The term Inbound Marketing and it’s methodology are both fundamentally flawed and harmful to marketing practitioners trying to find the best ways to grow and help their businesses succeed.
Did you know that even Hubspot uses methods like paid promotion and advertising as part of their standard content promotion process? I know this because it was part of the presentation by Hubspot’s own Amanda Sibley at Inbound 2014. When that part of the presentation was shared, Amanda added jokingly that “we keep that hush hush because it’s not really ‘inbound’.” Although I already had a number of issues and concerns about Inbound Marketing before that presentation, Amanda’s quote inspired me to dive deeper into those thoughts.
The following thoughts and insights comprise my long list of problems and concerns with the term and philosophy we know as Inbound Marketing…
The Many Definitions and My Problems with Each
While researching I came across a slew of definitions for the same exact term, Inbound Marketing (confusing, I know). In fact, many of them came from the same source (Hubspot, the inventors of the term). I believe this is a good place to start outlining my argument against the mass adoption of the term and philosophy.
1) Inbound is about pulling people in by sharing relevant information, creating useful content, and generally being helpful. http://www.hubspot.com/internet-marketing-company
I’ll touch on this more later, but the concept of pulling potential customers in by creating and sharing helpful and relevant content is nothing new. In fact, companies have been doing this for over 100 years. This sounds like a piece of the definition of Content Marketing.
“Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” -Content Marketing Institute
The only difference between this definition and the definition of Content Marketing, is that Content Marketing’s definition includes the added objective of creating this type of helpful content in order to drive profitable customer action. Additionally, Content Marketing is something that can be applied to multiple business objectives from new customer acquisition, to customer retention, customer satisfaction and more. Is this really what defines Inbound Marketing?
2) A process of attracting potential customers with content, SEO and social media and then moving them through a funnel to convert leads,close and delight. http://www.hubspot.com/inbound-marketing
Excuse me as I ramble here but it’s unfortunately the only way I could attempt to derive reasoning from an unreasonable concept and definition. My problem with this definition is that it lumps content, SEO and social media together as tools used to attract customers as if they are all on the same plane. In reality, the content is the backbone of this definition and SEO and social media are channels used to promote that content and provide your valuable help.
Again, this feels like a customer-acquisition based content marketing strategy using mainly SEO and social media as promotional channels. Throw a paid Facebook ad campaign in there and all of the sudden you aren’t doing “Inbound Marketing?” Does this mean the definition of Inbound Marketing is really something like: “Inbound Marketing is Content Marketing that doesn’t allow for any “interruption” type promotion or advertising. Any such promotion disqualifies your strategy as Inbound?” If so, I believe this proves my point that the distinction of “inbound” and “outbound” strategies is harmful to practitioners. This definition describes Inbound Marketing as an exclusionary strategy that paints often viable options for marketing and advertising as negative alternatives rather than complementary parts of a sound marketing plan. Here is a detailed distinction of what strategies might be considered “inbound” and “interruptive”; http://marketingland.com/the-changing-definition-of-inbound-marketing-why-seos-and-sems-should-care-46187.
Do you notice that the graphic used to distinguish the terms labels an entire column of often-useful marketing strategies as being bad? The “interruption” side of the chart uses the color red and describes the strategies contained as “interrupting someone’s flow of activity in order to get attention.” The graphic paints traditional media, social media advertising, and even trade show booths as things we should avoid in favor of the inbound qualified tactics listed on the opposite side of the chart. Here is more evidence that the distinction between the two is drawn as a good vs. bad debate from Hubspot.com; “Instead of the old outbound marketing methods of buying ads, buying email lists, and praying for leads, inbound marketing focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product, where they naturally want to be.”
At the very least, the graphic makes these strategies out to be lower quality and poorer performing marketing options. What about a carefully targeted Facebook ad to users who are interested in the given product or service? What about using a Facebook ad or billboard to provide and share valuable content? Further evidence in my opinion that these distinctions are ludicrous. Based on this definition I created the following chart to illustrate what Inbound Marketing may really mean…
3) Inbound marketing refers to marketing activities that bring visitors in, rather than marketers having to go out to get prospects’ attention. Inbound marketing earns the attention of customers, makes the company easy to be found, and draws customers to the website by producing interesting content.
See my argument above for #2.
4) In a nutshell, inbound marketing is about marketing with a magnet, not a sledgehammer. (Part 1, What Is Inbound Marketing) http://www.hubspot.com/interactive-guide-to-inbound-marketing
To me, this is a soft attempt to define Inbound Marketing and to allow for flexibility for an extremely confusing and difficult-to-define terminology.
Is a hyper targeted advertisement to someone who is interested in your product/service marketing with a sledgehammer? What if I share my content with someone who finds it useless and annoying through social media? Where is the arbitrary line drawn and who is deciding? Better yet, why? Why not let common sense prevail instead? Is this what Inbound Marketing really means: Inbound Marketing is about using content to attract a user to give you their contact information so that you can then attempt to sell to them.?
Major Flaws with the Methodology
It’s Not That Original…At All
Upon reading the story of Hubspot’s founding, I came across what seems to be the original premise of the term Inbound Marketing. The story goes something like this: In 2004, Hubspot co-founder Dharmesh Shah’s successful blog OnStartups inspired he and fellow co-founder Brian Halligan to come to the realization that “people do not want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by sales people. They want to be helped.” They used this supposedly newfound knowledge to conclude that there was a “transformation in how people shop and buy. We called the traditional method ‘outbound’ — because it was fundamentally about pushing a message out and started calling the new way ‘inbound.’ Inbound is about pulling people in by sharing relevant information, creating useful content, and generally being helpful.”
