Marketers love proposing new theories that make the whole endeavour sound more complicated than it is. In recent years inbound marketing has caused a storm in the B2B world, with seemingly everyone jumping on board.
Is B2B inbound marketing everything it's cracked up to be? Or is it just another buzzword?
Inbound marketing helps B2B companies attract the right leads, at the right time. It automatically delivers high-quality SQLs to your sales team, without the hassle of cold calling and other intrusive marketing tactics.
Statistics say that inbound marketing for B2B is no fad. Paid ads' influence is waning and attracting customers organically is the best way to conduct marketing. The Content Marketing Institute reported that 80% of business decision-makers prefer receiving company information via a series of articles as opposed to paid ads.
Sounds great, doesn't it?
What is B2B Inbound Marketing?
Let's consider an analogy to describe inbound marketing.
Imagine that your puppy Mr. Munchkin is being stubborn and is refusing to take a bath. Would you rather chase him around your home and shove him into the bathtub or attract him to the tub using treats? The choice is obvious.
B2B Inbound marketing provides value to prospects through helpful content and builds interest in a prospect's mind organically.
You give your prospects room to choose your product, instead of shoving it under their noses all the time.
Best of all, inbound marketing is cost-effective in the long run when compared to outbound advertising.
Before the internet changed advertising, companies had to rely on paid promotions in print and visual media or on word-of-mouth advertising. The latter has always been considered more effective.
Mckinsey highlights that word-of-mouth is a primary factor behind up to 50% of all buying decisions.
Inbound marketing plays a similar role.
B2B companies give their prospects space to explore their products by publishing helpful content. Inbound marketing for B2B focuses entirely on providing value by addressing pain points and displaying empathy every step of the way.
For instance, let's say your product is a data engineering platform. The outbound way of marketing this product would be to say "Look at my product, it's awesome and will solve all your problems!".
The inbound way would go something like: "We understand you're having problems like x, y, and z. Here are some solutions that can help. Here's how we can help you. Read/watch/listen to this to learn more."
The above is a simplification but it cuts to the essence of B2B inbound marketing. It is non-intrusive and provides value at all times.
Does Inbound Marketing Work for B2B?
So how effective is B2B inbound marketing? The short answer is: It's very effective.
The long answer involves considering how B2B buyers proceed towards a buy decision. These days, the majority of decision-makers prefer researching topics by themselves before contacting a sales rep.
Thus, a sales rep has a very small window to close a deal. If your company is relying on sales teams to inform and convince a customer, you're too late to the party.
In fact, if your marketing isn't focused on providing value to your prospects, your sales team isn't going to receive any leads.
Inbound marketing is a necessity these days. CMI highlights that 60% of web users consider themselves avid blog readers. People are constantly searching for information to help them solve issues.
If your company blog or resource centre isn't helping them solve problems, no one is going to hear of you.
Your web presence is therefore crucial to generating leads and revenue. Some B2B companies think of their website as a business card. In reality, it's much more than that.
It's an asset that is on par with your product. Without a great B2B website that has high-quality copy, your prospects will not realize you exist.
Without a coherent B2B blog strategy, you won't be able to help your customers with their issues. Without a dedicated content funnel (I'll explain this in more detail shortly), you won't understand your prospects' issues and will fail to attract them.
All of this brings us back to the short answer: Yes, inbound marketing for B2B works and works spectacularly.
If your company is relying solely on outbound techniques such as paid ads, cold sales calls, and so on, you're a dinosaur.
Why do B2B Businesses Need an Inbound Marketing Strategy?
When companies first get started with inbound marketing, they think it's a matter of publishing a few blog posts or videos and leaving the rest up to fate (Google). Inbound isn't quite as simple as that.
B2B companies need an inbound marketing strategy to help clarify their goals and deliver maximum value to their customers. There are also a whole host of advantages to inbound marketing.
For starters, it's cost-effective compared to outbound efforts.
If you're operating on a lean marketing budget, inbound marketing is the way to go. It allows you to laser-target your ideal customer and bring them onboard.
A side-effect of these efforts is that your prospects will trust you more. After all, if you can anticipate their issues and solve them for them, they'll naturally trust you more.
Inbound also prioritizes quality over quantity.
There's a virus in the outbound marketing world and it's called the vanity metric.
For instance, some teams measure the number of unique visitors to their website and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
However, if these visitors don't turn into sales, what's the point? Inbound prioritizes sales and revenues and naturally leads to higher-quality leads for your sales team.
Lastly, inbound marketing makes it easy for your company to evolve and learn trends in the market. Thanks to staying in touch with customer issues and product evolution, B2B companies can naturally create products that resonate with consumers and make an impact.
