Part one of a two-part series
What Is Inbound Marketing, Anyway?
And How is it Different from, You Know, Marketing?
Traditional marketing is the science of consumer communication, which basically consists of a research process of finding a market for a product, followed by a strategic process of figuring out how to target that market in advertisements. It basically amounts to sociology applied in the service of capitalism: in an effort to sell something, companies divide the human race into groups defined by their wants and needs (based principally on demographics, usually), and then try to determine what kind of group contains the people most likely to want or need what they have. This research then becomes the foundation of an advertising campaign, working on the reasonable principle that the better you understand the people most likely to buy your product, the better you can tailor your product’s image to appeal to them. Accordingly, you then train your advertising campaign on your chosen target market as carefully as you can, and wait to see who it brings in. In short: traditional marketing is about finding customers. This practice has pretty recently come to acquire the retronym “outbound marketing” because we now have this newer thing called “inbound marketing”. This is where, in lieu of putting out a call to the general public via advertising—informing everyone in earshot of the product’s existence/quality and waiting to see who bites the hook—companies focus on successfully attracting and converting the high-value customers, i.e. the ones that they know for certain to be already interested in exactly the kind of product they make. That’s why it’s called “inbound” marketing: because it’s predicated on an economic model where the demand is already manifest and demonstrable—i.e. headed “in”—rather than something that needs to be found, teased out, or created. Inbound marketing is not about finding customers. It’s about helping customers find you.
How Is Inbound Marketing Possible?
I admit, it sounds pretty fantastical. Imagine you launched a new manufacturing company, and just as you were on your way to to convene your first marketing meeting, a wizard appeared and freely offered you a scroll that contained the name and address of everyone who would be a perfect fit for your product, whether they already knew about it or not. Privacy ethics and limitations of space-time aside, imagine how different—specifically, how much more gratifying—your marketing effort could be if you had this information in hand. Imagine what it would be like to approach these people and talk to them about the product. You wouldn’t feel any temptation to distort its vital information to make it more appealing, because you’d know that they already were pretty sure to like it for what it was. You certainly wouldn’t have to work very hard to earn a conversion; if they truly liked the product and could afford it, you’d be pretty well free to let it speak for itself. Also, because you’d be dealing exclusively with people who had a genuine need of the product, you’d probably find yourself on the receiving end of some genuine enthusiasm and appreciation, as opposed to the mass neglect and contempt often engendered by an ad blitz. And by talking to real individuals rather than just theorizing about groups, you might be able to learn something about the real “market” that your customers constitute; what’s more, you’d likely learn something about the product itself in the process. Can you imagine marketing being that effective, that emotionally healthy, that constructive? So, yeah, there’s no such wizard (that I know of, anyway). Sorry for leading you on like that. But could there be a way, maybe, conceivably, to approximate that wizard fantasy scenario? How could somebody in a product market conceivably prove that there were people out there looking for exactly the product that they offered, and then be able to find them and steer them in the product’s direction? Businesses have always held to ways of incentivizing the return of customers who have converted before (’10% Off Your Next Purchase at Hammerface Hardware!’) and rewarding customers who have spread the word on their behalf (‘Refer a Friend and Get Half Off Your Next Adjustment at Cucamonga Chiropractic!’). Customers who try the product once and come back are a sure thing; they know for a certainty what they’re going to get, and they know they want it. But what was long missing was a way to know what kinds of folks might be out in the world, unfamiliar your company by name, but forever wanting a product like the one your company made, and maybe even going from store to store fairly often in pursuit of such a product but always shuffling away disappointed. It’s probably no surprise that what changed all that was the appearance of our dear friends the INTERNETS.
Inbound Marketing = Internet Marketing
OK, maybe they’re not exactly synonymous, but inbound marketing as we know it is simply not viable without the internet (I’ll henceforth use the traditional spelling, rather than the Bushian variant). The internet, in transforming both the consumer experience of the retailer and the retailer’s experience of the consumer, transformed the whole premise of marketing. I’ll unpack the two sides of the change one at a time.
Shopping Online: Memoirs of an Invisible Man
The convenience of shopping from home hardly needs to be explained, and this was almost certainly the primary reason why online shopping became really popular really fast, even in the dial-up days. But there was another effect of this migration to ecommerce beyond just the suffering of our local retailers: we consumers were suddenly exposed to a lot more products after we started shopping online than we ever had been before, both by volume and by diversity, and we started looking at more products as a result. This is in part because ecommerce site design was always good at shoving products under your nose, but more because—speaking for myself—I visited way more store websites than I ever did brick-and-mortar stores, not just because the process was so shockingly fast and easy, but because visiting a website was, for me, way less psychologically complicated than walking into a store. Maybe you good folks reading this aren’t as socially fragile as your humble, introverted author, so allow me to regale you with an account of the thoughts that run through my mind when I prepare to visit a store.
- people might look at me when I walk in;
- employees might accost me to ask if I need help;
- employees might push unwanted products on me (offers of free samples or speeches about special promotions);
- the cashier is maybe going to try to start a conversation with me and that conversation might involve further pushes for impulse items (I’m one of the few who fell in love with those U-Scan stations at grocery stores, despite the blow they dealt to the customer service sector).
