Turn Strangers into Customers with Lead Nurturing

Today’s buyers are more empowered than ever before. They engage with brands and companies through their own research - online, on review sites, on social media - long before marketing or sales has the opportunity to engage with them directly.

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. If you call these leads up and push them into making a decision right away, you will likely lose them. So how do you move them from a lead to sale? Lead nurturing.


In this flight plan you will learn:

  • What is lead nurturing?
  • The benefits of lead nurturing
  • How to start with the customer journey
  • Strategies to build your lead nurturing journey
  • How to evaluate metrics and results
  • How to improve performance by focusing on the journey, not the destination

What is lead nurturing?

Lead nurturing is the process of building relationships with potential customers automatically throughout their buying journey, in order to improve and accelerate their purchasing experience. Using marketing automation software, the marketer’s objective is deliver valuable content to a prospective buyer (or “lead”) that educates and assists them in their research, then offer the appropriate sales or services assistance when the buyer is ready to engage. “Lead Nurturing” sometimes goes by other names: marketing automation, drip marketing, or lifecycle nurturing.

Let’s say it takes three months for your typical buyer to research a solution, evaluate vendors, then make a decision. Nurturing the buyer consistently throughout this period with insightful and trustworthy content will create a positive, lasting impression with your buyer, while internally saving your sales team time by warming up the lead until they indicate they are ready to engage. Let’s take a look at a B2C example:

A nurture offer for free wine tasting


In the image above, three closely related messages serve as mini nurture journeys or “clusters” within a specific sales cycle. A wine business offers a guide or ebook on red wines in the first message. Since the person engages with the red wine offer, the next piece can be a more in depth podcast or video on red wines. The idea is that the second content piece is closely related to the first. After the person engages with the second content piece, in the case of our wine example, the late stage or action flow will usually be a free wine tasting on red wines or a product offering on the latest red wine collection. We will cover the three stages more in depth later in this flight plan.

If you make sure that each touchpoint is closely related when building your lead nurturing journeys, you'll see your open and click rates increase dramatically. In our own experiments, we’ve seen 10% - 15% open rates for early stage leads (people who are just getting to know us) and upwards of 40% - 50% for interested prospective buyers who’ve engaged with our top-performing content.

Lead nurturing benefits

Statistics show that 79% of marketing leads never convert into sales. While this figure seems high, an important follow on question is: How many more leads can a company convert into customers by nurturing old leads into sales? With today’s empowered inquirer, implementing automated lead nurturing journeys can help provide a seamless buyer experience from first touch to happy customer.

The benefits of lead nurturing are many, including:

  • Increasing awareness for your brand or product through regular customer touchpoints
  • Staying top of mind for people who may not be ready to buy immediately
  • Generating more qualified leads, while saving time for salespeople and accelerating sales cycles
  • 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


Nurturing leads to sales is much more effective when content and touches are a sequence of valuable content that educate and provide value from the first point of contact through every step of the customer journey. Typically, communications provide links to public or gated content, and offer ways to connect on social media or at upcoming events.

The numbers tell the story - lead nurturing is a must to improve the customer journey while growing revenue in the process. But how do you get started?

How to build your lifecycle nurturing journeys

In the following sections, you will learn how to implement nurturing journeys into your own business, including the quick win Four Email Nurture Journey and the sophisticated Nurture Machine.

1. Start by mapping your buyer's journey

Your buyer’s journey is the chronological set of learnings, decisions, and touchpoints that a person experiences as they get to know your company, then 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.

One of the best ways to learn about your leads and database is through your lead nurturing emails. What challenges are they facing? What features or products are they interested in? What is the best times to reach out to them? By presenting different questions or types of content and identifying who responds to what, you can qualify your leads and set yourself up for warmer sales conversations.

The buyers’ journey varies depending on the industry or business model (see below), but the principle of optimizing performance goals across all stages of the journey remain the same.


2. Develop a content strategy

The journey from stranger to sale spans a wide variety of touchpoints, but the key milestones can be visualized with a funnel. According to the Aberdeen Group, it takes, on average, ten marketing-driven “touches” to progress a lead from initial point of contact to a sale. Sellingly suggests 80% of sales are made on the 5th-12th contact.


Because each stage of the funnel requires a greater commitment, the percentage of conversions decreases as leads move closer to buying. Hence the funnel shape. Interestingly enough, a whopping 68% of B2B organizations have not identified their funnel which leads to irrelevant and impersonal marketing.


(Source: DemandGen)

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, include customer proof-points, evaluation assistance tools, or targeted calls-to-action emails like invitations to set up a demo or sign up for a trial. With the framework of the marketing funnel and a higher-level view of the role of content at each stage, it is time to build your own lead nurturing journey.

