Customer acquisition is the lifeblood of most businesses, and it requires dedication and perseverance. In my experience, the more specific the audience being pursued is and the more focused the corresponding content marketing campaign is, the more successful lead generation will be.

The most common way to initially identify the audience of potential new customers is to determine whether you are looking at the marketplace vertically or horizontally. Vertically means by industry—for example, construction, aerospace, or manufacturing. Horizontally means specific job functions—for example, marketing, engineering, or sales—regardless of the industry the functions are in. 

It’s possible to further define the audience by combining the two approaches, to target people in a specific niche—for example, accountants who work in the aerospace industry or IT buyers employed by professional services firms. Generally speaking, the smaller the company, the more preferable it is to combine the horizontal and vertical approaches. Larger companies are more likely to have specific teams or divisions that pursue particular niches, so that the company can pursue multiple niches at the same time.

You also need to identify the size of the companies where the people you want to pursue are employed. Generally, these are the four principal sizes of companies:

  • Large enterprises—those with revenue of more than $1 billion per year and 1,000-plus employees
  • Midmarket companies—revenue of $10 million to $1 billion per year, 101 to 500 employees
  • Small businesses—revenue of $5 million to $10 million per year, one to 100 employees
  • Emerging market companies—companies in the early stages of fast growth

In addition, you need to consider where the target audience is located. Are you going to target a specific state or region, or is your audience a national, or even international, one?

Finally, you must consider the job titles of the target audience. For example, if the product you’re marketing has been developed for IT departments, titles to target might include chief technology officer, chief information officer, technology vice president, IT vice president, and IT manager. Or, if the product would interest only the top management of the IT function, you would target only the chief technology and chief information officers.

To sum up step one, to define the audience that your content-marketing campaign will target, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I going after a specific horizontal, a specific vertical, or both?
  • What business size or sizes are we targeting?
  • Is our focus on a specific geographic area, a national audience, or an international audience?
  • What are the likely job titles of those we’re targeting?

A word of caution before moving on. Does your target audience want or need your product or service? Such a basic question, right? You would be surprised how often it is not asked. If the answer is “I’m not sure,” the rest of the lead generation process will be frustrating and probably unsuccessful. Even when all the lead generation steps are followed carefully, the audience might not respond to the marketing effort. So, before going any further, be sure that the audience you’re targeting is the right one for your product or service. 

Once you’re confident that those people being targeted are likely to want the product or service your company provides, continue with the steps for generating leads. 

Step 2. Develop marketing personas.

After you’ve identified the audience to target, you need to understand what’s important to them and how they make decisions. This is done by developing marketing personas. A persona is a tool that allows marketers to gain more knowledge about specific segments of the target audience. Each persona represents a group of people that is a subset of the audience you have targeted. The knowledge comes through discovering these people’s needs, pain, interests, and decision-making journey.

Building personas is important because they become the foundation for deciding what your content marketing consists of. Remember, the focus of your content marketing, at least at first, is your audience and not your company. Your content needs to demonstrate identification with the pain your audience faces. Then, once the audience sees that your company has acknowledged and understands that pain, the company will start to earn their trust. This trust gives you the permission to—eventually—talk about how your company can help solve their problems and relieve their pain.

When developing personas, don't make these common mistakes:

  • Getting caught up in perfecting every little detail (there’s no such thing as a perfect persona, just a general representation of a typical customer).
  • Making a bunch of assumptions (if you don’t know the target audience’s real desires, needs, and wants, your marketing will be flawed, because it won’t resonate with the audience).

The most useful and effective personas come from understanding your audience through one-on-one conversations with existing customers. By speaking with only five to ten people, you’ll begin to see what they have in common. I always learn new things about the customer from having these conversations and developing personas. The insights I’ve uncovered through interviews have gone a long way toward shaping the content and the methods of its delivery. When responding to open-ended questions, customers take the marketer down paths that lead to new information and insights.

Here are some open-ended questions to ask during those conversations:

  • What does your typical day look like?
  • What are the challenges you face?
  • What does success look like to you?
  • How is your job success measured?
  • How do decisions get made at your company?
  • What frustrates you on the job?
  • Where do you find information about your industry?

The number of personas you need to develop depends on how many personas there are within your targeted audience. It may be appropriate for your content marketing campaign to target just one persona—say, someone who is an IT manager at a professional services firm. It’s more likely that you’ll target multiple personas—at professional services firms, for example, IT leaders who are decision makers, IT managers those who are influencers, IT engineers who implement software, and those on the IT procurement team. After talking to enough people, you will start to identify different buckets and who goes in which one.

Step 3. Source the list.

When you know your audience and its needs, it’s time to build the list of individuals to whom you will market your company’s product or service. There are many ways to do this, but I prefer to develop a list using LinkedIn. The professional network contains rich data that tends to be relatively high quality and up to date. It provides the ability to see how you are connected to each individual, and its cost is low. For less than $100 a month, marketers can use the site’s tool called LinkedIn Sales Navigator to build their target audience list. 

