Lead nurturing in the life sciences

Buying cycles in many life sciences sectors are long, aren’t they? It can take years for a life science organization to gather the information they need, build their list of requirements and specs, work through all the options, develop a list of potential suppliers, and finally make a purchase decision. If you want to be the top choice when the final decision gets made, you can’t just hope that prospects will remember you from that one time years ago when they met you at a trade show. You’ve got to nurture these prospects, and you’ve got to do this deliberately.

I’ve explored life science lead nurturing in past issues. Nurturing is the process of building a relationship with your prospects, one that allows you to help them by guiding their transition from one stage of the buying cycle to the next. I’ve dissected nurturing and examined its components: the eight activities that comprise the lead nurturing cycle. Optimizing all eight can feel daunting, particularly since these activities span such different competencies—from creating unique insight and documenting this insight in compelling thought leadership, to establishing and enforcing protocols for using your CRM correctly, all the way to harnessing complex marketing automation technology to track and score the behavior of your web visitors.

Buying cycles in the life sciences are long. You’ve got to nurture your prospects if you want to be the top choice when the decision to create a short list gets made. 

This situation is made more complex by the fact that many of the same activities you use to nurture the life science prospects that you know are also useful for attracting the prospects you don’t know. You can use the same content, website, calls to action and marketing automation software to nurture a prospect or attract a lead.

Several of the previous issues have focused on the technology and details of lead nurturing in the life sciences. I want to close this series of whitepapers by taking a more fundamental, big-picture view of lead nurturing.


Laying the foundation for effective lead nurturing in the life sciences

You can lay the foundation for effective life science lead nurturing by following seven key steps. Not all of these are trivial; some will require significant effort—effort that will pay off in the long run.


First, understand the life science buying cycle. To properly nurture your life science prospects, you must understand their buying cycle. As I’ve written about elsewhere, buyers go through several distinct phases. To help them transition from one phase to another, they first need education in early phases of the buying cycle, then inspiration and finally, in the late stages of the buying cycle, reassurance. It is in the early phases of the buying cycle that nurturing is most applicable. Buyers in these early stages aren’t yet ready to buy, and they can remain “stuck” in these early stages for quite some time. Unfortunately, you can’t know when early-stage buyers will make the transition from one stage to another. So you need a process to stay top of mind. A good nurturing program will accomplish just this.

Read more on the buying cycle here.

You must understand the buying cycle and your life science audiences.

Second, understand your life science audiences. You must understand the specific challenges that your life science buyers are facing in their daily lives. If you’re going to educate, inspire and reassure our prospects, you must be focused on the challenges and issues that are important to them. You must begin by taking an educational approach, showing them the way forward using your unique insight. You must then inspire them—letting them know that their specific situation could be better. And you must reassure them about their individual concerns. To educate, inspire and reassure, you must be experts in their specific issues. Your content must be able to answer almost every question that your prospect has. You must have enough experience that you can see the patterns present in their industry sector and match their individual situation to one or more of those patterns.

That’s a lot you “must” do, isn’t it? Yes, you really do have to do all of these things if you want your lead-nurturing efforts to be effective


Third, prepare material to help your life science audiences. To help your life science prospects you must have a broad array of material you can use. This means that based on the understanding I discussed in the last section. you must now prepare content that is educational, inspirational or reassuring. The bulk of your prospects are in the early stages of the buying cycle, where they need education. Since they’re likely to stay in this stage for quite a while, you’ll need a large store of educational material. This content must be created according to a system that ensures that it is on target and of high quality. To fuel this system, you must have the proper resources and the proper structure. As I discussed here (LINK TO VOL 2 NO 4 Planning Your Life Science Company’s Content Marketing Initiative) you must plan for a steady S-T-R-E-A-M of content—strategy, topics, resources, environment, audiences and measurement.

Read more on content creation here. 

You must prepare material that answers your audiences’ questions.

