The future of lead generation
Listen again to episode 7 of The CMO Show, the interview series with leading B2B marketers. We speak with Rupert Bedell, VP Marketing, American Express EMEA, about how to optimise B2B lead generation.
Benedict Buckland Hello and welcome to The CMO Show, the programme where we put some of the biggest questions in marketing to the leading lights in the industry, and today we are broadcasting live from the office. So please excuse the very sterile meeting room background that I have behind me. And we're joined today by the vice president of marketing at Amex and Rupert Bedell. Rupert, just briefly, by way of introduction for those that haven't had the good fortune of meeting before, do you want to just give us maybe a quick 30 seconds on the focus of your role at Amex and any other relevant background that might be interesting to the audience?
Rupert Bedell Sure. Thanks, Benedict. Thanks for having me on today. I'm glad I wore glasses, by the way. Otherwise I think people might think we were looking in the mirror. So there we are. Yes. So, Rupert Bedell, vice president of B2B Marketing for EMEA, I'm a little bit of a marketing nomad. I have a background that spans Barclays, HSBC, RBS and a couple of stints as CMO at other organisations as well. Within Amex my role is overseeing all of our B2B marketing across EMEA, everything from TV advertising at the top of the funnel, right down to member referral and everything in between. So that's about 14 markets total, the UK being the biggest one. And I've been at Amex about three years.
Benedict Buckland Fantastic and yes, absolutely a good call with with the glasses, but I'm sure there's some mutual admiration for our respective hairdressers or self hairdressers, it probably is in this particular instance. And so just before we jump into anything, just a quick reminder to people who are joining us. The CMO Show is live. So please do feel free to put your questions in the box. We're very, very open minded about what questions can be asked. So make them as wide ranging as possible, really. And it really does add to the sort of the overall experience if we can get some audience participation. So any time, pop them in and we can be sure to follow up with those at the end. So on to the matter at hand. This episode, we're going to tackle a real B2B staple, in lead generation. It might not have the same sort of razzmatazz of the other marketing topics, but arguably it's probably one of the most fundamental things about being a B2B marketer, is that lead generation aspect. And I think as B2B marketers, I think that we can probably all relate to that perennial pressure, as it seems from the business, to generate leads. But from my observation, it often ends up being a very reactive and quite a siloed activity. So I think a good starting point for us, Rupert, is do you feel that the role and the practice of lead gen is universally understood within the marketing community? And I suppose an extension to that is, how would you define lead generation and its role?
Rupert Bedell Yeah, I think lead gen's got some razzamatazz Benedict. I don't know about that.
Benedict Buckland A disservice maybe, sorry. Apologies.
Rupert Bedell You're right in that it's fundamentally important. I think it's one of the things where marketers feel a lot of pressure going into an organisation where, you know, sometimes it's fine for a CEO or Exco (executive committee) to feel comfortable that the marketing is strong and that it's doing a background job. But in most organisations these days, there's a real ROI pressure. There is a pressure for marketing to demonstrate contribution to the bottom line. And certainly nowhere is that truer than American Express, where marketing carries a very clear target. And it's very much the engine room for a lot of what's happening in the business. And how do you define it? It's kind of anything that can result in a sale, at a high level. So whether it's TV or radio advertising right down to, you know, email marketing or social media lead gen. All of that can be a generation of lead. I think in most cases you focus on what's at the bottom of the funnel. We tend to have about six or seven channels in Amex that we particularly focus on when it comes to lead gen, the main ones being, databases, so where we purchase data to feed to our sales teams in Amex UK, we have about three hundred direct sellers for B2B making outbound telesales calls, anything where marketing is making an investment, which is then passed to sales. So a lot of that will be basic lead gen capture on things like Facebook, LinkedIn, where it takes 15 seconds to fill in basic details, but then we pass it over to a salesperson to complete that sale. Traditionally, we'd have pulled a lot of leads from things like events, but that's a lot less relevant now we are post-Covid and there are different ways that we pivoted out of that. I would include self gen in there as well. So anybody working with a sales team will know that sales people like to generate their own leads a lot of times. I think oftentimes marketing people try to eliminate that or demonise it and feel that self-generated sales is not efficient. My view is it's an integral part of the mix. And actually you've got to work with it rather than try to fight against that. I think it's got its place in the mix of lead gen activities. And so anything else at the bottom of the funnel. The other one being just straight through digital leads and then closed digitally as well. So digital end-to-end marketing. They're the main set where we focus our investment and attention on lead generation and trying to optimise the funnel.
