Inbound Marketing — Vibrant? Dead? Or on Life Support?
Is inbound marketing still a viable tactic for a services firm? Was it ever?
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Speaker 1 (00:08):
You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, Diversion Thoughts on Marketing and Growing Professional Services Firms. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki and Jeff McKay.
Jason Mlicki (00:19):
All right, Jeff. So say we are going to play another version of that classic American game show. Vibrant, dead, or on life support.
Jeff McKay (00:27):
Oh, I love that game show. That’s been around since the 70s. Hasn’t it?
Jason Mlicki (00:31):
Yeah. It was on right after Joker’s Wild and before-
Jeff McKay (00:34):
The Price is Right.
Jason Mlicki (00:35):
The Price is Right. That’s a day show. So, vibrant, dead or life support, and today we are talking about Inbound marketing. So I’m going to kick it to you. Inbound marketing, vibrant, dead, or on life support? Yes, all of the above.
Jeff McKay (00:56):
I thought Inbound was the panacea for every marketing problem and content marketing was the last marketing technique you’d ever need. Isn’t that true?
Jason Mlicki (01:07):
Absolutely. Well, and that’s a great point. So before we do that, let’s define Inbound marketing, because what does that even mean? What do we even mean by that?
Jeff McKay (01:16):
Well, to me, Inbound marketing in its simplest form is using content to attract people, prospects to your solution by providing helpful content about the problem and the solutions and how to buy them. I think that’s its most simple form.
Jason Mlicki (01:38):
No, I would agree. I mean, I think, to me, Inbound as a concept is HubSpot’s coined version of content marketing. It was their angle on how content would work. In terms of a movement, I feel like, at least to me, the first I had been familiarized with the term was around 2008, when I first got some peaks at HubSpot in some of it’s early forms. So I guess in terms of dating the concept, I don’t know exactly when of dates, but it seems like it’s right around that time, this idea of Inbound. I’ve always tied Inbound a little bit to the great recession in the sense of, I feel like the great recession was a moment in time that people can relate to when they saw buyer behavior change. It’s not really true, but it just felt that way.
So to me, the intersection of the rise in Google’s role in society as a functioning viable way to find information, so to find a proverbial needle in a haystack, you could really do that finally for the first time ever. And that became readily apparent around 2008, 2009. And then with that rise in search, you also had the democratization of publishing, which was really the rise of open source content management systems. So the ability for anyone to become a publisher instantly for practically nothing. So those two intersections to me were always what created the phenomenon of content marketing and then ultimately, Inbound marketing.
And like you said, in the early days, if you think about Inbound as a methodology, HubSpot bet their whole coin on this idea that, “Don’t find me, I’ll find you.” Buyers didn’t want to be interrupted, they didn’t want email in their inbox, they didn’t want interrupted phone calls, they wanted to find you on their own terms. And they built that software in the early days as a tool to help marketers do that, help marketers position their products and services through their content to get found by consumers or customers on their terms.
I think, in answering the question of, is it dead? An interesting point you could make real quickly is, yes, it’s absolutely dead, because HubSpot found out real quickly that it didn’t work. So from itself, their software in the early days, if you go back, we started using the HubSpot in 2011. In those early days that they sold that idea that really hard, this idea that consumers don’t want to be advertised to anymore, and they want to find you on their own terms and they built their software around that. And then they suddenly realized that that didn’t work all that well. And in fact, they sold their software at that point in time as a anti-email marketing solution, like consumers don’t want email marketing in their inbox anymore, hence we’ve got this better solution for you.
They suddenly realized pretty quickly that that didn’t work and that you had to have email in the inbox that you had to be still proactively marketing to people. And they had a piece of software in the early stages that actually had really poor performance plan inbox placement. So they literally couldn’t get their email delivered because they didn’t know how to deliver email. [inaudible 00:04:43] build that whole capability and that whole skill set in that early 2011 to 2015 time range, somewhere in there. Or make the argument that that in and of itself tells you that it’s dead, because they had to basically build a whole outbound machine tied to their software to enable the other side of that Inbound journey.
Jeff McKay (05:04):
I thought that was an excellent summary spot on. It is an excellent example of what you and I talked about in one of our other blog posts, how marketing ruins everything. A marketing ruined, I think, a solid concept of Inbound, and I think it was in response to something else that marketing had ruined, and that was email. Because I was on a primo before I had even heard of HubSpot and this was at Hewitt. And before that we were on proprietary systems and it was all marketing automation and nurturing approach. And then that got ruined by spammers and then Inbound came. And so, I think your summary of HubSpot, who, if you look up Inbound, their picture will be there is reflective of the state of it. They thought, “Let’s just create helpful content and everybody will come our way.”
