7 Lead Nurturing Secrets To Turn Strangers Into Customers


B2B research consistently shows that 30-50% of leads are not ready to buy when they first inquire about your business, but about three quarters of these leads will become sales ready within 12 to 18 months.

Sales Leads Not Ready to Buy

So how do they progress from stranger to lead to sale? Lead nurturing.

Lead nurturing is the process of building a relationship with prospective buyers (“leads”) who are not ready to buy yet. The goal is to nurture leads to a sale by using your company’s expertise to educate and provide value from the first point of contact through every step of the customer journey.

There are a ton of benefits to lead nurturing, including:

  • Increasing awareness for your brand or product through regular customer touchpoints
  • Generating more qualified leads, while saving time for the sales team in the process
  • Growing your revenue by re-activating cold leads and creating new sales situations
  • Earning repeat customers by continually drawing them back (who then tell their friends)
  • Establishing your credibility as a domain expert and educating people who want to learn more but are not yet ready to buy

We’ve previously covered 10 different types of lead nurturing strategies and their KPIs. In this post, we will dive into the lifecycle nurture journey, which we informally call “The Nurture Machine.”

The Nurture Machine

You’ll learn what The Nurture Machine is, why it’s important for your business, and seven secrets for turning strangers into customers through lead nurturing. Let’s get started.

1. Know thy customer journey

The first step to building the The Nurture Machine is to map out your customer’s journey. The customer journey is the chronological set of learnings, decisions, and touch points that a person experiences as they first get to know your company, then hopefully become a customer, and eventually become a repeat buyer and referrer. Whether you’re a tech startup with a freemium model, an ecommerce site selling shoes or wine, or a consulting firm selling services, your customer is on a journey that you need to guide.

Stages of the Customer Journey

Each stage of the journey requires different content. Early on in the journey, the most effective content builds your company narrative by linking to industry trends, community or user reviews, shareable facts, and your company’s About page.

Later in the journey comes more product focused content and targeted calls-to-action like invitations to set up a demo or sign up for a trial.

For your nurture machine, use your cream of the crop content to build trust and establish yourself as a thought leader in the mind of your audience.

Pro Tip: If you’ve already been blogging, take a look at your Google Analytics to analyze what content is driving traffic. Repurpose this top-performing content in future nurture campaigns and follow these 5 tips to double your open rates.

2. Grow your email list with irresistible incentives

The Nurture Machine begins with a permission-based (“opt-in”) email list, and can include anyone who gave you their email address by downloading a whitepaper, attending a webinar, filling out a contact form, or signing up for your newsletter.

How do you start building this email list to nurture? Best practice is to create a “lead magnet” that draws people in to give you their email address in exchange for something incredibly valuable. Here are a few examples:

  • A marketing consultant giving away a free 45-minute strategy session
  • A wine business giving away a free bottle of wine (I’d sign up for that!)
  • A tech company giving away a free t-shirt to anyone who signs up for a free trial (New Relic has shipped over 75,000 t-shirts with this swag marketing strategy)
  • A tech company or brand that captures leads by offering a free weekly or monthly newsletter. Here’s an example from Duct Tape Marketing:

Duct Tape Marketing

Because people do business with companies they know, like and trust, crafting an email offer readers can’t refuse is a step towards building trust with your audience and the beginning of educating them towards a sale.

3. Quickly find the gold nuggets in your stagnant marketing list

Whether you know it or not, your email list is chock full of leads who are ready to get back in touch with you and be nurtured towards a sale.

Some of these people on your lists might have connected with you recently, but how many of those leads are sitting in your CRM, are on stale call-down sheets, or are scattered business cards from tradeshows attended months ago? You have invested time, money and resources gathering those contacts, and it’d be a waste to let them fall through the cracks.

The good news is that there is a fast and easy way to find low-hanging fruit (sales leads) while also testing the quality of your marketing database: The 9-Word Email.

People go gangbusters for this email – which I learned from Dean Jackson from Ilovemarketing.com – and can quickly flood your inbox with new clients at absolutely zero cost.

It’s this simple:

Subject: –first name–

 “Are you still looking at getting [insert your service/product]?”

Here are a few examples:

  • “Are you still looking at getting your kitchen renovated?”
  • “Are you still looking at improving your home security?”
  • “Are you still looking at buying a new patio?”
  • “Are you still looking at getting your house painted?”

The reason it works is it’s short, personal, and expects a reply. After sending this email to her stagnant list, one woman got 750 responses after emailing 1200 people (a 62.5% response rate!). 

