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What is Online Lead Generation? Definition, Process and Techniques

What is Online Lead Generation?

Online lead generation is defined as the process by which business sales leads are generated using one or more online media channels. These channels can be owned, paid, or earned media.

For example, owned websites paid search engine advertising or earned newspaper media coverage, etc can be used as channels for generating online leads. 

Online as a lead generation medium is particularly effective for SaaS products, where signup and product use is a continuous experience on the browser.
Online lead generation as a practice among marketers has grown rapidly in the past 20 years. For instance, Google, the premier search engine advertising behemoth has grown its revenue from $0.4 billion in 2002 to $160 billion+ in 2019. This shows the interest and success of online lead generation as a whole since Google’s online ad business growth is testimony that individuals and businesses have witnessed success through this method. 

Online lead generation, like offline lead generation, is part marketing art and part martech (marketing technology) science. In order to successfully generate a lead, your content must be convincing enough for the audience to be led down the right path along the marketing conversion funnel.

Online lead generation- marketing conversion funnel

Before we discuss the business advantages of online lead generation, we need to understand the lead generation funnel, which lies completely within the scope of marketing. A typical broad look at an online lead generation funnel will be:

Information page/pages -> Lead capture link-> Lead capture page -> [Lead Capture]

  • Information page/pages: Information page can be any page or set of pages that lead to the final lead capture page. These pages can be online articles, 3rd party website reviews, digital media coverage, etc. 
  • Lead capture link: Lead capture link is a gateway link to the final landing page that is meant to capture the user information as a sales lead. This can be a display ad on a web page, a search engine ad, a social media post, link from any digital owned media properties like your website and social media brand pages, etc. 
  • Lead capture page: This is the final landing page that will capture the required user information to successfully get the sales lead. This page typically consists of information about the product or service, with either a form or link to share further information (like a Google signup link which automatically pulls information from your Google account, without you having to input them into a field) and/or information to directly connect with the business. 

One of the trends in recent years has been to add a live chat button for those businesses that can provide the necessary human resources for it to be a formidable service. 

Business advantages of online lead generation
So why has online lead generation grown so rapidly in use among businesses? Let's look at the key advantages brought about by generating your sales leads online:

1. Owned media is cheap to host and manage
Owned media, such as your website, youtube videos, Facebook pages are cheap to manage and often free to host. Website hosting can be as affordable as $10 per year (or even cheaper!) and branded social media pages are free. Channel management costs are also significantly lower than offline channels, thanks to DIY software and applications to manage such channels which reduce the need for human resources, and are free to be dedicated to other tasks.

2. Higher ROI
While ROI varies from company to company based on the competency of the online marketing team, typically it is rendered better than offline mediums, especially for inbound marketing where there is no ad spend involved. For example, if your blog ranks for an important business lead generating keyword as part of your SEO content strategy, and your content is substantially good enough to keep your ranking stable, then that page will continue to generate traffic and leads for you, even without any intervention.

3. Global reach through local team
One of the key benefits of advertising online is the reach it provides you - the whole World. In other words, anywhere on Earth where your products and services can be competitively delivered, can become a target region for your online lead generation program. Theoretically and potentially, this enables your local team to run global campaigns and expand your company’s horizon without even leaving their laptops. Ofcourse, language barriers pertaining to promotion, sales and service need to be noted before launching any campaign in a new region and should be discussed and approved by the senior-most leadership team.

4. Accurate and real-time digital analytics
Web analytics is offered for free by Google and if you are using a 3rd party lead gen software, then you will find further deep-dive analytics on these platforms as well. Most social media sites also provided analytics for brand pages (like Facebook) and if you are running a paid ads campaign.

5. Lead tracing and attribution
Online lead generation is a highly trackable process given its digital nature. Unlike traditional promotion and lead gen methods like TV and paper ads where a lead cannot be tracked back through data and analytics to understand which promo worked best. The only way to get an approximation is to run one campaign at a time. This is not a problem with online lead generation where a lead can be traced back to the campaign and webpage from which the conversion took place, thereby providing tracing and attribution for lead source.

