How to Plan the Best Lead Generation Process From Start to Finish

Your business has a website, and that website has one goal: lead generation. It’s there to tell the world what makes your company awesome, why your products the best, and how people can give you money for your services. But, what if your site and content aren’t effectively optimized to capture information from prospective customers? If you’re driving traffic but aren’t seeing much return, then you have a problem. Make that two problems if no one can find your site in the first place. Fortunately, there are reliable processes you can put in place to turn this situation around. In this post, we’ll show you the exact same process CoSchedule used to build itself into the company it is today, placing 153 on the Inc. 500 list in 2018 and becoming a leading content marketing platform on the Gartner Magic Quadrant. Sure, there’s no guarantee this process will deliver the exact same results for another company. But we’re confident it’ll help get you on the right track, and it's flexible enough to be applicable to all kinds of different business (and not just marketing software).

A Toolkit for Executing Your Lead Generation Process

In order to execute this process, you’ll need some tools. Some of those tools might be paid, and some of them may or may not already be in your arsenal (or within your budget). In order to help you get started, here’s a downloadable kit with a handful of resources to get your team on the right track:
  • Annual Content Calendar Template: Plan your lead generation content in one place.
  • Content Upgrades Cheat Sheet: 35 ideas for lead magnets you can add to your content.
  • Content Planning and Goal Tracking Spreadsheet: Is your content actually building email signups? Keep track and show your results with this simple template.
Take a moment to download them now. Then, move onto learning the process.

First Off, What’s a Lead?

Without making this too complicated, a lead is someone that a company considers a potential customer, who has completed some sort of action to indicate they might be interested in their products or services. Typically, this means they’ve done one of the following things:
  • Completed a form on a website. Think signup forms and the like.
  • Registered for a giveaway at an event. This could be as simple as dropping a business card in a bucket or filling out a pen-and-paper entry.
  • Filled out an online survey. Research surveys can be a great way to understand what your audience wants and get prospects onto your email list.
  • Anything else involving an exchange of personal information in order to get some sort of asset in return (like a download or a chance to win something).
In other words, a lead is someone you’ve identified as someone who might (eventually) make a purchase. Once you’ve attracted a lead, your next goal is most often to move them toward the next step closer to making a purchase (ex: getting onto your email list, then scheduling a trial, consultation with a sales rep, or whichever next steps makes the most sense in your situation).

Understanding the Difference Between Marketing vs. Sales Qualified Leads

If you’ve ever received an email from a business after signing up for something, then someone is trying to convert you into a qualified lead. Two terms you might encounter are “marketing qualified lead” and “sales qualified lead.” You might even believe these two terms mean more or less the same thing. However, there are some subtle but important differences that are important to understand. Here are some simple definitions to help clarify what these terms mean:
  • A marketing qualified lead (MQL) is someone who has been identified as a potential customer based on marketing-related activity (ex: responded to a marketing offer, joined a mailing list, etc.)
  • A sales qualified lead (SQL) has been vetted by a sales specialist to determine whether they’re ready to move onto the next phase of the sales process (ex: setting up a phone call, scheduling a product demo, starting a trial, etc.)
These terms will be more important to understand later. But, for now, it’s enough just to know that this distinction exists and it matters.

Does That Mean Lead Generation is Exactly What it Sounds Like?

In short, yes. Lead generation is the process of attracting potential customers to your business and turning them from passive observers into interested buyers. It can include a wide array of tactics to achieve this objective, ranging from driving traffic to opt-in forms on optimized landing pages, to collecting business cards at an event. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on lead generation in a digital marketing context.

So, How Does This Whole Inbound Lead Generation Process Work in Actual Practice?

With the basics established, it’s time to dig into what this all looks like, step by step, from start to finish. This is the quick bullet-point version:
  1. A company does research on its audience. And determines which pain points they’re experiencing that are most pressing.
  2. Marketers analyze that data. And use it to inform content that solves those problems.
  3. That content gets promoted through various channels. And reaches its target audience through organic search, social media, email, referral links, and other sources.
  4. Each piece of content is optimized to capture contact information. And get leads onto an email list or into a CRM system.
  5. Email automation keeps contact with leads. And continues to share more valuable content centered around their pain points.
  6. Marketers and sales teams score those leads. And determine which might be good fits for their products or services.
  7. Trials, demos, sales calls, on-site visits, and other sales steps take place. And leads turn into customers (and ideally, into loyal fans too).
This isn’t everything there is to it, and your process may ultimately look a little bit different in some ways. But, in general, this is roughly how it works. For more detail, here’s an illustrated walk-through:

Putting This Into Practice: Start With Audience and Customer Research

How exactly can you put all this into practice and start generating leads? It takes some time and effort up front, but once you get your flywheel into motion, it’s possible to turn content marketing into an ongoing ROI-generating machine. Everything starts with understanding your audience and your customers.

Who Are You Trying to Attract?

