Lead Generation Process: Inbound, Outbound & More

Learn how to create and implement a lead generation process for both online (inbound) lead generation as well as outbound sales prospecting.

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A lead generation process is a procedure that outlines the systematic sales and marketing steps necessary to identify and funnel quality leads into your sales process. The standard lead generation process includes four stages that starts with attraction and ends with lead qualification. However, there are also specific lead generation processes for online lead generation (inbound) and outbound sales prospecting.

  • Standard Lead Generation Process: Universal process that outlines actionable lead generation stages to create your own lead-generating process. Read more below.
  • Inbound Lead Generation Process: Online marketing process for attracting inbound leads through organic and paid efforts. Read more below.
  • Outbound Lead Generation Process: Outlines the stages for lead generation via direct outreach and manual sales prospecting. Read more below.

It’s possible to use any of the lead generation processes above, as well as blend them together. The important thing is that the process helps you systematically generate high-value leads. For more information, let’s dive into how the lead generation process works, before outlining each of the three main processes for lead generation and how to implement your own.

How the Lead Generation Process Works

A lead generation process systematizes the lead generation stage of your marketing or sales process by breaking it down into a series of repeatable steps. Both inbound and outbound lead generation processes follow a common and somewhat standard framework. First, identify your ideal customer. Second, attract relevant leads to your business. Finally, engage new leads to assess interest and fit before qualifying engaged leads for further nurturing.

These sequential lead generation stages are then used to outline the sales and marketing activities required to move leads through each step of your chosen process. For this reason, the lead generation process is the foundation of your overall lead generation strategy and core to defining how you generate leads.

Once you’ve identified the stages of your lead generation process and the required activities at each stage, physically map it out using marketing or CRM software. This way, you or your sales or marketing team can use it to actually generate and track leads as they move through your process towards qualification.

After you’ve implemented the stages of your lead generation process, use it to create your lead generation funnel, which represents the lead’s journey through your process, from awareness to conversion. This helps you to track top, middle, and bottom of the funnel leads, as well as tangibly map the lead’s journey and its overall effectiveness.

Standard Lead Generation Process

Whether you’re in the B2B or B2C space, using online or outbound strategies, the process of generating high-quality leads and turning them into opportunities follows a set of four standard steps that include defining a customer persona, attracting leads that fit that persona, engaging with them, and finally, qualifying them for fit. Let’s look at each step in detail.

Define Your Ideal Customer

Before creating any marketing strategy or compiling a list of leads to call, you need to know what your ideal customer looks like so you can find them and tailor your approach to their attributes and interests. Do this by creating your customer profile and buyer persona, which help you better identify leads to target.

  • Create a Customer Profile: Define the demographics, psychographics, and other traits of your intended audience. Think of these as the most relevant data points for sourcing and nurturing leads. For more info, check out our article on making a customer profile.
  • Create a Buyer Persona: Then, put a face and name to this data by creating a buyer persona that tells a common story about your ideal customer that can help you tailor your message. To learn more, read our article on outlining a buyer persona.

Creating a customer profile like this focuses your lead generating efforts on high-quality leads. If you focus on the wrong people, they either may never become leads, become leads but never purchase, or end up purchasing but disliking your product or service.


Additional Reading:

To learn how to define who you're selling to, take a look at our full article on creating a customer profile. In the article, we explain the steps to make the profile (including using the completed profile to then build a buyer persona) and provide a template and examples to use, plus software to help you along.

Attract Leads to Your Business

Now that you know how to spot an ideal customer in a crowd, it’s time to find these likely buyers, attract them to your business, and collect their contact information. You can accomplish this step in many ways, including both inbound and outbound strategies, or a combination of the two. The goal of these methods is to get in front of high-quality potential leads and show them how your solution can solve a problem or satisfy their specific need.

  • Online Lead Generation (Inbound): With online, or inbound, methods, you try to attract leads to your website or business with content assets you’ve created. Within these assets, you offer lead magnets — gated resources that require contact information in order to access the resource. If you’d like to jump directly to the online lead generation process, you can do so here.
  • Sales Prospecting (Outbound): With sales prospecting, or outbound lead generation, you find leads’ contact information through manual research. You then actively reach out to potential leads to get them interested in your product or service. If you’d like to jump directly to the outbound lead generation process, you can do so here.

