Inbound marketing is relatively straightforward. It pulls in customers who are already looking for what you have.
Do it well, and you can see more leads or customers roll into your business for a fraction of what you’d spend on offline ads. Sounds like the dream, right?
But it doesn’t happen overnight. And these results aren’t guaranteed, either. To actually have any shot at successfully implementing inbound marketing in your business, you need to understand how these strategies should mirror how your customers are already behaving.
Here’s where to start.
How the Buyer’s Journey Works
There was no Internet a hundred years ago. No television. No radio. A few newspapers. One or two big ones per town. And that was about it.
Fast forward, and the same trend played out in the early days of both television and radio. A few channels at first. But not many.
Consumers, therefore, were largely in the dark. They couldn’t fact check. They just tuned into one of only a handful of options and got their information from whatever companies decided to tell them.
The world looks a little different today. Instead of ten UHF channels, they have thousands. Instead of one or two terrestrial radio channels, they have tens of thousands. And instead of two town newspapers, millions of blogs.
Consumers are no longer in the dark. They no longer need companies to tell them what to buy or believe. They’re no longer force-fed a bunch of crap.
Buyers are in control now.
They are proactively researching what they want. All without talking to a single human — until they’re ready. And by that point? They’re almost as knowledgeable as the salesperson themselves.
Think about buying a car. Back in the day, you were reliant on beating through high-pressure tactics to get a ‘good deal.’ Today? You just show up with the exact Kelly Blue Book value and accept nothing less.
This is playing out on the biggest purchases, too.
In their 2018 B2B Buyers Survey Report, Demand Gen Report painted the following picture of how savvy businesses are evaluating hundred-to-million-thousand dollar+ purchases:
- 45% of buyers spend more time researching purchases compare to last year.
- 46% determine which solutions will fit well with their existing partners during the first three months.
- 38% also develop an informal list of potential providers during the first three months.
What does this tell you?
It tells you that the savviest customers are spending more time and resources — not less — than even a year ago. Which is exponentially more than ten years ago.
The ‘buyer’s journey’ encompasses this entire research phase for consumers. Everything from that initial need awareness, through to evaluating alternatives, before finally deciding on a company to move forward with.
People today don’t hear about a new brand on the radio or newspaper and purchase immediately. Instead, they’re hopping around multiple channels or devices at least a dozen times before ever showing up in your store or reaching out on your website.
We have seen this first hand at Kinsta. People don’t just sign up for a new hosting provider, there is a whole journey involved. They will probably look at 10+ of our competitors before even thinking about making a decision.
Here’s how the buyer’s journey looks from the mind of a consumer.
Initially, the buyer doesn’t really know what they want or need. That’s why you still need display ads or social updates to catch their eye.
It’s only when they understand they have a problem do they begin researching for information. Once they get a lay of the land, they move into an evaluation period to stack up their alternatives, before finally pulling the metaphorical trigger.
Google calls this ‘proactive research’ phase the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT). It encompasses all of these activities before someone picks up the phone or types your site URL into their address bar.
Meet Marcus. He’s the fictional-yet-realistic hero of this section. And his path to purchase a simple book mimics how your customers are doing research right now to stack you up against the competition.
Sixteen different interactions with Amazon. Two Google searches (one location, one branded). Seven interactions with coupon-based affiliate sites. Before finally another five plus a purchase on your store.
That sounds like a lot of stuff because it is.
Here’s how that same exact journey would look if you stacked it up by marketing channel.
You’ve got social and display at the beginning. Generic searches turn into organic and paid ones. Then, you have an email referral before someone purchases directly.
The long-winded point?
Inbound marketing isn’t some fad or trend or concept. It’s a necessity today because it mirrors how consumers are already behaving. And it means that you need to make an appearance at each of these points — otherwise, the sale goes to someone else.
Seth Godin cogently called it over a decade ago. His Permission Marketing pre-dated ‘Inbound Marketing’ by at least a decade. And it called for an evolution from our historically broadcast-based world of interrupting people to this new world where customers find you (and not the other way around).
Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing
The ‘inbound’ in Inbound Marketing refers to this seismic shift in how companies respond to new customer behavior.
The key is that you’re trying to pull people ‘in’ to your sphere of influence while they’re bouncing around during their buyer’s journey.
Compare this to outbound-based methods from years past, where the whole point was to push ‘out’ your messages to A LOT of random people in hopes of resonating with just a few.
Years ago, it was ‘good enough’ to spam people and cold call them. Today, it isn’t. Not because those tactics are inherently bad per se. But because they no longer work as effectively (read: revenue per dollar spent) as they used to.
People often make “inbound vs. outbound marketing” sound like some philosophical debate. But at its very core, it’s not.
Inbound Converts More Leads for Less vs. Outbound
Marketing teams and marketing dollars are shifting from cold calling to paid search or content marketing because those are working better.
