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How to Pivot From Lead Gen to Demand Gen: a CMO's Guide

Cognism CMO Alice de Courcy joined the team when there were only three marketers and our main focus was events.

In those early days, marketing at Cognism was based on classic lead generation tactics - gated content, trade shows, MQLs.

But over time, Alice identified a problem with lead gen - and decided to pivot to demand gen.

What was behind this transformation in Cognism’s marketing? And how did she make it happen? 

Scroll 👇 for Alice’s unmissable insights into pivoting from lead gen to demand gen.

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Why should you pivot from lead gen to demand gen?

B2B marketing has definitely changed over the years.

Today’s buyers have more information at their fingertips than ever before. All it takes is a quick Google search for someone to learn almost everything they need to know about a product.

This means that marketers are no longer moving buyers in market.

They’re moving themselves in market.

By the time your buyer comes directly to you, they've already...

  • Asked questions in communities.
  • Discussed your service with their peers.
  • Evaluated various tools and solutions, including your competitors.

So how do you market in this new era?

For Alice, the key is moving away from lead generation and embracing demand generation.

She said:

“Our focus has shifted from easily measured and tracked channels to channels in which buyers actually make decisions, such as the dark funnel and dark social. That’s where our energy is going now.”

To truly understand why demand generation is the way of the future, Alice looked back at the old state of marketing:

“The old idea of marketing was that we’d have always-on content ads running across LinkedIn and Facebook to our ICP. This would generate direct downloads of our content.”

“In turn, that content would be followed up with an outreach cadence where our sales team would try to book a meeting with them and eventually win a deal.”

The new state of marketing, demand generation, is all about shifting your mindset.

You don't want to push people into your funnel prematurely after they've downloaded your content.

Instead, you should focus on direct demand and declared intent. Alice said:

“We've moved to ungate our content. We still serve this via paid social to our target audience, but we’re rebuilding our approach to retargeting funnels specifically for those users who’ve engaged with specific content.”

“We'll send them bottom of the funnel content that’s very product-focused like video snippets, testimonials and use cases that’s all ungated and friction-free.”

The result?

“We've been generating direct demand, true intent demo requests. These people come to us and say they want to buy our product.”

A big part of this shift is focusing more on the dark side of marketing:

Dark social and the dark funnel.

If you aren’t sure what they are, Alice provided a quick definition:

“Dark social is a business term coined by writer Alexis Madrigal; when he wrote this article for The Atlantic, dark social encapsulates ‘invisible’ shares via private channels like messaging apps, email and text, i.e., any private channel your audience is sharing your content on that can’t be tracked.”

“The dark funnel is a term that means the places that buyers are engaging and making decisions that no attribution software or tracking can account for.”

What was the problem with lead generation?

Alice explained why lead gen was no longer viable at Cognism.

“In 2021, we ran a typical lead gen marketing strategy.”

“This meant putting forms in front of our content. We were gating it to generate MQLs for our sales team to follow up on.”

“We spent a lot of time creating gated content and maintaining processes that allowed our sales team to follow up on any leads generated from it.”

Cognism’s marketing team did this very well. Thousands of content MQLs were generated per quarter; see the orange bars on the chart below 👇

Graph showing Cognism's inbound vs content MQLs in 2021

The blue on the graph represents Cognism’s declared intent inbound.

These leads were generated whenever somebody submitted the “demo request” form on the Cognism site. As you can see, these leads increased ever so slightly quarter on quarter.

So what was the issue?

Alice said:

“Although we generated thousands of content MQLs, we weren’t seeing them translate into revenue.”

“In fact, when we looked at the conversion rate of content leads from MQL to SQO, we saw that it sat around 2% while inbound MQLs converted to SQO at 20% on average.”

The bottom line was:

Cognism marketing was spending most of its time working on gated content that only produced a tiny minority of MQLs.

Meanwhile, most SQOs were coming from inbound, and this trend was increasing every quarter.

See the charts below for evidence of this 👇

Graph showing Cognism's inbound vs content MQL to SQO conversion rate in 2021

 

Graph showing Cognism's inbound vs content SQOs in 2021

Why was this happening? 

For Alice, it all boiled down to assumed intent vs direct intent.

Assumed intent:

“When someone completes a form to access content, they’re showing intent for that content but not necessarily for our product or service. Therefore conversion rates are low.” 

Direct intent:

“When someone completes a demo request form, this demonstrates direct intent. It’s a hand raiser for that person to speak to someone in your company.” 

“Therefore, they have intent to purchase your product - which is then shown in conversion rates.”

Why did Cognism pivot to demand gen? 

Alice gave us this pie chart 👇

Graph showing Cognism's inbound vs content closed won rate in 2021

She told us:

“As you can see, inbound made up 85% of our closed-won revenue, while content made up just 15%.”

“And despite generating 31,562 content leads in 2021, the number of closed-won deals was only 46. That's a conversion rate of 0.14%.”

