Lead generation: A comprehensive guide for 2021 and beyond

Figuring out how to generate leads is almost as hard as converting them. Use this guide to pack your sales pipeline with high-quality prospects.

By Patrick Grieve, Contributing Writer

Published April 16, 2021
Last updated November 23, 2021

Sales reps know nothing’s harder than patiently nurturing a lead, establishing a relationship with them, and carefully converting them into a customer—nothing, of course, except finding a good lead in the first place.

Lead generation is often a huge challenge for sales and marketing professionals. But it doesn’t have to be. With the best lead gen tools and advice, anyone can become an expert in how to generate leads.

What is lead generation?

Lead generation definition: The process of initiating interest in your company’s products or services. Various advertising, marketing, and sales strategies can be used to spark interest and generate leads.

Lead generation is all about creating more leads for sales reps to pursue—something that’s easier said than done. While lead gen may seem pretty straightforward, it encompasses a wide array of strategies. There are many different ways to entice potential customers and various ways to qualify potential leads.

To get a handle on it all, let’s start by answering a pretty basic question: What’s a lead?

“Generally speaking, a lead is someone who has potentially expressed interest in your company or appears to be a good fit,” explains Josh Bean, Zendesk’s senior director of product marketing. “It could be someone who filled out a form on your website or someone [whose information] you bought from a list. Usually, a lead is at least an email address, first name, last name, and phone number.”

How to generate leads

You can generate leads organically or buy them from another company. While paid leads can be worthwhile, there are some downsides to that approach. In addition to the expense, paid leads haven’t shown any interest in your brand, so your outreach efforts are more likely to be ignored.

If you’re not paying for leads, though, you need to somehow convince people to willingly share their contact information with your organization. That responsibility usually falls on your marketing team. It’s their job to create content and materials that will encourage potential customers to complete each step in the lead generation process:

  1. First, a consumer becomes aware of your business through a marketing channel. That could be by reading one of your blog posts, visiting your website, or interacting with your social media accounts.
  2. Next, the consumer follows a call-to-action (CTA), or an image or message that encourages them to click on it in exchange for some offer. Your CTA could be a link to a downloadable piece of gated content or a big “Start free trial” button on a web page. The free item or service you’re offering to get their attention is your lead magnet.
  3. After clicking on the CTA, the visitor is presented with a lead generation form they must fill out before accessing the lead magnet. These forms will typically ask for personal details such as the individual’s name, profession, company, contact information, and so on.
  4. Once they’ve filled out the form, the consumer is able to access the lead magnet. That could be valuable information, such as an ebook or exclusive data report. It could be something useful, like a free template or a webinar recording. Or, it could be a free trial of the product or service you provide. The type of offer a lead pursues can tell you a lot about their level of intent.

How to qualify leads

After capturing a lead’s information, the marketing team is able to qualify them. This qualification process often involves lead scoring, or assigning points to a lead based on the demographic or firmographic details they provide.

Companies often develop lead scoring models that reflect their ideal customer profiles. So if a B2B company typically targets businesses of a certain size, type, or industry, that should be reflected in their criteria. For example, if SMB leads convert for a B2B at a higher rate than enterprises do, then that company might assign more points to a business with fewer than 500 employees.

Similarly, a lead’s job title likely reflects their decision-making power. So, a C-level executive would be scored higher than a mid-level manager, as most decision-makers tend to occupy the C-suite.

And because certain actions imply more interest than others, a lead who starts a free trial would receive more points than one who only downloads a white paper. (Other types of web activity, such as visiting a pricing page, can also be scored).

Scoring systems can help marketing teams determine whether or not a lead is qualified. If a lead scores high enough, they become a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) and are passed on to the sales team to become a Sales Accepted Lead (SAL).

According to Bean, “Marketing basically says, ‘We think this person is a good fit—sales, do you think this is a good fit?’ And then sales typically says, ‘Yes, this is a good fit,’ after qualifying it further with bands like budget, authority, need, and timing.”

A consumer becomes a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) once it’s been determined that the lead is ready to be contacted by a sales rep. Leads often become SQLs by doing something that indicates a definite interest in a company’s product or service. For example, if a lead starts a product trial or fills out a form asking specific questions about the product, they’re usually primed for a rep to reach out.

Tracking leads with a sales CRM can help automate a great deal of the sales forecasting and lead generation process and prevent any prospects from falling through the cracks. A CRM will also track the number of MQLs that are successfully converting into SALs and SQLs. The lead conversion rate is a good indicator of your lead scoring method’s effectiveness.