For instance, HubSpot’s latest report says only 18% of marketers are finding their best leads through outbound activities.
Why so low? What are people finding success with instead?
Another 79% of marketers credit channels like email as the most effective demand gen channel.
The logic is simple:
Inbound leads cost less and convert higher than outbound ones.
First, digital channels have a lower barrier to entry for small and medium-sized companies. A starting budget for television ads? Don’t even ask. But you can get started on AdWords for a few hundred bucks.
Second, intent-based marketing naturally performs better because it’s targeting people who’ve already expressed an interest in what you’re selling.
Online, AdWords commonly converts better than social channels. Why? Because if someone types in “red Nike men’s running shoes,” there’s probably a pretty good chance they’re interested in purchasing red Nike men’s running shoes.
Nowhere else does this type of laser-like focus exist.
Cold calling some overworked middle manager who hasn’t taken a vacation in five years about your timeshare pitch isn’t going to work out well. Because they haven’t taken a vacation in five years.
But pitch a timeshare to someone searching for “Kaanapali, Maui oceanfront timeshare”? Now you’re onto something.
Inbound Can Take Longer Than Outbound to Start Producing Results
Unfortunately, the “inbound vs. outbound” debate isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Yes, in time, your inbound marketing activities should produce more results for less when compared with outbound.
However, that’s also the challenge: “in time.”
Outbound methods might be losing their cost effectiveness. But they’re often still the best way to convert passive people into customers next week or next month.
Inbound activities, in comparison, can take a lot longer to ramp up and replace the same deal flow.
Neil Patel has built several multi-million-visitor blogs in the past few years, from Crazy Egg, to Quick Sprout, Kissmetrics, and NeilPatel.com.
And he says it takes two years to start seeing significant results.
You can shortcut that by dipping into advertising and retargeting. But it’s still going to require some time to transition from interruption-based activities that rely on volume, to a more targeted approach that prioritizes fewer-but-better leads.
That’s not the only difference, though.
Inbound Requires a Collaborative Team. Outbound Doesn’t
Outbound tactics tend to work in a vacuum. Picture cold calls. How do those impact the conversions you see on television ads? They don’t.
Two very separate, distinct activities. You can have completely different people (or companies) run both, never talk, and still see great results.
You can’t say the same for inbound strategies, where one element, like content quality, affects performance in everything from SEO to CRO to advertising.
In other words, increase content quality and you can lift performance in each of those other areas, too.
That means your individual tactics need to work together. Which means your people, teams, partners, and departments need to as well.
Mike Volpe, former VP of Marketing at HubSpot, recommends hiring people by funnel stage. While you might have one person do it all in the beginning, as you grow, you should add team members not by channel, but by objective:
Organizing teams around the funnel stage dominate in the face of traditional outbound marketing, where you have dedicated silos for ads, PR, etc.
Here, you still have ads and PR people. But they’d probably be working together under one “Attract” team.
So it’s not necessarily as simple as “time to fire up a blog.” However, with the right expectations and investment over time, inbound marketing can not only transform how people find your company, but the effect on your bottom line, too.
How Inbound Marketing Works
Inbound marketing doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It simply capitalizes on how people already behave online. That means all you have to do is simply align your tactics (posts, ads, etc.) with each stage to move people from one to the next.
Take content as an example. Each piece of content serves a purpose. So you wouldn’t just publish random blog posts as if you were ticking to-do items off a list.
Instead, you’d create content for each funnel stage. Here’s how.
People might not know they need your product or service here.
So don’t expect them to ask for it. You have to move upstream to target the topics, issues, and problems that are on the top of their mind.
That mostly applies to top-of-the-funnel blog content like this very article you’re reading. And it’s why companies like HubSpot often post up to ten times a day. Think of it like a better display ad that will only have to invest in once and it’ll stick around forever. We were able to increase our traffic at Kinsta by 280% using SEO and content.
Therefore, trying to ‘attract’ someone with “X Reasons Why You Need a Master Plumber” wouldn’t work quite yet.
People this early in the process need a catalyst or problem that spurs them on to start looking in the first place.
More likely, that’s a broken toilet or faucet. Their garbage disposal stops working. The kitchen sink won’t drain, it’s been three days, and the leftover food is starting to smell horrible.
That’s what signals a problem. And that’s why they start searching for “X reasons why my sink won’t drain” or “DIY kitchen sink fix.”
See? Still no “plumber” yet. So I’m skipping the ads and going straight into the videos instead.
The reason is because I’m not ready to buy just yet. My search query indicates that I’m looking for an answer, not a solution quite yet.