For her, this wasn’t scalable. It led her to ask these questions:

“Why are we focusing on increasing content MQLs when they only contribute 15% of revenue?”

“Wouldn’t it be better to switch our focus to the 85%?”

4 steps for moving from lead gen to demand gen

Alice’s mission was clear:

She had to focus energies on the 85% and create more declared intent inbounds.

To do this, she implemented four strategies 👇

1. Turning marketing into a media agency

Alice explained what this strategy looked like in practice:

“We’ve been building what we call a ‘media machine.’”

“That is, we think like a media company. We want to create value-led and entertaining content that educates, delights and builds brand affinity with our ICP. With that brand affinity, we create demand for our product.” 

See below for this ‘media machine’ content plan. It gives Cognism a unique strategic narrative and points of view (POVs); these are distributed via multiple channels.

Cognism's media machine content plan

And here is a real-world example based on Cognism’s Cold Calling Live events. The event acts as a POV and is redistributed on the following:

  1. Cognism’s Sales Digest newsletter.
  2. Revenue Champions podcast.
  3. Organic social.
  4. Paid social.
  5. Influencer social.
  6. Blogs.

Cognism's Cold Calling Live content plan

Alice said:

“Our media machine has built a community that’s invested in Cognism; our followers talk about us positively on social media (dark social!) and this perpetuates and accelerates demand.”

As the Cognism community has grown, Alice’s team has seen some staggering results:

  • Podcast listeners: 421% increase in 2022.
  • Sales Digest newsletter subscribers: 295% increase in 2022.
  • Live show attendees: 2x attendance rate to 46%.

This in turn has led to an increase in high-quality inbounds that know Cognism and the product.

2. Restructuring the content team for demand gen

The old content model - pre-planned content calendars, a focus on volume instead of conversions - didn’t fit the new demand gen world.

Alice had to split Cognism’s content team into two pillars, with each pillar focusing on the two sides of demand gen.

Capture demand 

“To capture demand, you turn up where the demand already exists. You have limited control over how you influence scale here.”

SEO is Cognism’s main capture demand tactic. Here, the team is structured like so:

  • SEO marketers are specialists and focused on just one type of content - blog and written content.
  • It’s mostly forward-planned, with a defined list of keywords to target.
  • It’s measured in two ways: on conversions and metrics such as Google rankings, organic/branded traffic increases and traffic value.

Create demand

“To create demand, rather than gate your content, you run an always-on, all the time, to all your ICP approach.” 

“You go from asking, ‘how much am I willing to pay for a form fill?’ to ‘how much would I pay for someone in my ICP to actually read and engage with my content?’” 

“By ungating and distributing your content in the right way, you begin to create demand for your product. This leads to increased declared intent inbounds. With create demand, you have control over how you scale.”

To get this right, Alice pioneered a new role - a content producer inside the demand gen team.

These individuals are:

  • Persona experts, developing content aimed at either one of Cognism’s two main personas: sales and marketing leaders.
  • Focused on delivering content in all formats - blog, video, podcast, newsletter, webinar.
  • Curators as well as producers - they work closely with Cognism’s subject matter experts and external contributors.
  • Measured by consumption and engagement metrics.

Watch Alice's speech on pivoting from lead gen to demand gen 👇


3. Dedicating resources to content distribution

For demand gen to work properly, you need to invest in content distribution.

The idea behind distribution is to produce content your buyers love. Then, by distributing it effectively, they’ll start to share it with their peers.

As with all marketing techniques, you need to work out a strategy and framework before you get started.

Alice said:

“The minute you decide to go ahead with content distribution, start labelling different types of content you’re producing to fill that framework and figure out what you want to do with that content.”

“You need to be very agile in your approach. You don’t know what’s going to take off and be worthy of a very high-level distribution."

Keep in mind that a lot of your distribution will happen in dark social. Your buyers will share your content in places that aren’t immediately obvious or measurable.

For example:

  • Private messenger apps.
  • Comments on social media.
  • Community groups and subreddits.

To name just a few!

Cognism toyed with having a team member who was solely focused on distribution. It was their job to be on those platforms daily, monitoring conversations and mentions and responding when things took off.

Later, the strategy changed to working with subject matter experts (SMEs). These B2B influencers already had their own followings in the industry and could distribute Cognism’s content to far wider audiences than before.

4. Revamping the paid social account structure

So far we’ve delved into what happened in the DG and content teams.

What about the PPC team? 

Alice set the scene:

“As we were moving away from collecting leads, we ungated some of our content and created ‘awareness campaigns.’”

“This was a great place to start; it’s important to keep things simple in the beginning. Still, we soon found this broad-brush approach had limitations.”

Alice identified some gaps in this approach:

“We began by focusing on TOFU and BOFU content but soon realised there was a lack of focus. We over-indexed on a lot of actionable checklists and scripts but had very little strategic content.”

