While the breadth of inbound marketing (and the term itself) has attracted criticism, inbound marketing undeniably promotes solid digital marketing principles and ROI-driven content that customers will love throughout all stages of their journey on the path to conversion.
Ultimately, C-level executives should focus on inbound marketing for these key reasons:
- Reduce Cost of Sale (COS), which can dramatically impact margins, growth, and overall profitability.
- Achieve high conversion rates, combine that with digital campaigns that have built-in testing, and acquire customers for a lower cost than your competitors, giving you a huge strategic advantage.
- Enable higher advertising spends, and a better ROI. This means you can outspend your competitors and increase your market share.
- Well executed strategies will result in creating high quality content at scale.
- Focusing on inbound marketing gives you a healthy and holistic mindset. Many businesses are guilty of over-reliance on certain tactics and channels. Embracing inbound marketing will help you to diversify your efforts so you are less exposed to changes such as margins being eroded over time.
If you’re interested in the business cases for inbound marketing, David Skok has written the most compelling arguments. His site is also packed with stats and case studies for recommendations around building inbound models from an executive’s perspective.
What Is Inbound Marketing, Really?
Dharmesh Shah is the serial entrepreneur who coined the term, which has been defined via one of his startups as “promoting a company through blogs, podcasts, video, eBooks, newsletters, whitepapers, SEO, social media marketing, and other forms of content marketing which serve to bring customers in closer to the brand.”
The most concise way to describe inbound marketing is considering marketing activities as “pulling” customers into your sales funnel as opposed to “pushing” or “disrupting” your customers through outbound tactics, the most obvious being cold calling or TV advertising. These terms are borrowed from so-called “growth hackers” who are practitioners that focus on growing businesses through push, pull, and product related tactics.
Inbound marketing is intrinsically linked to content marketing. You can’t execute an inbound marketing strategy without having content at the very center of everything you do.
Though inbound and content marketing share massive overlap, content marketing is often viewed as a fluffier discipline, whereas inbound marketing, although broad, tends to be more driven by results and data.
As digital evolves, the future will be based around publishing the best content and resources in your space and leveraging every tactic and channel available to amplify the content to your audience (which, technically speaking, would be combining both “push” and “pull” tactics at times.
Rand Fishkin On Defining Inbound Marketing For 2014
For a modern update on the current state of inbound marketing, I reached out to Rand Fishkin of software provider Moz. A leading authority on inbound marketing, Fishkin has contributed massively to its widespread adoption. Here are his thoughts on defining inbound marketing now:
“I’d define inbound marketing as the practice of employing any variety of marketing channels and practices that rely on earning attention rather than interrupting or buying it. When someone does a search in Google and your website appears, or a potential customer on Twitter asks an important question to which you reply with the answer, or folks subscribe to your email newsletter because it provides them with great value, that’s considered ‘inbound marketing.'”
Fishkin also highly recommended this slide deck for reframing inbound marketing from Shah:
How To Grow With Inbound Marketing from HubSpot
5 Cornerstones For Successful Inbound Marketing
The cornerstones for every inbound marketing strategy should include the following.
Understanding personas means you should develop an “audience first” mentality. Who is your audience?
Personas should be as simple as possible and focus on your customers. If you haven’t developed personas before, this exhaustive guide is recommended reading.
Personas should be baked into your CRM and email marketing as a core theme. You can even base your personas on real people and customers. Consider this as the “who” you’re marketing to, and leverage groups of your target audience via Twitter lists for data-driven and real-time audience insights.
Specifically, personas can help you increase conversions and ROI in several ways:
- Mitigating risk: Focusing on the persona severely limits the risk that you’ll waste time and resources by executing ineffective campaigns that are conceptually flawed as a result of making decisions that aren’t audience-driven.
- Increasing relevancy increases conversions: If you’re working in an environment that is numbers driven, the most compelling reason to use personas is to increase conversions. Tailoring your messaging and content to your audience should result in better conversion rates.
- Get under the skin of your target audience: Taking the time to research your audience helps you create content that will truly resonate with them. Your content will also be more likely to convert if it focuses on pain points and perform better in general in terms of being shared through social channels.
2. Where Does Your Audience Hang Out?
As an extension to personas you need to initially focus on two main areas:
- Who is your audience?
- Where do they hang out?
By developing personas, perhaps by following the Twitter lists approach mentioned above, you can then figure out specifically where they are spending time online and also what they are interested in.
This advice is heavily inspired by the advice of Gary Vaynerchuk who breaks down heavily nuanced digital marketing tactics into the purest and most simple advice possible; focus on who your customers are and where they hang out. The genius behind this is that it’s a technologically agnostic approach. By following this advice to take leaps of faith and exploit first-mover advantage (most obviously through newly emerging social networks for example) you can win.
Audience research can particularly help in the following areas:
- Make better decisions: Effective audience research will help you to make better decisions. If your target audience is most active on Facebook, for example, you can use this at conceptual stages to brainstorm ideas that will perform better without these insights.
- Smarter advertising spends: Audience research enables you to target your advertising, reducing spends and increasing relevancy. Again, the more relevant your campaigns are, the better they will convert.