Once you have the contact information of your ideal lead, the next step is to engage with those leads for initial lead nurturing and qualification.

Engage Leads to Assess Fit

Now that you have the lead’s contact information and/or have made initial contact with them, your next goal is to engage with these leads to see if they are a good fit for your product or service. You want to get the lead to express interest, thereby opting into the sales conversation and opening up the possibility for further discussion around your product or service. Meanwhile, uninterested leads are discarded from the funnel.

Common strategies to engage with leads include:

  • Email Marketing: Send out educational or promotional content to leads who have joined your mailing lists that include click triggers tracking their engagement.
  • Demo Scheduling: Offer a free demo of your product or service to pique your lead’s interest and get them more familiar with what a purchase would look like.

Usually, sellers assess likelihood to purchase by asking the lead to take some action, such as scheduling a free demo. On a cold call, it could go like this: “It sounds like this product can solve {Pain Point}. Are you open to a meeting to go more in-depth on how we can help?” Or a marketer might place an inbound lead on an email list where they receive product-focused content, like a video of the product. How they interact with the content reveals their fitness.

Qualify Leads for Nurturing

Before investing large amounts of time and money into nurturing your lead, make sure they are a good fit for the solution. Through questioning or analysis, ensure they look similar to the customer persona you created in step one. Also, see if their behavior (webpage visits, email replies, content read) is in line with that of common buyers. If the lead seems likely to buy, qualify them into the next stage of the sales process, typically prospect nurturing.

The three standard lead qualification stages are:

  • Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL): Leads that have been qualified by the marketing team from their online behavior or demographics and are marked as a good lead for sales.
  • Sales Accepted Lead (SAL): Leads that have been passed to the sales team, who qualifies them further by asking about their needs in a live meeting or online assessment.
  • Sales Qualified Lead (SQL): Leads that have undergone a discovery call with a more experienced seller, who has decided they can be considered a prospect for nurturing.

To move leads into these qualified stages, you can follow a defined lead qualification process that uses quantitative lead scoring as well as sales emails and discovery calls to assess fit. For more information, check out our article on lead qualification. Otherwise, continue reading for the lead generation processes specific inbound or outbound lead generation.

Inbound Lead Generation Process

Inbound or online lead generation is the marketing process of attracting inbound leads by making them aware of your value offering using content marketing strategies to increase their interest or desire in taking an action that signals engagement. Then, qualify the lead as a marketing qualified lead (MQL) using quantitative methods before passing the lead to the sales team for further qualification and nurturing.

Online lead generation process

Share & Promote Free Content

The first stage of the online lead generation process is making your lead aware of your brand, business, or value proposition. Do this through an organic or paid content marketing strategy leveraging organic social media, paid advertising, and more.

The specific ways you can increase awareness amongst your ideal customers include:

  • Organic SEO: Write comprehensive and SEO-friendly blog posts on topics relevant to your audience. Then, when your intended customer searches for a related term, your article might pop up in the Google results. Check out our guide on SEO lead generation for more.
  • PPC Advertising: Pay for Google Ads in order to show up in the top results for relevant keywords. Then, send traffic to a blog article or landing page to engage the lead. Check out our PPC lead generation guide for more.
  • Social Media: Use organic and paid social media strategies to promote blogs and offers to your audience across social media platforms. Check out our social media lead generation ultimate guide to learn more.

The goal here is to get on the radar of your ideal customer before working on increasing their interest in your product or service. Do this by offering free and valuable content relevant to them through multiple channels. Once they begin to know you, engage with them further to increase interest and trust.

Offer a Lead Magnet

The goal of the previous stage is to consistently show ideal leads your brand messaging over time and across multiple platforms. As these leads see you more and more and become comfortable with your content, they’ll begin to trust your brand and become more interested in your value offering. As interest and trust grow, they’ll be more likely to take an action, which is when you drive interested users to a free lead magnet in return for their contact details.

