Inbound is Better - The Fallacy of Marketing
Hubspot / SEO & Inbound
The distinction between inbound and outbound does not exist. What matters are the efforts and investments you make to develop the best GTM strategy to acquire more customers at a reasonable cost.
Inbound marketing was a great movement created by Hubspot because it allowed them to differentiate themselves from the category (Marketo, Pardot, etc.)But as with all bandwagons, the more people that jumped on the less effective it became.
Inbound marketing overvalued customer attraction via SEO & content and funnels instead of holistic customer acquisition (revenue). As a result, the internet is crowded with "Me Too" content, providing the same top answers to a search query, thus, not adding value. Converting lurkers (people who might read your blog) into users (people who buy your product) is still challenging for companies.
Inbound was/is so well positioned that any company not doing inbound was perceived as lacking something in their digital marketing strategy. In other words, it led marketers to believe "good marketing" was inbound marketing, and you had to do it to stay on top of the game, and "evil marketing" or "bad marketing" was everything else.
When going upmarket, your customers probably will not make a 100K software investment decision by reading a blog or downloading a PDF. The revenue process is more complex than that.
Remember the internet and search engines back in 2002? When you would plug in a keyword, and you would almost automatically show up in the top 10 results with ease? Those were the days. SEO and the people who understood how to communicate with early search engines had a substantial competitive advantage.
Fast-forward to 2010, a new era for SEO and the moment when the doctrine of "Inbound Marketing" started to gain traction. It was a glorious moment to create content to solve your users' inquiries, to focus on attracting clients, and to let go of cold-calling. You could rank quickly, and there were plenty of success stories of companies and people scaling 6+ figures business with SEO.
This "new" marketing structure sounded great. And, it was great for tons of brands that jumped the inbound bandwagon early on. But, if we take a more detailed look at what the internet and digital marketing look like today, there's some things that don't get considered.
But before we get into that, we need to start with the context.
Hubspot - Birth of a Movement
Few companies have had such an enormous impact on the way we (marketers) consume information, such as Hubspot. Sure, one could argue that the player who did change how we consume information is Google; after all, they became a verb. But, without Hubspot's enormous influence on how marketers were supposed to attract potential customers online, Google probably would not be the titan it is today.
We found a very insightful episode of Foundr with Dharmesh Shah, Hubspot's CTO, that truly summarizes how the company shaped the internet. It is an excellent account that positively portrays how this company "changed the game" by focusing on adding value to audiences instead of pushing them to buy your products or services.
"Before the company launched in 2006, marketing relied solely on outbound tactics such as cold calling, purchasing billboards, and buying email lists. Shah and his co-founder Brian Halligan saw an opportunity to completely change the game. Together, they founded the concept of inbound marketing, which is all about creating value for your audience to draw them into your company."
The podcast covers the importance of adding value in a networked economy, understanding users, and creating the best content to help them. It thoroughly explains how inbound changed the game and pushed digital marketers to educate and attract potential users instead of selling to them. But, even though it does an excellent account of the company, it misses on more profound questions and implications that emerge once you decide that marketing will distance itself from its primary KPI - revenue..
The Fallacies of Marketing
Fallacy 1: Inbound marketing is not just a methodology; it was Hubspot's narrative to sell their software.
Hubspot coined Inbound Marketing as a way to sell software in the middle of a steep race. They were a marketing automation platform in a crowded category with several competitors (Marketo, Pardot, etc.) that was not intuitive for many marketers. After all, traditional sales tactics were more predominant, and it was not easy to sell a relatively new product at the time that focused on automating and tracking potential customers.
Instead, Hubspot created a much more catchy and fundamentally more powerful way to sell a CRM/Automation platform - the inbound marketing movement..
