Alice de Courcy
Convincing your prospects into giving up their email so you can nudge them into your sales funnel is the oldest trick in the book. After all, MQLs are the easiest way to measure the impact of marketing efforts.
Yet, consumers are getting weary of sharing their personal data, especially if they must do so before seeing the value—or lack of it—of what they are in for. Worse, sales teams tend to disregard most hard-earned MQLs because they simply aren’t sales-ready and should not be in the sales funnel.
If MQLs aren’t working anymore, what will?
While, in theory, forgetting about MQLs sounds splendid, can we actually pull it off? How do we change perspectives as close to being set in stone as the digital realm allows?
In this week’s Ungated Marketing episode, Fernando Amaral interviews Alice about the reasons behind her decision to shift to demand generations as well as the challenges related to implementing such a massive change without disturbing the chain of accountability and traceability.
Demand Gen: The Answer to the Unexpressed Consumer Demand
If there has ever been any constant in the forever-shifting digital marketing landscape, it’s the endless struggle for lead generation. It’s all about the united focus on gaining the contact data of those searching for a solution or product you offer so you have the chance to sway them in your direction.
Alice believes that this approach no longer works as it ignores fundamental changes in the market and consumer behavior. The key to this thought process, she elaborates, is in “really understanding and acknowledging that marketers won't move people in market. They’ll move themselves in market.”
It was the initial spark that brought Alice to rebuild her strategy and focus “on dividing it in converting the 1% that are in market, but then actually generating demand in the 99% that aren't.” This way, she concentrated her energies on expanding her audience and generating new opportunities instead of “forcing people through funnels when they're not ready to buy. We've really adapted to a change in how people want to be marketed to and how they want to take on information and buy products.”
Thus, beyond being a quest for generating awareness and demand with new audiences, Alice’s demand generation playbook emphasizes respect and understanding of consumer needs and preferences—not just in terms of product offering but throughout the sales process as well.
The Big Shift: Challenges of Challenging Status Quo
However, the complete ideological restructuring of the marketing role and expectations doesn’t just happen overnight. Moreover, to pull off such a shift presents several challenges, including justifying your actions to the rest of the company.
Suppose you set out to implement an outright disrupting shift. In that case, Alice emphasizes that it’s necessary “...you actually have the backing and support of your senior leadership to try out new things.”
She recounts that getting rid of MQLs in favor of bringing in purely direct demos was not without conversation as “that straightaway rings alarm bells, it impacts their [leadership] quotas and targets.”
So how did Alice go about it?
“You, first of all, have to make sure you're delivering on your number. [...] What we did is [...] put forward a case for a bit of experimentation budget, to go purely into this [with] what I call ‘the awareness brand spend.’ So, we were actually delivering the content ungated, friction-free to our target audience with some fairly substantial paid budget behind across paid social channels.”
Only after observing and tracking the initial results did they move forward: “We were looking at the correlations and uplift in direct demo demand. And then with that, the correlations and uplift in revenue. And, actually, it was really clear to see the impact after three months of progressing. [...] That was when we decided that in the SMB segment, we wanted to shift to [...delivering] 70% on the ungated model and then 30% delivery of MQLs, still. So, it was fairly graduate. It wasn't just [shuting] it off one day, and [not doing it] again.”
After the initial success, she still needed to prove continually that the new system was working: “As long as we could keep delivering the velocity we needed in the inbound funnel—with the increased spend pushed into that funnel versus what we were spending before and the gated content—then we would be in a place where we were creating a really efficient engine and also just listening to our buyers and giving them a frictionless journey.”
Today, Cognism marketing strategy is entirely free of MQLs in the SMB segment. It focuses largely on bringing in the direct intent demand leads through their demo forms on the website.
How to Measure Success without MQLs
All your content is freely accessible.
Now, the question is, if MQLs are off the table, what metrics do you use to measure your success?
