One of the biggest challenges of a new startup is generating marketing qualified leads (MQLs). A startup is a race: you are burning through limited funding, and every day you need to go all-out before funding runs out. Along the way, you are demonstrating progress to leadership and investors, and there's no better way to keep their confidence than pointing to a pipeline of fresh daily leads.
So how do you get MQLs for your startup ASAP?
1. FIRST, GATHER INTEL
Spend your first few days gathering as much intelligence as possible about the company you are working for, their target markets and target customers. For example:
Are you trying to motivate the influencer or the champion with your call-to-action? What specifically are you asking them to do (have an introductory call with a sales person, or sign up for a free trial, or buy right away)? Your call-to-action will dictate the approach you take.
2. DEFINE A HYPOTHESIS
From your research, you need to develop an initial hypothesis:
Who is the target customer you are going to generate MQLs from? You will have much more success if you target 1 persona to start and focus all your attention on them, rather than diluting your efforts with more generic messaging to appeal to different types of prospects.
How will you reach this target customer? It really depends on where they hang out. CIOs for example are so busy that you probably won't reach them via a social media strategy. However you could target their right-hand person (an influencer) via social media, and indirectly reach the CIO with your message. Or you could take a more direct route and plan to meet CIOs at well-chosen conferences, or via cold calls.
Try selecting 2-3 different tactics to reach the target customer, such as cold calls, conference meetings, and an investment in SEO.
What is the customer's pain point that you solve? You need to be able to articulate this well, in the language the customer himself would use to express it. If you can't articulate the problem well, you won't be able to come up with a salient message. DON'T SKIP THIS STEP!
What message will you bring to the target customer? If you really understand the pain point, then this part writes itself. Demonstrate empathy in your message and creativity to stand out above the crowd.
What is your call to action? When you reach the target customer, what is it you want them to do? Attend your upcoming webinar? Agree to a live demo with a sales engineer? Sign up for a free trial? Usually you want to be very specific about this and usually go with a smaller step (e.g. free trial) rather than a bigger commitment.
3. EXECUTE IN 2-WEEK AGILE SPRINTS
2-week MQL generation sprints
Until we've established repeatable lead generation of MQLs we are in a "non-deterministic" state. I would follow a 2-week agile sprint approach to campaign planning and execution, similar to how software development teams run sprints. Each sprint we decide as a team what campaigns and other exploratory tactics we will employ, and then execute. This is not to say we couldn't also plan a long-term calendar of events but that calendar needs to be relatively light and flexible until we get a little more established.
The First Few Sprints Are About Learning
When you are starting with a very greenfield territory, the first sprints should really be about learning and validating your hypothesis before you focus on generating MQLs full on. My own experience is that social media and e-mail promotion can be an economical way to get feedback quickly. Setting one-on-one meetings at small conferences is another. A webinar highlighting the product could be another. Other tactics like partner marketing, event roadshows, website PPC/SEO, PR, etc. are important to consider in the mix but they will have a longer-term yield, and are better invested in after a few sprints when you've validated your hypothesis.
Once we get a sense of what's working, we can start to establish more repeatable structure and longer-range planning in a calendar.
Team Engagement is Critical
As with software development sprints, internal communication is critical to effectively managing MQL generation 'sprints':
At a new startup, everyone has a role to play in lead generation. And everyone has an opinion! As a small group we will absolutely need staff's insight, as well as their hands-on help on execution. A sprint framework provides a structured format to make sure everyone feels up-to-date, has a means for providing input, and is organized to take part in the execution!
4. RIGOROUSLY EVALUATE RESULTS AND TRY AGAIN
As with any software development sprint, at the end of the 2 weeks you need to rigorously evaluate the results. Did we generate MQLs, or at least have customer conversations? What worked and what didn't? What did we learn? Be ruthlessly objective in your evaluation and make sure to incorporate lessons into the next sprint.
5. USE LEAD GENERATION TACTICS THAT WORK BEST FOR STARTUPS
Startups have no brand recognition, limited marketing budgets, and time pressure. As a result, some MQL generation tactics work better than others. Here are some tactics that work best in a B2B context:
6. ...AND AVOID TACTICS THAT WASTE TIME AND DISTRACT
Remember, a startup is a race. Not only do you want to select MQL generation tactics that work, you absolutely need to avoid tactics that will waste time and distract your team. Some of the biggest time killers:
7. DON'T JUST MEASURE, EXECUTE TO TARGETS
A lot of teams in the early going will just try stuff and then at the end of the sprint report how many MQLs, clickthroughs, etc. they obtained. Not good enough. From day 1 set a target.
