Higher conversion rates, improved ROI, better quality leads. These are some of the benefits inbound marketing promises. Although in many situations what you can accomplish with inbound marketing is simply overrated.
In their haste to obtain quick results, many companies dive headfirst into inbound marketing without even questioning whether this approach is suitable to their particular situation. Not surprisingly, they realize a few months later that they didn’t get the anticipated results.
It’s not that they should abandon inbound marketing altogether, but it’s time to take a more nuanced approach.
The growing popularity of inbound marketing
Inbound marketing is on the rise, no doubt about it.
Hubspot’s 2017 State of Inbound report includes some compelling statistics:
- 71% of organizations conduct primarily inbound marketing.
- Organizations that are inbound are more likely to state that their marketing strategy is effective (68% vs. 48% for organizations that are outbound).
- 46% believe inbound marketing gives them a higher ROI than outbound marketing.
Where “inbound marketing” comes from
Brian Halligan coined the term “inbound marketing” in 2005. A year later, he created Hubspot with co-founder Dharmesh Shah. Together, they wrote the book Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs in which they explain this paradigm shift in marketing.
From there, Hubspot’s mission became “to make the world inbound,” which essentially means stop bombarding people with promotional messages and let them come to you instead. In other words, earn your attention, don’t pay for it.
The problem with inbound marketing
Inbound marketing stems from sound principles. In many respects, it is a noble mission. But the problem with inbound marketing is that everybody tries to do the same thing. The more companies publish content to attract customers, the harder it gets to be found.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t publish content online, but it is a bit unrealistic to think that to attract clients, all you need to do is to blog and be active on social media. That may have worked in 2005, but today there are an estimated two million blogs published daily (source: Worldometers).
Besides, inbound marketing is not free. Producing videos, optimizing content for search engines, staying active on social media… All this requires quite a bit of resources, especially when you’re competing against companies with much broader means. Let’s not forget that Hubspot itself has NEVER been profitable. Year after year, their sales and marketing expenses exceed their revenue.
Inbound marketing isn’t for everyone
Hubspot publishes The State of Inbound every year, but the description of the methodology doesn’t reveal much about the size of the companies surveyed or their level of marketing maturity.
Dom Nicastro, who delved into the 2016 report, explains that one of the reasons the study claims so many benefits from inbound marketing is because the respondents essentially run small or very small businesses. Another possible explanation is that Hubspot uses a very broad definition of what inbound marketing is.
Similarly, Larry Kim reminds us that there are times when inbound marketing really sucks. This includes situations where you’re in a very niche market, your prospective customers are passive, or you simply don’t have the capacity to handle a sudden spike in demand.
Inbound marketing: just another approach or a real strategy?
We can all credit inbound marketing for reminding marketers that the internet has changed the way people buy. Customers are no longer just passive receivers of advertising messages. They are better informed than ever, and you need to satisfy their desire for information. In this view, inbound marketing can’t be ignored, but you could argue that a real marketing strategy takes a bit more than that.
While inbound marketing is the right approach in many cases, it would be a mistake to believe that it is the one and only way to do marketing, or worse that it can remedy the shortcomings of a poorly defined marketing strategy. What if there isn’t enough market potential or you don’t really differentiate yourself from your competitors or you simply don’t have the marketing budget you need? Inbound marketing can’t deliver miracles.
Inbound vs. outbound: the wrong question
Initially, Hubspot was largely touting the benefits of inbound marketing by comparing it to the shortcomings of outbound marketing, whereas, in fact, both complement each other very well.
Imagine the following scenario: a potential client visits your website and fills out your online form to download a specific white paper. But it is only once she receives your email newsletter and you talk to her on the phone three months later that she actually becomes a client.
Should you attribute this customer addition to your initial inbound marketing effort or to your outbound email campaign and follow-up call? Neither. The first one is pointless without the second and third marketing touches. At the same time, you may not have had the same success without the report, which is clearly in line with inbound marketing principles.
What do you think? Share your experience and key lessons from inbound marketing in the comments section.
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