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Lead gen software improves, but is still hampered by human hurdles

With lead generation software available, there's no excuse for sending lame leads to sales. But lead gen needs sales and marketing on the same page.

For Justin Hart, finding qualified customer leads for his startup commuter airline is a complex blend of art and science.

Hart, who is vice president of member acquisition for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Surf Airlines Inc., uses enterprise-level marketing automation software to generate and nurture leads, but the technology alone is not enough. Surf Air wants specific customers -- executives who travel frequently between the company's six destinations and can afford the service -- and finding those customers requires constantly tweaking his strategy.

"Successful sales cycles are built around a constant ebb and flow of science and art," said Hart, who formerly oversaw digital strategy for political campaigns, including Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid. "You always need to measure what's working and build a science of automation around it, and then go back to the drawing board for strategies that are failing."

Lead generation software has become more mature, such that it's possible to automate once-complex tasks, including scoring leads based on their potential, prioritizing leads and sending out personalized follow-up emails. However, some analysts and users say the technology can be difficult to set up and use. Overwhelmed marketing and sales teams can fail to take full advantage of the features and then become disenchanted with the tools.

The big story that we continue to see is that successful marketing automation is about getting the people, processes and technology right.
Trip Kuceramarketing effectiveness analyst, Aberdeen Group

Further complicating the matter is the human element. Even the best software can't work miracles without a full investment from the sales team and the right processes to take advantage of the tools.

"The big story that we continue to see is that successful marketing automation is about getting the people, processes and technology right," said Trip Kucera, marketing effectiveness analyst for Boston-based Aberdeen Group, an IT consulting and research company.

Obstacles in lead generation

As methods to reach contacts become more sophisticated, lead generation has become increasingly complex. There are new ways of generating leads, such as converting Web visitors into customers through a company's website, analysts and users say. It's no longer enough to generate a lead and pass it on. Marketing departments should spend more time qualifying, scoring and nurturing prospects in hopes of sending the sales department promising leads, not just any lead. To do that, analysts say, companies also need marketing automation software.

Marketing automation software can generate leads, but its application is far more expansive. Beyond just cultivating new prospects, marketing automation is used to tailor communications to all members of a company's audience: potential customers, existing customers and partners. For potential customers, the software emphasizes nurturing leads to turn prospects into customers, not just gathering leads and sending them to the sales team.

Among other things, the tools in Surf Air's two enterprise-level marketing automation platforms score leads based on factors such as customer location and how many pages on the company's website they've visited. If a company wants engaged prospects who reside in the state, for example, a California executive who has visited six pages on a website is a much better prospect than someone out of state who never made it past the home page. The software allows the sales team to see who's on the top of that list in real time, and it sends out automated, but personalized, emails to prospects with high scores, Hart said.

The biggest obstacle in using this technology, Hart said, is the attention to detail it takes to set everything up correctly. The software needs to be told how to score leads, and not every strategy succeeds. That's where constant reassessment and re-strategizing become important, he said.

Similarly, Aberdeen's Kucera said the technology is not the problem. Good technology is highly accessible, but what can't be purchased are the processes that go into deciding how it will be used, he said. What criteria are leads scored on, for example, and when do you make the decision to nurture a lead?

"What you can't acquire are the underlying processes that you're trying to automate. This is where we see the big problem," he said. "It's a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. If you don't have a well-defined [sales] process, you don't have anything to automate."

Superficial adoption of marketing automation software also presents a problem for many companies, Kucera said. A company might use basic email marketing and landing page features but fail to take advantage of more sophisticated tools, such as lead nurturing and lead scoring, he said.

"Deeper use relates to higher performance," Kucera said. "The best-in-class companies are using the higher-performing capabilities."

Nicholas Holland, CEO of Centresource Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based interactive agency, said superficial adoption happens because marketing automation software is often complex, and because many marketers are "woefully undertrained." Also, many marketers are still thinking through the lens of basic lead generation, not complete marketing automation, he said.

Holland, who recently launched his own sales lead nurturing tool, TouchStream, said other barriers to successful marketing automation include lack of a defined view of the customer, which makes it difficult to strike the right tone; poor communication between sales and marketing departments; and the cumbersome process of manually entering contact information into platforms.

Making the most of lead generation tools

Knowing the obstacles is one thing; having the knowledge to work around and overcome them is another.

Kucera said one of the first steps is opening up communication between the sales and marketing teams. To put processes in place for how lead generation should be used, both teams need to take a look at buyer behavior. For example, who are your customers, and how do they interact with the company? What defines a qualified lead?

"The conversation needs to happen first," he said. "Then think about programs you can put in place to nurture leads."

Uniting the sales and marketing teams requires an organizational shift toward collaboration and transparency among all departments, Kucera said, and that can take time to accomplish. The work doesn't stop when the first campaign is launched. Sales and marketing teams should have regular 15- or 20-minute meetings to measure performance, he said.

For companies who are just beginning to use lead generation software, Kucera recommended having a dedicated person in charge of implementation to lead the team. This person will schedule trainings, set up the software and make sure people are using the system properly, he said.

According to Centresource's Holland, salespeople need to be closely involved in the lead generation and nurturing process, even if the marketing department oversees it. If the marketing department sends automated emails to prospects on behalf of the sales team, the sales team should know about it, he said.

Holland also emphasized the importance of training the marketing department on the state of lead generation and how it has changed. Some less-sophisticated marketers still don't understand the difference between lead generation and modern marketing automation, he said.

"We still get a lot of companies that are surprised when they get leads through their website. They still expect to get leads through the Yellow Pages," he said. "And these are $5 million to $10 million companies."

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