According to Shah, consumers have changed a lot today compared to the early ages of the internet. Unlike at those initial stages where blogs, forums, and collaborative knowledge communities thrived, individuals today Google what they need and expect to find the best answer with a couple of clicks. Effortless, frictionless, and fast. Shah argues that consumers today have three main characteristics:
We all like to think of ourselves (homo-digitalis) as informed people that finally have access to knowledge at our fingertips. In that sense, the funnel inbound metaphor (or the flywheel) is a perfect match because it connects with the user's behaviors of wanting to be informed, wanting to be connected, and wanting to make autonomous rational decisions.
But, if you have worked on sales, you probably already know humans do not function like that at all. And if you are a results-driven marketer, your primary KPI might be something other than how many people downloaded that PDF. Chances are your most important KPI isn't traffic, it isn't downloads, it isn't leads, it isn't impressions, etc. It is the actual impact the marketing team has on the organization's overall growth - usually summarized as revenue and growth.
So, Hubspot did a world-class inception telling us that we needed to do inbound, not revenue ops. And, later on, they did an even better job sharing their product to allow marketers to automate flows and track user behaviors to increase sales.
But, in the end, Hubspot was selling software. Not a "new" or radically different way to increase revenue. It just strikes a chord because we have been annoyed by an insistent salesman/ad that follows us around even though we do not care about their offer.
Fallacy 2: Marketers do not have to sell because we hate being sold things; instead, your job is to attract users via inbound.
Imagine a world in which to grow your company; you did not have to sell?
Well. That world does not exist.
But, in Hubspot's/inbound narrative, it is not only something real but also an aspirational motto.
What happens psychologically to marketers who are not part of the world's leading brands and lack the power to overthrow their competitors? Or narrowing down more, what happens to small brands (SMBs, Startups, etc.), without any lineage of royal divine rights to rule (you know, Coke, Mondelez, P&G, etc). when they face the opportunity to compete in a new domain that massive corporations no longer dominate?
Simple. These marketers develop an entirely new narrative against the leading brands story.
Wait, what? Yes. We are about to get philosophical, specifically relating Nietzsche's On the Geneology of Morality with the evolution of digital marketing. But honestly, it is not as complex as you may think. Thank you, Natalie Wynn, AKA Contrapoints, for simplifying culture and philosophy with your outstanding video essays.
According to Nietzsche, "The beginning of the slaves' revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values." The subject he is exploring is the birth of the Good and Evil moralities in a Christian mindset, something distant from the subject of this essay but quite illuminating to understand what inbound did in the minds of marketers.
To summarize his argument, he does an archeological analysis of how the values of the "master" framework worked compared to industrialized Christian-based societies. He argues that in this traditional morality he calls "Master Morality," the good values were power, riches, health, and strength while the bad were impotence, poverty, sickness, and weakness. Then he fast-forwards to his timeframe (XIX century) and explains that this dichotomy of good and bad values has shifted entirely.
According to him, the good was so unattainable to a large number of non-masters that the values they had to develop to find a meaningful life experience changed radically. In this new morality that he calls "Slave Morality" or "Resentment Morality," the good values turn into evil values due to their association with masters and the resentment of the slaves. And, what becomes the new "Good Values" become much closer to a Christian ethical background than anything else. According to him, we evolve from valuing power, riches, health, and strength to a mindset that states blessed are the poor, the meek, the sick, and the powerless.
In other words, he recognizes and analyzes how the Christian faith radically changed our perspective of life. So much so that instead of valuing power, we value weakness instead of riches, we seek humility, instead of health, we overprotect and overvalue the sick. And, instead of strength, we become comfortable and proud of being weak.
And what does that have to do with Hubspot and the sales mindset?
A lot. Hubspot did much more than invent an automation CRM platform that helps marketers better understand user behavior. They created a new paradigm, a new way to narrate what we are as marketers, and provided all of the resources we needed to embrace this new narrative fully.
In the new narrative, selling becomes evil because it assumes we all are "homo digitalis" users who want to learn, compare, and buy the best solution. We do not want to be sold things, we want to choose what to buy. Users become more than slaves that buy from master brands the products they think they need and are expected to naturally go down a funnel or flywheel, find your brand, and buy your product.
