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The radical NoMQL movement in content marketing

Let me start by saying that if you get the joke in the above tweet — even if you don’t find it a particularly good joke — you have marketing technologist street cred.

This story starts with a post I read by Dave Gerhardt, the head of marketing at Drift, which I had seen circulating on Twitter, stirring the content marketing pot: Why We’re Throwing Out All Of Our Lead Forms And Making Content Free.

It’s like a John Lennon song, “Imagine there’s no lead form — I wonder if you can.”

As Dave points out, gating “premium” content — white papers, reports, ebooks, webinars, etc. — with lead generation forms has been a staple of certainly B2B digital marketing over the past decade. For many companies, this is a primary feeder of marketing qualified leads (MQLs).

According to the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProf’s annual survey, lead generation is the #1 organizational goal for B2B content marketing.

So when David Cancel, Drift’s CEO, proposed eliminating all forms in front of the marketing team’s content, you can probably imagine Dave’s puzzlement. Say what?

But as Dave thought through it — a process he candidly describes in his post — it started to make more sense. He recognized that many of the brands and products he loves, like Slack and MailChimp, don’t gate their content. People adopt and then advocate for those products because they genuinely love them, not because they’ve been “nurtured” to do so through a back-and-forth volley of lead forms and email follow-ups.

So they decided to do it: they nixed all gating forms to all marketing content.

Now, a few caveats to note, as I can hear spluttering objections through the screen:

  • They still invite people to optionally subscribe to their newsletter.
  • They still have people sign up to try their product (“freemium trials”).
  • Freemium trials are not the same as leads, but they’re not entirely dissimilar either.
  • Freemium trials obviously only work for businesses than can offer such things.
  • The results of this grand experiment over time remain to be seen.

So the circumstances for Drift make this more feasible for them than it might be for other kinds of companies. In the fine print: your mileage may vary.

But as radical of a move as this may seem through the eyes of a marketer, if we put on a prospect’s hat — remember, we’re all committed to being customer-centric, right? — this actually seems, well, pretty nice.

No more lead forms to fill out? No more spam nuture emails or phone calls from marketing or sales people, aggressively pushing me towards the next step in their funnel? I get the content I want, when I want it, without jumping through hoops, and then I decide if and when I want to pursue a closer relationship.

That would be pleasant, wouldn’t it?

I’ve made more than a few jokes at the expense of adland executives who delusionally insist, “Consumers actually like advertising!” It just needs to be creative, targeted, relevant, yadda yadda. And then it’s A Really Good Thing. Really!

Um, no.

At best, consumers tolerate ads. And the evidence suggests that they avoid them whenever they can. Banner blindness. Ad blockers. Shifting away from ad-saturated TV.

But while it’s fun to laugh at Mr. Delusional Adperson, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge echoes of that logic in many of our “demand generation” programs. Who exactly is doing the demanding with these lead forms and email follow-ups?

Prospects may tolerate that. But it’s dubious that they like it.

In that light, Drift’s Free Your Marketing movement may be genuis. If marketing were to just focus on two things — (1) giving prospects great content and helpful utilities (interactive content), with no strings attached, and (2) making sure that our company’s products and services are truly delightful — so that customers exercise free will to buy them, renew them, and recommend them — could that grow business more effectively?

Would our brand be the better for it?

Do we have enough faith in our content and products to believe that prospects will choose us under their own impetus? (For that matter, despite all our demand generation machinery, has it ever really been otherwise?)

Marketing Wars, Episode V: Brand Marketing Strikes Back?

It’s an interesting thought.

As you contemplate that possibility, it’s worth considering that, at least in B2B marketing, lead forms and waves of “nuturing” emails are at the heart of modern marketing operations. It’s the vast majority of what marketing automation software is used for, feeding many of marketing’s KPIs.

If we stopped lead forms and nurture campaigns designed primarily to qualify prospects up to being MQLs, how would we measure marketing’s performance?

In Drift’s case, the number of freemium trial sign-ups — and the number that eventually upgrade — makes sense. For businesses that don’t have something like that, perhaps the best metric would be the number of prospects who request a conversation with sales? An authentic inbound buyer, rather than the many inbound-ish MQLs tossed over the wall to sales today?

This would disrupt plenty of existing marketing operations systems. But through the lens of customer-centricity, what’s being disrupted: our audience’s experience or just our internal apparatus?

I find myself thinking back to an article I wrote over 4 years go, Why Marketing Software Will Never Be Like ERP. Perhaps we’ve been trying too hard to make it like ERP anyway?

This content was originally published here.