Measuring Inbound Marketing ROI
So far you've learned why inbound marketing is great. However, this is where the inbound story hits a snag.
It's tough to measure the ROI of your inbound efforts. This explains why some B2B companies hesitate to go down the inbound route and choose outbound instead.
Here are some metrics that help you measure the effectiveness of your inbound marketing efforts:
Form sign ups
Event interactions and engagement
Rising customer lifetime values (CLV)
Decreasing customer acquisition costs (CAC)
Note that this doesn't mean inbound is less effective than outbound marketing. It's just that creating a pretty dashboard with perfect ROI metrics isn't always possible when you've committed to an inbound strategy.
On the surface, this is a bad thing especially when you compare it to the way outbound marketing works.
Paid ads (a form of outbound marketing) offer immediate metrics. You can measure your reach, your cost per click, cost per action, and frequency. You can create custom metrics that tell you exactly what you want to know.
When the time comes to create a budget for the next quarter, you know what you spent previously and can extrapolate that amount to scale your sales and leads.
The thing to realize with inbound marketing is that it isn't a campaign. It's a philosophy.
Recall how you learned previously that inbound marketing is akin to word-of-mouth marketing?
You might not be able to quantify the value of each referral but you know for sure that people referring others to your business is a good thing.
Inbound requires a long-term approach and commitment. It takes time to work, but when it does, you'll end up spending less money to bring in more sales.
In addition, you'll build authority in your niche and attract customers to you, thus solving major hurdles for your sales team.
Let's return to the list of metrics that help you indirectly measure inbound marketing ROI.
Notice that all of them apply to outbound marketing. Another thing to note is all of these metrics are contextual.
For instance, let's say you publish a whitepaper to convert MQLs into SQLs.
If you use traffic and page visits to measure engagement, you're not going to derive much insight. Instead, form signups and demo requests are what you ought to be looking at.
Much also depends on your buyer's journey. In some cases, your buyer might need a little more education or value-addition before they click that "Book a Demo" button.
The bottom line is that B2B inbound marketing takes work. You must understand your customer and yourself.
Sure, it takes time, but as every B2B company that has nailed its inbound marketing strategy will attest, it's time well spent.
The question you need to ask yourself is: Is your vision based on short-term goals or long-term ones?
Inbound marketing tactics always trump outbound ones in the long run. Outbound tactics will give you a temporary boost in the short term, but it will cost you resources.
Creating a blend of both philosophies will give you a steady stream of leads and prospects, not to mention revenue.
Inbound Marketing Theory and Jargon
I know you haven't clicked on this page to sit through a classroom lecture. However, there are some terms you must understand if you're looking to implement an inbound marketing campaign for your B2B product or service.
If you'd like to skip ahead and get to the more practical aspects of inbound marketing, then here's a quick summary.
Summary - Inbound marketing has 4 stages. These are labelled differently depending on the source but they all mean the same thing. The 4 stages of B2B inbound marketing are:
Attract - Increase brand awareness. Bring people to you.
Convert - Turn prospects into leads by offering them value.
Close - Turn leads into sales by offering even more value.
Engage - Build loyalty by continuing to provide value.
As you can see, providing value is a pretty big deal!
Closely aligned to these stages is the concept of a marketing funnel. It has 4 stages:
Awareness - "Oh look, they have what I need."
Interest - "Hmm...this looks pretty nice."
Consideration - "I'm thinking about buying this but..."
Decision/Purchase - "Yup, I'm going to buy it."
The 4 stages of inbound marketing and the funnel don't necessarily align but that's not the point.
The funnel exists to help you classify your leads and traffic. It also helps you classify your inbound content and match it to a stage in the funnel.
The metrics you choose to track depend on where your content sits in the funnel. The idea is to convince your prospect to move deeper into your funnel by giving them value every step of the way.
The funnel also helps you screen prospects and filter those who will not turn into customers, although this isn't a primary goal. That's about it for theory.
If you're interested in learning more about B2B inbound marketing's stages and the marketing/sales funnel, read on.
If not, feel free to skip to the next section.
The 4 Stages of B2B Inbound Marketing
Inbound marketing begins with attracting people to your website. It's the opposite of outbound which requires you to interrupt whatever they were doing and take a look at your offer.
Attraction, as opposed to coercion, is what defines B2B inbound marketing.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that it's the first stage of inbound marketing. The Attraction stage is where you spread the word about yourself via helpful and timely content. Content can take many forms as you'll learn shortly in this guide. For now, let's use the example of written content to illustrate how the stages play out.
