What exactly is inbound marketing and why should you be doing it? I recently had a chat about this with David Smooke who is a partner in ArtMap Inc., the head of marketing at Teamable, and advisor to Zoomforth. He was previously Director of Content Marketing and Social Media at Smart Recruiters.
What is inbound marketing and why is it so important?
Well, inbound marketing is a great way to get people to your own message. At the simplest level, it’s driving traffic to your values. I really look at it with the rise of the internet as the best way to market because as you put out your message, your ideas, your content, your status updates, you end up attracting people that align with how you already see the world. So instead of paying for direct mail and ads and trying to convince people it’s who you are, you just keep telling people who and what you are and who you help and have content that supports that. You end up forming an audience of really potential buyers.
It’s exciting for me in the marketing space because really right now it’s valued more so than the size your wallet is, the quality of your message because we have so many channels and mediums available to us online that we didn’t have 5 years ago, 10 years ago. Even the last year or two you still have new platforms emerging. Medium, LinkedIn Publisher, there’s always a new blog coming along, there’s always a new place to write. It’s been exciting for my career. I just write something and I’m able to talk to people like you and read things you’re writing and comment on your articles. It’s an exciting time to be in inbound marketing.
How is inbound marketing different to content marketing?
It’s a little bit of a tough one because they definitely overlap a lot. Without content, you can’t really have inbound marketing. These two terms, they really go hand-in-hand. Inbound is more like the flow of traffic and content is more like what actually drives the flow of traffic, like it has to go somewhere to something. I’m not a huge fan of the term “content marketing” mainly. Whenever you start talking about what you do, it’s always good to talk to people that are far outside your field so you can just see how much you’re buying into your own BS.
When I told my dad I was doing some content marketing, he was like, “Isn’t all marketing content marketing?” It was a funny little bit of a step back moment for me because it’s like every piece of marketing has to have content in it. I know that’s not the industry definition but to understand how broad these terms can go, it was a good moment for me. I think inbound marketing is a better way to put it because it hits you more on the purpose of it and that’s to drive inbound traffic to your ideas and values as opposed to producing content for the sake of producing content.
How can you get started with inbound marketing?
Well, I haven’t written a book yet so I guess the answer is not a clean yes, but with that said, there are clear places to start. A lot of it starts with looking at who you are and then what words. Do you want it to be your words, how to be a new source for that solution, how to reduce barriers to produce content, how to find your advocates. How does that fit in to your overall message and judging how successful you are in driving that type of traffic and conversions?
What mistakes should companies try to avoid?
I think the first one is making the threshold too high to share your words and your message. I run into a lot of companies and they’ll have one blog post a month. They have all these ideas of things they want to write and they’ll start getting the ideas out there but they don’t feel like it’s good enough. Whenever you compare product to marketing, there’s a Reid Hoffman quote that goes something along the lines of, “If you know your product is ready to ship, you waited too long.”
There’s a lot of value in this instant. People that make really good things, they keep a high barrier to entry where they’re like, “I want it to be up to my 99% standard,” and it’s just like with content and growing an audience, there’s a human element to it. You want it to be good but it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect. Yourself, a lot of times, you’ll be your own worst critic with your content and your messaging. I see other startups, whenever I talk to them, they feel like they’re in what they’ll call stealth mode but they’ll be talking to people about what they’re doing in person and then willing to say it in person but not online where it could attract a re-engageable audience. I just encourage brands to start sharing more sooner of their story.
The next thing I would point to is just not knowing who you are and having it as a universal thing about your company. So whenever you talk to, especially at an early stage company where there’s only a couple of people in the room, you should know who you are in three words, you should know who you are in one sentence and then you should know who you are in a paragraph. This boiling at who you are down to those small forms, it forces very tough discussions but very important ones. If you’re confident and consistent with who you are, you’ll end up attracting an audience that already demands what you’re offering, but if you keep changing who you are, it’s harder to build an audience. You’ll end up building an audience that doesn’t fit with what you want to offer.
I would say the last point is just not being open enough to collaborative marketing and guest blogging opportunities because I know you have a million things to do and you think, “I just have to make my own blog better or my own site better and things will work out for themselves.” But the internet is a very big place where traffic’s driven. It comes from somewhere. It’s not like they go to a computer and then the first thing they do is log in to your site. So I would say be very open to collaborative marketing with other people’s email lists, other people’s blog audience and just try to do as much cross pollination of audience as you can.
What technology do you need for inbound marketing automation?
It does depend with what stage you are at as a company. HubSpot’s a great tool but it’s very expensive. If you’re in that price range of ready to spend $2,500 a month on a solution, I think they’re great. At more simple levels, it starts with your own site and social networks. I know these are mundane for good reason technologies but you need to have a good content management system in place. You need to be able to publish as quickly as possible. Whenever you have these barriers where the writer isn’t able to submit drafts, you have your CEO producing content and he’s sending you an email with a draft, and then as you go to finalise it, people aren’t within the same system, just a little thing like that can end up causing you to waste a lot of time.
