10 Key Lessons from INBOUND 2014

Ben
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Three members of the Quinlan team — our owner Gary Miller, content strategist Kristin Sullivan and me — spent four days in Boston last week as attendees at Hubspot’s Inbound 2014 marketing conference. When we weren’t shucking clams at Row 34, having late dinners at Jm. Curley’s, taking morning runs through Boston Common, getting egregiously lost in Beacon Hill or sneaking off to lunches at Lucky’s Lounge, we learned quite a bit.

Who is Hubspot?

Even if you aren’t a user of Hubspot’s services, most marketers are probably familiar with the brand name. Hubspot aggressively promotes its white papers, webinars and blog posts through social media and email. It’s difficult to seek out content marketing thought leadership without ending up on a Hubspot email list or two.

Hubspot, in its own words, is “an inbound marketing software platform that helps companies attract visitors, convert leads, and close customers.” Here’s the Hubspot definition of inbound marketing, for those unfamiliar with the term:

Instead of the old outbound marketing methods of buying ads, buying email lists, and praying for leads, inbound marketing focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product, where they naturally want to be. By aligning the content you publish with your customer’s interests, you naturally attract inbound traffic that you can then convert, close, and delight over time.

Hubspot has essentially taken pull marketing methodology to its logical digital-era extreme, creating an entire sales process based on solid content and the ability to get that content in front of the right audience — that is, the audience that can and will do business with your company. Which, in the end, is really why we’re creating all of this content anyways, right?

Hubspot claims to have 11,500 clients in 70 countries. In the digital world, the need to create content — and to get that content seen and, preferably, acted upon — is universal.

Inbound 2014 – an overview

I heard varying estimates, but somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 (the number reported by The Boston Herald) attended Inbound 2014 from Sept. 15 and Sept. 18 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, more than doubling the 2013 figure.

The conference boasted star power — keynote speakers included marketing legend Guy Kawasaki, pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell and home guru Martha Stewart, among others. Janelle Monae gave a private concert performance on Sept. 17 for Inbound attendees. OK Go showed up to perform before Gladwell’s keynote speech that same morning.

There were also several dozen 45-minute session dealing with content marketing, sales, promotion, ecommerce, mobile breakthroughs and the other expected areas of discussion at an inbound marketing conference.

And, of course, Hubspot’s executives took an opportunity to sell (and why not, it’s their conference). The Herald reported:

IPO-bound HubSpot yesterday unveiled a slew of new products — including a sales platform that will take on established industry leaders — in a major expansion for the company. “(This is) probably the biggest day in HubSpot history for us so far,” said Brian Halligan, CEO and co-founder of Cambridge-based HubSpot, which is known for its marketing software.
In front of roughly 10,000 customers at its Inbound 14 marketing conference, which has joined forces with MITX’s FutureM event this year, Halligan and co-founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah announced Sidekick, a tool for salespeople, and HubSpot CRM, a customer management system. “The buyer has radically changed,” Halligan said. “The seller needs to change too.”

I’ll be honest — I don’t know enough about Hubspot’s tools to offer an expert opinion on the efficacy of what’s available (I am Hubspot-certified in content marketing, for what it’s worth).

I will say, though, that for companies struggling with content marketing, or are new to the process, or floundering trying to establish some sort of content-conversion funnel, a tool like Hubspot could be very valuable. Hubspot offers structure where there would otherwise be none, a set nomenclature that allows everyone in an organization to speak the same language, and a strategy for moving forward.

As simple as these concepts may seem, there are many companies that struggle to simply define what it is they are trying to do online — and Hubspot (or its competitors) can help.

Top 10 takeaways from Inbound 2014

Boston

As I mentioned, the conference was fun — we ate, we drank, we enjoyed a slew of beautiful fall days in one of America’s great cities. The event was also surprisingly educational.

Why was it surprising? I honestly didn’t know what to expect — based on Hubspot’s online presence and the hyper-enthusiastic tone of the event copy, I was slightly concerned that Inbound 2014 would be a four-day commercial for Hubspot. And while — to a certain extent — it was, the sessions were quite valuable.

