How to generate more top-of-funnel leads in B2B SaaS: Three go-to-market leaders weigh in - Bessemer Venture Partners

Kim Caldbeck, Norm Rohr, and Don Jeter share tactics for driving brand awareness and diagnosing the real issues when no one knows your business.

Your CEO comes to you and says you need more leads. What do you do? That’s the question we posed to three go-to-market leaders at the top of their game.

They all came back to us with different spins on the same answer: It’s actually not about the leads.

That’s because getting leads is actually a symptom of how well your larger marketing system is functioning. This system encompasses your entire marketing architecture: The problem you solve for your buyer, the way you’re telling that story, and how you’re getting your story out into the world.

For Kim Caldbeck, Bessemer’s Operating Advisor and Coursera’s former Chief Marketing Officer, capturing leads starts long before you even start producing content or promoting your product—it’s all about finding the right product-market fit. Norm Rohr, Vice President of Marketing at Capmo, believes it comes down to the way you’re telling your story and how well that story resonates with your audience. And Don Jeter, CMO of Torq, advocates for capturing attention by entertaining while educating your enterprise buyers and leveraging the creativity of consumer campaigns (madcap antics highly encouraged).

We sat down with these three leaders to learn their time-tested approaches and dig into the importance of network effects, language market fit, and out-of-the-box thinking to generate leads for B2B SaaS businesses. Founders and go-to-market leaders, get your pens ready—you’ll want to take some notes.

Kim Caldbeck: Find your product-market fit first, then build a thought leadership and distribution strategy

For Kim Caldbeck, building top-of-funnel awareness and driving more leads is all about going back to basics. “The key is figuring out whether you have a clearly defined product-market fit with a particular buyer,” she says.

If the leads aren’t coming, she says it’s worth revisiting your target persona, the problem you solve for them, and your value proposition. For this, she recommends using the six Ps framework laid out in The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen, which includes defining the persona, problem, proposition, positioning, product, and promotion strategy. If you have the first five in place, the sixth (promotion) comes much more easily, because folks will be much more inclined to share about you via word of mouth and you have a clearly articulated value proposition to use as your foundation for marketing activities. “This process saves so much time and energy,” she says. “It just increases your odds of getting it right.”

Once you have this foundation in place, it’s about telling your story effectively. Thought leadership is a huge part of this, particularly at the top of the funnel. “You need to ask: What is the narrative that matters to our persona that we need to be telling the world?” says Kim. (This should tie back to the 6 P’s you’ve just defined).

“At the beginning of the customer journey, it's about uncovering the things that buyers are talking about already and figuring out how we insert ourselves into their conversations,” she says “Whereas as you move through the funnel, then it becomes much more about helping them understand why we're the right partner for them.”

Think about what perspective you can bring your customers as they’re seeking answers to their questions at each stage of their journey, so you can form a relationship that helps draw them in over time. “By creating content around their questions you can become the authority, so as customers move down the funnel your solution becomes the obvious choice,” she says.

"Are there any network effects to exploit?"

Finally, look into what built-in distribution strategies you can leverage. “I always ask the question, are there any platform or network effects we can exploit?” she says. This could include a freemium model, a product-led growth model, consumer-to-enterprise dynamics, or other strategies that encourage users to share and promote your product or service. For instance, at Coursera, the B2C learner base was the “wedge” into the B2B strategy. For example, if a person took a course on data science and they worked at a specific company, Coursera would leverage those consumer insights to sell into a larger enterprise to showcase learning and development opportunities.

“Not all business models are going to have this opportunity to leverage unique sales wedges or network effects,” she says. “However, every product should have some feature built-in to draw people in at a larger scale.”

Norm Rohr at Capmo: Find your foothold by indexing on relevancy, value, and clarity when producing niche content

For Norm Rohr, the real question isn’t about how to get more leads—it’s about finding the right ones. Like Kim, he believes this starts with a deep understanding of your audience. “First you have a strategy where you answer questions like: What market are you in? Where do you find your audience? What do they actually need?”

He recommends not just thinking about the kinds of topics your audience is interested in, but also the kinds of formats they like to consume and, crucially, the language they use.

Creating niche content that drives real leads considers three dimensions:

  • Relevancy (Is the content right for the audience?)
  • Value (Is the content bringing value to the audience?)
  • Clarity (Are we using the right vocabulary and style that will resonate with the audience?)

“On clarity, there's a concept I really like, language market fit,” he says, “Similar to product market fit, you need to understand how your buyers are talking.”In his view, the main problem with a lot of content produced today is that it’s too surface-level. “If I’m not learning anything new, how do I expect my buyer to actually find value in it and want to read it?” he says. “Content is there to catch traffic. But if people land there and realize it’s not very deep, the company loses all credibility.”

"What proprietary data can you leverage to tell a really strong story?"

Instead, Norm recommends focusing on the stories that only your company can tell. Nearly every company is collecting some kind of data through their product or customers—the question is, “What proprietary data can you bring to the table that enables you to tell a really strong data-driven story?”

For instance, in a previous role at Uberall, Norm realized his competitors were putting out research on the topic of voice search with pretty small sample sizes, in the range of 20-2500 businesses. So his team got to work and produced one with a sample size of 100,000 businesses—making the resulting report far meatier and reliable than anything that had ever been produced in their industry. It made huge waves and opened countless doors, causing Uberall to be viewed as a hidden giant.

