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How to Follow Up With Conference Leads (The Right Way)

Wondering how to follow up with leads after a conference? You're not alone.

According to EXHIBITOR, nearly a third of conference exhibitors have no plan or process in place for following up with conference leads.

That's a lot of business left on the table — yikes.

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After investing in a conference, you probably had some great conversations. Maybe some of these talks felt promising, like they could turn into great clients.

But if you don't follow up the right way, you could scare off or disengage these people. 

You should streamline your process by using a documented follow-up plan — one that qualifies leads first, so you can prioritize and tailor your messaging.

That means saving time and stopping leads from slipping through the cracks.

First, here's what not to do:

1. Don't send a blast email.

You know what a blast email is, because you've gotten blast emails in your inbox.

You know, the ones you immediately delete?

Also known as the "spray and pray," this is the method of sending every contact the same basic email.

They follow the same structure and read very generically.

Great to connect at the conference. Would like to chat more about my great service. I think it'd be a great fit. When are you free to talk?

Who wants an email like that?

Nobody.

No matter what you do, do not send this email when you follow up with conference leads.

Even if you change out someone's name ("Hi, Terry...") you're still guilty of using the same template.

Blanket emails are a broken method — which is probably why over 70% of conference exhibitors are not greatly satisfied with their lead management processes.

Now, you don't need to send unique emails to everyone (unless, of course, you can count leads on a few hands.)

The trick is qualifying your conference leads into buckets, and treating those buckets differently.

Soon I'll explain to you exactly how to do that.

2. Don't hand your leads off to sales right away.

I've written about why handing off leads to sales right away is a baaad idea.

Did you know that only 27% of business leads are ready for a sales call, according to MarketingSherpa?

The same is true of conference leads.

By that logic, if you send your batch list of conference leads to a sales rep, you'll aggravate nearly three-fourths of them.

Despite this fact, over 37% of companies have their sales team follow-up right away.

Why?

Because they fail to accurately qualify leads.

The important thing to remember is that not all of your conference leads are sales-ready leads.

Some, if not most, should be followed up with by your marketing team instead.

Understanding your leads' place in the buyer's journey

There's a whole spectrum of conference leads: Those who want to build a relationship, those who want to learn more, and only a few who really want to buy right now.

Your messaging should follow suit.

If your leads aren't ready for a sale (which will be most of them), you need a way to stay in touch without pushing the sales pitch too soon.

In the inbound methodology, we classify people in the buying spectrum in three different stages:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Decision

We call this the buyer's journey.

If a lead handed you a business card, they likely fell into one of these three categories:

Awareness

This person knows they have some kind of problem — for example, they have a time management issue, a security problem, a blaring need of some kind — but they aren't sure how to solve it. They're gathering information on the problem... which is probably why they landed at the industry conference in the first place. They wanted to network with you and learn more, maybe by building a casual relationship.

Consideration

This person is considering different ways to solve that problem. It might be solved by paying for a product or service, but it might not be. They are researching and considering different solutions — which might be why they started talking to you.

Decision

This person has identified the best solution, and is ready to buy. These select few people are actively prospecting solutions, and may be deciding if yours is the right one. They probably reached out to you ready for a sales pitch.

So, how should you follow up conference with leads across the spectrum?

The inbound marketing way is all about classifying and segmenting your leads so you can engage them in the best possible experience.

1. Qualify for fit and interest.

During your conference, your conversations were probably varied.

Some were casual small talk, while others were in-depth conversations about your business offerings — maybe you talked pricing or discussed doing a demo.

The important thing is that during the conference, you make note of the nature of these conversations.

Then, separate your conference leads into three buckets.

1. Leads

  • You had small talk at the conference but didn't talk directly about your product.
  • You aren't sure if these people are interested in your product yet.
  • You aren't sure if the leads are a good fit for your company.

2. Marketing qualified leads (MQL)

  • You began talking about the person's problem, and may have mentioned your solution.
  • You're not yet sure if they're a good fit for your product or service.
  • They were asking questions about your business — and maybe even advice.

3. Sales qualified leads (SQL)

  • The person was a good fit for your company, since you were able to ask some qualifying questions.
  • You discussed a bottom-of-funnel offer, like a demo or discount, and had good reception.

Didn't qualify during the conference? Give before you get

If you didn't have a lead qualifying system in place during the conference, you'll need to do some qualifying first.

You shouldn't ask someone directly if they're qualified.

And like we mentioned, it's a low probability that someone is ready for a sales call... so not your best bet, unless you want to scare people towards that "spam" button.

So what can you do?

Give before you get.

After the conference, offer up some incentive as a giveaway. Then, send a brief survey to your list of contacts to gather basic information:

  • Name
  • Company name (if relevant)
  • Phone number
  • 1-2 questions related to the problem your business solves: For example, "What is your proficiency with X?" or "Which of these do you struggle with?"

Send the survey as a way to enter the giveaway. You can easily use Typeform or Google Forms to create it — or, better yet, use HubSpot forms to gather responses and organize lead intel.

Now, how did people respond?

Those who don't respond or submit the survey go into your "lead" bucket. They aren't biting on your correspondence, and might need a little more coaxing.

Those who do enter the survey but don't necessarily seem like a good business fit go into your "MQL" bucket. They are interested, but aren't qualified yet for fit.

Those who enter the survey and seem like a great fit are SQLs. They are qualified for a sales call.

Now, let's talk about how to prioritize and segment to each of your buckets.

