State of Outbound Lead Generation 2020

Note: This article was updated in March, 2020

A lot of changes have rocked the B2B sales world in the past couple of years. While arguably, B2B sales is such a large and vague “industry” that it’s only natural for things to change. Several things have happened lately that have all resulted in a “perfect storm” scenario which has changed things significantly. 

Today we’re going to be exploring the changes and trends that exist currently in the outbound landscape, why they happened and what you should do in order to not be left behind, with all the marketers who are clinging on to the old strategies for dear life. 

Note: If you’re already fully familiar with what outbound is, skip down to the second section. 

What is outbound lead generation?

First off, just in case you aren’t familiar with what the term “outbound lead generation” means, let’s break it down:

Lead Generation – the action or process of identifying and cultivating potential customers for a business’s products or services. – Oxford 

Simply put, lead generation is the process of creating a base of customers and prospects who might be interested in the products or services your company sells. 

Outbound Lead Generation narrows the definition down further, to mean any sort of lead generation activity that starts with the salesperson (or person selling the product or service) being the one to initiate the first contact with the prospect. 

To clarify things even further, here’s a few examples of each:

Inbound Lead Generation Methods: Subscribers signing up to your email list, PPC ads run to capture email addresses, content marketing (is not inbound leadgen in itself but leads to exactly that)

Outbound Lead Generation Methods: Cold calls, Cold emails, Direct mail, Any type of direct outreach

The outbound list sometimes gives people a knee-jerk reaction. Almost anyone who has ever been forced to do cold calls as a part of their job carries a deep resentment for it. So does almost anyone who’s ever received a cold call – so why are/were outbound methods so popular? Because they still do work!

While I’ve personally never been a fan of the cold call over the phone, other forms of cold outreach can be and have been a huge driver of B2B businesses. 

The most common types of B2B companies utilizing cold outreach as part of their lead generation strategy include:

  • Marketing agencies
  • B2B Service Providers
  • Consultants
  • SaaS companies (particularly B2B SaaS)
  • Event Organizers

Most of these kinds of companies have seen great success with cold outreach, even if they’ve never made a single cold call in their life and don’t ever intend to. The cold call has been rendered almost obsolete by the “newer” forms of outreach. 

Instead of needing to constantly pick up the phone, dial number after number, get told “no” live on the phone and move on, sales reps in B2B companies have a much easier time now getting in touch with their target prospects. 

For example, a salesperson at a SaaS company can obtain a list of verified email addresses for people at companies who are likely to see value in their product. This salesperson can set up a campaign to drip out emails over time to this list, and only need to spend their time responding back to people who actually have some sort of interest. 

There’s also no pattern-interrupt like with a cold call. The prospect can respond (or ignore) the outreach on their own time, unlike a cold call. This means not only does the salesperson save dozens of hours by never talking with people who aren’t interested. The prospects are also not bothered by a call, and put on the spot for how to respond.

In a lot of ways, it’s a great system that has caused a lot of growth for a lot of companies. Let’s also not be one-sided here either – a lot of companies who were on the receiving end of this style of cold outreach, have connected with partners they may never have come into contact with otherwise, and grown their businesses also as a result of it. 

At one point, it was possible to download a lead list from an online database, plug it into a sending program with a quick message typed up, and soon have your calendar filled with appointments with prospects. 

Of course, if this were still the magical system it once was, I wouldn’t be writing this “State of Outbound” report. So let’s move on to where things are at now. 

What is the situation like now?

These days, all of the things described above are still possible. In fact, they may even be more possible, due to all of the new technology and tools out there to help us run these campaigns for ourselves in less time than ever. 

Actually getting the people on the other end of your campaigns to respond back, get on a call and hear what you have to say is a different story entirely. 

Sure, people are still running campaigns, getting on the phone with prospects and are making sales too. I’m not here to make declarative statements, such as “Outbound is dead!” Besides, that’s been said before, – it wasn’t true then and it’s still not true now. 

For every person out there right now though who is crushing it and making sales via outbound, there’s 9 more who are spinning their wheels, wasting their own time and annoying their prospects.

If you could be considered a “decision maker” at your company, you’re likely familiar with a different side of things. Daily emails from people in your inbox promising to “add value” and “increase revenue”. 

If you’re on LinkedIn, you also probably frequently receive connection requests from people in your industry, and as soon as you accept, their tone changes and all of a sudden you’re being pitched to. 

Even worse, is it seems most people fall into one of a few groups:

  • They are following some template they got from a “guru” and it’s painfully obvious they haven’t changed it at all
  • They haven’t targeted properly, so are just praying and spraying (AKA spamming)
  • They are trying too hard to convey the value in their initial messages, it’s obvious a pitch is around the corner
  • They describe themselves using jargon that makes it difficult to differentiate themselves from the hundreds of people just like them sending similar messages

Compounding the issue is that all of these people employing the same, poor strategies, are likely not even getting in front of the people they intend to. Even just reaching the inbox of someone you’re not already connected to without going to spam can be a struggle for people trying to do so at scale. 

