The state of outbound sales: does it still work in 2021?

If you think about lead generation in 2021, cold outreach wouldn’t be at the top of your head. Which isn’t really surprising since most people consider it a thing of the past (put mildly).

And that’s true, to some extent. Traditional telemarketing has long become obsolete, making anyone involved in outbound sales a kind of outcast pestering people on the phone with some shady offers or sending out spam.

Yet, the outbound sales tech market is growing like crazy! A case in point is the latest funding rounds of Outreach ($200 million at a $4.4 billion valuation) and, the very next day, Gong ($250 million at a $7.25 billion valuation).

This clearly shows that cold outreach is alive and well. So anyone claiming that it doesn’t work is most likely doing it wrong.

If you’re one of them, read on to get some tips and tactics to get outbound sales right in 2021.

The introduction to outbound sales

There are more aspects to outbound sales than direct calls or emails. That TV ad interrupting your favorite show? That flyer you’ve been handed on your way to work? That connection request from a stranger on LinkedIn? Like it or not, we’re all constantly being sold to without even realizing it.

In a nutshell, the term “outbound” refers to the sales (or marketing) tactics aimed at engaging potential buyers who have no previous interactions with your brand but might be interested in your product or service.

Unlike the inbound sales tactics, where potential customers already have realized the need and intentionally reach out to you for the solution, outbound leads might not be aware of your product/service or even the need for those to start with.

Your goal is to build awareness, help them realize the opportunity, and eventually convince them to buy from you. This is typically achieved through several steps within a typical outbound sales cycle, i.e.:

  1. Identifying your target audience and ICPs
  2. Executing lead generation, i.e. list building
  3. Performing lead qualification — background research and segmentation
  4. Executing sales outreach (until the prospects respond)
  5. Negotiating/closing the deal

Being able to hand-pick the prospects and reach out to them puts you in charge of the process from the very start, offering a ton of benefits as well as posing certain challenges.

3 benefits (and 3 challenges) of cold outreach

It goes without saying that inbound close rates are typically higher than those of cold outreach. After all, a person who has willingly contacted you to make a purchase should have already gone through half of the stages of the sales cycle. Outbound leads, on the other hand, require some time and effort before they are ready to commit.

That said, the three main drawbacks of cold outreach are:

  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint (as mentioned above) since most sequences contain 10-20 touchpoints typically spanning over 1 month.
  • It takes effort. Despite a fair level of automation, cold outreach isn’t a set-and-forget tactic. You need to personalize the messages, keep track of deliverability, as well as regularly add more leads into the sequence.
  • It comes with rejection and bias, especially if you fail to do it right (we’ll get to that).

At the same time, there are enough cold outreach benefits to counterweight the drawbacks, including:

  • It’s affordable. Cold outreach doesn’t require a hefty investment — you can get started with as little as a corporate Gmail account and a free email finder.
  • It’s a reliable source of high-quality leads. Once you get it right, cold outreach can consistently generate a pipeline for your business.
  • It’s effective. There are many examples of how a single cold email helped secure millions in funding, so you have all the chances to get people to buy your product thanks to outreach.

It’s also worth mentioning that cold outreach is a perfect tactic for business or early-stage startups to test assumptions, new products or ideas. And, since you reach decision-makers directly and early in the buying process, it can help you get ahead of the competition with your offer.

Yet, the cold outreach success doesn’t come easy. You need a solid strategy to reap the listed benefits.

How to make cold outreach work in 2021?

As a sales professional, you might be familiar with Cold Calling 2.0 — the approach suggested 10 years ago by Aaron Ross in his best-selling book Predictable Revenue (basically, the SDR’s bible). Simply put, it implies getting a referral, usually via email, prior to cold calling the target prospect.

While the tactic is still pretty popular, it has long evolved to become what might be considered Cold Calling 3.0 or even 4.0 — with more tactics, more channels, more personalized messaging, etc.

Let’s take a closer look at the aspects of an effective outbound prospecting strategy fit for 2021.

1. Know who you’re targeting

First off, you need to understand exactly who you’re targeting with your outreach. From defining your buyer persona to lead research and pre-qualification, this process is extremely time-consuming, but also very important to your success.

A good practice is to follow the 5/2 rule, i.e. contact 5 people within the same company, 2 of which are decision-makers with purchasing power. This approach also perfectly fits account-based sales strategies.

Yet, since finding 5 contacts might not always be possible, we usually pick 3 different types of personas to target:

  • Evaluator – the person in charge of the department that will be utilizing the software (in our case it’s the SDR team leader)
  • Influencer – typically the product’s end-user within the company (i.e. SDR, sales rep)
  • Decision-maker – mostly a VP or C-level Executive (i.e. VP of sales, CEO, founder)

Once you’ve set your targets, make sure to do some background research on each one of them. This includes the key data points for your CRM or SEP, e.g., full name, contact info, location, interests, or anything that might help you personalize your outreach, as well as some intent signals that might serve as a reason for outreach (more on that later).

2. “Warm up” your leads

As mentioned above, cold outreach isn’t about aggressively calling every person on your list. It’s best to take some time to build awareness prior to reaching out. This will help you prepare the ground for your future outreach.

