Inbound Marketing Explained



For years now "inbound marketing" has been a buzz word around the world. Yet surprisingly, a lot of businesses still don't understand what it is, why it is better for companies and customers alike, why it is the natural way of marketing, and how to go about it. Even those who do it often do it without a real strategy in place.


This article will explain the concept and its five primary stages, so that everyone can finally get aboard. Yes, even you. 


Traditional marketing is all about the brand

Up to a decade or two ago, depending on where you are in the world, the main forms of getting your message out were events like trade shows or conferences, advertisement (whether on TV, radio, print etc.), directories like Yellow Pages, direct mailings, sales calls, and various forms of that most pernicious of tactics, the sales call. There were simply no other ways to reach customers, unless of course your brand was so spectacularly good it could rely solely on word of mouth. 


All of these traditional forms are about you, your business, your product. You are literally pushing your marketing message into people's faces, whether they are interested or not. This form of doing business is immensely time-consuming. Think of how much time the traveling vacuum cleaner salesperson spent on explaining a product the bored customer had no intention of buying in the first place. It also alienates potential customers by its intrusive nature. Even trade shows, which are sticking around for good reason, are ultimately a waste of resources, unless you are an established business using such events to connect with existing customers. 


All the traditional forms of sales are "interruptions". I hate TV commercials, and I hate them even more on the radio. I don't read ads, and I don't take note of fliers pushed under my door. These days, if I get a cold call, I hang up immediately without even the pretense of politeness. I have no patience for people who don't get how very offensive and annoying these forms of "marketing" are. One cold call and your business is on my blacklist. I don't even consider such tactics marketing, I call them spam. And me no likey spam. 


People became so sick and tired of being bombarded with advertisements that countries enacted various laws regulating the delivery of intrusive messages, be it through your mailbox or the telephone. For a while, set-top boxes and DVD recorders skipping commercials seemed to threaten the traditional advertising channels. But then, the Internet came to the rescue. To the rescue of both businesses and consumers. For the first time in history, digital media gave us a plethora of options to reach customers, and let them find us.


Inbound Marketing is all about the customer

Digital media and social networks have allowed businesses to embrace a whole new world of customer-oriented marketing. By using websites and social media platforms to present your product offering, a trend started away from interruptive advertisement (pushing from the business to the customer) to an attractive form of marketing (pulling the customer in).


Inbound marketing, as it is called, is marvelous. The leads you get are people who actually have an interest in your product. Very likely they have already done their homework and know about the product, so the sales department has to do a lot less work. (Which is why I think Sales and Marketing departments should be merged anyway, but that is another story.) 


Consumers now have the power. We can do the research, we can get informed, either by perusing material published by the business, or reading reviews from other users. Most consumers read reviews on retail platforms before making a decision, many trust those reviews.


Inbound marketing empowers the consumer and saves the business valuable time, time which can be used to improve the product offering. In some industries, a large junk of the sales process is already completed by the time a customer contacts a sales agent. I believe inbound marketing done right is so powerful it should have already made all Sales departments redundant. The reason why they are still around is simply this: many businesses are still so very bad at inbound marketing. 


Inbound marketing saves time and money

Inbound marketing is about attracting people, about engaging with customers, and about guiding them towards becoming customers.


At the beginning of this process you have many people interested, at the end of it, you get a handful of real customers. That's why it is called a funnel. The good thing about inbound marketing is that those customers are here voluntarily and have been engaged with the brand for some time, i.e. the time it takes from first attraction to conversion. Therefore they see the purchase as something positive, something they themselves initiated, and not something that was forced on them. Therefore, they are much more likely to engage with a brand, and much more likely to influence others.


Last year I got into a real fight about this with a software company that produces video editing software. VIDEO. EDITING. SOFTWARE. What better way to market it than to showcase all the amazing stuff you can do with that software and put that content on Youtube and Facebook. Or hold a competition and create tons of user-generated content. They wouldn't have any of it. Instead, they opted for 600, 000 USD per year in Facebook ads. It just drives me nuts.


