Leading the Way

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It's brutally unfair to be able to send an RFP to Taiwan in a matter of seconds, but have to wait weeks for an overpriced pamphlet of cold leads from a list broker--however, it's a fact for many businesses. It's painful to think about a junior marketing staffer typing in data from hundreds of trade-show business cards on his five-figure-per-seat marketing campaign software, yet it happens. And dumping the qualification process on a telesales division, even an outsourcer, seems an expensive, time-consuming waste.

To a degree, it would be fair to say that some CRM implementations have missed the mark on initial prospecting functions. They offer all sorts of sales chain and campaign management tools, without anything more elaborate than keyboard input and perhaps a generic database import to populate the database in the first place. Perhaps because it's one of the most humble and homely stages in the sales cycle, or simply because it's a formidable challenge, even avid CRM advocates might be at a loss to explain how lead management advances have kept pace with the rest of the sales and marketing departments.

Finally, though, the top of the chain is starting to get some real attention. Networked enterprises can turn to a growing number of Internet-enabled lead generation and qualification bureaus, or set up their own sophisticated, Web-enabled lead collection and management system. You can even leverage vast amounts of online information yourself to build a custom prospect database.

Grizzled Old Prospectors
If your lead generation needs go beyond Yellow Pages surfing or the occasional industry member directory, chances are you're familiar with the collected works of companies like Dun & Bradstreet, Acxiom and Experian, who have been collecting and selling corporate information for decades. They will take orders and do business with you online, but a new, sleeker generation of the brick-and-mortar list broker is evolving. Zapdata.com, a business unit of iMarket, licenses corporate data on 40 million corporate contacts representing 11 million businesses from some 30 different lead sources, including D&B and Computer Intelligence. Unlike traditional brokers, Zapdata's deliverables are available on demand, and in quantities as small as one lonely lead.

Through interactive services like Zapdata, or Austin, Tex.-based competitor HotData, lead buyers have an unprecedented level of control over the fields of data returned. Unlike having to go through a "phone tag" exercise with a traditional list broker by defining broad search terms, getting a ballpark figure of how many companies fit that description, then narrowing down the list and agreeing on data, price and delivery, the process is self-serve and flexible.

The faster turnaround and lower quantities can be an instrumental part of building more nimble, targeted marketing campaigns: You can buy a broad-based but relatively small list of companies for your initial push, then segment the prospects not on what you think they respond to, but by what you know they respond to, then buy additional prospects that fit each profile and tailor new messages to each group.

Steve Lankler, director of marketing for DirectLease, a Portsmouth, N.H., firm that specializes in equipment and technology financing for corporate clients, won't go back to his list broker after working with Zapdata. Cutting his broker out of the equation cut eight or more business days out of the lead generation step and has improved the data accuracy. "The number of bad mail returned to us has decreased," he says. The best part is that the switch was a financial no-brainer: "[Zapdata] met all the prices we had negotiated with other list contractors." Zapdata charges anywhere from 10 cents to $1.50 per lead, depending on data detail and overall volume.

Where the Web Leads, You Follow
Sheryl Kingstone, an analyst with Yankee Group, sees the Internet as a tremendous opportunity for the lead-hungry. "There's so much information out there. Everybody's selling on the Web, everybody's putting up brochures and white papers," she says. "Imagine being able to go through all that." More importantly, interactive Web prospecting has the potential to break out of the relatively rigid mold of vendor-defined data categories and higher unit fees for basic information such as executive contacts beyond the CEO.

Sam Clark, senior research analyst at META Group, disagrees. Looking into his crystal ball, he sees companies that rely on time-tested business catalogs as more likely to succeed than the pure Internet plays. Referring to companies such as Zapdata and HotData, Clark says, "their source partners are certainly more established, the business process is more established."

Despite the axiom that any serious business maintains a serious Web presence, Clark is unconvinced that the Internet says everything worth saying about your prospects. "Just having an approach that takes data available from the Web is narrow," he says. "Companies and individuals give a lot of information about themselves away in other formats besides the Web," and the traditional data collectors have been building trust and reputation to distribute that information for decades. Furthermore, personal online privacy issues are a blistering hot topic, and it might not be the best PR in the world to rely too heavily on gathering B2C information from Web profiling services.

So who's right? One of the best benchmarks for pure Web-based lead harvesting is San Jose, Calif.-based Intarka. Intarka markets and develops ProspectMiner, a Web search tool for the sales and marketing set. Given a set of keywords, a sample URL and an evening to work, ProspectMiner culls the Internet for leads that match the customer profile you request, gathering not just links, but executive contact data, financial information when available, recent news items--in short, anything and everything it can find on the Web that relates to your target market.

But a quick look at Intarka's recent business decisions offers some insight into the viability of the Internet as a one-stop lead source. By autumn, the company plans to de-emphasize its ProspectMiner software package, which META Group's Clark dismisses as "a nebulous solution," in favor of a new Web-based lead database service.

At a very crude level, it could be said that Intarka is retreating from the notion that any company can treat the Internet as its personal lead prospecting playground. Or they may have simply found a substantial number of enterprises unwilling to take a chance to the tune of a five-figure license fee on something which, by its very nature, does not provide the traditional list broker guarantees of X number of leads with Y number of populated fields. Any search tool is only as good as the precision of your search terms, the value and completeness of the information placed on corporate Web sites and the efficiency of the searching software.

But Intarka isn't just giving up--it's not as though they plan to throw up their hands, license the D&B database, and becoming a copycat dot com list broker. While the marketing message and delivery are changing, Intarka is not giving up on ProspectMiner itself, and the company's conviction that the Internet is the future of lead management has not changed. "It's fresh, it's hot, it's key information," says Greg Migaki, director of marketing.

