Many business owners and leaders have heard of inbound marketing but defining it, or implementing it, seems to be an elusive skill. At least, not without spending a lot of money on automated customer capture technology!
But it doesn't have to be that way.
Steve Davis and I broke down the topic into its core elements in an conversational webinar run twice on December 12, 2022, because we believe inbound marketing's key principles will help you unlock greater value from your enterprise; for you, your customers, and your community.
The content was drawn from my thesis, Inbound Marketing: Why Did it Emerge, What Makes it Significant, and Where Next?
The talk focused on these key areas:
- Getting clarity about the ideal personas your business needs to attract, serve, and "wow"
- Developing an approach for auditing your current marketing materials from your customers' perspectives
- Putting protocols into place to help nurture customers into loyal brand advocates
This was be a free, conversational webinar with no hidden agenda or upsells; we just want to share these important principles with you. And we are planning to release the recording it soon.
In the meantime, here is one of the sections from my thesis, if you'd like a little background reading before Monday.
What is inbound marketing?
When groups of marketing professionals, or academics, get together, inbound marketing is either hotly debated, or not mentioned at all. Its advocates regularly speak about inbound marketing as if it is the only legitimate marketing strategy to employ today, while most other people do not know what it is. This chapter explains what marketing practitioners and academics understand inbound marketing to be, what aspects make it what it claims to be, and how these aspects fit together and are supposed to work in conjunction with each other.
Since HubSpot opened for business in 2005 (HubSpot 2022b) and the publication of Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah in 2009 (Halligan and Shah 2009), inbound marketing has been defined in clear and deliberate opposition to earlier marketing strategies. As the founders of HubSpot and the first authors to write a major book about inbound marketing, Halligan and Shah took the strategic decision to define and articulate inbound marketing in as distinct and oppositional a manner as possible. This decision has proven to be commercially significant, as well as making it easy for marketers and clients to define inbound marketing in terms of what it is not supposed to be: outbound marketing. Consequently, it is important to have an appreciation of what outbound marketing signifies, particularly because the line between inbound and outbound marketing is more arbitrary than HubSpot and its founders suggest, which will be analysed in subsequent chapters. Outbound marketing predates inbound marketing by at least one hundred years, and was central to several marketing theories during the twentieth century.
Rather than considering an explanation of outbound marketing written by someone associated with HubSpot, which could be perceived as privileging economic motivation over academic rigour, this thesis will utilise an academic explanation of what broadly characterises outbound marketing. As Lerner et al. define it:
“Outbound marketing is used to describe any marketing that is pushed out to the consumer, such as TV advertisements or billboards. This type of “interruption marketing” is placed directly in front of the consumer, with the goal to make it hard to ignore. The customer cannot respond or interact with the ad. The goal is not to foster communication or dialogue but instead bombard consumers until they give in.” (Lerner et al. 2021, p. 4)
There are three primary characteristics of outbound marketing that are succinctly summarised in this explanation: outbound marketing deliberately interrupts a consumer’s attention; attempts to persuade through repetition, rather than relevance; and does not provide any opportunity for the potential customer to interact, or say no to receiving future adverts.
Importantly, outbound and inbound marketing strategies are not mutually exclusive. As Lehnert et al. have argued: “There are some industries that benefit from a strategy that is mostly inbound marketing, whereas some industries should use mostly outbound marketing. However, for the majority of businesses, the most effective strategy has a balanced mix of both” (Lehnert et al. 2021, p. 10). How to effectively combine outbound and inbound strategies requires a research project of its own (Dakouan 2019), and is beyond the scope of this study. Therefore, this thesis will focus on what makes the approaches different, rather than on how to blend them together to create a successful integrated marketing strategy.
Outbound marketing was very effective during the twentieth century, in a world in which there were less products to sell, less channels of dissemination, and a mass of consumers who had not yet decided to avoid as many adverts as possible. In contrast, during the current era of on-demand content, high-speed and high-bandwidth communication, and ubiquitous hand-held digital devices, consumers are bombarded from everywhere, but do have the choice to avoid almost everything. As Opreana and Vinerean have argued:
“Particularly in online settings, marketing is undergoing a transformation. Online business can no longer rely on traditional marketing tactics and campaigns to attract, retain and expand consumers because there is a transformation in how people interact with brands and companies, how they shop and buy in online and offline settings. Traditional marketing is no longer a viable option.” (Opreana and Vinerean 2015)
Now, rather than there just being more general information available than any one person can absorb, there is more specifically interesting information available than any one individual can absorb. Consequently, we are all bombarded with more information than we can possibly acknowledge and appreciate, even when we narrow our consumption to particular channels and topics that specifically interest us. Between using search engines tailored by tech companies to find what we want, and ad-blockers to avoid seeing what we do not want to see, the slice of the digital world we engage with is paradoxically narrow and voluminous at the same time.
