How to Create a B2B Prospect List for Your Organization

“Once properly positioned, building your target list of prospects to whom you will be most compelling and relevant should be easy.
    ~Blair Enns

I couldn’t believe my ears a few years ago when I first heard this concept floated by David C Baker and Blair Enns. Build a list? Why? To ask strangers for business? How awkward! I built a 20-person tech consulting firm on, let’s be honest, word of mouth and relationships. For years, I never even contemplated a prospect list, let alone cold email outreach. Well, I was a dumb business owner because word of mouth leads only last so many years. And they’re unpredictable. At some point, you have to get proactive about your business development.

So David and Blair were right. I’d take it one step further: not only should you be able to build a list, and build one, but you should build one right now, even if you don’t think you need it. There is no such thing as too many leads or too much demand for your products and services.

So if you don’t have that B2B prospect list on hand right now, keep reading.

By the way, while list-building can be used for many purposes (including an SEO backlink building campaign) this article is about building a list to reach out to via email – with the intention of introducing yourself as an ideal services provider. It mostly deals with Sales Navigator, but also considers several other tools and resources.

This is a very long article, so feel free to skip ahead

By the way, we’re not talking about known quantities here, such as businesses connected to family and friends, or businesses belonging to people you’ve met.

Those ones should already be on your list. You might call that a lead list, which is what we’re trying to create here.

What we’re talking about are organizations you may have never heard and which you certainly have no connection to. You’re going to contact the people on this list and introduce yourself. You might even ask for their business. Strangers.

But more about that later – we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The first step is to ask yourself, “why am I taking this step”. 

Answer: to provide people who you can help with the opportunity to benefit from your services. 

That does sound a bit Orwellian. But it’s true. This is the purpose of advertising as defined by David Ogilvy: to help. To make a match between buyer and seller. To be an orderly signpost in the crowded marketplace.

But am I the kind of person who needs a B2B prospect list for? 

But but. Emailing or calling people you don’t know, to sell your own services? Is that even legal? Is ethical? Yes and yes, as long as your intention is to create value not just for yourself but for whoever is on your list when you reach out to them.

They used to call it direct marketing and do it by postal mail. Here we’re calling it B2B direct marketing. It’s not the only way to market what you have, but it’s a valuable tool in your arsenal.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be building an email list. Which is because I have very little experience with cold calling, though this kind of list building is more commonly used for that purpose.

Why is B2B prospect list building a valuable tool?

Because it can be a way to regulate the demand for your services and create predictable growth, as opposed to the kind of haphazard growth that comes from word-of-mouth marketing. Inbound marketing based on SEO (perhaps the most powerful and cost-effective type of lead generation there is) is also unpredictable. 

The first and most important step in this process is deciding what type of person should be on your list. For me, that means owners of B2B products and services firms who need help with marketing strategy and lead generation, in particular.

The Role of Positioning in Building a B2B Prospect List

For some of you, your product speaks for itself (or at least it should if it’s well named, designed, and packaged). It’s pretty obvious what your positioning is if you’re selling dog waste bags made from organic, earth-friendly materials. But what if you’re selling a service or software-as-a-service – coaching, recruiting, social media marketing, event planning, SEO, web design, financial planning?

As a general rule, you probably have to be a little more specific than that. What kind of recruiting? What industries, what geographic region. What kinds of events do you plan and what do you do exactly in your role as an event planner?

B2B Prospect List
Bad positioning

The more specific you are, the easier it is to build your list.

It’s obvious when you think about the absurd extreme on the other end of the spectrum. What if you put nothing more than the word “bags” on your box of biodegradable doggy waste bags.

Now, who would buy that? A friend or family member might if they knew the box contained amazing eco-friendly dog bags. 

But would you buy a box of “bags” from a stranger? Of course not. So don’t be a plain box of bags. Qualify your services with some level of subspecialty and set yourself apart from the other 10,000 “SEO consultants” out there.

That’s a very rudimentary overview of positioning, but hopefully, I’m making the point. All marketing is difficult with good positioning; direct marketing to strangers is damn near impossible. For more about positioning, read any of the many things that Blair Enns has written about it over the years. Ten tests of your positioning, for example.

If you have what Blair and others call “vertical positioning”, then you’re in luck when it comes to building a list because vertical positioning gives you an industry to search through. As he puts it in that article

The importance of positioning becomes even more obvious when we look at where to find data.

Ok, so I’m Well Positioned. Now what?

