How we won (and lost) business this year

Sonja Sharon

What’s worked best when it comes to lead generation in 2017; and what’s bombed? What can we learn when it comes to marketing and selling next year? Here’s Valuable Content’s end of year business development report, warts and all.

How to generate leads

It’s the time of year for mulled wine, mince pies, panic Christmas buying, and if you run your own business, a big chunk of reflection. We’ve been looking back over our business development efforts in 2017 and asking the question, ‘how have our clients found us?’ We want to understand what’s worked best when it comes to our lead generation approaches; and what’s bombed, not to be repeated.

What can we learn when it comes to marketing and selling our training programmes and consultancy services next year? Here’s this year’s story, warts and all.

Scores on the 2017 business development doors

A quick spot check reveals the following figures.

How did our clients find us?

  • 65% of new business opportunities came via our network (referrals by people in our network, people we already knew).
  • 25% direct via our content – our website, blog, social media, newsletter, book, talks (completely new people who found us through something we wrote or said).
  • 5% via proactive direct contact (where we saw an opportunity to help someone we respect and reached out).
  • 5% suppliers turned clients (people who’ve worked for us, then asked us to work for them – in a pleasingly circular fashion).

There are some interesting stories buried in those statistics.

Evidently a LOT of our leads come via our network. That’s a mix of direct recommendations from people we know or have done business with before – Pub School is almost entirely filled by recommendation from people who’ve taken the course already. One of the most fascinating and ‘right in our sweet spot and right out of the blue’ positioning projects came via the book, then the website, via the US and Paris. Most unexpected enquiry came from the printers that we used to create a digital marketing workbook for a workshop, who got in touch to see if we could teach them what we’d be teaching the group!

While the 65/25/5/5 looks like a nice clean split between groups, the truth is of course much more blurry. It’s difficult to differentiate between leads that come directly through our content and social media activity and leads that come via recommendation from other people. You can’t always know what prompted the conversation that led to the ‘can you help me?’ call. It might just be that LinkedIn update, or the Instagram post, or something you said on Twitter that made you front of mind at the right moment. It could be the talk you did last year, or a line in a newsletter that stayed with someone so they were able to say ‘I know who you should speak to.’ Most likely it’s a combination of all of the above.

Lead generation tactics that bombed

Not everything went well, we’ll be the first to admit. We held an open day for our Pub School. It felt too selly and it didn’t convert. Ew. We opted for a stall at an event. Again, it felt too pushy, un-useful and a bit weird – we didn’t get any takers. And we threw everything we had courting a big corporate we could see needed help – we pulled together a targeted event and wrote content to help them think differently. It was a lot of effort for no return. They didn’t show up to the event; we didn’t get the work. (Although all this activity did open other doors. The lesson? Get over it, move on).

Looking back at our lead generation turkeys it’s easy to see the issue. Each one contravened our own “help, don’t sell; show, don’t tell; talk, don’t yell” marketing mantra in some way. Ouch! We’ll get T-shirts printed to keep us on track next year.

Help don't sell

Lead generation lessons for 2018

So that’s our lead generation story for this past year. Interesting, not perfect, much to do. What lessons can we take into next year? Here’s our view:

  1. No one tactic works alone. There’s no one magic business development bullet but a joined up ecosystem where recommendations and leads are fuelled by content and networking and everything we share and do. Valuable Content Universe
  2. Valuable content works across the piece – it’s sales fuel. We’re always delighted (and still somewhat surprised) when someone contacts us because of our content and wants to do business. But that’s not the only way that content works for sales. Content is an accelerator for personal recommendations, as well as a magnet for drawing in inbound leads. People who’ve done all their research; warm leads that are pretty much pre-sold when they pick up the phone. Creating and sharing valuable content will remain the focus of our business development activity in 2018.
  3. Positioning is key. It’s hard to sell when you don’t know who you are. We’ve done a lot of soul searching this year, collected feedback and experimented LOADS to get clearer on what we want to sell, what will be most valuable, and to who – to make the change we want to see. David C. Baker (in his brilliant new book, The Business of Expertise) says you need to update your positioning every few years. It’s definitely time for a refresh here at Valuable Content. We’ve made some breakthroughs recently and are working on our positioning. Watch this space.
  4. Good work leads to good work. Recommendations are gold. The job of our marketing is to create an army of enthusiastic fans doing the job of marketing our business on our behalf. Even in our web-driven world, we all want more of these!
  5. Never underestimate the power of networking: social media + real world. A lot of our leads and business comes from our network and the visible presence we have in the digital world (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram etc etc) and in the real world (going to events, running events, hosting business walks).
  6. Consistency pays. We’re putting it out there on a daily basis! Marketing is part of what we do naturally for our business, day-to-day (as you’ll no doubt have seen via social media, we make a lot of noise for a two-woman outfit). But when it comes to consistency we can still do better. Uncomfortable confession time – we’ve been less than reliable in our email newsletters this year – we’ve missed a couple of months. That’s difficult to write, and something we’re committed to rectifying next year. (‘Rhythm’ is currently top of the list for our 3 words for 2018). Consistency pays. We’ll take inspiration from our client Andrea Howe of the Get Real Project on this – read: 100 weeks, 100 tips. And this is good too, from Bryony Thomas. Frequency x Impact = Awareness.
  7. Aim for a mix of stock and flow content. Our book is still generating leads. The Land of Content map has got us a long way too. So what’s next? What other high impact content can we create? New book? Helpful guides? Insightful research that stops people in their tracks? The VC Desktop Companion (yes, it’s coming!). These heavyweight pieces of stock content both help our clients be more successful and also help us sell. (Read: Stock and flow – the master metaphor for your content). On the cards for next year.
  8. Don’t just say good stuff, DO good stuff. Do interesting things that add value to your audience and look like a heap of fun, and talk/write about it. Show the joy on social media. This is infectious and it’ll draw people to you. Do good stuff write about it
  9. Pitching sucks. Pitching is expensive and risky. Approach with care and caution. We don’t normally enter into cold competitive pitches but for some reason went down this pipe a few times this year. We did win one piece of work this way but lost two others and they took up a heap of precious time. One of these failed bids was a pure ego-trip for us if we’re honest – we were delighted to be asked to pitch for an enormous training contract – but really it was too big for us and would have pulled us right off track. So we’re ditching pitching for 2018. We’re going to focus on building relationships before we sell, disrupting the pitch process in some way or walking away. RFPs are not VC! (This is useful from the master of Win Without Pitching, Blair Enns –  how to respond to requests for proposals.)
  10. Show don’t tell with stories. Via our case studies, through video. There’s more we can do to get the joy out there. Stories are emotive and compelling. Happy, successful client stories (told in the right way) are your secret sales weapon. We are delighted to have some incredible client stories and will invest more next year in getting the word out.
  11. Proactive outbound selling isn’t dead in the age of inbound marketing – you just have to do it in right way. We’ve built up a head of steam with our marketing over the years that means the majority of our leads now come in via our content and network. But we still use proactive direct contact as a lead generator, carefully applied. If you’re setting out using valuable content marketing as a lead generation approach know that you’ll need to do this too – it’s not just a matter of blogging and waiting for the phone to ring.
  12. Tone and intent matter as much as tactics. Help don’t sell; show don’t tell; talk don’t yell. Customer-first, always, and permission-based (GDPR’s coming and that’s an opportunity! Better sales practice is going to become a necessity, not just a nice-to-have). Valuable content manifesto
  13. Sometimes even good sales tactics bomb. Get over it. You can flirt away beautifully. But sometimes you’re not their type, or the timing’s wrong. Suck it up. Put it behind you. Move on.
  14. Be in it for the long haul. Not everything you try will work and that’s okay. The trick is to be entrepreneurial in our marketing efforts – see an opportunity, give it a go, don’t get disheartened if it doesn’t fly. It takes time to build up a head of steam. Learn from what goes well and what flops but most importantly, keep at it.

How will you generate more leads next year?

So, Valuable Content’s end of year report: very good on generating feel-good word-of-mouth recommendations from business owners for our training; room for improvement when it comes to making our positioning clear for ongoing project work. 

How about you?

What lead generation approaches have worked for you in 2017? Any surprising sources of new business? Where will you focus your efforts next year? What will you do more of (or less of) in 2018 to help your business thrive?

Take time for a bit of reflection. We hope the list above helps you see what’s possible. Here’s to a happy, healthy and successful 2018.

Sonja and Sharon

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  1. Avatar

    Really brilliant article and fantastic insights and suggestions. I really love your focus on having integrity and also your advice to experiment but then pull back if tactics don’t work and being honest with yourself about that. Although working in a different industry, I’m currently planning for 2018 having only started my business relatively recently and it’s so interesting to read your honest evaluation on what’s worked for your business.

    • VC

      Hi there Sophia. Thank you very much for your comment. I’m glad you found the insights helpful. We find tracking what we’ve done really useful – always a few surprises. I hope the lessons (good and bad!) help you steer a successful course this year. The very best of luck with your new business. Do let us know what works for you. Sonja


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