So you’re a marketing manager for a B2B company & you want to use digital channels to generate leads: how hard can it be, right? If you follow the Inbound Marketing orthodoxy, you simply need to create some content, then some e-mail workflows using budget-consuming software, and let magic take its course. But if you’ve tried that, you know that magic doesn’t just happen.
If you’re working with an inbound marketing agency, your account manager may tell you “you need to be patient with inbound before you start seeing results”, but how patient can you afford to be, and what exactly are you waiting for? Google to index your content? Your latest LinkedIn post to go viral? The inbound gods to reward your devotion?
Can your budget sustain a prolonged strategy of blind faith in inbound marketing?
Will your bosses accept your defense that the inbound gods will reward your sacrifices?
How long can you enjoy employment as a marketing manager without results?
How long before you crack and hire that company in India to build you an email list in order to spam your target market?
Finally, if every one of your competitors is also employing inbound marketing as a strategy, how do you win?
If you’ve been in this situation and felt the sweat on your brow from placing faith in an inbound marketing strategy that doesn’t seem to bear fruit, you’re not alone.
Inbound marketing is great, but on its own, it is not sufficient to build a successful marketing strategy. Sticking to the inbound orthodoxy will not guarantee success. Indeed, Inbound marketing has some glaring oversights. We’ll get into them.
Expecting results right away from any marketing strategy is likely a flawed approach, but we’re not advocating for short-term thinking: of course, it takes time to build and execute a sustainable marketing strategy.
That time, however, should not be filled with monk-like meditative waiting: while waiting for results you should be undertaking activities and creating assets that set the stage for your future success, employing creativity and originality to create content, not for the sake of it, but because it’s compelling enough to get the attention of your target audience.
Before I go any further, allow me to state for whom this advice is and for whom it is not.
I often come across two types of marketing managers: one makes me run in the opposite direction as fast as possible; the other causes me to buzz my secretary and tell her to cancel all my afternoon meetings (ok, I have neither a buzzer nor a secretary). Those two marketing managers are the hunter-gatherers and the masons.
The hunter-gather marketing manager is commonly a tactician guided less by strategy and more by instinct. Believing brawn is better than brains, he moves from place to place, sets up his tent, scavenges for food and, upon finding none, simply moves on to the next territory. Urgency always defeats importance with this guy, and never does he stop to question “why?”. For him, there is no time to ask why? When leads are out there, somewhere.
Masons, on the other hand, understand that there is craft to building a strong, resistant structure that will weather the tests of time, including harsh winters. Masons know that marketing is not just an extension of sales; marketing is about forming relationships and building trust and credibility with those relationships in order to generate opportunities. Marketing is also about building a brand that becomes a cognitive reference for an idea so that when needs surface, our businesses are the first association with that need in our potential client’s mind.
Another way to think of the difference is thus: for hunter-gatherers, marketing is Tinder. For masons, marketing is more akin to Christian Mingle. Though on the surface both apps offer to enable romantic encounters, the expectations one brings to each platform, and the way people behave in each context, is drastically different. Indeed, success, however you may define it, depends on understanding the appropriate behavior for each context.
Hunter-gatherers are haunted by an illusion: they believe that people see an ad or receive an email and immediately click and make a purchase. Like Homer enrolling in clown college after seeing a billboard on the freeway, hunter-gatherers believe that an offer incites need, rather than the opposite.
Hunter-gatherers tend not to make it through the winter without resorting to cold email campaigns. If you’re still receiving cold calls, there’s a hunter-gatherer marketing manager somewhere who has decided that the short-term sales is more important than the long-term damage to the brand.
Masons, on the other hand, spend the winter in well-insulated castles eating pickled vegetables (in what I can only assume to be Mason jars). Instead of focusing on survival, mason marketing managers have the luxury of planning how to innovate.
The point of my diversion here is this: the marketing formula we at Centrico Digital use with our B2B clients is not designed for hunter-gatherers: they will grow frustrated and annoyed with our methodology. Besides, if you’re selling a commodity, you probably want a hunter-gatherer mentality.
