Over the last few years, I have spoken to many marketing candidates, partners and colleagues on how inbound marketing is working. Here is some of the feedback:
“My marketing team publishes a blog, and uses LinkedIn and Twitter. We get good traffic on the blog, but I have no idea if LinkedIn or Twitter drive any opportunities.”
–President of system integrator
“You should post a blog post at least once a week. What you say is less important.”
–C-level executive at inbound marketing software company
“We promote things through Twitter, but I have no confidence it creates any value.”
–Editor of a major trade magazine
The problems I see with the vast majority of inbound marketing practitioners is that they view it as a replacement for the fundamental elements of marketing, instead of as a set of tools to complement “traditional marketing.” Creating a slew of content with a lousy message or undifferentiated value proposition is actually worse than doing nothing.
The hype of inbound marketing has led to the perpetuation of five popular myths.
Myth 1: Number of Followers Is the Measure of Success
Many people are very proud of their growth in followers. One candidate I interviewed proudly declared that she had built thousands of followers by blasting out emails and asking people to follow them. When I asked how she measured the impact on leads (never mind revenue) she had no clue.
In my experience, followers fall into five categories: customers, influencers (consultants, analysts, press), prospects, vendors and partners. (These are the people and the organizations they represent, but there are further segments based on their roles within these categories.)
Everyone wants the prospects, but the vast majority of people on social media fall into the other four categories. In fact, I have posted questions in LinkedIn groups only to be subsequently hammered with vendor “suggestions” trying to pitch me consulting. The key questions you should be asking are: 1) Which groups are most valuable, and 2) what is the effort to add new followers in each category? We do want more prospects, but that might not be the right target for these channels if they don’t engage regularly or are costly to acquire. Getting one partner follower, who also communicates to 100 joint prospects, may be more valuable. It’s not just about building followers; it’s about the right followers.
Myth 2: Creating Thought Leadership Is Better than “Feature Function”
Everyone wants to be a thought leader, but not everyone is one. I get constant email blasts of “best practices” or “thought leadership” articles, but the majority of those are what I would call “Marketing 101.” They are about an inch deep and not specific enough to my situation to be useful. I get so many that I probably ignore some that would be quite useful.
To be really valuable in helping a customer solve a problem (the ultimate success in sales and marketing), you need to understand the context of the prospect. Think about these questions:
- Where are they in their thought process?
- What is their role in the organization?
- What are the specific problems they are trying to solve?
Doing a product demo that addresses a prospect’s specific problem can be the most effective way to drive sales for someone who has already educated themselves (ideally with your thought leadership content). Thought leadership is good, but actually showing how your thought leadership can solve problems is even better.
Myth 3: Creating Content Will Drive Leads
Creating great content is fundamental to successful inbound marketing. However, it is just the start of the process. The allure of easily publishing content via social media is actually a double-edged sword, and making sure the content gets to the right people is still a challenge. Let’s first address what defines “great content.”
One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Prospects who are very early in their search for solutions might appreciate 101-type or basic information, because it helps put their situation in perspective. It might highlight where their problems fit with solution options and maybe even new problems they didn’t know they had. Unfortunately, someone who is further down the path will be frustrated with the simplistic points—and will likely tune out all your other communications.
Another issue is that even when you have a great asset, simply blasting it out to all social media channels is fraught with issues. I have been guilty of creating what I believe is great, then realizing I do not have the plan or budget to get it to the targets I want.
Your content can drive leads, but only if your strategy includes the most effective and targeted channels to reach the right prospects in the right context.
Myth 4: Sales Will Increase as Inbound Leads Increase
Many thought leadership pieces are placed behind a landing page requiring an email address. This will no doubt generate leads, but the quality of the leads is almost always suspect—with some people filling out the form with bogus information to get the free content.
Also, while the headline was compelling to the person, they may find the actual content to be irrelevant to their needs. But too late, the contact information has already been passed to a sales person who is anxiously emailing and following up.
It isn’t about the quantity of leads, it’s about the quality. And ensure you deliver what you promise with your content to help prospects stay in the right mindset when talking to your sales team.
Myth 5: Sales Wants More Content
It actually tends to be marketing that loves to churn out new content, especially in the age of inbound marketing.
A few years ago, I read that 75 percent of marketing materials never or rarely get used by sales. My guess is that this may be higher with social media. Most content is for the top of the funnel, getting prospects into the database by generating oodles of content—and hundreds of unqualified leads.
Again, the pressure on marketing from sales isn’t for more content; it’s really for creating the kind of content that will generate more quality leads.
Steps to Success
Despite the hoopla around inbound marketing,most marketing dollars will be wasted without sound fundamentals. Here are some steps to help you work around the myths of being “inbound.”
Segment your audience so you know which followers are heroes. One of the biggest benefits of social marketing is the ease with which you can find out information about people. Furthermore, the ease of integration between email marketing tools, customer-relationship management systems and third-party data (such as LinkedIn and data.com) makes building and maintaining information much more cost effective. Use that information for segmenting your audience.
Think from a strategic standpoint about which of our top-level categories of followers can provide the best leverage—customers, prospects, influencers, partners or vendors.
At Oz Development, for example, our solutions are all built around a core business application (such as NetSuite, Magento or ChannelAdvisor), so partners are actually more important to acquire and nurture than prospects. Conversely, a start-up company that is trying to build customers may initially focus on prospects and an established firm may find it better to focus on customers as they introduce new products.
Once you identify the top level, it is important to do as much micro-segmentation as possible. This creates very targeted audiences, which enable:
- More focused content and more engagement within the group
- More flexibility in controlling marketing across market segments and sales cycles
- Ability to avoid overloading specific targets with every communication
Create content that is specific to the stage. Creating content for specific roles and context is a simple concept, but it is difficult to execute. The table below represents a straightforward example of a content map. Along the top are the three basic stages of a sales cycle: building awareness, creating value and the close. Each row shows a representative role and a sample sales tool that could help move the process along.
I have seen numerous articles outlining how the traditional sales funnel is dead. I disagree with this notion, although I agree that the way customers go about buying has changed. They may go through the whole first stage of awareness without you even knowing—and could even be using your great content to get that done. But as a sales and marketing team, you still need to understand where the prospect is in the cycle and what problem they are trying to solve—and then direct your content toward helping them toward your solution.
One final note on content and stages. Early in the cycle, during the awareness phase, follow-up must be done carefully to ensure you don’t push the prospect away. Downloading a white paper doesn’t mean they are ready to buy, and a more aggressive follow-up may simply push the prospect to another vendor. The tempo of the buying process is much more in the prospects’ hands today than 10 years ago.
Use traditional outbound marketing to get to the right people. Hubspot is the biggest advocate of inbound marketing, but they email their list as much as any traditional marketer I have seen. As an example, I looked back at a single month, and found I had received six emails from Hubspot. Wikipedia defines outbound marketing as “buying attention, cold-calling, direct paper mail, radio, TV advertisements, sales flyers, spam, telemarketing and traditional advertising.” And I would argue that 1.5 untargeted emails a week could be considered spam.
But that’s not to say that the elements of outbound marketing shouldn’t come into play. While I don’t think you should blast all your content, email can and probably must be used to ensure your audience learns about your message and to drive leads and business.
Similarly, cold calling is not dead and can be quite effective with current social media tools. Looking at a company’s hiring on LinkedIn can provide great context and focus to a cold call, especially if you have good content to back up the call.
For marketing to truly become inbound, you have to offer information that will make your followers want to come to you time and time again. Ignore the myths and focus on the concrete steps you can take to succeed.