How many conversations are you going to have? How many MQLs are you going to generate? Then at the end of the sprint you report results in relation to those targets.
For leaders: this forces more focus on the right activities (and less time on distractions), and builds discipline within your MQL generation team. For marketing/growth staff, setting targets builds your stakeholders' confidence that you know what you are doing!
The targets you set in the first few sprints can be modest, as you are just building the discipline. So maybe sprint 1 is simply targeting "1 MQL", or targeting "5 live conversations with prospects that match the target persona". As you get further into your sprints, you should start to have real MQL targets and opportunity $ targets that line up to the company's revenue goals. For example: "next month we need 50 MQLs because we know that this will convert into 10 qualified opportunities. An opportunity on average is $50k, so that should be 50 * 10 = $500k opportunity pipeline. We estimate that sales will win 1 in every 4 deals within a month of qualification, so that will yield 500 / 4 = $125k revenue in 2 months."
8. MORE FOCUS ON THE PAIN POINT
Your company's product will no doubt have a lot of power and extensive capabilities, and of course you need these to be well articulated on the website and in promotions. But almost always, there is not enough focus on the customer and their pain that you solve. A slight shift in positioning to speak a bit less to the capability and a bit more to the really painful problem that your company solves on the front page is always warranted. I've been in a number of C-level meetings where the C-level has complained:
Please just tell me what problem I have that you are solving upfront.
9. GET HONEST FEEDBACK FROM EXTERNAL SOURCES
Your in-house staff will have great ideas, but they are full of bias. Even external sources will hesitate to tell you the truth, or they don't know the space and will lead you astray with uninformed opinions.
Find a couple of trusted external sources that know the space well and will give you real honest feedback. You need this more than you realize. Consider:
10. SEO TAKES TIME AND REQUIRES EXPERTISE
To show up in Google search results and other channels, you need 1) great content 2) focus on the right keywords 3) expertise to craft the content in a way that gets the algorithm's attention. This can take time. It's a worthwhile investment, but perhaps not in the first few sprints.
However, you can start to write content right away and use guerilla tactics like sharing content directly with prospects over e-mail or at conferences, and later optimize the content that works best for SEO.
Google is increasingly shaping their search algorithm to prioritize certain things:
Engaging a consultant to at least ensure you have the baseline on these 3 fronts.
In addition, Google is also prioritizing rich snippets (content with specific structured metadata in JSON-LD that Google will show to help your post stand out) as well as answer boxes. To show up in an answer box, you need to:
Don't expect too much in the first year. Like investing, SEO is like a bond that you contribute a little to every month and will grow steadily over time. Avoid consultants who promise that they can help you rank #1 on Google overnight.
11. USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO TEST MESSAGING AND EXPLORE MARKETS
Apart from a very small number of startups that get lucky with a viral social media campaign, for the vast majority of startups social media is typically not a lead generator in the early days. Especially not compared to direct outreach and your website. But it is useful to test different marketing messages and see which ones seem to garner responses and clicks, to set up meetings with prospective customers not in your immediate network, and to explore secondary markets.
Social media marketing can also be a huge drain on time so be sure to set a very fixed cap on what you will and won't do in the early startup days. For example, try focusing on just one social media platform (e.g. LinkedIn for B2B, Facebook for B2C). Plan specific content, frequency, audiences, etc. Also, business owners tend to think of "social media" as posting on Facebook and LinkedIn, but consider other forms of social media such as answering questions on Reddit, Discord or Quora where you might actually be adding more value.
12. FOCUS ON MQLs THAT ACTUALLY CONVERT TO QUALIFIED OPPORTUNITIES
It can be tempting to generate leads, any leads, even poor leads, just to show progress. But obviously this will catch up to you quickly as you lose the confidence of your stakeholders. Better is to analyze reasons why seemingly good MQLs aren't converting to qualified opportunities:
There are many reasons why a lead may not convert into actual revenue, even if they are in your target market. This can be very frustrating, but there are also a wealth of intelligence in here about how to adapt your product-market fit. This intel is pure gold for growth, and it is critical to have a person or team on the front lines responsible for directly experiencing it and sharing it with the organization so that we can adapt quickly. If the team is not continually recording and sharing all of this rich intel, change that today. This is what will allow you to nimbly adapt your pitch, timing, product features and overall value prop accordingly.