Here are 10 lessons I took from Inbound 2014 (and here’s a freebie — if you go jogging in Boston, carry your phone in hand so you can easily reference your map. It is shockingly easy to get lost in Beantown):

  1. Have a plan. As mind-numbingly simple as this may seem, it’s almost embarrassing to realize how much work is done without regard to audience or goals. Sometimes, our audience becomes not our sales target, but our client — and that’s a mistake. We don’t need to sell our client on their own product, believe me. They are already pretty sure it’s great.
  2. Determine how you will use content throughout the sales funnel. First of all, remember that your content — whether it’s a tweet, a Facebook post, a new blog entry, a page on your website, a white paper, a webinar, and so on to infinity — is ultimately responsible for creating conversions.

    Think about your customer and the different ways she will access your content. At what point in the conversion process will she interact with your social media? Sign up for an email newsletter? Download a whitepaper? How can this content, in turn, direct her towards the ultimate goal of giving your business money?

    If that seems crass, I don’t apologize — we’re getting paid to create conversions, not to wow people with our wordsmithing / infographic design skills / subject lines (although we better be good at all of those things, too).

  3. Use an editorial calendar. Again, so simple, but so often ignored. It all goes back to the first takeaway — having a plan. You only have X number of hours in a work day, and unless you want to be one of those martyrs who spends 15 hours a day in the office, you’d better figure out what you need to create, when it needs to be created and how it’s going to get finished.
  4. Don’t be annoying. We hear a lot about creating a network (online and off) to glean ideas, share content and amplify the reach of our work. It’s important to remember that the most annoying person you know is the weasel who only comes around when he needs something, big phony grin on his face, asking for a favor. Don’t be that weasel. Organically create relationships that have two-way value and, when it’s time to ask for a favor, it really won’t be that big of a deal.
  5. There is a “virtuous circle” to social relationships. Marshall Kirkpatrick of LittleBird discussed this concept, and he nalied it. Social relationships start with “marketing intel,” or listening. Get online and figure out who is having interesting conversations in your field. Who is is respected? Who is smart? Who, for that matter, is loud? Transition into your own content and curation — you become part of the discussion through your own work, your own thoughts and your own willingness to amplify the best content of others. This, in turn, moves into advocacy, where you become a trusted source, a knowledgeable voice, the person who an individual back in the intel stage is now following. And you continue to do your own intel. And you continue to share, create and converse. And you continue to advocate. A circle, get it?
  6. Culture is more important than skills. Not everyone in your business — or every one of your clients — is going to be an expert at content marketing, or will even necessarily “get it” when you have the initial conversations. That’s fine — skills can be taught. Understanding can be created. Developing and sustaining a flourishing digital culture is the key.
  7. When it comes to SEO, being “number one” doesn’t matter anymore. Well, it kind of matters…but if that is your search endgame, then you’re going to be frustrated. The number of paid and local links, images, maps and other content that Google and its ilk are placing on search pages, along with off-page search factors, the rise of Google+ as a results-influencer and the neverending issues caused by the pandas, penguins and pigeons in the so-called Google zoo are making organic search results more and more of a crapshoot. Focus on best content practices, accept the fact that paid discovery is more important than ever, and fight the good fight.
  8. If you don’t have time to do content promotion, you don’t have time to do content marketing. Kind of a kick in the pants, isn’t it? If you aren’t going to make a real effort to get users into your content funnel, then you’re wasting your time. Consider each content rollout — from your most elaborate white paper to the simplest blog post — as a sort of mini-campaign that requires its own promotional plan. How will this content be supported in social media? Email? Will it be linked through other content of yours? Do you have a network of friends and influencers you can rely upon to share, spread and champion your work (see #4 above)? If not, it’s time to start creating less content and focusing more on effectively promoting what you have.
  9. Content promotion should make up 40-60% of your content marketing budget. This one blew my mind. Seems high, doesn’t it? Think about it, though — if you aren’t using at least half of your content marketing resources to build an audience, share what you’re creating and get content consumers into your sales funnel, then what’s the point? Creating content is not an end into itself.
  10. Be proactive. Ugh, buzzwords, I know. Words get buzzy for a reason, though! Proactivity means having an editorial calendar. It means identifying relevant topics to pursue. It means finding gaps in the industry knowledge base that you can fill. It means building your media relations and influencer network a little bit every day. It means plotting your budgets for promotion. It means talking to your clients about their goals. It means customer research. It means entering every day with a plan. Do any of those things seem buzzy or shallow?

You read this far – so what do you think?

Hopefully you enjoyed this top 10 list — and if you have any content marketing ideas, suggestions or thoughts that you want to share, I’d love to see them in the Comments section below or on Twitter at @QuinlanCompany or @BK77. Thanks!

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