But if you’re not selling a commodity, you need to build a brand, and building a brand is something hunter-gatherers and the high priests of inbound marketing tend to overlook. Let’s get into it.
The proposed formula is born of our frustration with inbound marketing and our desire to provide our clients with a clearer framework to guide our combined activities. The formula breaks down thusly: On the left side of the equation, we have client + problem.
The proposed formula is born of our frustration with inbound marketing and our desire to provide our clients with a clearer framework to guide our combined activities. The formula breaks down thusly:
On the left side of the equation, we have client + problem. Client + Problem is where we are able to create identification, either because what we are proposing is for someone in particular, or because we solve a particular problem for that individual.
By “client” we refer to the individual that will purchase your product or service. Though the label Business-to-Business (B2B) suggests an inherent difference with business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing, the truth is that even in B2B transactions, there are individuals on each side of the equation. With the exception of industries such as high-frequency trading, people almost exclusively buy things from other people. We’re not trying to be cute: the distinction is important because even in B2B markets, people-to-people relationships determine who buys what.
Inbound marketing proposes the development of buyer personas as the key means to understanding the client. The buyer persona development process is both useful and insightful.
Whenever I start with a new client, and we undertake buyer persona research, we almost always find vast differences between how the selling company perceives and talks about its value proposition and how the company’s clients perceive and talk about its value proposition. Understanding how our clients think about our business and mimicking their language is a brave and important step in developing customer-centric marketing.
The buyer persona development process, much like inbound marketing itself, is very limiting, and those limits expose a number of deep flaws. For example, inbound marketing is meant to work for B2B companies or big-ticket B2C companies where there is a considered rather than impulsive purchasing process. There are B2C marketers that claim to employ inbound marketing for impulse purchases, but usually, they’re just referring to customer segmentation and e-mail marketing. If the purchase of a product is irrelevant, there is no consideration stage: we move from awareness to decision swiftly, thus undermining the inbound buyer’s journey.
B2B marketers creating buyer personas generalize by building marketing strategies based on roles within organizations, hoping that people who occupy those roles across organizations will share a common set of problems and incentives.
The problem with inbound marketing here is that procurement rarely works the same way across organizations, let alone industries. How each company makes decisions regarding purchasing is as unique as the design of a snowflake.
Corporate decision-making processes usually follow internal politics as opposed to internal policies, regardless of what is written on paper, while small & mid-sized companies may concentrate decision-making authority on the CEO, regardless of who solicits the proposals. Strict adherence to inbound marketing would have us fail to seek to understand the nuances of procurement.
The second flaw with the buyer persona development process is that the data points are far too logical. Understanding the person’s role, their demographic information, and many of the other factual data points overlook a key factor in decision-making: as Seth Godin has stated, we’re not thinking people who sometimes feel; we’re feeling people who sometimes think. Humans navigate the world through an emotional filter, and much of what goes on inside falls outside of our ability to express in words. Within this spectrum of emotion, one stands above the other: fear.
Our biological imperative forces us to seek out safety, and even if we no longer have to worry about threats our first ancestors faced, our lizard-brain has adapted to be able to process the modern existential fears that lurk behind office water coolers.
In other words, whatever process we use to understand our clients, we have to understand their fear on an individual and not archetypal level. Otherwise, we are as unintelligible as Christopher Columbus reading a dictamen from an authority our audience neither understands nor recognizes.
Comprehending the problem our potential clients hope to solve goes deeper than just getting the gist of an ache someone might be experiencing. Too often, inbound marketers use buyer persona research as a means to validate their own thesis statement, rather than to dig deep into an industry or business.
Really understanding a problem can be profitable: much innovation comes from people who worked in an industry, had a problem, couldn’t solve that problem internally, and then left to start a business that solves the problem. (As an aside, when I worked at Google, the company regularly acquired companies founded by former Googlers who grew frustrated with trying to solve a problem from within the company and then decided to branch out. As an example, read the story of FourSquare).
