Lead Scoring is Broken. Here’s What to Do Instead.

Jan 12, 2016 · 11 min read
By Guy Marion, CMO at Autopilot

How many sales teams have you overheard saying, “Our marketing is amazing — they have our backs and send us more qualified leads than we know what to do with”?

Not many, I imagine. The response is usually more like “marketing has no idea — we generate all our own real leads.”

Leads by themselves aren’t good enough — you want those with the need and budget, who are ready to buy soon. So for more than a decade, marketing automation vendors have offered lead scoring as the way to magically qualify those “ready for sales” leads from the stream of raw leads.

And while lead scoring is widely used, results are decidedly mixed. SiriusDecisions found that 68 percent of companies who use marketing automation systems do lead scoring, but that only 40 percent of sales people get value from it. By school standards, this would be an “F”.

There’s growing consensus that traditional lead scoring is cumbersome, complex, even broken to the point of BS — Tweet this

So what does this mean for marketers?

First, a little background on lead scoring

B2B research firm SiriusDecisions defines lead scoring as a:

Vendors claim that lead scoring helps grow revenue faster — and more predictably — by enabling marketers to focus on filling the funnel, then use scoring to sift out qualified leads. The expected result is threefold — sales reps won’t waste time, early-stage buyers are shielded from pushy sales calls, and marketers better understand their audience.

The biggest hurdle: lack of access to statistical support

The main challenge of lead scoring lies in determining the right score values to assign to leads based on their behavior or demographics. This is really an attribution exercise that is best handled by statisticians and software, but typically falls to marketers who have to act on gut feel and assumptions.

The scoring process starts with marketing and/or sales managers agreeing on lead qualification criteria. These criteria are compiled into a scoring matrix, like shown below:

Without the support of a statistician, or personal experience in performing and interpreting multivariate regression analyses, marketers can’t possibly know how important each of the above signals are in predicting whether a buyer wants to engage sales and/or will buy. Even if they did know exactly which signals drive conversion, they can’t weigh up the relative importance of each.

The biggest challenge to lead scoring? Building qualification criteria based on data, not assumptions — Tweet this

Many argue that lead scoring is a process, and that you need to start somewhere then refine. Like anything, scoring gets better with practice and time. The thing is, you can be investing your 10,000 hours into many areas — launching new campaigns, producing fresh content, or doubling down on high-ROI channels. Very few people have the time to continuously test, measure, and incorporate the incremental effects of lead scoring improvements into their process. Plus, there are better ways to generate qualified leads (scroll down to see six strategies).

Four other reasons why manual lead scoring doesn’t work

Reason #1: Lead scoring models need to be updated whenever new assets or buying behaviors arise. Anyone who’s spent time grooming a scoring system, only to have to hit reset after introducing new assets or process changes, feels this pain. Yet most companies are ever-evolving, which makes this a leading reason why most give up.

Reason #2: Accurate firmographic and demographic scoring requires lots of data. Best-of-breed lead scoring vendors have built platforms to scrape, acquire, and compile vast proprietary databases, allowing users of their technology to cross-reference and score their own contacts. In short, the traditional method can’t handle the amount of data needed to reach statistical significance.

Reason #3: Traditional lead scoring typically only uses data the marketer can capture. It misses out on many other predictive signals of buying behavior, like current technology usage, VC funding, or management team maturity.

Reason #4: Contact-based lead scoring does not reflect the opinions of every stakeholder, even though most B2B decisions are reached on a group-consensus basis. Besides sole proprietors and very small businesses (e.g. under 25 employees), most companies require support from multiple-stakeholders prior to committing to new purchases. Traditional lead scoring cannot unearth behind-the-scene politics or exchanges.

At my previous SaaS company, Zendesk, we ran a quarter long-experiment where we selected at random 400 “ready for sales” leads and 400 non-qualified leads, with the intent to understand how much better the scored leads performed when engaged by sales.

