Ryan Johnston
Demand Generation Manager, Pardot, Ryan Johnston

Connecting lead generation and sales to content might seem like the Holy Grail of content strategy and content marketing, but that connection is often hard to define. And especially when users perform a variety of complex tasks—discovering your brand for the first time, researching solutions, or actually buying—it’s often difficult to pinpoint if, and when, content nudged the buyer in the right direction.

Ryan Johnston makes a living studying that Holy Grail of connecting lead generation and sales results to content. He’s the Demand Generation Manager at the successful Atlanta-based company Pardot, which is now a salesforce.com company after its 2013 acquisition. The company offers a software-as-a-service marketing automation application that allows marketing and sales departments to create, deploy, and manage online marketing campaigns that increase revenue and maximize efficiency.

Johnston spent some time talking to us about the connections between content and lead generation, how content moves people through the sales funnel, and how to both set content marketing goals and evaluate the tangible success of those goals.

How do you see content’s role in moving people through the sales funnel, from initial discovery of a brand to a closed sale?

It’s all about education. Content educates a lead or contact at a certain point in time to help them know more about your brand, your product, and what value you offer. Ideally, your content meets people’s needs for the top, middle, and bottom stages of the sales funnel. As leads digest your content, it needs to move them to the next stage of the funnel. Calls to action are especially important. Even if a blog post, whitepaper, video, or any other piece of content perfectly resonates with someone, what action does a person take next? If you don’t offer a clear next step, a potential customer may just move on to your competitor, do research on their own, or even just forget and stop considering you. Calls to action help you stay top of mind and help guide people through the funnel.

Content fuels lead generation, so connecting those dots between the different sales funnel stages with content is really important. It’s best to figure out where you’re putting your content and what you’re expecting to get out of it in terms of lead generation. For example, I often recommend putting some content behind forms to help bring new leads into a company’s database. To do that, you have to think hard about the content you’re putting out there. Is it valuable enough that people will exchange information with you? You’re probably not going to put a blog post behind a form, but you might do it with a really well-researched whitepaper. If people signify that they desire your gated content, it’s a good sign in terms of lead generation.

When looking through reams of lead generation data, how do you know if content actually engages users?

Most enterprises look at aggregate level data such as a piece of content downloaded 10 or 50 times in a month. You see users engaging with the content, but you don’t know why or how it’s affecting them. That’s why you need to drill down into the individual lead level to figure out if the first piece of content moved them along down the funnel like you wanted. For example, a blog post might offer a call to action. After that person read the blog post, did they take that action and move to the next stage? You want to see how content influences individual users, how they move through the funnel, and if they take appropriate and desired actions at the right point in time.

What are some common mistakes or misapplications that you see enterprises make when approaching content from a lead generation point of view?

Lead generation tends to get pushed down from the top levels of an organization. Executives want messaging put out and they expect certain results. Many times, they don’t base their demands on a data-driven approach. Then the demand generation and content teams scramble to figure out how to take their messaging, package it into the right asset that resonates on the right channel, and get results from it. But without data, it’s easy to make mistakes. For example, content meant for the bottom of the sales funnel tends not to work on social media channels. Expecting somebody to actually interact and engage with it is unrealistic. And when that unrealistic result doesn’t happen, the teams find themselves trying to tell upper management that they missed the mark. And those stakeholders won’t really understand why those teams didn’t get as many leads from the content as requested.

Instead, enterprises need to look at the buying lifecycle, the phases of the sales funnel, the available channels, and how the organization currently uses content. After some data-driven analysis, you can then ask where video or long-form content makes the most sense. Without data, organizations sometimes use the same content across all channels and expect it to work in every area.

On the flip side, enterprises sometimes make content too complicated. Many kinds of trendy technology platforms exist. As a result, people often spend too much time focused on the tool or technology. They try to build out the right model and figure out exactly how content influences customers, but they forget to experiment. Otherwise, you won’t really learn anything. Put content out there, start getting some basic results, and learn from those experiences. Don’t spend too much time hypothesizing and building out complicated models. An organization should not spend 6-12 months building a model that they have to change one week after launch.

How do you set content goals and then evaluate if those goals are met from a lead generation standpoint?

Ideally, organizations already have some data about how similar pieces of content performed in the past. Then you can benchmark against that past performance. If you lack that historical data, at least identify what stage of the funnel you want your content used and what constitutes an appropriate channel for that content. From there, set appropriate goals for each piece of content. Understand what it’s supposed to do. Generate leads? Help with branding? Is it bringing in new leads through the right channel? Is it for new leads, or existing leads already in your database? Overall, try not to set big lofty content goals for all content. Instead, set goals for each individual piece of content that make sense based on what it is, how you’ve seen that content perform in the past, and what you want it to do now.

As Johnston points out, a deep understanding of your content’s type, function, and desired action helps you connect the dots between content and lead generation. Remember to:

  • Introduce calls to action for each piece of content. Taking a next step signifies further interest, but your audience needs to clearly see that next step.
  • Set realistic content goals. Expecting a high level branding video or a niche blog post to generate leads only ends up in frustration. Connect the right content to the right person through the right channel at the right time.
  • Evaluate both the “what” and “why” of your content results. It’s not enough to look at aggregate data. Delve deeper into why your content engages people.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in November 2014.

The Author

Kevin Howarth is an associate writer for Content Science Review. You can contact Kevin at Content Science.

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