Understanding the client, therefore, requires that we not try to fit every circle into our buyer persona square pegs, but that we go a level deeper to understand motivations, incentives, and, most importantly, fear - spoken and unspoken fear, that drives the decision-making process. If your solution doesn’t work, for example, what happens to the person you’re selling to? Understanding the client’s problem also requires an insider / industry-expert level of knowledge to both dominate the industry-specific language, understand the variables at play, the actors involved, and the likely skepticism and the institutional & embedded barriers that need to be overcome.
The combination of both client + problem is a marketing strategy that is designed specifically for someone, and that someone can identify with us and what we are offering. This outcome was likely the original intent behind the development of buyer personas. After all, with an abundance of options available, today’s consumer will gravitate towards products and services that are designed specifically for her. A great marketing strategy acts like a mirror, with a few individuals recognizing their own reflection in the messaging, and others not. Building that mirror requires bravery because we always fear saying “we are not for you”. Success in marketing is built on that bravery.
Relationships are the first variable in the development of a successful marketing strategy on the right side of our equation because relationships are the lifeblood of our businesses.
Forming and maintaining relationships is the true value of doing business on the internet. The internet doesn’t exist to enable “selling”; rather, digital channels represent new avenues to form and maintain relationships in more scalable ways. I say “more scalable” because the best relationships are genuine relationships, and the more scale we add through automation, the more we distance ourselves from being genuine. For B2B businesses, the depth of our relationships, rather than the width, will be the determining factor in our future success.
Forming quality relationships happens in the offline and online world, and it’s important to note that not all relationships are created equal. To represent this inequality, we raise relationships to the power of our relations network. Some companies are bigger than others. Some CMOs are more widely connected than others.
Some businesses are connected to other businesses in formal and informal ways. What’s certain is that when we have quality relationships with others, they put their network at our service, and we grow through word of mouth, or network effects, as we will discuss.
Brand is important because a brand is where our credibility comes from. The development of the brand is probably the key oversight inherent in inbound marketing, and the reason why some prospects will consume your awareness and consideration stage content before ultimately deciding on another provider.
Brand is tricky to measure and to define, but when I worked at the World Economic Forum I was privy to an event with the then CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent, who said, “brand is a promise, and a great brand is a promise kept”. A big part of a brand is keeping our promise: we not only deliver what we promise to a few but the replicability of the quality of that promise is guaranteed.
As an aside, the reason we at Centrico Digital only work with a maximum of 12 enterprise clients at a time is that we want to be able to guarantee the replicability of our promise. Growing too fast, taking on too many clients, and constantly hiring new people dilutes the value of our promise and thus represents as big a risk as not growing at all. Maybe someday we’ll manage scale with more skill, but in the meantime, we prefer insurance against our promise rather than becoming a rotating door of clients.
Back to brand: I think of brand as deeply tied into identification and story-telling. Allow me to explain: a brand in its visual format, meaning a logo, is a symbol and therefore represents a concentration of information.
People can see the Apple brand and immediately tell you the story of the company and its founder. People can see the brand of a political party and have a visceral reaction. Like the universe just before the big bang, a lot of information is contained in a small unit of information. If inbound marketing is too invested in a logical theory of marketing, branding falls very much on the emotional side of the equation.
What’s tricky for companies is that the messages and stories associated with our brand are beyond our control because they’re held democratically by the people who recognize our brand.
AT&T may have a nicely designed brand, but many people feel negatively toward the company. Never mind that the investment AT&T made in developing technology and infrastructure is what allows us to enjoy ubiquitous telecommunications across the world. Nonethematter: if your calls constantly drop, you won’t care about AT&T’s heroic history. Brands can only control the information they elicit by constantly delivering on their promise. Period.
Finally, the solution companies offer in the form of a product or service is part of the marketing equation. This variable is fairly simple to explain: if you have lots of relationships, and you understand your clients and their problems well, none of that matters if your solution sucks.
