A Beginner’s Guide to Generating Business Leads the Inbound Way
Let’s set the stage: I’m about to dig into the best darn pile of spaghetti I’ve ever seen, and the phone rings. “May I speak to Lindsay Kow-low-witch?” asks the telemarketer on the other end. “This is an important message regarding your oven preferences.”
This frustrating interruption is why HubSpot is here to discuss inbound lead generation — a solution that can save your business or organization from being that annoying, disruptive cold caller that ruins spaghetti night.
Let’s start with defining a lead, and then we’ll cover what online lead generation is, why you need lead generation, how you qualify someone as a lead, how to label lead types — such as sales qualified leads — how you generate leads, and why inbound lead generation is much more effective than simply buying leads.
What is a lead?
A lead is any person who indicates interest in a company’s product or service.
Leads typically hear from a business or organization after opening communication (by submitting personal information for an offer, trial, or subscription), instead of getting a random cold call from someone who purchased their contact information.
Let’s say you take an online survey to learn more about how to take care of your car. A day or so later, you receive an email from the auto company that created the survey. This process would be far less intrusive than if they’d just called you out of the blue.
And from a business perspective, the information the auto company collects about you from your survey responses helps them personalize that opening communication to address your existing problems.
Leads are part of the lifecycle of transitioning visitors to customers. Not all leads are the same. There are different types of leads based on how they are qualified and what lifecycle stage they’re in.
Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)
Marketing qualified leads are contacts who have engaged with your marketing team’s efforts but aren’t ready to receive a sales call. An example of an MQL is a contact who fills out a landing page form for an offer.
Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)
Sales qualified leads are contacts who’ve taken actions that expressly indicate their interest in becoming paying customers. An example of an SQL is a contact who fills out a form to ask a question about your product or service.
Product Qualified Lead (PQL)
Product qualified leads are contacts who’ve used your product and taken actions that indicate interest in becoming a paying customer. PQLs typically exist for companies who offer a product trial or a free or limited version of their product with options to upgrade.
An example of a PQL is a customer who uses your free version but asks about features that are only available upon payment.
Service Qualified Lead
Service qualified leads are contacts or customers who’ve indicated to your service team that they’re interested in becoming paying customers.
For example, a customer could tell their customer service representative that they’d like to upgrade their product subscription. At this time, the customer service representative would up-level this customer to the appropriate sales team or representative.
What is lead generation?
Lead generation is the process of attracting prospects to your business and increasing their interest through nurturing, all with the end goal of converting them into a customer. Some ways to generate leads are through job applications, blog posts, coupons, live events, and online content.
These lead generators are just a few examples of lead generation strategies you can use to attract potential customers and guide them toward your offers.
Whenever someone outside the marketing world asks me what I do, I can’t simply say, “I create content for lead generation.” I’d get some really confused looks.
So instead, I say, “I work on finding unique ways to attract people to my business. I want to provide them with enough goodies to get them interested in my company so they eventually warm up to the brand and want to hear from us!”
That usually resonates better, and that’s exactly what lead generation is: It’s a way of warming up potential customers to your business. This gets them on the path to eventually making a purchase.
Why do you need lead generation?
When someone shows an organic interest in your business, the transition from stranger to customer is much more natural.
Lead generation falls within the second stage of the inbound marketing methodology. It occurs after you’ve attracted an audience and are ready to convert those visitors into leads for your sales team.
As you can see in the diagram below, generating leads is a fundamental point in an individual’s journey to becoming a delighted customer.
The Lead Generation Process
Now that we understand how lead generation fits into the inbound marketing methodology, let’s walk through the steps of the lead generation process.
- First, a visitor discovers your business through one of your marketing channels, such as your website, blog, or social media.
- That visitor then clicks on your call-to-action (CTA) — an image, button, or message that encourages website visitors to take some sort of action.
- That CTA takes your visitor to a landing page, a web page designed to capture lead information in exchange for an offer.
- Once on the landing page, your visitor fills out a form in exchange for the offer. Voila! You have a new lead. That is, as long as you follow lead capture from best practices.
Note: An offer is the content or resource that’s being promoted on the landing page, like an ebook, a course, or a template. The offer must have enough value for a visitor to provide their personal information in exchange for access to it.
See how everything fits together?
