Analytics Content Marketing Marketing

Inbound marketing and man buns: a series of unfortunate events


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

August 28, 2017 | 17 min read

Say that on an average day, 10,000 people enter a specific Walmart in the US or a Tesco in the UK. Except in the case of highly targeted direct response campaigns, the company’s marketers will never know exactly why each of them decided to go to that location at that particular time.

inbound marketing

The digital marketing world will soon find itself dealing with that same issue as people become less and less likely to know precisely why a particular person arrived at a website – or even if it was a flesh-and-blood human being at all. Digital platforms have created more uncertainties than solved them.

The promise of the internet for marketers has always been that everything would be trackable and that the “buyer journey” would be optimised for maximum efficiency. Well, for better or worse, these two foundations of the philosophy of so-called “inbound marketing” are looking increasingly flimsy.

The model of inbound marketing

The process of inbound marketing – as described by HubSpot, the marketing software company that invented the practice as a way to sell its platform – attracts website traffic through blog posts and search-engine optimisation, converts visitors into leads through calls to action, and then uses marketing automation to turn the leads into paying customers.

Marketoonist Tom Fishburne once put it another way:

It’s funny because it’s true.

I’ll summarise further. Inbound marketing:

  • Fills the Internet with low-value clickbait under the meaningless label of “content marketing” to maximize website clicks through any means necessary

  • Uses direct-response copy and bait-and-switch offers to “convert” visitors into leads and obtain their e-mail addresses

  • Stuffs inboxes with automatically-generated spam with “marketing automation” to make a direct sale or move the lead to a sales person

The problems with inbound marketing

The first-mover advantage is always powerful. The SEO software company Moz as well as HubSpot itself grew their audiences more than a decade ago mainly with blog posts. Everyone else in the digital marketing world has since tried to imitate them.

Today, however, the internet is flooded with direct response advertisements masquerading as informative blog posts that have all-too-often been inspired by generic blog post topic generators like this one.

The results have been dismal. As a Meaningful Brands survey released by the agency group Havas and reported here by The Drum found, 60% of the world’s brands create “content” that is absolutely useless. Here is what an extensive examination by Mark Higginson, the founder of the UK digital agency Out To Sea, found as well:

"Reviewing any major brand publishing effort reveals that, barring a few outliers, the majority of content published to these sites receives next to no links and goes nowhere, receiving few shares...

“If these spaces are little more than holding places for content with the odd popular piece getting shared elsewhere, then all they’re doing is potentially benefiting one of the major social platforms. Marketers used to talk about 'driving traffic' back to a brand's website from such activity. This doesn't happen. If the pages aren’t being viewed they aren't worth the investment of resources to produce.”

Why does most “content” achieve little?

First, inbound marketers forget that quality always beats quantity. The initial part of inbound marketing is to publish as much “content” as possible and then spread it out over social media and elsewhere to get as many clicks and website visitors as possible. (Even though pushing marketing collateral “out” contradicts the very idea of “inbound” marketing.) But just because people can publish "content" all the time does not mean that they should.

Why? The tactics used by inbound marketers hurt their companies’ brands. The competitive marketing intelligence platform SEMrush recently released a study on which blog post headlines are clicked and shared the most. Content analysis software Buzzsumo analysed 100 million headlines for the same information and found this:

While this information can be useful, too many inbound marketers will go overboard and use the data to produce countless clickbait blog posts with the same headline format such as this:

[number] [unnecessarily strong adjective] [noun] to [achieve some goal]

The internet will continue to be flooded with boring, optimised posts that all have the same title formats in an effort to get clicks. But optimisation is the enemy of creativity. Optimisation aims to do what someone else defines or the best of what everyone else does. Creativity aims to do what no one else defines or does. When everyone zigs, you zag.

In my prior jobs and consulting roles, I have seen that clickbait blog posts deliver many website visits but rarely contribute to business goals because they result in low engagement, backlinks, shares, leads, and sales. As I often say at events as a marketing speaker, the very act of publishing clickbait destroys brands because it looks cheap and tacky. The things that generate the most clicks and shares are not usually the things that build strong brands. The resulting reach is far and thin rather than focused and deep.

Maximising page views might work for news publications and blogs that have per-page view advertising revenue models, but it does not work for brands that sell products. You can knock people over the head and drag them into your store. It does not mean that they will buy anything. Clickbait headlines are the online version of that. A company blog has a very specific use – and that use is not publishing anything and everything that comes to mind.

Email spam and annoying phone calls

After the production of countless clickbait for the traffic and resulting leads, the second step in inbound marketing is to send e-mail spam under the new buzzword of “drip campaigns” – even though consumers view it as the marketing version of Chinese water torture.

And as if the ever-increasing number of emails was not enough, inbound marketing also comes complete with “lead visit alerts” – which is just another name for creepy telemarketing. Say that you are on the page of a random store’s website. All of a sudden, your phone rings. “Hello! I see that you’re looking at Celine Dion’s greatest hits album right now!” a complete stranger says.