It is brilliant. It destroys the salesman and marketer archetypes as people who can help you solve your problems by selling you something you need. It transforms them into annoying people that interrupt users in a world of seamless, frictionless, SEO-driven user experiences.
You might even turn against selling itself, the very nature of your job, and your role within the organization. Inbound becomes a great story to tell and an effective strategy for early SMBs playing the SEO playbook. But, in today's world, the internet is simply too crowded with "me too" content based on what Google determines is the best answer for your questions.
In the Hubspot SEO Inbound narrative, users are so incredibly autonomous (Homo digitalis) that the need for calling them and selling them things should only occur if they are warm leads at the bottom of an imaginary funnel. And, as a marketer who probably has had no experience working for the brands that have shaped the world (you know, the fortune 500 brands), it makes a lot of sense to fully embrace a morality that satanizes sales processes (it makes them evil).
In addition, Inbound is incredibly well built to promote "user-centric" values through a non-interrupted imaginary experience. It minimizes the nature of the human and erodes the metrics-driven mindset of a marketer into a vanity-driven perspective.
Surely you have met a marketing professional who argues a campaign went well due to the reach, traffic, or impressions, regardless of conversions. Chances are, if you have been in this game for long enough, you are that person (I know I was).
But, once you cut through the noise and understand that marketing is about revenue, it seems that everything becomes clear again. We notice that inbound and outbound are not two different channels, and you remember your goal is to increase revenue and growth.
And, more importantly, you remember that to do so, you have to get your customers' attention and actively try to sell them your product. Sure, you can also build an audience and write about different topics they're into, but as we explored in our media article in the SaaS B2B market, being famous is not equivalent to being profitable.
Think about what your LTV is for coke (a company that constantly pushes ads across all channels of human experience). 10K, maybe? Until you die of diabetes?
No, but seriously. The division between outbound and inbound must disappear for your company to be profitable; identifying which playbook is ideal for your GTM strategy should gain relevance, not which content will drive more traffic. Chances are, you might need to do ABM or more traditional outbound tactics to meet your targets.
The most remarkable story Hubspot ever sold us was that revenue ops (cold-calls, ads, etc.) were evil. And that users were so incredibly savvy and rational that all we had to do was map out their pain points and provide the correct answers via valuable content - or, in other words, that not selling was ok.
Note: We are not saying inbound is terrible. It was great to push marketers to think less about what they wanted to sell and more about users' needs. But, the problem with the inbound narrative was that it transformed the meaning of revenue operations as needed for growth, to revenue operations as interruption tactics that were ineffective in a hyperconnected world. Inbound's value, we think, resides in questioning the sales experience from the annoying pushy sales / revenue ops methods. However, even with this concept, if you want to grow your SaaS beyond the early adopters' cohort (check this article we wrote about the subject), your GTM strategy will probably require you to target your ICPs via outbound playbooks. Selling is not evil; bad salespeople are.
On a separate note, this is what Product led growth seems to be about. ‘A product that sells itself’ without any sales, marketing etc. If anything marketing helps customers discover your product so it should be ‘marketing led growth’.
Fallacy 3: SEO is just as valuable today as it was back in 2010.
Digital culture has evolved dramatically in the past decades. Twenty years ago, it was impossible to imagine we would all have a smartphone in our pockets, and ten years ago, it was impossible for many of us to imagine we could work remotely.
But, just as digital culture has evolved, so have the SEO playbooks (and the amount of information online).
Have you ever felt sick and Googled your symptoms? Guess what, you have cancer. But, beyond the joke of this experiential phenomenon, SEO in that particular niche only tells us which illnesses have the best SEO strategies behind them (not necessarily what is wrong with us).
I mean, it makes a lot of sense for doctors to be infuriated with patients that think SEO information is just as valuable as 10+ years of studying med school.
