“We just need more at bats with the right prospects.”

Said one way or another, I’ve probably heard that line a few hundred times in my career as a manufacturing marketing consultant.

There are a lot different ways to approach lead generation for manufacturers, and in this article, I’ll break down six of those methods. They follow:

  • Method 1: Buy a database of contacts
  • Method 2: Gate valuable content behind a form
  • Method 3: Use a small e-commerce offering to open the door
  • Method 4: Run a LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms campaign
  • Method 5: Offer free CAD files (or other tools) on your site
  • Method 6: Run a joint webinar with an industry powerhouse

Before we dive into these six tactics, I want to quickly define what we mean by “lead generation” in the first place (and be sure it’s what you actually need).

The difference between lead generation and demand generation

These are two terms that I often see used interchangeably.

You’re probably familiar with the former, but the latter might not be a part of your regular vocabulary. So let’s define each.

Simply stated, lead generation means contact acquisition. It’s the process of acquiring a name plus a phone number and/or email address of someone who on paper fits your ideal customer profile. In other words, it’s a potential future customer that your sales team can now call on.

Demand generation, on the other hand, is the process of capturing and holding the attention of individuals who fit your ideal customer profile, and influencing their mindset to the point where your value proposition makes them want your product.

The difference between these two approaches to marketing really comes down to is this:

With lead generation, you’re calling on people who look like good prospects. They’ve got the right job titles and work at the right types of companies. The downside is that only a small percentage of them are likely in buying mode right now. And for that reason, you’re largely hounding people who don’t want or need what you’re selling at this moment in time.

With demand generation, on the flip side, you’re using a variety of marketing channels to tightly target everyone out there who fits your ideal customer profile, crafting messaging and content that will resonate with them, and getting in front of them time after time after time in places where they already consume information.

Though you’re not busy collecting names and email addresses, you’re steadily creating brand awareness, earning attention and establishing trust. So when those prospects do enter buying mode, you’re the first one they think of, and they reach out to you.

From my experience, manufacturers want the former (lead generation) because they don’t know they can have the latter (demand generation). Or if they do want the latter, they wouldn’t have a clue how to do it in the first place.

So before we get into the meat of this blog post, here’s what I’ll say:

If you’re trying to build a sustainable marketing program that will have significant and lasting impact on the growth trajectory of your company into the future, I’d steer you toward demand generation.

But you do need to realize that demand generation is a more sophisticated approach to marketing that requires a level of patience most manufacturing organizations don’t have. It’s also a topic for a different blog post.

And while in most cases I strongly prefer demand generation, there’s certainly a time and place for lead generation as well.

So on that note, let’s get you some more at bats with the right people from the right companies. Here are six different ways to do lead generation for manufacturers.

Method 1: Buy a database of contacts

Let’s start with the easiest way to generate a “lead”:

Buy them.

There are probably 187 different services you could use at this point to acquire a list of the just about everyone in your total addressable market and download their email addresses instantly for a few thousand dollars.

So if you’re prepared to play the numbers game and all you need is a bunch of contacts to cold call, here are a few services worth checking out:

Just remember to exercise common sense here and realize that most of these people probably don’t know who you are. And even if they do, they almost certainly don’t want to hear your sales pitch.

With cold contacts especially, your messaging will be critical. Do the customer research. Learn deeply what matters most to these individuals. And look for ways to create value for them so you can earn their attention and trust (rather than just blasting them with sales messaging they don’t want to hear).

Method 2: Gate valuable content behind a form

If I were writing this piece in 2015, I’d have been enthusiastically instructing you to create a wealth of guides, white papers and ebooks in the form of nicely designed PDFs and requiring your visitors to fill out forms in order to download them.

At this point in time, many people have grown weary of filling out long forms to access content, knowing that within 24 hours, a sales person from that company will almost certainly be hounding them to buy something they probably don’t want to buy (or at least aren’t ready to buy).

For this reason, a lot of marketers today will tell you that “gated content is dead.” In my opinion, this is not a dead tactic. You just need to be smart about how you do it.

So let’s set a couple of simple ground rules if you’re going to deploy this “gated content” lead generation method:

Rule 1: Make sure the content is worthy

Think of your website visitor’s contact information as currency. If they’re taking a risk by giving it up to a stranger like you, they better get something of equal value in return. Examples:

  • A much deeper, more technical version of a “free” blog post on your site (think of it as a content upgrade)
  • An original research report your team put together
  • A tool that’s helpful to them in their job, like an ROI calculator or configurator of some sort

Put yourself in their shoes. After downloading your content, will they be saying, “Wow, this is really helpful” or “What a disappointment, and now they’re gonna be cold calling me like crazy too”?