If I were to receive such a phone call, I would hang up, smash my phone with a stone, and cast the pieces into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Or I would ask Daenerys Targaryen to have her dragons kill it with fire. It’s almost as scary as hearing the police tell you, “The call is coming from inside the house!”

Is it any wonder that it’s getting more and more difficult for “content marketing” to get noticed? Is it any surprise that the UK’s Direct Marketing Association found this month that email open rates and unique click-throughs have been declining for years?

And when more and more companies produce countless clickbait articles and spam people with emails, what do you think is happening to their brands? Do something more creative than what they are doing.

Inbound marketing depends on faulty data

The assumption of inbound marketing is that everything is measurable and trackable in a tidy funnel. But many things that are important in marketing are not measurable – and those that are trackable tend to incorporate bad or incomplete data.

The ad blockers and script blockers in web browsers stop the tracking abilities of platforms such as Google Analytics, Hubspot, and Marketo. And that does not even include VPNs. We do not know how much marketing data is inaccurate or being lost completely. It could be 5%. It could 95%. But moving on, let’s pretend that we actually have good information in the first place.

Here’s an example of the Google Analytics (GA) buckets that form the foundations of most web analytics platforms:

Email traffic is the people who click on links in email messages. Paid Search and Display traffic is the people who click on advertisements on platforms such as Google AdWords or the Google Display Network, respectively.

Depending on the specific instance, Direct traffic can be comprised of visitors who type a website into a browser, use bookmarks, arrive through a shortened URL, click a link in some email providers or a PDF document, click on a link in a social network’s mobile app, or are redirected from a HTTPS domain to a HTTP one. In short, it is impossible to know.

Organic Search is the people who arrived at a website after clicking on unpaid “natural” results in search engines such as Google and Bing. While SEO can be extremely valuable, GA no longer returns most keyword-level analytics data except for a bit of information in Google Search Console. In short, it is not very useful.

Referral traffic is the people who click to a website from links on other websites. In other words, the visits are result from publicity – and the goal of publicity is not immediate website traffic because most who see a link in an article will not click. Rather, publicity is to get in front of many relevant eyeballs, gain credibility though appearing in reputable outlets, and increase share of voice compared to competitors. In short, that cannot be measured in an “inbound marketing” context.

Social traffic is the people who click from social networks such as Facebook and Twitter or community websites such as Reddit and Meetup. However, the fact that marketing channels are different from marketing tactics makes it difficult to analyse results even with URL campaign parameters. Traffic in the “social” bucket could be the result of activities such as publicity, community relations, customer service, direct response marketing, or direct sales. In short, it is not very useful.

The fantasy of marketing attribution

Product marketers took an inbound marketing course, grew pretentious man buns, and rebranded themselves as “growth hackers”. They thought that they could analyse marketing data to determine the precise “buyer journey” and optimise every step along the way.

But human brains do not work that way. Straight lines do not exist in marketing. If you think that our minds process everything linearly and logically, just remember your dreams from last night. As DDB New Zealand stated in the New Zealand Herald earlier this year, the latest research shows that companies need to make brands famous with distinctive advertising and publicity, remember that irrational feelings are more important than logical thoughts, and focus on long-term strategy rather than short-term results.

But inbound marketers suffer from “short-termism” and think only about last-touch direct response metrics. It’s why we see inane terms such as “performance marketing” and “results-driven marketing.” But those are merely new words for direct response – and those who focus on that forget the words of Sweetspot Intelligence founder and chief executive Sergio Maldonado, who argued in Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist blog that marketing attribution is a fantasy.

Not everything in marketing is about getting people to a website or a store in a trackable and immediate way. Do the brand advertising, the direct marketing, and the public relations, and you will see an increasing number of people generally coming to you and buying over time – if the strategy and resulting campaigns are well-researched and planned.

Maybe someone saw a TV commercial, remembered it weeks later, and then drove to Walmart or Tesco. Maybe someone saw a magazine article, did a Google search, found and liked your Facebook page, subscribed to your email newsletter there, and then bought something on your website a month afterwards.

You will never know exactly what brought each person, but that is not a bad thing. Every part of the promotion mix does its part – both online and offline. Marketers can never depend on data completely, and a more recent Marketoonist cartoon explains the reason perfectly:

The adoption of inbound marketing throughout the greater marketing world is much overhyped. Brand marketers cannot use a model that was created to grow a SaaS startup. A bunch of blog posts cannot sell mustard, dishwashing soap, and soft drinks. Inbound marketing is not “the future of marketing” because it is potentially applicable only in a very niche vertical.

Still, inbound marketing is billed as a cost-effective marketing paradigm – particularly for tech startups – and digital marketers have always wanted to know “cheap hacks.” It costs comparatively little to pump out blog spam and e-mail spam. So, inbound marketing is not the best model. It’s merely the cheapest one.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, a global marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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