Should sales follow up content marketing?

The scenario: A few weeks back a friend sent me a link to a short guide on content marketing. I’ll read anything on this subject (I know, it’s sad) so thought I’d take a peak. Annoyingly the content was gated behind a sign up form, but keen to learn everything I can I dutifully entered my details and downloaded the guide. The content was OK, worth a read, but to be honest I forgot about it pretty quickly. Then last week the phone rang. A sales person had noticed that I’d downloaded their free guide – would I like a demo of their marketing software?

My response: Er…no! Just because I’d downloaded their content didn’t make me a lead. I wasn’t interested in their product, just the content. I’m not in the market to purchase marketing software; I didn’t even remember the company name! And I was pretty annoyed to get a cold call from someone on the back of downloading stuff. I was busy; I didn’t know who they were; NOT interested! SLAM.

What I did next: This riled me enough to tweet about it – a quick 140 character rant about the experience. It obviously hit a nerve with a few people.

The burning question: Is it right for your sales team to follow up your content marketing efforts? Isn’t this a fair exchange? We invest all this time and effort and money in content BECAUSE WE WANT TO SELL PEOPLE STUFF. Surely it’s right that we go after the ones who have downloaded it…isn’t it? Or perhaps there is a better way?

Here’s what I think.

  1. If you focus your marketing efforts around creating and sharing valuable content, never ever cold call. It is the ultimate in interruption marketing and in no way congruent with the customer-centred spirit of your marketing approach. Like me, your customers will spot the change in tone, and they’re fed up with that type of intrusion. Cold call on the back of a piece of generously shared content and you risk killing any nascent relationship with your brand.
  2. If you really want to gate your stuff only do so for your most valuable content. For me that is professionally written e-books, research, whitepapers and guides (and even for these, after episodes like this one and with an increasingly overburdened inbox, I’m getting more reticent to hand over my details).
  3. If you are going to follow up, be transparent and upfront about what you intend to do from the start. If you intend to add them automatically to your mailing list or follow up by email then say so, BEFORE the visitor submits their details.
  4. Know that not everyone who downloads your content will be your ideal customer. For those who leave their details you need some way of carefully segmenting this list based on a profile of your dream customer. Get your sales team to approach these people respectfully. Don’t bombard them with product or service offers – you have to earn the right to sell. Prove you have their best interests at heart. Build relationships. Court them with more valuable content until they are ready to buy.

In summary, if you want to build trusted relationships with your customers don’t mix old and new business development approaches. Respect for your clients has to be at the heart of your marketing AND sales activity. Success from your valuable content relies on a joined up, principled approach to selling.

Cynical marketing and pushy selling are dead. There definitely is a better way.

As ever, I’d really welcome your views. Hope this opens up some lively debate.

Other content you might like:

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  1. Neil Fletcher

    Sonja, it’s an interesting conundrum! If I put my sales head on for a second, I would say that you weren’t actually cold-called. You had bothered to go through their sign-up process, indicating some level of interest. This turns you into a warm lead in the sales mind. Additionally, all you got was a qualifying call. You expressed no interest, therefore (if the sales person you spoke to is good), you won’t get another call.

    I would also say that you weren’t looking at generously shared content.

    That said, I find myself in the same position as you in becoming increasingly unwilling to fill in forms just to download an interesting title. (I have had the double ignominy of downloading poor content AND being followed up on it.)

    I do like your idea of being transparent and saying you are going to call someone if they download information. However, I think it would cut down the dissemination of content quite dramatically!

    I’m also slightly concerned with your request “…don’t mix old and new business development approaches.” This smacks of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Not every old (sales) approach is bad and not every new (marketing) approach is good. I firmly believe that there is a middle path combining the best of both worlds.

    There’s also the fact that no sales manager or sales director would be happy with his or her salesforce sitting back and waiting for customers to contact them! Sales is all about developing business and this is proactive, not reactive.

    Thanks for, once again, posting a thought-provoking article. I’ve pitched my tuppence worth into the ring. Who’s next?

