In this post, you'll learn how to identify prospects inbound style.

Let's first start by making sure that you and I are on the same page about what exactly a prospect is.


Prospects Defined

When you turn to a reliable source, like the Oxford dictionary, and look at the definition of a prospect:

  • “the possibility or likelihood of some future event occurring”
  • “a person regarded as a potential customer or client”
  • What's even more interesting, though, is that the word “prospect” goes back to Latin roots. Going back hundreds of years. In “late Middle English, as a noun denoting the action of looking toward a distant object.”

So the question is:

Are your prospects “distant” objects? Or are your prospects close enough that you can build a revenue forecast and a successful sales funnel around them?

Why Prospecting Has Changed in a Digital-First World

So let's talk all about how you can identify prospects for your business, to help you meet your SMART goals -- and build your funnel and pipeline inbound style.

So now prospects are future clients, as a noun.  But there's also “to prospect” as a verb.  Which brings up the natural question: why prospect in the first place?

One of the reasons why people prospect is to grow their businesses.

However, the digital-first world, the modern buyer’s journey that we live in, and how people behave online -- on search engines and social media, with artificial intelligence, personal assistants, smartwatches, and smartphones -- changes how you need to prospect.

However, the digital-first world, the modern buyer’s journey that we live in, and how people behave online -- on search engines and social media, with artificial intelligence, personal assistants, smartwatches, and smartphones -- changes how you need to prospect.


Because as crazy as it sounds, your buyers -- your prospects, your future clients -- do a lot of other things besides just looking at your products and services. Chances are they

  • Shop on and use Amazon Prime
  • Subscribe to a service like Netflix, Hulu, or Sirius XM.
  • Use Lyft or Uber to hail rides both in their hometown and when traveling

Why are these issues for you?

For starters, you should validate in your buyer persona research that your prospects are actually using those particular technologies and platforms I just named.

But assuming a significant percentage of your prospects do, that is their new expectation of what they're looking for from a company like yours.

Now they don't expect you to nail it perfectly. They don't expect you to get a grand slam home run every time up at bat. But that is the world- the context- your prospects are coming from.  Your prospects have gotten used to these consumer preferences,  how they interact with businesses, their websites, their social media, and their digital presence.  And that's what they're looking for from your company.

Prospects Tuning Out Selfish Interruptions By Marketing and Sales

The modern buyer has gotten tired of getting interrupted by obnoxious marketing and sales pitches. They're blocking you out using technologies like caller ID and Gmail Priority Inbox.

From email service providers and internet service providers, there's aggressive email filtering that you have to contend with when you prospect. And there are other technologies like we just mentioned a moment ago, including the DVR, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Sirius XM, that are all satisfying the same itch, addressing the same frustration and challenge.  People are tired of getting interrupted and are willing to pay for it not to happen.

The modern buyer becomes empowered by search engines, social media, mobile devices, and cloud computing -- and will become even more so in the future by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and the Internet of Things (IoT). All of these trends are going to make digital transformation even more predominant. And being on the wrong side of the market preferences will make the sting of digital disruption even more painful.

People are addicted to their personal assistants. Siri on the iPhone has been around for a while. Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana are a little newer. But there are no signs of that adoption curve slowing down.

And this kind of data, this kind of artificial intelligence, is what is the direct pipeline, the direct conduit, into the minds of your future prospects. They're doing so much research. 70 percent or more of that decision-making is over before someone is now willing to speak to someone in sales.  And frankly, for many of these prospects, if they could figure out a way to not speak with a salesperson, they would bypass human contact altogether!

Talk to people that

  • Book car service without ever talking to a person
  • Book doctors appointments without ever talking to a person
  • Make restaurant reservations without ever talking to a person
  • Make lavish social plans without ever talking to a person

And I'm willing to bet if there was a way to buy cars from the major automobile manufacturers right now --  using entirely a website, and the pricing was aligned with all the eliminated overhead, you’d have a stampede of auto dealer lobbyists panicking and seeing their industry’s future as intermediaries evaporate.

We're going to get to the point where people are going to buy real estate online without ever talking to a salesperson. If you work in commercial or residential real estate, you probably want to put your hands around my neck at this point for even bringing that up.

But in a digital-first world, all of these conventions and industries that have been around for generations are changing.

Modernizing Your Prospecting to Match How Modern Humans Research and Make Purchase Decisions

So the question is: when it comes to prospecting, how can you prospect inbound-style?

What do you and your company need to stay relevant in a world where most buyers have already started their journey before they talk with sales professionals?

For starters, be aware of the inbound sales methodology.