A good idea would be to try and establish a connection with a few subtle touchpoints. The easiest way to do so is by engaging with the prospects on social media. If we’re talking about B2B, LinkedIn should be your first choice.

You can simply view their profile, send a connection request, engage with the content they have shared, join the same group or join the same discussion in the comments to someone else’s post, or launch an ad campaign focused on the selected leads.

If you’re targeting salespeople, you can even get them to contact you first by interacting with some lead magnets on their website. Whatever works for your specific audience!

Your goal here is to make sure that when your email lands in the prospect’s inbox, your name or photo will ring a bell in their mind. Also, any previous contacts might serve as a great ice-breaker, justifying your outreach.

3. Adopt multichannel approach

Building awareness prior to outreach isn’t the only way to utilize social media touchpoints. It’s also a great way to follow up with the prospects who haven’t responded yet.

What’s more, there are tons of effective outreach channels outside of calls or automated emails you should be using in your sales engagement sequences, including:

  • Voicemail
  • Manual email, e.g. featuring personalized snippet or custom video
  • SMS/messengers (although we typically use this channel for inbound leads only)
  • Social touches on LinkedIn or other social networks
  • Custom tasks, e.g. in-person visit, blog post comment or share, etc.
  • Direct mail, e.g. send a letter, your company swag, amazon gift card, etc.
  • ABS and ABM, e.g. campaign-specific ads on LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, etc. to target prospects from your lists

Here’s a sample outbound sequence template to illustrate this approach:

4. Personalize your messages

An effective email personalization goes beyond the default {{FirstName}} opening. The least you can do to make sure your emails don’t feel generic is to use additional data points to create advanced variables, e.g.:

  • Technographics: “I’m reaching out to you as I’ve noticed that you at {{Company}} are using {{Technographics}} as your CRM.”
  • The number of times they have opened your previous email: “I see you’ve opened my email {{Opens}} times.”
  • Day: “Have a nice {{day_of_week}}!” or “How’s your {{today}} going?”

When reaching out to the people outside of the US, we often include a greeting or an opening question (i.e. “how are you?”) in their native language not just to be polite but also to grab their attention.

An even better strategy is to use personalized images or videos to make your emails engaging and warm. Luckily, Hyperise makes it so easy to do that.

If you’re looking for an even higher degree of personalization, you can even send a manual email with 100% custom snippet or video to impress your prospects. However, we recommend using this touchpoint as an initial email to the top-tier prospects or a final follow-up.

5. Don’t get carried away with automation

While it might be tempting to put your whole outreach on autopilot, 100% automated sequences are typically less effective than those using an effective mix of automated and manual touchpoints.

Manual tasks include hyper-personalized emails (the ones featuring custom videos or snippets), direct calls or voicemail as well as voice messages on LinkedIn or more advanced interactions like sending a hand-written note by mail. These help you make your outreach more humane and relevant.

Automated steps in the sequence, on the other hand, allow you to scale your outreach and free up some time to do some additional research, test assumptions and polish your sequences based on their performance, and communicate with engaged prospects.

Our go-to outbound sales tactic — intent-based outreach

Sadly, personalizing your messages isn’t always enough to make your cold outreach relevant at scale. That is why our SDRs have developed an intent-based approach to sales engagement.

Simply put, this means targeting people who have previously shown any interest in what you have to offer. This might be anything that clearly shows buying intent for your product or service, e.g.:

  • Website visits, aka dark funnel leads
  • Technographics — the specific technology or tools they’re using
  • Growth signals — new funding round, acquisitions, mergers, etc.

You can even track relevant signals, e.g. competitor or relevant keyword mentions, with social listening tools. In this case, if the prospect has voiced dissatisfaction about your competitor, you can use that info as the reason for outreach to make your outreach not just appealing, but also timely.

As for our team, we’ve been using hiring intent signals to target sales leaders looking to grow their teams and position our product as a more affordable and easy way to scale their efforts without hiring more SDRs. Here’s how it works.

  • First, we find companies currently hiring SDRs on sites like Glassdoor or LinkedIn Jobs.
  • Next, we identify the contact person who matches our ICP and look up their contact info.
  • Once we have the required data, we add them to the sequence and send the first email that would read like this:

Hi {{FirstName}},

I’m reaching out to you because I noticed on {{Company}}’s {{Job Site}} page that you’re hiring {{Job Openings Title}}.

Reply is designed for sales teams and helps Account Executives and SDRs automate communications with your existing or potential clients and put email outreach on autopilot while keeping communication personal.

Would you be open to a call to see how we could help {{Company}}’s sales team?

To make it more appealing, we also include a personalized image of their job listing. Thanks to laser-focused targeting and personalization, such emails consistently drive pretty high open and reply rates generating plenty of high-quality opportunities.

Conclusion

It might seem that there’s no room for cold outreach in the world dominated by inbound marketing. However, for that very reason, outbound tactics can serve as a pattern interrupt, allowing you to capture the lead’s attention and propel their buying process.

If you think about the strategies we’ve detailed above, you might notice that the suggested approach to outreach is far from being “cold.” Using intent data, retargeting, subtle engagement touchpoints, hyper-personalization will help you make your outreach more warm and genuine.

That’s why using the right mix of inbound and outbound tactics in your outreach is the best way to build a reliable pipeline for your business.