Now comes the fun part, for me at least. This is the hunt, the databases we mine for your prospective clients. Where we do this hunting depends a lot on your positioning, but here are a few possibilities:

  • For local-based services, Chamber of Commerce websites or other Busines Associations
  • For national or international services, websites like Crunchbase or ProductHunter
  • Commercial business listings providers, such as Experian, Data.com Connect (as Jigsaw was cleverly[?] re-branded after Salesforce bought it), or melissa.com.
  • Audience data providers (offering granular demographic and psychographic prospect enrichment data), such as AudienceScience and BlueKai; there are dozens of options and each one is quite different. If you’re running a multi-channel cold outreach campaign that combines in-person or direct mail contact, audience data providers can provide terrific insight.
  • Attendee lists of conferences in your industry (protip: look for sponsors as they tend to have more money); also tradeshows.
  • Your competitor’s client portfolio
  • An SEO/SEM database provider, such as Ahrefs, SEMRush, or Spyfu
  • My personal favorite, LinkedIn Sales Navigator
B2B List Buying
Experian will sell you a list of owners of small coal-industry firms who are doing well.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Some people buy “pre-built” lists too. In the example to the left, Experian will sell you a list of the owners of every profitable small business in the coal mining industry in the state of California ($1500 for about 15,000 prospects). It uses the SIC categorization system, which I discuss later in this article.

If you have something very useful to those business people, you might be able to turn a profit on that $1,500. Especially if it’s something especially useful to people in the coal mining business.

A word about buying lists. It’s really not immoral to buy lists, in my opinion; especially from vendors of commercial business listings. People confuse buying “done-for-you” lists and buying “pre-built” lists (“done-for-you-and-any-other-sucker”).

What’s really unwise are buying those”pre-built” lists. Why? Mostly because you’re paying too much. Then you have to spend the time to qualify the lists manually anyway.

With a little work and research, you can probably build a better list yourself than commercial providers can give you. That’s especially true if you’re in a rapidly evolving industry, unlike coal mining, which is what my ancestors did when they came from  Wales to a British colony known as Georgia in the mid-1600s. What I’m trying to say is that some businesses, like coal mining, have been around a lot longer than others, like being an Instagram influencer.

That’s why we’re talking about building your own, positioning-derived B2B prospect list. In a sense, you are designing it, curating it, shaping it… for high conversions. And that brings us to one of the most effective listing building tools on the market, LinkedIn.

Building a B2B Prospect List Using Market Segmentation

In the old days, and still today, the business landscape was segmented by a system called SIC, “Standard Industrial Classification”. In fact, Experian and many other commercial providers of list buying services allow you to filter their business listing by SIC code. SIC is a well-intentioned attempt to categorize all businesses in existence by 10 groupings and 89 subgroupings.

Undoubtedly, thousands or millions of marketing campaigns have been run against prospects lists segmented using SIC codes over the 80 years that it’s been in existence. And while it will still work for some industries (the SIC code for anthracite mining is 1231, FYI), SIC is showing its age.

SIC is an inadequate marketing segmentation system in the digital era, but NAICS is hardly an improvement

Actually, SIC was already showing its age before the digital era. In 1977, in response to a more dynamic, fragmented economy that saw the rise of small businesses as a major driver of the United States economy, a new system was introduced, called NAICS, the North American Industry Classification System. The newer NAICS system continues to be widely used today. In fact, it is in use by none other than… LinkedIn! 

But that’s not what makes LinkedIn probably the best database available to build a custom, manually curated B2B prospect list. In fact, it’s because LinkedIn doesn’t rely on NAICS that it’s such a valuable resource.

One more small qualm with SIC/NAICS (which are both provided to you courtesy of the American taxpayer-sponsored Bureau of Labor): it mostly applies to the US and Canada, so if you’re targeting the global marketplace with those tools, you’re out of luck. So while understanding your audience within the context of NAICS is a wonderful exercise, there are probably better ways to segment your audience.

Using LinkedIn Sales Navigator to Build Your Outreach List

If you were waiting for the catch, here it is: this entire post is predicated on building a list not using just LinkedIn, but LinkedIn Sales Navigator, which costs $80/month. That adds up over a year, so you might just want to try the one-month free trial. Catch #2, though, is that list-building takes practice and you’re definitely not master it in a month. 

At least you’ll have a better idea of whether this could be an effective lead generation strategy for you, however.

As you may know, LinkedIn allows you to search for “People”. With Sales Navigator, that ability is extended by (a) unlimited searches, (b) the ability to save those searches as exportable lists, and (c) the ability to filter your search by an extraordinary range of demographic segments.

(This is the same reason why LinkedIn Ads is such an effective B2B advertising platform.)

Consider a few all of the search facets that LinkedIn makes available to you, and it quickly becomes clear why LinkedIn is a much more precise list building tool than the SIC/NAICS database or anything else currently on the market:

[table id=1 /]

* these segments only available on Sales Navigator (or LinkedIn Ads)

As you can see, there is an enormous amount of data to build a targeted lead list on. In fact, there is enough to do more than segment by “vertical”. One of the most powerful fields is the title field, probably the most useful field available in the free version, but 5x as powerful in Sales Navigator. Why? 

