Inbound marketing has largely been established as a credible tactic for the B2B marketer’s toolbox. Great content drives great conversations, and in most cases it does in fact hunt down targeted prospects and predictable pipeline growth. It’s certainly more effective than a random outbound email blast to a purchased list – which always results in an initial spike, followed by a rapid drop-off in engagement (and usually a certain percentage of opt-outs). As a matter of fact, this year at INBOUND 2014 the 10,000 registered attendees represented a doubling of attendance year-over-year. We look at companies like HubSpot that have successfully driven over 2 million opt-in subscribers exclusively via inbound tactics and we can only come to one conclusion: it must work. (You can check out my perspective on the Boston event in the Market Insight: HubSpot Unveils CRM at INBOUND 2014 – Is It a Game Changer?)
But I would submit that there are still fairly significant challenges to overcome with respect to inbound as an acquisition marketing tactic. On the one hand inbound is about creating leverage for marketing; you essentially use content to attract / engage the right prospects at the right time in the right channels. But you actually have to expose that content to the right prospects or customers first, and therein lie two significant challenges:
- Targeting prospects generally means you are creating content designed for a segment of your existing opt-in list or customer base. Great, so you have 10,000 opt-in prospects in your list. But the largest meaningful segment may only represent 1,000 prospects. Now you have to justify putting time and effort into content and campaigns that only address 10% of your list!? The reality is that it’s going to take additional budget to actually get in front of net-new leads with your inbound content. Issue 1: Your overall revenue targets for the quarter may not be attainable with 10% of your list – you need net new opportunities in the pipe, this quarter! Inbound requires earned and paid media. That means that on top of creating the content, you probably have to spend budget on promoting the content.
- Great content may actually drive engagement… with inquiries, but not leads. Let’s say you buy into inbound, you invest money and time creating great content, landing pages, and campaigns, and they drive engagement with inquiries who opt in to access content. A good percentage of these folks are tire-kickers. They just want to read the content because it’s good. They may look like a lead, but they don’t come back or engage in any of your future attempts to re-engage. Sometimes it’s REALLY hard to transform a sufficient volume of inquiries into leads or opportunities. This is what I call the “hidden funnel” in acquisition marketing and it’s a huge challenge for marketers. Issue 2: You got the prospect’s attention, but how do you stay in front of them and keep them engaged, educated, and willing to continue the conversation?
Inbound marketing does work, but marketers need to be more realistic about what it takes to put the wheel in motion. It’s important to educate stakeholders outside of marketing to make sure they 1) are prepared to invest in inbound and 2) understand how to measure success over time. Too many organizations are getting wrapped up in unrealistic expectations and are frustrated by the results. I’ve also talked to many advisory clients who are actually ashamed to admit one or both of the challenges I outlined above. They go to conferences and see lots of examples of inbound working well. Surely if others get it, they must be doing something wrong. Most of the time companies cover it up and blame the technology.
On that note, one of the other significant challenges I see is that inbound as a tactic was largely championed by technology providers (and agency partners) who are, let’s face it, a bit biased because they make a living off people buying into the concept. The whole industry blossomed around a solution to a problem you didn’t previously know you had. If you need inbound, you can’t do it effectively without marketing automation. Do we really think a sales rep at a marketing automation vendor is going to point out that after you invest in the technology you also need to invest in the content, and invest in promoting that content? Well, you do.
You also need to realize that inbound marketing is the future. You will not succeed without it because it’s really the only way to earn credibility with your buyer. Without inbound you’re just some schmuck with a product. With inbound you’re a trusted advisor who can solve a very specific problem.
How do you widen the bottleneck at the top of the funnel?
Top of the funnel volume
Most inbound advocates would say you should push relevant content across a variety of paid and earned media, including blogs and social media. The most common assumption is that blogging or engagement via social media will attract the attention of relevant target audiences, who may even share the content – essentially giving your content exponential scale and exposure to new audiences you would never have had access to. There are many use cases that suggest this can and does happen frequently. But you can’t rely on great content getting shared. The chances that you will create content that goes viral and suddenly drives massive pipeline are about as good as winning the lottery. You really have to consider paid promotion of that content as an option. That may be through paid search, rented lists, and advertising. What I’m essentially saying is that the hidden funnel is a reality you have to deal with, especially when you get started on inbound. You will likely need to spend some money to expose your great content to relevant target audiences. The beauty of inbound is that over time you can reduce your paid promotion because your content will start to hunt for you. Your brand will slowly gain credibility among target audiences, and if you have established yourself as a credible thought leader your content will be more likely to get shares.
More content for each stage
The inbound beast has an insatiable appetite. This is a bummer to read for most marketers. There’s this great quote analysts and agencies like to use: “not more content, better content.” Technically, that doesn’t read “less content” – it says you have to create even more quality content. But a lot of marketers will interpret that as a recipe for focusing on quality over quantity. The sad reality is that you need a variety of “nudge content” to toss out there when the hidden funnel in your acquisition efforts rears its ugly head. It’s literally like dangling bait until the prospect takes a bite. That means you need a bucket full of different bait and a variety of ways to deliver it on hooks. The hardest part is that initial opt-in. Once you have permission you can start to deliver drip campaigns, and they need to be unique and different (hence more content). I’m not saying you should abuse the opt-in, but you should definitely use it. It’s a good idea to set a threshold on lead engagement that essentially opts a person out if they don’t engage with any content over a pre-determined period of time. Don’t wait for them to hit the SPAM, just do it for them and preserve the relationship in case they come back and re-engage.