But professional services have been doing that for 100 years. That’s the whole concept of thought leadership, and the content marketing Inbound phase dumbed down thought leadership for a lot of people, not all firms. And we’ve talked about that as well, but it just seems like firms are always looking for the easy channel, and Inbound made it look easy. You’re already producing content, let’s just promote it on social media and attract people to our website.
One thing that I think is going to be the death now for this, there’s a couple of things. One is the evolving nature of SEO. You’re seeing Google answering a lot of questions that consumers are asking via AI and snippets, so the click through and search results are falling because Google’s just aggregating content and solving whatever problem, question a searcher has for it.
The other element that I think is really important is the evolving nature of privacy, and people don’t want to be tracked. I don’t know that they ever really wanted to be tracked, but Inbound fundamentally hinges on capturing an email, linking it to an IP and tracking people. And people exploit that in a world of professional services or any firm complex BtoB sale where trust is a key driver of vendor selection. That tracking puts you into an area that really puts trust and relationship at risk if it’s exploited in the wrong way. And like spam, people are exploiting that trade of information. I think those are important drivers of why Inbound just isn’t what it was ever meant to be.
Jason Mlicki (08:12):
Well, you made two really interesting points, and I’ll summarize them. Point one was that Google is grabbing the traffic. So Google is delivering the answer to the question right in the search query and there’s no need for the reader to go any further. I don’t believe yet that that has really hit the complex question that the professional services firm or an enterprise marketer is solving. I don’t think that it’s tripped over that line yet, but it certainly has for consumer marketers quite a lot. So it’s just a matter of time. So I guess that would put it in the category of life support, if that is a big driver, meaning that Google used to be a train station, it was a conduit to get you from one place to the next. Well, now it’s becoming the destination, it’s becoming the portal that Yahoo and all those other tech startups in the late 90s hoped to be. It just got there in a much longer way with a snazzy algorithm and a crap load of advertising.
So that’s a really interesting comment you made. And I think that’s one that’s really worth noting that that will continue to pose a significant threat to search as a channel for really any marketer.
Your second one is interesting. I think it’s more nuanced. The privacy conversation has been a big one, certainly in Europe and in California. And we’ve seen all of these privacy laws emerge, but at the heart of it, I’m not convinced that most consumers actually really care as much as we are led to believe. I think people have traded their privacy for free products, or intuitive products, or elegant products for so long that I’m not even so sure that they really know they’re doing it or even care that they’re doing it that much.
I’ll draw another comparison to that though, which is that how you use the data. So the worst offenders of using that data are the SAAS companies themselves. So the ones that use that data to violate trust the most or the purveyors of that software, HubSpot, Salesforce. I mean, if you touch a landing page on any of those websites, you’re going to get bombarded with phone calls faster than you can breathe. And every one of them is going to tell you, “I saw you read X, Y, Z.” And it’s like, “Well, I’m impressed with your web tracking. But just because I read that doesn’t mean I want to talk to you.”
There’s a company called FormAssembly that’s been barraging me because I was looking for some information on GDPR compliance and I just happened to find it on an ebook of theirs. And then I got literally 10 sales calls trying to sell me on FormAssembly’s services. I don’t even know what FormAassembly is, I just happened to find [inaudible 00:10:41]. I have no interest in their product. I haven’t done any cognitive research on that whatsoever, nor is it even in my landscape. Whereas by contrast, in this particular case, the consultants, the service providers themselves, haven’t done that. They didn’t jump into that lane of, “Well, we’ve got some data on this personnel, let’s go track them down and make some phone calls.” They just haven’t done that.
Jeff McKay (11:05):
They should call it pounce marketing instead of Inbound marketing.
Jason Mlicki (11:08):
Which is funny because that’s the script for software marketing. And I tell our software clients this all the time, that’s the script, everybody knows it now, so it’s perfectly okay. It’s perfectly okay to start hammering the phone calls after that ebook download, just because it’s expected, it’s going to happen, so you might as well do it. It’s not going to kill you in the end. [inaudible 00:11:28] that may or may not be a good strategy, but I’ve told them multiply that it is so aggressive that the clients know what’s coming.
Let’s look at another angle of this. Another angle this I would argue is that Inbound is vibrant in growing and expanding, and that would be the argument that Inbound, as an idea, is probably healthier than it’s ever been. I mean, I’ve never been, you’ve been, I’ve never been to HubSpot’s Inbound conference, but my sense is that the community for that conference is just getting bigger and bigger every year. The reseller channel for HubSpot gets bigger and bigger every year. And so, just Inbound, as a concept, as an idea, as a belief system, whatever you want to call it, seems to me it’s alive and well. I don’t see that falling off at all. If anything, I see it, if I had to guess, well, obviously this year is going to be different because I don’t know if they’ll have it in person conference, but I would be willing to bet that that conference has grown every year for however long they’ve been doing it.
Jeff McKay (12:20):
Yes it has. And to me, that’s a warning sign. After decades in this industry, I always am suspect when you have a group think around a fad or a technology. So HubSpot’s, Inbound conference or Salesforce, Dreamforce, I stay away from those, because it’s like the tulip phenomenon or the .com phenomenon. When that many people are jumping on a bandwagon, it’s a clear sign for marketers to rethink their strategy, because if everybody’s doing it, your goal should be to go where everybody’s not doing it.
And to me, that’s why it’s the telltale sign of its death. When that many people are jumping on the bandwagon, something’s not right. And I think HubSpot’s strategy, not just their product strategy, because their product strategy moved into service, and sales, and CRM, but their strategy was built around their partners. I mean, they just were adding partners left and right, because it’s a quick and easy revenue stream form. Inbound, if it’s not working and you’re hard, press pounce, marketing phone calls aren’t working, well, how about if we do a pyramid scheme and we’ll get our agencies to sell our software and implement our software, and tell our story. And all of a sudden you have thousands and thousands of Inbound experts out there running the HubSpot playbook, which means everybody has the same marketing strategy.
Speaker 1 (14:10):
You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, Divergent Thoughts on Growing your Professional Services Firm. Your hosts are Jason Mlicky, principal of Rattleback, the marketing agency for professional services firms, and Jeff McKay, former CMO and founder of strategy consultancy, Prudent Pedal. If you find this podcast helpful, please help us by telling a friend and rating us on iTunes. Thank you. Now back to Jason and Jeff.
Jason Mlicki (14:37):
So, I’m struggling, Jeff. I can’t remember, three or four years ago, somebody that I knew was telling you this, who was that? Who was saying these things and you poo-pooed them, said you didn’t know what it was talking about. Who was that again?
Jeff McKay (14:51):
Was that you?
Jason Mlicki (14:52):
Oh, yes. I think it was. Thank you very much. Just wanted to get it out in the open, because you told me I was crazy four years ago when I said that. So anyway, now it’s done in private [inaudible 00:15:01] the podcast was live, and actually it was part of the bond for the podcast. What’s that?
Jeff McKay (15:04):
Well, yeah. And I’m not perfect. So I think you’re right. I do think there is a time and a place for agency partners, but you don’t need thousands of them, maybe 100 of them.
Jason Mlicki (15:15):
Well, I think anytime you’ve got a software platform, reseller partners and networks are really critical parts of how you market and build a product. You need people that can build on top of it and can do more with it than you can. But you have to have some control. It’s a sales channel, it’s the same thing, you think about through the years we’ve done our fair share of work with large companies that sell through independent seller networks, and there’s always defined territories. Multiple resellers can’t sell to the same channels. I mean, that’s done for a reason, and that’s something that I think of that HubSpot in particular never really understood.
But let’s move off, I don’t think it’s about them. I think you make a really good point though. It’s almost like the community that is Inbound, is growing, and vibrant, and alive and well, but the tactic, or strategy, or methodology, whatever you want to call it, that is Inbound, is not.
Now, let me say one thing though. So I don’t know that I fully agree with that. So let me just say this. So I date all these recordings, so we were recording this June second. So we’re tailing out, we’re coming out of the second quarter, we’ve just lived through the spike associated with this pandemic and we’ve participated, in our case, we’ve partnered with a lot of our clients to develop a whole ton of thought leadership in the April, May timeframe to really help them help their clients navigate through one of the most disruptive and difficult leadership challenges of our times. And the thing I will tell you, without looking at the data is, across the board, those clients that did that have seen significant lifts in site traffic, every one of them. And I’m talking anywhere from 10 to 30, 40, 50% traffic increases. And a lot of that is obviously outbound, it’s email, social promotion of that thought leadership, but they’re also getting significant search lift.
