The Complete Guide to Outbound Lead Research

The Leads!

It all starts with the leads, before you get leads there is nothing else to do.

There are many many factors that impact how much business our sales machine will generate, but the first and primary one is how many leads we feed into it. We can and should fiddle with close rates and how efficiently we move potential customers through our process, but the most straightforward and direct way to grow our machine is to increase the number of leads.

Where do we get leads?

New leads are either going to find us, or we are going to find them.

Leads that find us, or inbound leads, can come over the transom in an almost infinite number of ways; referrals, ads, web searches, social, PR, etc. If you have a company that is totally overwhelmed by inbound leads, first congratulations, second feel free to skip this lesson and rejoin us for lesson three.

For everyone else, today’s lesson is about creating a process for proactively finding new leads called list building. It is an essential part of building a predictable sales process because it gives us absolute control. Remember we don’t want to build a system that is dependent on our cleverness or the chance virality of our marketing campaigns, we want to build a system that is fueled by hard work alone.

Let’s jump right in, here are the 10 steps to creating a world-class list building operation.

Step 1: Who needs our product

It is often said that sales is about delivering…

The right message to the right person at the right time.

List building lets us skip the uncertainty of hoping that the people who would benefit from our message hear it when they need to. Instead we proactively find those potential customers with a need and share the good news about our product.

That last paragraph is important, you MUST be determining who is interested in your product during the list building phase. You won’t get this 100% right all the time, but that’s ok.

Don’t be a Blackmarket Viagra Peddler or Nigerian Prince.

Our goal is not to create an enormous list as cheaply as possible and figure out who is interested by seeing who responds. This is a bad strategy for three reasons-

1. We are unlikely to get a good ROI on this strategy because high quality B2B leads take some work and are more expensive than the emails a Nigerian Prince buys on the dark web.

2. We are inflicting a small cost on a huge number of people which makes us a drain on the world, a net negative. This is the definition of a spammer and I am confident that the long term effects on your brand will outweigh any perceived benefits. A Nigerian Prince can rebrand as a Chinese Business man, you are stuck with your identity.

3. The difference in response rate between a random untailored list and a targeted tailored list can be astronomical, I’ve seen 34x better. It is worth the investment.

I ask myself this question before adding a contact to any list…

Is this person likely to be interested in my product or service, even if they don’t eventually buy?

Because we are good global citizens and smart businesspeople we start by defining exactly what a happy customer looks like. Who do we believe will really benefit from what we’re selling.

Now is not the time to limit ourselves to the fields we know exist on LinkedIn, because we don’t need to actually find these people until step 3. If you think an ideal customer probably really enjoyed the soundtrack to “Mamma Mia,” put that down. Even though you don’t think you’ll ever be able to find the information needed to segment on that characteristic, put it down anyways.

We are building this profile to articulate who our customer is, not how to find them. So ask yourself “Who are they,” “what have they been going through,” “what has brought them to this buying moment,” “what are their hopes and dreams.”

I know what you might be thinking, “this is some hokey marketing mumbo-jumbo.” You’re partly right, and you may already know your customers well enough to skip this step, but this step is important because buying lists based on simple company metrics like industry and headcount is often the most ineffective way to start a list. I’m not saying we won’t do it, I’m just saying we can do better. The more we understand our customer the more creative and clever we can be in step three when we go out and find them.

Step 2: Consider your messaging

Remember sales is about “The right message to the right person at the right time.” The people we contact, when we contact them and what we say are all tightly intertwined. Therefore listbuilding and messaging should not live in separate worlds.

We want to engage our leads with messages tailored to them. Throughout the entire process of building our list we need to be thinking about the messages that will peak the interest of the leads, and building our lists to enable us to deliver those messages.

If our product is beneficial for high growth companies, we want to include that in our messaging. Therefore if we start with a list of the 5000 fastest growing companies we know we will be speaking to a pain our leads are facing. If our messaging doesn’t change based on the company’s growth rate, then starting with a list of the fastest growing companies is going to be no better than starting with a random list of companies.

Take your ideal customer profiles from step 1 and think about the most effective messages you can craft. It will probably be something really tailored to their situation. We might not be able to do that at scale, but we should get as close as we can.

With these messaging goals in mind, we will not only create a list of leads who will want know about our product, but we will build our list in such a way that we can deliver the most tailored and effective message to that potential customer. That means we won’t have a giant monolithic list of people all receiving the same message from us.

Messaging is next week’s lesson, if you’re not already receiving the full course over email you can sign up here.

