Article | 20 min read

What is lead generation? The ultimate guide to getting started

Figuring out how to generate leads is almost as hard as converting them. Our comprehensive guide to lead generation will show you how to pack your sales pipeline with high-quality leads.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published April 16, 2021
Last updated January 21, 2022

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 generating a good lead in the first place.

Lead generation meaning and purpose

Lead generation is the process of capturing potential customers’ 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, the goal of lead generation is 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. But it can be difficult to grasp how to increase lead generation in sales.

While lead gen may seem pretty straightforward, it encompasses a wide array of strategies. There are so many different ways to attract consumers and to qualify potential leads, that a simple idea like lead generation can quickly become overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be.

In this guide, we’ll lay out the basics of lead generation and clear up some of the common confusions surrounding lead generation by covering:

What is 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.”

That’s all you need—a few contact details, and suddenly a stranger becomes a lead. But getting that data is easier said than done. People are generally protective of their information, and for good reason. That means you’ll need to be smart and honest about how you ask them for it.

How to generate leads with lead magnets

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 would be 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.

How to generate leads with a lead capture form

If you create an enticing lead magnet, you also need a way for your potential customer to submit their information. It isn’t enough to simply include your email address and say, “Write to us and we’ll send you this free thing!” If you do that, you’ve already added an unnecessary step to your buyer’s journey. The best lead generation strategies make it easy for leads to provide their contact information, which is where lead capture forms come in.

Lead capture forms are online forms that leads can fill in and submit in seconds. You can customize lead capture forms to gather any kind of information you want—but keep in mind that if you ask for too much up front, consumers will likely abandon the form before they submit. You must always consider what your ideal buyer is willing to do in order to get your product or service, and then not cross that line.

lead gen forms

Once the information is submitted through the lead capture form, the lead magnet is made available to the person in whatever format was promised.

Now that you know what lead magnets and lead capture forms are, let’s break down the steps of the lead generation process.

How lead generation works

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:

  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 them to click on it in exchange for some 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.
  3. Once they click on the CTA, the visitor is presented with the lead capture form, which they must fill out before accessing the lead magnet.
  4. After they’ve filled out the form, the consumer is able to 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.

Now, let’s take a look at this process in action.

Lead generation examples

Below are a few examples of how companies entice potential customers to offer up their information while gaining valuable insights into their interests.

B2C lead generation example: The free checklist

A high-end outdoor gear company has a line of three camping tents, each designed for a different climate. In order 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 spots 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 generation example: The 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 the most basic questions about software features, and the sales team ends up spending 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 its own 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 potential customer’s business needs.

What makes B2B lead generation different?

You may be wondering what makes B2C lead generation and B2B lead generation different. The lead generation strategies illustrated above aren’t really exclusive to either kind of business—B2C companies can also make educational videos, and B2B businesses can certainly offer downloadable checklists. What makes B2C and B2B lead generation different lies in how many touchpoints are required and what kind of information is being requested.

When you’re selling directly to consumers, there are fewer touchpoints involved in the sales process. That’s because individuals have fewer opinions and factors to consider when making a purchase.

Selling to other businesses, however, requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders. There are more people involved in the decision-making process, so more materials must be created and more specific details must be captured. That’s a lot of information for a business to hand over. And asking people to provide all that data isn’t easy, which means you have to be strategic about how you generate your leads.

Lead generation strategies

Here are some lead generation strategies for getting you the most qualified leads to populate 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 the interactions a consumer has with your company—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 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 extremely intricate flowchart that takes every possible pathway into account or something as simple as a sales funnel.

The five-stage sales funnel

Whatever lead generation methods you choose, you should make sure they align with and match the customer journey you’ve already created.

Identify the first steps

Lead generation is all about getting potential buyers to take those first few steps. And these initial steps 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. You must decide what information potential customers are seeking, and you need to 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

“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 on direct outreach through email.”

However you decide to engage your customers, you need to ensure it’s through a channel they’re already using. You should also be prepared to adapt to and learn new platforms as trends continue to shift.

Make them want more

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 just want to continuously drive them until they’re a Marketing Qualified Lead.”

Is lead generation marketing or sales’ responsibility?

As you’ve seen from the lead generation examples and strategies, there’s a pretty blurred line between sales and marketing when it comes to lead generation.

There’s no hard consensus on whether sales or marketing has sole responsibility for lead generation. Some businesses leave all lead generation tasks to one department, while others will employ a combined effort where sales and marketing work together to generate leads.

With a mixed approach, many companies opt to split responsibilities based on where the lead generation content is needed in the sales funnel. Marketing will handle content aimed at the top of the funnel, where engagement is fairly low-level. This material is mostly for brand awareness. Then, as leads become more qualified and provide more information, sales will eventually begin to take over lead generation responsibilities.

Inbound lead generation vs. outbound lead generation

Email marketing is another common lead generation strategy. And when it comes to generating leads via email, there are two approaches: 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 into receiving inbound emails. That naturally makes them a more receptive audience—though you may still have to compete for their attention.

The trick is to think about the specific pain points 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 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.”

Tips for generating leads

Now that you have a good grasp of what lead generation is and how it works, here are some tips for giving your lead generation strategies and tactics a boost.

Tip #1: Take advantage of social media

Social media platforms have become hugely important to companies over the last decade. 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.”

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 wonderful 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.

Tip #2: 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 advice 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 catch people’s attention.

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.”

Tip #3: Find opportunities on your website

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, as customers can easily get that information from other sources, including the competition.

Tip #4: 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. And Wistia provides a Turnstile email collector that can gather email addresses from leads within your videos.


Image source

Try to cast a wide net by posting your videos across multiple channels, including your brand’s YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Tip #5: Make the most of your customer support tickets

Marketers and sales agents 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 purchasing 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

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.

How to generate leads with lead generation companies

Some companies prefer to outsource part or all of their lead generation activities. That’s what lead generation companies 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.

Lead generation companies can also be hired 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.

Lead generation tools

As you’ve probably noticed, lead generation features a lot of 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 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

Improve lead generation with an end-to-end CRM

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.

Additionally, 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 have many moving parts, but it gets easier when you can put them all in one place. Start reaching more leads than ever before and see how your company grows.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

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