Optimize for Consumption
Alice believes in metrics and sees no obstacle in the lack of MQLs. The only difference is that you have to dig a bit deeper without them.
Thus, one of her go-to metrics to track the success of all the ungated marketing efforts is feed consumption: “The thing that we're actually optimizing for is in feed consumption of that content. That for us is what success looks like; It’s engagement with the content. Not necessarily a website visit or any [of] your traditional conversion metrics. It's really all about ensuring friction-free engagement with that content from our target audience.”
The consumption aspect is so crucial to the success of the strategy that instead of encouraging people to sign up on the website, they focus on “...trying to get them [people] into some of our channels where they can consume more content, be it the newsletter that we ran, or subscribing to the podcast or signing up to the webinar series. [All] with the view that the more that we can deliver value to them consistently, [the more] they will just come inbound to us when that time is right for them.”
Breaking out your content from its protective gates means having no straightforward way of knowing where a particular customer heard about you; which was the content piece that tipped the scales in your favor.
If you can’t collect the data automatically, all you have to do is ask: “One thing we have done on the website, on the form [that] is on the thank you page, we have what we call ‘human-verified attribution’.” Alcie elaborates: “Obviously when you're tracking this type of thing and paid social without gating, directly attributing that money back to the individual when they convert, it's very difficult. So we've implemented an extra question [...] on the thank-you page, which says ‘It would be really helpful for us to know how you heard of us.’ and it's free text.”
You might be skeptical about such a little action making a difference. Though, when prospects are happy with the value you provided and ready to be sold to, they are much more likely to answer your questions. Like Alice, you might be surprised what you find out: “It's been really interesting to see the kind of inputs we've had. So things that we haven't even been aware of or expected, like me speaking on another podcast or... our podcast has come up a lot. Some particular initiatives that we've run which we would just never have gotten that insight on before. So yeah, that's been really interesting as well, for us to know where to place our bets in terms of that awareness brand spend going forward.”
Shed Light on Dark Social through Data Correlation
While dark social is one of the hottest topics, many are still wary of betting on the strategy without reservation as it makes tracking and attribution fairly difficult. However, Alice doesn’t believe that dark social and metrics are unreconcilable: “It's all about correlation. Correlation, impact and effect, and just being a little bit smarter about how we ask some of these questions.”
She offers an insightful example of how they tackled the issue at Cognism: “So, we set up anonymous conversions on all of our paid social campaigns on Facebook and LinkedIn. We can gather that metric. We have [also] set up goals within [...] Google Analytics which allow us to get a level of insight. We have that human-verified attribution on the thank-you page now, as well.”
Besides that, they collect other indirect insights such as “How long are people staying on page on some of these ungated content places on the website? Are they going on to engage with other pieces of content within the journey that we've created across the website? [...] So, there's still tons of stuff to measure.”
Still, Alice’s favorite metric is one that ties all of the above together: “The main thing that I'm tracking [is] full-funnel metrics. So, the correlation effect from paid spent on the awareness channels, through to the revenue, and then from lead to meeting, meeting attended to SQL and then closed won. [Pretty much] all of those conversions points along the journey.”
All in all, measuring a dark funnel is not impossible; it’s a different way of going about it.
Creating & Managing Content-Fueled Demand Gen Strategy
The core part of Alice’s demand generation approach is ungated expert content. Hence, you need an unceasing supply of quality content filled with value for this tactic to work.
One of the main shifts in the content strategy Alice often talks about is going from an editorial calendar planned months in advance to having her content team act more like journalists, jumping on trending topics, be it on the news or in online forums and communities.
Such a strong content base doesn’t come without its challenges.
Educating Your Team & Finding Experts (Quickly)
Alice goes on to relate one of the challenges was changing her team’s mindset about content creation: “The biggest challenge has been to educate our team on [...] what it looks like to actually go and find a story and find a trending topic, and then be able to write about it.”
