Debunking The Riddle Of The Lead Source

Why is it that organizations struggle to understand where leads are coming from? What sources drive the most revenue for your business? Why is this field such a nightmare for marketing operations? One of the most painstaking tasks for a marketing team, particularly one on Salesforce and/or a marketing automation platform, is to define a static set of lead sources that represent all of the many customer engagement channels. It’s the most important report that an inbound marketer has that answers the question — where do my leads come from? Given its prominence as a pivotal marketing metric, is it possible to make sense of it all?

In marketing operations, there are few (great) best practices for achieving great Lead Source reporting. However, there is a method to the madness. If you implement Lead Source reporting correctly the first time, you won’t have to futz with it again. However, if you frequently update your list, or if your reporting isn’t telling you a compelling story, you’re probably doing something wrong. Downstream, if lead source is setup incorrectly or it’s providing inaccurate data, chances are it’s doing a lot more damage than good.

The Riddle Of The Lead Source

So where do we start? What is this Lead Source, why is it required for all my reporting, why does everyone want it, and why is there so much confusion on what it is? How do we start to understand where our leads are coming from and how do we leverage that information to improve marketing? Let’s get our hands dirty and figure it out for once and for all.

If you’re using Salesforce as your primary CRM and customer database, then the Salesforce Lead Source field is what you need to define. This means that all your apps need to feed pre-determined lead sources into Salesforce for it all to make sense. That includes integrated marketing automation platforms, advertising and social publishers, event management apps, 3rd party databases, landing pages, forms and surveying tools, partner databases and 3rd party providers… For this reason, the lead source field is dependent on many other integrated areas of marketing to work. Operationally, tracking where leads come from is a full-time job.

Internally as well, the value of knowing where a lead came from adds value across many personas involved. Everyone in marketing and sales needs to know where a lead came from, and all roles within. So we prioritize and address the most urgent needs that can’t be accomplished anywhere else. I begin with a simple list of stakeholder personas and their needs.

Stakeholder Roles Value Proposition

Chief Marketing Office
  • What are my top performing marketing channels?
  • Which channels get budget?
  • How can we optimize each channel?
Demand Generation
  • How can we provide an easy snapshot of this customer’s engagement?
  • How are my integrations performing?
  • Can can I help Sales prioritize which leads to follow up on?
  • Which lead sources are causing duplicates and bad data?!
Inbound Marketer
  • Do conversion paths exist for each of my lead sources and are they optimized?
  • Can successes from one channel bring success to another?
Content Marketer
  • What sources do I use to distribute my content?
  • Is my content optimized for every channel?
Account Executive
  • What type of engagement indicates growth potential at an account?
  • I just met them at an event, why are treating me like I don’t know them?

All of the needs above are important and should be addressed in one form or another. However, most stakeholder’s questions can not be answered by only looking at Lead Source data but need to combine data from many other sources for context. So, to solve the Riddle of the Lead Source, we have to think outside the box a little because clearly, there’s a lot at stake in having great data, AND in not having inaccurate, misleading data.

Lead Source Is For Leads, Not Visitors

The first place where Lead Source typically leads marketing astray, is in trying to answer too many questions with a single report and not focusing first and foremost, on the customer experience. The value of the lead source field is that it can dictate the ENTIRE customer experience from the get-go. It adds more CONTEXT to the customer journey than it does to singularly address any operational or budgetary question, although it can help address those needs in ways.

Now that we understand the potential value of the Lead Source field, the second step to creating the perfect lead source list, is to define what a Lead Source is to your customer. I use the Customer Lifecycle as a model to help me pinpoint the exact conversion that this field will be tracking universally, so I know it won’t overlap with other reports.

There are lots of great references for customer lifecycles, buyer journeys, processes, and funnels out there. HubSpot and Marketo have tons of helpful documentation and have tons of functionality to support very sophisticated lifecycle modeling. I like to use a high-level mash-up of several that have worked for me in the past. Jeffery Rohrs audience segmentation, Sirius Decisions MQL waterfall, and some best practices arrives at the following abbreviated chart for marketers (one I’ll probably change my opinion on shortly after publishing this article):

Customer Lifecycle Funnel
  • Visitors (Anonymous)
  • Joiners (Followers, Fans, & Subscribers)
  • Prospects
  • Leads
  • Hand-Raisers
  • Accounts & Contacts
  • Opportunities (etc)

From a customer’s perspective, by the time their record is created in Salesforce, they very likely know all about your brand and possibly have a long history. You really want something that’s going to give the customer the most unique and personalized experience possible, so with that in mind, let’s build out a customer focused list of experiences that would help the brand take the most relevant and effective next step. Using the above table as reference we can see that Leads are a segment of our audience that have more than potential. In other words, we don’t need to know everything about a business to know that when a lead is created, it requires follow up immediately or imminently.

So what action or what event occurred that brought a lead to this moment? What would be the most useful tidbit of information to help a customer have the best experience possible with a brand, while providing enough insight for marketing so they can constantly improve while allocating budget to all the right places? Our list of Lead Sources is pretty standard, but the contexts of each are really what marketing and sales should pay attention to.

Salesforce Lead Source Best Practices List

Similar to Organic Search, a paid ad conversion can be indicative of a successful marketing initiative. There is a direct correlation between budget, revenue, and conversions. A PPC conversion might not be a hand-raiser, but it certainly can provide enough context to create a more personalized experience for a lead.

