What Inbound Marketing Can And Can't Do in 2016

These days, you don't have to explain to anyone what "content marketing" means, but I'm not so sure the same is true of "inbound marketing". As a phrase it's not quite as intuitive, nor does it imply a concrete action. In content marketing, you make content. In inbound marketing you make… inbounds?

Actually, yes, kind of. Inbound marketing is the strategic layer above and in between the content you make: how you arrange them to lead prospective customers down the old classic sales funnel. Another reason is that it's often closely associated with just one company: HubSpot. It's not their invention nor is it used exclusively by them, but they have done by far the most to promote it.

In keeping, HubSpot released The State of Inbound 2016 report this week, its eighth annual edition, presenting the results of its annual global survey of marketing professionals. The survey is careful not to heavily favor (p. 6–7) marketing agencies, nor HubSpot partners (p. 8–9). [Necessary disclosure: Beutler Ink is a HubSpot agency partner, and HubSpot is a sometime Beutler Ink client.]

So while it is private research whose publication is absolutely a case of content marketing in itself, it's still worth taking seriously as a snapshot of what marketers who work around content are thinking about in 2016. Based on my perusal of the 128-page report, here's what I think is most interesting:

  • They are who we thought they were. Which industries rely the most on inbound marketing (p. 74)? This being a survey of inbound marketers, all represented industries are above 50%. But those north of 75% include, in descending order: Ecommerce, Marketing agencies, Software, Media and publishing, and Nonprofit / government. The first four are predictable. Inbound marketing, which you might call marketing for introverts, appeals to technology and publishing types. But the last is intriguing.
  • Marketing people are like this, and salespeople are like this. The report includes multiple sections dedicated to illustrating the differing views of marketing and sales people when it comes to inbound marketing. Most marketers (p. 43) think inbound produces the most qualified leads, while salespeople think their own leads are more valuable. But there's a big gap in their confidence: marketers favor their inbound by 42%, while salespeople favor their own leads by 16%. It's not proof alone that marketers are spending their time better, but it suggests sales has their suspicions.
  • Brands cannot live on inbound alone. Heresy I realize, coming from a report on inbound marketing, but it's right there on p. 107. Specifically couched in terms of "business software" decisions—just the kind of industry that leans heavily on inbound marketing—here is the breakdown of what information sources decision-makers turn to:

Out of these, only the "vendor materials", "analyst reports", and "review sites" reasonably count as inbound or content marketing. "Media articles" is PR, and "Salesperson" is (obviously) sales. The two at the top of the list are the unavoidable, unassailable standby of business: relationships.

Content can support relationships, but it sure can't supplant them. You may write an incredibly insightful and easy-to-read ebook on an important subject you know well, but it's equally important to develop a network of colleagues who trust you on that topic and who will become the advocates for your work, both in the ebook and in real life. Even if inbound is marketing for introverts, you can't expect your work to speak for itself.

  • Inbound marketers are so basic. Inbound marketers are overwhelmingly focused on the following goals, quoting verbatim from available survey questions ranked #1 or #2 in a category:
    • Converting contacts / leads to customers
    • Generating traffic and leads
    • Closing more deals

Everyone's top priority (p. 13) is turning leads into customers, followed by getting more traffic to the website. This is not a huge surprise: these are the core components of content marketing. Among the available options, lowest-ranked priorities were sales enablement—an even more jargon-y term than "inbound"—and reducing acquisition costs.

What it suggests to me is that most inbound marketers are still heavily focused on the basics and justifying their costs, and less than a third have the time or need to focus on advance disciplines, selecting the right technologies, or training team members in new disciplines.

At 128 pages, there's a lot of data, and it mostly tells the same story—which is perhaps another way to say, it's a coherent story: inbound marketers, who must work effectively with sales teams and with the cooperation of understanding executive teams, still spend most of their time worrying about the very top and very bottom of the funnel. What do we make, who do we make it for and, when we make it, will it truly be useful to anyone?

For all the fancy sub-disciplines that have grown out of content marketing—inbound included—it turns out that figuring out how to create content that actually gets seen is still the biggest thing on everyone's minds.