Yellow Pages

3 Hard Truths about Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing is all the rage and for a very good reason.  It may go by other names – digital marketing, online marketing, content marketing, etc. – but, it’s of critical importance right now for a number of reasons, including:

  • Buyers’ fingers no longer do the walking in the Yellow Pages. Now, buyers go online and search for what they want using Google, Bing and Yahoo (but Google rules here). If you ignored your online presence before, you can no longer afford to do so. You simply won’t be found if you’re not in the game.
  • Buyer behavior has changed. They no longer contact a sales rep to find out about a product or service and ask questions. Those days are gone. Now, according to Forrester (2012) at least 2/3rds of the B2B buying cycle is completed before ever talking to a sales rep. Wow. Talk about companies losing control of the sales process.
  • Authorship and social rank is or will become more important in Google’s search algorithm. People click on content that has the author’s photo next to the results. Sharing and communication with customers and peers gain more links for content, with the net result being better positions in search engine results. Businesses are rewarded for personal, engaging content – this is a 180 degree turn from traditional marketing that pushes content to the prospective buyer.

So, yeah, inbound is hot. And that makes it competitive. HubSpot, whose founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah coined the term “inbound marketing” in their 2009 book Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs (New Rules Social Media Series), now have about 800 partners in their partner program.  When I started, just a few short years ago it was less than 200. And that doesn’t begin to cover all the other the freelancers writers, SEO firms, PR firms, marketing agencies or anyone else in the game.  Hubspot may’ve coined the term, but there are a lot of other players in the space.

When something is this hot, you’ll hear a lot of crazy talk about the pros of inbound marketing (as well as the cons of traditional marketing). I’d like to address three things you might have heard about inbound marketing that I think are either oversimplified or just outright myths:

1) Inbound marketing is cheap


It’s easy to think of inbound marketing as cheap. There’s little cost to setting up a blog. There’s little cost to participating on social media. Comparatively speaking, inbound is quite a bit cheaper than typical outbound marketing. Hubspot’s 2013 State of Inbound Marketing report states that inbound marketing companies saved an average of 13% in cost per lead than primarily outbound-focused marketers.

This is all true, but the problem that I often see coming into play is how businesses perceive this information.

Cheap does not equal little cost. It does not mean that you can take a chainsaw to your marketing budget.

If you’ve been advertising through paid media, then you certainly can see a dramatic cost savings through a shift to inbound marketing. A lot of times the human capital needed to build and sustain a successful inbound marketing campaign is overlooked.

Sometimes entirely.

As in, “You mean we need to pay people to write content, create a social media campaign, and set up landing pages?”

This is primarily an education issue. It’s very enticing to think you’re going to jump into the inbound marketing pool with both feet, start producing epic content, and watch the leads start rolling in. It’s also very easy to jump into the pool and start sinking right away (and doing more damage). Many businesses find themselves struggling with maintaining a content creation schedule, made all the more difficult by the advice to write frequently, and well, the more often the better.

According to Gartner’s Digital Spending report, 50% of companies outsource their online marketing. The reason is simple: a lot of companies aren’t experts at publishing and promoting content. Building a community both on your blog and through social media is a long term goal, not a short term one. Taking shortcuts won’t serve you well, particularly in inbound marketing, where bad content can be punished quickly, and black hat SEO tactics like keyword stuffing can bury you (in the search engine results).

The truth is that inbound marketing requires planning and resources. When starting a blog, for instance, I advise customers to create an editorial calendar for the year that also takes other marketing and sales events into account (trade shows, conferences, and even holidays, for instance). The goal is to create a backlog of at least a month’s worth of posts, if not more, and with an expectation of one to two posts per week. Planning and writing these blog posts before any of them get posted helps put the amount of work into perspective, and this is before considering calls to action, landing page designs, and final optimization of those posts.

Here is the where the ROI on inbound marketing come into play. If you’re paying for advertising, whether PPC, banner ad or a magazine, you pay to create the ad and then pay every time you run the ad. Forever. If you write a piece of quality content that is shared and drives traffic, you pay for that one time and continue to reap the rewards long into the future, increasing your return on that investment over time.

So, cheap?  No. Higher ROI (when done effectively), yes!

2) Inbound marketing shortens the sales cycle


This is one of my favorites and yes, you’ll  hear me say it quite a bit. It’s true. But. Yep, there’s a but. Remember, buyer behavior has changed with a large percentage (anywhere between 50 to 80%, depending on what report you’re reading) doing their research and even make their buying decision before ever speaking to a sales rep.

This is not a hard and fast rule. If the buyer isn’t comfortable doing the research, they may call a sales rep earlier in the process. However, if they are comfortable doing this evaluation on their own, they will take to Google, other vendors, social networks such as LinkedIn and Quora, and then make their purchase decision. They contact you to buy. Your sales cycle in that case may consist of nothing more than not mucking up the sale.

The sales cycle has shortened, but the marketing cycle has gotten longer.

What does this mean for you?  First, be sure you understand your buyers’ personas and buyers’ process (not sales process; the process your buyers go through) and how early you need to be communicating with your prospects. Either way, the end result is the same. In the first scenario, when the buyer isn’t comfortable evaluating their needs and options, they still need guidance to get to the questions they should be considering – identifying the “what” that will solve their problem.

Marketers need to understand the buying process (identify pain/problem, research, evaluation, selection, etc.) of your typical prospect and what information they will be looking for (i.e. what questions they need answered).

Now, as much as marketers would like to think that the minute a prospect converts on an offer they are a sales-ready lead, that’s almost never the case. That is why it is so important that marketing departments now have a lead process that aligns with sales. This idea of a lead process on the marketing side of the house is new for many companies, but it’s critical to inbound marketing success.

3) Just create epic content


This is one that I’ve heard a lot. Create epic content!  In order to build a community, get people linking to and sharing your content, and ultimately, attracting prospects, you need to write engaging material.

Write Epic Content


The thing is, writing engaging material is hard work. It’s absolutely essential, but don’t believe for a second that producing great content that people want to read is easy.

This can be particularly tough for marketing departments transitioning from writing traditional B2B marketing content to share-worthy content. Shifting from formally talking about yourself and your products to something truly informational, interesting, and possibly even funny (I know, crazy talk) means changing mindsets.

It could mean talking truthful about a product, its pros and its cons. It could mean discussing customer questions that businesses typically tried to avoid, either because they didn’t play to their strengths or they believe the answers delve into deep, hidden knowledge that they’d rather customers pay for. The truth is that letting go of these notions are one of the biggest steps towards creating truly EPIC content.

If you are just getting started writing your blog, you need to understand: you will probably stink at first.

And, that’s ok!

Writing a press release or a product one-sheet is very different from a blog. The tone you strike in your first posts will likely not mirror the tone you strike in your posts a year later. You will also probably not get the level of engagement that you hope for right away. And, that’s ok.

Don’t get discouraged! The more content you produce, the more you will figure out what is working and what isn’t. Content creation is truly a “practice makes perfect” endeavor.

I started this post talking about just a few reasons inbound marketing is important. It’s not going away. Many people intimate it’s easy, but it’s not. It takes changing your mindset, company culture and either outsourcing or hiring experts. But, done right, it can be a game changer. Just go in with clear expectation and your eyes wide open.

Yellow Page Photo Credit to Dan Gutwein