, track, and engage leads, your company should utilize a powerful CRM like Zendesk Sell. Our solution collects demographic, firmographic, and channel information about leads and can automatically assign a numerical score to identify marketing qualified and sales qualified leads.
With Zendesk’s lead generation and engagement tool, Reach, you can create targeted prospect lists using prospecting software that will help you identify potential buyers. Reach even allows you to automate customized email sequences and cadences for different lead types at different stages of the sales cycle. At that point, the lead management tool can do its magic.
The lead gen process may be complex, but it gets easier when you have everything in one place. Now that you know how to generate leads, you can start reaching more leads than ever before and watch your company grow.