Three of the most common lead magnets are:

  • Industry-Relevant Studies: A piece of informative and downloadable content formed from data-backed research.
  • Checklists or Cheat Sheets: Shareable content that lists the steps or process needed to achieve an overarching goal.
  • Industry-Specific Email Newsletters: Niche and topic-centric content that's shared to an interested email list.

Build trust by focusing on adding value to your audience through repetition. Create high-value content that feels professional and helps your ideal customer, and share it consistently across your intended platforms on a defined schedule. Only then will you have created enough desire to ask for something valuable in return (like their contact information).

Convert Interested Leads

Interested leads convert by taking an online action and providing their contact information. These actions signify engagement on the lead’s behalf and can signal high interest that results in a quality prospect worth nurturing.

Actions interested leads can take to be considered converted are:

  • Signing Up for a Free Trial: Run a promotion that includes a free trial with your product or service that encourages leads to act quickly.
  • Watching a Video: Present entertaining short-form video content as an alternative to lengthy or uninteresting information written content on your website or social media.
  • Downloading Promotional Content: Offer valuable content behind a lead capture form that leads might be interested in having themselves or sharing with their network. 

These lead magnets can be offered on a standalone sales page or embedded within content like a blog post. In this way, you’re generating online traffic during the initial stage with your content marketing strategy, and then encouraging interested users in taking an action during this stage with your enticing offer.

Qualify Marketing Leads

Because the online process is largely a marketing function, once you’ve collected lead contact information, the final step is often to qualify them as a marketing qualified lead before passing them to the sales team for sales lead qualification and lead nurturing. To do so, score and rank the leads against a quantitative benchmark known as lead scoring. Leads that meet a minimum scoring threshold are considered MQLs.

The most common lead scoring factors are:

  • Demographics: Visualize key socioeconomic data points like age, gender, education, and income level.
  • Psychographics: Understand why your ideal buyer makes the decisions they do with their attitude, beliefs, interests, and other mental trials.
  • Online Engagement: Monitor the lead’s behavior online including the email lists they’re subscribed to, what video content they consume, and if they visit your pricing page.

Using a lead scoring model will account for the marketing lead's demographics and the actions they take with your brand or solution. Once a marketing lead is qualified, the sales team qualifies them further into a sales accepted lead and then a sales qualified lead through a needs assessment and a discovery call.


Additional Reading:

If you'd like information on how to use this inbound lead generation process, check out our detailed guide on online lead generation. There, you'll find steps and strategies to generate quality inbound leads.

Outbound Lead Generation Process

The outbound lead generation or sales prospecting process consists of finding lead contact information and manually reaching out to them through various means, including cold calling, emailing, and social selling. These outreach methods involve direct communication with the lead, making it a great relationship-building approach for businesses selling higher-priced solutions with longer sales cycles.

Compile a List of Leads

Before you reach out, you need a list of names of people who might be interested in your offer. You also need their contact information. You can do this by being active on social media platforms relevant to your niche, by googling your ideal customers, by looking for past opportunities in your CRM, or — the most effective way — by using a good lead generation tool.

The best lead generation tools for sourcing leads are:

  • LinkedIn Sales Navigator: A LinkedIn upgrade that uses filtering to help find people on LinkedIn who fit your customer persona and reach out to them through LinkedIn’s InMail messaging, even if you aren’t connected with them.
  • Hunter.io: An email lookup tool that helps you find people’s business email addresses. You simply type in a company domain name and it gives you the email addresses of people who work there.
  • Lusha: A B2B database provider that retrieves lead contact information including email addresses and phone numbers with access to their 50 million direct dial features.

It’s also possible that you receive a list of marketing qualified leads directly from your marketing team. If so, you can skip this process and go directly to the research phase.

Research Each Lead

You probably learned a little bit about your leads while you were sourcing them. But it’s important to get a full picture of their personality and current circumstances so you can personalize your messaging. If you find something, jot it down. It might prove crucial in a cold call or email when you have only seconds to grab their attention and convince them you're going to provide value.

