Are Paid Pilots or Free Trials Better for B2B?

I have recently read two great posts about the over-use and ultimate lack of effectiveness of the free trial as a marketing tactic in B2B SaaS sales organizations. Both Jep Castlestein of LeadSloth and Amanda Ferrante of DemandGen Report talk about alternatives to the ubiquitous trial and each provided great food for thought on a topic that is often dismissed by SaaS vendors. Most vendors I have seen, even those with extremely complex solutions (CRM, accounting, marketing automation, content management systems, etc.), seem to funnel everyone towards a free trial, shake the bucket up a bit, and then see which clients stick it out. While this has no doubt been effective for many organizations, especially simpler, less expensive solutions (see Basecamp, Constant Contact, etc.), I think it can simply add to the marketing and sales noise for many B2B organizations.

Problems with B2B free trials:

  1. The prospect has little skin in the game and may not be in a hurry to implement the trial solution during the assigned peirod. Other priorities come up
  2. The corporate sponsor may have difficulty getting buy-in from her internal team ( administrator, IT, etc.) in making changes that may be temporary
  3. The product is likely to be too vast for the client to be able to wander her way through it (imagine how many or NetSuite trials feel) without significant guidance from the vendor
  4. To be most effective in terms of converting the prospect, the vendor must fully implement, train, and support the free trial as though they were a full-paying client

I have been on both sides of this game. As a B2B buyer, I am relatively poor at dealing with the free trials for which I sign up. I sign up for them and then other priotities quickly come up. Since I have nothing invested (in terms of time, money, or stakeholder buy-in), I often wind up shelving the evaluation until a later date. What typically works best for me is a situation where I am paying for the solution but I have an out-clause if I am not satisfied after a certain period. That gives me the incentive to get things integrated quickly but also minimizes my risk as a buyer.

Advantages of a Paid Pilot Approach:

  1. The prospect has a sense of urgency when implementing the product -she is actually paying for it
  2. The vendor has a sense of urgency when  supporting the client — the prospect in this case is actually a paying customer and could become one on a recurring basis
  3. Increases likelihood of the prospect getting buy-in from other stakeholders at her company. She can tell them that she has selected a product but that it comes with an out-clause if needed.
  4. The vendor is able to at least partially compensate his sales rep; making the paid pilot feel like much more of a “win” than a trial would

At my marketing automation company we do a bit of both but the vast majority of our clients are month-to-month and have the option to cancel their service at any time. This has been a tremendous model for both our sales team (reduced risk is a nice message) as well as our support team. Since our clients can leave at any time, we have to constantly be on our “A game” in terms of the level of service we provide to our customer base. In a sense, all of our clients always in a paid pilot and we love it that way.

If you are only using the free trial method currently, I encourage you to also take a look at paid pilots. You may find that it works out better for both you and your prospects.

The Ins and Outs of Inbound and Outbound Leads

Marketing, especially B2B Marketing has its own unique language. Attend any professional event and you’ll hear jargon tossed around as freely as the coffee flows at the refreshments table. Sometimes it is important to return to the basics and make sure you review the terms so that you can keep up.

Aaron Ross at Build a Sales Machine provides a rundown (and even some fun illustrations) of the sometimes confusing definition of inbound leads versus outbound leads. According to Ross:

Inbound leads are, as it implies, leads that come to your company and into your website or 800#: usually through word-of-mouth and referrals, public relations, search engines or perhaps through marketing campaigns… these leads generally are already interested in what you have to offer, and are about to start a buying cycle.

Outbound leads are lead that you had to go dig up, whether through market development campaigns or a Cold Calling 2.0 or other “proactive” methods to let prospects who aren’t already interested know who you are, what you do and why it should matter to them.

Ross goes on to explain how a marketer should approach or nurture these different types of leads and what to expect from each group.

Marketing Sherpa: Never Send Unqualified Leads into your CRM

In Marketing Sherpa’s recap of their B2B Lead Generation Summit, they designate one point as the summit’s key takeaway. The “most scribbled-down-tip” was when Jackie Kiley of Sybase explained the importance of passing only qualified leads into your company’s CRM. Marketing Sherpa’s article highlights this point reinforcing that your firm should “*never* put suspects, inquiries, or unqualified leads into [your CRM]”.

By not filtering your leads, you send the good and the bad onto your sales team, and create an immense amount of “noise” which the sales people must sort through to be successful. Rejection and lost time results in a less-than-motivated sales team, that will begin to distrust leads sent to them from the marketing department.

A lead qualifying tool can improve the relationship between your sales and marketing departments by allowing for a more seamless interaction between the two. Marketing automation software allows only qualified leads to make it to the sales pipeline, allowing both departments to more effectively accomplish their goals.

Also key in aligning sales and marketing is providing scheduled feedback on leads by having sales report on the status of leads (good, bad, accepted, rejected, etc.) Doing so is the final step in closing the loop between the two functions by further refining the filter for the next sales cycle.

The Golden Rule of Lead Generation

More and more, marketers are beginning to embrace quality over quantity and putting in place steps to help the sales team improve their odds of closing the deal. Brian Carroll sheds some light on the issue of cost-per-lead vs. cost-per-opportunity in his post, Why Cost-Per-Lead Budgets Fail and Fewer Leads Are Better. Though it can be hard to accept such a claim - why would any one want fewer leads, isn’t it a pure number game? - Carroll says, “The truth is that sales people care very little about the cost of the leads we generate. What they really care about is how many of those leads will actually become viable sales opportunities.” 

For a small sales team, the information being passed in to the CRM system can be overwhelming, making it difficult to efficiently sort through the “noise” and determine which leads to focus on. It’s easy to dedicate too much time to unqualified leads and unknowingly passing by valuable opportunities. One step marketers are taking to improve lead quality is developing a system to triage leads and evaluate them for “sales-readiness.” Instead of dumping huge numbers of leads in to a CRM system, marketers are using this lead qualifying system and keeping the junk out of the sales team’s hands.Management and web automation systems can serve as a great “holding pen” for leads before they are passed in to the CRM, allowing the marketing team to review prospects, assign a grade or score and pass the record to the appropriate sales rep. 

If marketers can begin to live by the rule of quality over quantity, they will see a great improvement in their conversion and greatly increase their percentage of qualified opportunities. Not to mention, they will get a big “thank you” from the sales team!

Get to the Point Already

In “the one piece of advice you can’t generate leads without”, author Jill Konrath points out that her day is way too hectic as it is, and that taking calls from vendors certainly isn’t high on her list of priorities. Her solution? When you make that sales call, get to the point, and put numbers behind what your software does. It’s the best way to get a lead’s attention.

Even though this particular example applies to salespeople, there’s something here for marketers as well. B2B marketers might not be the ones making the call, but they are most definitely sending out emails, setting up landing pages and forms, and managing entire online marketing campaigns. So when you send a prospect a white paper or email, make sure that you get to the point, and explain exactly what it is that you can do for them.

Make sure that you don’t fall back into the typical marketing meandering. Your emails and white papers should be concise, provide clear value to the lead, and make it very clear what you have done for past clients and what you will be able to do for future clients. You need to take into account that most of your leads have lives at least as hectic and as busy as yours. If you’ve done your research and what you are selling is actually a good fit for your lead, don’t let a watered down message keep you from getting through.