January 21, 2014
Case Study

Email Marketing: 133% ROI for B2B's first-ever lead nurturing program

SUMMARY: Lead nurturing is a powerful strategy, but launching it can be daunting especially when you're building from scratch. How should you get started?

This case study featuring an accounting and consulting firm covers building a lead nurturing strategy from the ground up and hit 133% return on investment after only seven months. You’ll see how the team set topics, mapped content to the sales funnel, and navigated bumps in the road.
by Adam Sutton, Senior Reporter


Christine Elliot knew the research. As director of content strategy and digital marketing at Crowe Horwath, a public accounting and consulting firm, she knew that lead nurturing could fill leaks in the sales funnel and lift ROI.

When she started to work with a business unit in the firm called the "performance group," she was glad to hear that she did not have to sell the idea to its leaders.

"It definitely came straight from them," Elliot said. "I did not have to do a lot of education on getting them to see nurturing as the solution."

Everyone wanted a nurturing program, but how to get one started was an open question. Crowe Horwath had never built one.


Elliot's team built a successful lead nurturing program from scratch. Even with a 12- to 18-month sales cycle, the program more than doubled its ROI in roughly half that time.

Here are the steps the team followed.

Step #1. Set a narrow target

Crowe Horwath's performance group helps firms improve processes, technology, data and other areas related to performance. When the team set out to build a nurturing program, they focused on banking customers.

Leads nurtured in the program would be:
  • C-suite executives — such as chief financial officers, chief risk officers and chief officers of operations
  • Large financial institutions — at least $1 billion in assets

Step #2. Gather information

The team held a day-long meeting with members of the performance group. This included leaders of the group, subject matter experts, leaders from Sales and the marketing team.

The meeting helped Elliot’s team gather information. The group walked through each service it offered banking customers including the following:
  • Business drivers — Why would someone purchase this service?

  • Buying experience — Who brings us into an organization? Who is involved in the process? What is each person’s role?

  • Success drivers — When we earned new customers, what were the reasons why?

Step #3. Set topics for content

For the nurturing program, the team planned to send leads free offers for premium content via email. The information gathered in the meeting from the previous step helped set the topics for the content.

"Understanding those business drivers at a high level was key," Elliot said. "The most important thing to us was to base it on the issues that the C-suite cared about, not our services."

The team chose four topics.
  • Dodd-Frank — Officially known as "Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act," this law brought new regulations to the financial industry that affected Crowe Horwath's audience.

  • Anti-money laundering — Legislation intended to prevent money laundering was another regulatory issue of importance to potential customers.

  • Process improvement — "Performance improvement overall is, always has been, and always will be, a huge focus in banking," Elliot said.

  • Core systems — Many banks were evaluating and replace core systems at the time, Elliot said.

Step #4. Map content to the funnel

The team wanted to give each of the topics a separate track in the nurture program. Leads that expressed interest one a topic would enter a track and receive emails focused on that topic.

Each track needed the right mix of content. The team wanted material that could interest leads at every point of the sales cycle:
  • Early stage — This content focused exclusively on entry-level concepts on the topic, such as the challenges it causes and the benefits of solving them. The material did not discuss the firm or its services.

  • Middle stage — Leads in the middle of the funnel understand the issue, realize it presents challenges, and see the benefits of solving it. Content in this section introduced considerations for addressing the problem, such as how to assess needs and what to review before starting.

  • Late stage — Content at the end of the funnel brought Crowe Horwath into the picture. It was designed to help leads pick the right solution and prove to others in their organizations that it was worth pursuing. Case studies often work well at this stage, Elliot said.

"There are tons of models out there that have six stages, or however many, but we just started with early, mid and late," Elliot explained.

Step #5. Outline the program

Elliot could now clearly see the audience, topics and roles of content in the sales funnel. Now the team needed to set the nurturing process into action.

Here is an outline of the program.

Content invitation

The team started with a list of 4,000 executives. They were emailed an offer for a piece of content once every four weeks. The topics cycled through the four areas identified by the team in Step #3.

Pull leads into a track

Anyone who downloaded content from an invitation email entered into the team’s nurturing program. The program had four tracks, one for each topic set by the team. Leads entered the track associated with the topic of their initial download.

Once in the program, leads stopped receiving invitation emails. Instead, they received one email every three weeks with an offer for free content. Each track had a mix of early-, mid-, and late-stage content. The team planned to have 12 pieces in each track, equaling 48 pieces across the program.

Send leads to Sales

Leads became sales-ready after they did one of the following:
  • Downloaded three pieces of content

  • Or, downloaded one piece of late-stage content

These criteria later changed, as you’ll see below. The marketing team sent a spreadsheet of new leads to the sales team every two weeks.

Step #6. Find and make content

The team had the plan, now it needed the material.

During a short audit, the team found only two pieces it could use across the firm. The good news was each was about 20 pages long and had good information that could be repurposed into smaller pieces.

The team outlined the three stages of the sales cycle for each track in a spreadsheet. Then, they went through the pieces and listed pages that fitted parts of the program. For example, two pages might fit the middle stage of the Dodd-Frank track.

After repurposing, the team needed another 15 pieces to complete the program. It outsourced the task to a third-party provider that connected with Crowe Horwath's internal thought leaders to generate the material.

Step #7. Refine sales follow-up

The marketing and sales teams held regular meetings to discuss the new leads and how they performed. The teams made several improvements in the following months.

Progressive profiling

Instead of filling out a lengthy form, leads had to answer only a single question to download something. This gradually gave the team a rich profile of some leads, Elliot said.

"We always gave options like 'none' and 'other,' so they didn't have to answer the question to get the content. But people did," Elliot explained.

Many of the questions helped the team judge the quality of the lead. At least one asked if the person wanted to receive emails on a different topic, and thereby change tracks.

Better lead scoring

The initial criteria the team used to select sales-ready leads were somewhat arbitrary, Elliot said. To send better leads to Sales, as well as address other issues in the follow-up process, the sales and marketing teams held a summit.

For one day, the teams poured through troves of data to find the information that distinguished great leads from the not-so-great. After the summit, the marketing team scored every lead based on these criteria by hand.

"I literally sat there for six hours and scored every single person in the nurture program," Elliot said.

Here are some of the factors that affected a lead’s score:
  • Asset size

  • Title

  • Behavior: Such as whether the person switched tracks, downloaded three or more pieces, or forwarded material.

"If you can't figure out from all of the data what's meaningful and what's not, though it will change and your knowledge will grow, you can't sustain a program like this," Elliot added.


Once the team started to score leads, results improved and both teams were excited.

Crowe Horwath's sales cycle lasts from 12 to 18 months on average, but the program hit 133% ROI after only seven months.

"It really is exciting and it's a great success story for us," Elliot said.

More results from the same period included:
  • 33% of invited executives entered the program

  • 75% to 80% open rate for nurturing emails

This was the first automated nurturing program at Crowe Horwath. It has become a model the team uses to deploy similar programs across the company.

"Now we're expanding all over the firm," Elliot concluded.

Creative Samples

  1. Invitation email

  2. Content offer email


Crowe Horwath

Related Resources

Marketing Research Chart: Messaging tactics for effective lead nurturing

Marketing Research Chart: The ROI of lead nurturing

Lead Nurturing: How a social business strategy can help you move from selling to helping your prospects

Lead Nurturing: 5 tips for creating relevant content

Email Marketing: The importance of lead nurturing in the complex B2B sale

Lead Nurturing: 12 questions answered on content, tactics and strategy

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