We’ve noticed that companies that are investing in content marketing often have this important internal debate regarding converting blog readers:

What brings higher ROI for companies, nurturing leads through an email list or going for direct conversions?

Let me explain.

Some people think it’s more effective to ask readers to join an email list first, then nurture these “email leads” by dripping content to them. Once the lead has been properly nurtured, the company will finally get the prospect to convert into a “real lead” by taking the first step in becoming a customer: start a trial, request a demo, buy some products (ecommerce), talk to a sales rep (B2B sales).

Others think it’s best to go directly for the sale and skip the email list nurturing altogether.

In this article, we’re going to answer the question “Which strategy is better: Lead nurturing or direct conversions?” with simple arithmetic.

We’ll walk through some typical conversion funnels for a few common business types, run through some example conversion rates, and see why, for most businesses, getting blog readers to directly start the purchase process makes more sense from a conversion perspective than having blog readers first join an email list.

But, since this is not one size fits all approach, we’ve also built a very simple spreadsheet model that you can use to plug in some numbers from your business and see how the numbers look for you. This way you can decide whether to have customers join an email list, or take your main conversion step first. Get our conversion calculator for free just by joining our email list (or just enter your email if you’re already on it).

Let’s get started.

The Funnel Options: Email List Nurturing vs. Direct Conversions

To anchor this discussion, let’s create a hypothetical SaaS company: account.ly, that makes small business accounting software (like Quickbooks or Xero).

Note: I love making fun of the fact that every other startup these days ends with .ly. Runner up was accountant.io. If you have other ideas for cliche startup names, please let me know in comments, it’ll make my day.

Let’s say account.ly has built a blog for small businesses owners as part of their demand generation efforts. In it, they discuss financial tips, accounting tips, and other useful strategies for small businesses (their target audience).

After some hard work doing user research to understand their audience, coming up with a unique angle to content strategy based on what they know about their customers, then promoting their content well- they start to get some good traffic to their blog: 30,000 unique visitors a month.

How can account.ly most efficiently turn blog readers into paying users for their software platform?

Strategy 1: Join Email List, Nurture to a Lead. Ask blog readers to join an email list; send drip emails to nurture these “leads”.

Note: This is a matter of opinion/definition, but in my opinion, they’re not really “leads” at this point, they’re just email subscribers. Here’s why: they’ve expressed interest in your content, but not in your product. There’s a big difference.

Joining your email list can happen in a few different ways. We’ve talked about content upgrades inside individual blog posts before, there are also popups and other forms, as well as the traditional (some say, outdated) method of offering a whitepaper or ebook.

Then, eventually, after these email subscribers are warmed up, the company will pitch them their product or service a few times, and some fraction of their email list will convert into a fully grown up, grade A, full-fledged, lead. Again, a lead being defined as: someone who has expressed interest in your product or service.

In the case of account.ly, a SaaS company, that means they sign up for a free trial of the software. (In the case of agencies or B2B services businesses, that usually means they sign up to talk to a sales rep.)

lead nurturing

Strategy 2: Direct to Trial. Ask blog readers to start their trial directly from the blog.

This is more straightforward. In this option, the reader is simply asked to signup to become a lead directly (that means starting a trial, talking a salesperson, or somehow being asked to express interest in the product).

direct conversion

How to Decide Which Conversion Strategy Is Best For Your Business

Deciding which lead generation strategy is better for your company is a matter of measuring and multiplying the conversion rate percentages in the two strategies presented above.

Here’s the key difference.

Note that Strategy 1 – “Lead Nurturing”, has two conversion rate percentages:

  1. Percent that join the email list
  2. Percent that become leads from the email list.

But, Strategy 2: “Direct Conversion”, has only one conversion rate percentage.

Deciding which is the most efficient conversion strategy for you is simply a matter of measuring these conversion rates and multiplying them. (Note, we’ve created a simple spreadsheet to do this. You can get it free, here.)

Example Conversion Rates for a SaaS Company

Here are example numbers for our hypothetical accounting SaaS company: account.ly.

lead nurturing vs direct conversion conversion rate model

I’ve put in example numbers that I think are typical based on my experience optimizing conversion rates for clients via my agency.

The three key inputs are lines 4, 5, and 7.

Line 4: Email Conversion Rate

This is your conversion rate from reader to email subscriber. It varies wildly from blog to blog, and in our experience is a heavy function of content quality and email optin tactics.

I put in 3% because it’s achievable for most good blogs with 5 figures in traffic a month in unique visitors. That should be your benchmark for email conversion rates for 5 figure traffic blogs.

