Lead generation was killed by … itself

Lead Generation

To be honest, I’ve never 100 percent understood lead generation — and especially online lead generation. I’ve worked at probably 3-6 companies that used some form of lead generation in my career arc to date. If you’re unfamiliar what the whole idea of ‘lead generation’ is, basically it’s a time-honored tradition — by some measure it goes back to the Romans in 27 BC — whereby you try to ascertain a sales ‘lead,’ i.e. a person who might be interested in whatever your product is. The king of lead generation marketing for roughly 1,000+ years has been referral; more on that in a second.

The advent of digital and mobile — disruption! scalability! — brought a new concept to lead generation and lead generation marketing. There are dozens of forms and approaches, but basically you try to generate traffic to your website, you move that traffic to a specific place, they do a specific action (CTA) and they ‘get’ something in exchange for their e-mail or contact info. By the nature of them moving through a pipeline in a specific way, they are thought to be a ‘lead.’ You now have their contact information. You’re doing lead generation, baby!

There are a number of fraught things with how we construe online lead generation, much of it peddled by marketing consultants looking for the quick buck from the non-digital-native sucker who just thinks they’re too busy to even remotely consider their digital strategy. For example, a lot of these ‘lead magnets’ — which are the things you download in exchange for your contact info — are typically white papers or eBooks or stuff like that, right? No one’s really clamoring for white papers the way we assume they are. That’s kind of the first lead generation problem. The second is that the programs and processes are often (some companies do it well) set up in a priority vacuum, so that marketing is chasing one thing and sales is chasing something else.

This causes lead generation efforts to totally decimate the relationship between a marketing team and a sales team — “These leads are old and cold!” vs. “Sales doesn’t use our great content!” — and that’s not good for business either.

So look, some companies are out there nailing targets with lead generation. But many are floundering. And in reality, lead generation probably committed suicide.

The dirty little secret about lead generation

There’s documented research that most modern CMOs don’t really understand digital marketing, which is logical. They came up in a different era. You did your lead generation in 1994 around trade shows, cold calls, and referrals (maybe some direct mailings). That’s how you accumulated your leads and hit your targets — that is, before you got to November, realized you weren’t gonna make 10% Y2Y growth, and canned 75 people to hit said target. I digress.

What happened with everything digital is that it scaled very fast — Facebook got to 500 million users in under six years, I believe — but it scaled without a ton of rules, processes, procedures, and protocols. This created these gaps where marketing consultants or ‘digital marketing experts’ could rush in and define processes for companies that were scrambling to keep up, compete, or launch anything digital. This has pretty much been happening from the late 1990s to today in various forms — there are still thousands of companies who will take a meeting with a digital marketing expert and say to them “Well, we just haven’t paying that much attention to digital…”

Now, see the reason why this happens is because most companies are defined hierarchies. The people at the top set the agenda and drive the decisions, even if those people ostensibly have no clue what happens day-to-day with customer interaction or anything like that. Those people at the top, driving the agenda? Their primary task is typically to make more money. (Varies by org and org type, yes.)

What we tend to do with a lot of digital products and services and marketing efforts is instantly shove them into a box that we think will make money the quickest. When it doesn’t necessarily work — because digital marketing is more about relationships and value — we half-ass it, abandon it, or chase the next shiny penny. Go talk to a seasoned exec about the role of social media or content marketing or their homepage in their company. 25 percent of them will get it and talk to you about it. 75 percent will throw you out of their office on your ass screaming “Ain’t got time for that, I’m chasing revenue plays!” To many people, digital isn’t that.

“Lead generation” is another one of these terms that popped up as digital started to gain more and more traction and footing, and it seems like a relatively easy play. You need some content, maybe an e-mail marketing suite, a few landing pages (so some designers, right?), and a database operator. Turn the spigot on and let’s go, baby! Let’s hit those growth goals!

When we shove revenue methodology at a relationship-building element like lead generation, we totally miss the human psychology aspect of it: if you’re a B2B widgets guy and your end product costs $50,000 for a year or something, no one is going to buy that based on downloading an eBook. It could theoretically begin the process, yes — lead generation! — but there are still another six or seven steps (if not 10-12) on top of the lead generation process.