Step 3: Find the Initial Data Source

Where we source initial data from is a very important decision. A bad initial list can make our list building process much more expensive and reduce our success rate. The size of the initial list is also the upper ceiling for how many leads we can expect at the end of the process. There are a few key questions to ask ourselves when choosing an initial data source.

Is a presence on the list a signal of potential interest?

If we are starting with a list that signals interest in what we do we won’t need to do additional research on data that signal interest. The less we need to research the less we’ll spend on our leads.

What percentage of the list do we think will close?

Not everyone on our initial list will become customers, but what percentage do will greatly impact our overall lead cost per customer. Leads will be culled either in the list building process or when we reach out and they aren’t interested in moving forward. A good list will balance these two factors. For example maybe in one list 90% of your initial leads are worth messaging, but only 5% of those are interested enough to move forward. In another list may only 10% of your initial leads are worth sending to, but a huge percentage of them are interested in moving forward. Both are good lists, but because costs increase as leads move down the funnel the second one is probably generating a better return.

Does this give us something to say?

The uniqueness and relevance of your messaging will have a huge impact on how many of your leads close. So choosing lists that give you a unique and relevant message from the start can be very valuable. I reached out to you because… “you were on this list I bought” doesn’t have the impact of “I liked that article you shared on Twitter.”

How big is this list?

As you might already be able to tell, there are a certain amount of fixed costs that go into launching a new list. Crafting custom messaging and creating the list process might not make sense if your list is only a few customers long. This number will vary for everyone, but this guide is focused on people building lists at least a few hundred leads long.

These lists can come from ANYWHERE and contain ANYTHING. People often think they need to start with a list of that contains Account name, contact information etc, but the start of a list can be almost anything. Here are a few great examples-

  • LinkedIn Profiles of people who shared Y content
  • Twitter Handles of accounts following X
  • Email addresses of everyone receiving your company newsletter
  • Links to press releases
  • Ideas from your team
  • Conference attendees

The key point is that the list does not have to start out complete or even close to complete. There will be a really good chance that you would never dream about reaching out to everyone on the list. But we’re not skipping to outreach, there is still much more to do, so it is ok if not everyone on your initial list is a good fit. In fact as long as it is not too expensive to gather data and qualify the list it can start out as a really bad list. 90% of people who share content from an industry blog might not be qualified for your product, but the 10% who are might be VERY qualified.

This step more than any other is the time to be creative, look for anything and everything that might be an indicator of a qualified prospect, and remember you don’t need a perfect indicator, just an indicator.

Not every initial list needs to strictly be a “list” either. Some of the things above might better be described as trigger events. With trigger events we are building our own lists from scratch. Maybe we collect companies who post certain types of job listings, or issue press releases about key hires, or use keywords in their annual reports.

A great lead strategy will layer on a number of these different sources. Some of your most effective sources might not be large enough to sustain the entire sales team, include them anyways and add less effective but larger lists until you can get to your lead commit.

There are some tremendous tools for this step that are required if you want to create amazing initial lists and keep your sanity.

Databases:

The most straightforward source of account leads is a company database. You can find these in endless shapes and sizes, there may even be a database for your target customer. Here are just a few big ones.

LinkedIn - LinkedIn will show up a few places in this lesson, it is the most comprehensive and accurate database for companies and employees out there because it so actively updated. LinkedIn will allow you to search companies by 147 industry types, the metropolitan region and eight company size buckets.

Crunchbase - Crunchbase is great for finding high potential and funded startups. One of the challenges of other databases is differentiating small companies that will stay small and small companies that are spending lots of money to grow.

Hoovers - The classic old school database. If hoovers can segment effectively for your company that is great. Don’t use a database like this just because it is there though, you are better than that.

Yelp - Maybe not the best fit for your product, but it is included here as an example of all the alternative databases out there. At a company I once worked at we sold to restaurants and other local businesses. For that target there is no better database than yelp. Just because it is targeted at consumers doesn’t mean you can’t use it.

Social:

I’m using “social” broadly here. Social is amazing is so many ways, mostly because almost everything is on social these days. All your contacts are on social, often sharing their professional interests, and many of the companies you are interested in are on social. They won’t all be on Snapchat or Facebook, but there are so many social networks out there including meetups, subreddits, and LinkedIn that are very professional in nature. A quick note, the social networks themselves are not a place to sell, they’re a place to be social. So unless your buying ads refrain from pitching within the network itself.

LinkedIn - The ultimate business social network. We already mentioned it as a database, but there is also a huge social component with content and groups. Groups focused on your space or innovation are by definition full of people interested in what you do.

