Last week, two of us – Simple Machines President Jill Wilson and myself – made it to HubSpot’s annual conference, Inbound.
Held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and with a reported attendance at almost 19k, Inbound is a mix of agencies, HubSpot clients, prospects and vendors who come to learn, network, get inspired, sell stuff, drink too much, deprive themselves of sleep, take a lot of selfies and see some celebrities.
Or, as comic Ali Wong observed on Wednesday night, “I’m not sure what you guys do. This looks like a giant rave for nerds.”
This was our first time attending, and I thought it was great. I learned a ton, met lots of people, got inspired and generally had a good time. And, on that note, I don’t want to sweep under the rug the fact that the kickoff for this event landed squarely on Election Day, given how… let’s say unusual and divisive this election was. That context made things a little surreal, especially with protest rallies a few blocks away on Boston Common.
Theme of the Week: Everything Has Changed
Entrepreneur, speaker and agency owner Gary Vaynerchuk started things off with Tuesday night’s keynote – an entertaining talk that jumped around from philosophical to tactical to what felt like a 10-minute infomercial for everyone and their uncles to start using Facebook ads RIGHT NOW. With more and more competition for attention and shorter attention spans to compete for, much of Gary’s talk – and a few of the other talks I heard – focused on how marketers need to adapt to dramatic changes in how people consume content and make purchasing decisions, and that we need to experiment with the channels they’re using. (In Gary’s words, “get in there and fuck up Snapchat.”)
HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah reiterated this point in their presentations, which started (after a lengthy Lord of the Rings-type movie about the “Legend of Inbound” with an evil Cartman-esque telemarketer named “Kevin”…) with a comparison of consumer behavior between 2006 and 2016. Instead of stilted Google searches, occasional social media visits, and some basic email and web surfing, we’re now in the era of omnipresent social ecosystems, complex customer journeys, voice search and natural language processing, AI and chatbot messaging, machine learning and the Internet of Things. And, on top of that, we have about 900 trillion pieces of content being generated every day – many of them by robots.
What The Changes Mean for Small Businesses
Of course, just because there are some striking consumer trends happening when you look at the numbers doesn’t necessarily mean we should all start hiring teams of chatbot developers and Snapchat strategists. That said, here are some of the key takeaways I found most applicable when it comes to small businesses.
- Aligning Sales and Marketing
One recurring theme at Inbound was the need for marketing and sales to truly bridge the gap. The less cohesion and cooperation between marketing and sales, the less chance that your potential customer is having a good experience. To this end, HubSpot VP of Product Christopher O’Donell announced the shift from HubSpot’s sales, marketing and CRM software to one, unified platform called “Growth Stack”, with an emphasis on sales enablement tools, which are essentially merging the two efforts into one fluid process.
- Leveraging Data
Another trend that’s undeniable is the increasing importance of data-driven marketing to make efforts more targeted, contextual, effective and measurable. In his presentation, Christopher Penn discussed ways to map customer journeys using data to ensure content is doing its job to move customers from awareness to purchase. By monitoring and quickly reacting to key metrics such as conversion attribution, businesses have a much better chance of leveraging content and understanding the ROI it’s creating.
- Adapting to Changes in SEO
Many of the trends discussed at the event – from voice search, self-driving cars, the rise of messaging apps and chatbots to changes in how the search engines are actually delivering results – have a direct impact on how businesses should think about and approach SEO. As the mechanisms of search cater more and more to how humans actually think and talk, the path to rank evolves. In his presentation, Moz’s resident SEO expert Rand Fishkin emphasized how it will become more important to understand the search intent of your customers to gauge where they actually are in the buying journey, to diversify traffic sources and pay attention to non-Google channels, and to move past purely keyword-centric search tactics.
- Focusing on the Fundamentals
As we’re fond of reminding our readers on this blog (beating a dead horse?), all of the tactics and technology in the world can’t help a product or service that lacks the marketing basics. In fact, in such a competitive environment, strong fundamentals are more important than ever. Veteran marketer April Dunford walked through the shortcomings of the old-school positioning exercise and provided a schema for businesses to find their best position by deciding whether they’re fit to take on the market leader, carve out a niche of the market, reframe the conversation in the market or create a new position completely.
Some of these trends and changes can seem scary – or at least jarring – for businesses already concerned about the ever-increasing competition for attention. True, it’s not getting any easier out there. But in many ways, these changes are part of a natural evolution that’s moving in a good direction.
It’s worth remembering that the Internet, search, social media and digital marketing are still in their awkward early years; there’s still some trial and error going on. And as we progress, the technology – and smart marketers – are catching up to how people actually think and behave, which is weeding out the forced, unnatural tactics (looking at you, mass email sent to purchased list).
By putting our customers first and thinking big picture, the best path forward will be clear – and that’s not going to change any time soon.