Lauren Davis, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Autopilot

Guy Marion, CMO & Head of Business at Autopilot (Editor)

Lesson 4: Lifecycle Lead Nurturing

71% of high-performing marketers leverage marketing automation to nurture leads.

Our lifecycle lead nurturing framework takes a more sophisticated approach. It combines the best practices we’ve learned from a variety of customers and use cases with advanced personalization. Boost your lead nurturing efforts with this proven approach, and you’ll be rewarded with increased pipeline quality and conversion rates.

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

lifecycle lead nurturing
The four essential tracks of a lifecycle lead nurturing journey

How to get started with lead nurturing

As a reminder, lead nurturing is the process of educating leads and building relationships with potential customers throughout the purchasing process.

Buyers typically spend months researching and evaluating solutions before deciding on a vendor. Delivering useful and relevant content to buyers via an automated nurture journey accelerates this journey while driving higher conversion rates and improving your sales efficiency.

In our Introduction to Lead Nurturing lesson, we outline everything you should think through when developing a nurture program—from defining your goals to sourcing and creating relevant content to measuring your results.

In our Start Basic Lead Nurturing lesson, we help you build and publish a basic four-email nurture journey.

Below, you’ll learn about a more sophisticated lead nurturing model that includes advanced personalization techniques.

The main reason lead nurturing is more effective than batch-and-blast emails is because it’s personalized

What makes this approach different?

Publishing a basic nurture journey is a great first step, but the main reason lead nurturing is more effective than batch-and-blast emails is because it’s personalized. Each contact in your database follows a unique path based on who they are, what’s important to them, and the actions they’ve taken. Our lifecycle nurture framework is based on this approach.

This framework differs from the basic lead nurturing journey you learned about in the last lesson in two important ways:

  • It’s a longer journey (90 days) that leads prospects down the funnel by delivering relevant content at each stage of the buyer’s journey
  • It accelerates or decelerates communications based on the contact’s behavior, which signifies their interest in specific topics
lifecycle lead nurturing diagram
Lifecycle lead nurturing follows this basic structure

Beyond that, our lifecycle lead nurturing framework builds on the solid foundation you’ve already built. By adding more tailored and contextual communications, you’ll more effectively lead contacts to the next step in their journey.

How to qualify your leads for nurture

Lifecycle lead nurturing is an ongoing practice, which is why it’s imperative that you set a solid foundation.

The first step is to make sure you’re triggering the right leads and prospects into your nurture journey. To do so, you’ll need to build a separate journey for qualification.

The purpose of your nurture qualification journey is threefold:

  1. Collect contacts from scattered sources using triggers
  2. Qualify or disqualify leads using condition checks
  3. Add qualified contacts to a list, which you’ll use to trigger your nurture journey

Get up and running faster with our “Qualify your leads for nurture” guide, which looks like this:

qualify leads nurture journey guide autopilot
Autopilot's qualify your leads for nurture guide. Click to view hi-res image.

It’s a simple but effective journey that centralizes your lead nurturing qualification steps in one place.

We recommend this approach over building a smart segment or adding contacts directly to your nurture journey for a few reasons:

  • Smaller journeys are easier to manage
  • You can edit the qualification journey as much as you like (without altering your nurture journey)
  • Everyone who goes through your qualification journey is added to a static list, even if their status changes or you update the qualification criteria down the road

You’ll first want to think through all of the sources where your defined audience enters the journey. For example, do they sign up for your blog, register for a webinar, download an eBook, attend an in-person event?

For each source, add a trigger to your qualification journey. (Yes, you can have multiple triggers within one journey.) For example, you might need a list trigger for each event or webinar you host, a smart segment trigger for gated content downloads, and a form submitted trigger for trial signups.

Next, think through everyone you want included or excluded from nurture. Common examples include competitors, sales-ready leads, internal employees, and existing customers.

Finally, at the end of your qualification journey, add every contact who has passed all the condition checks to a static list. You’ll trigger your lifecycle lead nurture journey off of this list.

Now that you’ve qualified contacts for nurture, it’s time to set up your lifecycle lead nurturing journey.

Lifecycle lead nurturing is an ongoing practice, which is why it’s imperative that you set a solid foundation

How to structure your lifecycle nurture journey

As mentioned earlier, lifecycle lead nurturing is about guiding prospects through the funnel. Your goal should be to provide leads with the information they need to make a buying decision.

In this more sophisticated nurture journey, we first identify what stage of the buying process contacts are in. Then we tailor our messaging based on whether they self-identify as early-, mid-, or late-stage buyers.

Lifecycle lead nurturing is about guiding prospects through the funnel

We start by sending all contacts top-of-funnel content. We use email clicks as an indicator of where a contact is in the funnel, which helps determine what content they receive next.

For example, when a contact engages with top-of-funnel content, we assume they’re starting to explore a challenge or need. To help them progress through the buyer’s journey, we then send them middle-of-funnel content, such as webinar invites and customer success stories.