As Halligan and Shah wrote in 2009: “To connect with today’s buyer, you need to stop pushing your message out and start pulling your customers in. The rules of marketing have changed and the key to winning is to use this change to your advantage” (Halligan and Shah 2009). Marketing success in this new environment depends on making sure that information is readily available for when consumers want it, rather than interrupting them as frequently as you can. It also depends on that information being relevant to solve their problems, or satisfy their desires, rather than bombarding them with largely irrelevant messages, and depends on letting them determine the pace and intensity of interaction, so that they can feel respected, rather than assaulted by the commercial realm.
These characteristics are central to definitions of inbound marketing, as typified by the following example from HubSpot: “Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have” (HubSpot 2022a). Central to this approach to marketing is an explicit recognition that effective marketing depends on knowing precisely who you are communicating with, and having already determined what they most likely need and want. “It’s about valuing and empowering these people to reach their goals at any stage in their journey with you” (HubSpot 2022a). Even though all successful businesses should already know who their core customers are, as well as what they want, working out who else can be attracted, and how to gain their attention, is no longer as straightforward (or reliable) as pushing adverts out there and hoping they resonate with potential customers.
Shorter attention spans make Inbound Marketing more critical to your success
As people’s time has become even more precious, as they divide their attention between evermore tasks and distractions, their tolerance of irrelevant and unsolicited information has rapidly decreased. Meanwhile, people have just as many problems they want to solve and desires they want to fulfil, leaving ample opportunities for clever marketers to design effective marketing strategies. As the HubSpot website explains:
“As fellow graduate students at MIT in 2004, Brian and Dharmesh noticed a shift in the way people shop and buy. Consumers were no longer tolerating interruptive bids for their attention — in fact, they’d gotten really, really good at ignoring them. From this shift, a company was born: HubSpot. It was founded on “inbound”, the notion that people don’t want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by salespeople — they want to be helped” (HubSpot 2022b).
The founders of HubSpot have consistently articulated that there are no less marketing opportunities in the new world that motivated them to create their company, but that these opportunities depend on creating content that directly helps prospective customers to solve their pre-existing problems and fulfil their pre-existing desires (HubSpot 2022c). Halligan and Shah moved the focus of marketing (as they understand and practice it) from developing the most persuasive way to interrupt someone to developing the most effective way to help someone resolve whatever is already on their mind.
Since HubSpot began working with clients in 2005, inbound marketing has continued to develop, culminating in the comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategy it is today. Between Halligan and Shah’s Inbound Marketing (Halligan and Shah 2009) and Tyre and Hockenberry’s Inbound Organization (Tyre and Hockenberry 2018), people directly connected with HubSpot have provided comprehensive explanations of (and how-to guides for) inbound marketing, which are equally useful for marketers wanting to learn a new strategy, businesses wanting to undertake their own inbound marketing, and prospective clients researching what it could be like to work with HubSpot and/or another inbound marketer. Along with these comprehensive introductions to inbound marketing, authors such as Adele Revella (Revella 2019) and Stormie Andrews (Andrews 2021) have written complementary books on how to determine who your ideal customers are, and how to identify their needs and demonstrate that you are ready to help them. In addition, business owners such as Marcus Sheridan have applied what they learned from the founders of HubSpot and then written their own books on inbound marketing to help other business owners implement the strategy (Sheridan 2019). Sheridan’s experience of turning his failing business around, by implementing an inbound marketing strategy, convinced him to start a second career as an inbound marketer (Impact 2022).
Significantly, there is now a sufficient body of professional inbound marketing literature to inform clients and empower practitioners. Whether because of the size of this body of literature, or as a result of gaps in the literature, academics have generally written summaries, analyses, and critiques of the inbound marketing strategy. Academic literature on the topic is particularly valuable, because it provides a historical perspective and conceptual framework separate from the commercial imperative of professional marketing writing. The following academic explanation of inbound marketing has been chosen because it is clear and succinct, and because it is representative of other comprehensive academic explanations (Bezovski 2015; Bleoju et al. 2016; Caragher 2013; Dakouan 2019; Lindblom and AndrŽasson 2019; Opreana and Vinerean 2015; Rancati et al. 2015). From an academic perspective, the process of inbound marketing can be described in the following way:
“In order to guide the prospects from complete strangers to loyal customers and ultimately to promoters of the business the Inbound marketing process consists of four phases or actions: Attracting visitors, Converting visitors to leads, Closing sales, and Reconverting customers to loyal, lifelong customers and brand promoters” (Bezovski 2015, pp. 30-31).
The process of attracting visitors, converting visitors to leads, closing sales, and encouraging brand advocacy that defines inbound marketing has a lot in common with the consumer decision journey (Court et al. 2009), which will be discussed in subsequent chapters. In each of the four phases of the process of inbound marketing, the emphasis is on starting a conversation with a potential customer, or continuing a conversation with an existing customer.
As Jonah Berger has written: “you have to do more than create a product: you need to start a conversation” (Berger 2013, Introduction). Without this conversation, a prospective customer cannot necessarily determine that a company is interested in making a sale that actually helps them, and, without an ongoing conversation, an existing customer may come to believe that engaging behaviour was only a form of cynical short-term persuasion. This commitment to an ongoing conversation is a ubiquitous aspect of inbound marketing, in which the focus remains on the customer immaterial of who is speaking at any given moment. Marcus Sheridan’s book title encapsulates this focus more succinctly than anything else written by an inbound marketing practitioner: They Ask, You Answer (Sheridan 2019).
As a consequence of being committed to starting and maintaining conversations during all four phases of the inbound marketing process, it requires significant effort and allocation of resources to successfully implement the strategy. As Rancati et al. have argued:
“Inbound marketing is a much more complex approach than outbound marketing. It takes simultaneous usage of all the digital channels, continuous strengthening of the website, development of effective content and implementation of measurement tools all in concert with one another to achieve these unparalleled results” (Rancati et al. 2015, p. 235).
Since inbound marketing developed during the digital era, practitioners assume that clients and marketers interested in applying the strategy are ready and able to implement a comprehensive plan across multiple channels and platforms. The pre-2010 iterative approach of getting websites and blogs right first, and then gradually moving on to better customer relations management and social media practices, has been subsumed into highly integrated, simultaneous action. Even though it is good to understand all of the things that can be done to successfully implement an inbound marketing strategy, there is no reason why a client with limited resources, or a sceptical perspective, cannot begin with the basics of rewriting website content to answer customers’ questions and listening to their needs before they launch into a narrowly defined sales script during the closing phase.
SEO alone is not your marketing panacea
For at least the previous decade, marketers have been focused on the critical importance of search engine optimisation (SEO) (Sharma et al. 2019), often without equivalent regard for whether the content on a webpage solves prospective customers’ pre-existing problems. An inbound marketing strategy focuses on making sure that a webpage has both what it needs to be found, as well as having what it needs to answer a prospective customer’s questions. As Caragher states: “In addition to finding your firm, they must be able to locate the information they are seeking. It’s all about the prospect—not your firm” (Caragher 2013). Whether to answer customers’ questions first, or achieve good SEO results first, is not an either/or question. Prospective customers will not spend time on a page that does not directly answer their questions, even if it was on the first page of search engine results. Impressive SEO results might make a client happy, and a marketer look good, for a short period of time, but a short bounce rate and a lack of sales conversions make isolated SEO success a hollow victory.
Once a company has made sure that its website answers its prospective and current customers’ questions, then it can begin to focus on creating all of the other helpful content that positions a company as being a trustworthy expert, rather than a place where you buy the cheapest thing you have decided you need/want. Inbound marketing takes a vast array of content types into consideration, and marketers and clients need to decide how many types of quality content can be created, supported and maintained. Toward this end, Caragher states:
“Inbound marketing is about creating and sharing content. It is a marketing methodology that focuses on getting found by prospects through blogs, podcasts, eBooks, eNewsletters, website pages, whitepapers, search engine optimization, social media marketing, and other forms of content marketing. By creating content specifically designed to appeal to your ideal clients, inbound marketing attracts qualified prospects to your firm and keeps them coming back for more” (Caragher 2013).
If a company can create and support consistently helpful and trustworthy content, and maintain effective conversations with its prospective and existing customers, then it is likely to gain significant word-of-mouth benefits from existing customers who have chosen to act as brand advocates. Jonah Berger believes that word-of-mouth is responsible for between 20% and 50% of purchases, and that it is at least ten times more effective than conventional advertising (Berger 2013, Introduction). Consequently, focusing on creating helpful and trustworthy content is a central aspect of inbound marketing, but there is no precise way of determining how much quality content is enough for any particular organisation’s inbound marketing strategy. In general, inbound marketing literature suggests that more engaging and helpful content is better, as long as it has been placed where a prospective customer is likely to look.
In summary, to conclude this chapter, inbound marketing practitioners frequently define what inbound marketing is by stating what it is not: outbound marketing. From an inbound marketing perspective, outbound marketing is characterised by deliberately interrupting prospective consumer’s attention with repetitious and not necessarily relevant messages, which are not interactive. In contrast, inbound marketing is based around a four phase process that includes attracting visitors, converting them into leads, closing sales, and turning existing customers into brand advocates via ongoing conversations, which aim to solve people’s problems and help them to fulfil their desires. Inbound marketing depends on creating and sharing content that directly addresses prospective and existing customers’ identified needs and wants. This content should establish its creator as a trustworthy expert, and should provide the foundation for long-term relationships between an entity employing an inbound marketing strategy and its customers. In the next chapter, this thesis will explore why inbound marketing emerged, and consider whether it was an evolutionary adaptation, or a deliberate response to changing marketing and technological circumstances.