For me, my favorite products are the ones you only need to try in order to understand. My friends own an award-winning chocolate company that has been praised by the likes of Oprah and Michelle Obama. Called Pacari, I regularly gift Pacari to clients and watch as they undergo the discovery of a re-invented experience. They thought they knew chocolate, but now they’re tasting something else.
Something similar happens the first time someone tries a ride-sharing app. The first time I put my wife’s almost 90-year-old grandfather in a rideshare he couldn’t stop raving about it to his friends. The car was nice. The driver was friendly. He tried to pay in cash and the driver wouldn’t accept it. The experience was, as Seth Godin would say, remarkable, or worthy of a remark.
With our equation almost complete, there are two additional factors we need to take into account. The first is that all of the variables on the right side of the equation are all raised to the power of the experience with our company.
Every interaction from the pre-awareness stage to the post sales process is part of marketing. Making companies intentional about the sales process is hard because it requires creating rituals and sensibilities across different groups and individuals with different interests and incentives. The days when we thought of marketing as that thing that happens to get leads is over. If we deliver a delightful and remarkable experience, our business will flourish. If, on the other hand, we deliver a negative experience, then we will have detractors in the marketplace. Of course: we can’t please all people all the time: we can, however, work hard to deliver a remarkable experience. Indeed, our long-term success depends on it.
Allow me one more example: one day, my wife was involved in a minor fender-bender. She called the insurance company on a Sunday and explained what happened. The first person she spoke to brought in different colleagues to the call to determine the next steps. The representative never sent my wife through to a deadline, nor did she see her role as just that of ushering her onto a call with someone else. She saw her role as helping my wife solve a problem, and as a result, we will likely be loyal to the company. An experience we feared would be negative ended up being surprisingly positive: it became remarkable.
And this is where we find the powerful tool of marketing that is difficult to measure but as present as radio waves: network effects, the combination of network + experience.
Writing in the 60s about the transforming media landscape, Marshall McLuhan noted that the onslaught of communications technology didn’t necessarily create new behavior so much as amplify existing behavior. The advent of the digital age is no exception to this rule: we have made it easier for people to recommend our services or complain about our services, but we haven’t lessened the impact of endorsements or retractions.
Therefore, when we deliver positive experiences with relationships with desirable networks, we plant and harvest network effects. My experience as an agency CEO is that companies are regularly unwilling to invest in network effects because, aside from a few referral programs, their outcomes are difficult to measure.
When others refer to us, they transfer bits of their credibility to us. They get a thrill helping their friends, family and co-workers discover remarkable products and services. We sometimes fill dead air talking about good and bad purchasing experiences. People are programmed to share information. If there is one component of marketing we should place blind faith in, it is the process of enabling network effects.
As mentioned previously, inbound marketing’s lack of attention to the role of brand in the purchasing process is part of what makes the methodology incomplete.
If humans were just logical beings, then the idea that we move linearly from awareness to consideration to decision would be true. But think of all the information you consume from websites you never, ever, ever purchase from. There is a significant leap of trust required to move from being a trusted provider of information to becoming a trusted provider of a good or service. As previously mentioned, many prospects may be happy to consume our content in the awareness and the consideration phase without ever purchasing from us, because at the decision stage a lot of other factors are at play, including brand. It’s the friend zone of the buying process.
At Centrico Digital we find ourselves moving away from the funnel analogy and replacing it with a matrix we call the buyer-brand matrix.
In our matrix, the Y-Axis looks like the stages of a traditional funnel. Before becoming aware, prospects are unaware. If they move at all (Amish people choose not to move through many funnels, for example), they then move from being unaware to becoming painfully aware. They have a problem but are not necessarily aware there are solutions.
For example, for many years I was a paperboy and I walked through the Canadian winter with a Discman. It skipped constantly and the CD holder I carried with it made my load heavier, but I felt important having upgraded from a walkman (in retrospect the walkman was a superior product, but again: on an emotional level, I felt like I was better off, even though objectively I was not).
