Lead generation has become the mantra of most businesses these days, along with the sales and marketing professionals who are responsible for driving growth. But factors like the digitization of our society, the exploding number of consumer channels and shifting consumer behaviors have made lead generation an increasingly complex proposition. Despite this increasing complexity of where consumer are and how they find out about you, success still results when the basics are understood and fundamental best practices are put into play.

Lead generation is, quite simply, the process of sparking an interest in a product or service among those who might be motivated to buy over time or influence others to do so.

The nature of today’s consumer is what makes lead generation challenging. People are increasingly self-directed and less interested in being “sold to” than being informed. When they’re interested in something, they have plenty of resources online at their disposal to educate themselves, including social media and the power of the personal recommendation. By the time they reach the buying stage, they may be very well informed.

It makes it essential that businesses build their online presence so they are at least in consideration when the consumer begins to narrow the choices. The need to generate the interest and attention among prospective buyers can be cultivated over time and turned into sales.  

This happens by mastering techniques in several categories.

It starts with inbound marketing. Inbound marketing essentially covers tactics that pull consumers into the brand, typically via the company website. This includes various forms of content marketing, using blogs, podcasts, video, e-books, e-newsletters, white paper and social media.

Content marketing relies on creating a consistent stream of quality content that demonstrates the expertise, thinking and other points of differentiation that may be behind the brand and help sway the way people think about it.

Content can be public, posted on the website and promoted via social media, and is a good way to drive new exposure to your brand. It can also be gated, which is a good approach for higher-level, premium content like e-books and white papers. Here, content is offered in return for the contact information of the prospective reader/customer who is then included in outbound marketing initiatives.

Another aspect of inbound marketing is SEO, where the business’ website content is optimized to be indexed properly by search engines to improve how the brand, the site and its content rank in searches. Among several other aspects, it involves smart use of relevant keywords throughout the site.

Content, whether gated or not, and whether housed in a company blog or retweeted on Twitter or shared on Facebook, falls under the “earned media” category versus the paid nature of advertising.

Earned media, gained through editorial-side coverage in mass media outlets like newspapers, magazines and television or through the Internet and social media’s more grassroots channels, is extremely valuable in lead generation. A 2013 Nielsen study found it most trusted on a worldwide basis and most likely to influence the consumer to action. Still, paid media, advertising and outbound marketing techniques like e-mail marketing remain important in driving lead generation for the sheer volume involved.

Paid media includes traditional advertising, such as the television commercials and ads in newspapers and magazines. It also covers digital advertising, which takes various forms to drive people back to a business’ website, ideally to convert to customers.

Digital advertising is growing increasingly sophisticated in capabilities and can take on various forms.  With paid search, advertisers can pay for prominence on search engines according to keywords, paying for each clickthrough back to their websites. Brands that are targeting travelers, for instance, can buy banner ads on online travel agencies like Expedia or on selected pages of sites like Delta.com, where “sponsorships” on the airline’s check-in path are sold.

Another approach is called remarketing, where prospects who visit a particular brand’s website are followed across the web with relevant ads.

Social media is increasing in popularity as a channel for paid media to generate more leads. Facebook recently debuted digital video ads for its newsfeeds, and Twitter formally moved into retargeting with “tailored tweets.”

Finally, lead generation can take the form of one-to-one contact, through cold calling on the phone or in person by sales professionals networking at events or collecting and passing out business cards at trade shows and conventions.

Without lead generation, at some level, a business is likely to suffer.  Deciding which approaches will be most effective to ensure the lead pipeline is open and flowing depends on a variety of factors, from budgets to the depth of people managing outreach campaigns. No matter what a business decides to do, a combination of earned and paid media is typically most effective over the long term.

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