Benedict Buckland There's a couple of points which I'm interested to pick up on there. And you probably noticed that in my brief intro, I talked about my observations that often ends up being a little bit of a siloed activity, and there isn't necessarily the integration that you might hope for. I'm going to definitely pick up and have a conversation about that related to sales and marketing that you referred to there. I think that's particularly interesting. But if we just start with marketing, now you said that really lead generation is anything that results in a sale. And when you think about, really at a very basic level, it is what marketing is about, it's about helping to facilitate and generate a sale. Lead generation as an activity, how well integrated do you feel that is within wider marketing programmes? Do you feel that there is the necessary communication and coordination within the marketing function, or do you feel that it is too sort of verticalised almost.
Rupert Bedell Most times I would say it's more disconnected than it should be. So it is quite verticalised, if you like. So in a normal organisation, you'll have a brand team. You might have another team, which is campaign management, and then you'll have another team which is working very directly on lead generation or in a kind of sales support or field support capacity. And it's rare that all three areas are in complete harmony with each other. One of the things that at American Express we've worked quite hard, is to tie that up and we now think about it really in terms of upper-funnel marketing and lower-funnel marketing with led gen mainly sitting in a lower funnel bit. But you can't really plan for either of those things in the absence of the other one. So if we invest all our time in lead gen, then we run into the problem that there's just not enough awareness and consideration of our products in the market. And that's something that although Amex is a big brand, a lot of small businesses in the U.K. just don't think Amex is for them, they think it's expensive and elite. And their mindset when it comes to funding their business is generally in the banks and then sometimes in fintechs as well. So we've had to work quite hard to become a relevant partner for small businesses because, you know, our propositions are very relevant for them. But that's upper-funnel campaign management. That's where that comes into play. Now, if we just focused on that, then I'd be out of a job because we wouldn't have actually made any sales directly and I'd have failed my scorecard a long time ago. So it's very important to have a balance and for those two areas to be in harmony with each other. So we will often plan our above-the-line activity at the same time as planning our lead gen to know that activity A is happening in July and the lead gen will kick off as well. So the investments tend to go up and down together. So at the time when you are being very present above-the-line, your lead gen activity needs to be maximised and so on, and then plan for fallow months in-between. So without a doubt, the optimum is having these areas harmoniously linked up. But from experience and I've worked in seven or eight different organisations, I'd say it's more often the other way, where people are pretty siloed and they're focused on their bit and making a success of that and not necessarily joined up around marketing.
Benedict Buckland It's interesting and I think it's very, very valid in terms of the importance of a joined up operation. It sounds like what you are achieving at Amex. You refer that your observations in other organisations, so your past experience, that there is that sort of separation. Moving into the role you're doing at American Express, what did that journey look like in getting the different parts of a marketing organisation joined up and speaking and approaching things in a quite sort of cohesive manner? What did that look like? Where were the tensions? How did you overcome those? Because I think that that will really resonate with a lot of the people who may be joining us today. They see this separation and they want to bridge that. What advice would you give to actually get that better collaboration and coordination?
Rupert Bedell The very clear difference when I came into Amex was that marketing had a scorecard that was commercial and if you didn't hit your numbers, you weren't doing your job. And that is different from, I think, most banks and other organisations in the sector where marketing doesn't have that pressure. I'd say it is still a similar amount of turnover and so on in those organisations for marketing. But I've never witnessed such a clearly defined scorecard as when I came into American Express. And that is because marketing is the business. You know, we often say that, we invest in marketing and we make sales on the back of that. And that's what drives the whole engine. So having had that scorecard, making sure that the team all understand it, first of all. And some marketers are more commercial than others. Some are very good at numbers on the selling and finances, very target driven and some aren't. But you have to bring everybody on that journey first and foremost to a point where everybody knows what the plan is, is comfortable with their contribution to the plan, is up to date on the numbers, whether that's daily, weekly, monthly. They need to know exactly how we're performing. And once everybody in marketing gets that, there's a goal and we're 20 percent off that goal or five percent off that goal or 10 percent or wherever you are, then the unit starts to move as one a lot more cohesively. So you have the guys who are focusing on the advertising, the above-the-line, starting to work much more in unison with the lead generation guys, because if one or other fails their job, we will fail the scorecard. So I'd say that's the most important thing, you've got to have that pressure. I wouldn't want to work in any organisation where you didn't have very clear commercial pressure. It's a good and a bad thing, but I think on balance, it's better than being a marketing organisation that is kind of got brand metrics, kind of needs to keep sales happy and stakeholders, and that's generally how they're operating. I think that's actually harder to be successful in a marketing organisation because there's no clear KPIs. So, yeah, I think it's getting a common goal and then making sure that you are repeating your performance against that goal. And every interaction, every team meeting, regular one-to-ones, that should be item number one, how are we performing against plan. And then I think quite quickly, everybody gets that they are a cog in the machine, that, you know, the partner model is the only way to work through this.