For example, here are our conversion rates to email in the last 30 days for our top 10 landing pages:

conversion rate example

Most posts convert higher than 3%, with the highest at 12% (that’s this post on getting traffic from Medium, in case you want to dissect why), and we achieve an average of 4.6% across all of them.

In my experience, if a blog exceeds 100,000 uniques a month, then it becomes hard to crack 2% in conversion rate to email. I’ve had clients that have done it, but they are special cases and most blogs can’t do that.

If you’ve been measuring this number via GA or another tool, put that into line 4 of the conversion calculator. If you haven’t, look up how many email subscribers you got in the last 30 days from your company blog, then divide this number by your unique visitors (users) in the last 30 days on your company blog, that’s your blog-reader-to-email subscriber conversion rate.

Note: We’ll release another post soon on how to measure these conversion rates via Google Analytics. If you are on our email list, you’ll get it first. If not, you can join for free here and you’ll also get the spreadsheet that we’re talking about in this article.

Line 5: Direct to Lead Conversion Rate

This is the conversion rate from blog readers to actual leads.

I’ve defined what an actual lead is above, but in short it’s the first step in the funnel to buying your product or service. In the case of account.ly, it’s starting a free trial.

I know, most companies at this point want to know “What is a typical conversion rate?”. Sadly, this is even more tough to give a sweeping generality.

Remember though:

  • We’re not talking about conversion rates from a landing page
  • We’re not talking about conversion rate from your home page
  • We’re talking about conversion rates from content (i.e. blog posts)

I’ve seen single SaaS blog articles convert from just above zero to 5%+ to a free trial. So, I think for an entire blog, half a percent is average/achievable when traffic is in the 5-figure uniques per month range. (As usual, as traffic increases, expect conversion rate to reduce).

So, for the sake of the calculation below, we’ll use 0.5% as the direct to lead conversion rate because it should be very achievable for most businesses.

Note: If your business is B2B Enterprise, an agency, a subscription service, or even e-commerce, your conversion rate on this step may vary wildly. You have to measure.

If you don’t have any idea what your direct to lead conversion rate is, you can simply put in an initial guess and flip the use of this calculation around and ask:

“What would my direct conversion rate have to be in order to beat the email lead nurturing strategy?”

Line 7: Email to Lead Conversion Rate

Finally, the 3rd key input is the percentage of email subscribers you can convert into leads per month. This is arguably the hardest to measure because most companies don’t have clarity on whether an email subscriber is also a product/service lead (e.g. has started a trial or talked to a sales rep) due to improper reporting in their analytics and CRM.

For example, most companies don’t know if the prospect became a lead first or an email subscriber first. (So, how can you figure out if the nurture emails are converting email subscribers into leads if you’re not sure if they were already leads when they subscribed or not?)

The majority of companies in our beta Customers from Content Program told us the leads that convert from their email list were near zero. Most could not recall the last time they got a paying customer from their email list.

So, I’m being (rather) generous here and saying 8% of account.ly email subscribers will eventually start a trial. (We’ll discuss some more scenarios for this number below).

Compare Rates to Decide The Optimal Conversion Strategy

After you’ve input the above 3 conversion rates into the model, simply multiply the blog-to-email (Line 4) and email-to-lead (Line 7) rates and compare it to your direct conversion rate (Line 5).

Our little conversion calculator does this for you on Line 10:

compare conversion rates

So in the case of our hypothetical SaaS startup, account.ly, even though they can capture email optins at 600% the rate that they get direct leads (3% vs. 0.5%) , it makes more sense to get direct leads.

In both Benji and my experience, these numbers are extremely typical.

Note: If you skipped down to this section and are wondering where 3%, 5% and 8% came from, scroll up to the Example Conversion Rates for a SaaS Company section.

Although the vast majority of companies can capture email subscribers far more efficiently than leads for their product or service, when you factor in the difficulty of converting potential prospects twice- once to email subscriber, then from email subscriber to lead- the direct conversion route typically wins.

Let’s explore a few more “typical” scenarios.

Other Common Conversion Scenarios For Businesses

Scenario 1: “No one from our email list becomes an actual lead”

Like I briefly mentioned above, not getting an email subscriber to convert to a customer for your business, is extremely common. For many businesses, it’s really hard to convert email subscribers, who joined to consume content, to actual leads for their business.

We see this with development agencies, enterprise software companies that have a high touch B2B sales process, and more.

There are many factors involved, but typically this due to:

  • An undeveloped drip email strategy (Having literally zero strategy.)
  • Infrequent emailing (“We email once a month.”)
  • The best customers self-selecting to fill out a lead form instead of join an email list.

