Lead generation 101

Your go-to guide for getting high quality leads with inbound marketing

Table of contents

    Want to increase your revenue, achieve a better ROI from your current marketing efforts and start feeling the love between your marketing and sales teams? This lead generation guide is a great place to start.

    Whether you’re the company president, the marketing manager or the head of sales, there’s one thing you’re looking for on every financial report—an increase in your business’s bottom line. This lead generation guide will give you the insights, techniques and tools to attract the right people and engage with them in the right way so your sales pipeline is always full of qualified leads who are ready to take the next step.



    What is a lead?

    Before we define lead generation, let’s talk about the meaning of a lead. A lead is a person who has shown enough interest in your company’s information, products or services to give their contact information to you. 

    This “interest” can vary widely as far as its connection to a sale. For example, let’s say you own a financial planning company and someone fills out the “What kind of investor are you?” quiz on your website. (Turns out they’re a tortoise.) Intrigued, they give you their email address to get their detailed report. Are they ready to book a meeting with you? Probably not. But they’re still a lead.

    This is a lead:

    this is a lead

    Another visitor to your website is in full-on shopping mode for a new financial planner. They like what they read on your About page, skim a couple of your blog posts to confirm that you know your stuff, click on your “free portfolio review” button, and fill out the form. They even opt to upload a photo of their most recent investment statement. You can be darn sure they’re considering working with you and want to get to know you better. They’re also a lead.

    This is a lead, too:

    this is a lead too

    The difference between the two leads in our example is the amount of information you have on each, which is often correlated with their level of interest in what you have to offer them.

    What is lead generation?

    At its most basic level, lead generation is the process a company undertakes to turn a stranger into a contact for the purpose of making a sale. Now, that sounds pretty cold and impersonal—which is definitely not the experience you want to give your potential customers. The best lead generation strategies, in fact, are warm and personal. They give people what they’re looking for at a particular moment in time, then move them in a predetermined direction by generating interest, inspiring confidence and establishing trust.

    Lead generation has four key components:

    1. Attracting people who don’t know you
    2. Engaging with them so that they want to learn more
    3. Collecting their contact information in exchange for something they value
    4. Developing a relationship with them to determine whether they’re a good fit for your business and vice versa


    Inbound lead generation

    You may have heard of the inbound methodology: a process that uses online content and experiences to help strangers find you, then trust you, choose you and, ultimately, love you.


    From the diagram, you can see that lead generation efforts are focused on the “attract” and “convert” stages of the inbound methodology, where a potential customer moves from stranger to visitor, and then from visitor to lead.

    However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the recent change in the way inbound marketers look at the sales process. The diagram above looks a lot like a traditional sales funnel: linear and tidy with discreet stages that people move through in a predictable sequence. But thanks to a quiet revolution being led by our friends at HubSpot, we’re talking less about the funnel and more about the flywheel—a circular, customer-centric model where every department of a business is responsible for attracting, engaging and delighting customers. In this model, customers aren’t an outcome. They provide the momentum that drives company growth.


    Seen in the context of the flywheel, “lead generation” is not so much a specific “top of the funnel” marketing task as it is a part of an overall customer experience that can be influenced by every person in your company. Your current customers can help strangers find you as much as—and maybe better than—your blog posts or ad campaign.

    Inbound lead generation, regardless of whether you subscribe to the flywheel or funnel model, is a person-first approach. Inbound lead generation strategies are:

    • Educational
    • Empowering
    • Helpful
    • Relationship-focused
    • Context-dependent
    • On-demand

    Lead generation and the buyer’s journey

    The buyer’s journey is a start-to-finish map of a customer’s experience as they seek to solve a problem that’s related to your company’s product or service. Our version of the buyer’s journey covers the full experience from pre-awareness (“I don’t even know I have a problem yet”) to advocacy (“I’m telling everyone how awesome your company is”).

    buyers journey 3

    The buyer’s journey is an important part of all lead generation strategies because it examines the buying process from the customer perspective, allowing you to see the opportunities and challenges your customers may experience at each stage. You can generate a lead at any stage from pre-awareness to decision-making. You can also engage those in the purchase, repurchase and advocacy stages as influencers in the lead generation process.