3. Write or source your content

The most time consuming part of building your lead nurturing journeys is developing the irresistible email content that will attract and re-activate your audience. An easy way to get started is to repurpose what you already have by spending 15 minutes auditing your existing content.

Five types of content that you probably already have

Let’s examine what a 15-minute content audit of an online retailer of fine wines could yield:

  • Blogs - List all published posts, and sort by popularity (shares or views). From specific red wines such as “3 Pinots that Sommeliers Love’’ to “The Perfect Wine and Cheese Pairing for Dinner Tonight,” popular blog content is one of the best source of top of funnel content for your lead nurturing program.
  • Website - Your website can be a treasure chest of valuable content, filled with information about products and pricing, wine regions and background information, customer stories, and other middle-of-funnel content.
  • Emails - Review past announcement, newsletter, or promotional emails that you have sent to your customer list. Whether it was a “Big Pinot Noir sale for springtime” email or a culture communication sharing your company’s trip to wine country that included stellar landscape images, this email content can be repurposed to reignite stagnant leads.
  • Social channels - Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are loaded with conversations, tweets, and replies that are prime for being repurposed in lead nurturing emails or SMS. Pay attention to tweets that you can expand upon. “What are you having for dinner tonight? Try filet mignon with a chardonnay. You won’t regret it.” This 140 character tweet can be repurposed into an in-depth email on 5 best pairings with chardonnay.
  • Videos - YouTube has now over 1 billion users. 300 hours of footage per minute is being uploaded to YouTube. Video does not have to be complex or time consuming. In fact, grabbing a quick interview with a winery owner on your iPhone can be just as effective as a professionally shot video with a DSLR camera.

Once you have taken stock of your existing content and prioritized which emails you want to send first, your next step is designing and formatting emails that grab attention fast.

4. Create your emails

Create summary emails that hook your reader with a compelling image and a few lines of punchy text, and link them to the source content (don’t forget to add UTMs to your links, so you can attribute leads to emails).

Use a simple, one-column, on-brand HTML template for your lead nurturing emails. Reserve plain-text emails for more personalized communications like invitations for feedback or to invite users to a custom demo after they engage with your content.

Below is an HTML email example that you can use for your own lead nurturing emails:


The goal here is to grab your reader’s attention with a catchy, informative statement that links to a popular and engaging blog post. By educating them with valuable content, you establish your company as a trusted resource, rather than just another company trying to sell your stuff online.

And this is the secret to great lead nurturing: it’s not about self-promoting - it’s about delivering value and unique insights, which allows you to turn the tables and draw your contacts back for more.

The most effective nurture emails are short and include links to your most popular content, including blog posts, eBooks, videos, website pages, or future content you create. Solid options for the personalized outreach email sent after a reader clicks-through are a “request a demo” invite, a promotional offer, or a call-to-action to take your product for a trial run.

5. Create your lead nurturing journey

Now that you have great content in place, the next step is to structure your lead nurturing journey. As mentioned earlier, lead nurturing is a system that allows you to send a closely related series of automated emails, SMS or direct mail to an early stage lead in order to educate them before handing them over to your sales team. Key considerations include:

  • Frequency of communications
  • Identification of sales-ready leads (basic vs. advanced accelerators)

Timing your nurturing emails

The best frequency to send depends on the length of your sales cycle, but a simple starting point is to send a series of three to five emails, spaced 10 days apart, using your top-performing content. Once you’ve seen results from running your contacts through this basic nurture journey (see below), then iterate from there.  What follows is two nurture journey templates you can modify or use as-is, along with a process and pro tips for building your own nurturing journeys.

Start with the basic 4-email sequence

Imagine there are 1,000 people in your marketing database who haven’t spent a dime on your product or service, but have given you access to their contact details. How do you nudge these leads towards becoming sales ready? One way is to publish best practices and valuable insights on your company blog, as described above, and nurture them with this content.


The journey above is comprised of four lead nurturing emails (yellow squares, in Autopilot), sent with a 10 day wait step between each communication. These emails should represent nurture content that will be interesting and valuable to your reader, and who you should assume is not well-educated on your product or service.

If a contact shows interest in your messaging by clicking a link within your email, then accelerate them into a follow up “call-to-action” email. This is a personalized outreach email that offers a specific follow-up step, such as an offer to consult an expert, schedule a demo, or sign up for a trial. The net result is that your contact has been educated on a series of interesting posts and learnings, and then voluntarily requested a direct follow up step. This is a “reactivated lead,” and if implemented at scale across thousands of contacts, is a akin to fishing with 1,000 lines simultaneously.