Nuanced Segmentation by Job Title

For one thing, titles are becoming extremely variegated and specific, as job roles take on finer and finer nuances. Consider these common job roles in the software industry:

  • Programmer
  • Software Engineer
  • Software Developer
  • Software Architect
  • QA Engineer
  • Software Consultant
  • Pre-sales Engineer
  • Solutions Architect

Some of these titles are close in meaning, some are very different. But in 1980, all of these roles might simply have been called “Programmer”. 

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. What if you could target not software architects, but professional who used to be called software architects? Chances are, you have a decision maker, given that the architect role tends to be a fairly senior one, to begin with. Add in extra qualification, such as:

  • Formerly held “Software Architect” and “Senior Sofware Architect” roles (implying promotion pattern)
  • 12+ years of experience
  • Posted content keyword includes “business analysis”
  • Company size 100 or greater

And chances are you have a high-level technical decision-maker without even knowing her current title.

This example just scratches the surface, but hopefully, you get the idea.

The next step is to get your targets out of LinkedIn and into a CRM.

But we’re missing one crucial step.

Custom, Manual Qualification: Find Decision Makers You Can Help

I would encourage you not to use this technique to gather as many contacts and you can and blast emails at them. I would encourage you not to email anyone that you cannot be of service to either. And when I say of service, I mean your product or service is the perfect fit for them, not just that you think you can (or want to) sell it to them.

This goes back to the importance of positioning that we discussed at the outset of this article, but it goes even deeper than that. Not only should the people in your outreach list fit your vertical (industry, company type) and horizontal positioning, but there should be demographic qualifications.

Does their job title indicate that they’ll understand your services, does their authority (as inferred from the collection of parameters we looked at above, for example) allow them to purchase or recommend your service? 

Look at their website and digital presence; based on their blog posts, social content, and other factors, do you see that your services or product are needed?

What you want, ultimately, is a small, fine-tuned list of prospects. Don’t think 10,000, think 10. 

And start with one. Thoroughly evaluate your possibilities and identify that one person who might definitely benefit from hearing from you.

Now you have captured the proper spirit of this exercise and are permitted to proceed to the final step.

Assigning Email Addresses to Your B2B Prospect List

Fortunately for you and me, we’re building an email prospecting list, not one used for telemarketing, so we don’t need a phone number, just an email address. 

If you make a connection with someone on LinkedIn, you may have access to both, but this strategy is not a LinkedIn outreach one, but a LinkedIn research one. So we need to get the email address by using name and company name for each of our contacts. This is honestly trivial, if time-consuming. Pretty much every work email address in existence is easily reverse engineered using the email permutator.

The idea is that based on first name (Rowan), last name (Price), and company domain name (rowanprice.com), you have about a 99.99% that their work email will be one of the following:

rowan@rowanprice.com
price@rowanprice.com
rowanprice@rowanprice.com
rowan.price@rowanprice.com
rprice@rowanprice.com
r.price@rowanprice.com
rowanp@rowanprice.com
rowan.p@rowanprice.com
rp@rowanprice.com
r.p@rowanprice.com
pricerowan@rowanprice.com
price.rowan@rowanprice.com
pricer@rowanprice.com
price.r@rowanprice.com
prowan@rowanprice.com
p.rowan@rowanprice.com
pr@rowanprice.com
p.r@rowanprice.com
rprice@rowanprice.com
r.price@rowanprice.com
rowanprice@rowanprice.com

Figuring out which is the right one is just a matter of testing.

There are plenty of other tools available, including ones that collect actually email addresses off of websites, such as Hunter.io (which has a handy Chrome extension for picking up email addresses when you are investigating your prospects’ websites).

Some of them offer limited list generation features, too, like Zoominfo, RocketReach, and Skrapp.io, allowing you to glean details like address or location (useful in account-based marketing).

If you can identify commonalities among your prospects, you might also think about doing some advanced personalization beyond, “Hi [First Name]”. But that’s not as important as it sounds. Here’s what matters:

Final Step: Don’t Spam, Be of Service

As a final note of caution, please be aware that cannot use this technique to send commercial appeals in some countries and that even in the US, it’s a violation of the CAN-SPAM Act to use this technique in conjunction with a commercial email services provider. 

There are many tools on the market that let you send cold emails from your own mail service (ie Gmail) that will let you get around the limitation on using an ESP. Quickmail is just one example (and this also is the approach used by Pitchbox, which facilitates cold email outreach for SEO backlink building).

But the larger point here is to use this technique in a very targeted, conscientious way: 1-on-1 emails (and this applies equally to asking for an SEO backlink and to asking for a sales conversation). You should have gone over your list and your prospects enough times to have a pretty good sense who they are and what their companies are like. Some of the best practitioners apply cold email outreach to the larger context of account-based marketing, using tools like Outreach.io.

Most importantly, though is, know how you can be of service to each prospect on your list.