I used to be an “inbound marketing” enthusiast. As I gathered experience in the field I moved on to (strategic) content marketing. I want to share the why from my personal experience (which is not “the truth” ;) ) …
A few years ago I was fresh out of business school with a MSc. In international Marketing. I did not quite know what to do with that degree in traditional marketing and I turned to one of my passions: the music industry. After a 6 month internship to validate my degree, I decided to see what’s happening in the online marketing field, because I clearly saw that the opportunities seemed to be there, more than in traditional marketing.
The most difficult thing to get when you just graduated is… well to get a job. I decided to accept another internship position at a startup, as I thought: what matters now is to just get a foot in the door and go from there. The company I worked for positioned itself as a „marketplace for content marketing”. That seemed to be interesting.
So I bought books to learn more about it. (My first one was “Managing Content Marketing” from Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi).
As I searched for more related information I inevitably stumbled upon HubSpot and loved their mission, their vision of what marketing (communications) should be:
Quote from former HubSpot CMO Mike Volpe (source)
And I thought: that is the future! How can it not be?! Actually I used to dream of working at HubSpot a few years back.
When I realized the startup I worked for was just jumping on the bandwagon instead of actually empowering businesses to do “content marketing” (or at least not in the way I wanted to help businesses to do it), I decided to move on.
I took on a job as an inbound marketing project manager in a B2B Marketing agency 2 years later joined another agency which this time was a HubSpot partner (and still is). I passed all relevant HubSpot certifications, got to know the platform, helped push inbound efforts and accompanied client projects.
At the same I joined the second agency I also joined a small startup (it really was, I was the third guy) which developed a plattform for executing on strategic content marketing.
Two methodologies: inbound marketing & strategic content marketing
Inbound Marketing is clearly defined sales-driven methodology that focuses mostly on creating content people search for when they have a problem or question, delivering the answer and guiding them through the funnel until a sale happens.
Over time as I managed inbound project I felt that there has to be more to it than that and I became more and more interested in what a guy was talking about (M. Lange): “strategic content marketing.” This more holistic approach goes further than reaching tactical, sales related goals, rather focusing on long term value creation and strategic communication goals.
Not a week went by when I did not question one or the other approach and compared them.
Anyway, I’ve been working there for a while now, even after this startup got acquired by Scribblelive. As a matter os fact I am a fulltime “scribbler” now, as the foljs in Canada like to call themselves.
When I felt I knew both methodologies inside out I made the choice “turn my back” on inbound. Not because it doesn’t work. Not because the agencies I mentioned before were bad (actually, they are pretty awesome people and very competent marketers), but because of the following.
1) Inbound Marketing is mostly a playbook of (online) tactics
When you get started in inbound marketing, you can almost NOT miss out on HubSpot’s “inbound certification”, which teaches you the basics of the methodology, the inbound playbook. The inbound methodology is very much focused on a very specific set of tactics which you are taught are part of the playbook: Blogging, SEO, social media (as distribution channels), landing pages, … and so on.
Inbound Marketing is an approach that is mostly relevant to a very specific set of businesses who are very sales-driven and approach marketing in a quite tactical way. It is limited to a limited set of techniques / channels.
If you look to inbound marketing to answer questions related to strategy, you won’t find a whole lot of guidance (which in itself isn’t becessarily a “bad thing”).
But after a few years of experience in inbound marketing I thought: the answer to many questions is not always “blog regularly”, “choose better keywords”, blast (more) on social media, convert into leads & nurture leads with emails.
(I am simplifying here, but that’s basically the inbound playbook.)
Inbound as a methodology is quite vague when it comes to strategic issues / questions such as:
- What does it really mean to provide valuable and relevant content for a target audience? What the heck is this “value” everyone is talking about anyway? :D („persona” and “sales funnel” is not enough)
- What is the core story? What is the mission? How do we approach specific topics in the long term and how will it build the brand? Where do we want to be in 5-10 years? How to we influence people’s perception through good content? (beyond “ranking” in search engines when people have questions?)
- What’s the storyline of our content?
- How do we create value (value chain) from communication?