However, for the content to have value each trending piece needs to be supported by expertise. So, the trick is not only finding the topic and reacting to it promptly but also finding someone who has something relevant and helpful to say about it: “The big blocker has been, how do we quickly find an expert to contribute to the piece, so we can turn it around, and it's timely and stays up to date.”
The solution to the challenge is investing in your content team and hiring people for roles dedicated to these tasks. For Alice, it’s an investment that pays off: “It has worked really well. So, for example, [the] time-on-page on the blog was probably under a minute about six months ago. And now, we hit 5 to 6 minutes consistently. So that's a huge indication to us that the quality of the content has really shifted. We are now reacting to trends much faster. We’re jumping on topics, we have one person solely focused on the content distribution.”
Furthermore, as Alice points out, having one person dedicated solely to distribution throughout social communities ties right back into keeping the content creation chain running smoothly.
“Not only is he looking at how he distributes different pieces of content, but he's also feeding back into the team [about] what's trending. So, he spends time in those communities. He's on Reddit. He will feedback on topics that we need to jump on and curate content on really quickly. And we found that to have a big impact.”
Ensuring Content Quality
Since content is the key to generating demand and raising awareness with an audience that doesn’t care about you (yet), ensuring its quality is Alice’s top priority.
How does she go about it?
In her words, “it's all about the knowledge.”
You can go looking for that knowledge externally or tap into what you already have inside your company: “So, whether that be guests or internal experts that you can leverage. Those are the things that are going to make the difference. [...] Return investment in that does look like hiring someone full-time who sits within your marketing team, who can really be consistently delivering on that piece. [For instance,] we market to marketers, as well. And we can utilize our own internal knowledge, but again, only to a certain extent, because we also have all of our jobs to do full time.”
Tracking Your Action-to-Result Cycle
Relying on ungated content as your go-to strategy means patience, as results will not appear overnight. Still, tracking and metrics play essential roles as they will help you make adjustments and optimize along the way. “It's going to take you up to 6 months to start seeing repeatable results. [Also] I think it depends [on] what you would define as a result. Is it just actually increasing the velocity of the direct demo inbounds? You can start tracking that.”
Though, Alice recommends the minimum data set you need to start seeing patterns is at least three months: “We were starting to see that impact from month 3 [through a] continued uplift.
I think three months of data is kind of a trend. Otherwise, it's a bit too soon.”
But, if you aim to track the success through revenue, you need more time: “When you need to track it through to revenue, you are looking at kind of the six-month side of things, depending on your sales cycle length.
However, she puts the greatest emphasis on consistency through time. To have a reliable set of data to work with, you need to feed your content funnel consistently, which in itself is a challenge: “It's a lot of change. So, in order to set up all the pieces you need to deliver that and to deliver it consistently [...] So, whether it be the podcast, the webinar series, the content that actually powers that paid awareness funnel, all of that takes time to produce and build.”
Distribution & Internal Involvement
As already hinted above, distribution is crucial for effective demand generation, not just in spreading the word but also in finding trends and topics of interest.
Besides paid social, Alice’s team devotes a lot of energy to organic distribution. For instance, one of the channels that work for Cognism quite well is Reddit, a social space known for censuring any attempts at self-promotion.
So, what’s their secret?
It comes down to value and patience: “the key is not to try to be self-promotional. [...] It's about not thinking about how can I get this person to come back to our website, sign up to our newsletter, watch the podcast. It's [about being] present, delivering value consistently. And that's all that we tried to do on Reddit. We don't try [to] hack Reddit for our own benefits, I guess. That's the big thing.”
Another distribution strategy Alice is known for is actively encouraging and using key profiles from inside the company: “We actually run lunchtime workshops, where people come [...] and we walk through all of the ways in which doing consistent posting on LinkedIn can be beneficial for them and in their roles. And then we help them get started with their first posts.”