Inbound sales is all about personalizing the entire sales experience for:

  • Who they are -- what buyer persona a prospect matches up with from one of your core primary or secondary buyer personas that your company targets
  • Where they are -- where they are in the buyer's journey, what their context is: are they just starting to search for the answer to a challenge, struggle, problem, or goal? (Awareness) Or are these prospects in the middle of the buyer's journey, the middle of the sales process, where they compare their different options? (Consideration) Or are these prospects raising their hands and saying, “Oooh! Call on me! I need sales help!” (Decision)


where they are in the buyer's journey, what their context is: are they just starting to search for the answer to a challenge, struggle, problem, or goal? (Awareness) Or are these prospects in the middle of the buyer's journey, the middle of the sales process, where they compare their different options? (Consideration) Or are these prospects raising their hands and saying, “Oooh! Call on me! I need sales help!” (Decision) 

The problem is that many sales teams live in the past and act as if every single stranger they come across is immediately ready for a sales conversation. In a digital-first world, this just is not the case.

And the more you try to cram that down people's throats, making the misguided assumption that every single person is ready for a sales conversation, the more you repulse them and the harder it is to ever recover from that.

Reviewing the Inbound Sales Methodology

So the inbound sales methodology is all about aligning your sales process to be more relevant to the way that people want to buy today -- for who they are and where they are. And there are four basic parts of the inbound sales methodology:

  • Identify phase --  how to identify the right prospects, the focus of this post
  • Connect phase -- where you connect with prospects for the first time and start to build a relationship
  • Explore phase -- where you explore in a lot more detail what's driving this conversation and why you’re talking in the first place. What are their goals, plans, challenges, and needs? What do they crave most? All those elements can help you formulate a better action plan.
  • Advise phase --  when you've connected, built rapport, and explored their needs, then and only then do you come back for one final session and advise prospects on what to do next.

Think of it very similarly to how a doctor examines you and explores you before the doctor writes the prescription; the doctor-patient type of relationship.

And when you, from an inbound sales perspective, can get to the point that identifying prospects, connecting, exploring, and advising starts to rival what somebody would expect from a healthcare provider or another type of professional services context, that puts you in a whole different league of thought leadership and positioning.

Identify Prospects: Active Prospects vs. Passive Prospects

So again, the identify phase is all about you figuring out if a particular prospect is a good fit for your company -- If a prospect matches up with your definition of product/market fit.

Is this particular prospect worth investing time in?

To identify prospects inbound-style, you need to understand the difference between someone who is in an active research process, compared to being a passive buyer.

Someone that’s in an active research process is actively looking for the answer.  That person has a problem that’s been expressed.  That person is looking for a solution and is open to this kind of conversation.

These are the kind of people that you want to identify and spend your time prospecting and building relationships with. It doesn't matter how good of a fit somebody is if that person is not open to a conversation.  It is like talking to a wall. And you're probably not making a dent in your quota by talking to walls.

You're probably not getting paid to chase your tail and speak with people who may not be in an active process until years from now, or longer, or ever! In fact, by the time that person is in an active research process, that person has changed jobs three times and moved to a geographic area that your company can’t even service.

So when it comes to meeting your SMART goals and your quota and using inbound sales,  focus your efforts on people that are in an active research process. This simple distinction -- being able to differentiate between people that are active versus passive -- could literally be a make or break for your entire business.

Traditional Prospecting vs. Inbound Prospecting


To put this all in context, let's talk about some of the differences between traditional prospecting and prospecting inbound-style; inbound prospecting.

With traditional prospecting,  a sales team or salesperson is probably doing things like buying or renting lists and accessing online databases.

Salespeople that use traditional prospecting are using the information that they find from that list buying, list rental, or online database to immediately try to force a prospect into the decision stage of their buyer's journey.

And the problem is:  as a sales professional, there is no way for you to

  • Identify who is actively researching problems
  • Identify who has goals, challenges, problems, and struggles that lead to your products and services

When you're making a cold outreach, based on just finding somebody on a list or in a database, this is the essence of what people refer to when they call it spray and pray. Or smile and dial. Or throwing spaghetti at the wall.

None of those are good approaches for the modern buyer's journey, in a digital-first world.

Inbound prospecting is very different.  Inbound prospecting is where you are

  • Actively listening to the market
  • Pinpointing prospects, potential buyers, that are active in their research already
  • Using social selling proactively

When using social selling proactively, you connect with and follow certain prospects. You're retweeting their posts. You're getting active in LinkedIn and Facebook groups where your prospects are already hanging out.

How do you know which LinkedIn Groups or Facebook Groups they hang out in? Surfacing this information is basic buyer persona research 101.

You're sharing helpful blog posts read by prospects, like the kind of prospects you want to attract, which some call content curation.