This overabundance of content/SEO has changed along the years. Today, it is radically different primarily for two reasons:
It is much more crowded: Writing for the internet when all you have is a couple of competitors for the exact keywords is a much easier task than dealing with thousands of marketers trying to rank on the top 5 results of Google. It becomes a challenging task. It pushes you to follow a strategy that probably focuses on long-tail keywords and backlinks to help you build your domain authority. However, this process takes time and a lot of effort to be done correctly. And, chances are, if you are a SaaS in the B2B market, you either do not have the time or the money to hire the writers that will create valuable content that is different and engaging for potential users.
It is saturated with "Me too" content: Google is not particularly good at providing the correct answer for everything. Its actual job is to give the answer it considers the most relevant and democratically significant to any question. The problem with this logic is that even if it ranks in the top five or a particular keyword, the answer might not be accurate (but rather the most popular one), and, even if it is accurate, it might lack the depth you need as a user. However, given that SEO is a metric of popularity (sure, Google is working to improve this constantly), you might rank as the top result even if your content is not particularly relevant, nor does it fully answer the users' needs. The result: lots of content that say precisely the same thing, leaving users frustrated and without actually solving their query.
I mean, you would think if SEO were so great, Hubspot would not need to rely on their worldwide network of partners, but they do. In fact, SEO is fantastic for some SMBs and niche products, but once you plan on moving upmarket, making a 100k dollars purchase will probably not occur because you read a couple of blogs or downloaded a case study. For that to happen, you need a good ol' sales/customer success team that helps the users navigate their organization, convince the right stakeholders, and create an internal case study that justifies the investment (for more info, check out our Product Assisted Growth essay here.)
The fallacy here is that inbound is traditionally built on search (how people find you), but SEO is increasingly noisy. Hence, marketers need to find ICPs and get in front of them with a value proposition that makes sense.
Fallacy 4: Inbound / SEO is all you need.
Inbound / SEO works excellent if you sell to SMBs with a transactional sale with low ACV ($100/mo). It works well in that particular scenario because users are more willing to invest in a low-cost solution if they have all of the information to make an informed decision on their own. Self-served solutions are, after all, fundamental in today's virtual economy because we are busy people and want to be able to purchase digital products without having to talk with a sales rep.
However, when you sell mid-market and enterprise with high ACV (100K+ on average contract value), you can't rely 100% on SEO and inbound to have potential customers find you. This transaction is much more challenging to make. And, reaching out to several stakeholders across several touchpoints/moments to have a shot at selling your product.
Inbound / SEO is a powerful channel. Most brands probably want to be positioned online regardless of their product. But, search engines and traditional funnels that inbound philosophy promotes are not as predictable nor as fluid as they make it out to be.
Diversifying is key.
What did Hubspot really do with inbound?
It created a doctrine of digital marketing that relied on search engines as the most essential, must-have channel for all brands.
Hubspot convinced us that selling was bad, or evil and we had to consider that users are rational beings that want to learn about their problems, evaluate options and then buy the best solution. It is unlikely this was their objective, but, regardless, they managed to position sales as an evil process that interrupts the natural flow of a rational "homo digitalis" user. Attracting users is the natural opposite, the right answer, AND the best way to sell their software.
But, the most crucial result of their inbound narrative was that it turned marketers against selling itself. Sales were now intrusive, annoying, something that only the "bad brands" did, and thus, you were better by doing SEO across all funnel stages.
Having said all that, we still think Hubspot is a fantastic organization that shaped the internet and allowed marketers to improve processes. But in the end, inbound was the trojan horse for their software. And, in today's virtual world, it is starting to backfire with unhelpful levels of "me too" content and lack of substance across blogposts.
Selling is not evil, it is the way organizations grow and can create better conditions and prosperity for their employees and users. What is evil are bad salesmen that push you to buy things you do not need and entry-level marketers that believe inbound is a must for all organizations.