If they fail to engage with that content, they’re decelerated again. We continue to send these leads top-of-funnel content until their engagement again qualifies them for acceleration. This spares the lead from receiving annoying or pushy sales requests, and saves you from losing valuable contacts who’re more likely to unsubscribe.

Translating your content funnel into an Autopilot journey is easy, especially if you choose to leverage our “Nurture leads into paying customers” guide.

Autopilot guide book
Autopilot's guide book, which features our nurture leads into paying customers guide

We’ll cover how to build this in Autopilot later. For now, let’s break down the structure of the journey and discuss best practices for each of the three stages.

Top-of-funnel track

Top-of-funnel lifecycle lead nurturing track
Top-of-funnel lifecycle lead nurturing track. Click to view hi-res image.

We begin with the top-of-funnel track, which is a series of emails spaced about 10 days apart. This is where you’ll leverage the early-stage content you defined in the Introduction to Lead Nurturing lesson.

Contacts that don’t click your emails will continue down this track indefinitely. Only those that click your emails graduate to the next stage: the middle-of-funnel or “accelerator” track.

Keep top-of-funnel content and messages focused on pain points, industry trends, and thought leadership

Remember: These leads are new to your brand and/or your industry, and they’ve shown little engagement thus far.  Keep top-of-funnel content and messages focused on pain points, industry trends, and thought leadership. While this content should align with your brand and be related to your solution, it’s too early to tout your product or service.

Middle-of-funnel track

Middle-of-funnel lifecycle lead nurturing track
Middle-of-funnel lifecycle lead nurturing track. Click to view hi-res image.

When a lead clicks on a link in a top-of-funnel email, they’re advanced to the middle-of-funnel track.

By the time contacts reach this stage, they’ve engaged with your content and are somewhat familiar with your brand and solution. That means you can get a bit more “me” specific.

In your mid-stage accelerator email, include content that’s designed for those in the consideration stage of the buyer’s journey. Webinars, customer success studies, product reviews and testimonials, and other proof points that validate your solution are all examples of this type of content.

In your mid-stage accelerator email, include content that’s designed for those in the consideration stage of the buyer's journey

Messages are sent to engaged prospects in shorter intervals during this stage. To stay top of mind, it’s best to reach out every five to seven days.

If the contact doesn’t engage with the content, it’s an indication that they’re not ready for mid-stage content. These leads are decelerated back to the top-of-funnel track. When a lead does show interest, they’re accelerated to the bottom-of-funnel track, where they’re sent a call to action.

Bottom-of-funnel track

Bottom-of-funnel lifecycle lead nurturing track
Bottom-of-funnel lifecycle lead nurturing track. Click to view hi-res image.

By this point, leads should be familiar with your brand and solution, as they’ve shown a high level of engagement with your content. Now it’s time to make the ask.

One or two days after the contact has engaged with your mid-stage accelerator email, the contact receives a call to action (CTA).

Send a call to action one to two days after the contact has engaged with your mid-stage accelerator email

Start with a “soft” ask, such as sign up for a free trial or attend a group demo, neither of which require dedicated support. Later in the journey, you can get more aggressive. For example, you might send a text-based email to those who haven’t already converted requesting a meeting with sales.

Your CTA should align with your lead nurturing goal, whether that’s signing up for a trial, requesting a demo, or making a purchase.

Contacts who don’t complete the action are sent back to the middle-of-funnel track. Once they engage with another accelerator email, they’re sent another CTA.

top middle bottom funnel email examples
Examples of top-, middle-, and bottom-of-funnel emails

Remember: When you’re deciding what content to include, think through the path an individual will take through this journey: they must first click a top-of-funnel email, then a mid-stage accelerator email, and then complete a call to action. Once they’ve shown interest, keep the topic consistent across all three messages.

How to build your journey in Autopilot

Now it’s time to structure your journey in Autopilot.

nurture leads into paying customers
Our nurture leads into paying customers guide

As mentioned above, our “Nurture leads into paying customers” guide follows this exact layout. It’s a great place to start, especially if you’re new to Autopilot.

1. Set your journey goal with Insights. Before placing any shapes on the canvas, first set a goal for your nurture journey. (Refer back to the goals we outlined in the Introduction to Lead Nurturing lesson.) This will allow you to track progress to goal and easily identify areas to optimize later on.

2. Trigger contacts into your journey. Add the list trigger to the canvas. When configuring the shape, select the list you created at the end of your qualification journey. Since this will be an ongoing journey, don’t forget to allow future leads to be added to the journey.

3. Provide a friendly welcome. Don’t forget to include a simple welcome email that begins to establish a relationship with your audience while helping to set expectations for what to expect. Sending this email from a senior-level team member, such as your CEO or founder, can increase journey engagement.