And as you get a little further along in your level of inbound sales and social selling sophistication, publish your own helpful content that establishes you as a thought leader --- videos, blog posts, or something similar.

All of this is critical to using inbound prospecting effectively in an active, social selling kind of way.

Identifying prospects inbound-style is all about using all available clues that you can get your hands on, that your active buyers are leaving, that can lead to your company's products and services.

Prospecting with Awareness Stage Leads




So, where do inbound leads, inbound prospects, come from?

They can come from premium content that your company has published content that sits behind a landing page:

  • eBooks
  • White papers
  • Special reports
  • Templates
  • Webinars registrations
  • Webinar recordings
  • Event registrations for lunch and learns, breakfast seminars, or networking receptions

Awareness stage, and many times Consideration stage, leads are leads that require a registration or form submission.

Sometimes these prospects will be in the Consideration stage, towards the middle of their buyer’s journey and your sales funnel. But usually, these prospects are pretty early on, in the Awareness stage.

How do you know? When you build your buyer personas, and you identify their buyer's journey, you figure out early on when someone is just starting to search for broad problems, challenges, and goals.

You learn what they’re looking for when they're in the middle. Those words and intentions change. You'll know when prospects or leads opt-in for certain kinds of content where they most likely are at.

When you connect with prospects that have accessed premium content, or who have registered for an event, personalize your approach -- which again is the hallmark of inbound sales and the inbound sales methodology.  Personalize your approach for the context of where they are.

If somebody signed up to download your eBook, a simple outreach or connect attempt may go something like this, “Hey, it's Joshua calling from SP Home Run. Just a few minutes ago, you signed up to download our eBook on 10 Blankety Blank Ways to Blankety Blank. And you mentioned that you’re facing challenges with Blank. I just wanted to check and see: Did that eBook download OK for you? And see what you were looking for help with?”

If you successfully connect with a prospect who downloaded your premium content and that person is open to conversation, that person will more than likely at least very briefly tell you what he was looking for help with.

Other times, you might get someone that replies to the email that went along with your voicemail with something along the lines of, “Yes, it downloaded okay. And I’m all set for now.”

Prospecting with Decision Stage Leads


Sometimes there are much more obvious signs with your inbound leads.

When somebody converts on a landing page to schedule a free consultation,  a demo, a needs assessment, a free trial, or a tour, that person is essentially screaming in capital letters to talk with someone from your sales team.

The only two signals that could be more explicit: someone fills out a form to get a quote or talk to sales.

Someone with this behavior is almost certainly at the Decision stage of the buyer’s journey.

So this kind of inbound lead is somebody that you should treat differently than somebody that just downloaded a white paper or registered for a webinar.

Personalize your approach to have more urgency in that context. Even better, if you're clued into the modern buyer's journey, you should provide options that make it super-convenient for someone to get it all done right now and book a mutually-convenient time immediately on your calendar using a self-booking calendar to eliminate all that back and forth.

Again to compete in a digital-first world, your company should provide a more delightful experience. Why? Because your prospects and clients are using Uber, Netflix, iTunes, Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, and Amazon Prime.

Your prospects and clients judge your company based on their experience outside of their professional life. And if you want to be relevant to their research and buying habits, the better you can match their user experience (UX) and your digital assets, the easier it is to find a place in their life that gets you the right kind of trusted advisor relationship.

Prospecting and Account-Based Management (ABM)

And prospecting inbound style isn’t just premium content or the more obvious signs that prospects are in the Decision stage.

Sometimes, multiple individuals from the same company are researching the same or similar problems. And that's when identifying prospects inbound-style kicks in another element.

Many companies find great success with a strategy similar to account-based management (ABM) when looking at the company as a whole.

Prospecting Inbound Companies from Anonymous Website Visits

Are there inbound-prospecting opportunities you can use even when someone isn’t filling out a form on your website? Absolutely!

Inbound companies are another opportunity to identify prospects inbound-style.

What are inbound companies? Inbound companies end up on your prospecting radar screen when someone or perhaps multiple people at the same company look at content on your website but haven’t yet converted on a landing page.

With technology that looks up the most likely owner of the IP address viewing your website pages (reverse IP address lookup), the right tools can tell you page Titles, dates, and times of an anonymous visitor or visitors from a particular company.

Sometimes the company lookup isn't 100 percent; sometimes, these kinds of tools just give you the name of the Internet service provider (ISP) that provides telecommunications services to a company.

But many times, reverse IP address lookup tools actually do lead back to a company. So you know the company. And in a lot of cases, you know all of the page Titles, dates, and times.

