When you’re onboarding a new SEO client who works with a lead generation model, what do you do?
Among the many discovery questions you ask as you try to better understand your client’s business, you probably ask them, “What makes a lead a good lead?” That is, what are the qualities that make a potential customer more likely to convert to sale?
A business that’s given some thought to their ideal customer might send over some audience personas; they might talk about their target audience in more general terms. A product or service offering might be a better fit for companies of a certain size or budget, or be at a price point that requires someone at a senior level (such as a Director, VP, or C-level employee) to sign off, and your client will likely pass that information on to you if they know it. However, it’s not uncommon for these sorts of onboarding conversations to end with the client assuring you: “Just get us the leads. We’ll make the sales.”
Since SEO agencies often don’t have access to our clients’ CRM systems, we’re often using conversion to lead as a core KPI when measuring the success of our campaigns. We know enough to know that it’s not enough to drive traffic to a site; that traffic has to convert to become valuable. Armed with our clients’ assurances that what they really need is more leads, we dive into understanding the types of problems that our client’s product is designed to solve, the types of people who might have those problems, and the types of resources they might search for as they tend to solve those problems. Pretty soon, we’ve fixed the technical problems on our client’s site, helped them create and promote robust resources around their customers’ problems, and are watching the traffic and conversions pour in. Feels pretty good, right?
Unfortunately, this is often the point in a B2B engagement where the wheels start to come off the bus. Looking at the client’s analytics, everything seems great — traffic is up, conversions are also up, the site is rocking and rolling. Talk to the client, though, and you’ll often find that they’re not happy.
“Leads are up, but sales aren’t,” they might say, or “yes, we’re getting more leads, but they’re the wrong leads.” You might even hear that the sales team hates getting leads from SEO, because they don’t convert to sale, or if they do, only for small-dollar deals.
At this point, nobody could blame you for becoming frustrated with your client. After all, they specifically said that all they cared about was getting more leads — so why aren’t they happy? Especially when you’re making the phone ring off the hook?
A key to client retention at this stage is to understand things from your client’s perspective — and particularly, from their sales team’s perspective. The important thing to remember is that when your client told you they wanted to focus on lead volume, they weren’t lying to you; it’s just that their needs have changed since having that conversation.
Chances are, your new B2B client didn’t seek out your services because everything was going great for them. When a lead gen company seeks out a new marketing partner, it’s typically because they don’t have enough leads in their pipeline. “Hungry for leads” isn’t a situation any sales team wants to be in: every minute they spend sitting around, waiting for leads to come in is a minute they’re not spending meeting their sales and revenue targets. It’s really stressful, and could even mean their jobs are at stake. So, when they brought you on, is it any wonder their first order of business was “just get us the leads?” Any lead is better than no lead at all.
Now, however, you’ve got a nice little flywheel running, bringing new leads to the sales team’s inbox all the livelong day, and the team has a whole new problem: talking to leads that they perceive as a waste of their time.
A different kind of lead
Lead-gen SEO is often a top-of-funnel play. Up to the point when the client brought you on, the leads coming in were likely mostly from branded and direct traffic — they’re people who already know something about the business, and are closer to being ready to buy. They’re already toward the middle of the sales funnel before they even talk to a salesperson.
SEO, especially for a business with any kind of established brand, is often about driving awareness and discovery. The people who already know about the business know how to get in touch when they’re ready to buy; SEO is designed to get the business in front of people who may not already know that this solution to their problems exists, and hopefully sell it to them.
A fledgling SEO campaign should generate more leads, but it also often means a lower percentage of good leads. It’s common to see conversion rates, both from session to lead and from lead to sale, go down during awareness-building marketing. The bet you’re making here is that you’re driving enough qualified traffic that even as conversion rates go down, your total number of conversions (again, both to lead and to sale) is still going up, as is your total revenue.
So, now you’ve brought in the lead volume that was your initial mandate, but the leads are at a different point in their customer journey, and some of them may not be in a position to buy at all. This can lead to the perception that the sales team is wasting all of their time talking to people who will never buy. Since it takes longer to close a sale than it does to disqualify a lead, the increase in less-qualified leads will become apparent long before a corresponding uptick in sales — and since these leads are earlier in their customer journey, they may take longer to convert to sale than the sales team is used to.
At this stage, you might ask for reports from the client’s CRM, or direct access, so you can better understand what their sales team is seeing. To complicate matters further, though, attribution in most CRMs is kind of terrible. It’s often very rigid; the CRM’s definitions of channels may not match those of Google Analytics, leading to discrepancies in channel numbers; it may not have been set up correctly in the first place; it’s opaque, often relying on “secret sauce” to attribute sales per channel; and it still tends to encourage salespeople to focus on the first or last touch. So, if SEO is driving a lot of traffic that later converts to lead as Direct, the client may not even be aware that SEO is driving those leads.
None of this matters, of course, if the client fires you before you have a chance to show the revenue that SEO is really driving. You need to show that you can drive lead quality from the get-go, so that by the time the client realizes that lead volume alone isn’t what they want, you’re prepared to have that conversation.