The New Marketing Funnel

Digital marketing has transformed the B2B sales process, using technology to create new revenue opportunities

Cold calling. Crossing names off a purchased list.  Salespeople used to spend hours dialing for dollars, hoping they'd connect prospective customers with a product that, based on some general information, would solve their problem. This is the old way of finding customers. Today, marketers are as much—if not more—a part of the sales cycle than inside or field sales representatives. As digital marketing grows, both buyers and marketers' behaviors evolve.

Buyers are making purchases later in the sales cycle. When buyers finally reach the sales department, they are educated and armed with questions. They've researched the product or service online, participated in a customer community, and maybe even tested the product in a free trial. In fact, Forrester Research found that 75% of the buying cycle is done before a customer has any interaction with a sales team. And, according to Sirius Decisions, 67% of the purchase process happens digitally.

Marketing has morphed from a cost center to a revenue generating function that must show a meaningful ROI. Marketers are connecting with prospective and existing customers through an exploding number of channels. They've moved beyond print, television and radio to native content, sponsored stories, and tweets. Instead of planning expensive magazine spreads, marketers spend their days looking at statistics from website visitors, tracking every click and action.

As marketing dollars transition from offline to online, the traditional sales funnel—awareness, opinion, consideration, preference, and purchase—vanishes.  When the speed of change increases, communication becomes more seamless, and time-to-market shrinks, companies need a new sales approach.  It's the new marketing funnel.

Content Marketing and Optimization

At the top of the funnel is content marketing. Once, the ability to create and distribute content was the domain of established publishers—newspapers and magazines, online or offline—alone.  Now, everyone is a publisher, creating and distributing useful content that connects them with existing and prospective customers.

The more targeted, compelling content a company creates, the more opportunities it has to leverage search engine optimization and, in turn, bring more people to the company website.  When readers find content that resonates with them, they share it through tweets, retweets, blogs, and "follows".   It becomes a self-fulfilling loop of advertising: the market does work on behalf of the company.

Content Leaders: New Relic, Hubspot, and Docusign

Several companies invest so heavily in content marketing as to hire journalists to do this job. Hubspot, the maker of SaaS inbound marketing software, figured if it was going to sell technology for content marketing, it needed to become a content machine.  In 2012, HubSpot posted 937 blog entries and 157 ebooks and offers. HubSpot hired ReadWrite's editor-in-chief to ensure that its content achieved the level of a top publication. As HubSpot s CMO Mike Volpe explains, "We want HubSpot to be the absolute best resource for all marketing professionals in the world".

New Relic, the maker of web application monitoring software, is known for its compelling content and free t-shirts.  According to Patrick Moran, VP marketing at New Relic, the company uses content marketing to achieve customer intimacy: "We're committed to be a developer's best friend (as our homepage states)—and like a best friend, sometimes we like to make our developer friends smile."

Finally there's DocuSign, an electronic signature platform. To get the most benefit from their content marketing efforts, DocuSign invests in both content creation and what Meagen Eisenberg, DocuSign's VP of Demand Generation, calls a "nurture system".  The nurture system is a partnership between marketing and sales to ensure that sales gets the most mileage from the compelling content that marketing produces.  DocuSign tracks which content is most effective in converting leads to buyers.

Creating and managing content takes time and requires a different skill set than a company might have in its marketing department.  A great copywriter won't necessarily have the right skills for content marketing so many enterprises find a professional writer. Contently recognized that brands, nonprofits, and media companies needed "talent and efficient ways to manage, measure, and achieve business results with content". Contently's platform connects brands with experienced content developers.  In turn, these writers access a steady income stream.  It aims to "help freelancers—and anyone—become a publisher ".

