merchant cash advance leads
Lead generators for alternative funders are facing stronger headwinds these days. The business has gotten tougher for a whole host of reasons. A pullback in alternative lending necessitates fewer leads. On top of that, funders, ISOs and brokers have gotten pickier about the types of leads they’ll accept. What’s more, stricter application of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is hampering lead generators’ ability to solicit business owners. As a result, some lead generators have faded away, while others have been developing additional business lines or are broadening their reach to other areas within financial services to buoy earnings.
“I don’t see any growth in the space for the next six months, or maybe a year,” says Michael O’Hare, chief executive of Blindbid, a lead generation company in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It’s really unclear right now what’s going to happen, but we’ll see.”
The alternative funding industry has been in somewhat of a funk since spring 2016 when Lending Club grabbed headlines with a scandal that spooked the industry and also took out several senior managers, including the company’s then-CEO.
It was the first time in the industry’s relatively short history that people realized “it wasn’t all puppy dogs and ice cream,” says Justin Benton, a partner at Lenders Marketing in Santa Monica, Calif., a lead generator in the alternative funding space.
Since that time, there’s been a lot of movement in the market, including companies that are consolidating or exiting the business, pumping the brakes or making shifts in product lines, Benton says. These developments have all had a big impact on the sheer number of clients that are looking for leads, he says.
Late last year, for instance, CAN Capital Inc. stopped funding for several months, though it’s back in business as of early July. This summer, Bizfi, one of the stalwarts of the alternative financing space, began giving pink slips to staff and in August the company sold the servicing rights to its $250 million loan portfolio to rival Credibly.
There aren’t as many start-up ISOs or companies entering the alternative funding space—meaning more leads for existing funders—which, of course, is a boon for them.
“There are still roughly 75,000 business owners every week who meet the criteria for an [MCA]. Now instead of there being 5,000 options in the space, there are 2,000, so those 2,000 are gobbling it all up,” Benton says.
At the same time, however, TCPA regulations have gotten more stringent, making it dangerous to solicit businesses, says O’Hare of Blindbid. “Any phone call you make, you can get sued,” he says.
Large funding companies generally take TCPA very seriously—especially if they’ve gotten hit with violations, O’Hare says. Smaller funders and brokers, however, aren’t always as familiar with the restrictions; they think it’s only an issue if you’re calling consumers, as opposed to calling businesses, but that’s not the case. “A lot of businesses today are using their cell phone as a main business line and also for personal use. If you call a cell phone that’s on the DNC [Do Not Call Registry], you can potentially get sued.”
Last year, he had a situation where a plaintiff pretended to be an interested business. When he passed along the referral, the plaintiff’s attorney claimed TCPA violations and ultimately sued the funder. The funder balked, and it created numerous issues for his company.
His company now tries to educate funders about how to protect themselves from TCPA litigation. He sends out emails to funders with information about TCPA and provides contact information of attorneys who are well-versed in TCPA rules. He also provides funders with risk mitigation tactics and shares his list of known TCPA litigators so funders won’t accidentally call them. He also provides direction to clients that receive a demand letter or complaint on how to respond and offers a list of TCPA defense attorneys, if they need.
“We’ve become almost extreme in how we try to avoid problems related to TCPA,” O’Hare says.
To be sure, some of the changes lead generators are experiencing are indicative of a maturing industry.
A few years ago, lead generators could be less selective who they approached initially because the concept of alternative funding was so new to merchants, says Bob Squiers, chief executive of Meridian Leads, a lead generator in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Now, however, the cat is out of the bag, and, with business owners getting multiple calls a day, it’s harder to get their attention, he says.
“They know, they’ve heard, they’ve been pitched. There’s not too many unturned business owners. It’s about getting them at the right time.”
As a result, lead generation today requires more data to discern the good leads from the bad. Instead of going after half a million restaurants, lead generators are targeting the 20 percent that data suggests are the most viable funding candidates. “It’s more of a sniper approach than a shotgun approach,” Squiers says.
Rob Buchanan, senior sales executive at Infogroup in Papillion, Nebraska, who focuses on lead-generation for the fintech space, notes that within the past 18 months or so, clients have been going after “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to leads. They are looking for leads where business owners are actively looking for financing as opposed to relying primarily on UCC data. They are still using UCC data, but to a lesser extent than they were in the past, he says.
Not only do clients want very targeted and specific types of companies—but they are changing their minds more frequently about the types of businesses they’re looking for, says Matthew Martin, managing director and principal at Silver Bullet Marketing, a lead-generating and marketing company in Danbury, Conn. They might ask for businesses of a particular size or credit quality—they are even seeking to exclude businesses within certain zip codes. They are also more amenable to leads from industries they deemed too risky a few years ago.
“I have clients that are constantly changing the parameters of what they want,” Martin says.
The problem is that once you start narrowing the leads of possible merchants that can be funded, lead costs go up and many funders don’t want to pay for that, says O’Hare of Blindbid. “The glory days when everything was wide open and you could generate leads really cheaply are pretty much gone.”
Meanwhile, as some lead generators have faded into the sunset, others are forging ahead in search of new opportunities.
Benton of Lenders Marketing, for instance, says his company has started to focus its efforts in other areas of lending, including SBA, new business, mortgage, commercial, residential, auto and student loans.
Digital marketing is another area experiencing increased demand. Business owners that need money tend to use Google to find funding companies. Infogroup’s digital marketing leads these businesses directly to funders, ISOs and brokers, Buchanan says.
“More and more funders, brokers and ISOs are leaning toward doing digital marketing,” he says.
Having problems with leads? Don’t feel alone. Funders and lead providers say response rates to offline marketing have been cut in half while the price of pay-per-click campaigns has skyrocketed. They blame intense competition in an increasingly crowded field of funders, market saturation by lead generation companies, better email spam filters and comparison shopping by small-business owners who are becoming more savvy about how much they need to pay for merchant cash advances and loans.
Clicks that cost $5 each seven years ago now command a price of nearly $125, says Isaac Stern, CEO of Yellowstone Capital LLC, Green Capital and Fundry. “Pay-per-click marketing has gotten out of control,” he laments. “So you need a hefty, hefty budget to compete in that world.” He reports spending $600,000 to $700,000 a month on internet marketing, compared to $100,000 monthly on direct mail.
Even when the price of individual clicks isn’t measured in hundreds of dollars, the cost of the multiple clicks required to create a lead can mount up, according to Michael O’Hare, CEO of Blindbid, a Colorado Springs, Colo.- based provider of leads. If it takes 15 clicks that cost $25 each to obtain a lead, that comes to $375, he notes. Still, some companies manage to use key words that cost $8 or so per click to get decent leads for less than $100, he says.
While the cost of pay per click is exploding, the response to direct mail marketing is declining precipitously, says Bob Squiers, who owns the Deerfield, Fla.-based Meridian Leads. The percentage of small-business owners who respond to advertising they receive in the mail has fallen from 2 percent just a few years ago to 1 percent now, partly because they receive so many mailings from so many more lead-generation companies, he says. “There weren’t too many people doing direct mail into this space five years ago,” he notes. His company’s leads range in price from pennies to $60, he says.
While Blindbid and Meridian both specialize in finding leads by sending out direct mail pieces and then qualifying the respondents in phone conversations, one of their competitors, Lenders Marketing, takes a different approach, according to Justin Benton, sales director for the Camarillo, Calif.-based company. Benton’s data-driven method combines his company’s databases with the databases of financial institutions. He cultivates relationships with the banking industry’s executives to facilitate that process, he says, and his company does not make phone calls to qualify leads.
But placing too high a value on data gives rise to two problems, the way O’Hare views the search for leads. First, analyzing the data creates plenty of challenges, he says. Second, human beings just aren’t rational enough in their decision-making to fit data-driven profiles or cohorts, he maintains. “The holy grail is to find some algorithm that will predict that a merchant needs funding, and they can then find these people through massive data,” he says with skepticism.
Whatever path a company takes to finding and verifying leads, it pays to establish three elements before classifying them, O’Hare says. First, prospects should qualify financially for credit or advances. Second, prospects should demonstrate a genuine interest in obtaining funding, as opposed to less-than-serious “tire kicking.” With both of those characteristics in place, O’Hare informs prospects they can expect to hear from funders.
Blindbid also wants to guide the expectations of the funders who are calling the leads, O’Hare says. To that end, the vendor invites funders to listen to recordings of the phone calls it makes to qualify leads. Just the same, funders should bear in mind that they may not receive the same reception when they contact the lead, he cautions. “We see it all the time, he says. “We speak to the merchant in the morning and they’re pleasant. Then in the afternoon when they speak to the funder or the broker, the merchant is grumpy.”
Retailers’ mood swings aside, funders can soon gauge the quality of the leads they’re buying. “You can’t judge a lead on cost, Squiers admonishes. “Judge them by performance.” However, performance fluctuates according to the funder’s sales skills, product offering and product knowledge, he maintains.
Meanwhile, the problems plaguing the lead business should prompt funders to become creative in their approach to finding prospects. That’s why even vendors who make their living selling leads encourage funders to search for prospects on their own. “We always advise generating your own leads,” says Benton. “The only leads you can truly count on are the ones you generate yourself.”
Knowing where to look for leads can require a thorough grasp of what’s happening in a particular market. “You can look at what industries are hot,” O’hare suggests. The trucking business is heating up, for example, because so many truckers need funding to buy expensive equipment to meet new requirements for electronic logs, he says. Meanwhile, the recession has wracked the martial arts industry, so dojos might require funding for marketing to help them recover, he notes.
Understanding every industry in that much detail isn’t practical, so lead generation companies urge funders to specialize in just a few niches. Building a network of customers who know each other can result in referrals, Benton observes. It also soothes skeptical prospects, he notes. “Once you say I’ve worked with Fred down at Tony Roma’s – they can feel more comfortable, especially if you’ve done it in the same city,” he maintains.
Whether leads arise internally or come from a vendor, funders have to work them properly to succeed in closing deals, lead-generating companies agree. “The real key is being consistent and persistent,” Benton says. “Research has shown the average lead is called 1.3 times, so once you make that second call you are ahead of the curve.” He advocates that funders use their CRM system by taking copious notes on their calls, setting up nurture campaigns and following up with leads in an organized manner.
And don’t forget that at least some prospects are getting pummeled with calls. “A lot of brokers are carpet bombing – they’re on the phone all day,” says O’Hare. “I talked to one guy who said he makes 400 or 500 calls a day on a manual dial. I’d like to do a video of that.
Some lucky funders and ISOs will receive a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card along with their deBanked magazine shipment thanks to Lenders Marketing, a trigger lead company specializing in merchant cash advance and business loan leads. The gift cards are in limited supply and recipients are being selected at random.
A similar swag lottery took place with deBanked’s May/June issue where dozens of recipients received a Starbucks gift card with their magazines. Those were also courtesy of Lenders Marketing.
And in related news, pictured below in the green Lenders Marketing hat is professional golfer Michael McCabe during the PGA Tour Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nevada. Behind him to his left in the white hat with sunglasses is Justin Benton of Lenders Marketing.
Back in April, I presented the idea of trigger leads coming to the alternative lending industry. In subsequent discussions about that blog post, many folks particularly in merchant cash advance questioned whether such a concept could possibly exist or would even be legal.
For those not familiar, this is the methodology behind trigger leads using a hypothetical scenario:
- OnDeck runs the personal credit of a merchant using Experian.
- Experian sells the contact information of that merchant to OnDeck’s competitors immediately after credit is pulled.
- Competitors solicit that merchant and convince them to go with them instead.
Again, the reaction I get to the above scenario by most people is, “yeah, right. I don’t believe that could happen.” But if you look at the raw amount of ISOs complaining their deals got stolen, it’s evident that perhaps there is something else brewing than just the usual assortment of rogue underwriters and shady funders.
Most ISOs are convinced that if their client is working with them and only them, that a shady business dealing has taken place if that client is randomly called out of the blue with the knowledge that they’re pursuing funding. To them, the only conclusion is that their deal got backdoored.
And while backdooring does seem to happen out there from time to time, another culprit may very well be trigger leads. Credit bureaus and big data aggregators are selling credit pull data in real time. UCC-1 leads are leads after the funding has taken place. Trigger leads are leads before the funding has taken place. But do they really exist?
Elsewhere in alternative lending, trigger leads are the backbone for how companies tailor their direct mail campaigns. If a consumer’s credit was pulled today by a mortgage lender, companies like Lending Club and Prosper will make sure that consumer receives a mail ad for a home improvement loan tomorrow.
Today at the Apex Lending Exchange conference in New York City, Ron Suber, the president of Prosper, referred to this trigger methodology as “getting to the right borrowers at the right cost.” In their sector, trigger leads are marketing 101. In merchant cash advance, it’s perceived as a pipe dream. Odds are that whoever is taking advantage of trigger leads in this industry would want to keep all the other players in the dark about it.
As much as you might hate to believe it, all of the backdooring paranoia that’s been rampant lately might actually be caused by the credit bureaus, not the funders. The lesson here is that as soon as your merchant’s credit is pulled, the clock is ticking until your competitors find out even if that merchant talks to nobody else.
I know ISOs want to believe that their merchant is only theirs, but in the age of advanced technology and big data, your merchant belongs to the cloud. As soon as your relationship with the merchant interacts with technology, somebody else will find out about it. And that’s why your deal got stolen.