There is so much you can do in inbound marketing. Every brand can use it. from B2B industrial services to ice cream parlors. All it takes is creativity and the realization that ads really do alienate more people than they bring in business.


Whether it is a cool Instagram account, an informative Facebook page, a Snapchat influencer, an online forum, an email newsletter, seminars, blogs, podcasts, or a public speech, there are a hundred ways of showing what your business, product or service is all about without interrupting or annoying the customer along the way with advertisement. But beware. Just doing any of these things is not called inbound marketing. It's called dabbling. In order to be worthwhile, measurable, and ultimately effective, inbound marketing also needs a solid strategy.


Inbound is not Inbound if you don't have a strategy

Now the important thing here is that inbound marketing isn't just email or social or podcasts. It is not any of these things individually, and it is not all of these things lumped together. Inbound marketing is the strategy behind all your activities. It is the construction of the funnel which turns casually interested parties into engaged followers and ultimately good customers.


Many businesses do social media without an inbound strategy. They don't offer that very useful whitepaper on that interesting issue, they don't invite people to subscribe to a newsletter (to subscribe to our, see bottom of the page) and they don't create that funnel that turns digital acquaintances into flesh-and-blood customers. Which means that ultimately they have no way of measuring the ROI on their digital marketing investment, no idea how one platform growth affects another, and no insight into what customers really value about their products or services.


From Attraction to Advocate: 5 stages of inbound marketing

A good inbound strategy involves 5 stages, which we call Attract > Retain > Convert > Close > Advocate.


Attraction is the broadest stage in the process. Use any and all of the tools at your disposal to create awareness for your business and attract interest in what you are doing.


Retain is the phase that is most often forgotten. It is important to have a broad retaining strategy. Most purchases (conversions) don't happen the first time a customer encounters a brand. So you want to retain their attention, either by binding them to your platform (like, follow, sign up) or simply by making your content so attractive that they come back again and again. One of the measurements (not KPIs, we hate those) of our in-house strategy, for example, is called "repeat visits to our blogs". 


Step three is Conversion, where we convert anonymous readers and visitors into actual potential customers. That's when they reach for the phone and explore your offering, or visit your store to check out your products.


Stage four, Closing, is when the lead becomes a customer, and in stage five, the satisfied customer goes back out and tells others what a delightful experience he had with your brand. He becomes an Advocate of your business.


Having a solid inbound strategy means that you offer help at every step of the way, even the last one. We use different content types and engagement strategies for each stage, even the last one: there are a number of tools you can use to make it easy and desirable for customers to spread the word about your brand. And since most people trust recommendations from friends and even strangers on digital media, that last step of influencing is the crowning achievement of any successful inbound strategy. 


Marketers are tour guides


All the above is called the "Customer Journey", usually divided into "awareness", "consideration" and "decision". Too many businesses still fail to understand that journey.


People don't just see your ad, click on it, and buy your product. They'd be stupid to. An ad for a video editing software shouldn't lead to a Buy button, it should lead to a trial offer. A Facebook post for an energy drink shouldn't lead to an e-shop where you can buy the drink in bulk.


Customers expect to try out stuff and experience it before making a decision. Customer journeys aren't high-speed train rides from A to B, they are like the meandering perambulations of tourists in a foreign city.


Some customers spend months in awareness limbo before reaching even marginal "consideration". Most never make a decision, not because they don't like your product, but because you have not created the right funnel to retain their interest. Like a bad tour guide, you have lost one of your charges while walking through the ruins of Rome.


Inbound marketing is all about guiding customers on that journey, no matter how long and complicated it is.  Like a good tour guide, you must answer every question, and make sure everyone is still with you when you leave the Forum.


Simple enough, isn't it? And yet so many businesses still refuse to take customer's hands and guide them with patience and kindness. Instead, they hold on to advertisement methods created in the pre-digital age, simply because ROI is slightly easier to measure for advertising than for complex inbound marketing (not really true, but the myth persists). The truth is that with for every sale you get your advertising, you alienate nine potential customers, whereas with a solid inbound marketing strategy, you can build a loyal audience that will sustain your business for years to come.