The company plans to use ProspectMiner technology to generate the lists it will sell to clients, using in-house experts and data editors to search, sort and clean the data ProspectMiner gleans from the Web. Migaki says that the databases will not try to replicate the efforts of mainstream corporate cataloguers, but will instead focus on roughly 10 growing high-technology areas, such as e-tailers, B2B marketplaces and Internet infrastructure firms.

In the new model, the ProspectMiner software, as well as custom-commissioned searches, will still be available, but they are expected to be in the minority. Although pricing has not yet been established, Intarka says it will offer its databases on a site license basis rather than a per-lead or per-seat arrangement. In the Internet age, it seems even vital business information once jealously guarded and trickled out can become an unlimited-use commodity.

Speeding the Cycle
While the technology to search the Web for pre-qualified leads may not be ready for everyone, there is simply no excuse not to use your own Web resources to generate more than name, rank and serial number from your visitors--even long-term "considered purchase" transactions can be qualified and even closed online. NorthPoint DSL, a San Francisco, Calif.-based broadband wholesaler, once needed a couple of weeks to turn a Web request for service information into an offer from one of their downstream ISP partners. "By the time the partner called them back, if they even did, the customer may or may not have remembered why this person is calling about DSL service," says Dan Fineman, NorthPoint's manager of lead management.

With some data integration assistance from MarketFirst, NorthPoint got that cycle down to well under a minute. Using an inconspicuous text box that asks simply for phone number and address, NorthPoint compares the input against their nationwide service availability database. If service is available to that address and phone number, NorthPoint instantly presents a menu of service offerings from business or residential partners, based on the preference of the customer. NorthPoint provides links to the ISP order pages, and in some cases the DSL order can be closed in a single sitting, without a phone call--from prospect to sale in just a few minutes.

And, of course, the beautiful thing about any "misses," where service is not yet available, is that NorthPoint knows who to call as soon as the network goes live in that neighborhood. No, they don't have the answers to questions like "Do you have budget?" but they certainly know where to find an actively interested prospect.

Bart Bartlett, director of marketing for MarketFirst, says that the important thing to remember in an online lead qualification session is to keep the questions simple and relevant. "We encourage our customers to ask as few questions with as much business relevance as possible," he says.

And that means getting creative. "We're trying to move people away from the ‘Are you a decision maker? Do you have budget? What is your timeframe?' series, because that's blatantly obvious." Instead, ask questions that are more conversational than categorizing: Ask what kind of project they think you can help them with, not how soon they can send a check. And for basic facts and figures on the company, consider integrating information from an online service such as HotData by doing a company name or address match, rather than forcing prospects to waste time typing in information that they gain nothing by sharing, and you could just as easily obtain without asking.

HotData provides a service that can deliver prospect intelligence directly to your database or Web form while the potential client is within your reach. Taking a business address from your Web form, HotData can return information such as industry classification and company size. Or it can immediately profile a consumer based on postal carrier route-level data on everything from average home value to the percentage of outdoors enthusiasts. This information is returned to your Web site or database almost immediately, allowing you to craft or alter the rest of your interaction with the customer based on the characteristics you wish to exploit--such as pushing a customer from a ritzy area toward a more luxury-minded product.

Bartlett also believes that the qualification process should be "reciprocal"--a thing for a thing, so to speak. If you want to ask about what types of projects the customer is working on, offer a paper or brochure that addresses your solutions for that particular type of project in return. If you want to ask about budget range, offer your price list and finance terms in exchange.

And proceed using several small steps: If you ask all of the important questions at once, the prospect knows you hold all the cards. They may make up answers or lie outright if they can't get to your price list or shipping terms without giving you the history of their life. By empowering prospects with information exchange, you eliminate the risk of getting misleading data just so they can get past your gatekeeper form.

With premier lead vendors integrating data from multiple companies, and technology like ProspectMiner offering a way to monitor the latest corporate facts and figures constantly, relying on a single published list is no longer necessary. After all, if the information is there for the taking, it makes sense to be that much better prepared to make the right offers to the right prospects. "If you hand [sales] a D&B list, it's not enriched with the latest information about the company," says Kingstone. "You still have to go online, take a look, prepare yourself … that's just taking away time to sell."

And if the setup fees or unit costs of the online brokers sound intimidating, you can still collect and analyze Web-generated prospect data on a budget. San Diego, Calif.-based V2Commerce offers outsourced Web form data collection and analysis tools starting at $30 per month. You will still need outside help to integrate this data with conventional corporate data sources, but if your own IT limitations are keeping you from asking the important qualifying questions online, there are alternatives.

Future Prospects
Intarka envisions the day when Web-based lead searches will go beyond the sales and marketing departments and right to the CEO's office and the board room. Migaki sees the potential for Intarka's databases to grow into a source for strategic partners, as well as potential merger or buyout targets. "The kind of information we're pulling will help you assess those companies, go after them, recruit them, engage them," he says.

Count on the more traditional online lead delivery managers to continue their campaign to integrate and cross- reference data from a growing number of respected industry data sources. The core data providers are also increasing their efforts to go direct, soliciting customers in some cases to buy uncharacteristically small quantities of data straight from the source.

And despite the controversy, it is not unreasonable to expect that increasingly accurate consumer-level information will be available through a simple street or e-mail address lookup at the online lead source of the near future.

Traditional business intelligence has not gone away, but reams of typewritten lists and neglected fishbowls full of business cards are giving way to instant prospect profiles and lists of thousands of likely candidates available at the click of a mouse. Just maybe, the time has come to leave all those horse-trading list brokers in the dust.

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