Digital marketing success takes time, and lead generation is a key component of that. But because we often feel as if we don’t have time and we compensate by pivoting internally 95 times every month — taxing and frustrating our employees in the process — lead generation often fails.

How lead generation is committing suicide

At base level, too many people are using it. Go visit 20 websites today. Most will have some type of offer, pop-up, pop-over, exit intent pop-up, get on our list or we’ll kill you, hey do you want our white paper, hey do you want 27,893% growth, oh no thanks type box. So many companies have this or some variation of this. Almost every time I go on Twitter, one of the promoted tweets I see is someone offering a white paper. (The other 25 percent of the time, it’s some brand like Oreo.)

Let’s pause and allow me to tell you to sign up for my list:


Let’s go back to this tenets of human psychology idea: when it seems like everything is a sale and everyone online is pushing something — which happens with increased lead generation campaigns — then what’s a normal person going to do?

In an effort to cut through the noise out there, they’re going to ask people they trust. Referral is going to be the big winner again. Your online lead generation campaign just became a bunch of tire-kickers, because where you get the real people ready to buy are those shepherded in by people they trust.

Look at this graph, for example. It’s via Marketo:

Lead Generation Referral

Scroll down those conversion rates: under 1 percent, under 1 percent, almost 4 percent (!), under 2 percent, under 3 percent, under 2 percent, under 1 percent …. and then BAM, 11 percent! What the hell?

Scroll over to the left.


Referral is the antidote to digital noise. Check this out, right? My vacuum just shit the bed a few days ago. I gotta buy a new vacuum. When I research it, thanks to digital tricks and re-marketing and some vacuum sellers even having traditional lead generation programs, my entire Internet experience is a cluster-mess of people trying to up-sell me vacuums. So when that gets tedious (which happens fairly fast), what do I do? I e-mail or text 5-10 friends and I see what they say. Usually 2-3 get back to me, I Google those brands, I take a look, and then I order online or drive out to Wal-Mart or something and knock down this life deliverable.

Lead generation killed lead generation, because it pushed everything back towards referral.

Lead generation is a house on Buzzword Boulevard

Another dirty little secret of most jobs — and especially marketing departments — is coming up with a term that ‘sounds good in theory’ to tell your boss you’re grinding away on when, in fact, you have no clue what your job is and you have no idea how to define what ‘results’ in that job might look like. One of the great examples of this is ‘impressions.’ No one really knows what that means, it correlates to virtually nothing, but hey, it’s a big number! I’ll say that to my boss! That’ll sound good!

GE Healthcare kinda got the buzzword nature of ‘lead generation.’ They banned the term internally! In the eyes of their CMO, a ‘lead’ was a person that had already ordered something. They wanted to focus more on ‘customer experience’ — admittedly another buzzword — and ‘sustainable engagement’ — ditto.

Most places I’ve worked, lead generation is just what I’m saying here: it’s a way for middle managers to up-sell their productivity to someone above them, even if it ultimately represents very little. The last jam I worked at, I did a little bit (not too much, really) with the lead generation program. I’d go to meetings about its progress and you’d always have a few middle managers yapping about how “2K leads are in the pipeline now!” You’d ask the people these leads fed to, and they’d be like “Eight of the leads I got last year were deceased.” It’s all just a way to make people in the middle ranks feel like they’re “owning” some crucial piece of the revenue pie, when in fact … they’re not. (BTW for humor’s sake, same gig — they had an internal magazine that you could only get if you already were working with a travel advisor, right? So it was like, the ultimate opt-in. One SVP repeatedly called that a lead generation program. Um, if there’s a pre-opt-in, I don’t think that actually generates new leads…)

Anyway: I think lead generation can be done right. If you’re showcasing value and not taking a person’s e-mail and instantly carpet-bombing them with offers and drip campaigns, you might build a relationship and get a sale out of it. I just don’t think a lot of people are, in fact, doing it right.

Your take?

Ted Bauer

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