After pain awareness, we move to solution awareness, or what inbound marketing would call the consideration phase. We then move from being solution aware to being purchase-ready or the decision stage. Moving from solution awareness to purchase ready is not necessarily a fast process, as any B2B provider can attest.
While users are making a logical migration from unaware to purchase ready, at the same time they will likely be making an emotional migration across the horizontal axis of a number of companies.
In the X-axis of our buyer-brand matrix, consumers are initially unaware we exist. They then become aware of our existence before being aware of what it is we actually do or sell. If you question the veracity of this statement, ask yourself the following question: do your parents, grandparents or even your kids understand what you do? Maybe they can name your company, but can they explain what it is you offer? Probably not. If so, you understand how it is some people can know about your business but not have any idea what you do or sell.
If we’re successful in developing our brand, our prospects will move from understanding what we sell to knowing our stories. Maybe they know the stories we tell about ourselves. Maybe they know about the stories others tell about us. Either way, they identify our logo with specific stories, so we become more than just a collective graphical representation. They start to associate us with ideas.
Getting into the nitty-gritty of storytelling is beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say that storytelling does not equate marketing but represents what is left as a residual effect of our marketing efforts. When we manage marketing well, people remember and then tell our stories.
If we close a sale and provide a good experience, our clients will then tell their stories involving us to other people, lending us their credibility in the process and highlighting the trust we’ve earned.
The purpose of the brand-buyer matrix is to highlight the need to build a brand while simultaneously being present throughout the buyer’s journey. The brand-buyer matrix also takes a lot longer time-line into account than inbound marketing.
For example, HubSpot charges its clients based on the number of contacts each client maintains in her database. The underlying logic is that if a prospect is not actively in the sales funnel then you should delete them: indeed, many a HubSpot agency will tell you how they delete contacts in order to decrease renewal fees.
The problem is that progress across the buyer and brand axis are not necessarily simultaneous. As a result, some people will already be in the solutions aware stage before they find out about our brand. Others will be able to recognize who we are and what we do long before they experience the pain we solve. The traditional inbound marketing funnel is a one-dimensional map and is therefore limited. The buyer-brand matrix adds another dimension of nuance and thus expands the scope of what activities we should be undertaking for long-term success.
The purpose of sharing how Centrico Digital thinks about B2B marketing is not to knock inbound marketing: we are inbound practitioners and much of what we preach owes its origin to trying and sometimes failing, to make inbound marketing work for our clients.
Our main goal here is to show that inbound marketing is inherently limited and to offer an additional framework that will allow marketers to think differently about the tactics they employ and the activities they undertake in order to achieve their marketing goals.
We’re also wary of methodologies that demonize other practices. Outbound marketing is not the enemy. In its worst manifestations, outbound marketing is an intrusion. In its best manifestations, outbound marketing represents valuable and meaningful outreach. There is outbound marketing that shows little imagination. There is a lot of inbound marketing that is built on just re-writing others’ content without contributing an iota of original thought or creativity. If, as the saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat, we can assume there are lots of ways to mess up skinning a cat as well (note: we’ve never actually skinned a cat).
Similarly, while it’s nice to think that outbound marketing offers a measurable alternative to traditional marketing, not everything involved with marketing is easy or possible to measure. It’s hard to measure brand because building a great brand involves some magic that comes with building an emotional connection between a company and its clients.
Today, the Centrico Digital B2B marketing formula represents how we go about building marketing strategies. We will likely add to it, take away from it, and maybe even renounce it in the future. Part of operating like a laboratory is acquiring knowledge and testing that knowledge rigorously in order to question our assumptions.
What we do know is that it is high time we start being more critical with inbound marketing, because when we are more critical, we allow ourselves to be more creative. Sure, the path forward is less clear, but the process of increasing, rather than reducing, the limits of our definition of marketing is that we can be more imaginative. And in the end, creativity is the one factor that continues to determine who wins and loses in the interminable game of marketing, a field we might otherwise come to recognize for what it really is: creative communications.
Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the CEO of Centrico Digital, a boutique managed marketing services focused on B2B and social businesses. Learn more about Matthew here.