When a prospect downloads your lead magnet, their journey to paying customer has only just begun—it may never finish.
Most B2B leads don’t become customers. Benchmarks for download-to-customer conversion rates are scarce. But Salesforce revealed that less than 0.5% of webinar leads ever convert to customers. That’s a grim portrait, even if conversion rates for other lead magnets are multiples higher.
Still, there’s hope. Email automation lets you nurture leads at scale, so you can compensate for lower conversion rates with volume at virtually no cost. Additionally, most B2B marketers aren’t nurturing lead-magnet downloaders properly. Or at all.
I downloaded 25+ B2B lead magnets and discovered an array of shortcomings:
- Sending one or no follow-up emails, even when I opted-in to learn more.
- Emails arrived far too infrequently to capitalize on my interest.
- Sequences did little to nurture my awareness before asking for a sales call.
All this means that the statistic—a 0.5% lead-to-customer conversion rate—doesn’t have to be your statistic. Here’s how to address those common issues, and many more.
Table of contents
- Begin with an end in mind: How to choose a primary KPI
- Choose the “Big Ask” to drive your KPI
- How long does your sequence need to be?
- What does your sequence need to do?
- Emails to include in your sequence
- A full nurture sequence plan
- Beyond the Big Ask: Nurturing leads for the future
Begin with an end in mind: How to choose a primary KPI
What’s this campaign for? It’s great to get your content read, watched, or shared. But don’t lose sight of your campaign’s primary purpose: turning leads into customers. Choose a single metric to help you measure your campaign’s ROI.
- Gross customer adds;
- Marketing-qualified leads;
Companies with a product-led growth strategy may focus on:
- Free-trial starts;
- New users.
Some of these metrics are easier to track than others, but the point is to set a goal that accurately reflects the business outcome you’re after.
Once you’ve picked your KPI, it’s time to…
Choose the “Big Ask” to drive your KPI
An email sequence can include several offers, such as webinar invitations, blog posts, case studies, and more. But somewhere in that sequence, you need one offer that drives your primary KPI. I call this offer the “Big Ask.”
For example, if your primary KPI is revenue, your Big Ask may be to make a purchase. Other Big Asks may include:
- Start a free trial.
- Schedule a call with sales.
- Watch a product demo.
The nature of your Big Ask is one of three factors that determine how long you need to nurture leads.
How long does your sequence need to be?
After someone downloads your lead magnet, couldn’t you simply invite them to take a sales call, watch your video demo, or sign up for a free trial? Shouldn’t you strike while the iron’s hot?
At the outset, to estimate how much nurturing you’ll need, consider:
- Friction. Is your Big Ask easy for prospects to accept?
- Proximity to value. How soon will leads get value from your Big Ask?
- Awareness gap. How much do leads need to know before they’ll sign up, talk to a sales rep, or make a purchase?
Let’s look at these one by one.
Factor 1: Higher friction requires more nurturing.
Which sounds easier to you?
- Start a 7-day free trial (no credit card required).
- Get on a 15-minute sales call.
If you’re like most B2B buyers, the perceived effort of getting on a call is much higher. Friction comes from other sources, too:
- Leads may need to switch from a competitor.
- Your product may be expensive.
- Your product may have a steep learning curve.
In general, high-friction Big Asks require more nurturing.
Factor 2: Proximity to value
Another quick test: Which of these Big Asks gets you closer to value?
- Start your 14-day free trial.
- Schedule a demo.
If I start a free trial now, there’s a chance I can get value from the product today. If I schedule a demo, any value will exist only in my mind’s eye.
Behavioral economists use the term temporal discounting to describe the human tendency to prefer rewards that come sooner rather than later. If your Big Ask has low proximity to value—such as booking a demo—you may need to nurture leads a little more.
Let’s contrast two confirmation emails I received after downloading lead magnets:
Ebook download confirmation from Litmus
- Big ask: Start your free trial.
- Perceived effort: Low. Starting a free trial seems easy.
- Proximity to value: Close. Starting a free trial might mean that I can get value immediately (though the copy could do a better job of telling me how close I am to those benefits).
Guide download confirmation from Iterable
- Big ask: Schedule a demo.
- Perceived effort: High. Scheduling a demo sounds like work. After I click on the link, I see a form with six required fields.
- Proximity to value: Far. Scheduling a demo doesn’t really feel like I’m close to any benefits.
Due to the high perceived effort and low proximity to value, Iterable will likely need a longer sequence than Litmus.