  2. Tim LeRoy

    Sonja, I’d mainly agree with Neil – you’ve signalled your interest by signing-up and a salesman would be flogged for missing the opportunity. But I’d also agree that if it was a truly generous share it wouldn’t be behind a sign-up gate. Much better to set the article open to all then use a ‘would you like to read more from this author/provider?’ type cue… then suggest that they might like to talk to a human….

    Ultimately if content is compelling then the customer will seek out the source, but using content for lead generation is very hard to get right – and these guys sound like they haven’t found their magic button yet.

  3. Sonja Jefferson

    Hi Neil and Tim.

    Thanks for responding. It’s an interesting subject isn’t it. Glad it got you thinking too.

    Tim I think you are right: using content as a lead generation tool is hard to do, but approached with the right intent it’s unbelievably powerful.

    Neil – I certainly FELT cold called, and I definitely didn’t enjoy the experience, enough that I was prepared to grumble to my contacts on social media. If people knew they were going to be cold-called on the back of downloading content this would definitely limit the amount of people who did so, which begs the question of whether this is the right approach in the first place.

    Excuse my simplification of ‘old’ and ‘new’ – you are right of course that ‘new’ does not necessarily mean better. However, there really is something new in our attitude as buyers, and business development practise needs to catch up.

    I have every sympathy with sales teams. I was a sales person myself for many years, and yes Tim I would have been flogged for not pouncing on every opportunity. I was in telesales for my sins when this was a new approach and unbelievably people often welcomed my calls! That is certainly NOT the same today.

    Today, as buyers, we just won’t tolerate tactics like cold calling. I think this Tweet from Kanye West sums up our new attitude perfectly: “Don’t ever try to sell me on anything. Give me ALL the information and I’ll make my own decision.” This is how we feel as buyers yet sales practise continues to work against the grain.

    This does not in my view mean being purely reactive. There is absolutely a place for a proactive sales approach but it has to be done in the right way, respecting how we wish to be communicated with and not annoying the hell out of potential customers. I will take someone’s call willingly if I feel I have a relationship with them – so sales and marketing need to work together to develop more of these, and (dare I say it) valuable content is at the heart of that process.

    Just my view. Let’s continue the debate.


  4. David Tovey

    Hi Sonja, Tim and Neil

    I’ve had a foot in both camps too. Major accounts sales, sales director and later marketing director.

    I believe that the game has changed for marketers and sales – driven by cynical buyers whose trust in anyone marketing or ‘selling’ anything is at an all time low. Then of course there is the Internet and social media which despite the best efforts of sales managers and sales directors to ignore it just wont go away!

    The great news is that all ‘new’ marketing and sales does is do what the very best marketers and sales people have always done – put the customer at the heart of everything they do. Not just talk about it as sadly some still do.

    I met a senior city recruitment consultant a couple of weeks ago who told me she had just been told by her boss that he would only know she was doing her job when the clients complained about being harassed. I checked out their web site which you might not be surprised to learn is full of ‘we put the clients best interests first’ messages. It’s this lack of congruence that customers just won’t put up with today – and you get a Grrrr response but taken further by some.

    Just look at the coverage the web site ‘no more cold calls’ got last week. The BBC overwhelmed by business people fed up with interruptions and now they have found a way of getting their own back!

    Valuable content and social media can make the salespersons job more proactive and effective than a cold call (or even slightly warm call) has ever been. I agree with you Neil – lets keep the best of good sales practice and I’d add bring it all up to date by using content as part of the sales process.

    I had a go at a blog about content marketing follow up on the Principled Selling blog – if you get chance take a look:

    Love the debate!


  5. Bryony Thomas

    A fascinating a discussion. Thanks for kicking it off Sonja.

    Like the others, I do think completing a download form with your contact information does imply a level of interest. And, ‘contact’ details are exactly that, so I don’t blame the sales guy for thinking it was appropriate to make contact. I think what was missing from this exchange was some thorough research from the sales guy, and an appropriate next step.

    The nature of the content is often the best indicator of sales readiness. Had you downloaded a product sheet, for example, this would have been quite a different call. But, as it was, it was more a best practice guide… which I would classify as ‘invitation information’ rather than sales material that then needs a slower sales follow-up in which both parties get to know each other.