Benedict Buckland Yeah, fantastic. Yeah, I think that having both that common goal and also that common set of measurements is really, really going to be extremely helpful. And especially when we think about really what we're trying to do within marketing is we're creating that initial touchpoint with a prospect and we want to have that seamless customer journey for them all the way down the funnel to that sort of point of conversion. So I'm certainly hearing how you're creating that seamless journey, certainly within marketing. And I suppose the million dollar question is, what does it look like when it actually gets handed over to sales? Because I think that's a really, really important final step within the customer journey. And from a customer expectation perspective, it needs to feel smooth and seamless. For you, what does that sort of relationship look like? What does the handover look like with sales? Because I think it's a very, very common complaint, really. Let's just be frank. It's a common complaint from a lot of marketers that there is that misalignment with sales. There's not that understanding of the role that marketing has played and also that understanding of where the customer has come from through that marketing journey when it reaches sales. How does that look like for you from your observations? And what are the keys to making sure that there is that close alignment?
Rupert Bedell Yeah, that's a good question. I think the first thing I'd say is it's still imperfect if I'm honest, although I do think we are a lot better than we were and a lot better than many organisations. The other thing to say is that most SME's these days, depending to an extent what they're buying, but as a generalisation, want to do business digital end-to-end. And we've certainly found that. Most of what we sell is charge cards and small businesses want to get this done online and not really have to have that hand-off, most times. There are exceptions to that. So what we've done in the last three years is, we used to do probably 30 percent of our sales were purely digital. It's now 80 percent in the UK, because we focused more on SME’s in latter years. And obviously, there has been a change in the way that SMEs want to do business. So we hand over a lot less to sales than we would have done traditionally. And sales tend to focus on the more complicated sales. And where we have larger businesses, we tend to hand those over. How does that handover look? Well, I said imperfect. One of the areas that we've worked very hard on is the time taken for lead generation to happen to be actioned by a salesperson. So this is back to us placing advertising on Facebook or LinkedIn. It's a very, very basic lead generation form. The filler out of that form, or the customer rather, doesn't have time to go through all of the product applications and it is lengthy when it comes to financial services. So they just want to give us basic details and then be handed over. The golden rule for me is 15 minutes. So if it's anything more than 15 minutes to hand it over to sales for the salesperson to make that call and follow up on that lead, then the lead degrades exponentially. Hard to believe, but there was a study two years ago from the Harvard Business School, they looked at, I think, two thousand organisations in the US, B2B, to see what was the average time for a lead to be followed up - a lead that started online to be followed up by a salesperson. And more than 50 percent of the businesses polled took more than twenty-four hours. Now, twenty-four hours, you might as well not invest in the first place. By the time a call comes through twenty-four hours after that person has expressed an interest online, they've either got the product from somewhere else or they're just too busy. These are people who own businesses, right, one of the busiest segments of all. And so we've tried to focus on 15 minutes. We haven't always got there. It's quite a high bar. In large organisations there are a lot of infrastructural issues. You're using some version of Salesforce that is incompatible with what you've got on the sales side. And sometimes the leads go over a fence, they go into a queue, sales like to have the leads graded because they don't want to work on just the first lead, they want to work on the best lead. And so you've got all that to contend with. So it's a lot better than it was. But that's our exemplar, is the15 minute rule. Some organisations do this within 30 seconds. And I think we've all experienced that where you've sort of half-filled out a lead form or get distracted or the connection drops and then the phone rings