These experiences make me nervous, and expecting them has traditionally, tragically, discouraged emotionally sensitive people like me from shopping unless we a.) know exactly what we are looking for and stand a good chance of running the “get in, get out,” for minimal social trauma, and/or b.) are shopping at a store so large that our presence might stand a greater chance of going unnoticed. Point b is particularly unfortunate, given that it disproportionately punishes small businesses as well as any other businesses that reach out and talk to their customers like they’re told they’re supposed to, but the whole thing is kinda unfortunate because our social phobia is forever limiting our engagement with product representatives and even with old-fashioned browsing, which in turn limits our ability to communicate our wants and needs as consumers and learn how well or badly the market serves those needs. But in browsing products on a website, we feel beautifully, blessedly invisible. We can browse all day because no one is going to bother us and there’s no pressure to buy. The first time I visited Amazon.com in ’96-ish, I can remember how excited I felt not just at the prospect of having total knowledge of what books, CDs, and movies were in print, period (rather than knowing little beyond what was in stock at the various stores I frequented), but at being able to read all the relevant information about all of them for as long as I wanted without getting uncomfortable. This was before Wikipedia, and accordingly, there had never really been a resource online before Amazon for all this information that I given my position as culture/media geek was hopelessly bound to crave. I bought stuff once in a while, but I didn’t feel like I had to purchase something in order to justify my being there. I could treat it like a library, and I did. I looked at a lot of stuff on Amazon and pretty much every other ecommerce site—way more stuff than I had ever intended to buy—because I felt free to. Unlike in a store, nobody knew I was there! Turns out I was wrong on that last point.
Web Analytics: Somebody’s Watching Me
I may have enjoyed the emotional security that came with feeling invisible by shopping online, but that invisibility was truly only a feeling. I may not have been able to “see” “anyone” while I was in there, but through the then-emerging field of web analytics, the store could very much “see” me. Web analytics is the practice of collecting, measuring, tracking, and sorting a website’s traffic data, and every website with something to sell has been doing it for as long as it’s existed, and you can probably guess why: because they want to know everything about their customers. And guess what? They can know pretty much everything. They can know whether you arrived on the site directly, via a referral, or via search (more on that to come). They can know your entire click-path through the site: every page you looked at and the order in which you did so. They can know whether you converted—i.e. bought something—and if so, when you decided to do so. So, hey, turns out I was way more visible on a store’s website that I ever had been in a physical store. How many in-store experiences did I ever have where an employee was standing behind me and taking note of everything I looked at? Websites like Amazon were doing that to all of us, and I probably don’t have to explain that there’s a high correlation between the things we look at at the things that interest us. Little did lurkers like me know that in all that time we were clicking around these sites to browse, we were basically voluntarily conducting retailers’ market research for them. When a site knows what interests us, there’s no end to what they can do with that knowledge. It’s not quite the wizard scenario because they’re not going to be able to knock on our doors, but they will be able to:
- generally speaking have a much more refined, granular, and thorough understanding of the kinds of products we like;
- know what we looked at but didn’t buy so they can point it back at us when we land on the site the next time (thanks also in part to cookies);
- study the relationships between the things we looked at in succession, or bought in succession, and use that information to refine their product targeting going forward.
Never before had consumer data of this kind of precision and accuracy been available, and we consumers were giving it of ourselves—i.e. communicating our wants and needs—without even having to talk to anybody. Though it’s not a strategic marketing tool, the advent of web analytics as a research tool arguably effected the introduction of the whole concept of individualized consumer data, i.e. highly refined information about specific consumers that enabled a much more sophisticated level of insight into their preferences. This was maybe the single most profound development that made inbound marketing possible.
Search Marketing: Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
Around the same time that ecommerce started to wax, another feature of that there internet—namely, the Google—began growing immensely in popularity as a starting point for people’s websurfing (we used to call it that, once). Unsurprisingly, the broad and skyrocketing adoption of the search engine as a navigational tool was felt powerfully in ecommerce, as droves of consumers took to kicking off their product hunts on search engines, and increasingly thinking of Google as the real portal to the product, not caring so much about which site it would ultimately be delivered from as long as it was affordable and looked it would arrive intact. This practice—launching an ecommerce experience with search—has only grown more commonplace over the years; in fact, search is now the number one traffic driver for online commerce. The upshot of this development for marketing is that within the sea of data that site owners can access through analytics lives search data, and access to this data makes search a two-way street: not only can users type their way to finding sites; sites can see what it was that users typed that led them there. So the more people use search to figure out and locate what they want to buy, the more companies can learn about how people talk about what they want to buy. When the people who run an ecommerce site learn how many customers are coming from search, they think “wow, there might be even more customers like them to be gained from search! We’d better find a way to grab them!” When those same people then learn exactly how consumers most often word their searches for products like the ones that they sell, they think, “hey, we need to use that same language so that people will find us based on the searches they’re already performing.” Then they start looking for opportunities to work that language into their site’s content. I’ve just described the concept of the keyword, and the practice of keyword research and targeting. It was this concept and these practices that birthed the second great tool of inbound marketing: SEO. This in sum is the premise of inbound marketing: that there are people out there on the web who will prove to you that they are interested in your product, and that you can steer them in your site’s direction. The tactics of inbound marketing are numerous and ever-expanding, and will be explored in a post to follow, but I hope that merely knowing that this kind of marketing is possible will leave you feeling a little more wizard-like.