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Think Big. Move Fast.

There has been some vigorous comment discussion on the post of 2007 consumer internet predictions, mostly about the lead gen prediction. Firstly, its wonderful to get comments – thank you. When you first start blogging it feels like shouting out a window into the darkness; you’re not really sure if anyone is out there, listening. It’s good to know that I’m not just talking to myself!

On to lead gen. There were two broad schools of thought on the state of lead gen. One is epitomized by a Jason Calacanis’ comment which, while lacking in detail, none the less crisply conveys his opinion of the industry and those who work in it.

Lead generation is dead. Companies would really be foolish to start a new leadgen company – especially NOW. Geesh.

Others shared more detail, and see a troubling situation as the arbitrage opportunities between buying CPC advertising and selling leads dry up. The markets, both in paid search and in remnant banner advertising, have become more efficient, squeezing margins for lead gen companies.

Yet others are more optimistic. Langley Steinert (co-founder of TripAdvisor, now CEO of Cargurus.com, and one of the pioneers of lead generation) believes that advertisers would much prefer to pay for leads, and others agree, although sometimes with reservations about if this is in the long term interest of the lead buyers

How can we reconcile some of these positions?

Simplifying substantially, lead gen comprises three processes:

1. Acquiring traffic (e.g. from paid search, organic search, brand advertising, banner advertising, distribution deals etc).
2. Converting traffic to leads through a form-fill process
3. Finding the highest value for a lead among multiple buyers (ie having a network of advertisers and knowing who placed what value on each lead)

Historically, most lead gen companies have been vertically integrated, doing all three processes. Also, historically, lead gen has been focused on a small number of industries, including mortgage lending (including refi, and home equity), consumer credit (including credit cards, educational lending, auto loans), new auto sales and online education.

In these industries, I think it’s fair to say that margins are shrinking and that competition is growing fiercer. The market, while not perfect, is becoming a lot more efficient. Some companies have established a competitive advantage in process #1 by locking in traffic either from organic search, from long term distribution deals, or by having established branded destinations (e.g. Lending Tree). Others have established a competitive advantage in process #3 through the breadth of their buyer network (e.g. Autobytel). Entering these markets today is going to be a tough road to hoe.

As I said in my prior post, I think we’ll see similar principles applied in other categories that also have high customer value, can sustain a sales person’s costs, are infrequent purchases by consumers and have complexity in the decision making process. Possibilities include wedding photography, plastic surgery, LASIK, cosmetic dentistry, eldercare, even business purchases. These categories still allow arbitrage opportunities between CPC advertising and lead gen as they are still inefficient. However, they will also become efficient over time, and long term winners will need to establish competitive advantage in processes #1 and #2 as outlined above.

Interestingly enough, some companies, notably Leadpoint and Root Exchange, are trying to commoditize process #3 by establishing a “marketplace” for buyers and sellers of leads to efficiently find each other (taking a cut of the transaction in the process). If they are successful in doing this in the newer lead gen markets, they will serve to accelerate the margin compression and force successful lead gen companies to focus on the three elements of traffic acquisition that can sustain arbitrage: organic search traffic, branded destination traffic and long term distribution relationships.

It will be interesting to see how this industry plays out. Comments and thoughts, especially from industry practitioners, most welcome.

UPDATE: Some very interesting comments posted – worth reading if you are only getting a feed

15 Responses to Lead gen is dead. Long live lead gen

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