To sum it up: Visitor clicks a CTA that takes them to a landing page where they fill out a form to get an offer, at which point they become a lead.
By the way, you should check out our free lead generation tool. It helps you create lead capture forms directly on your website. Plus, it’s easy to set up.
Lead Generation Marketing
Once you put all of these elements together, you can use your various promotional channels to drive traffic to your landing page to start generating leads.
But what channels should you use to promote your landing page? Let’s talk about the front end of lead generation — lead gen marketing.
If you’re wondering how to generate leads in digital marketing specifically, it’s time to analyze your existing online channels and identify opportunities for conversion. This can include everything from your website to your organic and paid social media presence.
If you’re a visual learner, this chart shows the flow from promotional marketing channels to a generated lead.
There are even more channels you can use to get visitors to become leads. We’ll discuss the most impactful below.
Content is a great way to guide users to a landing page. Typically, you create content to provide visitors with useful, free information. You can include CTAs anywhere in your content — inline, at the bottom of the post, in the hero section, or even on the side panel.
The more delighted visitors are with your content, the more likely they are to click your CTA and move onto your landing page.
Email is a great place to reach people who already know your brand, product, or service. It’s much easier to ask them to take action since they’ve previously subscribed to your list.
Use CTAs with compelling copy and an eye-catching design to grab your subscriber’s attention.
Ads and Retargeting
The sole purpose of an ad is to get people to take action.
Otherwise, why spend the money? If you want people to convert, be sure that your landing page and offer match exactly what is promised in the ad and that the action you want users to take is crystal clear.
The great thing about using your blog posts to promote an offer is that you can tailor the entire piece to the end goal. Suppose your offer is an instructional video on setting up Google Search Console.
In that case, you can write a blog post about selecting your marketing metrics, making your CTA highly relevant and easy to click.
For a quick overview, check out our video guide.
Social media platforms make it easy to guide your followers to take action, from the swipe-up option on Instagram stories to Facebook bio links to URLs on Twitter.
You can also promote your offerings on social media and include a CTA in your caption. Learn more about social media campaigns in this post.
You can break down many sales barriers by offering trials of your product or service. Once a prospect uses your product, you can entice them with additional offers or resources to encourage them to buy.
Another best practice is to include your branding in your free versions so you can capture other potential customers, too.
Referral, or word-of-mouth marketing, is helpful for lead generation in a different way. It gets your brand in front of more people, increasing your chances of generating more leads.
Whatever channel you use to generate leads, you’ll want to guide users to your landing page. As long as you’ve built a landing page that converts, the rest will handle itself.
Industry events are a great way to get face-to-face with members of your target audience. Through networking at events, you can nurture new contacts into qualified leads.
If you have the marketing budget, you can take this further and exhibit at events. Exhibitions make qualifying new leads from your booth easier with a personalized demo or consultation.
Business partnerships are often a source of huge untapped potential for lead generation. Your target audiences are usually closely aligned, even if your products and services differ.
Partner marketing can be as simple as a logo placement on your partner’s website. But you can take it further with joint content strategies, promotional materials, and more.
This way, you both get your respective brands in front of each other’s customer bases in a mutually beneficial way.
Communities are ideal for turning visitors into leads. They’re also a great way to nurture and qualify existing leads.
For example, let’s say you’ve got a new free trial user. They have a question about the product, so they head to your knowledge hub only to find a forum of engaged promoters discussing your product and providing guidance on how to use it.
Seeing how others use your product and the extent of your existing customer base can make the difference between a user who chooses to upgrade and one who simply walks away.
Why not just buy leads?
Marketers and salespeople alike want to fill their sales funnel — and they want to fill it quickly. Enter: The temptation to buy leads.
Buying leads, as opposed to organically generating them, is much easier and takes far less time and effort, despite being more expensive. But you might be paying for advertising anyway, so why not just buy leads?
First and foremost, any leads you’ve purchased don’t know you. Typically, they’ve “opted in” at some other site when signing up for something and didn’t opt into receiving anything from your company.
The messages you send them are unwanted messages. Sending unwanted messages is intrusive. If the prospect has never been to your website and indicated an interest in your products or services, then you’re interrupting them, plain and simple.