    I think the ideal sales scenario should have gone something like this:
    – Sonja downloads an interesting piece of ‘best practice’ style content leaving her contact details.
    – This triggers a follow-up email in which there is a case study of someone using the software to implement the ideas in the earlier piece.
    – When she clicks the link to read more on the case study, this is flagged to a sales person.
    – He researches her company thoroughly and sees that she’s a content expert herself. He finds her on Twitter, follows her and Tweets to see if she liked the download.
    – Instead of calling with a sales pitch, he calls to see if she would have time to give her expert opinion on how they could improve their software for content marketers.
    – She agrees, and gives some excellent feedback which is fed into the product development.
    – They subsequently hook-up LinkedIn.
    – He asks if she’d like to receive their newsletter, which she does.
    – The software company sends her a thank you card, which is a really nice touch that makes Sonja smile.
    – She starts receiving the newsletter, which is genuinely interesting, and later that year when one of her larger clients is thinking about some marketing software, she recommends these guys.

    Now, that scenario would take a great deal longer, but what a difference to a long term referrer relationship!

  6. Neil Fletcher

    Sonja, “…I certainly FELT cold called,…” and that’s the reality of the situation. It doesn’t actually matter what we, as salespeople, think we are doing. Perception is reality and if a prospect thinks they are being cold-called then that feeling will influence what happens thereafter, as evidenced by your original tweet.

    I concur fully with your assertions that buying has changed and selling needs to catch up and that sales and marketing need to work more closely together. Easy to say, very difficult to do! (I’m pretty confident that you knew that already. )

    Part of the issue is that many people do not recognise that these changes have taken place. They diassociate how they personally buy things from how their companies buy things and, therefore, how their sales teams should sell things.

    This leads to David’s scenario which translates into my own life as ‘Get out there and bang on doors. It worked for me so if it isn’t working for you, you must be doing something wrong.’ Hmm, yeah, OK boss. You know best…(but you are the boss!)

    David, you will probably see me popping up over on your blog with comments on the article. I skimmed through it yesterday but want to take a little more time to read it and give a considered response.

    Tim, I think we are in for quite a few years of many companies not getting it right. This is a sea change in the world of selling. By necessity there will have to be a lot of A-B testing in order to determine the best way forward.

  7. Neil Fletcher

    Bryony, love your suggestions (which appeared while I was typing my response, hence the second post.) To take a perverse perspective, and throw a question into the melting pot, when does all this hooking up on social media start to look like stalking? What are the acceptable and unacceptable time limits for following someone on Twitter and then tweeting or DM’ing them to ask their thoughts on what you have sent them? (OK, that’s two questions.)

  8. Bryony Thomas

    Great questions.

    I’d say a public tweet is the way to go. Not least because the person in question is unlikely to already be a follower, so DM is out of the question. I also think DM to someone you don’t really know just seems spammy. I’d say a tweet on the day of the download, along the lines of ‘Hi Sonja, thanks for downloading {name}, you clearly know this subject well already, what did you think?’ – then see how the engagement picks up form there and just be real.

    For LinkedIn, I’d say this should happen when you’ve actually spoken or met. In the scenario I painted, I’d expect the salesperson to send Sonja a LinkedIn invitation at the end of the research call if it went well. Again, properly introduced, not the default text! So, something like – ‘Great to talk to you today. Thank you so much for your time and insight. I’d like to stay in touch. I hope you’ll accept my invitation to connect on here.’

    As a smart salesperson, I’d then share some of Sonja’s great content, comment on her blog, reply to her Tweets, etc. to keep the conversation going.

    What do you think?

  9. Trevor Lever

    Great topic Sonja…. and here I am trying to get some work done, but can’t resist the urge to join the conversation. Well Done!

    Many of the points I would like to make have already been covered. So, here’s my 2p’s worth. Much as I would love sales people to behave like Bryony suggests, and play the ‘long game’ it’s very difficult to get their managers to understand this and be patient. With targets to reach and sales to make, all too often the pressure is on… and that’s probably what came down the ‘phone line to Sonja in that phone call.

