Filling the Pipeline in the Age of Digital Selling

Filling the Pipeline in an Age of Digital Selling

By: William J. Zhan, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Houston

Businesses that want to fill their pipeline with new leads and grow organically must focus on the integration of their digital marketing and selling resources.

A 2014 study conducted by the Acquity Group revealed that 94% of business-to-business buyers do some form of online research in the procurement process. Accenture Interactive reports that nearly 90% of B2B marketers now offer online purchasing options.

Additionally, as more millennials have entered the work force and are now assisting in (or even making) purchase decisions for their organizations, the need to have a cohesive digital experience is even more important.

Integrating Digital Marketing and Digital Sales – Converting Skeptics to Prospects to Loyal Customers

Filling a funnel with prospects through digital marketing requires a combination of 3 distinct, yet related types of marketing: search engine marketing, content marketing, and social media marketing. Together, these three skills make up what is known as Inbound Marketing.

The conceptual idea behind Inbound Marketing is that customers are less attuned to marketing messages that interrupt what they are doing. Instead, customers now shop when they want. The purpose behind inbound marketing is to have your customers find your marketing materials when they are ready for them, not when you want to sell.

Researcher published by Gartner reveals that buyers are 57% through the decision process before they engage a supplier sales representative.

Due to the on-demand nature of information, customers now expect to be able to find the information they need to make a decision when THEY want to make a decision, not when you want to give them a decision. The idea behind inbound marketing is to be there with the information your customer needs when they need it. And to get started with Inbound Marketing, you should start where most of your customers go for their information.

Google’s (or for 1% of the market, Bing’s) Role in Filling the Pipeline

Of the nearly 90% of procurement officers conducting online research, over 75% use search engines in the process. Search Engine Marketing, including Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising can be used to quickly fill the funnel.

Having a fully integrated search marketing campaign requires patience and a lot of effort, but depending on your industry, the results can be very lucrative. I, in conjunction with the Bauer College of Business, offer Executive Education courses in both SEO and PPC, which I encourage you to explore if you have deeper questions about Search Marketing.

Search traffic drives a lot of prospects into the funnel, but when should you assign a sales person to reach out to a prospect? The key to understanding when to reach out comes down to understanding searcher intent.

By looking at the keyword phrase (one or more words typed into the search engine) that brought a user to your site, you can have a strong understanding of what their intent is?

For example, a search query of “should I buy the new Apple IPhone or Samsung Galaxy?” indicates a buyer that is toward the top of the funnel. This buyer will likely take longer to convert than a prospect using the query “Where is the closest place to buy an IPhone?”

Below is a 2×2 grid that I have developed for understanding the various types of searches and the marketing implications of each.

This grid takes into account the 2 key attributes of keyword phrases, search volume and competitiveness of the search terms. In general, searches with higher search volume are worth more than searches with lower volume.

Except in the case that some certain long-tail queries (searches that have 3 or more words) are actually giving off strong buying signals. These money keywords should have calls-to-action on the page that directly asks for a purchase. Or in the case of larger B2B sales) should have a contact form and that prospect should be contacted by a sales representative as quickly as possible.

Filling Your Funnel with Content Marketing

Directly tied in with search engine marketing success is content marketing. The more content you have that is answers the questions your prospects are asking for, the more likely Google and other search engines will be to send traffic your way.

Content marketing, like search marketing, does not have obvious ties to the sales department. However, if you understand the type of content that your prospect is clicking on and studying, you can have a solid idea of where your prospect is in the buying funnel.

Additionally, you can include multiple calls to action in any piece of content. Making a special report available to industry insiders will encourage people to sign up for your e-mail list, giving you an added way of deepening your relationship with customers.

Finally, content marketers should be utilizing their sales force to uncover content ideas. Salespeople are an invaluable resource for content marketers, as they are the frontline for hearing the needs, desires, fears, and objections of prospects. Any content marketer worth his/her salt should be having weekly meetings with salespeople to uncover new ideas for content.

The Digital Handshake: Sales Meets Social Media

Social media has had a lot of interest from a salesperson perspective. Unfortunately, the use of social media by salespeople is often uninspired and, frankly, turns off most buyers. As a reader of this blog, I’m sure you’ve probably experienced a similar interaction on LinkedIn:

  1. You receive a connection request from someone you’re not sure you know, but their profile looks relevant, so you add them.
  2. You receive a message thanking you for connecting with them and a request for a meeting.
  3. You realize you don’t know the person, don’t need what they’re selling and delete the connection.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty standard operating procedure on social media for sales people.

Not quite as bad, but still uninspiring, is the company who only asks their employees to send out brand related messages. If 90% of what you post is about your company and products you sell, that is a recipe for being ignored and unfollowed.

There is a better way for social media. Social media can be an excellent tool for driving deeper relationships and building trust between a buyer and seller. But it starts with being social.

Being social requires a bit of vulnerability. We have to be willing to let our salespeople display their personality and engage with their prospects as if they were friends. This includes paying attention to the updates your prospect posts, liking and commenting on those prospects.

If you find out that your prospect is a big Astros fan and sends out 20 tweets every night of the ALCS, perhaps you could set something up involving the team and the World Series. Diving deep and doing your research into your customers takes a lot of effort, but that effort is what will allow your salespeople to build the relationships needed to succeed with social selling.

Allowing your salespeople to display their personality means encouraging them to post on topics unrelated to your business. In a recent conversation that I had with a social media trainer at a major computer manufacturer, the trainer indicated that she encourages their sales reps to post personal content 90% of the time and company related materials 10% of the time.

A typical objection to this might be, how will that reflect on the brand? In reality, it shouldn’t reflect on the brand at all. People have their interests and we’re really talking about building a relationship between a buyer and a seller at this point. But, if you’re still not sure you want your salesperson posting on whatever your interested in, that I recommend putting a Social Media Policy together and educating your sales force on appropriate and inappropriate social media behaviors.

Social media is too important of a tool for building relationships to let fear prevent you from doing what is necessary to build relationships with current and potential customers.


In summary, combining the sales force with the digital selling tools provided by inbound marketing is inevitable. The companies that learn to balance the digital sales and marketing interface will succeed at a much more rapid pace than companies that bury their heads in the sand. I encourage you to think about your sales process and how digital can enhance that process. Please comment below with your experiences or concerns with digital selling; I’d enjoy hearing from you.

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  1. Great overview of the three dimensions of inbound marketing. Very useful and concise article. The ‘magic’ of converting skeptics to prospects to loyal customers! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. I am a digital marketer and this post motivates me to do more constructive work for my digital practices. Digital marketing is the future of marketing and this fact is developing day by day.

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