Fourth, nurture your life science prospects according to a plan and a schedule.  You need a system to nurture your prospects. Most life science organizations start out with manual nurturing systems. Manual systems—ones in which the emails are written and sent individually—tend to impose a natural limit on what can be accomplished. One or even a few people can only do so much. Which could be considered a good thing for prospects, since it prevents you from overwhelming (that is, pestering) them, but it’s certainly a bad thing for the long-term health of your lead-nurturing efforts.


As an organization’s lead-nurturing efforts mature, manual systems can’t keep up. As the number of contacts in the CRM increases, organizations face increasing pressure to keep up—so they turn to automation. Automation is a mixed blessing. Many organizations are surprised to find that implementing a marketing automation system doesn’t lessen the amount of work that is required; in fact it may increase. In addition, the nature of the work shifts, from a focus on the individual prospect to a focus on creating and maintaining systems that can automatically nurture a prospect, as shown in figure 1.

Read more on nurturing here.


Figure 1. Compared with the past, lead nurturing activities have moved from conversations started by sales, to content produced and distributed by marketingas shown on the left. The right-hand figure shows the shift in effort that also occurs, from a focus on the individual to a focus on building, fueling and maintaining the lead-nurturing system. 


Fifth, track and score your life science prospects based on their behavior. Nurturing is worthless if it’s not tuned to the needs of specific individuals. As the volume of contacts in the CRM grows and as marketing automation frees your life science sales people from their lead-nurturing duties, the understanding of any one prospect’s individual situation becomes more tenuous. This has the potential to make your nurturing efforts feel impersonal. To offset this tendency, marketing automation technology gathers clues from a prospect’s online behavior, which will enable you to guess at their mindset. You can then establish workflows to nurture prospects based, for instance, on how often they visit a web site, how and when they click and what content they consume. I’ll have more on establishing workflows in a future issue, when I cover marketing automation in more detail.


Sixth, tune your life science lead-nurturing system. Your lead-nurturing system must be continuously tuned and adjusted, to maximize your results. It’s not enough to set up a single workflow, because you don’t have a single type of life science prospect. For example, one lead-nurturing program can’t be used for all trade shows; different trade shows tend to attract different types of audiences, which need to be nurtured in different ways. As I pointed out in the last issue and in #4 above, nurturing has shifted from conversations held by salespeople to automated distribution of content by the marketing function, and shifted from efforts focused on a single individual to efforts focused on setting up and maintaining systems (which can be significant, and ongoing).

You must work on tuning your life science lead nurturing system, and this involves “feeding the beast.

Seventh, feed the beast. As you nurture your life science prospects, you’ll learn more about their needs. To take advantage of this, you must continue to create relevant, unique, insightful content. The demands for creating relevant content never cease, which makes it imperative to devote resources to this continuous effort.


If you follow through on all seven activities, you’ll end up with a lead-nurturing system similar to that shown in figure 2. Automated systems will attract life science prospects through your unique content. In addition, the sales function can still enter leads into the CRM manually. (One thing not shown here is that there is always the option of purchasing lists of prospects.)



Figure 2. Prospects are attracted to content, which is the responsibility of marketing. Automated systems track, nurture and score the behavior of prospects. Upon reaching some pre-defined levels of engagement, a marketing-qualified lead is passed to sales, which now can qualify them according to readiness to buy (and other criteria) and navigate them to completion (won/lost).   


Three trends to notice

Now that I’ve laid the foundation for lead nurturing, I want to point out three trends that you must understand as you work to “feed the beast.”


Your content has fierce competition

It should be obvious that high-quality life science content is key to your lead nurturing system. One important but often-ignored reason is that your content is facing increasing competition. In August of 1991, the world’s first web site was launched when the World Wide Web project went live. There are now more than a billion web sites in the world, according to the web site Internet Live Stats. There are more than 3 billion internet users. As you see in the next figure, the growth of the web has been exponential. Google is running 56,729 searches every second, up from 10,000 per second in 2006. The average dwell time—the time a user spends on a page—is small. Some statistics show that 55% of viewers spend less than 15 seconds on an average page.