    It’s all about the tone of voice and approach taken in that follow-up call. I saw some interesting statistics recently on the number of phone calls it takes to reach a decision maker in an organisation. In 2006 it was 4 calls, by 2008 it had risen to 18 and in 2010 it was a huge 41 calls! I don’t think it will be too long before the legislation is increased to prevent all cold calling.

    Sonja, if you get any more calls like that, let me know. I see it as a training opportunity 🙂

  10. David Tovey

    Your figures are right Trevor – and I think cold calling is more likely to die because of campaigns like ‘no more cold calling’ and consumer pressure than because of legislation.

    The approach Sonja and Bryony recommend doesn’t really take long – longer than a telephone call to be sure but by the time a salesperson or fee earner has wasted dozens of cold calls playing the numbers game (and maybe seriously upsetting a potential dream customer) they could have been speaking with prospects motivated to speak with them.

    I’ve seen the approach working for over ten years in commercial and professional firms – not every sales manger is behind the curve!

    Being a good communicator on the telephone and face to face is still as important as ever – why not be speaking to people who welcome the call?

  11. Bryony Thomas

    I think there’s room for a little of both. The more nurtured, relationship, style (which can absolutely be done and is completely commercially viable and conducive to reaching targets, as per David’s own book ‘Principled Selling’) and some solid sales training for salespeople in effective communication in whatever context – social media, phone, in-person, etc.

  12. Neil Fletcher

    Bryony, I’m still liking your approach! Trevor puts his finger on it though – the pressure is always on to make the next sale. In an ideal world, one could play the long game in between winning orders. However, that time is now being taken up with running in ever-decreasing circles using the ‘tried and trusted’ methods! The alternative approach does have a lot of merit – we just need more people to catch up with the curve (or wait for the curve to catch up with them.)

    Heaven forfend that legislation should rear it’s ugly head. What value is a law passed by people who have never sullied their hands with an honest days work in a commercial environment? (I’m sorry, were my prejudices showing there?)

    To circle back to Sonja’s original post, I also think that we suffer from a general perception that ‘sales is easy’, that any idiot can pick up the telephone and speak to someone to try and sell them something. Unfortunately, that idiot does untold damage to his or her company and to the reputation of salespeople in general.

    As we all seem to be in agreement so far, anyone out there want to put forward an alternative view?

  13. Gary Williams

    Hi all, great debate. Sorry Neil, I don’t have an alternative view but I do have a couple of thoughts about the practicalities for both me and my clients.

    Firstly, in my experience sales people will always take the quickest route to a sale (I know this because I am one!), however there is a misunderstanding about what the quickest route is as David suggested in an earlier post.

    For salespeople to follow Bryony’s route (sales Nirvana?) they need to be great planners, analysts, creatives and copywriters – not traits you normally associate with your average sales person.

    Most organisations are under pressure to win business which manifests itself in poor behaviour. This poor behaviour is seen and felt by the Sonja’s of this world (causing the grrrr’s) but I think Trevor is spot on – these people are simply doing what is asked of them by management.

    I have a client who faces a double whammy in that they are an engineering business and there is a culture of 100% utilisation to the point where if you’re doing anything other than working on fee paying projects it is seen as down time! The second part of the whammy is that their clients are mainly public sector who are not particularly active on social media.

    So, my questions are; how do under pressure sales people who don’t necessarily have the right skills (and behaviours) start to follow the route Bryony suggests and secondly, what if the people you’re trying to reach simply aren’t playing the new game?

  14. Neil Fletcher

    Gary, to echo Bryony, great questions, particularly the last one! I’m a firm believer in fishing where the fish are so if your targets are not playing the new game then neither should you be.

    However, what if they do start playing the new game and you’re not even in the same park? I sell into the steel industry which, by and large, does not play the new game. That doesn’t stop me tiddling around with social media, honing my skills so that I’m comfortable with the new ways when my customers do start moving over in greater numbers, which they inevitably will with the increasing use of smartphones. At that point, I’m ahead of the curve in terms of both my customers and my competitors.

