Inbound marketing initially advocated a specific, linear map of the customer journey: awareness, consideration, and decision. But as technology evolves and customers become more sophisticated, customer journeys have become less linear—which means your inbound flows shouldn’t be either.
Instead, your lead flows should adapt to customer behaviors and needs, rather than force-fit customers into a predetermined progression. So what exactly does this mean in practice? How do you map, let alone build, such an inbound flow? Read on to find out.
Why linear inbound lead flows are dead
Inbound B2B marketing has long followed a three-part customer journey: awareness, consideration, decision. As time went on, this evolved into the flywheel model, where customers re-engaged the buying process when it came time for renewals, upsells, or cross-sells.
While the flywheel is certainly an improvement on the funnel, for B2B enterprises, the picture is much more complex. Consider the following journey map from Gartner:
What can we learn from this transformation? Three tends come to the forefront:
- Best practices are constantly in motion. Some of the practices listed above have declined in effectiveness. Some are still table stakes. Some will fall out of favor in the future. Religiously adhering to one methodology, tech stack, or process is a death sentence.
- The trend is toward more complexity, not less. Unless you’re investing in systems, processes, and technologies to handle ever-increasing data and insights generation—and delivery to the customer—you won’t be able to keep up.
- Customer-centricity never fails. The more you focus on the customer, their behaviors, wants, and needs, you’ll be successful, regardless of channel, content format, etc.
What is the state of inbound marketing today?
Based on the journey we mapped above, how can we describe the state of inbound marketing today? Here are some high-level trends every marketing needs to be aware of.
- Technological complexity. The ubiquity and increasing complexity of technology has exponentially increased the amount of information and touchpoints available to buyers—making their buying journeys more dynamic and less predictable.
- Empowered buyers. Buyers have become more empowered, conducting extensive research, reading reviews, and gathering information before converting—meaning buyers enter the funnel at different stages, depending on their knowledge-level.
- Complex decision-making units. B2B decision-making units have become more complex, with as many as 10 people involved in a single purchase decision—all of whom are operating at different levels of education and knowledge.
- Longer sales cycles. As sales cycles become longer, it becomes less practical to sustain engagement across a linear funnel—especially for high-value, high-trust B2B deals that could take years to close.
- Omnichannel engagement. Omnichannel engagement is the norm, with buyers engaging with your brand across diverse sources, both online and offline, switching among them based on their needs and preferences.
To map and effectively relate to customers across non-linear customer journeys, it’s important to take into account all of these factors, so you can present an experience that is actually personalized and tailored to their needs.
Qualified or not? It’s complicated.
In a nonlinear inbound customer journey, it can be difficult to tell when to initiate contact with a lead. Although a qualified lead is certainly ready for a sales conversation, a nonlinear customer journey means that it’s more difficult to tell when that lead is qualified. What’s more, conversations with unqualified leads can also add value to the business.
As we’ve discussed before, lead qualification occurs when a lead meets two criteria:
- Is the lead an active buyer?
- Is the lead a good fit for your product or service?
But there are a host of people who come into contact with your business that meet only one—or neither—of those criteria. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide you with value. In fact, ignoring “unqualified” leads as such can result in lost market insight and, by extension, fewer sales opportunities.
Here are a few examples of unqualified leads that can actually support your business:
- Non-ICP potential customers. Just because you haven’t considered a particular use case or value prop when constructing your ideal customer profile (ICP) doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You don’t know what you don’t know, and non-ICPs could offer potential revenue avenues you haven’t considered.
- Non-buyer leads. These are buyers who aren’t actively looking for your solution, but could become qualified over time. In B2B especially, a change of job title or shift in strategy—not to mention more acute awareness of their problem—can prompt them to become an active buyer in the future.
- Market experts. There are plenty of people in your market who won’t buy your product—consultants, other founders, investors, etc. They provide a wealth of information and feedback on your products, strategies, and business operations.
- Non-competitive peers. Peer relationships may not materialize as business, but could, over time, lead to referrals, strategy and tactic ideas, and introductions to investors or advisors.
The point is: because leads don’t follow a linear journey from awareness to consideration to decision within a single channel, you shouldn’t simply ignore leads that aren’t “qualified.” They may be the key to unlocking a treasure trove of new business that you probably wouldn’t have considered before.
But what if you can’t tell, based on the data available to you, whether a lead is even qualified or not? That’s where enrichment data is helpful. Default automatically pulls in third-party data with every conversion, providing a fuller and more robust picture of the lead—helping you determine whether it aligns with your ICP.
How should you structure your inbound lead flows?
So how should you structure your lead flows to handle nonlinear customer journeys? As you can imagine, the exact nature of such structures is highly malleable.