Figure 3. The growth in the total number of websites


Every year there is exponentially more content than there was the year before. The competition your content faces is fierce.


Search engines are more discerning

I’ve said elsewhere that you have to consider two audiences for your content. First, you must create content for consumption by human audiences. Second, you must create content that is accessible by the search engine spiders, which collect data used by humans to find the content they’re interested in. The increased sophistication of search engine algorithms is blurring the lines between these two types of audiences.

Your content faces increased competition and search engines are getting more discerning.

The algorithms used by search engines are being updated frequently. The one that Google uses has gotten very sophisticated. I’d like to point out just a few of the improvements (according to Hubspot) that have occurred:

  • June 2005: Search results take the user’s search history into account.
  • May 2007: Integration of traditional results with News, Video, Image, Local, etc.
  • December 2009: Twitter feeds, Google News and new content are integrated in real-time feed.
  • May 2010: Crackdown on low-quality pages ranking for long-tail keyword searches.
  • Feb 2011: Crackdown on thin content, content farms and sites with high ad-to-content rations.
  • April 2012: Crackdown on link schemes, keyword stuffing and other black-hat tactics.
  • August 2013: New type of results introduced, dedicated to more evergreen, long-form content.


Do you see the two trends? First, there is an increase in the breadth and type of content relevant to search results. Second, the methods used to thwart people trying to game the system and achieve high rankings have grown increasingly sophisticated. In other words, Google’s search algorithm is rapidly becoming able to make very nuanced decisions. In many ways, Google’s algorithm is now making decisions that are as nuanced as a human, but of course the focus is more on data and measurable aspects of the content and the web page on which it appears. The sophistication of Google’s algorithm will become greater over time.


To stand out, you must produce more content

When I first started creating content to nurture my life science prospects more than ten years ago (back in the Pleistocene era!), the rule of thumb was that search engines needed to see about 2000 words of unique content added to a website every month. The bar is rising; current estimates suggest that search engines now need to index about 3000 words a month. The increase makes sense given the dramatic rise in the total amount of content being created and added to the web every day. With more total content on the web, and more content being added every day, it is harder and harder for a given amount of content to stand out. Therefore, to get attention in a rising sea of content, you must create even more content. (Which only adds to the rising sea level of content. Sorry about that.)


Implications for your life science lead nurturing efforts

These three trends are changing to way you must think about content production used to nurture your leads.

  • The rising amount of content on the web
 (the environment is shifting)
  • Search engines becoming more “human-like”
  • More content must be produced, just to stay even (this is how you must respond to the environment)


What does this mean for your life science content creation and lead-nurturing efforts? It used to be that you could stuff a few keywords into an article, establish a few inbound links and rank highly in Google search results. Those days are long gone. The days are rapidly approaching when search engines will become so sophisticated that optimization for search engines (SEO) and humans will be essentially identical. As the ongoing arms race between the search engine algorithms and SEO experts escalates, the quality of your content will become even more important.


This means that you won’t be able to rely on SEO tricks to rank highly and get seen by more eyeballs.


No matter how long these advances take, and how exactly SEO evolves, the simple fact of the matter is that you are, and will be, required to keep shooting for the same goal: You must produce content that your audiences crave. If you want to cut through the clutter, you can’t just produce content. You have to produce insight. The world is moving from content marketing to insight marketing.


Questions to ask about your life science content

Of course, Google’s digital algorithm will always use some factors that would be low on the list of factors a trusted (analog) colleague would use to find and then recommend unique, insightful content to someone. But the increasing sophistication of Google’s filters, and the increasing overlap between the result that Google’s search algorithm delivers and those from a human being, means that your life science content creation is best guided by asking a series of questions—questions that can help indicate the relevance of your content to your human audiences:

  • Does the reader care about this topic?
  • What is important to my readers now, and in the future?
  • Does the reader know what I stand for?
  • Am I communicating clearly?
  • What is the core point I’m trying to make?
  • Does my content stand out by being unique?
  • Is there true insight here?
  • Am I being a thought leader?