Rule 2: Skip the cold call follow up

When somebody downloads your ebook, it means that they want to…. well, read your ebook. If they wanted to request a quote, they would have filled out your Request a Quote form.

You may ask, “What’s the point of a new lead if I can’t try to sell them product?”

Fair question.

From my perspective, there’s still plenty of value in capturing this lead. You just need to reframe your mindset about what to do with this new contact. Think about it this way:

You’ve successfully earned his or her attention. And if you followed rule number one above, your content will help earn their trust as well. So what next?

  • Is there related content you can deliver to continue creating value and establishing your expertise?
  • Can you deliver that in a personalized way?
  • Or through a newsletter that actually helps them instead of pushing product?
  • Can you add that person (or a handful of individuals from that company with specific job titles) into your paid social targeting list so you’re running ads directly to them via LinkedIn?

The main point I’d like to make here is that this is a different type of lead. Don’t blow the opportunity purely out of a lack of patience. If you can incrementally nurture this individual, you’ll be the first one he or she thinks of when they enter a buy cycle to look for a solution.

Here are a few examples of this “gated content” tactic at play with real-life manufacturers:

Method 3: Use a small e-commerce offering to open the door

Mosts of the manufacturing organizations we’ve consulted over the past decade lean less in the direction of selling off-the-shelf, commodity products and more in the direction of selling big ticket, highly-engineered products or solutions to committees of buyers, through long sales cycles.

In other words – stuff that doesn’t exactly lend itself to an e-commerce play.

However, many of these same companies also sell:

  • Some kind of consumable
  • A standard line of products that doesn’t require heavy engineering or customization
  • A line of products that complements their flagship product

For many manufacturers, these products would never support the business on their own. In fact, these offerings in some cases may not even generate much positive margin at all.

But – if they get the right people from the right companies in the door, they can create the opportunity to start the bigger-picture conversation, demonstrate your problem-solving abilities and expertise and in the long term, lead to the flagship sale.

If you were born anytime before about 1995, you probably at some point walked into a Best Buy (or Circuit City – remember that place?) and bought a CD for $12. And every time you bought one, the store lost a few dollars. But before you checked out, you probably also wandered over to the area with N64 consoles and games to peek at Donkey Kong Country 2. And just for fun, you took a stroll over to the flatscreen tv section too.

The term I learned in school for those CDs was “loss leader”.

So, can you sell something via e-commerce and reframe your mindset around that product’s purpse as “this is a lead generation play”?

In my conversation with manufacturing e-commerce advisor Curt Anderson on The Manufacturing Executive podcast, we talked in more detail about this concept. You can listen below.

powered by Sounder

Method 4: Run a LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms campaign

LinkedIn offers a variety of ways for you to spend your money with them. Lead Gen Forms are one of those ways.

Here’s how it works:

You create ad content like in the example below with a call to action that includes an offer. That offer could be a downloadable ebook, an event registration, a consultation request, etc.

Regardless, the idea is that you require contact information in exchange for something of value. And all of this happens right there inside of your prospect’s LinkedIn feed.

Because LinkedIn has a wealth of data about any of its users, it’ll pre-populate the form with as much info as it can by default (making submission easy for your soon-to-be lead).

So why LinkedIn in the first place?

As of early 2022, it’s estimated that LinkedIn has over 66 million active users in the United States alone.

Most the the manufacturers I consult are trying to reach buying process influencers like Engineers (of many shapes and sizes), Plant Managers, Facility Managers, Maintenance folks and so on.

If you’re skeptical that these individual are actually LinkedIn users, here’s a sampling for you to chew on:

On LinkedIn, there are:

  • 45,000+ Process Engineers
  • 140,000+ Project Engineers
  • 490,000+ Mechanical Engineers
  • 620,000+ System Engineers

And the list goes on.

Yep, the people you’re trying to reach are probably reachable. Even right here in the manufacturing sector.

In essence, you can say, “Hey LinkedIn, show this ad with this exact message to Process Engineers in the automotive industry who work in Michigan at companies with more than 100 people on staff.”

Doing so eliminates wasted ad spend because you’re reaching exactly who you want to reach.

Sounds like a no brainer right?

Maybe. But maybe not. Let’s look at the other side of the coin here too.

LinkedIn is unquestionably a fantastic tool for targeting the right people and guaranteeing your message is consumed.