But you don’t necessarily need to differentiate yourself based on scope alone. In a later report, his team went deep rather than wide. “Instead of doing what everyone else did, we covered the niche, vertical-specific questions which everyone wanted to answer but nobody could,” he says. It got a lot of press buzz, downloads skyrocketed, and was a huge win for their sales team.

This might seem like a hugely resource-intensive process—and it does take an investment. But these research reports shouldn't be one-offs. They should feed into and support other content efforts. “In my mind, every piece of content needs to be repurposed seven to twelve times,” says Norm.

Don Jeter at Torq: Focus on building a memorable brand that breaks the B2B mold

“All marketing is helping customers understand they have a problem—and that your solution helps them solve that problem,” says Don Jeter. “The question is, how do we tell that story in an interesting way that starts with the customer’s challenge first, not us?”

That’s easier said than done. “In B2B, we’ve historically been so boring,” he laments. “I look at myself and think, would I really open this email? Would I click on this?” That’s why it’s so critical to build an enterprise business that actually connects and makes people feel something—and that’s something B2B can learn from consumer brands.

“There's an entertainment factor nowadays that you really have to consider,” says Don. It’s something he's taken to heart in his marketing. Consider a takedown campaign he created, targeting Torq’s biggest competitor, Splunk. “Splunk is a publicly traded company, a pretty iconic brand,” he says. “We were winning customers from them in small pockets, but we didn’t have any brand awareness.”

They called their campaign “Clunk”—using Splunk’s logo, just with the first few letters modified. Then, they spun up a ton of display, social, and search ads with clever wordplay to target a very specific list of prospective buyers. They even set up Google ads so when people searched for Splunk, they got served an ad saying, “Did you mean Clunk?” The campaign got two viable opportunities within the first week and helped raise internal morale, emboldening the sales team to go toe-to-toe with such a big brand.

And that’s just one of a long list of stunts, including designing a conference booth around a display case showcasing a pair of Nike’s—Nike is a customer—and sending a bagpipe player though the RSA Moscone Center to play a funeral dirge for their legacy competitors (yes, really).

“Even though marketers talk about differentiation all the time, I think we forget how to actually be different."

“Even though marketers talk about differentiation all the time, I think we forget how to actually be different,” says Don. Being willing to put yourself out there and entertain your potential buyers is key to actually capturing their attention.

“It’s actually not that hard to stand out in the B2B space, because everyone else is just doing webinars and whitepapers,” he says. So the question is, what out of the box ideas can you bring to the table?

Five steps when looking beyond the leads to optimize the full marketing funnel

The experts can attest that the lack of leads is often a symptom of a more complex issue within the funnel. So, the next time you’re confronted with the perennial problem of driving more demand, here is an initial set of guidelines to follow before blitzing the internet with every marketing tactic under the sun.

1. Start with asking questions.

“If my CEO asked me to get more leads, I would ask, ‘Where is this coming from?,” says Norm. “Did an investor ask you to do this? Is this a quality issue or a quantity issue? What would be an ideal number of leads given our market? And how do we know this to be true?’”

2. Determine the root cause and motivation.

“Every company always needs more leads—but I would want to understand what’s driving the question,” says Don. “Has there been a gap in revenue? Or are we questioning our ICP?” In some cases, your executive leaders might think the answer is more leads when really it’s about refining the target audience, identifying the value proposition, or the problems a product is capable of solving. If the business is looking to endlessly fill a leaky bucket, they likely don’t have a top-of-funnel problem but a retention issue. Addressing churn is likely the most viable solution to increase adoption over time and thereby bump net retention and revenue for the business.

3. Don’t jump to action too quickly.

Before kicking off new marketing programs to gain more visibility, analyze the performance of the entire marketing funnel to confirm if the business has a lead generation problem or a conversion problem. This looks like examining industry benchmarks, assessing the cost of customer acquisition (CAC), and analyzing conversion rates at each stage of the funnel.

4. Hone your CAC Payback and LTV: CAC Ratio.

As you begin to experiment with new marketing tactics, keep a close eye on your customer acquisition cost (CAC) payback period and the lifetime value (LTV) to CAC ratio. Customer growth is important, but only at reasonable costs. “While it varies industry to industry, explore what a healthy LTV:CAC ratio is for your business model. For edtech, we looked for a target LTV: CAC ratio of around 3 to 3.5 or higher to indicate scalability,” says Kim. “While a low ratio may require adjustments to your business model, pricing, and go-to-market strategy.”

5. Rethink how alternative teams can contribute to top-of-funnel goals.

Thought leadership and content marketing are effective ways to answer industry questions, connect, and establish your company as an authority with your target audience. But beyond digital marketing, other teams can help with ToFu goals, explains Kim: “Sales development representatives (SDRs) can play a significant role in driving top-of-funnel engagement, especially in the early stages of a business. Their outbound efforts can help test and refine messaging, validate target audience, and generate initial leads for further nurturing.”

Early stage startups are often category creators, which comes with a unique host of challenges. In this case, “I would always start with making sure your persona has a clear problem you're selling against and a value proposition,” explains Kim. But don’t forget to have fun during this experimental phase of business building, says Don Jeter: “We should be creative and willing to take risks in order to capture the attention of our audience.”