Pro Tip: Use this approach for abandoned shopping carts. Here is an example of Amazon using this same strategy to bring a potential customer back to the abandoned cart.

The 9-Word Email In Action

4. Create content that’ll leave people clamoring for more

Now that you have defined your customer’s journey, have a growing email list, and found the low hanging fruit, it is time to proactively position yourself as a thought leader in your field with helpful and educational content.

A solid principle in how to approach your content is to out-teach your competition. While everyone else is out selling (explicitly or implicitly), focus your attention on providing value by sharing industry insights, best practices, community reviews, and customer case studies. All of this content can be repurposed to educate your audience through emails, whitepapers, website content, webinars, blog posts, and more.

By building your nurture machine with all of this content, you will drive more leads, position yourself as an expert in your field, and grow conversions in your funnel. The hard work pays off. When customers are ready to buy, they will come knocking on your door.

Pro Tip: Get started quickly and easily by auditing your website, blog, emails, whitepapers, customer stories, to reuse existing content. Create summary emails (like ours below) that hook your reader with an image and a few lines of text, then link them back to the source content (don’t forget to add UTMs to your links, so you can attribute leads to emails). Don’t have a blog or content? Consider services like Scripted, where you can outsource blog writing on a per-post basis.

Nurture Email Example

5. Build your lead nurturing machine

After reactivating cold leads with the 9-word email and creating helpful and educational content for your target audiences, it’s time to start building out the timed communication of your nurture machine.

Start simple by focusing on these quick wins:

  • Stimulate the Procrastinators who’ve been putting off buying by showing value
  • Boost the confidence of the Nervous Nellies who abandoned their purchase
  • Remind the Forgetfuls who are too rushed or forgot about your business

Approach the above characters with the helpful and educational content you’ve created. The best frequency to send depends on your sales cycle, but a simple starting point is to send 3-5 emails, 10 days apart with your top-performing content. Sending at this frequency will keep your unsubscribe rates under one percent, and kickstart your nurturing machine.

Marketing Automation Stats

The more advanced approach is to adjust the timing of your sends based on a reader’s stage in the buying cycle (see the image below). To show you what the nurture machine looks like, here’s a blueprint of the actual system we use at Autopilot:

Nurture Stages

We send content for each stage of the funnel – “Top of Funnel” Early Stage, “Accelerator” Mid Stage, and “Action Flow” Late Stage. It’s a mix of educational emails and call-to-actions to nurture leads to a sale based on timing and behavior.

Let’s break down best practices for each stage that you can apply to your nurture machine:
Early Stage “Top of Funnel” Tips
Grab the attention of your early-stage reader (buyer) by speaking to their needs and interests with best practices, industry trends, consumer review content, and non-branded content. Start by spacing top of funnel emails ten days apart, with the goal of re-engaging the colder, early-stage contacts. Once they click on an email, move them into the Accelerator track. 

Mid Stage “Accelerator” Tips

The accelerator track is designed to provide more in depth information related to the early-stage content that your mid-stage reader (buyer) has previously shown interest in. These emails are typically spaced two to three days apart. Calls to action include links to customer stories, consumer reviews, videos, partner or expert insights into your product space, or other non-promotional content. If they click on these emails, move them into the “action flow.”

Late Stage “Action Flow” Tips

Action flows are designed to convert the late-stage reader (buyer) into an active buying cycle. They are usually spaced two to three days apart and consist of promotional offers to make a purchase, sign up for a demo, or take your product for a trial run. These emails can be either HTML templates or a personal text-based email from a salesperson.

Once your nurture machine is set up and published, you can sit back, relax, and measure your key performance indicators (KPIs).

6. Know and grow your business KPIs

Now that you’ve built out your lead nurturing machine, it’s time to nail down what’s working and what’s not. Here are the four types of key performance indicators (KPIs) to track:

  • Content Engagement
    • Click rates of nurtured leads
    • Open rates of early stage/late stage leads
    • Unsubscribe rates of nurtured leads
  • Awareness and brand development
    • Increases in direct and organic sources of website traffic
    • Social media engagements
    • Leads sourced by word of mouth
  • Lead Generation
    • Monthly qualified leads created from nurture
    • Lead quality (e.g. lead conversion rates to opportunities/wins)
    • % of nurtured leads that reactivate within 12 months
    • Sales pipeline generated
  • Conversion & revenue goals
    • New sales generated from nurtured leads
    • Sales velocity (cycle time)
    • Average sales price (ASP) of nurtured vs. non-nurtured leads
    • Average customer lifetime value of nurtured vs. non-nurtured customers

Here are content engagement results from the Autopilot nurture program, for a roughly four week period in March-April 2015:

Lead Nurture Results

In the first month of going live, we generated 7% of our leads from nurturing existing leads (with the 93% coming from new organic and paid sources). Even though we’ve had success with our nurture machine, we’re always improving, growing, and reminding ourselves it’s about the journey.