1. Send a personal email to top-qualified leads.

Your sales qualified leads mean business, and you should prioritize them immediately.

How?

Send a highly personal email to each sales qualified lead.

What you say — and how you say it — is very important.

First, find common ground on a shared interest. Reference a conversation that you had. Do a little digging into their industry, company, etc. to draw a connection to your service or product.

Then, follow the inbound sales model: help, don't sell.

What is inbound selling? Offer to answer any questions or tap into a pain point before delivering the sales pitch.

For example, it's not "Can we schedule a demo? I would love to show you what we do."

Instead, it's: "You mentioned you struggle with data security at your company. Can you tell me a little more about what you've tried to fix the issue?"

This opens the door to meaningful conversation.

And by nature of helping, you end up selling yourself, too.

If you sent out a survey and got back responses, even better! You have a meaningful conversation opener about specific problems the person is tackling.

2. Engage and further qualify MQLs with a series of emails.

Your next priority is qualifying MQLs while also engaging them to become more interested.

These people have potential — but since they aren't yet proven to be a good fit, they aren't necessarily ready for a personalized sales email.

This involves two things happening in tandem with your MQLs: prospecting for fit, and engaging for interest.

First, prospecting. This can happen in a few ways:

  • Hand this list of people off to a sales development representative to gather some more information on them.
  • Set up a lead scoring system to monitor signs of activity and interest.
  • Offer up premium content (more on this below) locked behind a form, so you can gather more information voluntarily.

Simultaneously, you need to create interest in your business.

Interest isn't something you can manufacture. You can, however, entice people to learn more.

You need to nurture the relationship with high-quality touch points — usually resources — that speak to understanding their specific problem.

We call this "lead nurturing" in the inbound marketing world.

It involves sending a series of targeted emails. You could offer up high-quality white papers, videos, eBooks, free guides, and more.

You might think, but nurturing is a ton of work... and for what return?

You should consider the fact that nurtured leads make 47% larger purchases than non-nurtured leads, according to the Annuitas Group.

Why?

It's simple:

Nurturing leads to better educated leads with more trust in your company — and people who really understand your solutions will invest more in them, and in you.

Also, nurturing MQLs doesn't have to be a ton of work.

With automated workflows in a marketing automation platform, you can easily enroll people in a "set it and forget it" series of touches.

When someone indicates they are interested by engaging with this content, and you've identified them as a good business fit, you can reclassify them as an SQL and start the sales process.

3. Enroll low-quality leads into a workflow with gradual touch points.

Your "lead" bucket could have some great future clients in it. But for whatever reason, they aren't ready right now.

You don't need to (and shouldn't!) act right away with a sales touch.

You also shouldn't forget about these people.

Like we mentioned with MQLs, nurturing is the best way to keep top-of-mind and build a relationship.

The goal is to keep in touch over time — engaging until the timing is right. You should let these people move at their own pace with your business.

But since these people haven't really bitten yet, you don't want to invest too much time and effort to keep in touch, either.

You do want to offer consistent, helpful value to conference leads... at low cost to you.

How can you best do this?

Enroll them into a workflow you have set up for your business. For example, a blog notification list or a monthly newsletter will do very well for this purpose.

Make sure your newsletter addresses their problems and questions, and isn't all about you, about company news, or about products/services.

When a lead does bite on your content — like fills out a form on your website or visits your services page several times — you can reclassify them as MQLs and start up those customized workflows I mentioned before.

What if, for some people, that never happens?

Unfortunately, some leads just won't bite, ever.

4. Follow all conference leads through the sales cycle to demonstrate ROI.

Conferences are expensive and time consuming.

Why are you going if you can't demonstrably prove ROI?

It seems obvious: But only 47 percent of companies track leads generated at trade shows and events throughout the sales cycle, according to EXHIBITOR.

AKA, they don't have any idea what the conference ROI was.

The conference investment could have been profitable... or it could have been a complete wash.

That's why tracking your lead>sales percentage is so important.

Monitor the percentage of leads becoming MQLs, MQLs becoming SQLs, and SQLs becoming sales opportunities and closing into deals.

You'll also want to attach some kind of label to these people about where they first originated — AKA, from a business conference — so you can track back the ROI.

HubSpot tip: The single best way to track lead touch points and how they impact the sales funnel is with a marketing automation platform like HubSpot. You can set up lists of leads and monitor actions they take as they move through your digital sales funnel.

Recapping the buyer's journey and how to qualify conference leads

After a conference wraps up, you can use your time wisely by qualifying leads, and targeting to each "bucket" based on two factors: fit and interest.

Remember that only a small portion of conference leads are really ready for a sales call.

Reserve your effort and personalized emails for these SQLs, and hit the home run with thought-out emails that follow the inbound sales "helpful first" approach.

Also recall that the three buying stages are awareness, consideration, and decision — and each dictates a specific messaging and approach.

You can avoid scaring away most of your conference leads by giving them helpful, gradual touch points — like opportunities to download resources or follow your blog periodically and learn more about their problem.

When you let a lead "bite" on their own terms, you greatly increase your chances of getting on the phone and eventually closing the sale.

And as you set up each "bucket" of conference leads on a customized track through your sales cycle, track their origin so you can accurately demonstrate ROI from the conference.

These principles are all part of an inbound marketing strategy — useful not just for conference follow-up, but for effectively managing your sales funnel from beginning to end.

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Josh Ames - HubSpot Expert