How interesting! This sounds incredibly similar to the concept outlined by Seth Godin’s widely popular book, Permission Marketing, which was published 5 years earlier (in 1999). Here is a blog excerpt where Godin describes the concept behind his 1999 book:
Permission Marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.
As I mentioned earlier, the concept of being helpful and “pulling people in by sharing relevant information [and] useful content” has been around for over 100 years. Brands like Jello, John Deere and more have been creating and distributing valuable content to earn and retain customers far before Brian and Dharmesh had their groundbreaking epiphany.
Its SEO Focused Foundation is Completely Out of Date
Hubspot lists the words “blog” and “keywords” as ⅔ keys to their attraction phase related to the Inbound Marketing model. One highly touted example of Inbound Marketing success is that of Marcus Sheridan and his business River Pools and Spas which grew tremendously as the result of Marcus’ blog postings.
The River Pools and Spas founder began answering questions potential customers may have about his product offering (in this case, fiberglass pools) via a series of blogs. Potential customers found Sheridan’s blog via search engines when they performed searches around topics he had written about there. This is called the long-tail strategy of SEO. Because River Pools and Spas didn’t have a number of competitors creating this informational content, he was able to dominate the search rankings around the topics he was writing about.
Unfortunately, 5 years later, this is not a viable strategy for 99% of businesses. Don’t believe me? Try performing a Google search for a question a potential customer might have about your product or service and scroll through the pages of search results displaying dozens, if not hundreds, of blog posts and web pages discussing the topic. If you’re in a niche where your competitors aren’t creating this informational-type content about your product or service consider yourself one of the lucky few and move ahead with starting a blog in this manner.
With an extreme saturation on the web of informational blog postings answering potential customer’s questions, it’s my contention that you’ll have a very hard time getting your blog posts to perform and rank well without heavy SEO (authority/link building) investments over months and years. Regardless, creating and leveraging a blog in this manner has and continues to be a hub for businesses attempting to implement the Inbound Marketing methodology.
It Misunderstands Content Marketing & How to Make it Work
Hubspot has always perpetuated that the key to attracting potential customers is to answer their questions in the form of a blog. As previously mentioned, this is a strategy that simply won’t work for most businesses in 2015. Why? Because (in addition to the points outlined in the previous section), this model fails to answer key questions required of building a sound Content Marketing strategy. Real Content Marketing fills a need. Can you fill a need if someone has already created the content you’re planning to create? Real Content Marketing focuses on building an audience by researching and identifying a specific content niche where you can be best of breed. The one-size-fits-all blog approach to Content Marketing as outlined by Hubspot fundamentally fails to answer key questions required to succeed. I’d even go as far as to say that I believe those who have succeeded with Inbound Marketing have actually done so because they’ve answered these key questions (whether by luck or intention) and succeeded in building an audience.
Further evidence of Hubspot’s (and its plethora of loyal Inbound Marketing believers) misunderstanding of content marketing can be seen here. Content Marketing is not a subset of Inbound Marketing. Content Marketing can be both Inbound and Outbound in nature. It can be found or promoted either way. Additionally, Content Marketing isn’t only a top of the funnel mechanism, it can be applied to areas such as customer loyalty and retention, customer upselling and more.
How Agencies Benefit from Selling Inbound
Dating back to 2011 I’ve seen first hand the appeal of the Inbound Marketing methodology and terminology to marketing agencies and professionals. By using a single term to define a set of tactics (from SEO and Content Marketing to social media, lead nurturing and more), Hubspot gave practitioners a way to sell a package of services together leading to increased retainers. Hubspot has earned mass scale adoption from agencies, I believe, for this reason. Additionally (and perhaps more importantly) it gave agencies a reason to funnel client budgets away from advertisers and into service retainers.
A Better Way
- I believe it’s completely ludicrous to implement a marketing strategy that doesn’t include some direct promotion (through advertising) of your product or service and its unique value messaging if you can do so effectively. A sound marketing strategy combines all available options to produce results both short term and long term and it’s open to looking at all available channels.
- I believe that a better approach for companies seeing lackluster results from the Inbound methodology is to completely change the way you think about Content Marketing. Reframe your strategy by creating a mission statement, find a niche where you can “win”, and gear your Content Marketing efforts toward attracting an audience that you can leverage to achieve key business objectives and attract new business. These are key components of a sound Content Marketing strategy. When it comes to promoting your content and building an audience, you should always consider all available promotional channels.
- Use the latest technologies, trends and channels to ensure people find you when they are in the market for your product or service. Optimize your website, build a positive online reputation and make sure that your business has a presence when potential customer are looking. This is done primarily through SEO, SEM , & Barnacle SEO.
- If directly selling to potential customers is an options (which it is for most B2B companies), you should definitely have a sales strategy as well!
It’s not my intention to be negative and critical for the sake of complaining. It’s my goal and objective to further a discussion that will allow for marketing practitioners to perform their jobs better, to produce better results for the businesses they represent, and to be open to any and all strategies and channels that will allow them to do so. The exclusionary nature of Inbound Marketing isn’t helpful, it’s harmful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions and look forward to discussing via the comments below!
Sources & References
- Excerpt from Hubspot.com’s “About Hubspot” page, http://www.hubspot.com/internet-marketing-company
- The long history of content marketing from http://todaymade.com/blog/history-of-content-marketing/
- Hubspot’s definition of Inbound Marketing at http://www.hubspot.com/inbound-marketing
- Hubspot Case Study Example at http://www.hubspot.com/customers/river-pools-and-spas