    The insights you gain about your customer and their pain points can be translated into specific lead generation strategies, such as ad campaigns, articles, offers, calls-to-action, and emails, so you can feel confident you’re delivering the right experience at the right time. A thoughtful buyer’s journey will also tell you what strategies to avoid, and where you may be introducing frustrating delays or unnecessary detours into their journey.

    Online lead generation

    Before the internet came of age and social media became the new way to develop and maintain relationships, marketing and sales looked very different. Businesses were expected to interrupt audiences with ads. The companies with the biggest budgets were the loudest. Potential customers only knew what they were told. And direct personal contact was required to close a sale.

    Today we’ve said goodbye (and some say good riddance) to such top-down, heavily controlled and invasive business approaches. These days, information is everywhere and everyone is a reviewer. Customers don’t want to be interrupted by ads. They don’t want to receive an unsolicited email. And they don’t want to talk to a sales guy (unless they ask to). Power has shifted to the people, who now expect to research, try and buy whenever, wherever and however they want.

    Businesses need to focus on online lead generation, because their leads are online. And they need to invest in this type of lead generation because the people they want to engage have high expectations of an easy, convenient, personalized, customer-focused online experience. 

    But the advantages of online lead generation go beyond customer experience. The performance of online lead gen efforts can be easily measured, so it’s easy to test and tweak elements of your lead generation strategy to improve results. Changes can be made to everything from calls-to-action and email subject lines to landing page content and form length. (We’ve put together 5 quick ways to increase your leads if you’re ready to get started.) With the right tracking and reporting, you can adjust (or abandon) underperforming efforts, promote top performing offers and even justify your marketing spend to the boss.

    B2B lead generation

    Business-to-business lead generation has its unique challenges, with one of the toughest being the widely held view that “B2B is different from B2C.” This mindset makes marketing and sales teams reluctant to wholly embrace online, inbound lead generation strategies. Instead, they reluctantly dabble in digital marketing while investing most of their budgets in traditional lead gen methods such as events, direct mail, traditional advertising, cold calling/emails, third-party lead generation services and purchased email lists.

    But B2B isn’t as different from B2C as you might think. In fact, for a time we actually replaced the terms B2B and B2C in our internal discussions with the term P2P—“person-to-person.” Regardless of whether you’re selling swimming pools or industrial filters, your buyer will always be a real human being—someone who has experienced the best in online customer experience from big B2C websites such as Amazon, Uber and Apple, and will come to your website expecting a similar experience from you.

    Common challenges with B2B lead generation efforts are:

    • a complex buyer’s journey 

    • multiple influencers and decision-makers in every sale

    • a lack of standardized sales approaches and programs because “every customer is unique”

    • niche products and services that don’t generate many organic searches

    • a longer sales cycle

    • little subject matter expertise outside the company to develop appropriate content

    • an outdated and neglected online presence, including website and social media



    Lead generation, for inbound marketers in particular, is about providing the right information, at the right time, and in the right place for your buyer. 

    To generate leads effectively, your information must be:

    • easy to find
    • made for the person you’re trying to reach
    • relevant to their stage of the buyer’s journey
    • worth the price they had to pay for it (if we think of contact information as currency)
    • connected seamlessly to additional information to nurture them to the next stage in their journey to purchase

    We’ve broken lead generation into 10 specific and straightforward steps in another article. What follows is a birds-eye view of those steps. 

    Website traffic

    You can’t generate an online lead without a form, and this form will probably be on your website. (The exception is if you’re using Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn lead generation ads, which allow people to fill in a form on the social media platform instead of your site.) So, without further ado, here are three main ways to attract visitors to your website.

