How to Build Lead Lists (Startup Founder Sales Series, Part 5)

November 9, 2020 Mark Birch

how to build sales leads lists

The better your list, the more effective the outreach

As an experiment, put an emoji in front of your first name on LinkedIn. You can see what I mean on my profile. If you give it a week, you will receive some connection requests with personalized messages that include the emojis in your name. This is a telltale sign that the person is using a tool to automate outreach on LinkedIn.

The reason I am sharing this is not to discourage you from using automation tools. As I will discuss in the next post, automation plays a useful role in prospecting. The process is only as good as the data that feeds the process, however. In other words, garbage in, garbage out.

I spent the last few posts going into detail about defining personas, identifying the right markets to sell into, and personalizing messaging. This all seems to be a lot of prep work in order to start selling, but the reason for the preparation now is so that you can be more effective, waste less time, and be more data driven once outbound prospecting begins. You also avoid mistakes, as my LinkedIn example aptly demonstrated.

The last step then before actually contacting people is to build a list of contacts and prepare the data for use in your sales prospecting. When the contacts are collected and the data is cleaned, you have a lead list you can feed into your prospecting process. You might be thinking though, where are these leads? As an early stage founder, no one knows who you are or what your startup does. You need to generate the leads yourself.

When the topic of leads comes up, people often think of that scene in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross where Blake, the guy sent from downtown, is seen waving a bunch of leads on index cards to motivate the sales reps. Luckily, in the age of social networks and more evolved marketing practices, we don’t need index cards of dubious origin. We have more data and more channels to reach people than ever before.

Leads generally fall into the realm of marketing. Event strategy, content creation, SEO, public relations, etc. are all in the marketing wheelhouse and feed into lead generation approaches. The output of these approaches are leads that are cleansed, assessed, and forwarded to teams to qualify into sales leads.

For an early stage startup, however, without a marketing department, the lead process falls onto you, the founder. Outside of building the website, plugging in website analytics, and adding a signup form, there is little time to build out a fully baked lead generation engine. While you may have a trickle of inbound interest coming in, you need an approach which brings in leads sooner and at volume. What you need is a lead acquisition strategy.

Terminology may differ but in general, lead generation is the stuff you do to get people to indicate interest in your product. That might be through paid Internet ads directing traffic to a landing page or writing an article for a publication that captures reader contact data. Lead acquisition, on the other hand, is relying on other sources that already have contacts and leads gathered or available to access.

The key difference is time and expense. Lead generation is a heavy lift in resources and cost, whereas lead acquisition is much less work. With lead generation however there is usually expressed interest whereas that is often not the case for lead acquisition. A person that signs up for your webinar opts into engaging whereas a person on a list you generate or purchase has not specifically indicated interest in being contacted by you.

You do not have to just pick one over the other however. The best strategy is a hybrid that gives you both scale but also draws in those naturally interested in your solution. The strategy provided below is one such approach that I used as a startup founder as well as a salesperson in startups selling early stage products or opening new territories.

  • LinkedIn. Most of the people you want to connect with will be there. While you can use a free account, the most access and most freedom for searching will be through a paid account. An even better option is to use Sales Navigator and the filtering tools to build well-defined lists on only those attributes based on the personas and markets you already defined. For example, building a list of all Chief Revenue Officers in Berlin at companies between 100 to 500 people. Note that the data has to stay on LinkedIn but tools do exist to export lists into spreadsheets and sales tools.
  • Other social sites. If the people you sell to are elsewhere (due to profession, industry, or country preferences), then use the same approach as I outline for LinkedIn above but on these other sites and adjust as needed for those sites.
  • Draw people in using content. How can you build inbound interest? You create relevant content. This is a strategy that requires dedication but can have outsized returns in better SEO and inbound traffic long term. When I was at Stack Overflow, I launched a newsletter and blog called DEVBIZOPS for engineering leaders and developers. It is still going strong three years later with over 150 posts and 4,000 subscribers, and has been an invaluable channel to support my current work in the startup ecosystem.
  • Host virtual networking talks. Setting up talks with relevant industry people can build instant trust and credibility. The benefit is that these would be guests that have their own wide networks of relevant people and can help spread the word. I have regularly set up well-attended talks with startup founders and engineering leaders using a variety of virtual events platforms that combine presentation tools, breakout rooms, chat, and networking. These events create much more engaging interactive sessions and can be a good source of high quality and engaged leads.

There are plenty of other lead generation and acquisition ideas if you are creative. Avoid those methods that are built on poor quality data such as purchased lists or where you are relying on a third party to generate lists. Building lead lists is a process similar to building a product, you will not get it right the first time, but through experimenting and iterating, you get better at targeting your audience.

Once you have your lists together and cleaned up, it is now time to start reaching out! Next week, I will walk you through the process of putting these leads to work through a repeatable outbound prospecting process.

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