Twitter - For every teen tweeting about their lunch there are also tons of professionals sharing great content and networking. Twitter can be a great way to find people interested in your space. Try searching article links to see who shared content related to your product or search the followers of influencers who tweet about your space.

Online Communities - This one is intentionally vague because it will differ dramatically by industry. That said, I don’t care how stuffy and old school you think your world is, I guarantee there is a big community of people talking about it online, somewhere. Try reddit, meetups, or forums.

Competing or Complementary Tech:

If you can find a connection between what you sell and the technology a company uses on their website you have found a great way to source or qualify leads.

Website Tags - The technology a company uses to run their website or web application often leaves all sorts of clues in the code that generates what you see in the browser. If you’re using chrome just right click and select “View Page Source.” Then hit “Ctrl-F” to search for the text that corresponds to the tech you’re interested in. I know this is crazy time consuming, but good news, there is a tool to speed this process up below.

Other Company Posts:

PRNewsWire.com - Companies still put out press releases about what they are doing. If you can correlate a common type of press release with a likelihood to buy your product then you have a steady source of new leads.

Indeed.com - Another common public posting all companies do are job listings. Again if the listing of certain types of jobs correlates with a higher likelihood to buy your product then this is another steady source of new leads. Also consider delaying your messaging on this one. It could make sense to reach out two months after a job is posted for example, when you think the job has been filled.

Tools:

Some of the above sources can be super tedious to pull information from, so here are some tools that help. If there isn’t a tool here for the strategy you are interested in definitely just do a quick google search. I haven’t included everything here because this list could be almost infinite.

Mention - Mention is one of the simplest social media monitoring tools out there. Put in some keywords and get notified whenever someone uses them in a tweet.

BuzzSumo - Use BuzzSumo to see who is sharing content related to your product. They’re interested enough to actively tell the world about it.

Sales Navigator - LinkedIn again! This time though I’m here to say you don’t need it. Sales Navigator is expensive and in my experience doesn’t really add any value beyond a paid LinkedIn account. (If you’ve used Sales Navigator successfully I’d love to know about it. Send me an email or leave a comment).

Builtwith.com - BuiltWith is a really cool site that will automatically tell you the technology being used by a website or webapp. It can also give you big lists of other sites using that technology if you pay.

Google Alerts - Get a big list of all the new web pages that contain certain keywords. Great for employee announcement, new branches, company news, or anything else you can dream up.

Scrapers:

When you find great lead sources online your work is far from done. You need to get all that information off the internet and into your world. It sounds like a small thing, but it can often be the most time consuming part. The tools below will help you scrape the content you need automagically without needing to learn how to code. Before you start scraping sites though please make sure to check their rules on scraping. You can find a website scraping guidelines by visiting http://[www.thewebsite.com]/robots.txt. Here is Yelp’s yelp.com/robots.txt.

Portia by Scrapinghub - Portia is a robust and open-source tool that lets you scrape data visually just by visiting a website. There is a bit of a learning curve, but the plus with Portia is that as you grow you can get really fancy and even work with the folks at ScrapingHub to build custom scrapers for you.

Import.io - Import.io is not my favorite, but since Kimono Labs has been shut down it is the only super simple webscraper left. It is often too simple for my taste but if you’re looking to just grab some decently well structured data off a site it works well enough.

That is it for list building tools, on to step 4.

Step 4: Standardize

Step 3 felt like it went on forever, so we’ll keep this one short.

One of the keys to finding great leads is being totally unencumbered in your search.

You should be finding leads wherever they are, not where it is easiest or fits best with your process.

This also creates challenges. We now have lists of all different shapes and sizes, but we don’t want processes of all different shapes and sizes, that’s a nightmare.

Great process allows for totally unencumbered work when it makes sense, but then brings it back to a efficient and standardized process. So step 4 is to standardize so we can proceed efficiently.

“Account based everything” is all the rage right now, and for many reason it also makes a lot of sense when we are list building. For that reason I’m am going to suggest you standardize on Accounts. This could be companies, departments within companies, whoever buys.

I can’t tell you how to do this step, just do a few yourself and figure out the most efficient way to get from the data you have to an Account and then standardize the process.

Step 5: Dedupe

Now that we have an account for every lead on our list we want to dedupe. It is important to dedupe as early in the process as possible. For our company this is the earliest we can effectively dedupe, but if your process allows you to do it earlier, do it. Every lead we pass through our process costs time and money. Find the duplicates early and remove them.

Deduping is relatively straightforward, we either are going to manually search our CRM or use a deduping software.

Manual Search - Go into your CRM and search for the account on your list, don’t do exact match, search as broadly as possible. That’s it.