Of course, the limitation to this basic nurturing journey is that a user only needs to click a single email to be sent a call-to-action. This might result in lower click-throughs, or worse yet, higher unsubscribe rates. To get more nuanced in your approach, consider adopting a third tier in your accelerator structure, which adds another qualification step prior to engaging directly.

Advanced lifecycle nurture machine

The more advanced nurturing approach is to adjust the timing of your sends based on a reader’s stage in the buying cycle. Below is a schematic of the actual nurture journey that we use at Autopilot, affectionately called "The Nurture Machine." Try it yourself in this pre-built Guide.


In this more sophisticated nurture machine journey, we identify contacts at three tiers in the buying cycle, and tailor messaging at each based on whether the contact self-identifies as being in early, mid, or late stages of buying.  Let’s break down best practices for each.

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.

Here is an example of what you would send in the early stage:


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 by clicking on your emails. These emails are more frequent, 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” track. Here is an example of an Accelerator:


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.

Here is an example of a call-to-action email from a sales person relating back to the previous two stages and inviting the prospect to a free wine tasting:


Pro tip for businesses with a free trial: Modify your secondary call to action to “Login” instead of “Sign Up” to leads who already have a live account. You can then measure how many have opened and clicked on that specific login link. Here is an example of how the secondary call-to-action sends them back into the product instead of the signup page.



What happens if the user does not engage your content once they have been moved into an accelerator or call-to-action? In these cases, we assume the reader is less qualified and we decelerate them back “up” to an earlier-stage nurturing track. This in turn spares your reader from annoying or pushy sales request emails, and saves you from losing valuable contacts who are more likely to unsubscribe.

Congratulations! If you have read this far, then you now know how to design, populate, and launch your nurturing programs. Now comes time for the fun part- setting your system on Autopilot, and measuring your results to see how you can improve.

6. Measuring your results: essential lead nurturing KPIs

It’s time to nail down what’s working and what’s not. In this section, we cover key performance indicators (KPIs) that are used to assess the performance of the four key objectives of using lead nurturing to attract, capture and reactivate leads, and acquire more customers.

Here is a diagram illustrating all the metrics to measure in the lead nurturing process:


1. Attracting new users and traffic

We recommend tracking three key metrics to gauge your growth in attracting website traffic:

  • Monthly unique visitors - use Google Analytics to track monthly unique visitors broken down by new vs. returning, and by specific “acquisition” (marketing) channels
  • Social content shares - these include comments, retweets, replies, and shares, indicating the freshness of your content, and what is resonating with your audience. You can use that insight to drive even more traffic by utilizing “The Digital Marketing Journey.”
  • Inbound links - the quality and quantity of other website (links) pointing to your website not only drive direct traffic, but also are a measure of your authority in the subject matter, which in turn increases your search rankings on Google. Use spyfu or moz.com to do audit and monitor your inbound link performance over time.

2. Capturing leads from website visitors

KPIs that indicate your success in capturing leads are:

  • Monthly Leads - Measure the number of net monthly leads driven by your lead nurturing using 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. This in turn can be outputted into reporting apps so you can have a dashboard view of your performance. One is to update a field value, sync to Salesforce CRM, and track Number of leads from Nurturing. Another is to track each reactivated lead “event” via Segment, then display these events in real time in Mixpanel (or the QuixPanel mobile app). Celebrate each reactivated lead with your team using an internal notification.


  • Form completions - In our wine example, this can be the number of times a visitor downloads a free guide, signs up for a podcast, or attends a free wine tasting.
  • Lead Mix - In addition to the number of monthly completions, track the sources of your leads - tradeshows, lists, eBook downloads, trial signups. This is useful to provide a measure of what percentage of your demand generation efforts are generating early vs. late stage leads.

3. Reactivating old or nurtured leads

KPIs that indicate your success in reactivating nurtured leads are:

  • % of leads from nurture - Aim to generate 10% of your net monthly leads by reactivating your nurture database. To track this, use the UTM method described above to identify leads that engaged a nurture email prior to self-identifying as ready-to-engage, and divide that number by the total number of leads for the month.
  • Content engagement - Track and respond to your user’s engagement with you email nurturing via click rates, open rates, and unsubscribe rates. If you are using a multi-tier structure, like the Nurture Machine outlined above, then break down results by early, mid, and late stages.