    Increasing traffic through SEO

    The first strategy, called search engine optimization (SEO), uses a strategic, sophisticated and ever-changing set of approaches to get your most important web pages to show up on page one (or two) of Google (or Bing or Yahoo! or Duck-Duck-Go) when the right person types in a relevant query

    SEO isn’t about gaming the system. It’s about knowing your audience and what they’re looking for, then providing the highest quality content possible. Anything less will get you inadequate leads. It may also get your website penalized in search engine results.

    Increasing traffic through social sharing

    The second strategy uses social sharing to drive traffic to a relevant page on your website. Like SEO, social sharing doesn’t require you to pay directly for the traffic that comes to your site. And like SEO, you need to know your audience well, so you can deliver what they’re looking for (or their connections would be looking for) using their preferred channels.

    “Social sharing” happens on any online channel where people can interact. Examples include:

    • posting information and a link on a relevant social media channel to encourage your followers, fans and friends to click and share
    • encouraging current contacts, such as newsletter subscribers, to share relevant articles and offers from your website with their circle
    • answering questions on Q&A sites that are relevant to your area of expertise, such as Quora  
    Increasing traffic through digital advertising

    Digital advertising is the third strategy. It uses paid ads on social media sites, online ad networks (such as the Google Display Network) and search engine ads to drive traffic to specific pages on your website. Digital ads can also be used to retarget (or “remarket”) those who have visited particular pages on your site to encourage them to return to your site and convert on your offers. The keys to successful paid social, display and text ads are proper targeting, effective copy and visuals, and relevant landing pages.

    Lead conversion

    Once the right visitor is on your website, the next step is to get them to fill out (aka “convert on”) a form so that you have their contact information and can continue to build a relationship with them. There are four specific website components that work together to convert visitors into leads. We explore each of them below.


    A call-to-action (or CTA) on a website is a text link, button or clickable image with one purpose: to inspire someone to do something. 

    When your goal is lead generation, there will always be a CTA on the form (the classic “submit” button). Without this CTA, the information in the form fields will never make it into your database. 

    But the path from stranger to lead is full of other opportunities for effective calls-to-action—on digital ads, organic search results, blog posts, landing pages, confirmation pages, emails and more. These CTAs are like signposts, helping to direct your buyer to the next logical step on their journey.

    Landing pages

    A landing page is any webpage designed to get visitors to fill out a form in exchange for something of value to them. You get their contact information, and they get content that helps them out, such as an ebook, demo, coupon or free trial. 

    Landing pages are important to lead conversion because of their single-mindedness. Unlike other pages on your site, they don’t distract your visitor with off-page links and information that’s not directly related to the offer. Instead they get right to the point, which is to convince the right person at the right time to fill out that darn form. 

    Ads meant to generate leads should always go to a landing page. The ads will perform better and cost less per click if the ad content or keywords directly relate to the landing page content. But even for unpaid traffic, your conversion rate will be higher if the landing page delivers what the visitor expects.


    Without a completed form, you don’t have a lead. It’s as simple as that. The best forms are short, simple and easy to find (usually, you can see them as soon as you land on the page—no scrolling required). If you’re in Canada or marketing to Canadians, the form itself—and any use of the information you collect—needs to comply with Canada’s anti-spam law (CASL). 


    Your “offer” is the content, service or experience that your lead receives after filling out your form. Be strategic when deciding what will make a good offer. Is your buyer looking for it? Does it fit naturally with other content on your site? Could it become an important step in your buyer’s journey? Do you have the resources to do it well? 

    It’s important to strike a balance between delivering what you’ve promised and not investing too heavily in an offer without knowing for sure people will give their contact information for it. Do you have permission to use quality content from another reputable source? Do you have high-performing ungated content of your own that you could repurpose as an offer? Could you team up with a partner to produce a high quality offer? All of these approaches will minimize your up-front investment in the offer itself.

    Lead nurturing

    Lead generation often involves more than someone filling out a single form on your website and—boom—you’ve got a lead for your sales team. Let’s say your lead has only given you their email address to subscribe to your newsletter, complete a quiz, download an ebook or receive a similar low-commitment offer. Your lead generation process should include some early nurturing to qualify their readiness to talk with sales.