This might seem like an obvious question, but the answer is important because it’ll help determine everything you do from here on. The better your understanding of your customers, the better you can create content that serves them, and drive more leads in the long run. While mastering audience research is challenging and takes time, getting started is easy. If you don’t have the clearest idea who you’re serving right now, start with some simple questions:
  • Who’s visiting our website? You can find tons of demographic data on your site in Google Analytics.
  • Who do we know buys our products? If you don’t know, is there anyone in your company you can ask? Sales and customer support teams would be good places to start.
  • Can you learn anything from your competitors? Check out their content and note who they seem to be targeting.

What Are Your Audience’s Top Problems?

If your company has done some audience research (or has a basic understanding of why its in business), then this should be easy to answer. But, your audience might change over time because you pivot toward a new niche, or because your product grows and your customer base grows along with you. Whatever the case may be, the point here is that audience research should be treated like an ongoing exercise rather than a one-and-done sort of thing. And it’s also possible you’re in a position where you really aren’t sure exactly what your target customer base is dealing with. In any case, here are some simple tips for getting a pulse on what’s up:
  • Create a Twitter poll. You can learn some useful insights quickly this way.
  • Run a survey. Tools like SurveyMonkey and CrowdSignal are easy, low-cost options for running surveys. Put together some questions for your audience, share the link with your current email list and social media followers, and let the data flow in.
  • Talk to your customer service team (if you have one). They’ll know exactly what your customer’s top problems are, because they hear about them constantly.

Next, Plan an Inbound Content Strategy That Addresses Those Problems

Content isn’t necessarily the only way to bring in leads. But, it’s an extremely effective approach, and it’s the one this post will demonstrate. Content marketing is effective for lead generation because, when it’s done well, it’s all about connecting problems with solutions for your customers. If you know what your customer’s problems are, then you can start doing research into the solutions, and share them on your blog, social media accounts, video channels, in your email newsletters, and anywhere else you interact with your audience.

Start With Keyword Research

If you’re familiar with basic SEO, then you’re familiar with keyword research. In simplest terms, it’s the process of finding the words and phrases people are using to find information about your industry, products, services, and related topics. Another way to think of it is this: if I had the problems my customers have, what words would I use to find answers on Google (or another search engine)? Of the different types of keywords described in the graphic below, focus on Informational and Transactional keywords for lead gen purposes: There are a number of ways to get started here, but you’ll need a few different tools:
  • Dedicated keyword research tool. There are several standalone options out there (like WordTracker), as well as SEO software suites with solid keyword research tools built-in (like Ahrefs, Moz, and Serpstat).
  • Google’s Keyword Planner. Indispensable if PPC is part of your overall inbound efforts, though less reliable for organic search.
  • Free SEO tools. Ubersuggest and are great options for finding the exact terms people have used in search.
To learn how to do keyword research well, Ann Smarty wrote an excellent guide on the CoSchedule Blog you should read right now.

Map Keywords and Topics to Your Content Calendar

If you’re creating content, you should be managing it on a calendar. They’re essential for planning content in advance. The benefits for matching keywords to topics and mapping them out on your calendar include:
  • Making it easier to be strategic about what you publish. If your lead generation strategy is going to work, you need to make sure you’re creating the right content that matches your audience’s needs. This is easier to do well when you step back and plan ahead.
  • Giving your entire team visibility into what’s being published. It helps for everyone to know what’s going out and what they’ll be working on.
  • Keeping everything organized. For marketers, CoSchedule research shows that getting organized is correlated with being 397% more likely to report success.
So, how do you build a calendar? You have a couple options:
  • Spreadsheets. These are free, easy, and flexible.
  • CoSchedule. This option offers considerably more power, automation features (including automatic WordPress scheduling + social media and email scheduling in one place, along with robust team and workflow management capabilities).
Whichever option you choose, getting your editorial strategy organized will help you succeed.

Determine Which Types of Lead Magnets You’ll Include in Each Blog Post

Now, if people are going to provide you with their information, you need to offer them something of value in return. In content marketing, that most often means one of the following:
  • An ebook, research report, case study, white paper, or other long-form content.
  • A template or other actionable resource.
  • Access to something exclusive.
  • Signup form for an event or webinar.
That last point may not be a “lead magnet” (or content upgrade) in the traditional sense, but it still fits as a lead generation tactic. What matters most is that you determine how your content (whether it’s a blog post, landing page, or website page) will capture lead information before you start creating your content. Here’s an example of what a popup for a lead magnet might look like, from OptinMonster: If you don’t have in-house design resources, here are some tools that can help you create lead magnets:
  • Beacon: Allows you to create reports, ebooks, and more.
  • Canva: Web-based design tool with free and paid plans.
  • Any office software suite: You might be able to create checklists, documents, and other valuable templates and resources using docs, spreadsheets, and slide decks.
Whatever type of resource you create, it’ll need to be gated behind an opt-in form. Here are some tools that can help you create opt-in forms that you can place on your site and in your blog content: For guidance on where to place your opt-in forms in your content, refer to this guide from SmartBlogger.