Though it doesn’t stop there: “Then, we analyze the posts and [...] run competitions as well at times when we feel like we want to up engagement, and encourage people to be posting more often. It's definitely a challenge, like, it just needs consistency.”
And yes, we are back at consistency. Like effective content creation, effective distribution won’t do without it.
For Alice, it’s not about using a particular channel, be it a newsletter, a Reddit community, Twitter, or Linkedin: “I think it's just consistency. So the fact that there is one person who will consistently treat a piece of content in the way that it needs to be to be distributed, and then go back to it time and time again, is the thing that works, not necessarily one single channel.” Add channel-focused originality, and you have the recipe for success: “The other thing that really works is that [a dedicated person] writes for each channel. It's not just ‘Upload it to Hootsuite press a button, and it's posted it on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.”
Creating Personalized Campaigns
Demand generation doesn’t have to focus on articles, podcasts, or videos. It can take the form of active personalized campaigns.
However, one thing the efforts will have in common will be focusing on value rather than conversion.
In the interview, Alice gives a good example of a demand-generation-focused campaign they run at Cognism.
“We get trigger data on when someone has joined a new job for our target ICP [which is] an SDR leader. And they've just joined a new role and a new organization. We have built a program, a campaign especially suited for that persona, which involves things such as reach desk delivery of what we call ‘top cards,’ which have different resources for them to go and access on our website. We think these are all the resources that someone new in a role needs to scale out, and [things] SDR outbound team would need [...] to train their team and organization.”
Their efforts are not limited to static content: “We do things like we offer them a one-to-one coaching session with our SDR team leader, where they can come with their team and deep dive any sort of pain points or scaling questions they might have, or that they're experiencing along the way.”
Why go through so much trouble?
Alice explains: “The whole idea behind that campaign is that it's high-touched, highly personalized, and they'll come out of it thinking, ‘Wow, Cognism has set me up for success in my new role!’ And whether they're needing to buy a solution like us right now or further down the line... then we will be totally fine when that comes because we have helped [and been] their business partner in that role.”
Is SEO still Relevant in the Face of Demand Generation Strategy?
If it’s all about demand generation and expert content, what about SEO?
Is it still relevant and valuable when so many benefits are coming in from other more nuanced directions?
While being a passionate ambassador of the demand generation approach, Alice still strongly believes in the value of SEO. In fact, it forms an active part of Cognism efforts: “We split the content [into] three pillars for us. It's SEO and then [two types of] demand gen content. So that's anything that needs to be used for campaigns and campaign-driven focus content. And then [we have] what I call demand creation content, that [is an] expert-driven editorial content that we're producing. [...]”
The trick in using these seemingly contradicting strategies together is keeping them apart and treating them differently: “We write differently for each of [these pillars] now, rather than trying to tie them all together–that doesn't really work because SEO [needs] to be planned out. You need to have a focus strategy that is probably planned out a quarter in advance because that is how long it takes to start seeing some of these results from SEO. [...] But then with the demand creation content, we want to be timely and the editorial that needs to be more ad hoc, and more reactive.”
In Alice’s playbook, keeping SEO in the game means—despite focusing on generating demand with the 99%—not forgetting about the 1% that’s already interested: “We still put a lot of effort and energy into converting [that 1%] we run funnel campaigns and paid; we have Google ads running; we have high intent SEO strategies that we run [so when] the 99% that we're looking to generate the demand from so that when they become the 1%, we also convert them. [...] Both sides need attention and need looking at. And the quickest wins are obviously in the 1%. And we all need to hit our goals and targets. So it's still definitely a big focus.”
Lead generation and MQLs will likely never be completely off the marketing table. Yet, Alice’s approach to demand generation offers up a well of opportunities and a glimpse into unexplored lines of thought with human-centric marketing at heart.
To hear more of Alice’s story of breaking away from MQLs, her thoughts on demand generation as well as the experience of successfully executing a massive shift in marketing strategy listen to the full episode below or tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts.