• Word meanings change, and one critical word in the B2B lexicon — “lead” — has changed in important ways recently
  • Leads used to be potential selling opportunities, but now refer to specific individuals who respond to marketing tactics
  • B2B organizations should focus on and use the word “opportunities” instead of “leads”

Most of us don’t think about this much, but the words we use every day don’t have static meanings. A lot of the words we rely on as we go about our day meant something different to previous generations. According to linguist John McWhorter, what’s considered proper usage of a word or an element of grammar in language is mostly a matter of fashion. Word usage comes and goes in and out of fashion (as do many rules of grammar). Often a word’s former meanings changed so long ago that we aren’t aware of what it meant before. Sometimes those former meanings are hidden in plain sight. And sometimes we notice word meanings changing when we hear people use a word in a way we perceive as wrong or strange.

Definition in dictionary

The word “awful” is one example of a word whose meaning changed so long ago we aren’t generally aware of its former meaning. In Shakespeare’s day, something that was awful inspired awe, in the same way something that is awesome would today. Today, however, that awesome meaning of “awful” is gone altogether — and now awful is, well, awful, not awe-full.

Another word that came into existence only recently but that has already changed its meaning is the acronym “LOL.” This acronym wasn’t in the popular lexicon until the advent of internet chat rooms. Its original intent was this: “Though you can’t see or hear me do it (because we are using a text-only communication medium), I am laughing out loud.” But “LOL” typically isn’t used that way anymore, and the real-world laugh it’s intended to convey doesn’t really mean something’s funny either. Polite laughter and LOL are both social lubricants rather than markers of humor. They communicate something like “You and I are in agreement.” LOL marks a bonding moment. When we want to let on that something is funny, we use “ha ha” or a similar interjection — or we may resort to a long string of LOLs to make the point. Check out how you use it, lol.

The word that drives the language mavens nuts lately is “literally.” The meaning of “literally” has been changing from “exactly” or “precisely” to something closer to “believe it or not.” If I said, “I literally slept all day today,” you would probably understand that I may or may not have slept through the entire day, but I slept for an amount of time that is somehow surprising, and I, the speaker, think that you, the listener, will agree that it’s surprising. When people use “literally” in this new way, many will say it is wrong. It isn’t. It‘s just a word meaning in flux.

And that brings me to the point of this blog post: the word “lead.” In my early, pre-internet years in B2B, a lead could be a person showing interest, but it could also be a company we just found out has the problem we solve — one that fits our customer profile. It could even be a company that owns a competitive product, particularly if that competitive product is aging. In B2B today, the word “lead” is used exclusively to signify a person who’s responded to a marketing or sales tactic. It’s the person on the object in the marketing automation platform or sales force automation system. And those systems’ objects are really what has caused our understanding of the word to change. The problem is that we know that in B2B, an individual person is not an adequate “lead” in the way a police investigator would think of it. Most buying is done by a group of people working together. And fewer than one in 100 “leads” become customers. Today’s “lead” is not a particularly good one.

When words change meanings, stemming the tide of change is difficult. Due largely to our B2B systems’ inclusion of objects called “lead,” which are equivalent to an individual person, we’re probably stuck with that usage until those objects go away.

But we can stop using the word. In the same way we don’t talk about our iceboxes, dungarees or stereos anymore, we don’t need to — and shouldn’t — talk about leads. What we should be talking about instead are potential selling opportunities.

In 2017, we coined the term “demand unit” to signify the combination of a prospect account, the buying center within it and the people who represent that buying center: a potential selling opportunity. When we have evidence that a demand unit is a good fit and in market, that’s when we have a lead on a potential selling opportunity in the way a police investigator would think of a lead. When our “leads” are more the complete package of information available about a potential buyer — a demand unit — we’ll have a thing marketing and sales can both rally around.

Related Research

Capturing Buying Group Dynamics in the Buying Decision Process (client access)

Core Strategy Report: The Demand Unit Waterfall™ (client access)

Identifying and Overcoming Buying Group Blindness (client access)

Profiling Buying Centers and Buying Teams (client access)