Let's say you're selling an AR automation platform and that not many people in the market have heard of you. Your competitors are well entrenched and offer a suite of products, instead of a single AR solution. Seems daunting, doesn't it?
Well, inbound marketing gives you the tools to compete nonetheless. You begin by increasing awareness of your solution. To do this, you publish helpful articles that answer the most common questions your customers/prospects ask.
Some examples of these questions might be:
What is AR automation?
Do I need AR automation?
Does AR automation save money?
and so on. By creating a blog post that addresses these questions, you'll have prospects clicking on your listing in Google's search results and visiting your website.
Mind you, this won't happen overnight. However, if your content is great, it will naturally occur.
Now that you've begun receiving a steady stream of visitors, some of them will naturally explore your website and click around.
If the rest of your website is geared towards helping your audience find solutions, your visitors will move themselves into the next stage of B2B inbound marketing: Conversion.
You're now at a stage where prospects are curious about you and you want to convert them into stronger leads. You'll hear some marketers describe this as converting leads into prospects or prospects into leads.
The terminology doesn't matter. You need to convert visitors into people who are strongly interested in your product.
Content and marketing collateral helps you achieve this. While the content that attracted people to you answers broad questions, content that converts dives deeper into an issue and addresses specific topics. It gets technical, which is an ever-present factor in B2B content.
There's something else you should keep in mind: The people who read content at this stage aren't the same as the ones who read your attraction stage content.
Here's where your customer's buying journey comes into play.
Sticking with our example of an AR automation product, a company's CFO might have stumbled onto your blog post (they were attracted to it.) Upon further browsing, they realized that your product could offer a possible solution. They task a technical lead or department head to further evaluate your product.
This person will use your product daily and will thus need in-depth explanations of how your product works. Hence, your content must satisfy their needs and answer their questions in detail.
Typically, B2B companies "gate" such content, a concept that I'll explain when describing a funnel shortly.
Let's assume the department head is satisfied with your content and believes it's a great solution for their problems. They fill out a form and request a call back.
With this action, they've moved into the third stage of B2B inbound marketing: Closing.
This stage is all about sales. Your sales team knows what content they've consumed and thanks to an intelligent B2B content strategy, they know which pain points each piece of content addresses.
Thus, they know what to talk about on the sales call and have a greater chance of closing a deal.
Of course, it won't always be smooth.
The prospect might have more questions or might even believe your product is lacking in a few areas. all of this is valuable data. Sales teams should collect these pain points and questions and feed them back to marketing to address via future content.
Assuming everything's fine, sales closes a deal and you have yourself a customer.
Congratulations! However, you're not done with inbound marketing just yet. You now have to engage the customer and build brand loyalty.
What if you decide to release an AP automation suite? Wouldn't you want your existing customers to upgrade their solutions with you? Content and nurturing campaigns do this job for you.
This is the final and most important stage of B2B inbound marketing: Engagement.
The most popular engagement tools are email newsletters or events like webinars, podcasts, and so on. Engagement serves another critical purpose.
It helps you remain in touch with the issues your customers are facing. Issues evolve and you must tweak your product to keep pace with them.
Engagement helps you touch base with customers regularly. For instance, let's say you send them a newsletter that talks about a new feature: Your product now allows line-level dispute tracking.
If a customer responds saying they'd like partial payment dispute handling as well, this is valuable information for your product team to consider.
Through these 4 stages, you can see how inbound marketing sets you up for the long term. Best of all, you don't need to spend money on paid ads to interrupt your prospect. They found you and moved themselves through these stages.
All you did was provide help.
The Inbound Marketing Funnel
Marketers and salespeople love funnels.
They're an elegant way of describing what we do for a living. While the stages of inbound marketing are a theoretical concept, the inbound marketing funnel is a living, breathing beast. Everything that sales and marketing teams do revolves around the funnel.
The concept of a funnel is quite simple: The top is wide and the bottom is narrow.
Your prospects enter at the top and filter themselves out to leave just high-quality leads who are most likely to turn into customers.
While B2B marketing teams categorize them differently, the middle of the funnel is reserved for so-called Marketing Qualified Leads or MQLs.
The bottom of the funnel is for Sales Qualified Leads or SQLs. The top of the funnel is where all kinds of people enter.
Remember that with inbound marketing, you're attracting people to you. A downside of this is you never know who you're going to attract.
You could produce content that appeals to CFOs looking to automate AR but you could also attract an accountant who is curious about electronification in their field of work.
This accountant is unlikely to turn into a customer. This is why you must create filters in your funnel that weeds these prospects out.