Sample welcome email from C-level executive
welcome email from executive

4. Add a short delay. They likely just signed up for your event, subscribed to your blog, or downloaded their first piece of content. That’s why it’s important to give them a few days to digest and see value before sending more content. Two to three days is optimal, as it keeps you top of mind.

Pro tip: If you want to limit the days of the week or times of day when people are emailed, use the “Enable time and day window” on the add delay shape.

Limit the days and times people are emailed when configuring your add delay shape
configure add delay shape autopilot

5. Select your first email. Every contact receives your first email, which is why it’s best to start with either a foundational piece of content or one of your top performers.

6. Add another short delay. After the first email send, add another delay to give leads a few days to read your content and react to your message.

7. Use a condition check to direct leads to the proper track. Next, add a condition check to see whether the individual clicked the last email you sent. From there, route contacts to the appropriate track. Accelerate those who’ve clicked to the middle-of-funnel track. Keep those who haven’t progressing through the top-of-funnel track.

8. Rinse and repeat. Add more delays, emails, and condition checks until you’ve achieved the desired length. Our lifecycle lead nurturing journey lasts about 90 days. We review and update it every quarter to keep content fresh and optimize our performance.

9. Add in your email content. If you didn’t craft your emails while structuring your journey, circle back and do this now. It’s often helpful to work through one track at a time, as you get a better feel for what the contact will experience.

Pro tip: Sending data enrichment emails is a great way to capitalize on each interaction. These one-question, multiple-choice survey emails can be answered directly from the individual’s inbox. (Hint: Add UTM parameters to your links to track their responses.) They prompt contacts to answer questions that help you identify sales-ready leads and profile prospects. Common topics include company size, industry, job role, pain point, goal, and topic of interest.

Here is an example of one we use at Autopilot:

Data enrichment email example
data enrichment email example

There’s another example in the guide itself.

10. Communicate across multiple channels. If it makes sense for your company, include text messages, Headsup messages, and even postcards in your nurture journey. (Don’t worry! Autopilot’s native integrations make it a breeze.) In the guide, you’ll find SMS and Headsup messages in addition to emails, revealing how multi-channel marketing can be used to nurture leads.

11. At the end of the journey, add contacts to a list. It’s a great way to segment your database for future communications. Alternatively, you can use it to trigger a follow-up journey.

Keep records of who has been nurtured by adding contacts to a list
list nurtured contacts

12. Finally, eject those you no longer want to nurture. Use the eject from journey action to remove converted contacts and other segments you no longer wish to nurture. We’ll walk through this in detail in the next section.

When and how to eject contacts from the journey

The final step to completing your lifecycle lead nurturing journey is defining the ejection flow. The eject from journey action allows you to use triggers and conditions to immediately disqualify or “eject” contacts from a journey.

You’ll want to eject two types of contacts from this journey:

  • The first is anyone who has completed the goal of the journey (or any subsequent goals). For example, if your goal is free trial signups, you’ll want to eject anyone who signs up for a free trial or purchases your product. Doing so helps you prevent the dreaded “oops” email.
  • You’ll also want to eject is anyone who has unsubscribed. Autopilot will never email anyone who has unsubscribed from all communications. But if you use list-specific unsubscribes, you’ll want to account for this in your ejection journey.
lifecycle lead nurturing ejection flow
Lifecycle lead nurturing ejection flow

Ejection flows live on the canvas of the journey you’d like to eject contacts from.

Don’t worry: They’re short and easy to set up. Simply follow these steps:

  1. Add the appropriate triggers. Common examples include smart segment triggers (journey goal) and form submitted triggers (free trial signups).
  2. Add a condition check. This helps ensure that only contacts belonging to your lifecycle lead nurturing journey are ejected.
  3. Add ejections to a list. Immediately prior to ejecting them from the journey, add these contacts to a list. Doing so helps you keep track of everyone who has been ejected. While this step isn’t necessary, it’s a best practice.
  4. Finally, eject them from the journey! You don’t need to configure this shape. It’s important to note that, once someone passes through the eject from journey action, they are removed from the journey and will not qualify for any subsequent actions. If you want to do anything else, e.g., send an internal notification to your team, you must do it before the eject from journey shape.

After adding your ejection flow, your lifecycle lead nurturing journey is complete. Be sure to review and test all messages before hitting publish.

Wrapping it all up

To recap, follow these steps to build your own lifecycle nurture journey:

  1. Define your goal with Insights
  2. Qualify your leads for nurture
  3. Structure your journey in Autopilot
  4. Select your top-, middle-, and bottom-of-funnel content
  5. Accelerate contacts through the journey based on their engagement
  6. Eject contacts you no longer wish to nurture

Lifecycle lead nurturing uses personalization to effectively nurture leads into sales-ready leads. Think through your buyer’s journey and how you can best guide leads through the stages of your funnel to increase conversions. Most importantly, make sure your nurture journey aligns with and supports your company goals. Track your success and reap the rewards of lifecycle lead nurturing!

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