Online Lead Generation Process: Key Components
Setting up your online lead generation process will require you to understand every moving component of this ecosystem. Below are the 6 key components of any successful online lead generation process:

1. Lead targets
The first step to lead generation is understanding the requirements to meet organizational growth goals. How many leads per month does your team need to supply to sales for them to meet their sales target? Answers to this question by the sales director or management team will enable you to backtrack it to required tasks to meet this target, and the quality expectations. Just generating a ton of leads which are not sales qualified will not do the job, you need a clear understanding of the qualification parameters (industry, revenue, demographic etc). It is only then that you can start thinking about the right set of channels to deliver the number and quality of leads.

2. Lead channels
Once you have identified your target delivery for a given time-period, you are ready to list down the channels you want to target. These channels include organic search traffic (website SEO), social media (groups, your followers etc), email marketing (to your existing database and possible acquisition of new lists) etc. The marketing leader will need to bifurcate these lead targets into potential lead channels and have a clear map of how each channel will be utilized to achieve individual channel lead targets.

3. Tools and software
You will also need to understand the right tools and tech stack that your team members need to accomplish their targets. For example, your social media team might need a post-scheduling software that automatically posts content on your social media pages at a given time. This kind of automation can help free up your human resources to be focused on other tasks. More complex automation tasks need more expensive software such as lead nurturing and email drip campaign software (like Hubspot), retargeting software (like Adroll) etc.

4. Budgeting
Budgeting process must only be done once you have the right list of resources (both human and tech stack) to present for acquisition and hire approvals. The budget must also take into account any paid advertising and promotion plans, including hiring an external agency if needed.

5. Conversion A/B testing
A/B testing your promotion content will be key to success once it is deployed full throttle. And this is not just limited to landing page conversion testing, you should ideally also test your social media content, email subject lines and in-email content, display advertising copy etc.

For testing, limit your audience wherever possible. For instance, while testing the best email subject lines, you can compartmentalize 5-10% of your total email database, and then ensure that this group does not receive the same email again when deploying to the remainder of your database. Similarly, for testing ad copy, you can run a small-budget test with each copy deployed for the same time period and targets the same audience type (by ensuring ad target parameters stay the same when the copies are being tested).

6. Deployment and reporting
Once you have the best case content and assets ready that meet the right conversion goals to hit lead generation targets, your ecosystem is ready for deployment. Do note that even after deployment, you can still test better ideas if they come up and nothing has to be set in stone, although, the thumb rule for prioritization would be to not break what is already working and meeting the desired goals. Once your lead generation program is well and running, the marketing/project leader needs to ensure that they receive reports from team members responsible for individual channel performances and send the required compiled report to the management team.

Both success and set-backs should be openly reported and the management needs to ensure that any roadblocks that come up should be addressed.

Top 7 Online Lead Generation Techniques for 2020

1. Search-driven inbound lead generation
Inbound lead generation simply means that the right purchase-ready audience discovers your brand online without your active pursuit (like in the case of advertising). This process is most effective on search engines where if your content/ blogs can rank for keywords that are important to your business, you can guarantee a continuous flow of sales-qualified traffic, ready to be targeted for conversion.

For example, if your article ranks for an important business keyword on search engines, you will receive organic inbound traffic to that page. This traffic can then be used for conversion with a link to the lead generation landing page or directly the signup form (if the content on the page is sufficient to set the context without needing the landing page). 

Furthermore, if your pages can rank for high-intent keywords like ‘X software or best X software’, or simply ‘buy X’, ‘best X in 2020’ etc, both your conversion rate and ROI will be much higher than any other channel - because the traffic is free and more sales ready based on the keywords themselves. 

2. Search advertising
The process described in the previous technique is for organic traffic, but the same can be done using paid search traffic if you don’t have the right keyword rankings captured. Search ads are highly intent-accurate given their core method of audience segmentation - search keywords. Search ads can be displayed on the very top of any search keyword you are targeting, provided you can compete on page quality and bid amount for the ad slots.

