What lead nurturing really means

Why lead nurturing isn't really lead nurturing

A while back, in a slideshare called Three Poisonous Metaphors in B2B Marketing, we railed against taking metaphors like ‘funnel’, ‘purchase journey’ and ‘followers’ too literally.

It was fun.

But there’s another term that has broken the bounds of the useful metaphor to become a potentially misleading concept: lead nurturing.

What’s wrong with ‘nurturing’?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the term ‘nurturing’. As with the other metaphors that we pilloried in the Poisonous Metaphors rant, it’s actually quite a useful concept – when it describes what we’re actually doing. But when it doesn’t, it isn’t.

Lead nurturing is a response to the problem, ‘What do we do with prospects who aren’t yet ready to buy?’. And the answer, ‘Nurture them until they are ready’ is a good one.

But, if we’re not careful, the nurture metaphor can distort the way we market.

Because nurturing implies a classroom full of kids (prospects), all of who will grow up into adults (sales-ready opportunities) if we just don’t screw things up — like forgetting to feed them.

Or it suggests a nursery of tiny little sprouting plants, all of which will grow into tall, proud… um, rutabagas – if we just water them.

Of course, this is where the metaphor fails.

The 3,800 people who filled out a form on your website will not all progress into sales-ready opportunities. In fact, a very, very few of them ever will.

In the lead nurturing world, this is often experienced as a failure.

I’ve been in dozens of meetings where everyone looks up at some depressing powerpoint chart and collectively grieves at the drastically winnowing lead-to-opportunity flow (or trickle). As if it proved how bad we are at this marketing thing.

(A similar meeting happens when ecommerce people consider their sub-1% conversion rates. It’s as if the 99% reflects our ineptness – instead of how many different reasons people visit websites.)

The truth is — and you may want to sit down for this:

The vast majority of people who stumble into contact with you will never buy from you no matter what you do.

Even the ones who become known to you – who have jumped the Snake River Canyon that is any web form – will never, ever, ever buy from you.

Sorry, someone had to tell you. (There’s a Bonus Santa Claus spoiler below*).

So when we say we’re nurturing these 3,800 people, what we’re really doing is interacting with them in such a way that the few who are actually prospective buyers may one day be ready to talk to a salesperson (and in such a way that we notice this when it happens).

For all but a few of these 3,800 people, these interactions will not bring them ‘closer to a sale’ at all. For, say 18 of them (if your marketing was really well targeted), the interactions may indeed help ‘progress them along the funnel’ until they’re ready to buy.

For the rest, you may call what you’re doing ‘nurturing’ but it’s really just blabbing, spamming, small-talking and, at best, influencer-stroking.

This raises some interesting questions.

Some interesting questions

So if only 18 people in our nurture flow will ever buy, what are we doing to the other 3,782?

Should we care?

Is anything good happening when we send our emails out to the never-gonna-buy people?

Does it matter?

Can’t we change that calculus and actually influence people towards becoming buyers? So maybe that 18 becomes 80?

Is there any way to identify the 18 high-potential prospects, early so we can focus our efforts on them?

Or, better still, find 180 more of these high-potential folks and focus on them?

Questions like these are being asked in B2B marketing departments all over the world right now. They’re replacing first-generation demand-gen questions like, ‘How do we get more people into our funnel?’ and, ‘Who the hell are these people who fill out forms and then just go silent on us?’.

And, like all the best questions, the answers are kind of… fuzzy.

I wish I could promise simple a neat, tidy solution to the apparent inefficiency of today’s lead nurturing programs. But all I’ve got are the musings of a content marketer who has been involved in lots and lots of funnel-related meetings and witnessed a bit of progress in some of them.

So, unless you’ve got better things to do (like, say… your job), let’s grope and stumble through this together…

Some better verbs

If we’re not really nurturing all these victims of our marketing, what the hell are we doing?

In the place of one spongy metaphor, here, for your consideration, are some macho verbs:

Maybe this is what we’re really doing when we say we’re nurturing. We’re just noticing when certain people engage with our stuff. Maybe our content is like a radar ping that we send out into the dark. And an email open or web hit or slideshare view is the returning ping that says, ‘A person is here and they seem interested in this particular topic.’

I like this because it’s more humble than ‘nurturing’.

We’re not progressing anyone. They are progressing and we are noticing.

As B2B content marketers, we often forget that our content should actually contain something. It should contain ideas. And points of view. And analysis. And argument.

So, if it’s any good, the people who read our content should actually come away slightly different than when they went in.

So, if nurturing ever works at all, it’s probably when our content educates.

That means we need to put a lot more time, energy and budget into the actual content of our content instead of just labeling it ‘TOFU’ or ‘MOFU’ and expecting it to goose people along our imaginary conveyor belt.

A lot of B2B decisions – a lot of life decisions for that matter – are a matter of timing. If your company is anywhere near top-of-mind when someone actually decides to get off his ass and do something, you’ve got a shot. If not, you don’t.

So maybe a lot of our so-called nurturing is actually just reminding people that we’re here and we do this thing and we’re ready to help when they’re ready to be helped.

That means we can take some of the burden off of our content and realize that it’s doing a job even when it’s just saying, ‘remember me?’. Of course, we want to remind people that we’re smart and charming and fun and helpful not just persistent, so we need our content to be that, too.

At it’s best B2B content marketing builds relationships. It works hard to earn someone’s time and attention, then works even harder to reward that time and attention. It listens at least as well as it speaks.

We all meet lots of people every day. But we choose to deepen our relationships with only a few of them. Which ones? The smart, friendly, charming, helpful ones. The ones who want to talk about us not just themselves (Austin Kleon calls the me-me-me types ‘human spam’).