Deduping tools - Exact match is easy here, you can do it with a simple vlookup in excel. Fuzzy match is the hard part. I actually haven’t found a great tool in this space. There are tons of deduping tools out there, I just don’t love any of them. That’s why I built you an excel doc that will handle the job. We share our deduping template in the Sales Process 101 course.

Finally remember that just because you found a duplicate doesn’t mean you are necessarily done with that lead. If the lead was triggered by a new hire for example you will definitely still want to research it, just with a different process.

Step 6: Qualify

It is SO important that we don’t reach out to just anyone. Remember we are proactively reaching out to leads who would benefit from our product. If your reaching out to unqualified leads you are wasting their time. Don’t do it.

Qualifying is so important we are devoting all of lesson 3 to it. If you are not already getting the the Sales Process 101 course you can sign up here.

Step 7: Who do we talk to?

We may target accounts, but we sell to people. So next step is finding the people we want to talk to.

First, consider again the lead source. If this is about a specific person (a new hire, someone who shared x content etc) then the person we want to message first is them.

Second, we will want to find people at the account. One option is just to go to the company’s website or linkedIn page and read about who works there. This could work, but if we want to have any hope of scaling this process, or handing it off to other people we need to define who we are looking for. You could spend all day scrolling through the hundreds or thousands of people who work at the target accounts.

That’s why I would suggest putting together a systematic search process based on titles. I have found that titles are the most informative and available data point to identify contacts. If you have used other data points I would love to know what has worked for you, comment below or email me.

Third, we want to find more contacts. Just because you couldn’t get through to someone at the account doesn’t mean that the account is no longer a great fit. I suggest researching at least 3 and not more than 5 contacts.

There are two schools of thought on who these contacts should be, bottom up and top down. Bottom up involves reaching out to the end-users of your product and enticing them to sign on to a free trial. Once you’ve signed up a bunch of users it becomes an easier sell. Personally I think if this is your strategy you’d be better served by an inbound approach but I never say never.

With top down we reach out to the highest level person that would be interested in what we do or the results we can deliver. This person might then refer down the line to someone who will actually take a call. If this highest level contact doesn’t respond we then reach out another step down the chain of command. We stop when we get to the lowest level decision maker.

Here is a real world example for a product that helps manage a company’s social media accounts.

  • Find 1 contact that…
    • Is CMO
    • If no CMO find CEO
  • Find 1 or 2 contacts that…
    • Are the EVP, SVP, VP, Chief, or Head of
    • Marketing, Digital Marketing, Online Marketing, or Social Media
  • Find 1 or 2 contacts that…
    • Are the Director or Manager of
    • Social Media, Community, or Online Marketing

These rules do not necessarily need to be followed exactly, but they form an excellent guide that will ensure your leads are all in the proper buckets. Depending on who is doing your research you might be more or less explicit.

What Tools can we use-

LinkedIn - Here it is again. To search through lots of profiles you are going to need a paid account. I absolutely think it is worth it. If you decide to hire someone to do this work make sure they have a paid account. I prefer LinkedIn because there is no more complete database.

Lead Databases - The benefit of lead databases is that we get the name, title and contact information all in one step. The downside is they are often outdated and very incomplete.

Do you want to reach out to someone because their information is in a lead database or because they are the best person to reach out to?

Since we are not using a lead database to find contacts there is an extra step, getting the contact information.

Step 8: Get contact information

We used LinkedIn in the last step, so we have found amazing people who will really benefit from using our product. Unfortunately we don’t have a great way of contacting them yet. The good news is that there are an enormous number of data sites and email finding tools out there that make this step so easy!

Tips and Tools for finding emails:

Free Guess and Check- One of my favorites, this technique involves discovering a company’s email convention, guessing the contacts email and then using two free tools check if you got it right.

To get the email convention use HeadReach or EmailHunter to search for other emails at that company. Then put your best guess into a new gmail email and check it with the Rapportive AddOn. The bonus of using Gmail is that if the email has a Google+ account that will also show up. For the step by step details of using this technique just google "Rapportive Email Hack." 

If you don’t get a hit try mail-tester.com. This will tell you if the email is valid, but you won’t get a picture to confirm that it is valid for the right person. Big companies and common names might mean you send to a good email address but the wrong person.

Another option is to use browser add-ons like FindThatLead.com that will give you a best guess for the lead's email while you are looking at their LinkedIn profile. These can be hit or miss and should be confirmed in another way.

For phone numbers it is usually best to search for the contact on data sites like the sort-of free data.com.

