A 10-Minute Guide to Inbound Marketing for Startups

When you talk about inbound marketing, one brand seems to lead the pack – Hubspot. How did Hubspot grow from an idea by two MIT graduates in 2004 into a company generating over $15 million in revenue just 6 years later? How did Hubspot achieve incredible growth during a recession? Inbound marketing.

Hubspot’s founder, Brian, although with a strong sales background, never thought he could start a company, much less start a great company.

“I don’t consider myself born and raised to be a founder of a company. I always thought I’d be somebody who would help the founder of a company move it along. But I had the right idea. I had the world’s perfect co-founder, and we just kind of closed our eyes and did it.”

By 2006, the company started as a sales consulting company with 3 customers and 3 employees. Dharmesh and Brian had earlier met at an MIT conference. At the time, inbound marketing was still an idea without a solid framework.

Inbound as a concept for sales and marketing actually started in the mid-1850s when Cyrus Hall McCormick, inventor of the mechanical harvester, used market research to develop inbound methods for generating consumer interest in what was then a radical evolution in farming.

Brian and Dharmesh also wanted to test the idea, not with physical products this time but the opposite – a sort of experiment that involved a sales & marketing blog, ebooks, webinars and software started. Brian was to handle the sales & marketing side, Dharmesh was going to handle the software side. It worked. In 2009, Hubspot released a book that actually detailed the inbound marketing framework. It became much more important than an abstract concept.

From 2007 to 2010, during the subprime mortgage crisis, Hubspot grew from a $220,000 revenue and 48 customers to $15 million in revenue and over 3000 customers. To date, the company has raised over $1 billion in funding and now generates over $650 million in yearly revenue.

Between 2006 to 2010, websites had started becoming “the thing”. But there was no way to measure and not many people teaching the practicals of how to grow or scale “for free”. Anyone blogging was just doing it either for fun as a journal of sorts or haphazardly without any framework. There were popups and ads on most websites without any focus on user experience. SEO was chiefly about keyword stuffing and blackhat tactics. Hubspot’s blog started out as a resource for business owners and sales directors. They started gaining some traction with content marketing. And then by 2007, they added free tools into the mix. The website grader was the most successful of these.

According to Mike Volpe, Chief Marketing Officer at HubSpot at the time, the website grader has been one of their most-used tools. Within three years, “it analyzed over 2 million websites“.

So yes, inbound marketing is the way to go for small startups with funding constraints. But for the most part, it’s just another abstract marketing term if you don’t understand how to execute it. The point of this article is to quickly show you how. And yea, I am Inbound certified with Hubspot. I have been writing and distributing content for a while now so I have learnt one or two things.

One of the most important things I learnt about inbound marketing is that: it’s all about questions. The right questions.

Let’s take the common sales brainteaser “sell me this pen” for example:

It’s vague. Of course, you need to ask questions, three in particular.

A. Who am I selling to?
B. Where do they hang out?
C. Why should they care?

But you don’t stop there, you’ll place yourself in the shoes of a customer. If you do that, its obvious they are asking one of three questions at any time.

1. Why do I need a pen?
2. Why should I buy this brand of pen?
3. Why do I need to buy this pen right now?

Who Am I Selling To?

Buyer persona: Let’s say I wanted to sell fountain pens. Who uses fountain pens? My intuition tells me I should be targeting writers – of course, fancy secretaries and some students use fountain pens too… Yet starting out, it’d be wiser to focus on one persona segment – two if you want to push yourself.
And paying heed to intuition is good but the best way to validate a market is from actual people. Who is your ideal customer? and what are their need(s)? This is essentially what a buyer persona is about.

Where Do They Hang Out?

Presence: Almost everyone is on social right now. But you don’t want to be on all social platforms. You want to be where your buyers are. That makes it easier to target the right persona with content. It also makes it easier to scale your presence on these platforms. Brand presence doesn’t mean you have to focus on online platforms, neglecting offline. Inbound marketing isn’t just about building an online presence. If I were marketing to writers, then I should attend writing workshops, book signings and writing conferences. The goal of inbound marketing is not to sell primarily, it’s to build connections.

Why Should They Care?

Selling points: Now you know your target, you figured out where they hang out, how do you sell when it comes to it? I believe selling points don’t have to be “unique”, they, however, need to be desirable. Most times, it isn’t just about what makes you different but how you express what makes you different. A simple exercise: Say you have a 7-year-old who is trying to understand what you do. How would you explain your selling point(s)? For fountain pens, a selling point is that it makes it easier to write for longer periods. The ink flows directly out of the pen’s nib so no pressure is needed. Of course, this is generic. If my audience is already familiar with fountain pens, then I’d need to explore competitors. Which leads us to the customer stages.

AWARENESS – Why Do I Need a Pen?

The majority of people viewing a Facebook ad are in the awareness stage. Even when you retarget folks who stumbled on a piece of your website content but left because of a messenger notification, these people are still in the awareness stage of the buying cycle. The majority of people who got a random cold call from you are in the awareness stage. Any leads you get at this stage are TOFU (Top of funnel leads). A customer in the awareness stage simply and rightly asks “why should I care?”. This is usually the longest of the customer stages because of low-attention spans.

The crucial mistake most people who set up ads make is thinking that these folks would need to make a decision NOW. For example, most people seeing a Facebook ad aren’t going to see your ad and contact you straight-away. You’ve only made 1 impression. Here’s the surprising sales stat: It takes an average of 8 touch-points (impressions) before a prospect decides on a meeting (if interested).

Odds are we’ll still play a bit of a quantity game when trying to sell our pen because the majority of folks we’d be talking to are in this stage. So we need to capture interest and stay on top of that interest. Primarily, this means consistent articles, videos, pictures, podcasts and emails – any type of media to educate on the value aspects of the product.

CONSIDERATION – Why Should I Buy This Brand of Pen?

For a lot of people who would like to go the tough and probably, more effective road, they focus more efforts on these types of leads or prospects. Leads in this stage already know what your product does? They just need help deciding if it’s the best fit for them. Most times at the consideration stage, it’s not about need. It’s about validation from social proof. For example, I’d rather buy a house from a realtor with 15 years experience in the market rather than just someone who just got their license last year.

While you want to show some “here’s some unique things I would be offering you” at this stage, you want to predominantly display authority or social proof.

Consideration stage prospects are the ones most likely to be interested in your “before and after” pics on social media. It’s always a good idea to follow up quickly with these types of prospects. And get the edge with case studies, reviews, earned media, testimonials and comparison posts.

DECISION – Why Do I Need to Buy This Pen Right Now?

Someone who visited a product page added one or two products in their cart, saw the grand total, and clicked away was in the decision stage. It’s a fast – either-or case. And of course, you have to get their email and trigger an abandoned cart email sequence promptly.

The decision stage is where you foresee what might lead to last-minute objections and take active steps to prevent it. The most important of these objections is the desire to procrastinate. How do you counter procrastination?

Make a time-limited offer that’s hard to ignore and/or reduce the steps leading to commitment as much as you can – make buying from you as seamless as possible.

Realistically, I believe when you do inbound, if you’re growth-focused, you still need to mix in a bit of outbound e.g paid ads, paid influencer outreaches. Whatever the ratio; 60-40, 85-15, would depend on what you’re working with. With Hubspot, about 75% of their early-days lead generation was inbound, 25% was outbound. This article is like demystifying a large and complex framework. It’s the first layer in a stratum. But the premise of inbound is that businesses with modest budgets need to focus on those things that will endear the business to its customers.

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