B2B Lead Nurturing Email Best Practices: how to build a lead nurturing plan

How do I put together a lead nurturing plan using B2B lead nurturing email best practices that is not over-complicated but is effective?

This is a great question from a recent visitor (thanks Jessie! And thanks to clients Stefanie and Ryan for similar insightful questions)  Since Marketing Automation and other nurturing tools offer so many options it is often tempting to overcomplicate.  While a lead nurturing plan can get very sophisticated, we recommend building a b2b lead nurturing email best practices foundation and then evolving it with a test and learn approach.

Here is a four part nurturing recommendation to help get you going with a lead nurturing plan and keep it focused:

  1. Start with your objectives and business situation, how your pipeline works, and who your customer is.  Use this analysis to identify the challenges your pipeline is facing and what you want to solve with better nurturing. Stay focused on solving those challenges.
  2. Focus on nurturing prospects to the next stage in their decision process instead of directly to a sale.  Use content selection to tease prospects forward in your pipeline and to give you more visibility into where they are at.
  3. Start with three basic nurturing pathways: keep in touch (for example a regular content blast), triggered (a communications sequence triggered by an action like a content download or tradeshow booth visit) and big fish (true 1-1 nurturing using the same content and analytics as the other pathways but with a dedicated BD or sales rep handling the communications personally).
  4. Keep it simple and iterate your lead nurturing plan based on real world learning.

That is the short answer on how we help our clients put together B2B lead nurturing email best practices and programs. But read on if you are interested in detail on each of those recommendations and some links to other relevant resources.

1. Start your lead nurturing plan with your objectives and business situation, how your pipeline works and who your customer is.

What do you want your nurturing to achieve?  If you have a complex offer with a long buying and sales cycle you may need a longer nurturing program and lots of content.  If you have more leads than you can handle you should be focused on qualifying them.  If your sales team has lots of capacity you should be accelerating the leads you have and attracting new leads.

Get learning from your BD/Sales team about how your pipeline really works.  Identify the decision stages in your pipeline and listen for clues about what your customers want to know at each stage in their decision process.  Understand the basic customer segments in your pipeline and the content those segments are looking for, for example business vs technical.

And then identify the challenges your pipeline is facing and what you want to solve with better nurturing.  That will set your program off in the right direction.

2. Focus on nurturing prospects to the next stage in their decision process instead directly to a sale.

It is challenging to get a prospect to buy before they are ready to buy, especially if you have a complex offer.  If a prospect is still defining their requirements they won’t be able to understand the value of your pricing model or see it in your product demo.  For example if a prospect downloads a market survey they are unlikely to be ready for your sales contact but might read an email with additional relevant information about the market.  And keep in mind that their trip through your pipeline won’t always be a straight path.  Often prospects take a step back or sideways in their process before they are ready to move forward.

While this can be challenging to manage without the right tools, it is perfectly suited to a nurturing process using marketing automation.  Treat your nurturing as a diagnostic process, meaning you want your prospect to self-diagnose what they are interested in.  At each point of contact serve-up several choices of information.  A couple of choices of similar content focused on the decision stage a prospect is in, a content piece teasing the next decision stage, and a “contact our sales team” call-to-action.  If your prospects bite on the content from the next stage then serve up more content suited to that information need.  If they don’t, then keep serving up a range of content with a focus on their current stage.  If you communicating with prospects in different or unknown stages (like a newsletter blast) then be sure to include a range of content from different stages.  The more relevant your content, the less friction your pipeline will have.

Think of it as a “choose your own adventure book”.  On each “page” prospects can choose to move to the next “chapter” in their decision or read more from the current chapter.  But don’t forget that different prospects will move at different speeds through your pipeline.  Content relevance is in their eyes, so give them more choices and let them self-diagnose.

3. Develop three different nurturing pathways: triggered, keep-in-touch, and big fish.

Triggered (or event) nurturing

Triggered pathways start with a specific action: a download, a click, an open, a tradeshow booth visit.  A good rule of thumb is that you can initiate up to 3 nurturing re-actions without another prospect action.  (but watch your opt-out numbers closely to make sure this rule works for you)  And because your prospect’s action can help diagnose what they want to know you can focus your re-actions to be more relevant.  Triggered pathways are a great place to use the “choose your own adventure” approach to content.

Keep-in-touch nurturing

Keep-in-touch pathways are not trigged by an action but instead are spread out on a timed basis. Their objective is to keep your value proposition and expertise top-of-mind with your prospect as they meander through their decision process.  Timed pathways feature information from a range of decision stages as well as quick hit engagement content like “highlights from our most popular tweets and blog posts”, “top 10 lists”, and industry updates. The frequency of timed nurturing depends of the engagement of your audience, as well as the quality and quantity of your content.  The main purpose of timed content is to trigger another prospect action and get them back on a triggered pathway.

Big Fish Nurturing

Big Fish pathways are not automated nurturing at all.  They are true one to one nurturing.  Use this approach when a prospect is so qualified they are worth the investment of expensive business development hours.  But follow the same decision stage approach.  Don’t try to move from a contact to a sale right away.  Share a range of content that allows the prospect to self-diagnose.  Keep their actions visible in your pipeline by using smart collateral with embedded tracking and allowing the prospect to self select the content they are interested in.  But your personal contact should be more responsive, able to better diagnose a “big fish” prospect’s needs, deliver even more relevant and customized content, and personalize the nurturing process.

4. Keep it simple, test and learn, and iterate based on real world learning.

Start by adding auto-responders to key actions such as the download of a featured piece of content.  Offer up 5 click actions in the auto-responder: 3 choices or content links relevant to that decision stage, a choice from the next stage and a contact us call to action.

Try an eblast to your lapsed customer list with content from different decision stages and a focus on light-weight engagement.

And then track what happens.  In other words throw some intelligent mud on the wall.  And focus your effort on lead nurturing best practices that are working for you, where your prospects are taking action and self-diagnosing their needs.

B2B lead nurturing email best practices are worth the effort.  Here are a few smart sources for additional lead nurturing thinking:

Jessie Johnson: 6 Tips for Understanding the B2B Business Decision-Making Process & Engaging the Buyer

ClickZ: An Effective Lead-Nurturing Program in 3 Steps

Brian Carroll, InTouch, and MarketingSherpa: Lead Nurturing Best Practices Research and Data

But most of all go ahead and start implementing B2B lead nurturing email best practices.

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