Insider Insight: Here are results from the Autopilot nurture program, for the three month period of April to June 2015:


4. Acquiring new customers by converting your leads

KPIs that indicate your success in converting leads to customers are:

  • Conversion rate - Know and grow your lead to customer win rate. To calculate the percentage, divide the total number of leads by the total number of paying customers. Industry benchmarks vary dramatically between business models (B2B, B2C, Enterprise, Freemium, etc.).
  • Revenue generated - Measure the revenue impact of your nurturing journeys by identifying new customer purchases as “nurture influenced.” One way to do this, is to use a Smart Segment in Autopilot to track revenue generated by new purchasers who also were members of your nurture journey.


  • Sales velocity - Compare the time it takes to convert a lead into a customer who has been through a nurture track vs. net new leads who were not nurtured. Contacts who have been educated by nurturing content tend to engage sales at a later stage in their buying project, and therefore tend to have shorter sales cycles.
  • Average sales price - Track the average sales price for new deals across sales channels, customer segments, or product categories. Assess the payback period and ROI of your nurturing (and marketing) programs, to allocate sales and marketing resources to the higher-paying segments

Insider Insight: In the first three months of going live, Autopilot generated close to 9% of our leads by reactivating existing leads through lead nurturing (with the 91% coming from new organic and paid sources).

7. Enjoy the journey: test, optimize and improve

Building out your nurturing machine is just the beginning - as we say, focus on the journey, not the destination. As you create new content and identify valuable contact segments that drive leads and revenue, you will naturally evolve your system.

Here are five areas that you can test to improve the performance of your lead nurturing:

  1. Email subject lines. Run an A/B split test between two emails and see which gets better open and click rates.
  1. Email designs and messaging. Write different text in the body content of your nurture emails, or completely redesign your email, then test both emails in parallel for at least a month to find the winner. Consider interspersing personalized text-formatted emails amongst HTML-formatted, branded templates (or vice versa).
  1. Design and placement of lead capture forms. To add more people into your nurture flows, set up form triggers that allow anyone who match 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.
  1. Email timing and frequency. The optimal cadence for delivering nurture emails varies based on your sales cycle and audience preferences. We have seen companies doing successful nurturing using daily email sends (although we don’t recommend this), and others who nurture no more often than once per quarter. Remember that staying in touch with contacts at least every 2-4 weeks generates more leads than doing so less frequently, so we suggest starting off with a 10 day frequency. Space your accelerator emails two to three days apart. If your unsubscribe rates start to creep above 0.5%, consider reducing the number of emails you are sending, or using better, more popular content.
  1. Multi-channel nurturing. Audiences will respond to your messaging differently in different contexts. Trying incorporating non-email channels, like text messages or postcards, into your lead nurturing program. Non-office workers, or people who communicate primarily via their iOS or Android devices will appreciate content that is designed and optimized for their phone.
  1. Segment-specific messaging. MarketingSherpa found that segmented emails personalized to the needs of specific verticals or use cases get 50% more clicks. In this section, we will cover four segmentation strategies.
  • Company segment - Messaging to the unique needs faced by different company sizes is a great way to develop your credibility while boosting engagement rates. For example, small businesses and enterprises have different needs regarding security, scalability,  feature breadth, service level agreements, pricing terms and flexibility, access to services and consulting, and customer support tiers.
  • Channel - As you start building out your nurturing machine, you may to identity and segment audiences who will respond favorably to alternative channels. For example, a trucking or logistics company that communicates with networks via mobile text messages will benefit from sending text-based notifications and alerts,.
  • Geographic and/or language - Try segmenting your nurturing by city, state, or region. For example, if you are a software company operating in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, segmenting and localizing your emails in different languages, and featuring local events, customer stories, and opportunities can have dramatic effects on your performance.
  • High value clients - If you are wine or consulting business, you likely have high-value, high-spending VIP clients. Invitations to exclusive events, special offers, or early-access products allow you to create long-term loyalty with your brand.

Wrapping it all up

People do business with companies they like and trust. Launching the lead nurturing journeys outlined in this flight plan, whether they are the basic four email nurture, or your own lifecycle nurture machine, will grow your brand’s awareness, excite your contacts, and stimulate leads and conversions that add to your company’s bottom line.

To summarize the elements in this flight plan, grow sales automatically with lead nurturing by:

  1. Researching and mapping your customer’s journey
  2. Developing a content strategy
  3. Gathering and writing email content
  4. Building and launching your nurturing journeys
  5. Measuring your results
  6. Testing, optimizing, and improving

Lead nurturing takes time to plan, launch, and improve- but once you launch your journeys, the impacts on your business will be immediately visible.

In the words of Seth Godin, “Our job is to connect to people, to interact with them in a way that leaves them better than we found them, more able to get where they’d like to go.”

We’re excited to see your results as you build lead nurturing journeys, and grow your business by turning strangers into leads into customers.

What’s next? It’s time to implement your nurturing journeys with guides. Check them out →

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