Prospects at the top of the funnel have become Aware of your product and are exploring it. People at this stage are nowhere close to buying your product. They're learning about it and your company.
Your job (or rather your content's job) at this level is to answer questions that are directly and tangentially related to your prospect's issues.
For instance, you could publish a blog explaining why reducing DSO is important and another article examining the prevalence of check issuance in the B2B world.
These topics concern your product but don't address it directly in a salesy way. Instead, you're providing help.
You're also building authority by displaying your knowledge of issues surrounding your niche. After all, your blog posts talk intelligently about whatever issues your prospects are facing.
The top of the funnel attracts different visitors, as you previously learned. You're not going to close any sales at this stage so don't get pushy with your tone.
Instead, you must allow your prospects the space to move deeper into your funnel.
By allowing prospects to move (instead of pushing them), you'll give poor sales prospects room to head for the exit. If someone is there to learn about DSO from an academic standpoint, they won't need your product.
Your call to get people to subscribe to your newsletter won't attract them.
However, it will attract people who are interested in your product. These subscribers are now close towards the middle of your funnel and have displayed interest.
However, it's too soon to think about a sale. Instead, you must answer their questions on a deeper level. Your suggestions must also be action-oriented.
For instance, you've talked about why a low DSO is necessary. You can now talk about how to reduce DSO by running operations efficiently. One of your suggestions must include a recommendation to use an electronic product, thereby sliding in a mention of how you can help your prospect.
At the interest stage, your call to action must invite users to learn more about your product.
At this point, they know you understand their issues and have an inkling of how you can help them. It's now time to go all-in and explain how your product will solve their issues.
You can create a whitepaper or a research report (a case study too) that highlights the benefits of your product.
This sort of content is hidden behind a signup form that collects prospect details like their name, contact information, and the best time to contact them.
The people who fill this form have moved into the consideration stage of your funnel. They know why they're signing up for your report.
They're admitting that they're considering your product as one of several solutions they're evaluating. It's your job to help them understand why your product is the best.
Understandably, this is a tough task. Your sales rep cannot call these people and explain everything to them. Content is your only weapon and this is why your B2B content strategy has to be on point.
You'll need not just the services of a great B2B writer, but also someone who understands how content strategy works to attract the right buyers.
If your content hits the spot, you'll find that these prospects will be extremely warm when your sales team contacts them. The prospect at this stage knows your product and will have detailed questions about it.
It's helpful to include a product comparison in your content at this stage, to help buyers decide.
Typically, you'll see B2B companies publish buyer guides that explain various features and other "must-have" functionality. Content language at this stage will be technical and industry-specific. It's aimed towards people who are decision-makers and evaluators.
So turn the jargon loose and display your expertise!
If everything goes well, your prospects will move to the final and deepest stage of your funnel, the purchase stage. This is where demos are booked and contracts signed. There's no content to publish here.
Instead, your sales team will refer to earlier-stage content to convince your prospects they're making the right decision.
This is how the B2B inbound marketing funnel works. Content plays a huge role as you can see. A final piece of marketing jargon.
A prospect who moves into the interest stage is a marketing qualified lead or MQL. Someone who moves from this stage to the consideration stage is an SQL.
Some companies have different monikers for this kind of movement. Don't sweat it, it's all just jargon anyway.
The point of inbound isn't to debate jargon, it's to ensure that your prospects receive value at all stages and eventually self-select themselves.
A Small Note About Account-Based Marketing
Marketing has a new baby these days and it's called Account-Based Marketing or ABM. ABM when done right is highly effective. The best way to understand how it works is to flip the funnel on its head and focus on the deepest portion.
ABM campaigns don't bother with the initial stages and use data and personalized communication to go after the prospects companies know are a great fit. While the stats are great, ABM isn't a good fit for everybody.
It needs a good amount of data and resources to execute. For instance, marketing reps send personalized video messages to prospects and talk about how their product can solve the prospect's issues.
Pulling this off needs a high degree of confidence in data collection and analytics.
Given the climate around data privacy, ABM campaigns must hit the right tone as well. Come across as creepy and you'll crash and burn.
No one likes a stalker after all, even if that's what ABM campaigns essentially do.
However, there's no denying that ABM is a great way of focusing all your marketing efforts on the best deals. It's a strategy that aims for a home run at all times. When it comes off, it's spectacular.
However, you need a lot of things to line up before you can execute it successfully.
Now that you've understood the theory behind B2B inbound marketing, it's time to look at the kinds of content that you can publish as part of your campaigns. Unsurprisingly, you have a lot of choices here.
<<Note: I'll cover this and much more in Part 2 of this series so stay tuned for more!>>