immediately and you wonder how this is happening. But that's world class for me. And the sale is made because you've got somebody on the line, right there and they complete. So that's probably the main handle. The other one is that we really believe in single account management. So at the point at which a lead is handed over and there's a human contact and they’re speaking to somebody. You've got to, and it sounds like a very basic thing, but minimise the handoffs from that point forward, not just in selling the product, I mean, that goes without saying, that should be with one person, but everything that happens afterwards. You know how frustrating is it when you buy a product, particularly a high value product and you're sold by one person who you really liked, then you have an account manager, who you like a little bit less. That account manager then moves within six months to another account manager, you like even less. And you end up thinking, what happened to Benedict, to the guy who sold me this product? I liked him. He knew what he was talking about. So you've got a minimise that. The last thing I’d say, which is another kind of common oversight I think to B2B organisations, is the leaky bucket. Looking at your sales funnel and actually trying to maximise the leads that go in the top when the amount that drops out all the way through that funnel could completely undermine your efforts. In B2B, it's often when you get to the business information. We ask for a lot in American Express, as you would expect from a, what is a charge product and a lending product, there is an element of underwriting that has to happen. And yet, I often see organisations asking for more information that is necessary, because it's nice to have. So you've got to make that delineation between what you need to ask for and what you like to ask for and making sure you're eliminating the latter.
Benedict Buckland I think that that say, and this is absolutely from personal experience working with clients, I think I've been in many conversations where we've been arguing over what needs to go on a data capture form. And I think there is still that tendency that we need to have all of these different fields. And there really does need to be that understanding of, that is introducing just exponential friction with every field that you're adding in. So I think that's a really valuable lesson that you're describing there. Is to be extremely clinical about what information you require to take you to the next step. It doesn't all need to be done in one go. It can be done in a much more progressive way.
Rupert Bedell And that's why I come back to what do you legally have to have to open an account. And unless you unless is a really strong reason for additional data, keep it out of there, because forms can get big very quickly, they're much, much harder to reduce down. The other thing, if people are listening into this and thinking about well I've got to design new forms or an account on-boarding procedure. The other good rule, I think, to follow is design for mobile and then adapt for PC experience, not the other way round. Now that tends to be something that organisations do is they they build a process that is based on their website and which is PC friendly, and then they try to mobile optimise. And you've got something that has 80 form fields that you're trying to cram into a mobile experience and it's a dog's dinner. Whereas if you design for mobile in the first place, you have something that's clean and neat on mobile, which progressively we get far more applications from mobiles than we used to. But it's much, much easier to adapt something that's mobile optimised back into PC-land than the other way around.
Benedict Buckland It's absolutely true. And then also just simply from an algorithm perspective, as we, I think all know, certainly in search, that Google penalise sites which are not built mobile first. And that was a big step change they made, I think, last year or potentially even the year before. So it's an absolute hygiene factor in terms of if you are looking to generate inbound marketing, you've got to design from mobile first because it will greatly reduce your traffic. I think that's another really valuable point. I want to take a quick sort of step change. I think it would be remiss of me not to talk about the present situation that we find ourselves in, albeit hopefully emerging from that. But I'm really interested, how has the past 12 months and the whole lockdown experience, how has that impacted lead generation for your organisation? What have you done differently as a result of this move to a virtual existence?