So I would make the argument that the need for solutions to really difficult problems is never ever going to go away. And certainly at this moment in time, it does appear that search engines are still a viable means by which to connect that solution to the difficult problem with someone who has the problem, because we’re seeing that through and to all of our client base and beyond in the last three months. All of them are seeing lift in what I call marketable leads, meaning they’ve built a bigger audience of people that are willing to trust them and are receiving their marketing. And some of them have seen lifts and sales ready leads. So people that are making inquiries and saying, “Yeah, let’s do this,” Or “Let’s talk,” I should say. So in the moment, I would argue a lot of firms it’s still working quite well, especially through this pandemic.
Jeff McKay (17:56):
I won’t argue against that, but I think the important point that you make, or my interpretation of what you said is Inbound is a tactic, it’s one of many, and there is a time and a place for that tactic. It does not stand on its own. And to me, there are very narrow applications where Inbound, if done properly, not just done, but done properly with the right strategy, and the strategy doesn’t mean creating buyer personas, which is stupid, in my opinion, but I’ve written about that. But there’s a time and a place for that approach.
And if you are marketing complex ideas to sophisticated buyers in complex BtoB sales, where expertise, and results, and relationship are important, and the buying decision is high risk, high investment, Inbound is not going to be in your top three marketing tactics in my mind. If you have just the opposite, a quick, easy, low risk inexpensive sale, the market understands their problem, and they understand that there’s some solutions out there, Inbound could probably work really well for you. But I think everybody tries to apply the same Inbound playbook, no matter what the product, no matter what the cost, no matter what the nature of the sale is. And it’s going to be even true within professional services firms, maybe one practice, it makes sense to maybe use Inbound, but another, it doesn’t. I mean, it can be that nuance.
Jason Mlicki (19:58):
I would agree. I mean, the thing we’ve seen in applying thought leadership strategies firms for a decade or more. And so our agency is definitely a function of the type of buyer you’re trying to reach and the type of solution that you’re proposing to solve, just like you said. So there are certain types of buyers that you absolutely can reach through Inbound strategy and it works quite well. And there are certain types of buyers you probably will never reach for an Inbound strategy. And you just have to know which ones those are to your point. And I agree with you that it could be very much practice specific. All right. So we’ve got to take it to a wrap. So let’s do this. I got to put you on the spot. You got to pick one, it’s vibrant, dead or on life support. So what’s your conclusion?
Jeff McKay (20:41):
Life support. It’s in a coma, but it might wake up given the right medical treatment and divine intervention.
Jason Mlicki (20:51):
It’s fair. So I’ll use the classic nuance, like I said earlier, I’d say the movement is vibrant, healthier than it’s ever been, but the tactic is absolutely on life support. And with all due respect, it was probably never even alive in the first place for a lot of firms as you really well pointed out that there are a lot of situations where it never was the right tactic. So claiming that is dead or on life support when it was never living [inaudible 00:00:21:20]. That was fun, we’ll have to do this again sometime.
Jeff McKay (21:23):
You’re going to call Brian at HubSpot and apologize, right?
Jason Mlicki (21:27):
What am I apologizing for? Embarrassing him over the video he produced in 2008. [inaudible 00:21:33] video about agencies and how unviable they are. Oh, boy.
Jeff McKay (21:37):
I love doing these podcasts with you, I really do.
Jason Mlicki (21:40):
Well, the one thing I will say about HubSpot is I’ve been a pretty big critic of their software for years, but they’ve navigated to a great place. They are an innovative company that has found ways to bend that product in new directions and get it to solve other problems than the ones that they set out to solve in the beginning, which is what great venture backed software companies do. So in that essence, they’re a great company, because they’ve figured out how to navigate to real solutions, to real problems that clients have, although I would argue some of their early solutions were not fully baked. But what SAAS companies are, right?
Jeff McKay (22:16):
That’s true. What any company is.
Jason Mlicki (22:17):
It’s easy for me to sit here and take criticisms of what they were doing in 2008. They could criticize what I did in 2008 without any trouble at all. They can criticize what I’m doing right now, they [inaudible 00:22:28].
Jeff McKay (22:27):
I’m going to stay silent on that statement.
Jason Mlicki (22:30):
Exactly. All right. I’ll talk to you next week.
Jeff McKay (22:33):
See you buddy.
Jason Mlicki (22:36):
Speaker 1 (22:36):
Thank you for listening to Rattle and Pedal, Divergent Thoughts on Marketing and Growing Professional Services Firms. Find content related to this episode at rattleandpedal.com. Rattle and Pedal is also available on iTunes and Stitcher.