    What is lead nurturing? 

    Lead nurturing is the process of engaging with a lead to provide more of the information they’re looking for at a particular moment in time so you can increase their interest, develop trust and further your relationship. It’s a critical step to the sales process, since only 4% of website visitors are ready to purchase.

    Lead nurturing and the buyer's journey 

    How much and what kind of nurturing your leads require will depend on where they are in their buyer’s journey. 

    To illustrate this, let’s go back to the financial planning example we shared at the start of this guide. The person who just found out via your quiz that they’re a tortoise is probably at the pre-awareness stage of their journey. They don’t know they have a problem to solve yet; they’re simply curious about the subject and want to learn more. To find out if they have a problem and, if so, determine whether they like the solution you offer, you’ll need to engage with them further—in other words “nurture” them. 

    The person who filled out your “free portfolio review” form, however, is in the decision-making stage. They already know they have a problem. Maybe their investments aren’t performing as well as they’d like, or their current financial planner isn’t proactive in communication. They’ve considered different solutions and landed on one: get a new financial planner. Now they want to see if your company is right for them. To be effective, their lead nurturing experience will need to be different from the experience you provide someone who’s at an earlier stage in the buyer’s journey.

    Successful inbound marketers follow the 4 Ts of inbound content—topic, timing, type and technology—when they’re nurturing their leads. That way they’re able to confidently and efficiently tailor their lead’s experience to the buyer’s journey. 

    Lead generation evaluation 

    One of the key advantages of online lead generation is the ability to track and report on performance. With numbers in hand, you can make data-informed decisions about how to modify your efforts to maximize your lead generation results. (One hot way to do this is through A/B testing.) You can also do the calculations to determine your lead conversion rate and cost-per-lead so you can start to gauge your overall return on investment.

    Calculating your lead conversion rate 

    Your lead conversion rate is simply the percentage of visitors who sign up for whatever it is you’re offering them. It’s basically a measure of the effectiveness of your offer as it’s presented on your landing page.

    To determine your current lead conversion rate, use this formula:

    Conversion Rate (%) =
    (Leads Generated ÷ Website Traffic) x 100

    You can do this calculation for your website as a whole to determine your overall lead conversion rate. You can also calculate the conversion rate per offer to find out how well each offer is performing. 

    Many businesses want to know if their conversion rate is “good.” The follow-up question to that should always be: “good compared to what?” Even when industry benchmarks are available, they may not be relevant to your business. Your location, target audience, brand, traffic source, customer relationship, company culture and length of time in business will be different from the sample used to establish the benchmark—so how relevant is it to you? 

    The better way to evaluate your lead conversion rate is to establish your own benchmark for a particular landing page or your site overall and try to beat it. Do the math at regular intervals to determine if your efforts are making a measurable difference.

    Calculating your cost-per-lead

    Simply put, cost-per-lead is the amount of money your business spends to acquire a single lead. It’s an important performance metric, since it allows you to compare what you’re spending to get a lead with the lifetime value of that lead, should they become a customer.

    To calculate your cost-per-lead, use this formula:

    Cost-per-lead (CPL) =
    Total marketing spend / Total leads generated

    It’s important to recognize that there’s no measure of lead quality in this calculation. 

    Here’s an example to underscore the point. 

    You could attend a trade show at a cost of $20k and get 500 leads (a cost-per-lead of $40). You could also engage an agency for an inbound campaign at a cost of $10k and get 20 leads (a cost-per-lead of $500).

    On the surface, the trade show looks like the better investment. But hold on—490 of those trade show leads just wanted to be entered in your free iPad giveaway and only one of them became a customer. And the inbound campaign? Those leads converted on a free trial landing page and 18 of them ended up buying your product. 

    Don’t take cost-per-lead—or any lead generation metric, for that matter—at face value. Dig a little deeper to ensure you understand the story behind the numbers.