In this case, the email-to-lead conversion rate (Line 7) is nearly zero, so it doesn’t matter how many emails you collect (Line 4), they’ll never become customers.

For example, here’s a typical case:

example

This may look like an exaggeration, but this is extremely typical for many businesses. 900 email subscribers a month but only 1.8 leads from the email list a month on average.

If this example relates to your business, you should think very carefully before investing in expensive “marketing automation” software that promote dripping emails to “nurture leads”.

Focusing instead on careful user research, and writing bottom of the funnel content, and converting them directly into leads will likely let you enjoy much higher conversion rates.

Scenario 2: A very high direct to lead conversion rate

Another common scenario, seen often in B2C companies is a high direct to lead conversion rate. Apps like Buffer would likely fall into this category. If it’s trivial for users to sign up for your service (for example with Buffer, you just login with Twitter and schedule a few tweets, not a huge ask), then just asking them to sign up will be hard to beat by a two step email nurturing process.

Here’s what that could look like:

example 2

If you can collect a ton of leads or signups directly off of blog posts, it just doesn’t make sense to waste your time with email.

I’ve picked Buffer as an example not just because it’s an easy ask to ask someone to join their email list, but they actually switched their blog CTAs from email signups to Buffer app signups a while back and Kevan Lee wrote a great extensive post about it.

buffer email list post

Some things in his post stand out to me:

What do you do with the list?

They are transparent about the fact that they had no idea what to do with emails once they collected them. I love this. Kevan even coins (I believe he coined it) the term “zero sell” to describe how they were neither hard selling nor soft selling to their email list. Amusing. Indeed it’s tough to get signups when you don’t ask for them.

Who is on the list?

He has an interesting discussion on email list segmentation, where he talks about the difficulty of not knowing who on your email list is already a customer, as I alluded to above.

Conversion Rates!

Most importantly, he (in typical transparent Buffer fashion) reveals their conversion rates, and we learn that reader to blog is 2.81%, and reader to Buffer app signup is 2.27%.

Now, I don’t know the details of those numbers and whether they are measuring conversion rates from the same sources/traffic/pages.

But, if they are, it’s a no brainer to go straight to Buffer signups. We can use our conversion calculator to see how high the email to Buffer app signups would need to be for this 2.81% vs. 2.27% difference to tilt the scales in favor of collecting emails first.

Buffer example

Their email “nurturing” would need to convert 81% of email subscribers in to app signups to beat the 2.27% direct to signup rate they have now!

That’s not easy. I want to say impossible, but I won’t say it, because who knows. But a trying to get 80% of your email list to open your emails is next to impossible…forget about getting that many to sign up for your app.

Exception: Blog and launch based businesses

Finally, if you’re a “blogger” or have a “launch” based businesses that is driven off of your email list, then congrats for making it this far, because this article didn’t really apply to you. For these businesses, there is no direct conversion, customers can only purchase via select product launches that have set open and close dates and are promoted through the email list. For such businesses, of course it makes sense to build an email list first. Grow and Convert is one example.

More Complex Models

Finally, I’d like to note that, yes, there are far more complexities that one could model than what we’ve done in this article. I’m fully aware that our little calculator is just multiplying a few numbers.

The reason we’ve belabored this multiplication, however, is to outline the concept.

In our experience working with multiple companies building content marketing engines that produces customers reliably, we’ve found that analytics and measuring conversion rates effectively were huge pain points.

Marketer after marketer had little clarity on this.

So walking through a simple calculation like this in a methodical way helps marketers understand this concept.

Two additional complexities that have not been modeled in this article include:

  • What happens when there are calls to action for both joining your email list and signing up for your product? Our current spreadsheet doesn’t account for “and”, it just shows you “or”.
  • What if free to paid conversion rates differ between the two strategies? The model currently doesn’t delve into how email lead nurturing could affect how many trials or leads convert into paying customers.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into questions like these, or others, you can do a few things.

First, you can get a link to our spreadsheet by joining our email list (or if you’re already on it, just enter your email to get it), fill it in and reply to the email with your question and we’ll do our best to discuss your specific scenario as time allows.

Second, we will have more complex models like this available in our Customers from Content Training Program for companies. We plan to have our first session in the fall, it’s 100% online, interactive, and intensive. You can join the waitlist here.

We wrote this post in Google Docs and imported it into WordPress in one click using Wordable. Give Wordable a try for free.

Our Conversion Calculator Spreadsheet

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