With the social networks, I guess we’re not really getting on big tools here but it is important. With Facebook, you can schedule posts within Facebook. With Twitter, having a good solution to schedule content such as Buffer, Hootsuite, Sprout Social, those are all great. They’re worth the small investment to have. I’ve also been doing some work with a company called Knotify and they’ve been doing really good things about uniting in-app activity and email. So they’re a good solution there if you’re trying to further engage your existing customers.
Technology in what people choose to use, even when I’ve been working with new hires, it’s like I don’t really want to force you on to an existing system. I care about you having the right intent. I care about you saying, “These are my buying personas. These are the five buying personas and this is how I’m going to go across each social network and start talking and engaging with those people”. So first, I want to have that discussion and feel good about the direction you’re headed and then what tools you actually use to get there, I’m a little less concerned with.
How does social and paid media relate to inbound marketing?
If you start with paid PPC search, how well you rank in Google is going to be a contingent on the cost that you pay per click. If you’re third for job boards and then I put up an ad for job board, it’s going to be twice as cheap as the person that ranks 30th, roughly. It all does fit together. Especially you look at more paid ads. It’s like how do you end up retargeting people? You end up retargeting people because you’re able to drive traffic to your site and now you’re trying to re-engage them and bring them back. So if you don’t drive much traffic to your site, you’re retargeting cycle becomes a lot less efficient. If they’ve ever been too your site and you’re targeting them with ads, they’re a lot less likely to click than if they’ve been there before and you’re solving an intent they already have and they just forgot about you and now want to revisit you.
I’m hoping that more people with social media marketing backgrounds, content marketing backgrounds, and inbound marketing backgrounds start becoming CMOs of companies. I think it’s a very feasible thing to look across because it is very integrated across the other aspects of marketing. If you start having your marketing leadership be more demand generation and marketing optimisation people, I think you’re at risk of losing the message and losing creativity. I do think it’s a great time to be in inbound marketing for moving up different marketing departments.
How do you calculate ROI from inbound marketing?
Yeah, it’s a little tougher because a lot of value of inbound marketing is long-term residual traffic. So you do want to set a proper approach in terms of timeline and expectations with people, but at the simplest level to get you going, I’ve been trying to grow this term of re-engageable audience. The re-engageable audience is your social media followers in your email list. I think it’s a very direct way of saying, “This is my group of people that I can send a message to in the future.” That would be an important metric in addition to traffic and conversions.
Traffic is pretty simple. It’s people on your website. Google has been pushing the visitor stat more which I like. So it’s how many unique people in your website. With conversions, you’re looking across different types of conversions. It really depends on your business but essentially, the threshold is that when they’re paying you or not paying you. So once you get to the point of traffic you drove, it actually starts paying money for your good or service. So I would start with those three and then you can really break down a lot more stats from each one of those.
With traffic, someone visiting the pricing page is a much more important person across most businesses than someone reading a blog post about how to do something. But some blog post about how to do something could be very high conversions for you. Whenever you’re looking at traffic, you want to look at what pages have the most likelihood that they’ll turn into a conversion. And then it’s like, “Okay, if this page is 1% and this next page is 20%, if I can move them from that page that’s 1% to 20%, my odds have gone up a lot.” There are a lot of good ways to break it down.
Along these lines, if you really want to get into inbound marketing and something I’ve been pushing myself more is just becoming a real expert in Google Analytics. We were talking about tools earlier but in terms of free tools out there that there’s a difference between a novice and an expert and it’s very high, Google Analytics is in that discussion and it’s really going to show you how your traffic’s moving. If you’re good at setting up events and traffic flows, you can really effectively report on your work and have a lot more learnings about what you want your site to do.
What should inbound marketers be focusing on next?
I would start with becoming a better writer. I think the value of a well written sentence, website, blog page, that value is just going to continue to get higher as there’s more and more noise on the internet. In tech, they talk about a lot the difference of a 10x engineer. I think it’s the same principle with writing. People that can express themselves well with the written word, you are going to be able to rise up above the noise and so a great writer is worth 10 average writers. Those 10 average writers may be able to put out content at least 10x as fast, but if it doesn’t rise to the top, your brand is getting hurt, you’re not getting as quality of leads. The content just sits in the middle with everybody else because the same thing; if barrier to entry is lower, there’s a lot higher volume and there’s a lot higher completion of content.