From there, a sales professional or business development rep can use LinkedIn to start outreach to the most likely person looking for that kind of content at that particular company. However, at some point, you need to be able to identify the person who visited and their context before you actually continue.

So that's another way to prospect inbound-style: look for anonymous visits to your website and try to identify the company and potentially the right person based on research that you do about that company.

For example, if a company has several people looking at blog posts on your website about cybersecurity information for healthcare,  use LinkedIn to identify who at the company would be most interested in cybersecurity for healthcare. Then try to connect with that person.

When you do connect, be upfront: “Hey, it looks like someone from your company was looking at some information on our website about cybersecurity for healthcare. Was that you? If not, any idea who that might be?”

Now prospecting companies inbound-style isn’t as straightforward as prospecting inbound leads that convert on your website -- say from someone who downloaded an eBook or attended a webinar.

But prospecting companies like this can be the next best thing.

Identifying Inbound Prospects with Trigger Events and Social Media Monitoring

One final way to identify inbound prospects: trigger events.

Google Alerts, what shows up in your feed from LinkedIn social selling, and LinkedIn Sales Navigator can all be used to locate great trigger events for companies on your priority account list or target account list - or whatever you call that at your company.

Again, just as with identifying prospects at inbound companies, you can start outreach with the most likely person that you locate on LinkedIn -- hugely helpful for this purpose when there's no one in particular mentioned by name.

But when it comes to a news article or a news release, there usually is someone mentioned by name or quoted:

  • Positive news --  Look for job ads, new hires, promotions, awards, new locations, as well as mergers and acquisitions. Just make sure that the trigger event you’re tracking is relevant to your business model, value proposition, and sense of product/market fit.
  • Negative news -- Look for negative news, but be super-careful to be more sensitive and tactful. Natural disasters, security breaches, lawsuits, regulatory actions, or PR meltdowns can all be valid trigger events for certain business models and value propositions. But be extra cautious to understand the appropriate context to reach out to someone at a particular company that's going through some kind of negative news event.

Also, listen for mentions of your company and your competitors on social media and mentions of keywords or hashtags aligned with your company's value proposition.  This includes

  • Basic monitoring on social media for these mentions
  • Doing searches on social media for these mentions
  • Interacting in near real-time where these conversations are happening

But again, in order to prospect inbound-style successfully, make sure that you start by building your buyer personas or, at the minimum, a more basic buyer profile.

You have to know company size in terms of number of employees or amount of revenue, as well as the number of locations.

In most cases, you're going to need to identify what industry or vertical market these prospects reside within. Depending on your business model and who your company sells to, there will also usually be geographic location parameters that are also a basic qualifier for whether a prospect is a good fit.

And there may even be cases where you need to know a little bit about your prospects’ customers. You can usually sleuth this out by looking at their

  • Website “About Us” page
  • LinkedIn company page
  • Facebook business page

By gleaning who a prospect sells to, you can build a better profile and see whether that particular prospect matches up with one of your core buyer personas or ideal client profiles.

The Bottom Line on How to Identify Prospects Inbound-Style

The goal: Once your company has developed that buyer persona or ideal client profile, your prospecting should be structured in that framework so you can identify leads that match that particular buyer persona or buyer profile.

Once you have a reasonably good match,  add context to that record in your customer relationship management (CRM) system -- doing a little bit of lead research before you actually connect with that prospect. This way, you can add value immediately, right from that first conversation and interaction.

And when you connect with prospects, don't come across like a stereotypical, clueless salesperson. Instead, position yourself more as a subject matter expert, industry expert, educator, and trusted advisor.

So we've been talking all about how to identify prospects inbound-style, including

  • Defining what a prospect actually is -- both the noun and verb and what they’re used for
  • Reviewing the inbound sales methodology and why it's so critical for building a positive impression in the modern buyer's journey, in a digital-first world
  • The identify phase of the inbound sales methodology and identifying buyers that are in the active research process
  • Comparing traditional prospecting with inbound prospecting and why inbound prospecting is a lot more appropriate for the way that modern humans research and make purchase decisions.
  • The different kinds of inbound leads that you can get
  • The different kinds of inbound companies that you’ll come across
  • Trigger events
  • How prospecting inbound style requires a buyer persona or ideal client profile, as well as identifying prospects that closely align with that persona or profile
  • Making sure you have the right context before you connect with those leads

What's your favorite way to identify prospects using an inbound sales strategy? Let me know in the comments below.

And if you're serious about using inbound to reach new prospects and build great prospect relationships that accelerate the sales cycle, be sure to enroll now in our free 7-day eCourse: Go-to-Market Strategy 101 for B2B SaaS Startups and Scaleups.

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