If they never opted in to receive messages specifically from you, then there’s a high chance they could flag your messages as spam, which is dangerous.
Once enough people flag your messages as spam, your email address will be flagged and shared with other email providers.
Once you get flagged, it’s really, really hard to become credible again. In addition, your email deliverability and IP reputation will likely be harmed.
It’s always better to generate leads organically rather than buy them. Learn how to grow an opt-in email list instead of buying one.
How to Qualify a Lead
As we covered in the first section, a lead is a person who has indicated interest in your company’s product or service. Now, let’s talk about how someone can actually show that interest.
Essentially, a sales lead is generated through information collection. This could result from a job seeker applying for an open role, a shopper sharing contact information in exchange for a coupon, or a person filling out a form to download an educational piece of content.
Gauging a Lead’s Level of Interest
Below are a few ways you could qualify someone as a lead. Each of these examples shows that the amount of collected information used to qualify a lead, as well as their level of interest, can vary.
Let’s assess each scenario:
- Job Application. A candidate shares personal information because they want to be considered for a position. That application shows their interest in the job, qualifying the person as a lead for the company’s recruiting team — not marketing or sales.
- Coupon. If a shopper finds a valuable coupon, they may be willing to provide their name and email address in exchange for a deal. Although it’s not a lot of information, it’s enough for a business to know that someone has an interest in their company.
- Content. While the download of a coupon shows an individual has a direct interest in your product, content (like an ebook or webinar) does not. To understand the nature of the person’s interest, you’ll probably need to collect more information.
These three general examples highlight how lead generation differs from company to company and from person to person.
You’ll need to collect enough information to gauge whether someone has a genuine interest in your product or service — how much information is enough will vary depending on your business.
Let’s look at Episerver, for example. They use web content reports for lead generation, collecting six pieces of information from prospective leads.
Episerver provides a great example of what to ask for in a lead gen form:
- Full Name. This is the most fundamental information needed to personalize your communication with each lead.
- Email. This serves as a unique identifier and is how you will contact your lead.
- Company. This will allow you to research your lead’s industry and company and how the lead might benefit from your product or service (mainly for B2B).
- Role. Understanding an individual’s role will help you understand how to communicate with them. Every brand stakeholder will have a different take and perspective on your offering (mainly for B2B).
- Country. Location information can help you segment your contact by region and time zone and help you qualify the lead depending on your service.
- State. The more detailed information you can obtain without sacrificing conversions, the better. Knowing your lead’s state can help you further qualify them.
If you’d like to learn more intermediate-level tips on information collection and what you should ask for on your lead gen forms, read our post about it here.
Lead scoring is a way to qualify leads quantitatively. Using this technique, leads are assigned a numerical value (or score) to determine where they fall on the scale from “interested” to “ready for a sale.”
The criteria for these actions are up to you, but they must be uniform across your marketing and sales departments so that everyone works on the same scale.
A lead’s score can be based on actions they’ve taken, the information they’ve provided, their level of engagement, or other criteria that your sales team determines. For instance, you may score someone higher if they regularly engage with you on social media.
Borrowing from the examples above, you might give a lead a higher score if they used one of your coupons — an action that would signify this person is interested in your product.
The higher a lead’s score, the closer they are to becoming a SQL, which is only a step away from becoming a customer.
You may need to tweak criteria until you find the formula that works, but once you do, you’ll transform your lead generation into customer generation.
Lead Generation Strategies
Online lead generation encompasses various tactics, campaigns, and strategies depending on the platform you use to capture leads. We talked about lead capture best practices once you have a visitor on your site, but how can you get them there in the first place?
Let’s dive into lead generation strategies for a few popular platforms.
Facebook Lead Generation
Facebook has been a method for lead generation since its inception. Originally, companies could use outbound links in their posts and information in their bios to attract strangers to their websites.
However, when Facebook Ads was launched in 2007, and its algorithm began to favor accounts that used paid advertising, there was a major shift in how businesses used the platform to capture leads.
Facebook created Lead Ads for this purpose. Facebook also has a feature that lets you put a simple CTA button at the top of your Facebook Page, helping you send Facebook followers directly to your website.
Twitter Lead Generation
Twitter has Twitter Lead Gen Cards, which let you generate leads directly within a tweet without leaving the site.