If you’re a plumber, you have two objectives now:
- Create relevant content that answers the person’s query (i.e. advice on how to fix a drain, NOT about how amazing of a plumber you are), and
- Get the person to realize that it could be a few different issues, they’re all gonna take some time to fix, and it’s gonna be kinda stinky, too.
This second part is how you get someone from A -> B by developing need awareness.
The more someone watches or reads, it starts to dawn on them that what they need isn’t a video about how to fix a sink. What they need is someone who’s friendly, knowledgeable, and fast to just come over and fix the darn thing for them because they don’t have the time or patience to deal with it.
And that’s where you transform someone looking for information into someone who might be a buyer.
The only goal of the last step is to develop brand awareness. Call it whatever you want. Eyeballs are good. Traffic is ideal. Because you have several tricks at your disposal, retargeting these site visitors to come back or take you up on that next-level offer.
So even if they don’t remember you, even if they don’t do anything on your site the day after they visit, you can still follow them around the interwebs until they give you a second glance.
Then, you have a few options.
You can hold their hand, guiding them safely into the Consideration stage like a sherpa with a simple opt-in offer like an ebook.
Or, you can plan ahead to show up where they’re going next: Google.
People use different types of keywords at each stage of the funnel.
In the Consideration stage, they’re going to be a little more specific about asking how to find a potential solution to their problem. In other words, “how do you find a good plumber.” The catch is that they’re still not asking about “plumbing quotes.” Not yet, anyway. So save that for the next step.
Instead, they’re looking for how to go about comparing plumbers to arrive at the best one.
Consideration-stage content could include any number of things. In-depth guides work well. So do case studies and whitepapers.
These pieces, combined with repeat visitors, should start to become low-hanging-opt-in fruit for those downloadable resources, too.
Two more quick caveats before moving into the Decision stage.
First, no, opt-in offers aren’t required. The world is arguably moving away from it. But you do need a way to continually follow up with people who express at least some passing level of interest in what you’re providing. (Even if it’s just reading a post or two.)
Gathering emails allows you to follow-up intelligently, sending related content or offers based on the stuff that someone implicitly told you they were interested in.
That doesn’t mean some generic newsletter you send to everyone. It means relating the stuff you’re sending back to the original problem or pain point that brought them to your site in the first place.
Then, you can use any number of tools (HubSpot, ActiveCampaign, Infusionsoft, Ontraport, Mailchimp, etc.) to define these rules and what people should receive after they actions they do (or don’t) take.
The second major point here is that not everyone will neatly go from stage to stage like this. Unfortunately, real life isn’t that straightforward. Chances are, they’ll bounce around and skip a few steps here or there.
But that’s OK. The whole point with these long, drawn-out process is to eventually convert as many potential people as possible. And building a logical system like this does just that.
Finally. You’ve developed awareness. You’ve transformed that fleeting awareness into actual consideration of your business.
This is where you bring it over the finish line.
Here’s where people start looking at your features, demo, and pricing pages. They’re getting into the nitty-gritty, stacking you up against a few other alternatives before making their final decision.
So although it sounds trite, make it easy for them to find this stuff!
Hootsuite uses a simple layout with Platform and Plans front and center. Dive under each and you see tons of details on every little value-enhancing attribute from their brand.
Let’s bring this back to plumbers.
I just Googled a random site to show you how this works. We were having trouble with our kitchen sink, so we’re returning back to that original problem with this perfectly laid-out page:
Putting design aside for a second, the content and layout are spot-on. It answers the common concerns we initially had (kitchen / garbage disposal problems). And it even answered the issue we normally have with plumbers (trained technicians, transparent pricing, and even a little social proof to boot).
Next to these pages is the coupon page — perfect to get a fence-sitter like me over the hump to finally give them a call.
All in all, it’s pretty good! They’ve got all the basics covered. Their ‘funnel’ should perform pretty well.
The only potential bottleneck at this point is the top of the funnel and that whole “two years thing.” Start driving traffic — whether organically through awareness-building blog posts or going straight to AdWords — and they should be able to start generating real buyers through their site in no time.
All of that at a fraction of the cost a call center or billboard campaign might set them back.
Inbound marketing gets a lot of attention these days. And rightfully so: It can help you drive more leads and sales at a fraction of the cost some other channels might cost you.
But simply being trendy isn’t why it works so well. It works because it perfectly aligns with what customers are already doing. It matches their behavior, helping to provide them with the right content or offer or campaign at the exact moment they need it most.
The good news is that it’s significantly cheaper to get started than most other forms of advertising and promotion. The barriers to entry (from a purely financial perspective) aren’t bad at all. This can be very important if you are a startup or bootstrap company that might not have a huge advertising budget or outbound sales team.
The downside is that it might take weeks, months, or even years to eventually eclipse the deal flow you’re currently seeing from other channels. And it requires a different mindset to get all the puzzle pieces to fit together.
But once you get there? You’ll never look back.