The road to prosperity: The fat funnel

Leads, leads, leads!

Ask a sales person what they want, and the answer is simple: Leads. And not just any leads – qualified leads.

And so we have the classic sales funnel or the “waterfall”. Raw leads come into the organization, and through a process of attrition, a smaller and smaller number of them become more and more qualified until a percentage of the leads close.

Nothing new here: This is a standard report available on every major CRM program. And much thought is given to the problem of how to get these leads into the funnel.

However, in my experience, the only way to guarantee a successful stream of leads is to develop what I call a fat funnel. A fat funnel is a massive group of people who aren’t even close to being buyers, but who, one day, may convert.

The fat funnel is way up on the “top” of the sales funnel.

You want a really, really fat funnel.

Think of a fat funnel as the top of a large “Y” shaped funnel. The top is really broad, and represents leads that have possibly very little understanding of your value proposition. As the leads flow further down, the understanding (and possible interest in your product) increases. By the time the lead gets far further down the funnel, they’ve moved from being suspects to prospects.

A funnel is a representation of both time, and knowledge. The higher up the funnel, the longer it will take the person to convert to a lead. And, as a corollary, the higher up in the funnel, the less that person knows about you.

The secret to great lead generation is understanding how to develop this fat funnel. If you’ve done your job well, selling becomes a process of picking up the phone with a qualified buyer. What more could a sales person want?

Therein lies the reason why some sales executives are terrible marketers. And why some marketers are terrible sales people.

The reality is that marketing is a totally different skillset to selling; and selling is a totally different skill set to marketing.

Sales deals more in the now. Marketing deals more in a future now. And PR (typically viewed as a subset of marketing, but in reality, its own science) is way, way higher up strategically.

Marketers who are impatient, and want all of their sales right now, don’t make great marketers. Yes, they can be responsible for leads right now, but what I often see is marketers, under the hectic whip of sales, becoming simply demand generation specialists. In other words, focusing all of their day tweaking Google Adwords (I exaggerate… but only a little).

If marketers know their jobs, they know that their view is much broader, and a broader view means a longer cycle of time.

To rephrase my friend the great Al Ries, “PR lights the fire, marketing fans the flames… and sales people cook their daily bread on the flame”.

Again, sales people deal want prospects. Marketers deal with suspects, understanding that all prospects were once suspects. A great marketer is developing a plan to generate that future “now” today.

So what does this all mean in a practical sense?

Build really big lists of people to talk to. And talk to them.

That sounds utterly oversimplified, right? However, it’s a point that is missed in so many companies I work with, I’m often surprised.

I once worked with a company that had a bizarre policy of deleting leads after 90 days if they didn’t buy. And, in one instance of “list cleanup”, they arbitrarily deleted 200,000 names from their database, because the people in the database hadn’t purchased recently. This was a WTF! moment for me. It takes people sometimes years to come around to even thinking of your solution.

Another company I worked with would just get lead-sign ups and then blast the poor leads with weekly “hot deals”. No communication, just yelling in their face with bright red, boldface “50% off today only!”

Let’s get back to first principles: People out in the world are either in your target market, or they aren’t. Those who are in your target market need to be communicated to.

And if you’re not communicating to your target market, something terrible will happen: Nothing.

It starts with awareness of your product. This can be through PR, social media, adwords, SEO, advertising, direct mail, whatever. There’s a vast toolbox of “awareness builders” that is not the topic of this post. A good marketer understands that there is a precise tool needed for any task, and the toolbox also includes, even before awareness building, basics such as branding, positioning, customer research, and so on.

Through these awareness campaigns, accumulate names. Now, some of these names will buy right away, and that’s fine. It’s those that don’t buy that need to be placed into a mechanism for regular communication.

The regular communication is just that – communication. If you’re selling lawn mowers, give tips on how to have a greener lawn, interviews and videos with lawn care experts. Become an authority. Be authentic. Don’t be a spammy “buy now” type. Talk to the suspects, not at them. And talk to them regularly.

The conversation should be 90% real content, and 10% promotional. You have every right to ask someone to buy (and you should). But do it in the context of a relationship.

How do you communicate with your customers? It can newsletters (if you’re using newsletters, read “How to Write Good Newsletters that Don’t Suck.”). It can be inclusion on your own forum, or social media site (building communities is a fantastic tool). It can be a webinar, a free trial, or a freemium model. It can even be regular postcards. Whatever. The way in which you communicate to your suspects is largely a function of the style of your organization. In any event, you want to get that line in with the customer and then develop it patiently over time.

My friend Lincoln Murphy has a good webinar on the subject of long-term conversion, here.

Again, sometimes people will buy immediately or very soon after learning of your company. But looking at actual conversion rates of search engine marketing, it’s very low. However, you would still treat every lead that wanders over to your site like gold (assuming they are in your target market, of course). They may not buy today, but they may very well buy tomorrow.

The key is to realize that a suspect becomes a prospect by percolating over time.

Build big lists. Talk to them often. And the qualified leads will come.

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