Here are some effective research methods and things to look out for: 

  • Study Their Social Media Accounts: See if you can glean interests by checking who they follow or engage with, including any groups or memberships.
  • Check for Past Interactions with Your Company: Look through your CRM to see if they ever spoke with someone from your company or made past purchases.
  • Look in the News: Type their name or company name in the news section of Google to see if they had any newsworthy events that might suggest a need for your solution.
  • Examine Their Company Page: If you sell to business professionals, find them on the team page of the company website. Often there’s a succinct description of their professional experience, past projects, and current responsibilities.

When you mention something about the lead in the introduction of your cold outreach, they lower their stranger danger defenses and become more open to conversation.

Conduct Direct Outreach

Now that you have a list of names, the contact information, and some notes from your research, you can start working down the list and initiating contact. Your goal is to get these potential leads to express interest in your solution.

Different outreach methods include: 

  • Cold Calling: Call the people on your list. Introduce yourself and quickly jump into the reason for your call. Mention one or two pain points you think they might have. If they do, ask for a meeting. To learn more read our ultimate guide on cold calling.
  • Cold Emailing: Send up to four emails to a lead over the span of a few weeks. Mention benefits and pain points you solve and also share helpful resources. Read our article on sending cold emails that work.
  • Social Selling: Interact with your leads on social platforms by liking, replying to, and commenting on their tweets, LinkedIn posts, or Facebook shares. Also, direct message them introducing your offer. For more, read our guide on social media lead generation.
  • Networking: Attend trade shows, conferences, or other industry events and introduce yourself to potential buyers. Follow up with an email after meeting them. Learn more about these strategies in our ultimate guide on business networking.

A cadence containing two or three of these methods is ideal since you never know which medium your leads prefer for meeting new people and learning about sales offers.

Qualify the Sales Lead

After the lead has responded and expressed interest, you still need to ensure they’re a good fit for your solution, or else you might spend hours talking to a prospect who never intended to buy anything from you. The best way to figure out if they are qualified is by setting up a discovery call with the lead to learn more about their business or personal needs.

Specifically, the BANT lead qualification framework tests leads on these four criteria: 

  • Budget: Assess if they have the means to purchase the solution.
  • Authority: See if they have the decision-making power to execute the deal.
  • Needs: Make sure your product or service can satisfy their specific needs.
  • Timeline: Ensure they want your solution within a timeframe that works for you.

Depending on your business, you might ask questions about other factors, such as the lead’s challenges or business goals. For more information, check out our article on lead qualification. After this discovery call, if the lead is capable of and willing to buy, mark them as a prospect and move them into the next stage of your sales process for more nurturing.


Additional Reading:

If you’re interested in outbound lead generation, read our article on sales prospecting. In it we tell you exactly how to use cold calling, emailing, networking, social selling, referrals, and cold canvassing to spark profitable relationships with your leads.

How to Create Your Own Lead Generation Process

Because the lead generation process tracks the lead journey from awareness to qualification, it’s less about “creating” your own process and more about ensuring the activities you decide to focus on effectively move leads through the broad stages of the inbound or outbound journey. Here are the general steps to ensuring this happens:

  1. Choose Your Process: Decide on an inbound or outbound lead generation process, then define the stages and activities to fit your needs.
  2. Map Your Process: Physically map the stages of your process using marketing automation or CRM software, tailoring the stages as necessary.
  3. Outline Your Lead Generation Funnel: Map the customer journey against your process to help follow leads as they move through the stages as well as measure results.
  4. Implement, Track, and Improve: Take action and begin generating leads, tracking leads through each stage of your process and iterating on the results.

Once you've created your lead generation process, the next thing you'll want to do is read our detailed guide on the lead generation funnel. Here, you'll learn how to map the lead's "buyer journey" from awareness to conversion and better understand the efficacy of your chosen process.

Bottom Line: Lead Generation Process

Online lead generation revolves around building online assets that provide value to ideal customers, attract them to your business, and collect their contact information. Sales prospecting, on the other hand, focuses on using strategic direct outreach to make connections and begin sales conversations with potential leads. Both require you to build trust with your lead in the sales funnel to begin the lead qualifying and lead nurturing phases.

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