ThinkstockPhotos-505619436-119666-edited.jpgAs a part of our process of determining how we will work with clients, we typically conduct an assessment of their overall demand generation strategy and execution. We look at what they’re doing to generate and nurture leads, how they’re utilizing their website and other digital (and non-digital) communication channels and how that all aligns with and connects to their sales approach.

For those that have not implemented inbound marketing or sales development initiatives, it provides an opportunity to create a clear roadmap to determine what issues, if any, need to be addressed; how to best address them, and what the quickest path to impact would be.

For companies that have been implementing one or both of these approaches, it’s an opportunity for a nice check-up to identify opportunities to enhance their efforts.

It’s no surprise given the increasing popularity and maturity of inbound marketing that an increasing percentage of these assessments are taking place with companies that actively engage in inbound efforts.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve conducted several assessments with companies that have been engaged in inbound marketing for at least three years, with some that have been doing so for as long as six. In all of these cases, these companies were getting good results, but had found that these results were plateauing or declining.

In the process of reviewing their efforts, we identified some common themes that are contributing to declining results, despite continued investment. As one of our clients said entering into the assessment, “We wonder if we’ve gotten everything we can get from our inbound efforts, and if it’s time to find something else.”

My sense is that she is not alone. I’m increasingly hearing the grumbles of frustration from inbound practitioners. The early (and easy) results from being one of few have disappeared and the playing field is noisier than ever. If you’re finding your results plateauing, be sure that you’re not falling victim to one of these themes. Banner

1) Buyer Personas

I have to admit that this one surprised me. I’m used to talking about buyer personas with companies that aren’t implementing inbound. I figured that for multi-year veterans, personas would be a given. The group that we assessed fell into two groups on this issue:

  • They did not have written personas.
  • The written personas they had were vague and had fallen out of date.

I get it, creating personas is hard. Keeping them up-to-date is even harder. But they are absolutely crucial if you want to gain and maintain traction.

Creating personas requires more than just a couple of conversations and writing out a paragraph or two describing who they are. Effective personas combine two elements: a clear ideal client profile and an in-depth review of the key people you want to talk with.

When we create personas for our clients, we work to identify three types of personas:

  • Primary personas: These are the decision makers or key players involved in your sale.
  • Secondary personas: These are the people who may or may not be directly involved in a sales/buying process, but elicit significant influence.
  • Negative personas: These are the people who you want to be sure are not in a lead position when dealing with your solutions. For example, we worked with a company that sold HR information systems and in their case, the IT manager was the negative persona. If the interaction was perceived as an IT issue, rather than an HR issue, it represented problems for their efforts.

Regardless of how you create personas, the objective should be to clearly define:

  • What the clear identifiers are for each persona.
  • The challenges they deal with (from their perspective).
  • Their priorities.
  • Their experience in dealing with your products/services.
  • The important questions they seek to answer on an ongoing basis.

When completed, it’s easy to feel like you’re done with personas. Don’t make that mistake. Personas are never done. They should be constantly tweaked and updated. At a minimum, you should review your personas on an annual basis to ensure the information within them is still relevant and insightful.

2) Website

One of my favorite byproducts of talking about inbound marketing with businesses is that it naturally changes how executives think about their website. Rather than being a static, digital brochure, filled with we-do’s; the real value of the website emerges.

For anyone who has implemented a new inbound effort, you know that there’s a high probability you’ll make significant changes or even completely redesign your site to support the effort.

As with personas, the danger is when you feel like you’re done with your website. A common theme we’ve seen with inbound veterans is that they fall back on old habits with their website.

As their companies and offerings evolved, they continued to add material to the website, without thinking about the strategy behind what they were doing. As a result, the sites became quite complicated and confusing.

We could see by looking at how the site was originally crafted that many best practices were supported. The layout was clean. The conversion paths were clear. But over time, the site became overloaded and confusing.

Please note, I am in no way saying that you shouldn’t change your website. Quite the contrary. You must be constantly making changes to your website. If you’re not changing something that matters on at least a monthly basis, you’re not doing enough.

