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The Very Different Roles of Lead Nurturing and Drip Marketing
Why your business needs both—and when.
Posted Feb 27, 2013
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You've likely heard the terms lead nurturing and drip marketing thrown around in marketing meetings. Like most buzzwords or phrases, they sound authoritative and fashionable, but grasping their meaning can be challenging. As technologies and marketing methods evolve, the definitions we use become elusive, and their execution becomes even tougher to identify. Although you may hear these two terms used together, they have two distinct meanings. Understanding the difference between them will help improve your marketing programs and bottom line.

Defining Drip

Coined in the early days of CRM and email marketing, drip marketing conveys that every so often we "drip" a message to our prospect. It's meant as a means to stay in touch with a prospect that is currently in the pipeline or that we hope soon will be.

The problem with drip marketing is that it has become rudimentary. Until recently, marketers relied heavily on email newsletters, brief sales messages, discounts and promos, and so on. This was the best we could do with the technology we had, but it wasn't tailored or strategic. Basically, these were viewed as offer-based incentives to push a prospect over the fence. This left a nasty taste in the mouth of sales folks and customers alike, but had its place in the grand scheme of things.

Defining Nurturing

Since there is no universally recognized glossary of terms, this concept remains open to interpretation. When your CEO says, "I've read a lot about lead nurturing. We need to implement it," what does he mean? The fact is most marketers can write four emails and build an automated flow to give those emails to the prospect funnel and they would probably be meeting the request of the CEO.

On the other hand, marketers could build personas for their target buyers based on research and data gathering, create a content pipeline to speak to the needs of those personas at each stage in the buying process, and then build the necessary workflows in a marketing automation tool before sending out a single email. They could execute it all and start A/B testing and evaluate metrics and tweak results for the next six months to really dial things in.

Or they could just build those four emails and send them out on a drip schedule. See the difference?

Our goal is not just to get the buyers' attention, but to get them engaged. This is where drip marketing leaves off and lead nurturing steps in. Buyers need to be educated, and they need to trust you. We often hear that buyers have changed, but they haven't. What has changed is the power to buy based on education that can be consumed online, and the key to that is lead nurturing. In the past, buyers were often in the dark. Now, in this age of information overload, they need your help to weed through all the content and choices.

Drip Benefits

Despite its bad rap, drip does have its place. Take shopping cart abandonment, for example. Sending a sequence of offers to encourage the buyer to return is absolutely critical. I would call that drip marketing. Perhaps a short drip sequence would be effective for sales contracts that have been outstanding for more than two days. You could serve up reminders and benefit statements around signing within a certain time period. Drips can be used to promote an upcoming event that a customer or prospect has already been invited to, or use it to pull buyers into existing nurture tracks with concise benefit statements based on what you know about that buyer.

Drip sequences have their place as subsets of the overall nurturing funnel. They work for areas that need more frequent, yet limited, messaging windows. They are incentives to "move along," but rarely, if ever, at the top of the funnel, which is where many marketers have commonly used them.

Drip marketing should never be used for purposes of educating the buyer. We cannot educate someone with a handful of promotional emails, yet that's often what marketers expect. They string together several pieces of content and distribute it to everyone who enters their database. Somehow these people are supposed to recognize their need and jump at the solution in that timeframe. It's just not a recipe for success. Those generic emails read like billboards for the company and they have no realistic call to action.

Nurture Builds Trust

So now you see—lead nurturing is all about relationship building, whereas drip marketing is about getting buyers over a hurdle. You want to nurture first, identifying the individual needs of each prospect and providing valuable information at each stage with no pressure to buy. Drip sequences can help turn some of those prospects into buyers through invitations and incentives, but only after they have been nurtured. Having clear guidelines and expectations about executing lead nurturing is critical so when the time comes to buy, the buyers come to you—their trusted source.


Justin Gray is the CEO and chief marketing evangelist at LeadMD, which helps businesses generate and manage leads better through marketing automation processes and technologies. He can be reached at jgray@leadmd.com.

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