So here we are – marketers and salespeople are out there attempting to shove their message down people’s throats, and blending in with all the rest. Most of their messages aren’t even getting seen.

Worse – lots of them don’t even think this is a problem, because the only things they’re tracking is how many sales they’re making. Is it really worth it though to send 100,000 emails and get on a 100 calls if it only results in one client for you?

For some people it might be, but for most it’s not a good use of their time. It’s something they’ll continue doing though, because it’s all they know. 

Let’s take a look now at how we arrived at this point. 

How did we end up here?

In my personal opinion, there’s a couple different things here that have caused the current outbound landscape to be where it is today. The first happened all of a sudden, was expected to cause a change, but not necessarily in the way it did. The second was much slower, and took a lot more time to cause for a change to occur. Let’s start with the first change:

GDPR

If you don’t live in Europe or have European clients, you may not even know what GDPR is. It’s out of scope of this article to go into too much detail here, but it’s basically a regulation from the EU (European Union) that protects how the data of EU citizens is used and stored. The basics of it are that data on any EU person needs to be stored in a way that’s not identifiable to the individual, and that individual can request you delete their data at any time, and you must comply. 

Most marketers and salespeople around the world who were running outreach campaigns took this to mean they simply couldn’t reach out to people in the EU anymore. It was a reasonable assumption – it was only meant to affect the collection of data on EU citizens – so stay out of Europe with your outreach and things should be fine. Right? 

Unfortunately, the change that rocked cold email in 2018 was related to GDPR but completely different than what was expected. While GDPR was slated to take effect on May 25, 2018 it was in mid-April of 2018 when it was first felt. 

Google themselves, along with a lot of the major email service providers, massively updated their inbox placement algorithms. Not unlike when Google makes an SEO algorithm update that shakes up search rankings across millions of sites, the same happened with our email inboxes. Unlike when an SEO algorithm update happens though, there were no big blogs covering the changes and how they’ll affect things going forward.

As a result, marketers and salespeople running email campaigns found their efforts almost completely stifled, and unable to reach the inboxes of their prospects. Sure, some prospects might pull it out of spam, but your credibility is pretty low at that point, especially to a cold prospect.

It was extremely difficult to pinpoint what was causing things to go to spam, and people were scrambling to set up new accounts, only to see them quickly banned or go to spam again. This is true no matter how good the templates were written or how well the prospects were targeted. This was the most frustrating part – you couldn’t just do a better job and send better emails to solve the problem. 

Sure, there were some people who slipped through the cracks, but deliverability was an issue for most people during this time. 

Things have stabilized a bit more since then, with it being easier to reach the inbox, and with more people figuring out what causes both positive and negative swings in deliverability. 

It’s still much more difficult than before however, and the days of purchasing a random list and expecting to get anywhere with it are long gone. A strategized personal approach is a necessity now. 

The influx of automation tools

First off, I fully believe automation is a great thing. I don’t want this next section to incorrectly cause people to assume I think automation is bad. 

Automation is great and powerful. But with great power comes great responsibility – and lots of people are being incredibly irresponsible with these automation tools. 

When direct outreach was becoming popular, email was the platform of choice. It worked very well, but it wasn’t necessarily cheap or easy to get it all going. There were a few players in the data industry (lists, email addresses) as well tools to help you automate your sending. 

Because there weren’t many of them and they were solving a fairly “new” problem, they weren’t all that cheap. 

You could easily spend $500-1,000 per month in terms of data, data validation and software to get it all sent and organized. 

These days, there’s all-in-one options offering all-you-can-eat plans as low as $29/month. Now I love a good deal and love when my favorite products and services become more affordable – but when the barriers to entry are reduced, it opens the floodgates for people to come in and abuse the system. 

So now people who have never run these campaigns before successfully when it was easier, are out there spamming people and making the whole scene more difficult for everyone. Most don’t even care too much if it doesn’t work – it only costs them $29 and not much time. 

Their downside for creating an unappealing campaign and spamming people is less than $30 a month. The upside is they might get a client out of it. 

Because of this, hundreds of thousands of marketers have invaded the email and LinkedIn inboxes of their prospects, and taught them to just ignore messages they receive there. 

As a result, lots of companies who at one point grew up their business based on cold email, have seen it decrease in effectiveness, or stop working altogether. 

It’s not ALL bad though. Sure it’s more difficult than it was before, but we aren’t entrepreneurs because we’re afraid to do difficult things. Let’s take a look at what can be done going forward if outbound was ever an integral part of your strategy. 

In all of this, there’s opportunity for the best companies to stand out from their competition.

Where do we go from here?