Factor 3: Awareness gap
When a prospect downloads your lead magnet, they’re either trying to solve a problem or get a desired outcome. For example, if I download your ebook about “How to Generate More Leads,” the outcome I want is obvious.
While some prospects may be ready to jump on a sales call right after downloading, many won’t. Before prospects are ready to try your product or speak to sales, they’ll need to reach a certain level of awareness.
This means they need to know what your product is, how it solves their problem, and why they should trust you. Eugene Schwartz’s five stages of awareness can help identify the start and end for your sequence.
Since most lead-nurture sequences exist somewhere between solution and product awareness, let’s look at the middle three stages. See if you can identify where your leads are mostly likely to be when they download your lead magnet:
- Problem Aware. Your prospect senses a problem but doesn’t know there’s a solution.
- Solution Aware. Your prospect knows the desired result but not that your product provides it.
- Product Aware. Your prospect knows what you sell but isn’t sure if it’s right for them.
Let’s contrast the awareness gap in these two download confirmation emails:
Confirmation email from SharpSpring
- Lead’s starting awareness: Solution-aware. Since this is a vendor-comparison guide, we know that downloaders are aware that solutions to their problems exist. But leads might not know anything else about SharpSpring.
- Big Ask: Schedule a demo.
- Awareness gap: Small. Since leads who download this guide are already evaluating solutions, SharpSpring relies on social proof and desire-building copy to bridge the awareness gap before presenting the Big Ask.
- Summary: While one email may not be enough, this email does a good job of bridging the gap between solution-awareness and product-awareness by communicating benefits, using social proof, and handling objections.
Confirmation email from Iterable
- Lead’s starting awareness: Pain-aware. This guide is for marketers who are struggling with a marketing platform migration. There’s no evidence that leads would be aware of solutions for this problem.
- Big Ask: Schedule a demo.
- Awareness gap: Large. At this point, the lead knows almost nothing about how the product works, why they should trust it, or how it differs from competitors. While the lead magnet itself includes some awareness-building content on the last page, it’s risky to assume that prospects read that far.
- Summary: Iterable may need to build more awareness before prospects are ready to schedule a demo.
A longer sequence isn’t inherently worse—nurturing leads builds liking, familiarity, and reciprocity. Busy sales teams also benefit from the sequence’s ability to build awareness and screen unqualified prospects.
On the other hand, companies with product led growth strategies and lead-hungry sales teams may not care as much about qualifying leads. If qualifying your leads is important, consider adding more emails to your sequence before going for the Big Ask.
Now that we’ve reviewed the three main factors that determine how much you need to nurture your leads, it’s time to discuss what your sequence needs to address.
What does your sequence need to do?
We know that we need to build awareness before leads will accept our Big Ask. The next step is to identify which of your prospects’ beliefs need to change during the sequence.
For this section, I’ll use an example from a lead-nurture sequence I worked on for a B2B SaaS company, Culture Amp.
Case study: Culture Amp
- Audience: HR professionals who want to improve diversity and inclusion at their company;
- Lead magnet: Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality Report;
- Big Ask: Watch a 3-minute platform demo video;
- Primary KPI: MQLs;
- Product: Culture Amp’s Engagement product, which includes the Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit;
- Starting stage of awareness: Pain-aware;
- Friction: Low (watch a 3-minute video);
- Proximity to value: Far. They’ll get the information they want immediately, but their pain points and desires won’t be solved for some time.
- Qualification/Sales readiness: N/A. We’re using the Big Ask to qualify leads for targeted sales outreach. In other words, the Big Ask is what qualifies leads.
- Awareness gap: High.
To figure out what our sequence needed to include:
- I brainstormed a list of beliefs that our leads would likely have at the beginning of the sequence. (Do this after you’ve completed lots of customer research so your list is based on reality.)
- Then, I made another list of how those beliefs would need to change, and what new beliefs they would need to have before accepting the Big Ask.
Here’s a small sample of what I came up with:
|Leads’ beliefs, thoughts, or feelings at the time of download:||Beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that would make leads more likely to accept the Big Ask:|
|“Our company should be more diverse and inclusive.”||“If I want to make my company more diverse and inclusive, I need to know how to collect, measure, and act on feedback from my employees.”|
|“I’m not really sure what Culture Amp does or how it works.”||“Culture Amp is a People & Culture platform that includes a Diversity & Inclusion Toolkit.”|
|“Prominent companies have solved the same problem I have with Culture Amp.”|
When you’re brainstorming your list, you’ll want to think through the following:
- Pain points;
Here are other questions to get you started:
Do your leads know…
- That you understand their problem?