A user’s name, email address, and Twitter username are automatically pulled into the card, and all they have to do is click “Submit” to become a lead.
(Hint for HubSpot users: You can connect Twitter Lead Gen Cards to your HubSpot Forms. Learn how to do that here.)
LinkedIn Lead Generation
LinkedIn has been increasing its stake in advertising since its early days.
Regarding lead generation, LinkedIn created Lead Gen Forms, which auto-populate with a user’s profile data when they click a CTA, making it easy to capture information.
PPC Lead Generation
When we say pay-per-click (PPC), we’re referring to ads on search engine result pages (SERPs). Google gets 3.5 billion searches a day, making it prime real estate for any ad campaign, especially lead gen.
The effectiveness of your PPC campaign relies heavily on a seamless user flow, as well as your budget, target keywords, and a few other factors.
B2B Lead Generation
B2B companies require a different approach to lead generation.
SmartInsights found that referrals are the top source for capturing business leads. Not to mention, effectiveness varies by channel.
Tips for Lead Generation Campaigns
In any given lead generation campaign, there can be many moving parts.
It can be challenging to tell which parts of your campaign are working and which need fine-tuning. Here are a few tips that can help when building lead gen campaigns.
1. Follow your data.
If you’re looking to build a lead generation engine, start with the bevy of data already at your fingertips. Begin by archiving which posts consistently rank well, bring in traffic, and have a clear connection to your product.
Once you know what performs well, you can determine where to place CTAs.
“For these posts, ask yourself what the missing middle piece is between what someone is reading about and what you can offer them,” suggests AJ Beltis, a senior marketing manager focused on media conversion at HubSpot.
He continues, “Perhaps it’s an actionable template, a more in-depth guide, or even a demo if the content is intended for those further along in the buying cycle.”
Remember, your CTA should not be a reach from the topic in the post.
“Keep it straightforward and logical and the leads will come flowing in,” Beltis says.
2. Use the right lead generation tools.
As you saw in our data, the most successful marketing teams use a formal system to organize and store their leads. That’s where lead generation tools and lead generation software come into play.
How much do you know about the people visiting your website? Do you know their names or their email addresses? How about which pages they visited, how they’re navigating around, and what they do before and after filling out a lead conversion form?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, chances are you’re having difficulty connecting with the people visiting your site. These are questions you should be able to answer — and you can with the right lead generation tools.
There are a few different tools and templates out there that’ll help you create different lead gen assets to use on your site:
- CTA Templates. Create clickable CTA buttons to use on your blog, landing pages, and elsewhere on your site.
- Lead Generation Software Tools. This free tool from HubSpot includes lead capture insights features, which will scrape any pre-existing forms you have and add those contacts to your existing contact database. You can also create pop-ups, hello bars, or slide-ins — called “lead flows” — to help you immediately turn visitors into leads.
- Visitor Tracking, Hotjar’s virtual heatmap tool creates a color-coded representation of how a user navigates your site. You can then understand what users want and care about.
- Form-Scraping Tool. A form-scraping tool that collects submissions on your website’s existing forms helps you consolidate all your leads into your contact database.
3. Create offers for all different stages of the buying cycle.
Not all of your site visitors are ready to talk to your sales team or see a demo of your product.
Someone at the beginning of the buyer’s journey might be interested in an informational piece like an ebook or a guide. In contrast, someone more familiar with your company and near the end of the journey might be more interested in a free trial or demo.
Make sure you’re creating offers for each phase and offering CTAs for these offers throughout your site.
Yes, it takes time to create valuable content that nurtures your leads down the funnel, but if you don’t offer anything for visitors who aren’t ready to buy, they may never return to your website. Here are 20 ideas for lead generation content to get you started.
If you want to take personalization a step further, try using smart CTAs. Smart CTAs detect where a person is in the buyer’s journey, whether they’re a new visitor, a lead, or a customer, and display CTAs accordingly. Personalized CTAs convert 202% better than basic ones.
4. Keep your messaging consistent and deliver on your promise.
The highest-converting lead gen campaigns are the ones that create a seamless transition from ad copy and design to the deliverable itself. Ensure you’re presenting a consistent message throughout the process and providing value to everyone engaging with your lead capture.