Despite our best efforts, we found no statistical difference in our ability to connect with, re-engage, or win the “ready for sales” leads compared to randomized, non-scored leads. Admittedly, we only dedicated one quarter to the experiment, but the experience confirmed anecdotally what many report — that it takes a dedicated operator to manually tweak and test scoring criteria to yield any results.

Stop fighting your scoring model, and start winning more customers

Virtually any company can benefit by creating a plan of action to more efficiently guide buyers through their journey to conversion.

Moving beyond manual lead scoring refocuses energies on what truly moves the revenue needle — which is creating a steady supply of qualified leads that convert into paying customers.

Here are six ways to drive more qualified leads without leads scoring.

Strategy 1: Create a nurture machine that produces “Contact Sales” leads

Instead of using lead scoring to generate “ready for sales” leads based on arbitrary scores being reached, create a journey to nurture new leads that prompts prospects to contact sales (or sign up for a trial). This isn’t as hard as it sounds. You want to target people such as webinar attendees, eBook downloaders, and blog subscribers. These sorts of people are more likely to convert because they’re already signaling interest.

When speaking with new prospects or leads, top sales reps always probe for a compelling event that indicates a sale is imminent within a specific timeframe. This might include an upcoming product launch or campaign, a new executive tasked with implementing new technology within a given timeframe, or the impending renewal of an unwanted legacy system.

Lead nurturing can turbo-charge the effort to find leads tied to compelling events by creating a situation where buyers have ample opportunity to contact sales and identify themselves as motivated shoppers. To be sure, fishing only for leads who have self-identified that they’re ready for sales, rather than score-based leads may mean you’ll have fewer leads.

But at the end of the day, all that matters is revenue and customers. Passing fewer, higher-qualified leads over to sales is more likely to help you reach a higher conversation rate while making your whole organization more efficient. If you’re coming up short against lead targets, you’re best off focusing on launching campaigns to drive new leads than tweaking lead scores to increase less-qualified leads that’ll never convert.

Strategy 2: “Bump up” valuable content to users who show more interest

The less pushy and more valuable your content is, the more likely you are to attract qualified leads while establishing yourself as a trusted resource that buyers will come back to when they’re ready. Remember that only 30% of new leads are ready to buy now, but half of those who aren’t ready to buy today, will be within 12 months.

For example, if a customer support manager is planning to implement new helpdesk software next year, they are more likely to return to a vendor who opened their eyes with regular insights like “Winning through a superior customer experience” or “5 ways to avoid failing with your new support portal”, than one who sends a series of useless offers to “touch base”. Or one who drops off the radar entirely, for that matter. Autopilot research found that companies who stay in touch every 2–4 weeks generate 2X the leads, on average, than those who do so less frequently.

To create this value, you need to address the buyer’s needs at each stage of their decision-making journey. Then, accelerate or decelerate content delivery (topics, tone, and timing) in response to how actively the reader engages your content. To do so, create:

  • Top of funnel content: product agnostic thought leadership designed to attract early-stage researchers. If they click or engage, accelerate them to receive…
  • Middle of funnel content: industry or customer proof points + pragmatic How To’s, relevant to previous content. If the reader clicks or engages this, accelerate them to…
  • Call to Action content: users have now self-identified by engaging multiple forms of content, so offering a demo request or trial sign up is appropriate and more likely to produce a well-qualified sales lead

Creating a nurture funnel aligns your messaging with your audiences’ interests, increasing your conversion rates while minimizing unsubscribes. You can set nurture on autopilot (sorry, I had to), wait for qualified leads to emerge, and keep filling the funnel. Read on for a deep dive on how to do this.

Strategy 3. Collect qualifying info upfront to route leads efficiently

Many SaaS and E-commerce businesses have both self-service and direct (e.g. call center) sales channels. Consider using information captured from your signup or “contact us” web forms to route new leads.

Depending on how your internal sales and customer-facing teams are structured, reference routing criteria might include:

  • Number of employees (organization size is a good proxy for sales complexity)
  • Team size (proxy for deal size in seat-based subscription pricing models)
  • Product interest (proxy for buyer’s level of sophistication and need)
  • Evaluation status (indicator of need — are they buying now? In 3 months? 6 months?)
  • Usage or volume metrics (proxy for deal size — number of contacts? volume of data?)