    At the same time, I’m running in ever-decreasing circles keeping my boss happy doing things the old way.

    It’s a difficult balancing act but it can be done if you put your mind to it.

    To come back to your first question I think this is a failing of UK companies in particular. We expect our sales people to be all things to all men so they have to do sales, marketing, customer support, accounts support (chasing late payments and the like) and so on.

    To my mind, the scenario Bryony describes is best served by an integrated sales and marketing team where the nurturing can be done by marketing before the hot prospect is handed over to the sales team. The key word is ‘integrated’. Again, something of which I don’t see much evidence.

    Without knowing your double whammy client, I would say they are storing up trouble for themselves. If they only servicing client projects and are not taking out time to think about strategy and tactics, how will they cope with the changing buying/selling environment? They may be extremely successful now. Will they continue to be successful?

    I would also pitch in that, whilst the public sector may not be particularly active on social media (for business purposes) you can bet your bottom dollar that they will be using the internet for research purposes – they will be looking at supplier blogs, industry reports and so on and possibly even lurking on social media although they are not contributing.

    Finally (for this post, at least) what Bryony describes is what salespeople are good at – communication. A tweet is just communication, a blog comment doesn’t have to be profound, just make a connection. In my integrated sales and marketing Nirvana the Sonja’s of the world (either internal or externally based) are the creatives and the copywriters, my management are the analysts and, to a certain extent, the planners. I just ride on their backs doing what I do best – communicating.

    Apologies that I’ve gone on so long but your contribution stimulated my thinking! Thank you

  15. Bryony Thomas

    I think the skills listed by Gary should be on every sales job description! I also think that ‘sales’ should be on everybody’s job description. Some of the very best selling I’ve seen has been done not by people with ‘sales’ in their job title, but service in their mindset. Perhaps this is where Sonja’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ come in. I think the ‘macho, gunning for a quick deal’ approach is out-dated and is no longer practiced by the most successful businesses. I’ve seen what I describe in practice and it’s exactly what I do myself. It’s not nirvana, it’s reality. It’s also extremely rewarding – both personally and commercially.

  16. David Tovey

    Perfectly put Bryony – it’s today’s reality. Don’t recruit anyone without those skills. Train, support and develop those on the team that need help to change – if they won’t change they put their business at risk. Had great tweet from Tom Peter’s last week: “Give a lot, expect a lot, and if you don’t get it, prune”.

  17. Sonja Jefferson

    Phew – some great discussions here. Thanks so much for the thought you’ve put into your comments all of you.

    There is no doubt that the world of business development is changing. You’re so right Neil – every industry is moving this way. Bryony and I share a great consultancy client that is getting enquiries in from their content marketing efforts – they never expected these to come from the public sector, but even their most traditional of sectors is searching and researching new suppliers on the web just like everyone else.

    I think that sales, as natural communicators, have a huge role to play in this new game. Those on the ground – your technical people, engineers, consultants etc. – have a vital role too, for it’s their knowledge that needs to come across. As marketers, we need to help drive and support the process and create great content, to make it easier for fee earners to do their job AND bring in new business – for that’s the way of the world today.

    This approach needs top level buy in and understanding, and integration of all parties. That’s the challenge.

    This is uncharted territory for most firms. Would love to take this offline and have a round-the-table discussion some time, bringing leadership, sales, marketing and the business together to thrash out a clear approach. What do you say?

  18. David Tovey

    A great idea Sonja – I’m certainly up for a round table event that will help UK Plc address this new challenge. Lets make it happen!

  19. David Tovey

    Sorry – pressed submit before I’d finished. I will organize the event – so watch this space!

  20. Trevor Lever

    Count me in for that discussion! But I do insist that coffee (or beer?) be part of the agenda!


  21. David Tovey

    You are duly counted in Trevor – better make it beer and coffee to be safe I guess!