Among the more popular search filters available on LinkedIn are people’s industry, geography, seniority level, function, title, years of experience, company type, and company headcount. Tools such as Sales Navigator allow you to build a list in minutes. For less than $100 a month, you can go from having no idea who your customers are to being equipped with a list of details about prospective customers—and knowing how to connect with them. Pretty amazing, right?

If you don’t go the LinkedIn route, there are other companies that provide similar types of customer data, though they are likely to be more expensive and to take longer. Some more well-established ones include Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), Demandbase, Zoominfo, and Experian. According to D&B, when choosing your list provider, look for accurate data, a comprehensive database, advertising network integration, and customer support.

Bear in mind that you don’t have to buy a list. You can organically develop your own by gathering contact info at an event. Another way to do it is to launch a traditional marketing campaign that generates a lot of traffic to a landing page that requires people to provide this type of information.

Step 4. Segment the list.

Let's say that you have built the list and have identified 5,000 potential customers. Next you need to find out which ones you or other people at your company already know. Why is this so important? Effective lead generation and nurturing is all about getting the attention of your prospect, and the easiest way to do that is by being introduced through a mutual connection.

Once you’ve gone through the list, split it into two groups: (1) people you or someone else at your company knows and (2) people you don’t know and who have no connections at your company. Producing this final list is time-consuming because you must determine how you're connected to each lead. The best way to do this is by using a tool like LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator.

If you work at a large company with several sales reps, there’s a feature within Sales Navigator that allows people to tap into each other’s networks. Once you connect your individual LinkedIn account to your company’s account, you’ll see another level of connectivity with your target audience. You can then ask your coworkers for introductions. This is called a second-level network request. It's very effective, because having a personal relationship with someone dramatically increases the chances of securing a meeting.

Step 5A. Approach the people you know.

Here, I’m not going into any more detail about approaching the people on your list with whom you or a colleague already has a connection. That’s covered in the other blog psots, which outlines how to convert more prospects.

Step 5B. Approach the people you don’t know.

If you don't have a mutual connection with a prospect, you need to find another way to get his or her attention. This is the most challenging part of business development. Why? Virtually all prospects have been conditioned not to engage with salespeople. Don’t be angry with your prospects. They’re not to blame for this; rather, the volume of bad outreach that’s happened over the past ten to fifteen years is. The number of companies that are doing outbound marketing has increased dramatically, and marketing automation tools have made it easy to send out messages at scale.

When I was in charge of global digital marketing at two Fortune 500 companies, my inbox and voicemail were always full of cold-outreach messages. I got three to five voicemails and twenty to thirty emails every day. I looked at all the requests but engaged only on the rare occasions when there was a good fit with my needs and unique outreach by the sales rep.

Unfortunately, to reach the group of prospects without connections to anyone at your company, you must spend some money on marketing or do some cold calling, and it's going to take a lot longer to connect with them than with the other group. What's the best way to do this? There's not an easy answer. It depends on a number of factors, such as your company’s industry, reputation, and number of competitors as well as when prospects are in buying mode.

If during the persona-development step you asked prospects where they look for industry information or connections, then you’ll have a place to start. I'm not going into how to reach these folks through paid media here because that topic could fill another book. However, some online channels to consider for reaching them are paid advertising (offline and online), search-engine marketing, sponsorships, affiliate marketing, and referral programs. If you choose to try to reach your audience online, be sure to explore advertising capabilities like dayparting (reaching your target at a certain time of day), geotargeting (targeting specific locations), and retargeting (sending follow-up messages to those who engaged with your ad or visited your website). Using these features will help you to create more effective campaigns.

Step 6. Put everything in a CRM.

Once you've identified your audience, by either building a list of individuals or using marketing to drive demand, you’ll need a place to store the information about these people. That's why you need a customer relationship management (CRM) system. In simple terms, a CRM system allows you to store information about your customers. If you connect the CRM system to your website, you’ll be able to track individual behavior online to each record. Having this extra level of insight is incredibly helpful. Not only will you know that one of the people on your audience list has taken some type of action, but you’ll also know the specific pages the person visited. This knowledge helps you to focus on the most engaged prospects and customize future communications for them.

Most CRM systems have the same general cost structure. The more customer records you have, the more you pay. Some of the larger platforms are Salesforce CRM, Oracle Sales Cloud, and HubSpot. Some of the newer CRM systems are Infusionsoft, Soho CRM, and Drift. The good, or potentially bad, news is that if your IT department has already invested in a CRM system, then that’s the one you will need to use. 

Now that you have an understanding of how to generate leads and have a system in place to store them, we can move on to the next problem: how to convert these prospects into actual customers. The focus of other blog posts on how to use content marketing to nurture prospects and, ultimately, to help them buy from your company. 

Notice how I didn’t say “help you sell to them”? That’s a key premise of content marketing. Even though everything we marketers do is in the interest of making a sale, content marketing is all about getting the prospect to choose to buy from your company.


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