- How do we approach processes? How do we organize workflows and a transformed organization that is able to think beyond channels and silos?
- How do we get everyone on board in large organizations? How do we lead the change? What change is needed to fully leverage the power of „content”?
- … and more
Inbound Marketing is mostly SEO driven. Therefore it’s often dominated by short term performance metrics (conversion rate, CTR, etc.) and SEO metrics (rankings for keywords, traffic, conversion from search etc.) and conversion rates to generate the holy lead.[trx_infobox style=”info” closeable=”no” icon=”icon-pin” color=”#010101″ bg_color=”#DADADA” top=”inherit” bottom=”inherit” left=”inherit” right=”inherit”]By the way In relation to this idea, I urge you to read Mark Schaefer’s post: „Should you content generate leads or relationships?”[/trx_infobox]
2) Content as a commodity and content as an asset
One main idea behind inbound marketing is to grow exponentially within defined timeframes. I believe that it can be a problem.
If you start with the goals and think of content not as „substance” of your communication but rather as a bullet in your shotgun, all you have to do to increase the numbers at the bottom of the funnel is actually to do more at the top. All the more you do at the top of the funnel, the more chances you have at getting more out at the bottom, right? e.g. If you want more traffic and leads the obvious thing to do is to increase the content output.
(I have spoken with quite a few people in the inbound community who use the funnel as a tool for content planning and calculating the output needed for reaching goals).
While this is a perfectly legitimate approach for reaching isolated, tactical sales goals, it’s not a holistic approach and leads to marketing becoming being the valet for sales. Strategic marketing communications which creates value beyond (online) channels needs a more holistic model.
3) „Search” is just one type of interest
Inbound is all about „getting found”. Therefore, search engine optimization is crucial. Social media is something you do because it’s an additional traffic source. You get ideas for content mostly from keyword-research, from something that has the best “search volume”.
Again, if you succeed at ranking for those queries, that works very well. But what do you do if your target audience just doesn’t research online? Or what if you want to drive traffic to a trend / a product / a concept that you want to shape and own? You can’t be keyword-driven.[Tweet “”search” is just one type of interest for content”]
People can also have a latent interest in more or less sepcific topics. They won’t search for it but it will still be relevant if they see your content. There’s a whole other playbook out there to reach those people. Or you might have to generate that demand, because at first, they won’t even recognize why they should care.
The point is: why focus only on „getting found” and wait for people searching? What happens if for some obscure reason your rankings drop and you don’t get organic traffic anymore? Is paying (SEA) the only option then to continue getting people to your content?
“Content” needs more than inbound
Inbound Marketing is a clearly defined, rather linear methodology that uses content to reach people online and convert them into leads and clients. However the inbound playbook doesn’t address aspects like processes, silos (inbound happens within the “online silo”) & change management, building a content marketing team or building a value chain for achieving strategic (communication and business) goals.
By the way, it’s not even about size (“strategy is NOT “just for corporations”), it’s about the approach. Inbound Marketing is a good answer for a very specific set of questions and goals. If you are just looking for a hook to go fishing for leads and convert them to customers through online channels, inbound is the right methodology (but you still need a strategic foundation).
A content strategy in which content is used for communication (not just for marketing, but also for other internal and external stakeholders) and managed like an asset that has value in itself sets the right foundation and empowers marketing communications to be more than the lead supplier, conversion optimizer and campaign project manager.
I have personnally come to the conclusion that…
- When it comes to „content”, strategy is what leads to value creation.
- Content is worth more than the short term numbers that you can track (whether it’s visitors, leads, sales, followers, clippings in the press or whatever)
- Good, authentic, sustainable Content Marketing doesn’t come without a good content strategy (i.e. strategic content marketing)
- And the challenges faced today by businesses are too complex to be reduced to a very specific set of a few online channels and formats. It’s about the story.
On a personal level I am drawn towards the holistic SCOM approach. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that I “dislike” Inbound as a methodology. :-)
What do you think? Do you see “inbound” and “content marketing” differently? Have you had similar thoughts and come to another conclusion? Do you think there’s a methodological dilemma between those approaches? Whether it’s here or through another channel, I’d be glad to read your thoughts!