Using Autopilot, you can use form data to trigger a flexible range of follow-up actions. For example, contacts below a certain threshold (e.g. 25 employee company) could be entered into a journey that receive automated emails, group demo offers, and in-app messages, while valuable leads from larger companies could be assigned to sales with a priority task.

Strategy 4. Instantly engage “hot leads” using smart segment triggers

When a contact completes key actions or events, instantly add them to a priority Smart Segment. This “added to smart segment” event can trigger a follow up journey that could include outreach emails, in-app messages and text messages, or internal Slack notifications and Salesforce lead assignments. In Autopilot, contacts can be added to Smart Segments based on almost anything, including:

  • Meeting certain Field Values (which can be permanent or updated by other journeys)
  • Lists they are on (e.g. “paying customers”) or not on (e.g. “competitors”)
  • Website visits, form completions, or email clicks
  • Referring UTMs

For example, you could convert readers of your nurture emails into paying customers by embedding a promo offer within the nurture journey. Ensure rapid follow up by adding users who click a UTM-tagged promo link to a Smart Segment, then tasking your sales team to follow up immediately with contacts who click the “redeem promo offer” link.

Strategy 5. Activate new users faster with helpful in-app and email nudges

Providing a great experience starts with identifying “aha” moments and key in-app events, like inviting team members, setting up an account, or connecting an app. By integrating your product with Autopilot, either via Autopilot’s API or Segment, you can trigger personalized messages to nudge users into completing key actions at the right time.

Example trigger events and actions might be:

  • a first time user logs in, then doesn’t log back in for three days: email user with a tantalizing pro tip or recommended next step to lure them back
  • a “slow-starting” user doesn’t complete any actions in their first 48 hours: invite them to join a hands-on product product Q&A and demo
  • an advanced user progresses quickly learns your product, but mis-configures a key integration: use this fail event to trigger an in-app message that links to a help article outlining ways to fix failed integration issues
  • a new customer completes all actions in your “new customer quickstart” guide: automatically send them swag and T-shirts to congratulate their achievement

Many SaaS companies like New Relic and Atlassian proactively engage slow starters as well as power users with emails, demo offers, or swag. This approach ensures that customers get the attention they need early on, and provides actionable goals and success criteria, rather than ambiguous scores, for operational teams to focus on and executives to track.

Strategy 6. Use Predictive Lead Scoring to target high likelihood buyers

Finally, predictive lead scoring platforms like Infer, Lattice, or more recently, MixPanel Predict, come much closer to fulfilling the original promise of lead scoring — which is to automatically identify those signals that drive conversion, and rank your contact database accordingly. It’s your statistical wing-man.

Predictive lead scoring platforms @InferInc @lattice_engines & @Mixpanel Predict are like your statistical wing-man — Tweet this

Using regression-based machine learning, predictive lead scoring continuously crunch thousands of signals, like web activity, data scraped from 3rd party sites, in-app behaviors, demographics, or sales engagement, to determine the impact that each variable (or their interactive effects) have on conversion. Based on historical results, they then predict how likely future leads are to convert who meet similar criteria. While results vary between companies and business models, the models get more refined as time goes on, and the predictive lead score can become an accurate predictor of future paid customers.

Fighting the good fight

Most of the strategies in this post are easy to implement and will deliver results quickly. None depend on lead scoring to qualify for sales engagement, but rather on enticing your audience to engage by delivering valuable content targeted at the right point in their buying lifecycle.

By focusing your efforts on producing real inbound leads, by creating nurturing journeys that evolve based on your audience’s level of engagement, by intelligently routing new leads and identifying hot segments based on insights, by proactively engaging based on behavior, and by leveraging new predictive scoring technologies, companies can easily drive the 10% — 20% top-line revenue growth promised by intelligent, personalized lifecycle nurturing.

This content was originally published on the Autopilot Blog.

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