It’s how you manage the changes that are important. Today, when considering how to manage your website going forward, you must build it with the assumption that it’s going to be constantly changing. You’ll want to test and adjust layouts, colors, and design elements; not to mention all of the changes you’ll need to make as your company and offerings evolve. That doesn’t mean your site should become the digital equivalent of a Rube Goldberg device.

Remember the battle cry of your website visitor:  Don’t Make Me Think!  

3) Content Not Aligned With Buyer’s Journey

If you’re looking to continually gain traction and enhance results of your inbound efforts, you must embrace the fact that the relationship with your website and your visitors needs to be highly personalized. That means the message on every page must align with the person visiting – their persona and where they are in their journey.

One of my favorite tools for managing website content is what we call a content map. This map is a spreadsheet that lists every material page and asset (site pages, blogs, landing pages, graphics and CTAs) and identifies:

  • Which persona(s) it is built for
  • Which stage of the buyer’s journey it’s targeted to
  • What questions it’s designed to answer or actions it’s designed to stimulate
  • What device (mobile/desktop) the visitor is most likely to be using

When content is mapped in such a manner, you can be sure that you are addressing the important points on your visitors’ minds, and you’ll have the data you need to lead them through a well thought out conversion path.

4) Poor Nurturing Strategy

Inbound marketing is not a quick fix. Too often I see people utilizing inbound strategies to generate leads and then apply old school sales tactics to a bunch of people who aren’t ready or in a position to buy anything. Then they complain that inbound doesn’t work.

Our assessments were no exception. Effective content gives you the advantage to be relevant to your market before they’re in the market to buy. This is a HUGE advantage, if only you capitalize on it.

Noted marketing expert Seth Godin often talks about how attention from your desired market is the most valuable asset any business can have (it’s too bad there’s no spot on the balance sheet to report on it). Great content is the vehicle for building that attention.

But remember that people download things for their reasons, not yours. They most often download because their seeking information or knowledge on something that matters to them, not because they want or need to buy anything.

This is where nurturing comes in. An effective lead nurturing strategy cultivates the attention you’ve created, leads them to understand their problems better and highlights the value you create for them when they engage. Done correctly nurturing accelerates the sales cycle, increasing the average sales value and increases your win rates (now that’s what I call a real Triple Crown!).

Yet despite its clear value, very few do it well (if they do it at all). Nurturing is more than just sending emails schilling your webinars and other download offers. Lead nurturing requires a well thought out plan, a high degree of personalization and the discipline to sustain.

5) Not Utilizing Data to Drive Decisions

My absolute favorite attribute of inbound marketing is the data you are able to collect and utilize to assess progress and to make decisions going forward. Yet despite the data available to them, our experience is that very few companies are actually utilizing data to drive decisions.

It is absolutely critical that you develop what we like to call data rhythms. When we’re managing an inbound program, we break metrics into weekly, monthly and quarterly checks (and certainly there are some companies that should have daily rhythms with some metrics).

On a quarterly basis, we’re using data to set our course. We think of these quarterly rhythms as waypoints on our journey for long-term scalable growth. We set our key objectives and themes, and we review and update our service level agreements (SLAs).

Every month, we use the data to track progress against those objectives. More importantly, we dig deep into the data to determine what tests or experiments we want to run. Which pages are getting good traffic, but aren’t converting?  What’s converting, but not getting traffic?  What can we learn from that?  Additionally, we’ll run experiments like testing CTAs in a different location, running an off-beat PPC test and so on.

We’re always running tests and experiments. Some of these are designed specifically to improve performance. Other times, we’re just looking to gain insights. We may move a CTA, or where some key content is, so that we can watch how people interact. We then use that knowledge to drive other decisions.

On a weekly basis we’re watching for emerging trends and seeing how experiments are playing out. Not a week goes by that we aren’t tweaking or adjusting something that was done previously.

By taking such an approach we are able to truly capitalize on the fundamental value of inbound marketing. Every day, week and month we are building our marketing asset and optimizing performance.

By looking to constantly iterate and continuously make small progress, we build significant advances over time and avoid the plateaus and pitfalls associated with other approaches.

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