Additionally you could use public phone numbers from the company’s website although this will mean you and your reps will need to navigate past gate-keepers and through phone trees to reach the contact. Consider the value of your reps time doing phone tree work vs the value of your researchers time trying harder to find the right number.

Finally we want to check our work. Researching emails can be tedious and difficult work, and we may make mistakes or our process might even occasionally fail us. Therefore we must check our work. The last thing we want is for our emails to bounce or be undeliverable. This can have very negative effects on our domains ability to send clean email. Your bounce rates should always be close to 0%.

One great option for this job is Kickbox.io. If you do enough volume the price per email drops below $0.01. This is definitely worth the investment if it keeps your domain clean.

Step 9: Additional information

At this point we could be done. You have all the information required to send an email or make a phone call. Personally I don’t think that’s enough.

Think ahead to your messaging again. What is the most powerful message you can send? What would drive the greatest positive response rate?

I have seen campaigns with a 0.5% success rate and I have created campaigns that drove a 17% success rate. The level of success is always highly correlated with how well the message is tailored to communicate the fit of the product for each contact.

Think about the difference between 0.5% and 17% for a moment. That is a 34x improvement 3,300%.

If you are spending time gathering more information on your contacts it will absolutely pay for itself if you are driving 34x improvement or even just 3x improvement. The most important thing is to go beyond anonymous emails, the improvement in success rate when you go from entirely anonymous to lightly customized is enormous.

The additional data you collect will take one of two main forms. Segmenting data or mail-merge data.

Segmenting data is used to help determine which message a contact should receive. It buckets our contacts together so they will receive the best pre-written message for them.

Mail-merge data is put directly into the message itself. These fields will become part of our messaging so that the contact gets a something entirely unique to them.

I can’t tell you the best information to gather in this step, it will be unique to your product and customers. It could be as simple as using a data enrichment service to add account level information automagically, or as involved as visiting each contact’s website and writing a short critique that will merge nicely into the rest of your messaging.

Again, do not be afraid to spend some time/money on this step. The difference between a bad, untailored email and a great, customized email is enormous, remember the 3300% difference! Additional time/money spent at this point is invested in highly qualified leads with good contact information. Going the extra mile here makes sense.

Finally, if you are not willing to spend the extra time/money to customize your messaging you might be better off just not using this channel. The cost of researching just the basic contact information is unlikely to be paid back by the very low success rate of sending generic messaging. You are probably better off buying sketchy lead lists online.

Step 10: Upload

That’s it, you’re ready to start reaching out to highly qualified potential customers with a custom list built specifically for your company, and your ideal messaging. Upload the list to your CRM, marketing automation tool, or sales acceleration software. We’ll talk more about crafting your messaging two lessons from now.

A Note on Outsourcing

The process we just worked through above can be run by anyone on your team, CEO, top sales closer or SDR. The important question to ask is who should it be run by. In my experience, research like this is best run through a research team, or a combination of a research team and your SDRs.

Not only do dedicated researchers on sites like upwork.com charge 80% to 90% less than your SDRs they also do MUCH better work. The repetitive and mundane work of lead research takes a special type of drive and focus that I think you’d be hard pressed to find within your own organization. Most of your team would just rather not do this work.

There are many talented researchers out there, and there are far more bad ones. The cost of someone doing a poor job can be huge, both in terms of lost opportunities and time commitment. Before hiring anyone we have applicants do a list that is 20 leads long using a set of directions and no other input from me. That list gets graded automatically and that grade + the time it took the researcher to finish + the amount of help requested come together to give a really good picture of the quality of the researcher. You will work with many researchers before you find a really high quality core group. Systematize your hiring process so you can quickly hire new talent if previous ones don’t work out.

Finally if you do decide to fully or almost fully outsource your lead research don’t forget to also include a process for your team to add their own leads as they come across them. One mistake I often see is that the lead research process becomes so centralized that it does not allow an SDR to add leads they discover. Be sure to include a way for your SDRs to add their own leads and send their own custom messaging if it makes sense for you. If your SDRs are discovering particularly effective outreach strategies it can be a great source of ideas for creating new lead research processes across the organization.

All in one solutions

The appeal of all-in-one solutions is obvious. You skip everything we just talked about and instead just pay for a list. I don’t have anything against this option but there are some important things to consider before you go that route.

  • Cost - The price per lead of these services can be really high. A leading research company I’ve spoken with bills their researchers time out at close to $30 an hour, these are researchers they are likely paying less than $5 an hour.
  • Customization - The key with lists is finding people who will really benefit from using your product and collecting the data needed to deliver a tailored message. If a list company can do this for you great, but in my experience they can not.