The last question is worth spending some time on. What does it mean to be a thought leader?


Is there a leader in the house? 

Question: How do you know that someone is a leader? 

Answer: Because there are followers. 


Thus goes the old phrase from countless leadership training seminars offered in corporations around the world. In this view, following is a voluntary choice. I always found this view to be a little simplistic. I spent years inside large organizations and corporations and I quickly learned that if you don’t follow instructions you’ll get in trouble. You won’t get that raise, you’ll be put on a “performance improvement plan,” or you’ll be shown the door. Followers may be reluctant, they may even be recalcitrant, but generally people inside a corporation are following. Or else.


In other words, inside a corporation following isn’t voluntary.


Outside a corporation, it’s a different story. Following is much more in the hands of the individual. And in the online world, following is completely voluntary. You can’t force your audiences to follow you; their choice is deliberate and discretionary. You can’t force them to open your email or click through to a web page; opening and clicking are voluntary. You can’t force them to read your unique insights; reading is voluntary. You can’t force them to follow you; following is voluntary.

In the online world, following is voluntary.

Why would an audience pay attention to you, or read what you write, or follow you? Because of the value you provide. If you don’t offer any value, they’ll look elsewhere; if you offer unique, valuable thoughts, they’ll stay. If you give them a valuable view of the world they can’t get anywhere else, they’ll even forward your thoughts to their colleagues. And if you educate, inspire and reassure them, if you thrill them, they’ll re-tweet, re-post and re-blog your thoughts for you.

Online, following is voluntary.


So let’s modify the original question:

Question: How do you know someone is a thought leader? 

Answer: Because there are thought followers. 


If you want prospects to follow, you can’t dictate to them, you have to serve them.


Servant leadership in the life sciences

Servant leadership is a term coined by Robert K Greenleaf, in an essay published in 1970. (Greenleaf, R. (1991). The servant as leader ([Rev. ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.) In this essay Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”


“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”


Servant leadership is clearly distinct from authoritarian leadership, which is an exercise in gathering and employing power. While there may be use for authoritarian leadership inside some life science organizations, it has no place in thought leadership, where following is completely voluntary.

The best though leaders adopt an attitude of servant leadership.

There are many characteristics of servant leaders, including listening, empathy, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others and building community, among others. If you read through this list with thought leadership in mind, you’ll realize that these are solid characteristics with which to approach your own thought leadership. Let’s examine a few of these a little more closely.


  • Listening, empathy and awareness. Thought leaders have to be keenly aware of the needs of their audiences.
  • Conceptualization and foresight. Thought leaders have to be visionaries, providing unique insight to their followers.
  • Stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Thought leaders have to be committed to supporting a larger group.


If you expect your prospects to follow, you must serve them. Your content has to serve their needs, giving them insight they can’t get elsewhere. You have to serve them by showing them a view of the future, one that has meaning for their individual situation. You also have to serve the needs of the entire community. If you are going to be a servant leader, you must be completely non-sales focused in your content. Servants don’t sell.


This means you need to understand your prospects’ needs on a fundamental level—and target your life science content to answer their questions all throughout the buying cycle. This is fundamental if your lead nurturing efforts are going to be successful.



Life science lead nurturing is complex. There are many activities you must master, and many missteps you might make. In the end, however, your lead nurturing efforts must live by a maxim that my mother taught me: “Done is better than perfect.” If you’re not actively nurturing your prospects, you must begin. And then expand your efforts one step at a time.

The increasing anonymity preferred by our prospects demands that we must meet them where they are. And that is on the internet, where we can feed them content that answers their questions and gives them insight that they can’t get anywhere else. Good luck.