Rupert Bedell Yeah, an awful lot, to be honest. There's the shock of having to suddenly work from home and the schools are closed and all of that. But actually, I'd say that the workshop was even bigger, not the fact that we were remote, but the changes that we made to our organisation instantly when Covid hit. So to rewind kind of 12, 13 months, I guess, you know, we immediately stopped all outbound forms of marketing, so marketing investment went from X million a year down to zero overnight and actually trying to stop that in 14 different markets was quite challenging. We cut it inside a week because we said, look, this is a catastrophic situation and we need to protect marketing dollars and protect the organisation. So let's stop outbound forms. Second thing we did, very quickly and it's remarkable how a crisis can really make an organisation work quickly, is we gave value back to customers. So if you think about the way Amex cards work, we charge a fee for our cards, they're a premium card, but they bring a lot of benefits. Those benefits are largely housed in travel and leisure. So it's airline Air Miles, it's business class hotels. It's all this kind of stuff. And if nobody's travelling, then nobody's getting value from the product. So it didn't take long to realise we were going to have an attrition problem very, very quickly, like a catastrophic attrition problem if we didn't give value back to customers. So we initiated a programme of value injection, we cut the fee by half, in some cases, gave a rebate back to many of our customers. We added offers onto the cards which we sourced very quickly, anything from Web hosting to office supplies, to and anything that we could come up with that would be helpful for businesses. And then we doubled the membership rewards earn rates on some of our products. We said, you know, if you stick with us, we'll pay you twice the number of membership rewards. We executed that in six weeks, which is like unheard of in an organisation like Amex. It's big and complicated. So those are some of the immediate term reactions. When it comes to lead generation. I mean, the landscape's changed indefinitely. In some ways. The channel mix is very different for starters, I mentioned events earlier on, that would have been a, not our main source of leads, but an important one nonetheless. We'd be at 10-12 main SME events in the year. Many of those have gone virtual and some events are working well, virtually. It's certainly not the same as it was pre-Covid. And we get very few leads these days from events and as a result, our events investment is nowhere near where it was pre-Covid. Whether that will come back, I'm not sure. There are some things that are just permanent changes as a result of Covid. So we'll see on that one. The other thing we've seen and we've embraced to an extent, is this explosion in social selling. Social selling was there before Covid for sure, but it went bananas during it. Everybody is working from home, can't get out. People aren't in their offices. So outbound telesales wouldn't work so well. So a lot of sales teams, the field teams reverted to social selling. That's good and I would be the first proponent of getting salespeople to embrace digital channels to do selling. I hate to see people making cold calls off telephone lists. I would far rather they were using tools like LinkedIn Navigator and PointDrive and things like that. I would say there's a real difference between good social selling and poor social selling. I'm sure many of the people on the call are recipients of poor social selling on a daily basis. I certainly am, just this endless stream of InMail requests, people trying to link in with you, emailing you with the usual pitch. And there's so much of it now that it's no longer really different. And what we're really trying to upscale our field guys is to do sort of quite nuanced and high-scale social selling, giving them the content that really reaches through that. I mentioned tools like LinkedIn Navigator earlier are, you know, there are ways and means of using that to prospect. And if marketing are producing really good videos, sort of 15-second things that are maybe using or engaging or disruptive and then giving them to sales and saying, OK, look, if you find a prospect that you wanted to reach out to, don't write them the, you know the standard script, drop a video into their inbox that's going to be very useful for their particular business. And you'll get an alert when they look at that video. That's the moment to follow up. I would say that's less than one percent of social selling is done that way at the moment. You know, it's the other 99 percent, it's just, you know, success by numbers. And, you know, it's like, DM twenty years ago, there's so much of it now, it's just, you know, it's very hard to cut through.
Benedict Buckland I think it's really interesting, actually, talking about the social selling, I was reading an article earlier this week about how social is the new high street. I appreciate that was more in terms of B2C context, but I think that it gives you an idea of how important a medium that is. And I think what you were just saying there in terms of that sense, I suppose, of being a bit more imaginative with how you use social selling is going to be absolutely crucial. And also, I think this gives a much greater opportunity for that sort of collaboration between marketing and sales, because marketing's role is to give that audience insight and also to give them assets which they can use within that environment to get those results to really cut through and get that sort of engagement and interest. So I'm just looking to switch to a couple of questions which have come in now, and so the first question we've got comes in from Thomas. If you had to pick between improving your conversion rate and increasing the number of leads you have, which would you prefer?
Rupert Bedell For me personally, it would be the conversion rate at the moment, I would say that's true almost all of the time. Our drop-off in the funnel is a lot worse than we would like it to be, but so is our approval rate. And this is something which has been in very sharp focus since Covid started. So, again, I'm in financial services. We don't approve every application that comes in our door for obvious reasons, no different from many. But our approval rates since Covid began are about a third of what they were pretty Covid. So we approve even less applications. We seem to have no problem scaling up applications once you plug into the main platforms. I think particularly when we got into mass scale Facebook advertising, that proved very effective for us in getting applications through the door. The quality was something different. So I think when you do get very heavily into social display, you get lots of applications, but you can get lots of applications which are, you know they haven't done a huge amount of thinking, they're responding to an ad. They see display stuff and they click through and they try to apply or they drop out or they get declined. But honestly, if we could make a 10 percent improvement in our conversion level, I could take the rest of the year off. It's hard, but that seems like the one, you don't want to be declining 70, 80 percent of the applications that come through the door, because sooner or later you're going to have a brand problem where everybody says Amex, never approve anything.