In 2021, the SEO agency FirstPageSage published average lead conversion rates for various industries. Across all industries, there was a 31 percent lead-to-MQL conversion rate and a 44 percent MQL-to-SQL conversion rate. But the numbers differed significantly among specific sectors.

While Bean recommends measuring your company’s conversion metrics, he cautions against comparing them to industry benchmarks. “The reality is, you can find numbers all over the place, because everyone defines their MQLs and SALs and SQLs slightly differently,” he says. “So, you have to take it with a grain of salt.”

How the customer journey determines lead generation strategies

Developing a successful lead generation strategy first requires a deep understanding of your buyer’s journey.

The customer journey charts all the interactions a consumer has with your company—including ones that happen before they’re even a customer. It’s a journey that begins with awareness of your brand, eventually leads to purchase, and continues for as long as they remain loyal customers.

Many businesses use customer journey mapping to outline a customer’s arc or path with their company. These can be extremely intricate flowcharts that take every possible pathway into account or something as simple as a sales funnel.

The five-stage sales funnel

What matters most is understanding how customers tend to interact with your business at each stage of the journey. And lead generation is all about getting potential buyers to take those first few steps.

“In the early stages of the customer journey, a buyer is typically just looking for general information,” Bean says. “They’re looking at a brand and asking, ‘Can they do what I need? Are they within the right price point? Are they good at what they do?’”

It’s up to your business to decide how and where to best answer those questions. The information could be provided through your website experience, blog posts, social media, or (most likely) a combination of channels.

“You typically want to be where your audience is,” explains Bean. “So if I’m selling a B2C product, I want my lead generation strategies to be very social based—probably Instagram, Facebook, and (if I have the budget) ads. If I’m a B2B, maybe my strategy is more focused on LinkedIn or on direct outreach through email.”

Lead generation is focused on piquing a potential buyer’s interest and giving them reasons to investigate further. This is typically accomplished through a variety of methods.

“I like to think about lead generation on a channel basis,” Bean says. “Because most people will say, ‘Oh, I want inbound marketing, let’s just turn it on.’ But the reality is that all the channels work together. So, it’s a combination of having good search engine optimization (SEO) and ranking for posts, and then once someone reads that post, having some kind of gated content that pertains to that topic. You just want to continuously drive them until they’re a Marketing Qualified Lead.”

Lead generation ideas to try on blogs, email, web, and social media channels

Lead generation marketing is the way you draw people in and get them on your landing page. There are multiple promotional channels you can use for lead gen, but they should all have one thing in common.

“First, you need to decide on the core topics you want your brand to stand for and rank for,” Bean advises. “For example, at Zendesk, we want to take a stand on sales pipeline management. So, I would start by deciding what I want my foundational piece on sales pipeline management to be and then write that out. Then, I’d have to ask: How do I apply this to different channels? If I’m using social media, maybe it’s 20 tweets that I’m going to post with small snippets. If it's a video, maybe I’ll adapt a thought leadership piece into a YouTube clip. If it’s organic [search], maybe there are specific key pages I need to break out and try to rank for.”

What matters most is solidifying the message before you start distributing it. Then, be sure to stay on-message across your channels. That way, no matter how a potential buyer interacts with your business, it all funnels back to the same core idea.

How to generate new leads through blogs

Content is a great way to get your target audience’s attention, especially if you’re doing B2B lead generation. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2020 B2B Benchmarks Report, 70 percent of B2B brands use content marketing to generate new leads.

Start a blog and publish useful advice articles that cover topics relevant to your customer base. Put some time and effort into keyword optimization, and you may be able to rank well for your chosen search terms.

Blogs are easy to share on social media, too. B2Bs might ask employees to promote pieces on LinkedIn, while B2Cs can post content on Twitter and Facebook.

Also, blogs and CTAs go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Imagine a survey software provider writes a piece on how to conduct employee engagement surveys. It wouldn’t be hard for the company to add in a CTA for a trial of their own survey software.

It’s pretty common for a blog to conclude with an explicit sales pitch—though that shouldn’t be the only place the CTA appears.

Blogs and CTAs go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

“When you put in your product CTAs, don’t just leave one at the very bottom of the piece,” Bean cautions. “You should also include one somewhere in the top third of the content because only a fraction of people will read the article all the way to the end.”

Bean also recommends developing a robust internal linking strategy. Referencing and linking to other articles on your site will flesh out your content and entice visitors to linger longer.

“When you go to Wikipedia to read a random article, you could easily go through that site forever because every single article is linked,” Bean says. “And that’s helpful for the user if they want to learn more.”