- Prioritizing your marketing efforts: One area most businesses get wrong is the execution, with many glaring examples specifically related to social media campaigns. One of the most common issues is an ambiguous approach to social. Businesses and especially brands understand it’s important, but lack clarity on how much time and effort to spend on each platform. A data-driven approach will enable you to focus on the platforms that will have the highest impact.
3. Solve Specific Problems For Specific People
If your content, and furthermore your business, aren’t solving problems for people it will be far less likely to drive the type of traffic that will convert optimally. The masters of lead generation via inbound channels understand this and focus on specific problems for specific people to drive revenues.
The hardest part about building web pages that convert is encouraging people to take action. Users are far more likely to take action if they have an immediate problem that they need to solve.
Here are six examples of problem-solving content executed well:
- Unbounce offers a fantastic example where both their content and business solve two clear problems: generating landing pages without technical support and educating people on how to design pages that convert well. Their content is heavily aligned with both of these areas and they’ve built stunning resources that really help people.
- Marketo clearly invests heavily in all areas of inbound marketing, including their blog, SEO, PPC, social media, webinars, events and supporting their efforts with their own marketing automation platform. Education is clearly essential for their core audience. Marketo has executed well by building a comprehensive resources section that includes in-depth guides, cheat sheets, on-demand webinars, and recommended reading covering everything you could ever want to learn about marketing automation. This is a powerful strategy as educating your users is one of the best ways to generate trust and convert them into customers.
- User Onboarding – anyone involved with SaaS will understand the importance and challenges of user onboarding and “activation”. This site builds fantastic resources around examples of how many of the worlds biggest SaaS platforms like Basecamp, Trello, Evernote, and many more onboard their customers.
- Hargreaves Lansdown is a great example of educational content where they use videos, ebooks and copy that is heavily based around answering common questions on financial products. It’s highly likely that they have used personas and conducted research to make sure their pages are giving their users everything they need to engage with them and make informed decisions.
- Less Doing focuses content around storytelling and how to make people happier, healthier, and more productive. This example in particular emphasizes the author’s amazing story throughout, making the content problem solving, entertaining, and inspirational.
- Think Traffic/Fizzle Sparkline is an example of a really smart core concept. In the crowded space of Internet marketing this site built all of its content around traffic generation, which is subtly different from all of the different SEO, PPC and general Internet marketing blogs. This key differentiator helped it achieve great traction and helps people get started blogging and to generate more traffic.
4. Constant Measurement, Testing & Scientific Method
Questions are incredibly important. Every inbound marketing manager should practice asking and answering questions.
Questions are healthy. A constant curiosity for both new technology and questioning how you can test and improve things is a common factor in all of best practitioners and organizations. To get your feet wet all you need to do is the following:
- Ask questions about everything you do. For example, how are you approaching different channels, testing new tactics and platforms, and thinking about the implications of making changes to all of these areas?
- Form a hypothesis. If you change something what do you think the impact will be (e.g., if you sent twice as many emails as normal or if your PR team placed twice as many articles what do you think would happen)? If you don’t know something, what would be a suitable test you could learn from? The important step is to document all of your assumptions before testing and not to cheat!
- Devise a suitable test. If this is a new area to you, you can make life easier by mastering A/B testing with control groups. Paid search experts are amazing practitioners of this. You can build incremental improvements built on solid foundations by constantly A/B testing and trying to beat your best results. When you’re confident you have a winner, create a new test to try and beat this. The easiest areas to get started are constantly testing new email subject lines, call-to-actions, images and headlines.
- Analyze. Document your findings and let this feed into asking more questions.
Testing is fundamental to world-class marketing campaigns. By consistently following this framework and mindset, you will gain an unfair competitive advantage? Why? Because you’ll be running campaigns that are optimized better than your competitors (executing better and creating smarter content), and more often than not you will create an environment in which your business can win.
5. Adopting Inbound Marketing As A Team
There is nothing complicated or difficult about these approaches to marketing. The challenges you will face trying to adopt them are:
- Changing the way people think about marketing, especially if they aren’t used to measuring and testing.
- Changing the way people work is always tough in many organizations. Operational implementations are often hard enough without having to worry about how people will react to them.
Combat these two challenges with education. Sell inbound marketing as an opportunity for career development within your team and a way to ensure your marketing teams are working toward a unified set of KPIs and goals.
Over time your team will learn that measurement and testing will help you achieve better results as a business, develop more sophisticated skillsets, and generally be happier as a team.
Digital has irrevocably changed the behavior and buying habits of people. This concept is one of the core principles of momentology, and indeed this very website.
Inbound marketing is at the heart of consumer-centric marketing and modern internet marketing in general. It’s what good digital marketing looks like.
If you aren’t embracing and adopting inbound marketing, chances are you’ll be trying to interrupt your customers. At best you’ll be investing in old school channels that are becoming increasingly ineffective, but even worse you could be annoying your audience instead of trying to build relationships and nurture them.
When inbound marketing is done well you’ll be producing and promoting content that educates, inspires, and solves problems for your customers that they will love. They will discover this content at different stages of research and their journey and over time will begin to love your brand too.