I’m going to break this section down into two parts – first is what I recommend people do in their outreach campaigns to remain successful. The second is what I recommend people change in their businesses as a whole if it was highly reliant on outbound for new sales in the past. 

Keeping your campaigns relevant in 2020

Personalize like a human – Most people hear the word “personalize” when it comes to outbound campaigns, and immediately start thinking of all the things they can automate the personalization of for their campaigns. STOP! That’s the opposite of the point.

We want to be personalizing our outreach to our best prospects, and if we try to automate this step, we blend right back in with all the people thinking they are clever with their automations. Take an extra few minutes per prospect and write something truly personal. You can still keep most of your email as a template, but make sure to include at least 1 full custom sentence.

Things like the prospect’s name, company name, position, location or the weather where they live aren’t personalizations (and the last one just comes off weird). 

Reach out manually to a highly targeted listInstead of running a templated campaign to a list of people who were obtained by setting filters, consider building a list of your 25, 50 or 100 best prospects by hand, based on your own intuition of why that company would be a great client. You can also get someone on your team to build you this list if you’re both aligned on what makes a great client. 

Be careful relying too heavily on a template for any part of your email or LinkedIn message here – your goal is to show from the very beginning and all through the email that you’re not the same as all the other people trying to reach this prospect through the normal methods. 

Treat the leads you do receive differentlyThose of us who have run successful outbound campaigns have been trained on which types of responses we respond to and which we ignore. It becomes easy after a while to tell at first glance who is serious and who is just giving a polite answer. 

Now though, it’s much more common for people to be more reserved with their interest. This is especially true with LinkedIn, where people treat it exactly as it is – a social network. Those of us who are used to receiving replies like “Sure, let’s get on a call and see what you have to offer” might see a reply on LinkedIn saying “Great to be connected, stay in touch!” and just dismiss it completely. 

I’ll admit, even I was mostly ignoring these conversations as well. If played correctly though, these are likely to be your best leads. In an environment where everyone is pitching and selling at the first chance they get, someone who cares to make a connection first will go a lot farther. 

You may no longer be able to bring on a client within a week of the first contact anymore. We need to invest more into the vendor-client relationship on the frontend now – anything worth doing takes time. 

Keeping your business relevant for outbound in 2020

Lots of B2B companies have built themselves up by using outreach to get in touch with their target market and make sales. Whether they used it as their initial way to gain traction in their industry or simply as an additional sales channels, lots of companies have relied heavily on outreach to grow. 

Now that the landscape is changing, these same companies are often seeing their revenue dip, and scrambling to try to do anything to bring it back up. While I’m not a business mentor, here are the things I’ve identified as things that may be holding your business back as a whole. 

Selling commodities as a service – This may seem like a simple point to make, but lots of companies were able to become very successful using outbound to sell commodities as their services. 

At the end of the day, most marketing agencies are selling commodities – things like SEO, PPC and content marketing can all be considered commodities, especially when there’s nothing else notable about the service to separate it from all the others out there like it. 

Gone are the days when a marketing agency who’s willing to do anything, can reach out to any old company offering to do anything for them, and expect that conversation to go anywhere. Which leads me to my next point….

Not having a clear idea of who their services are for – One of the easiest ways you can un-commoditize your service offering, is to get really niche on who it’s for. For example SEO is a commodity but SEO services that help dentists book more patients is much less commoditized. 

This also helps by ensuring your messages truly match with the people you’re reaching out to. So many people these days are dead in the water by reaching out telling their prospects “we help companies like yours”, because they are reaching out to people in so many different industries it’s impossible to personalize. Just be aware that these same marketers are all niching down, so if you pick a popular niche, it might not un-commoditize you by very much. 

Start caring about your overall online presence to attract inbound leadsWhile this certainly doesn’t apply to every company, there’s lots of companies who are so focused on outbound as their main channel, they ignore almost everything else. 

I’ve talked with several people who are great at outreach, but think they don’t need a good-looking website, or even a website at all, because they feel they get all the business they need through outbound.  

The issue here is that all these leads you contact are going to have a look at your online presence to see if you’re trustworthy. A sketchy looking website certainly doesn’t help. 

And while I’m certainly not going to say outbound is bad, there’s no denying that inbound leads tend to be higher quality and easier to close. It’s going to take longer to build out an inbound marketing system, but it’s the sort of things lots of companies wish they spent the time doing before the landscape for outbound began to change. 

Conclusion

While running outbound campaigns is certainly still an extremely viable strategy for many companies, it’s a much different game than the one we were all playing even just two years ago. 

If you want to be successful with outbound in 2020 and beyond, you need to take a more strategic, human and calculated approach. 

If you’ve seen your lead or sales numbers drop in the past year or two and want to get things back on track, then feel free to set up a time with me directly to go over the issues you’re having and see if we can find a solution for you – https://calendly.com/llg/consultation

Dana Lindahl

Founder – LegendaryLeadgen.com

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