Do You Know Where Your Leads Are?

Business-to-business sales over the Internet will exceed $1 trillion by 2003, according to International Data Corp., Framingham, MA. Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, projects an even higher number. What’s more, the Direct Marketing Association estimates interactive marketing expenditures will reach $8.9 billion by 2003. Under the circumstances, calling the Internet a significant new touchpoint between marketers and their prospects, partners and customers seems like an understatement.

The real problem with stating the obvious is that it can obscure what is less apparent and more interesting. I think that may be the case with the Internet as a marketing medium. Dot-com has become integral to branding. E-mail is emerging as perhaps the most direct form of direct mail. And “Visit our Web site” has taken its place alongside “Call 1-800” as a standard call-to-action. But the Internet is useful for far more than initiating contact and capturing leads – the functions of traditional touchpoints such as print direct mail, telemarketing, trade shows and advertising.

All cats are gray in the dark. Pretty much the same can be said for leads acquired – and distributed – by conventional means. They carry little or no information about how or where they were acquired, what offers were responded to or how likely the prospect is to buy what or when. So leads can’t very well be profiled, segmented or qualified. Distributing them to the channel is a chore or a shot in the dark or both. So they often simply languish, filed and forgotten; a hard-earned potential sales gone stale … a very real problem for companies whose lifeblood is their channel partners or VARs.

The Internet is a unique interaction engine. Via e-mail and Web-site visits, it enables marketers not only to establish contact with prospects, but to carry on a progressive dialogue with them over time. This process has come to be known by various names: interactive marketing, one-to-one marketing, personalized marketing and permission marketing. It’s all of those things. It’s also an enormously rich source of information that marketers can use to turn prospects into customers and customers into repeat buyers.

But hold on. This brave new world is rife with signs reading, “Caveat vendor.” Probably because it makes it so easy to talk to customers, Internet-based interactive marketing can easily lead marketers into temptation. Before you give in, remember that the wisdom of the permission-marketing movement is not just etiquette. Easy as it feels, your electronic link with prospects and customers is a slender thread, and they can cut it at the slightest provocation. Here are a few tips for keeping the lines of communication open and productive:

Don’t overreach. E-commerce etiquette is like everyday manners, except that the financial stakes are higher. So don’t pry, and don’t put the burden on the customer. Asking someone to fill out a 20-question form any time they visit your Web site is probably arrogant and almost certainly a barrier to response. Remember this cardinal rule: At each interaction, all you need to gather is enough information to make the next interaction possible. With the right tools, you can capture everything you need to learn about each lead at each stage. And you can feed that information back into your system, then draw on it to develop the leads you have and capture new ones.

Give customers the power of choice. It has become standard practice to include an opt-out mechanism in marketing e-mail. That’s exactly as it should be. The logic of interactive marketing is to encourage people to subscribe to your product and service information – willingly. To make that happen, you have to give them control of the relationship. And today the technology exists to conditionally opt-in or opt-out – your customers can selectively sign up for all of your campaigns or only periodic, specific information. Now that is real power.

Don’t worry. You’ll reap the rewards because while they’re subscribing to your information, you’re subscribing to theirs. Again, tools exist to aggregate, analyze and understand everything you glean through every interaction with every lead. The more you learn, the more effectively you can personalize your next interaction with each one – and the more precisely you can qualify each one.

Turn your channel partners into subscribers, too. Just as you can acquire and qualify leads through a series of Internet-based interactions, the tools exist for automating the process of distributing qualified leads to the channel then monitoring their conversion into sales – again, all via the Internet. On their end, your channel partners can use any standard browser to accept, track and provide disposition information about the leads they receive.

By using the Internet to interact with your channel partners, you’ll save enormous amounts of time and effort over the traditional processes of qualifying and distributing leads manually. You’ll be able to see which partners are closing sales most quickly and effectively, and analyze their performance by various criteria – including the source and quality of the leads they’re working with. And you can use what you learn to design more effective lead acquisition and distribution efforts.

Most importantly, you’ll personalize communications with your channel partners while delivering the best-qualified, most actionable leads to each one. While you’re helping the channel close the most sales, you’ll close the loop between leads and sales. And that, of course, will help you not only grow your top line but attract and retain the best, most effective channel partners.

Treating every lead and channel partner as an individual isn’t just a matter of respect. It’s also the most effective way to turn leads into sales. As professional marketers know, the objective of marketing isn’t to tell people what they want; it’s to learn what they want, and then make it available to them. That’s the momentous, revolutionary excitement of the Internet as a marketing medium and the marketing automation tools that have emerged along with it. They have so much to tell us about who we’re doing business with – from prospects and customers to our channel partners – and that knowledge is golden.

Peter Tierney is CEO of MarketFirst Software Inc., Mountain View, CA. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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