Social Media

The Social Media channel covers all marketing activities that advertise offers with landing pages with a form. The Social Network (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc) can make up the actual Lead Source values if they are significant channels of Lead Generation for Leads. The specific offer can be tracked as Campaigns, so you get to keep the detail of the actual conversion.

Website Direct

It’s hard to think of a Direct website visit as a lead source because generally, this doesn’t alone create a lead. For web traffic reports, its a useful metric but I tend to leave this one alone for Lead Source reports. Plus, I check my site many times a day to check for design, content, and general experience so my Direct metrics are typically inflated.


For many marketers, in-person Events remain a significant area of investment and this is perhaps one of the easier Lead Sources to understand. If you meet a lead, get a business card, scan a badge, or need to follow-up to a list of new email addresses, then it’s important to associate these leads with the specific event.


For some marketers, live interactions with their product or services and their customers and prospects have enabled a gigantic opportunity. Webinars that feature influencers and thought leaders give new brands credibility and places to interact directly with customers. Platforms like Periscope and Facebook Live are leveraged to engage communities of customers across the entire funnel that provide a one-to-one experience that’s very hard to get in modern marketing.

Partner Referral

Many companies leverage their network of partners and affiliates to help obtain quality referrals. If a new lead is provided by a partner, provide a Lead Source of Partner Referral with a lookup to the actual Partner Account so you can give credit where it’s due.

Employee Referral

Employees can be a great source of business so why track their contributions? We’ve designed and executed some killer friends and family campaigns that can be a significant discounted revenue source for businesses. It’s also a very cost-effective way to generate leads.

Customer Referral

No customer segment generates more enthusiasm than the Advocacy segment. For Customer Referral programs, it is imperative that the actual referring source is tracked, in addition to flagging the Lead Source as Customer Referral. Typically in a referral process, a lookup to an existing customer Account or Contact is made so a reference to the referrer can be tracked for promotional purposes.


It takes a special kind of person to call on lists of thousands unsuspecting profile fits, but once in a while, when moonlight skims the surface of the Hudson in just a way… a meeting is booked in the greatest way possible. It turns out that there is a method to prospecting, if your stomach can handle it. Leads found in this way will need specific attention and should have a very different experience with a brand than a lead generated through a Content Offer or met in-person at a Tradeshow.


B2B marketers can segment their customer databases and create incredibly personalized experiences by focusing on their core customer profile. When brands understand the attributes and commonalities of successfully closed leads, they can target individuals at accounts with greater precision than ever. And, thanks to profile enrichment services like LeadSpace, LeanData, and Infer, cutting-edge marketers are automatically feeding their funnels targeted profiles. The proverbial needle is moving when it comes to Lead Scoring and Predictive Intelligence.

Blog Subscription

This is huge for content marketers. For many small businesses, Blog Subscriptions are a primary Lead Source and one that generates a lot of engagement. For Subscribers, you’ll need to set up rules to withhold Sales follow-up until they reach a certain engagement threshold. In other words, just because you have email addresses for Subscribers, doesn’t mean you should follow-up with them immediately. This Lead Source will give you the option of segmenting and targeting these Leads differently than other, perhaps, warmer leads.

Content Offer

A Content Offer is significant because this could represent a hand-raiser, someone you’d want Sales to follow-up on. Most marketers will use a Campaign to track the specific piece of content, and then will flag a Lead as having responded to that campaign as a way of associating a Lead to a more specific lead source, since new content offers will always become available.

Phone Inquiry

A less common source for many organizations but one that allows for the capture of inbound calls. If you have a complex product or service, you might need to score phone inquiries higher than typical inbound sources. You might also decide to score these Inbound leads higher than other channels because they’ve literally spoken to someone about a product or service. Sometimes these leads also prefer to speak over the phone than communicate over email, so a higher touch follow-up should be considered.

Organic Search* 🙁

I’m ending this list off with a special shout-out to Organic Search, with an asterisk, and an upside-down smiley face. While Organic Search is one of my favorite channels and one of the most commonly used Lead Sources I’ve seen, I’ve never actually seen a Lead created from Organic Search. All other Lead Source actually create a lead. For me, Search Engines indicate referral traffic which is different from most Lead Sources. Its obviously tremendously valuable information, to know that someone came from search, but without keywords and search terms, its just not a very compelling lead CONVERSION story and therefore, I typically see it in lists but don’t advocate using it much.

Lead Source, The Misunderstood Marketing Metric

It becomes apparent that this is a long list of lead sources, much longer than the recommended list of 10-12 sources. Use the ones in the list that apply to your business and leverage the sources that have been most effective at converting your audience into sales. Remember, the Lead Source field exists so your brand can create a relevant experience to your customer. By keeping this list clean and high-level, it’ll start making sense to your team and will provide tons of value.

It looks like there’s a lot on the list, what isn’t a lead source? This is an important of a decision for marketers as the rest of the great Lead Source mystery. If you’re leveraging the lead source field to capture other data, there might be better reports for the use case. Here are some examples of what shouldn’t be included as a lead source:

  • Campaign responses
  • Landing page conversions
  • Form submissions
  • Email
  • Event attendance
  • A URL

The moral of our story: always understand the value of what you’re trying to accomplish. If you are still confused on how to use Lead Source to increase engagement, we are here to help.  Barnett Group offers consultative services to help businesses leverage their data effectively across any platform. Contact us for a free consultation, we love talking about marketing and our doors are always open to help!