It used to be so simple. Back in the day, when the print dinosaurs still roamed the b-to-b world, all publishers had to do to keep customers happy in the sales lead department was to include a dinky little ‘reader services’ card in the back of their magazine allowing subscribers to mail off for more information from the advertisers.

But then the Internet happened along. For a blessed moment advertisers were happy to do the eponymous thing and simply advertise. But, unfortunately for all the print people who’d simply bolted Web sites made of cardboard and duct tape onto their brands, it didn’t last.

Soon those same customers were demanding actual information about the people who were visiting the Web sites in the form of sales leads. The horror!

I had the good fortune to be running a pure Web publishing operation (Light Reading) at the time, so this trend was actually good for us. We had nothing to lose (and, much more importantly, nothing to hide) by quickly rolling out lead generation programs on our site. Webinars in particular were the making of Light Reading; a combo of branding, education and hundreds of leads all wrapped in a single turn-key package that we ran for the client. By the time I sold Light Reading we were minting more than  $600,000 a month from Webinars alone.

Print-based franchises simply couldn’t compete, and didn’t, and from 2001 to 2006, when I left the Light Reading building, we gave our competitors a most enjoyable 10 out of 10 thumping.

The Problem With Leads

Today, of course, most b-to-b publishers have gotten a handle on lead-based marketing, but that doesn’t mean that potential lead-based model headaches have gone away. In fact, I think we’re heading into uncharted and dangerous waters.

The problems center around the definition of “a lead.” At the beginning of the millennium the definition was broad and standards were generally low. You could keep the customer quiet by shoving a gigantic ‘bag o’ leads’ at them in the form of an Excel spreadsheet containing thousands of names—most of whom were “unemployed,” or “students.”

More often than not, these ‘leads’ would simply sleep on for eternity on the marketing VP’s hard drive, never to be seen by human eyes again.

But then, once again, the great oaken wheel of b-to-b publishing history creaked slowly round on its axis. Marketing people started to give the leads to their sales departments. And they were not happy with what they saw. The marketing folk passed said unhappiness on to the publishers, with instructions to clean things up. And ever since, as technology, knowledge and competition have all increased, the quality bar has incrementally inched higher and higher.

These days the absolute last thing that any customer wants is thousands of low rent leads. What they do want is an infinite number of leads for people who have the money to buy a product they sell, and are literally milliseconds from making that purchase.

Don’t Give Away the Store

Attempting to give them anything like what they want can be potentially fatal to your business. Consider the example of a major b-to-b publisher (who shall remain nameless) who had the bright idea of adding an extra layer of qualification to their lead programs by only defining leads as those people that had opted to receive a follow-up (AKA sales call) from the sponsor.

It turned out to be an idea that was bright only in the sense that a nuclear explosion is bright. The standards were so high and the number of leads was so hilariously incy-wincie that they pretty much destroyed their online business, and never fully recovered. (Note: The people running the company were not very nice, so don’t go getting out your hankie here.)

Fast forward to the future and the logical terminus of this particular publishing trend ends with publishers effectively delivering a signed purchase order to the client. And at that point, my friends, we are no longer the mighty lords of publishing that we see ourselves as; we are instead lowly client-side inside sales paesans.

So what is to be done? Please consider this column my call to action for publishers to bond together to jointly, or separately, push back on the unreasonable demands of our customers for infinitely qualified leads. If you build it, we will advertise it. But we won’t sell it for you, O.K.?


Steve Saunders is an independent media consultant and the founder of Internet Evolution. He can be reached at