The aspects of your lead gen campaign should mirror everything else on your website, your blog, and the product you will eventually try to sell. If not, you’ll have difficulty getting your lead to the next lifecycle stage.
5. Link your CTA to a dedicated landing page.
This may seem obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many marketers don’t create dedicated landing pages for their offers. CTAs are meant to send visitors to a landing page where they can receive a specific offer.
Don’t use CTAs to drive people to your homepage, for instance. Even if your CTA is about your brand or product, you should still send them to a targeted landing page that includes an opt-in form. If you can use a CTA, send them to a page that will convert them into a lead.
If you want to learn more about building and promoting high-converting landing pages, download our ebook on optimizing landing pages for conversions.
6. Get your sales team involved.
Remember when we talked about lead scoring? Well, it isn’t exactly doable without your sales team’s input. How will you know what qualifies a lead for sales without knowing if your defined SQLs are successfully sold?
Your marketing and sales teams need to be aligned on the definitions and the process of moving a lead from MQL to SQL to opportunity before you even begin to capture leads.
Be open to evolving your relationship with sales and how you guide leads along your funnel. Your definitions will likely need to be refined over time; just make sure everyone involved is up-to-date.
7. Use social media strategically.
While marketers typically think of social media as top-of-the-funnel marketing, it can still be a helpful and low-cost source for lead generation, as shared in the lead gen strategies above.
Start by adding links directly to the landing pages of high-performing offers within your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media posts.
Tell visitors that you’re sending them to a landing page. That way, you’re setting expectations. Here’s an example from one of our Twitter posts:
You can also do a lead generation analysis of your blog to determine which posts generate the most leads and then make a point of regularly linking social media posts to them.
Another way to generate leads from social media is to run a contest. Contests are fun and engaging for your followers and can also teach you a ton about your audience. It’s a win-win.
Read our step-by-step guide for growing your email list using social media contests, which covers everything from choosing a platform to picking a winner.
8. Leverage your partnerships.
When it comes to lead generation, co-marketing can be powerful. If your team works with partner companies, put your heads together and create some mutually beneficial offers.
“On the Content Offers team at HubSpot, we run campaigns with partner companies that have a similar target audience and brand values to create and promote gated content like ebooks, reports, and templates,” says Jasmine Fleming, a marketing manager at HubSpot.
Fleming says both HubSpot and our partners generate leads with the offer. “We can share those leads with each other,” she says. “Co-marketing offers have the potential to generate significantly more leads than a content piece created by one company alone.”
9. Remain flexible and constantly iterate.
Your lead generation strategy needs to be as dynamic as the people you’re targeting. Trends change, behaviors shift, opinions morph, and so should your lead gen marketing.
Use A/B split testing to see what CTAs perform best, which landing pages convert better, and which copy captures your target audience. Experiment with layout changes, design, UX, content, and advertising channels until you find what works.
Lead Generation Trends & Benchmarks
So you’re getting web traffic and generating leads. But how are you doing compared to other companies in your industry? Read on to discover what other marketers are doing with lead generation in 2023, along with important stats to consider.
Lead generation is the top marketing priority.
HubSpot State of Marketing Report 2022 found that marketers report that their top marketing priority for the next 12 months is generating more leads. Converting these leads to customers is another top priority, according to SmartInsights.
Most B2B leads come from referrals.
B2B marketers say that 65% of their leads come from referrals, 38% from email, and 33% come from Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
If you’re interested in getting in on this trend, it’s worth considering revamping your referral strategy and helping existing customers bring you new leads.
Content marketing helps drive leads.
Marketers also report that content marketing has helped them successfully generate demand and leads over the past 12 months.
To get in on this trend, read this helpful blog post on creating content for different stages of the buyer’s journey.
Grow Better With Lead Generation
Now that you know more about how to generate leads for your business, we recommend you try HubSpot’s free lead generation tool. Use it to add simple conversion assets to your site and see what content prompts visitors to convert.
The basics we’ve gone over in this blog post are just the beginning. Keep creating great offers, CTAs, landing pages, and forms — and promote them in multi-channel environments.
Be in close touch with your sales team to make sure you’re handing off high-quality leads on a regular basis.
Last but not least, never stop testing. The more you test every step of your inbound lead generation process, the more you’ll improve lead quality and increase revenue.