Anyone who participates in online lead generation is left with one of two conclusions at the end of a campaign: there are either a disproportionate number of John Smiths at 123 Main Street (phone number 555-1212, email email@example.com); or there’s no such thing as a set of “pure” leads.
The latter, of course, is the truism: there is always whitewash in lead pools. No matter the brand or offer, any lead generation campaign will include leads with false or incomplete information that ultimately leaves the lead un-actionable to the advertiser. It’s an accepted and at times expensive cost of doing business in lead generation.
With this in mind, I was disappointed that the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) latest report on lead generation – “Online Lead Generation: B2C and B2B Best Practices for U.S. – based Advertisers and Publishers” – neglects to offer any meaningful guidance on this critical (albeit complicated) issue: the constitution of a valid and therefore billable lead. This latest white paper attempts to provide a baseline of “Dos and Don’ts” for lead buyers and sellers, encouraging both sides to adopt the IAB’s recommended policies as a step towards streamlining and regulating the industry. And while the IAB Committee has done an admirable job in its discussion of such matters as privacy, disclosures and overall consumer experience, I was surprised at this obvious absence.
To understand why this is an important oversight, we should look at the context of today’s lead generation economy, which is generally managed through a cost-per-lead currency. Lead buyers typically pay a cost-per-lead rate for their leads, rather than the standard cost-per-thousand or cost-per-click models used in other online media. That means lead buyers (advertisers) are purchasing a commodity (leads) from lead sellers (publishers).
Those leads with false and incomplete information have no value to advertisers. Yet there are publishers who charge for those leads because there’s no unifying, widely accepted principle that delineates a billable lead.
What other multi-billion dollar industry fails to define its most basic deliverable?
Moving forward, the lead generation community needs to adopt standard guidelines for developing actionable leads. Let’s take a step back and look at an offline analogy such as cars. When you buy a car, you should have a reasonable expectation that your car will run. It’s the lemon law principle. If your car functions as promised, you’re a happy customer; and if it breaks down when you drive off the lot, you return it (and probably find a car from another dealer). Fundamentally, why should lead generation be any different? Why should advertisers pay for leads they can’t contact? That’s not the commodity they paid for.
To be sure, there are immediate consequences for the publisher with the lemon law model. Banished would be the “scrub rate” made popular by the co-registration industry, where publishers cap the amount of lead rejections from a client at a pre-defined ceiling. Publishers would feel a greater burden to “weed out” leads with potentially incorrect information, likely through the use of internal filters or third-party data verification. It would call into question how contactability is determined when the primary method of contact is email, which is infinitely more difficult to cleanse than address and phone records. And it would bring the need of independent lead auditing to the industry as buyers and sellers find ways to trust each other’s contactability scores and the timeliness of buyer rejections.
But imagine the benefits to advertisers, many of whom today view lead generation as the Web’s seedy underbelly. No longer would the IAB have to place the burden on advertisers, as it does now, of securing reasonable lead buying terms from each publisher with each new campaign. The adoption of a common platform would remove much of the inefficiencies of the lead buying process, not to mention the acrimony and distrust that accompanies paying for leads you can’t use.
As lead generation grows, and as it welcomes a greater number of mature, Fortune 1000 brands, we should embrace the lemon law concept within our industry. Let’s develop a singular definition of valid and billable leads that revolves around accuracy, completeness, timeliness and actionability. It’s a logical and long-overdue next step the industry needs to confront.