Youtube advertising brings together videos as a content channel, coupled with search. A promoter can identify the keywords and other filters and the video ads will be played only on videos that rank for the search query, while meeting your additional audience filters. 

Most search engines, including Google, operate on a cost-per-click basis, where you only pay when your ad is clicked by a user. 

3. Social media lead generation
Social media lead generation involved both organic content posting on your pages and groups, and also promoting your posts and pages using paid ads if needed.

If your social media following is low, the best method to organically target your audience is to post in special topic groups that are related to your business offerings. For example, if you are selling a customer experience management software, then groups dedicated to discussing customer experience (CX), customer support and satisfaction, customer retention and loyalty etc. 

Social media paid promotions can offer special audience identification and targeting fields such as age, geography, industry of work, company of work, interests based on social media activity etc. These additional layers of filtration and relatively low cost compared to search engine ads is what gives social media paid promotions its edge. 

4. Email lead generation
Email lead generation requires you to have a contact database of potential lead targets. Most organizations, even if they are small to medium scale businesses, maintain a contact list of potential leads that were put together through the years. While old lists have a high email bounce since many may be inactive, especially in the case of B2B online lead generation where contacts are typical work emails and hence temporary.

If you feel your list is too small or inadequate to meet your targets, you can also purchase an email list with required parameters and filters, to fuel your email lead generation program. 

Email lists should be under continuous segmentation based on user engagement with emails being sent. Based on their interaction and behavior, such as opening mail, showing interest in items through clicks etc. 

For example, let's say you send out a newsletter to your email group with various types of content based on sales funnel. These can be ‘What is X’, ‘Best practices for X’, ‘Products to accomplish X’, etc. Based on user behaviour and the articles they chose to read, you can classify them as cold, warm or hot for instance, based on purchase-readiness and funnel. Each group must then be targeted separately to guide them along the buying funnel till they can be identified as a qualified sales lead. 

5. Online event lead generation
Online events such as webinars and workshops can be a rich source for sales qualified leads. While the total volume of leads will be limited based on how many people register and show up for the event, and the number of events you can do - the quality is better than most lead generation channels. This is because the effort needed to register and show up for the event signifies a high intent related to the subject and product.

Webinars can be a rich source of lead generation for B2B companies.

6. Display advertising
Display advertising is an ad that is placed on a webpage using a graphic, GIF or short video in a separate and dedicated space where it is clearly distinguished from the native content of the page.

The ads are placed based on content correlation and significance to the product or service being promoted. For example, if you are a digital marketing agency, then your ads can be placed on sites that discuss/ inform on digital marketing strategies and ‘how tos’ on topics such as social media marketing, content marketing, SEO etc.

Display advertising typically works on a cost-per-impression (cost-per-view) or cost-per-click basis. Some promoters tend to go for a cost-per-impression model when they are just launching their brand and is part of their branding budget, since every view adds to brand recall even if the user does not click on the ad. Otherwise, for reaching your lead targets in a concrete way, it is always advisable to go for a cost-per-click model where the web owner needs to deliver organic and intentional clicks to marketers to get paid. 

7. Native advertising
Native advertising is a type of online advertising where the advertisement is meant to be indistinguishable from native content. This is unlike display advertising where the ad creative is placed in a dedicated ad slot on the page, and is meant to distinguish itself from the native content.

For instance, website owners, as part of their affiliate marketing revenue program, often places the product purchase link on a blog, and this link looks exactly like any other on-page content link. When a user clicks on this link and makes the final purchase, the product company pays the affiliate website a certain fee/ share of the product sale. 

But why native? Because users are starting to learn to ignore display ads, especially if they know where to expect to see them. In a typical website that allocates ad space, there are only a set number of locations and it gets predictable. Like a pop up, top of the page, right side banners, end of page banners etc. 

Native advertising draws its strength by recovering the attention that display ads seem to be losing.