  22. Sonja Jefferson

    I posted a link to this article over on Neil Warren’s Modern Selling LinkedIn group. There have been some fascinating responses here too that add weight to this discussion:

    Further reading:
    I’d also recommend this article by Bryony Thomas on the subject: A Marketing Supported Sales Journey – Reality or Nirvana?

    And this – from the fantastic Partners in Excellence blog – 70% of the buying process now completed without sales involvement:

  23. Lucinda Brook

    Phew! This is a long discussion with so many relevant and insightful comments from all concerned! Don’t want to drown people with more comments but this also flags up a major issue in sales and marketing and that’s the old ‘communication’ nugget. One not talking to the other and vice versa. Half the battle is having the systems or software in place to communicate more effectively between the two, especially in a SME organisation. Bryony details a great scenario but the trouble is (skills aside) the process and software that supports this. Without decent software – I would say it’s a pretty unrealistic scenario. Let’s say the website pings an email alert to marketing to say ‘Sonja has downloaded the guide’ – that’s one pot of data. In an ideal world – the information populates a marketing automation system that sends them a follow up email ‘thanking them for the download and signposting other interesting information’. Sonja clicks on links within that email then triggers an alert to the sales team, who then considers following up (he needs to do research here but should he call Sonja or someone else that downloaded the brochure first!). It may be that his/her skillset is a lot better and Sonja doesn’t feel cold called. She’s not interested in buying but she is interested in any more good content. So sales writes up some notes on his system and she goes back into the marketing data pot (sorry Sonja!). My question is – does anybody know of a CRM come lead management come marketing automation system that both sales and marketing teams can use that bridges this gap and that is affordable for a SME organisation, preferably with social media plug-ins so they can see at a glance the contact’s social media profiles??!

  24. Lucinda Brook

    And sorry – interesting post Sonja. Thanks!

  25. Sonja Jefferson

    Cheers Lu. I’d like to find one too. I’m curious about Hubspot’s platform but don’t know enough to answer this. Let’s put the question out to the automation community. This would be easier in a LinkedIn Group wouldn’t it? Maybe we should set one up.

  26. Neil Fletcher

    Lucinda, Sonja, I recommend you having a chat with Peter Johnston over at T-Impact. He has posted prolifically about marketing automation in many groups on LinkedIn. He will set you on the right path.

    Sonja, I’ll e-mail his e-mail address to you so you can pass it on to Lucinda.

  27. Lucinda Brook

    Sorry Sonja. I missed your response and just checked back in. Yes – could ask in a Linked In group – maybe a small business one so we might get less sales pitches! I’m a bit wary of Hubspot as an SEO expert that I trust warned me off it. I believe that it’s pretty good while you’re paying for it, but as soon as you stop paying for it, you pretty much lose your rankings overnight as all the equity is built up for the Hubspot domain rather than your own. Their automation is fairly basic too. Pardot seems to be quite good but looks like it still needs to be used in conjunction with Salesforce. I looked into SilverPop before – software seemed to be pretty good although mainly a glorified email system. The sales team were absolutely terrible though! Neil – I’ll check out T Impact. Thanks!

  28. Sonja Jefferson

    It’s a really good question Lu and I don’t know the answer. I’ve posted this on a couple of LinkedIn groups now and Google+. Will check out T-Impact too Neil – thanks for this. Would like to know more.

    I have a feeling that as content marketing really takes hold in 2013 there will be an explosion of new automated products on the market to make the process easier. Will watch with interest.

    This post is really good too: What is a Lead for a Content Marketer?

  29. Peter Gold

    Great debate Sonja and nice to meet you earlier today.

    As far as a CRM for SME’s I would advise Infusionsoft. I’ve worked with most of the bigger marketing platforms, Salesforce, SugarCRM etc. and for a complete, low-cost, SME focused system it has to be Infusionsoft.

    It is strongest in the automated e-mail marketing/nurturing but does have CRM functionality, e-commerce etc but most importantly (I think) they are 100% focused on small businesses.

    Hope that helps.

    P.S. I don’t have any commercial relationship with them, purely a customer/user.

  30. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks very much Peter. A lot of commentators I respect use Infusionsoft. Must check it out in detail. Great to meet you too



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