Including search bars can also make your blog easier to navigate. Overall, it’s beneficial if you try to present your articles the way a media company would.

“If your objective is to get views and tell stories and get people to engage, you need to build out your site to accomplish that,” Bean explains. “So, don’t make it like a library—make it look like the sites that people already use to consume content. Let CNBC, Yahoo, or ESPN do all the work on UX patterns and how to structure data, and apply that to your own blog.”

How to generate new leads through outbound and inbound email campaigns

When it comes to email marketing campaigns, there are two different lead generation strategies: outbound and inbound.

Outbound emails are messages you send to potential customers who haven’t asked you to contact them. Because these are unsolicited emails, they can easily be ignored or dismissed as spam. But there are some ways to make “cold emails” stand out in a crowded inbox as well as free templates you can follow.

Inbound emails, on the other hand, are messages you send to leads who have expressed some interest in your brand. If a consumer, for example, requests a demo or signs up for a newsletter, they have essentially opted in to receiving inbound emails. That naturally makes them a more receptive audience, though you may still have to compete for their attention.

“For inbound emails, think about what kind of value you can add to your email list,” Bean recommends. “For example, let’s say I have a bunch of executives I’m targeting with my software. Maybe instead of just sending a monthly newsletter with all my top posts for the month, I try to provide something more relevant. If I know that they’re going to be doing a ton of planning going into Q1, maybe I can make a planning template for them.”

The trick is to think about the specific pain points your target audience is experiencing. Then, position yourself as a thought leader on that subject or provide a helpful resource they can use.

“You can also test messaging through email,” Bean adds. “For example, you can test different subject lines to see which has the higher open rate. You can even test value propositions because you know you have an email list that represents your target market. So if you’re wondering what your website’s slogan should be, for example, that’s another way to A/B test it—just look at open rates to see what resonates.”

How to generate new leads through social media

Social media platforms have become hugely important to companies over the last decade. Businesses can use social media to gauge feedback and public perception, provide convenient customer service, and promote their brand identity.

Most platforms make it easy to add a CTA to your post, too. Instagram Stories have a swipe-up option, and tweets can include short Bitly links for viewers to click on. Social media is also useful for promoting other lead generation channels, such as blog posts and downloadable content.

But calling attention to your social media posts isn’t always easy.

“With social, you’ve got your organic and you’ve got your paid content,” Bean explains. “Lots of platforms stifle all your organic reach, so you have to pay to promote it. The best success I’ve seen on social media is when you can actually bring your audiences there.”

Businesses can use social media to gauge feedback and public perception, provide convenient customer service, and promote their brand identity.

For example, if someone visits your website, you can use cookies to target them through social media. Then, they’ll see your brand’s posts while they’re looking at Twitter or Instagram, which will drive more awareness.

“Basically, someone visits your website, and you automatically start advertising to them,” says Bean. “That’s a lot cheaper than saying, ‘Hey, LinkedIn, show this ad to a thousand sales leaders.’ So, having the channels play together like that is very useful.”

Getting employees involved is another great way to spread your brand’s reach and help put a face to the content.

“This is where Gong does a really nice job,” says Bean, praising the revenue intelligence platform. “When they write a new blog post, employees will share it first on LinkedIn, which makes it feel more personal. The company won’t share it until a couple of days later.”

That approach helps Gong better target an audience of potential leads while also establishing their employees as thought leaders in the community.

How to generate new leads through web experience

Your company’s website can be a pretty big lead generation channel of its own.

For starters, your site is usually where you host blogs, landing pages, and gated content. But it’s also likely to feature pricing pages, product descriptions, customer testimonials, and other content relevant to interested leads. All those pages are ripe for simple CTAs, such as “Download a free trial,” “Talk to sales,” or “Book a meeting.” (Try to avoid “Contact us,” which sounds too vague to work as a direct CTA).

In terms of web copy, Bean believes companies shouldn’t shy away from the competition.

“Sometimes, folks are scared to talk about their competitors on their website,” he says. “I understand that, but it’s not like if you don’t mention your biggest competitor, visitors will never find out about them. It’s better to confront it head on and have an honest conversation about what makes you different or better. That way, you can set the narrative rather than letting your competitor set it.”

He recommends being similarly upfront about pricing and packaging.

“It used to be the sellers who held all the power,” Bean adds. “They could say to buyers, ‘If you want pricing, references, or reviews, you need to fill out this form and go through my sales process.’ But now the power is flipped, and buyers will often say, ‘I know how much you cost, I know what plan I need, and I’ve already seen the reviews. Can you just send me the contract?’ ”

It’s important to recognize this new dynamic and create a web experience that caters to the customer’s perspective and need for information.

