In his New York Times Bestseller Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Startup-Up Bubble, the author and humorist Dan Lyons documents his troubled tenure working at Boston’s hottest tech company, Hubspot. While his book is largely a critique of the pervasive Silicon Valley-born start-up culture which he feels denigrates employment and discriminates against those over 40, Dan Lyons is also highly critical of the Hubspot product and the Inbound Marketing methodology with which the company is synonymous. “What else can you call it when you blast out email messages to millions of people?” Lyons asks rhetorically. Insisting such behaviour is not spam is, according to Lyons, “Orwellian doublespeak.”
But is it? Hubspot’s annual Inbound conference brings together over 10,000 Inbound practitioners from all over the world, including Hubspot clients and agency partners, to share ideas on how to develop digital marketing strategies that can break through information overload in order to match brands with buyers. Given Inbound’s overwhelming acceptance in mainstream of digital marketing thought, can inbound be boiled down to mere spam? To answer this question we need to take a step back and address the obvious: What is Inbound Marketing?
What is Inbound Marketing?
As an inbound practitioner myself, I would define inbound marketing as an exchange of information of value between brands and consumers. Brands seeking to earn part of the increasingly fragmented attention of consumers have discovered that traditional advertising, including the promotion of offers, is drowned out in a world where users are following friends, celebrities, politicians and media companies across diverse social media platforms. In order to compete in this world, brands can no longer simply sponsor content through banners ads; they need to create content themselves and drive traffic to their online assets. In other words, the line between content and advertising is becoming blurred. Rather than engaging in purely one-way communication, brands are trying to find the middle point between their product offerings and the interests of their audiences in order to establish relationships earlier in the buying process. Instead of having static websites that rarely change, brands are actively blogging and creating omnichannel content in different formats so as to re-invent themselves every day, finding new ways to connect and engage with audiences. Instead of simply buying eyeballs, brands are competing to earn attention.
Once brands have users on their site, they replace traditional banners ads with advertisements for their own content and products. Often times users are offered a downloadable PDF in exchange for contact information and a few questions that help marketers determine each contact’s true intentions. In this phase the purpose of inbound marketing is to help separate the wheat from the chaff so that sales teams focus on the leads that have the best potential to become clients. In other words, lead management is also a response to the abundance of the digital era: because brands can generate large amounts of leads through scalable and effective marketing strategies, they need a means by which to differentiate between potential clients and curious digital wanderers.
What Role Does Hubspot Play in Inbound Marketing?
Aside from being the company responsible for evangelizing Inbound Marketing with a new generation of digital marketers, Hubspot’s software is designed to solve a number of problems marketers have evaluating and eventually closing clients. First and foremost, Hubspot is a marketing automation platform. Its software provides a variety of tools for brands to generate and process leads whilst giving automated and personalized follow-up. In addition Hubspot is a business intelligence platform providing rich data that allows marketers to take more educated decisions about where to invest their resources. Without Hubspot, for example, marketers are often only able to determine the last point of contact a user had before becoming a lead. With Hubspot’s advanced tracking technology marketers can gather information about a user’s multiple contacts with a brand, including their activities on social media, the brand’s blog, etc. Thanks to this technology marketers have a more holistic view of how their clients and potential clients interact with the brand’s digital assets.
So is Inbound Marketing Spam?
Dan Lyons assertion that Inbound Marketing is spam has to be understood within its context: Lyons is a disgruntled former-employee who was overwhelmed by culture shock and underwhelmed by his responsibilities. Lyons clearly has a bone to pick with Hubspot and its senior management; as such, his tendency to simplify what Inbound Marketing is must be taken with a grain of salt.
Inbound marketing, in its essence, is a vehicle. Inbound can be used for spam or it can be used to create mutually enriching and engaging relationships between brands and online users. Unlike traditional outbound marketing where marketers employ “spray and pray” tactics to get their offers in front of audiences, Inbound seeks to build a relationship upon a basis of shared interest. Once a relationship is established, brands then attempt to move towards the sale by providing useful information to the user. As mentioned earlier, in its essence, inbound seeks an exchange of value between brand and user: brands provide valuable information to users, and users de-anonymize themselves and expose their intentions. Though the methodology is open to abuse, its hard to see how inbound is more abusive than traditional advertising; in the end, a spammer is a spammer regardless of what methodology he uses to justify his actions, and few brands can develop strong long-term business strategies based on abusing users with information for which they have no use.
Does Inbound Marketing Work?
Inbound Marketing is an effective marketing strategy for a digital world but it is not designed for everyone. Inbound Marketing makes sense for B2B companies (business to business) or large-ticket B2C (business to consumers). As a general rule of thumb, the more impulsive the purchase the less useful inbound marketing is, as the methodology is built on the basis of educating a consumer who moves slowly through the stages of a purchasing funnel. Hubspot’s software is expensive for small businesses with limited sales, but makes sense for large businesses that have the potential to generate thousands of leads and want to seek a bigger impact for each marketing dollar spent. Hubspot’s software is also high-touch and works best with agency partners that have experience iterating and optimizing strategies. In my own practice I don’t recommend inbound marketing or Hubspot’s software unless there is a clear opportunity to produce a return-on-investment.
Is Hubspot evil?
As the founders of Hubspot admitted in an open blog post, Hubspot is definitely guilty of taking itself too seriously as a company and occasionally its cultural practices have bordered on the absurd. As a former Google and Twitter employee myself, I can relate to many of Lyons critiques of the corporate culture that tends to dominate Silicon Valley-style startups that hit it big. As a Hubspot partner I have often felt their content over-promises and under-delivers and prioritizes quantity over quality. Though Hubspot’s blog may be effective at generating leads for its sales teams, for the sophisticated marketer the Hubspot blog often leaves a lot to be desired. Lyons is right that Hubspot’s tracking technology can be scary, as brands can often times detect the exact moment a specific user is on their site. We mustn’t forget however that Hubspot did not invent cookies nor is the company behaving in a manner that contravenes internet standards or privacy legislation. The evolution and use of digital tracking technologies and online privacy is a conversation that is bigger than any single company. Finally, as a Hubspot partner I have definitely felt the company’s focus shift from relationships to revenue followings its successful IPO in October 2014.
Having said that, I find it hard to believe that Hubspot doesn’t care about its clients, as Lyons suggests. By means of an anecdote, I once sent a frustrated tweet to the Hubspot account and received an immediate reply that included an invitation to express my frustration to the CEO, Brian Halligan over skype. In our call I saw firsthand Brian Halligan’s genuine empathy for Hubspot clients and his desire to deliver the best possible customer experience. Few CEOs of large publicly-traded companies would take the time to speak to discontent customers after a solitary tweet.
Hubspot has grown at breakneck speed and has undoubtedly made mistakes along the way. Though many of Dan Lyons critiques are justified, he misses the point that the internet is a better place with inbound marketing and Hubspot than without it. Though brands and users are still determining how they will interact in the age of the accelerated evolution of digital media, the migration of inbound marketing from the periphery to the mainstream is ultimately beneficial to the internet ecosystem as it provides incentives to develop relationships based on the creation of value rather than un-targeted and indiscriminate advertising. If there is to be a content-based arms race, we all win if the goal is the creation of value, rather than giving first prize to those who are the biggest and the loudest.
Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is a former Google and Twitter manager and current CEO of Céntrico Digital, a Latin American based boutique agency and Hubspot Partner. He can be reached at @ecuamatt.