Know How You’ll Promote Your Lead Generation Content

Before your carefully crafted content can start attracting leads, you’ll need a solid strategy in place to promote it. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean reinventing the wheel, but you need to know how you’ll get in front of your target audience.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Search Engine Optimization

SEO has always been core to CoSchedule’s content strategy. It’s how we’ve grown our traffic to over one million visits per month, which in turn has helped build our email list to over 400,000+ strong. One of the best parts about SEO is that it can help generate leads long term without needing to continually crank out new content all the time. A single high-performing piece can drive business and leads for months, or even years, after being published with only minor updates made along the way.

Social Media is Still Important, Too

Organic reach has been in decline for years, and you probably don’t need to be made aware of that fact. However, it’s still worth investing resources in organic social media for promoting content. Here are some ways to get the most from it:
  • Mention a benefit in every post. If you tie in a reference to your content upgrade in your copy, then that’s even better too.
  • Focus on your top priority networks. Do certain networks drive more traffic for you than others? Double down on those.
  • Schedule your social promotion in advance. Spend some time writing your copy and designing strong images in advance as part of your content creation workflow.

Reach Out to Partners and Influencers

You probably have some connections in your industry that would love to share your content. There are probably influencers in your space that would love to do the same. So, find them and reach out with your content. You might not put this much effort into manual outreach for every piece you publish. But, if you have a killer piece of 10X content that’s built to bring in leads, spend some time promoting it. Start by creating a list of people you can reach out to (this can be as simple as a spreadsheet with columns for Name, Company, Role, etc.). Here are some tools that can help with this process:
  • BuzzSumo: An excellent tool for content research and finding influencers.
  • SparkToro: Described as “a search engine for audience intelligence,” this is another great tool to look into for this purpose.
  • VoilaNorbert: Useful for surfacing email addresses.
Then, craft some simple email copy that you can easily personalize to each contact:
 Hi [INSERT NAME HERE], Our team at [COMPANY] put tons of effort into creating this [NAME OF CONTENT]. Since we know your audience is involved in [TOPIC], we thought this might be useful to share so they can [BENEFIT] and improve [ACTION]. Feel free to share with your audience, and if you have anything cool our audience might be interested in, we’d be glad to check it out too. Cheers, [SIGNATURE]
You can likely write up something better than this. But, feel free to use this sample copy as a starting point. The key takeaway here is to explain how their audience will benefit from the content, and be sure to include something for your recipient to get in return too.

Make Your Content Easy to Find on Your Website

If you’re creating blog posts to attract leads, those will likely be easy enough to find as long as you have a smart category or tag structure in place. But, if you’re creating other types of content (like multi-page guides, landing pages, website pages, etc.) you might need to think about where they live on your site. Same goes for content upgrades. At CoSchedule, we make sure every content upgrade we create is also placed in our resource library: This helps make all that content we’re creating easier to find, while also directing visitors to a valuable page with calls-to-action. Here are some ways to make sure your content (where your opt-in forms are at) are well-placed on your site:
  • Place optimized signup pages logically in your site navigation. You most likely have a signup page (or pages) or product pages on your site of some sort. Make sure these pages are logically positioned in your site’s navigation.
  • Create topic clusters. If you have a broad topic that’s important to your audience, consider creating a multi-page guide (or topic cluster) around it. If you place an opt-in form on each one, you’ll have a well-optimized group of content that makes all kinds of information about that topic easy to find (and easy to move readers onto your email list).
  • Have a traffic strategy for your landing pages. If you have stand-alone landing pages that exist outside your site’s navigation, you likely intend to direct PPC ad traffic toward them. But, consider making sure you’re doing what you can to optimize them for organic search as well, or even linking to them in your email newsletters.

Once You’re Bringing In Leads, What Comes Next?

This gives you a high-level process to follow in order to use content marketing to generate leads. But, that isn’t where the process of converting those leads into customers ends (and honestly, covering literally everything from start to finish would be a topic better served by a book than a single blog post). If you’re looking for more information on next steps though, here are some great resources that can help you out:

That’s a Wrap

Hopefully, this post has taken some of the murkiness out of what lead generation is for you, and handed you a process you can follow to effectively build your business with content marketing. Now, all that’s left is to put this advice into practice. Best of luck.
About the Author

Ben Sailer has over 14 years of experience in the field of marketing. He is considered an expert in inbound marketing through his incredible skills with copywriting, SEO, content strategy, and project management. Ben is currently an Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic, working to grow as the top managed hosting solution for WordPress websites. WordPress is one of the most powerful website creation tools in the industry. In this role, he looks to attract customers with content designed to attract qualified leads. Ben plays a critical role in driving the growth and success of a company by attracting and engaging customers through relevant and helpful content and interactions. Ben works closely with senior management to align the inbound marketing efforts with the overall business objectives. He continuously measures the effectiveness of marketing campaigns to improve them. He is also involved in managing budgets and mentoring the inbound marketing team.