The Ladder of Lead Generation for Boutique Consulting Firms

A useful model to look at your marketing initiatives.

Yesterday I came across an excellent blog post from Blair Enns titled "The Ladder Of Lead Generation". In it, Blair poses a straightforward question: If you were to compile all of the activities that you - or have considered doing - to generate new business and placed them on a prioritized list, what would be the top and the bottom items?

To explore this, let's put aside the difference between lead generation and demand generation for a second. According to Blair, the ladder for most consultants and agency partners would look like this (from top to bottom):

  1. Educational activities: Books, speaking engagements, podcasts, thought leadership and original content.
  2. Paid exposure: Advertising, sponsorship, seminars and trade shows.
  3. Unsolicited Inquiries: Cold outreach and requested introductions.

To place them in this order the author looked at two characteristics: Expertise validation and immediacy. Let's look at each one of them, as well as a personal critique of this model.

Expertise Validation

When you send a cold email or contact a stranger privately, chances are they never heard about you. So when you introduce yourself and your business, you are making a private claim of expertise. This claim may be validated or not by your prospect, but in either case the level of trust is low.

Paid initiatives are, according to Blair, public declarations of expertise. Once you promote yourself and your services in public, you are implicitly committing to the message. Shifting your positioning to please different audiences would send a clear sign that you are not an expert, but a generalist.

Successful educational initiatives, on the top of the ladder, signal that your expertise has been endorsed by others. There's too much noise out there, and most ‘"experts" (generalists) are ignored. Standing out in the crowd is a positive signal.


Immediacy follows an opposite path. When you started your consulting practice with no marketing budget and needed a client or two quickly, what did you do? Probably picked up the phone and started shooting messages to potential clients. Direct and targeted outreach is certainly the fastest way to do it.

The paid initiatives from the middle of the ladder are mostly tactics designed to increase awareness and scale your outreach by investing money instead of time. Immediacy is lower since these messages can be easily ignored when compared to, for example, emails reaching your inbox.

Immediacy hit its bottom when we look at educational initiatives. It takes a long time to establish a reputation as an expert, and waiting for opportunities to come to you is the most passive and painful way to build a pipeline.


One Big Praise, And One Small Critique

I find the "ladder of lead generation" an incredibly useful model for consultants to look at their marketing initiatives. It's also worth highlighting Blair's alert of the need for a solid positioning and overall marketing strategy:

"Over time your activities should shift from predominantly immediate, sales-based, lower rung approaches to longer term, publicity-based, higher rung ones. With enough top rung activities at work, you may never have to drop down to the lower rung techniques of paid media and unsolicited enquiries again. But to do this requires a solid positioning, and a defined marketing plan. Any marketing plan, whether populated with top rung approached or lower rung ones, needs to be implemented deliberately and consistently – even in good times."

My main critique of it is not related to its logic, but to the fact that it needs to be updated or iterated to be useful now - which is perfectly natural since the original post seems to be written in 2005.

What drives human behavior did not change, but the complexity of digital marketing campaigns increase year after year. And this poses some challenging questions to the proposed model:

  • Is fear or urgency-driven advertising "better" than a direct outreach campaign that doesn't pitch, but educates and shares insights?
  • Hiring a ghostwriter to publish a book and using paid ads to make it a bestseller certainly signals expertise. But is it truly validated/endorsed?
  • Where would you include influencer marketing campaigns?

I believe that what might be missing in this model is a bigger emphasis on intent. But this is a topic to another post.

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