But Lead Gen Forms are also pretty expensive to use. If you’re selling a product in the three- or even four-figure range, you may have trouble justifying the cost per lead (and ultimately, the customer acquisition cost). If you’re selling CapEx equipment priced in the tens or hundreds of thousands on the other hand, your path to a positive ROI on this ad spend is much stronger.

I also want you to stop and consider the same point I made earlier in “Method 2: Gate valuable content behind a form.” Everything I wrote there applies here too, but now there’s more at stake (because here you’re spending physical dollars with LinkedIn to generate those conversions).

So if you’re using LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms to gate downloadable content or generate event registrations (as oppose to prompting consultation requests or RFQs), remember to consider the likely mindset of your new leads. Don’t assume they want you to call them and sell them something. More likely than not, they just want your ebook, white paper or a seat at your upcoming webinar. Act accordingly.

Method 5: Offer free CAD files (or other tools) on your site

Here’s a lead generation method unique to the manufacturing sector, and honestly one I hadn’t even considered until a couple of my earliest interviewees on our podcast, The Manufacturing Executive, planted the seed.

Listen to episode 1 with Nick Goellner from AME and MakingChips and/or episode 4 with Adam Beck from CADENAS PARTSolutions here for more on this topic.

Rather than regurgitating what I heard, I asked Adam, a true pro in using CAD models as a lead generation tool, to write this section (thanks, Adam!). Here’s what he had to say…

Engineering Data, like CAD models or PDF data sheets, is some of the most potent content that component manufacturers or distributors can deliver. This content is powerful because it is essential for their audience, engineers, to do their jobs.

When designing products or machinery, like aircraft or assembly lines, each component is either made or purchased by the manufacturer. An engineer’s job is to create models for the parts they make. It would be a waste of time to create models for the components they purchase, because these often account for 50-70% of the final design. Engineers prefer to source these CAD models directly from the supplying manufacturer because it saves time and is guaranteed to be an accurate representation of the product.

When a manufacturer provides CAD engineering data on-demand, it accelerates the design process and becomes powerful lead generator, delivering value to their engineering audience. Manufacturers often “gate” this content, by placing behind a form. Engineers understand this transaction because the manufacturer is sharing their proprietary data, and often provide relevant product updates or application-specific information.

CAD product data is evergreen content; it will remain relevant for years to come. It also has “pull-though” power, meaning the part number on the model carries to the bill-of-materials (BOM). When the design and BOM are passed from engineering to the purchasing department, they know this exact product has been test-fit and approved. When an engineer downloads a CAD model, many manufacturers see this as a “soft sale” or a strong indicator for a future, physical sale.

You can learn more about using CAD models as lead generation tools on The CADENAS PartSolutions website.

Method 6: Run a joint webinar with an industry powerhouse

Joint webinars fit nicely into a bigger picture demand generation strategy like I described in the intro to this article, but they can also stand alone as single events aimed at lead generation.

The idea with a joint webinar is to team up with another company that’s targeting the same audience as you (and can lend complementary expertise to those individuals).

For example, one of our clients, Mission Design & Automation is a robotics systems integrator and certified Fanuc partner. They recently teamed up with Fanuc to deliver a joint webinar bringing their respective areas of expertise together:

Raw materials and robotics: Resilient automation in the construction manufacturing supply chain

The benefits of a joint webinar can be immense

In many cases, your partner’s brand name will lend significant credibility to yours simply by association. And depending on the size of their organization, their email list likely dwarfs yours, allowing you to access a much larger audience.

If you’re thinking, “This all sounds great, but isn’t it easier said than done?”, you may be surprised. All it takes is one person from the partner organization to say yes. And many of you already have those relationships.

Here are some other ideas for joint webinars:

  • If you’re in the industrial controls space (and a Rockwell or Siemens partner), could you team up with someone you already know well from their team to deliver a joint digital event?
  • If you’re an industry 4.0 software company that delivers machine analytics, could you team up with a machine builder who uses your product to walk through a use case and success story?
  • If you’re a machine shop, could you team up with an industry organization where your audience is active to deliver helpful content in a live setting?

Offer to do the hard work. Set up the webinar. Create the promotional emails. Just ask them to show up. That’s value for everyone involved.

If you’re interested in learning more about running an effective webinar in general, take a look at our blog post, “18 ways to do a better manufacturing webinar.”

So there you have it

Before you choose your tactic, I encourage you to first go back to the beginning of this article and consider whether a lead generation or demand generation approach makes more sense for your business.

For many of you, it’s probably some combination of the two.

But at least on the lead generation front, hopefully this piece has spurred some ideas to get you started.