- What your product is?
- How your solution solves their problem?
- That your product can give them an outcome they desire?
- That your solution has been proven to do what you claim it will?
- That companies they trust get results with your solution?
- That your solution might be better than the alternatives?
- That your company aligns with their values?
- Why their current solution might be falling short?
- What will happen if they don’t take action soon?
You can provide answers throughout the emails and offers that make up your sequence.
Emails to include in your sequence
The confirmation email
What belongs in your first email will vary based on the three factors affecting sequence length discussed above. That said, your confirmation email should include:
- A statement that reinforces your lead’s progress towards solving their problem or getting what they want;
- A link to the content they requested (even if they received a direct download);
- A reminder of the value inside your content (for those who may forget to read it).
This example from TravelPerk includes each of these nicely:
The offer and call to action you include in that first email also varies based on your strategy.
From the dozens of nurture sequences I reviewed, here are the most common confirmation email offers B2B marketers are using:
Present the Big Ask
As we’ve already seen, some companies present their Big Ask in the first email. The three factors that affect sequence length determine if this is appropriate. As with all best practices, they’re a starting point—testing will tell you whether this works for you.
Email marketing expert Samar Owais cautions against presenting your Big Ask too early:
If you take this approach, build awareness, show social proof, and address objections before presenting the Big Ask, like SharpSpring did here:
Ask a question
In the nurture sequences I reviewed, many companies asked me to reply to a question.
Here’s an example from TravelPerk:
I asked Owais about this approach:
Asking a question has a few benefits. First, it allows you to collect voice-of-customer data, which you can use to optimize the sequence. Second, it humanizes the brand a little bit.
B2B copywriter Dayana Mayfield told me that, in her experience, “people who engage, even in a small way, are more likely to hop on a demo later.” If you’re scoring leads for MQLs, a reply could be a powerful indicator of sales-readiness.
Ask them to share
Some companies invite subscribers to share the lead magnet, either through social media or email:
This approach was common with companies like Intercom and HubSpot, which suggests that it may work better for marketers who are playing the (very) long game with their nurture efforts.
Intercom knows this isn’t their last chance to connect with you, and they’re betting that they’ll continue to grow most effectively by asking you to spread a little brand awareness.
How many people actually share the content? Who knows. But adding the option to share your content is unlikely to hurt you.
Build anticipation for the rest of the sequence
Instead of (or in addition to) your call to action, you may want to include some anticipation-building copy to get leads excited about subsequent emails.
Market8 does this well in their confirmation email:
Emails for the rest of the sequence
The rest of your emails focus on the following:
- Training prospects to open and read your emails by providing relevant, valuable content;
- Building awareness, demonstrating value, and proving your claims to prepare leads for your Big Ask;
- Offering other ways for leads to stay engaged with you once the sequence is over.
Ideally, you’ll tackle Points 1 and 2 (and possibly 3) at the same time.
For example, we designed the third email in the Culture Amp sequence to do the following:
- Provide relevant, valuable content—we used a case study about improving workplace diversity and inclusion.
- Connect their problem (“How do I make sense of my survey results?”) to the product.
- Prove that prominent companies got results from working with Culture Amp.
Here’s the email:
Here’s another example in which we offered value freely and built awareness at the same time:
This time, we wanted to build awareness around the idea of taking action on survey results—one of Culture Amp’s key differentiators. At the same time, we provided valuable content and offered proof that the solution works.
If you don’t have lots of relevant content to link to, you can always deliver valuable content within the email.
The Big Ask email
You can go for the conversion multiple times throughout your sequence. Different subscribers will be ready at different times.
Owais estimated that, in a 12-email sequence, she’s likely to present the Big Ask three times. Some of those offers may be softer, added in the postscript rather than the email body.
But since the point of your sequence is to get leads to take your Big Ask, you’ll want at least one email dedicated solely to that goal.
Lead with pain.
Copyhackers’ email specialist, Nikki Elbaz, points out that, in B2C, some products are solutions to problems, while others exist for sheer delight (or amusement). On the other hand, B2B is all about solutions.
For this reason, Elbaz says, “the Problem-Agitation-Solution (PAS) framework can be particularly effective for B2B sales emails.”
Here’s another example from the Culture Amp sequence:
This is how the PAS framework works in this email:
- Problem: “You want to become a champion of diversity and inclusion, but there are obstacles in your way.”