The other direction that I would encourage people to go and I’ve been trying to push myself this way is basically Photoshop. However you want to look at creating remarkable images, every piece of content you share is the second headline. Whenever you hit a point . . . if you write a great story, you pick a great headline and then your image is that letter A that everyone has whenever they don’t market as a feature image. I’m not sure you’ve seen this but if you’re in WordPress essentially and you don’t even select a feature image, it will just put a letter there. I’ve seen tons of great content get shared and it’s like people don’t want to re-share it because then they see it the newsfeed and it’s like, “This is not interesting.” So your image, whether it’s you or someone else or raising your barrier to work with someone else where you’re at the level of you’re really getting good tastes on your images and you’re making unique images consistently, that simple thing will go a long way.
The last thing is . . . this one’s kind of going back to gaining perspective. I would say to make sure to test your core marketing message on people who are in your industry and people who are not in your industry. So whenever you have these three words of who you are, this one sentence, this one paragraph, I would highly encourage you to do a lot more testing across diverse groups of people. The reactions you will get from people that have no idea what an employee referral engine is. For example, when I was testing different Teamable marketing messaging, it was great to do it on people who were now, say, 60-year-old and retired and say, 20 in college. You can get too far into what you are and obviously everyone else knows it, so you want to make a real conscious effort to seek out people in different demographics and different perspectives on life to test your message on.
What companies or brands that are doing inbound marketing right?
Sure. One company I was thinking of, they’re a really good example of how to integrate humour into their inbound marketing and that’s Eat24. They have a product where it’s very beneficial for them to integrate humour. Depending on the seriousness of your product, you want to make a decision on your tone and your voice. But with Eat24, their app is to order food online through your phone. They have a level of like the more you just have this positive association with them, the more Eat24 is able to just make you smile, the more orders that will happen through the app.
A few examples they’ve done, they did a great breakup letter with Facebook where they were saying, “Facebook advertising isn’t working for us,” and they did all these really funny food comparisons like if you’re to break up with your pizza. It was just a hilarious post that got picked up by all the mainstream publications because what they did was they tapped into a bigger issue and that is “Does Facebook advertising work?” They went on the forefront of saying, “It’s not working for us,” and essentially, being a negative case study, it’s a little bit of a risky move because you’re calling out a company bigger than you and saying you don’t work very well which is kind of a funny thing to do but it’s just a very, very funny read.
They also did some other funny ones calling out headhunters saying, “Stop sending messages to my people.” They’re a really good one to look at. Each one of the posts, they give an insight into the personality of the company which always has all these added benefits. Whenever you give the personality of a company, you have the CEO saying, “Headhunter, stop going after my people,” or they have their marketing people talking about how they drove app downloads by advertising on adult sites, which is also a funny read. I guess some people are visiting adult sites; they also want to order food so they found a funny overlap. But whenever you get this personality into your content messaging, you also create this demand to work for your company and people want to be around you. I would think, in the consumer space, they’re a great one to look at. On their app, they have really good microcopy — the words within the actual product itself. After you make an order, it says something along the lines of, “Sit back and relax. Your thumb just made food happen.”
We’ve talk about them before but it’s hard to not come back to HubSpot because they’re not only selling me inbound software, they’ve done inbound marketing software. They’ve done a great job of saying, “Hey, we want our brand to be like a publication.” I met with them about a year ago and it was cool to see the structure of their team. So to learn about how to scale at inbound marketing department, they basically break up into three sprint teams and one team does short form content like their blog. Another team does long form content like their eBooks and white papers and then they have a third team. Each one of these teams is of seven people where they actually are entirely focused on distributing content, and optimising the distribution cost and organic methods of the content distribution.
Just from a perspective of how those guys break up their marketing department, there’s a lot to be learned there. Their software is very expensive. Their email list is somewhere in the range of a hundred times the size if their paying customers. You’d have to check. I’ve kind heard some offhand on that, but it’s a very valuable lesson because even the masters of the game, so to speak, they know they have to get so many email addresses to get one paying customer and they’ll nurture you for years. They’re fine sending you content and making you a better marketer for three years and then on your third year, when you get the promotion and the new job, you think of them.
They’re great in that way that they’re less like, “Hey, we can really take a step back and if we make you into a smarter and a better marketer, our brand’s going to win.” You have people like me talking about them on a podcast like this. They’ve done a great job. I saw, recently, their sales are continuing to rise as a public company which is good to see that the value continues to be added. They’ve coined the term, so to speak, and it’s great to look at how they’re doing it.
Right before we bought them in the past, I remember they have my customer profile. It was literally two years. I never take those forums too seriously and they were making fun of all the little one liners I would put in like Vegas marketing challenge. And it was cool because they looked at my customer profile within their own HubSpot account. It was just like, “Here are the 15 touch points we’ve had with David before he even got a demo.” It’s cool to see that customer profile of yourself and of other people.