Pro Tip: Build your tracking funnel using Autopilot + Segment + Mixpanel. In Autopilot, attribute leads to your nurturing programs by tagging your email URLs with UTMs that can be used to create a “Leads from Nurture” Smart Segment. Then, track each reactivated lead “event” via Segment to see them in real-time in MixPanel (or the QuixPanel mobile app), which is also integrated with Segment. Lastly, celebrate each reactivation with your team with an internal notification. Here’s what that journey looks like:

Nurture Notification Journey

7. Focus on the journey, not the destination

Building out your nurturing machine is just the beginning. Start simple by testing, optimizing, and experimenting to grease the cogs of the machine for years to come. As you create new content and identify hot segments of your database that drive leads and revenue, you will naturally evolve your system (if you’d like to share your learnings, contact Autopilot and we’ll feature your story).

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Test to see which email subject lines are performing the best. Run an A/B split test between two emails and see which gets better open and click rates.
  • Test the body copy of the email. Write different text in the body content of your nurture emails and rotate the winner every couple of weeks with another challenger.
  • Set up form triggers to capture more leads. To add more people into your nurture flows, set up form triggers that allow anyone who matches specific criteria to enter your nurture journeys. Once that nurturing journey is completed and the reader has not taken any action, you can add them to a list that triggers another nurture journey where you can send emails, texts, and direct mail to motivate them to action.

Pro Tip: Start simple and see what drives the highest open and click rates.

The Nurture Machine

To recap, here are the 7 secrets to building your nurturing machine:

1. Know thy customer journey
2. Grow your email list with irresistible incentives
3. Find the gold treasure in your stagnant email list
4. Create content that’ll leave people clamoring for more
5. Build your lead nurturing machine
6. Know and grow your business KPIs
7. Focus on the journey, not the destination

You are now ready to nurture contacts from stranger to lead to customer to promoter, by educating and providing value through every stage of the customer journey. We’re excited to see your results as you build The Nurture Machine for yourself.

How are you nurturing leads to sales in your business? Are there any tips and strategies you’d add to this list? Let us know in the comments.

Sander Zaydman is the Director of Marketing at Autopilot. You can ask him all of your burning lead nurturing questions on Twitter.

  • i have invented a training device,for the olympic sport of judo,a niche market,how can you help ?

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  • Thanks for the great tutorial. 7% is an incredible amount of leads. Is that an industry average? What percentage of those converted to sales?

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  • This is a very helpful read, thank you, Sander! I love the
    difference you make between the needs of leads in different stages of the
    buying process. That’s natural but many companies don’t realize it. And it can
    be very helpful for them as well if they segment their lead nurturing efforts
    in a more targeted way – it’s easier to measure and evaluate, too. My colleague
    at Brand24 wrote a post on how social listening could also benefit lead
    nurturing, a couple of tips that someone might find helpful, so here is the
    article: http://blog.brand24.net/all-you-need-to-know-about-lead-generation-with-social-listening/ Great post, Sander, thanks again!

  • Thanks Sander for sharing the secrets. Nurturing leads to a sale (or turning strangers to customers) takes time. It is not done in a month or
    even half a year. It requires dedication, cooperation and lots of hard
    work within the organization. But, the efforts are worth it.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sander, great article, thanks. What about the right timing/triggers for a sales prospector to call? Unless there’s a very strong reason to call before, always at the end of the lead nurturing cycle? Or multiple check-ins? I do B2B marketing where a sales prospector is required to assess readiness-to-buy before sales/Account Managers start negotiating.

  • Phil Hill

    The old school conventional way of getting leads came with a big price. Now that I have signed up with leadferret.com, I can search and view over million of b2b contacts for an affordable price.

  • greta

    Thank You So Much! I am very excited to use this approach! I believe it is a really good fit for the type of Emails that I plan to send.

    You Guys are Genius in my opinion. I am curious about any other strategies or programs You may have to offer.

    I am truly motivated to get my Email list so that I could get started as soon as possible.


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