Rather than give you the end-all-be-all setup—which, in today’s market, would quickly become outdated—here are some principles that you can apply when building an automated, adaptive lead flow that converts, qualifies, routes, and schedules appointments with your target customers.
Start by mapping your ICPs’ customer journeys
Start by mapping out their journey from initial awareness of the problem to their decision to buy your product or service. It’s important to keep the following principles in mind:
- You can’t treat specific channels or content as top-of-funnel vs. bottom-of-funnel. Viewers across channels will encounter your brand at every stage of education and awareness, and you can’t assume that someone who engages on social media is automatically in the “awareness” stage.
- Don’t assume visitors to one channel will convert on that same channel. For example, someone could read one of your blogs, then follow you on social media, then only remember you when they see a YouTube video, and that will be followed by an email that will convert.
- Tracking attribution is hard, for the reasons mentioned above. Customer journeys must, then, be prepared to capture and qualify no matter where in their ecosystem the customer engages them.
- Remember that the initial close is rarely the end of the journey—you need to continually engage your customers post-sale to drive renewals, upsells, and cross-sells.
Some of the factors your customer journey should incorporate include the following.
Customers can come into contact with your brand at many points, both online and offline. It’s important to map out the vast array of omnichannel touchpoints. This includes those areas where customers enter your inbound flow, or where engagement spurs them closer toward a buying decision.
Because customer journeys are nonlinear, customers will loop back, skip stages, and enter your inbound flow at different points. It’s important to account for these inconvenient, but inevitable, behaviors.
Often emotional and behavioral triggers are a stronger influence on customer decisions than coming across an ad or email. For example, a single promotion can turn an internal influencer into a key stakeholder, and even a decision maker. It’s important to understand how these triggers impact a customer’s engagement with your inbound flow.
For B2B especially, rarely is a single person involved in a buying decision. As such, it’s important to map out not only a contact's engagement with your inbound flow but how that impacts their internal engagements with stakeholders and decision makers.
Visualize dynamic interactions
As you probably can imagine, outlining all of these complex variables is challenging. Consider using mapping tools or visualization software to create dynamic and interactive customer journey maps, like Figma or Miro.
Capture data and make adjustments based on real-world behaviors
You can’t assume you know how your prospects will engage with your inbound flows. Mapping nonlinear customer journeys is a good start, but you never really know what those journeys look like until you go to market and engage them.
This is why it’s important not only to track surface-level metrics—leads sourced by channel, conversion rate by channel, close rate by channel—but also to dive deeper:
- Which content or action attracted leads to your website? What actions did they take upon engaging with that content?
- How long did they remain on the page?
- Did the prospect’s actual stage in the customer journey align with what you assumed based on the content and conversion offer?
- Where else did they engage with your brand before/after that initial conversion?
This is why Default automatically generates UTM parameters to connect inbound conversions to pipeline actions. Once you specify your parameters, Default can then set up automatic lead routing based on source, qualification criteria met, or projected customer journey stage.
Tailor post-conversion action to customer journey stage
Your automated inbound flows should leverage that highly specific data you’ve collected to drive a consistent experience that moves customers closer toward a close. This means that you should adapt all of the following components to your mapped customer journeys, adjusting your go-to-market strategy as you ingest new data.
Smart forms help ensure that you aren’t capturing the same information twice. Plus, automated data enrichment helps you gain the full context on the lead’s intent, helping you better identify and engage with their needs.
Within seconds of submitting a form, you should automate instant action on that lead. This can include scheduling, routing, adding to a marketing drip campaign, or any combination of the above.
Skip the back and forth trying to find a time on the lead’s calendar. Grab a meeting slot in the moment, when they’re most engaged and likely to say yes.
Whether you differentiate by lifecycle stage, sales territory, likelihood to buy, or other factors, make sure the lead ends up with the person best able to close that lead.
You’re going to have leads who abandon your workflows, whether they skip the meeting or ignore your emails. This is to be expected—it can take as many as 14 touches to make a sale. As such, the more you can automate follow-up outreach, the less likely it is to fall by the wayside. This can end up saving you some deals!
Final thoughts on building nonlinear inbound flows
Customer journeys aren’t linear. That means your lead flows should be structured to engage customers in dynamic ways.
Given this increasing complexity, attempting to build dynamic lead flows is impossible without automated, integrated technology that captures and deploys data from across the customer journey. Trying to do this with a constellation of applications held together by brittle integrations is clunky and error-prone.
Rather, see how Default’s all-in-one inbound flow platform enables adaptability and customization—the keys to building an exceptional experience for your prospects and customers.