- Agitation: “Specifically, you’re probably struggling with these three challenges.”
- Solution: “Culture Amp helps solve these problems. See how (plus social proof).”
Empower your content consumer.
Seth Godin reminds us that, unless you’re communicating with the final decision-maker, B2B sales is all about the story your lead gets to tell their boss.
As Elbaz explains,
In B2B, your consumer isn’t usually the customer. You’re often selling to someone who isn’t the final decision-maker. How can you help prospects get buy-in from their bosses? Offer content that speaks to this need. A PDF sales sheet, a comparison blog post—what do they need to see to convince their boss?
In your sequence, see what you can share that might help your prospect sell your product to their superiors.
Stand out in their inbox.
There’s a good chance your leads are getting emails on the same topic from other companies. It can be really helpful to know what else is in their inbox so that your most important emails—like Big Asks—stand out.
In the Culture Amp sequence, the open rate of one subject line outperformed the average of all others by nearly 60%: “Diversity ≠ Inclusion.”
Why did it work? I have a couple of hypotheses:
- Our audience is used to seeing “diversity and inclusion” and was surprised to see a new spin on the relationship between the two terms.
- Our audience may have been excited to see a company finally talking about the topic in a way that aligned with their existing beliefs.
Regardless, the subject line stood out from emails that leads were receiving from other companies on the same topic. How can you make sure your subject lines do, too? Subscribe to other lists and sequences your leads may get in their inboxes.
A full nurture sequence plan
Here’s a (simplified) breakdown of the strategy behind the Culture Amp nurture sequence:
|1||Here’s your Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality Report||Reinforce their decision to interact with us. Remind them of the value in the lead magnet.||A link to make it easy for them to share with someone else|
|2||Making an impact on D&I starts with this||Build awareness and empathy. Offer value freely to train them to expect benefits from reading our emails.||A link to relevant blog post|
|5||How [prominent tech company] builds a culture of belonging||Gain trust through powerful social proof. Build awareness.||A link to [prominent tech company] case study|
|8||“We’ve been talking about this for a while, but what exactly are we doing about it?”||Build awareness and empathy. Gain trust through powerful social proof. Offer value freely.||A link to relevant long-form content; soft offer: Watch a platform demo video (Big Ask)|
|9||This is how you become a champion of diversity & inclusion||Use PAS framework to drive to the platform demo video.||Big Ask (watch demo)|
|12||Join 7,015 other People Geeks on Slack||Offer a way to stay connected long-term.||Join our Slack community|
|14||Diversity ≠ Inclusion||Offer value. Build awareness.||Watch a relevant, recorded webinar|
|18||What’s next for <first name>?||Get them to stay connected after the sequence ends.||See webinars and live events; get a free guide on another topic (triggers new sequence); subscribe to our newsletter; Watch the demo video.|
Leads who engaged with higher-intent content, particularly the platform demo video and case studies, became MQLs. That status triggered direct outreach from a sales representative to get the lead on the phone.
Of course, some leads will make it all the way through the sequence without ever graduating to MQLs. What should you do with those prospects?
Beyond the Big Ask: Nurturing leads for the future
Some leads won’t convert during your nurture sequence. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be ready for your solution later.
To keep your audience connected, consider offering:
- Free, relevant content that trains prospects to expect value from opening your emails;
- Invitations to future events, like webinars or conferences;
- Other email lists they can join, such as your newsletter;
- Invitations to join your group or community.
You can test which offers generate the most engagement. In general, I limit the number of offers per email since more options tend to lead to analysis paralysis.
You can use engagement data to allow subscribers to “self-segment,” which, in turn, will help you deliver more relevant content via email.
There’s one more option: a follow-up offer that triggers another nurture sequence. At Culture Amp, we did this with a guide to workplace well-being.
Turning lead magnet prospects into customers is tricky, but email nurturing can help grow your campaign’s ROI. As with everything in marketing, there is no substitute for testing strategies and techniques with your own audience.
That said, if you need to plan and write an email nurture sequence, start with these principles:
- Choose a meaningful KPI.
- Choose a Big Ask to drive your KPI.
- Plan longer sequences for
- high-friction Big Asks;
- low proximity-to-value Big Asks;
- leads with larger awareness gaps between the lead magnet and the Big Ask;
- Build awareness, demonstrate value, and prove your claims.
- Keep not-quite-ready leads engaged with other offers.
- Test, test, test.