Promotion

Once a company has created great content, it must promote it to the right prospects.  For B2B, LinkedIn pays enormous dividends.  Traffic from LinkedIn generated the highest visitor-to-lead conversion rate—2.74%—of the top social networks.  This is almost 3x the conversion rate of either Twitter or Facebook.  According to the 2012 State of Digital Marketing report from WebMarketing123, 44% of firms reported acquiring leads from LinkedIn, followed by Facebook at 39% and Twitter at 30%.

Engagement and Personalization

The last step in the top of the funnel is prospect engagement when visitors finally reach a company's website. Demandbase, a SaaS company, offers an account-targeting platform for B2B marketers.  When a prospective customer visits a company's website, Demandbase knows the visitor's company of origin. The software identifies and transmits details such as company name, industry size, revenue, technologies used and dozens of other attributes, all in real time.  Armed with this information, the host can deliver the most tailored content and personalize the visitor s experience. Demandbase uses big data to personalize content for potential customers.  A small B2B company that visits a security software vendor's website would see different information than would a large B2C firm.   By customizing content—automatically—for each user, companies are able to accelerate the sales process.

Marketing Automation

Once a company has attracted leads through content marketing, the next step in the new marketing funnel is to figure out which leads the sales organization should prioritize and pursue.

With lead generation software, the process of selecting leads is radically different than a sales rep reviewing a stack of business cards s/he collected at a trade show. Now, based on how a potential lead engages on a company's website, the company can identify the warm leads and send them tailored content.  Companies including Eloqua (owned by Oracle), Marketo, HubSpot, and Pardot (owned by Salesforce.com) offer applications to help companies tailor information to individual prospects' needs and even create customized but automated campaigns for specific IP addresses. Signals, Hubspot's newest product, is a plug in for the Google Chrome browser that feeds sales reps data on individual prospects including updates when a customer reads the vendors email or a change occurs in Salesforce.

Marketing automation tools make transparent which channels are most productive.  But what is just as valuable, if not more valuable, is that these solutions give companies new ways to engage with prospective customers without looping in a salesperson.  When the marketing team focuses on culling the most promising prospects, sales teams can focus on closing high-probability deals and not waste time on prospects who are unlikely to buy.

Influencer/Advocate Marketing

The next phase in new marketing channel is leveraging advocates and influencers to further drive sales. Don't ignore the power of influence—buyers respect and trust the input of their peers. In fact, advocates are about 3x more influential and trusted than ads and other paid media.

Through Influitive's SaaS platform, for instance, brands connect with their strongest advocates.  Brand advocates are people who frequently recommend products and services.  Using Influitive, a brand sets up an advocacy marketing program that identifies and mobilizes its top advocates and then amplifies their voices across a variety of social channels from Twitter, to retail sites, to third party review sites like TripAdvisor.

Advocate marketing can also happen under a company's umbrella but with little effort from the company because customers do the work. Vendors including Jive and Lithium provide the SaaS social platform to firms who want to connect employees internally or host a community for external audiences.  Existing customers log in to the community to find out about new products, troubleshoot, and converse with colleagues.  People evaluating the product join too. They can ask questions of experienced customers and get firsthand accounts of the product.

Then, when a prospect decides to make a purchase, it's an easy click to the company website or sales team.  While a company must host the community and, most likely, moderate it, these communities are strong sales drivers.  A 2012 study from the University of Michigan found that online customer communities can increase a company's revenue by 19%.  Beyond these clear, quantifiable results, the community gives the vendor insight into what customers care about, what features they want in a subsequent version, and which customers to highlight in subsequent marketing work.

Some companies use sites like LinkedIn to host a customer community.  ExactTarget, for instance set up a user group for members to share best practices and tips on using the product.  The information that a company can gather through a customer community, advocates, and influencers then feeds back into the funnel and helps the firm acquire more customers.

Digital marketing has transformed the traditional sales process into a new marketing funnel. Companies must focus on the marketing tools that can help them move deals faster, particularly in the initial stages of the sales process.  In fact, if a company only depends on a sales team to turn prospects into customers, it's waited too long.