That means our content needs to be more like the kind of people we like.

This is hugely important but almost universally forgotten:

Every piece of content we make is a demonstration of who we are.

And demonstrations speak way louder than words.

So instead of saying you’re company is smart and helpful and has its customers’ best interests at heart… prove it. Demonstrate it. Start with your content.

If we do this kind of thing at scale, we need a way to automate the noticing we just talked about. That’s where lead scoring comes in.

But an awful lot of B2B demand generation teams are still doing intensive marketing automation without actually scoring their leads. That’s just spamming while wearing a white lab coat.

The work of demand gen today must be built around an ever-improving scoring model that’s judged by one metric: high-scoring people must be WAY more likely to buy than low-scoring ones. If that’s not true, you’re doing it wrong.

Yep. Most of what we do when we nurture is sit around waiting for the bastards to get ready to buy. You can shout things like ‘left rudder!’ and ‘increase thrust!’, if it makes you feel more like Captain Kirk, but we’re really just waiting for some light-bulb to go on above some lady’s head somewhere.

So if you’re using the term ‘lead nurturing’ as shorthand for ‘moving people down the funnel’, you might feel like a Master of the Universe but you’re really just fooling yourself.

But if it’s shorthand for ‘lead noticing, educating, reminding, relationship-building, demonstrating, scoring and waiting’… you’ve probably got your feet on the ground and the ground is probably Earth.

What’s next in lead nurturing

If you think of nurturing as something you do to a population rather than an individual, you start to think things like:

Build high-potential populations
Instead of trying to nurture the hell out of a rag-tag bunch of random people who happened to stumble into your world, choose your prospects really well. The very top of your biggest funnel might be wide, but your best nurture streams within it must be narrow and tightly defined and super-targeted.

Use predictive analytics
The people who do end up buying from you are very different from the people who don’t. The trouble is they’re different in hundreds of ways, many of which are invisible to you.

That’s where predictive analytics comes in. It analyzes the people who bought (or you can build your model on people who progressed to ‘opportunity’ stage) against hundreds of dimensions and data points.

It then analyzes your entire prospect base to spot people who exhibit lots of the same things – whether behaviors or demographics or whatever.

You give these people special treatment and pass them to Sales sooner. Then you sell more stuff so you can buy nice things. (To see how it works, check out Lattice Engines).

Try Account Based Marketing
Instead of waiting to see who turns up in your random trawls, identify the accounts you really want to sell to and market to them.

That simple idea makes so much sense that Account Based Marketing has become the hottest thing in B2B since marketing automation. For most B2B companies, it will become a core discipline. (We worked with Engagio on the Clear and Complete Guide to Account Based Marketing. It’s 140 pages of awesome. You should at least skim it.)

Go nurture.

The term ‘lead nurturing’ isn’t going to go away. I just hope we all get a more nuanced understanding of what it really is.

This is an exciting time for B2B marketing. We’re all learning this stuff together, building our lead-gen machines, tinkering, swapping out parts, trying new things and, with any luck, getting better and better at it.

So let’s nurture away – but let’s do it intelligently, recognising that we’re doing significant things to a very few people instead of lots of important things to many.


* Good news: he exists. Bad news: only as a cultural/commercial meme kept alive by brands like Coca-Cola. Soz.


Great stuff as always, Doug.

Realy great stuff Doug. Congrats.

Great insights, Doug. You point it out and put some great points here. Indeed, these are really good tips.

I know it is a great post, as always is the case with Dough’s posts. However, what I’m more interested in is to know that how do you nail it so well? How is that Sir Dough Kessler is able to express these things in the way he does, clear, compelling and distinct. I know it is immaculate copywriting but I’m sure it is more than that. I guess Dough’s posts are one of the best combinations of battle-hardened insights, good expression, and an unmatched confidence. Dough, do you mind answering some of the questions I raised?

    Thanks Sharjeel! You made my day. I’m not sure what factors have to come together for a piece to ‘nail it’.
    I do feel that the more clear I am about what I want to say, the better the writing.
    The pieces that feel best to me are when I manage to tease out a real distinction between ideas that are really close but not the same.
    On this one, I revised quite a bit because I didn’t think I’d really managed to do that.
    I think this is true of the best copywriting out there (and best non-fiction in general): the hard work is in figuring out what you really think and being precise about that. The writing part feels easy after that.
    Thanks again.

Great, thought provoking article. As always, so engaging that I actually read it all, rather than my usual skim read. Great question earlier – how do you do it?

I think, to borrow Doug’s own words and fling them back at him – the answer is to how he does it is curiosity. No, empathy. No, a passion. No, an eye for a story. But if forced to pick a word, with a pencil held to his temple he goes for empathy. Empathy – it’s what make you, me, everybody (in B2B Marketing at least) read the article and felt ‘gotten’. You can’t help but read to the end because Doug get’s us, our challenges, and our desire to be and do different, better. We’ll aspire, but never quite achieve enough. I may ever have the chance to ‘buy’ from Velocity but I will gladly let them notice, educate, remind…. and maybe even nurture (alll the time confusing the hell out of their lead scoring model).

I found this post really helpful. It makes me want to discuss more about my team’s lead strategies. Thank you for sharing your ideas 🙂

this piece, like a lot of Doug’s stuff, is startlingly honest and cuts through a lot of fuzzy notions that have been put out there about marketing (funnel, path to purchase, etc) I mean some of them are helpful as metaphors. But a metaphor is like a leaky bucket!
Only good up to a point.
So, the concept of ‘nurturing’ really did need to be unpacked and clarified. I agree that it’s more about
educating and reminding. And just putting one’s personality forth by the appropriateness of the content, the message is in HOW you say it, (empathic) just as much as WHAT you say.

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