Benedict Buckland Great, and I've got a question here from Dave Freeman, which actually I think builds on what we were just talking about in terms of the need to be imaginative within social selling. So I think that Dave is actually going to be pushing you a little bit for some more examples. In terms of getting cut-through in lead gen in a sea of B2B marketing. What do you think gets cut-through to business in the buying individuals in them? What innovations do you see or think get real cut-through right now? So, yeah, anything that you've noticed, whether it's something that Amex has done or actually just that you've noticed as a consumer or as a business buyer in your own right. What's getting that cut-through and standing out?
Rupert Bedell Yeah, great. Great question, Dave. So the first thing I'd say is, you know, we talked about social selling a moment ago. My frustration is a lot of B2B sellers aren't using the tools available. They are sticking to social selling 101 and sending the script and sending it to one hundred different contacts at a go and tailoring not very much. They would see marketing leader in the title and go and blast them the same communication. Whereas there was a world of very sophisticated social selling tools. I mentioned LinkedIn Navigator, which I think is outstanding. So that's kind of point number 1, you can use tools which will show you when that person looked at that video, how long they looked at it, who they shared it with. So your time to follow up, there's no excuse not to be within a 30-second window when you know that, Rupert Bedell opened that video, watched it for eight seconds, sent it to the CFO in that company as well to say,” check this out, we should think about these guys”. So that's point number 1. The second one that I think stands out very well is when you've done your research and actually talked to four or five people in that organisation or at least contacted four or five people in the organisation who, you know, are the key decision-makers. It's hard to sell to one person, particularly in a big organisation because, you know, there's more than one person that makes that decision. There's influencers around them at the Exco table in their senior leadership team. And everybody's got to be convinced to take out a product like American Express rather than just one person who probably doesn't feel they have the licence to do that. Now, again, there are tools available to know that the buying circle consists of these eight people in this company. And you're really going to have to get your message across to those eight. I think the last thing I'd say is, be different. It sounds like an incredible, obvious thing to say. But again, as you look at, take a LinkedIn feed and a lot of B2B advertising. I think people in their minds sometimes think, well, it's B2B, so I've got to go quite a straight approach. This is very po-faced because people care about business and it's all about financial and commercial. And it's the equivalent of putting two guys in suits, shaking hands on your B2B advertisements. Whereas, you know, B2B is human right, we respond to the same emotional drivers as anybody. Honestly, given the 18 months that the world has had and how sober a lot of the messaging has been, you know internally at Amex we feel this is the perfect opportunity to go out with a message which is light-hearted, humorous, poking fun at ourselves maybe, just to say, you know what, there's a bright future ahead and now is the moment to bring back some fun into our marketing. We'll stand out, if nothing else, because I think a lot of companies don't feel the licence to do that at the moment. So whereas I think actually we're sort of past that I think, we're looking for something bright and entertaining and engaging. So don't be afraid to be disruptive Dave, good question.
Benedict Buckland Excellent. Well, I think that's a lovely point, actually, to end on. I think it's been a fantastic conversation here. Really, really useful insight about the importance of creating that common framework to keep people on the same page, making sure that we're getting integration not just within the marketing department, but marketing to sales as well, which was fantastic. We spoke about the importance of really being very clinical with your lead generation activities, understanding exact outcome and action that you're getting and making sure that you pitch it at just the right level. And then a wonderful point to finish on, which is that importance of being different and specifically thinking of your prospects and your buyers as people and injecting that bit of emotion to generate the engagement, which has been a theme actually of all of The CMO Shows that we've done, is that importance of emotion within B2B marketing. So I think it's a lovely place to end. So, Rupert, thank you very, very much for your time. That was a real privilege. And thank you to everybody that asked questions. Apologies to those that we didn't have time to get to their questions. But please tune in next time and so thank you once again Rupert, and thank you for everyone that joined us remotely.
Rupert Bedell My pleasure. Thanks very much, Benedict. Great to be part of it.