“We also filled our BOFU bucket with case studies. We weren’t showcasing our product enough.”

“There was also the problem of ICs vs decision-makers. We needed to diversify our messaging for those who use our tool day-to-day vs decision-makers buying on behalf of their teams.”

The new paid social account structure looked like this:

Cognism's paid social account structure

The structure was split between awareness and remarketing and included four distinct content buckets, all with different content and goals.

Specific objectives (traffic, reach, conversions) were assigned to each bucket.

And each bucket served a different persona with uniquely tailored content.

Alongside these were separate remarketing buckets, again all with different aims (product, social proof, demo).

For this strategy to work, Alice and her team had to ditch the conversion mindset.

“How many leads did we get?”

“This question is the death of all campaigns. Even looking at what directly attributed pipe in your CRM will kill it.”

“Learn to accept that you will generate inbound demand that you’ve lost attribution on.”

Alice’s advice? 

Instead, focus on engagement metrics; these will help you to assess how well your ICP is reacting to your campaigns.

“Use broad measures of inbound demand to draw conclusions on effectiveness.” 

“Of course, any directly attributed demand is a bonus and still a good measure of success. Always include them in reporting.”

And in terms of reporting, Alice said there are two main areas you want to track:

Reach and engagement

  • Impressions, reach, video views, frequency.
  • CTR, engagement rate, likes, comments.
  • Qualitative feedback/shares.
  • Traffic, time on page, bounce rate.

“We run three comparisons to measure effectiveness:

  1. Performance over time.
  2. Performance against benchmarks.
  3. Performance against existing campaigns.

“This give us a good idea of when something is starting to dip or diminish. Then we either adapt it or switch it off.”

Conversions

  • Leads, anonymous conversions, goal completions, pipeline.

“Measure what you can attribute, but more importantly, measure what you can’t.”

“It’s good to be able to see what direct conversions your campaigns are generating. The more the better, always.”

“But you don’t use this as your north star. It will lead you down the wrong path.”

“Take a look at general trends, too! This combined with engagement metrics will show you the success of a campaign.”

Pivoting to demand gen: what’s the impact on sales? 

Marketing doesn’t exist in a silo; it’s closely tied to sales, and no more so than at Cognism.

When Alice’s team made the leap from lead gen to demand gen, what was the impact on sales?

One thing that happened was the creation of a brand new role - the Marketing Development Representative.

Alice said:

“This is a specialised role that sits in our sales team. They deal with all of the direct intent demand that we generate in marketing.”

It’s been developed as a promotion from the normal SDR role.

Why?

Because junior sales reps aren’t the best to follow up with direct demand prospects.

Alice explained more about this:

“Often, people have their junior reps following up on direct demand because they say that’s the easiest thing for them to do.”

“However, we believe these reps need to have the most experience because they’re conversing with people ready to buy today.”

“These buyers want to have conversations around complex topics regarding your products, and they really appreciate speaking to experienced reps.”

What were the results of moving to demand gen?

Alice spoke about what happened last year:

“2022 saw a huge increase in marketing investment.”

“If we continued to put that money into lead generation, as we had in 2021, we wouldn’t have seen the growth in closed-won revenue that we had last year.”

“We would have created an enormous number of leads with assumed intent and they wouldn’t have converted to closed-won. Our content leads converted to closed-won at 0.2% on average as opposed to inbounds at 4%.”

Take a look at these graphs:

Graphs showing Cognism's marketing budget increases in 2021

Alice said:

“Where we increased spend, we’ve seen a direct relationship in the number of inbounds and then closed-won revenue.” 

“We see a lag with the increase in spend and revenue performance of 3x average sales cycle. The increase in closed-won reflects the first budget increase and the second budget increase will start to show in early 2023.”

The theory behind a demand generation strategy is that it not only drives inbounds but also reduces the sales cycle and increases your ACV.

Alice had her own thoughts on this:

“If prospects are more aware of your company, products and services, then they will come to you ready to buy.”

“This reduces the sales cycle. Whereas in a lead gen strategy, a lot of the education is done in the sales process. This elongates the sales cycle as the prospect isn’t ready to buy.”

You can see this effect in the graph below for inbound vs content sales cycles 👇

Graph showing Cognism's sales cycle inbound vs content for 2021 to 2022

Key takeaways

Want to implement a demand generation strategy of your own? Follow these steps 👇

  • Transform your marketing team into a media agency by developing strategic narratives and POVs.
  • Reorder your content creators for capturing demand and creating demand.
  • Ungate your content and distribute it widely, especially on dark social.
  • Work with subject matter experts to level up your content and increase its reach.
  • Split your paid social account structure into separate buckets focusing on different personas and goals.
  • Ditch the conversion mindset and focus on engagement metrics.
  • Employ dedicated and experienced MDRs to follow up with your direct demand prospects.

Most importantly - sign up for a revenue target and leave MQLs where they belong - in the past!

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