More customer-centric lead generation examples

Although content, web, social, and email marketing are the most common lead generation strategies, they’re not the only avenues available. In fact, though they may not lend themselves to large-scale marketing campaigns, there are some smaller yet highly effective ways to attract new leads and convert them into paying customers.

Here are two customer-centric lead generation strategies you can use to create and develop valuable relationships with quality leads.

How to generate new leads with videos and webinars

Video is an extremely engaging and powerful lead generation tool.

The video software company Wistia reviewed data from over 250,000 accounts and found that videos with lead generation forms in them converted at a rate of 16 percent. In other words, for every 100 times a video was played, it generated 16 new leads.

Wistia also found that videos where the form appears within the first 20 percent of the video had a whopping 43 percent conversion rate. That means if a two-minute video has a form in the first 24 seconds, over 40 percent of viewers will submit the form and become new leads!

Of course, viewers may not fill out a lead gen form unless they feel it’s “worth it” to access richer, lengthier content, such as a webinar. You can embed your form at the beginning of the webinar as a requirement for watching or insert it after an intro or “cliffhanger” moment to whet the lead’s appetite. And Wistia provides a Turnstile email collector that can gather email addresses from leads within your videos.

Image source

This strategy often works best for middle-of-the-funnel and bottom-of-the-funnel content, which targets specific audience segments that are more likely to convert. In addition to webinars, you can experiment with product videos, feature tutorials, and customer testimonials.

Try to cast a wide net by posting your videos across multiple channels, including your brand’s YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

How to generate new leads with customer support tickets

Marketers and sales agents are the ones who are typically tasked with lead gen, but what if you could get another department involved in lead generation strategies?

Your customer support team is already engaged in a form of lead nurturing by constantly communicating with current and potential customers. Agents know the types of questions and concerns your target audience is regularly expressing. So, they’re in a unique position to turn customer service conversations into sales lead generators. All you need to do is bridge the gap between your service and sales teams.

For example, imagine a support agent gets an email from a potential customer who has questions about your company’s purchasing plans. If the support agent doesn’t know who the appropriate sales contact is, they might fail to forward the email to them.

But with a sales CRM like Zendesk Sell, a support agent can click a “Notify sales” button whenever a lead or upselling opportunity arises, automatically notifying the right sales rep. And if there’s not already a customer record for the referral, the agent can create one with just a single click.

zendesk sell

Zendesk Sell gives customer support reps more insight into the sales process while also allowing sales agents to directly access support tickets to see every conversation a lead has had with the company.

How to create lead gen forms that optimize engagement

One of the biggest hurdles to clear in lead generation is getting people to fill out a lead capture form.

lead gen forms

Not only do some people hate sharing personal information, but many are also annoyed at the “extra step” of having to complete a form just to access the lead magnet. And while businesses want to collect as many details as possible, longer forms just further test a lead’s patience.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to keep leads from bailing. Progressive forms, for example, are a great way to coax more information out of potentially hesitant leads.

Bean explains, “A progressive form will start by asking questions that are really easy, like: What’s your company’s name and how many people work there? Then, the questions start to get a little bit more in-depth, until finally the form asks for your email and phone number.”

At that point, people are so committed they’re apt to share their contact info rather than walk away.

Or, you can take the opposite approach and rely on form enrichment, which asks website visitors only for their email address and then fills out the rest for them.

“[A tool like] Clearbit can help with this a lot,” says Bean. “If someone only enters their email address, there’s a lot of information out there for enriching their title, role, company size, and other details. So the form hides those additional fields, unless it can’t enrich any of them, in which case the person will be prompted to fill the fields out.”

With form enrichment, leads only feel like they’re handing over their email address, but your company is still capturing all the information that it needs.

Accomplish more with a powerful lead generation tool

To best capture, organize, track, and engage leads, your company should utilize a powerful CRM. Zendesk Sell collects demographic, firmographic, and channel information about leads and can automatically assign a numerical score to identify MQLs and SQLs.

Additionally, with Zendesk’s lead generation and engagement tool Reach, you can create targeted prospect lists using prospecting software that will help you identify potential buyers. Reach even allows you to automate customized email sequences and cadences for different lead types at different stages of the sales cycle. At that point, the lead management tool can do its magic.

The lead gen process may have a lot of moving parts, but it gets easier once you can put them all in one place. Start reaching more leads than ever before and see how your company grows.