    Feeling overwhelmed by lead generation? Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

    Happily, there are many technology solutions to help you centralize, manage, automate and report on all the complex, interconnected parts of lead generation, leaving you free to focus on the more strategic aspects of attracting and converting strangers. 

    Many lead generation software companies offer free starter versions of their tools. Once you’ve explored the platform and recognized some of the limitations of the free version, you can usually arrange for a free trial of the full version.

    You’ve probably heard of “marketing automation”—technology that manages your marketing and implements your campaigns automatically across multiple channels. This powerful software is designed to simplify and streamline your lead generation efforts at the same time as it creates a personalized, relevant, 24/7 experience for your leads. 

    The best lead generation software includes:

    A database

    This one’s a no-brainer. You’ll need a place to store and manage the contact information you get for each new lead. The best software will allow you to see all your lead's activity, including what they did before they became a lead. 

    Multi-channel integration

    You can get separate software to manage email, social, ads, chat, forms, web pages, remarketing, and reporting. But why would you want to juggle multiple tools, platforms and channels? Look for lead generation software that’s an all-in-one solution.


    Simply capturing information on your leads isn’t enough. Your lead gen technology needs to be able to automate interactions with your leads based on the information they’ve provided you and their behaviour across channels.

    Lead scoring

    To properly qualify your leads and deliver the right experience at the right time, you need a way to track their behaviour and use it to trigger your interactions with them across different channels. This is almost impossible to do manually, especially with any volume of leads.

    Lead segmentation

    To deliver appropriate content to the right people at the right time (basically to nurture your leads properly) you need to group your leads according to their characteristics, interests and behaviour. Your lead gen software needs to be able to group your leads into lists, which can then be enrolled in workflows.


    Offering a one-size-fits-all experience is less helpful (and remarkable) than creating a personalized journey for your lead. Look for software that can show different web pages, email content, CTAs, ads and more (aka “smart content”) based on your lead’s behaviour.

    Tools to help with the strategy

    You may initially invest in lead generation software to help manage the execution of your marketing tasks, but the best technology will help you with the strategy, too: identifying a persona, creating a journey, documenting a content strategy, SEO and more.

    Integration with other apps

    Even the most powerful lead generation software can’t do it all. Look for a tech solution that plays well with others, particularly big name apps that are themselves leaders in their particular field.

    Robust reporting

    You need to be able to continuously improve all aspects of your lead generation, as well as justify the money that's been spent. (See 6 marketing metrics your boss will love for details on the numbers that company owners, presidents and CFOs want to see). Your lead generation software should be able to track and report on your efforts across channels at a high level and, if needed, from down in the weeds.

    More than just lead generation

    Look for lead generation software that will grow with your business as you become more proficient with the tools and want to take your efforts beyond marketing to sales and customer service.



    If we compare this go-to guide to a vacation, we bet you're feeling like you’ve just been around the world. It’s time to unpack, do some laundry, download your photos and find out what happened in your world while you were gone. 

    Don’t worry. We’ll still be here when you’ve recovered. 

    In the meantime, here’s a recap of the key takeaways from the 4500-word journey we just took together.

    • 1

      Leads vary by the amount of information you have on them, which is usually an indication of how ready they are to buy.

    • 2

      The four components of lead generation are attraction, engagement, conversion and relationship-building.

    • 3

      Inbound marketing is the best way to generate leads in today’s bottom-up, on-demand, online, do-it-yourself world.

    • 4

      The most important part of lead generation is understanding who you’re trying to reach and their particular buyer’s journey.

    • 5

      Every lead is a person, regardless of whether your business is B2C or B2B.

    • 6

      To generate quality leads you have to attract visitors to your website, get them to fill out a form, nurture them towards purchase and, finally, refine your efforts.

    • 7

      The best lead generation software will help you deliver the right content at the right time to the right person via the right channels.

    Chances are you still have some questions about lead generation. And probably some ideas about how your business could do a better job of it. We’re here to help with both—and it’s as simple as booking a free call with one of our business strategists.

    Book a free strategy call