Confused About Content Marketing, Lead Nurturing and Drip Marketing? Let’s Sort It Out

If you work in B2B marketing, you have certainly heard about content marketing, lead nurturing and drip marketing. But are they really the same thing? Let’s find out.

What is content marketing?

There is more than one way to define content marketing. Here is the definition from the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

Content marketing is not a brand new concept. A good example of an early use of content marketing is the Michelin Guide. The prominent tire manufacturer first published its now famous hotel and restaurant guide in 1900. Initially distributed for free, the guide proved to be a valuable source of information. Motorists were using it to find maps, tips on how to change and repair tires, and hotels, restaurants and gas stations.

Is there a difference between lead nurturing and content marketing?

Here again, there is no commonly held definition about what lead nurturing really is. But, let’s start with the definition of Brian Carroll, author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale:

Lead nurturing is all about having consistent and meaningful dialog with viable prospects regardless of their timing to buy.

The term “viable prospects” implies that you are dealing with potential buyers. They may not be ready to make a decision yet, but they should at least fit your ideal customer profile. Otherwise, nurturing them is a waste of resources.

That is the first distinction between lead nurturing and content marketing.Content marketing can be used both to generate demand and sustain interest. Whereas lead nurturing comes into play only once prospects have raised their hand, whether by filling out an online form or by talking to you over the phone.

In addition, the term “meaningful dialog” implies interaction. And you can rarely have good interactions without listening.

Astute listening is the cornerstone of any good #LeadNurturing program. Click To Tweet

But what happens when prospects refuse to engage in a meaningful conversation with a sales representative until they’re much more advanced in the decision process?

Thanks to modern technology, you can look for behavioural cues. When these cues are interpreted correctly, you can seize the opportunity to provide more relevant content.

That is the second important difference. Unlike lead nurturing, content marketing does not necessarily require interaction, unless you are using dynamic content.

Now, let’s review Marketo’s definition:

Lead nurturing is the process of developing relationships with buyers at every stage of the sales funnel, and through every step of the buyer’s journey. It focuses marketing and communication efforts on listening to the needs of prospects, and providing the information and answers they need.

What is really interesting about this definition is that it introduces the notion of progression throughout the buyer’s journey. While content plays a critical role in any lead nurturing strategy, content alone is not enough to make prospects progress towards purchase. Ardath Albee, B2B marketing expert and author, said it best:

We bought into the idea of content marketing. We’ve created great content. People read it. But it’s not moving the needle.

Why? Because the relevancy of your content is not based solely on the quality of your content. If you don’t know where the prospect stands in the buyer’s journey, you don’t know what would motivate him or her to move to the next step.

You have to take into account the buyer’s journey to determine the relevancy of your content #ContentMarketing Click To Tweet

Lead nurturing implies that you understand your customer’s mindset throughout each step of the buying journey and that you map your content to each and every stage. That is why Ardath Albee considers that developing buyer personas is key to delivering the right content to the right person at the right time.

Also, keep in mind that lead nurturing is an ongoing process, whereas most B2B content marketing campaigns have a “stop” date. So while you definitely need content to run effective lead nurturing programs, lead nurturing is much more than just another campaign.

Lead nurturing: a working definition?

Have you ever heard of Joe Girard? According to Guinness World Records, he is the world’s greatest salesman, having sold 13,001 cars between 1963 and 1978. His secret weapon? Greeting cards. Every month, his two assistants mailed cards for all sorts of occasions to his list of potential customers.

Was Joe Girard a lead nurturing front runner? Well, back then he certainly was. There was no internet or electronic communication at the time. The goal was simply to keep him top of mind, and the greeting cards did the job.

Similarly, the Michelin Guide was a clever use of educational content to create an emotional connection to get people to know, like and trust the Michelin brand, long before they needed new tires.

Technology has changed the definition of lead nurturing. Click To Tweet

But technology has evolved, and by changing the way people buy, the internet has changed the definition of lead nurturing. Now, people prefer to research their car options and compare prices and reviews online. They only contact the dealership to validate a decision that has pretty much already been made.

Lead nurturing vs. drip marketing

Today’s equivalent of Joe Girard’s process is essentially drip marketing. The term is derived from drip irrigation, a technique in which water is slowly, but consistently dripped onto the soil to nurture crops, gardens or plants. Similarly, drip campaigns require that you send a series of communications (email, direct mail or a combination of both), carefully spaced over time.

Drip campaigns, and especially drip emails, are quite effective when your goal is simply to keep top of mind, or when you have limited information about your prospect. But lead nurturing is so much more than just sending drip emails.

The primary difference between the two resides in your understanding of the buying journey. In the case of drip emails, you are essentially sending the same sequence of one-size-fits-all emails to every prospect. You communicate out of context. Whereas with lead nurturing, you interpret the prospect’s behaviour to add value to each interaction.

Lead nurturing uses email sequences as well, but they are triggered by the lead’s overall behaviour (visit to websites, responses to email, interactions on social media, etc.) and not just the person’s response to the first email you sent.

Key takeaways

Content marketing, lead nurturing and drip marketing are different, but they clearly build on each other. You’ll need great content to nurture leads effectively, and one of your early lead nurturing tactics may be drip emails.

However, if you’re serious about lead nurturing, modern technology, and more specifically marketing automation, is a very effective way to grow your sales.

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