8 Revelations From Our First Year of Inbound Marketing

Revelations about Inbound Marketing

Revelations about Inbound MarketingLast week marked the first full year of inbound marketing for us at ERA. The past twelve months have been amazing, frustrating, humbling, exciting, daunting, and challenging – almost all at the same time. Personally, it has rejuvenated me as a marketer and I am really excited about what the next twelve months will bring. Let’s take a look at the revelations from our first year of inbound marketing.

1. Don’t Confuse Marketing Automation with Inbound Marketing

When we first implemented Hubspot last June we simply saw it as a replacement for our email engine (with some other cool marketing automation features). Boy were we wrong. Inbound marketing is not marketing automation. It is so much more than that. It is content marketing and technology combined. 

So don’t just shift your outbound email blasting from one platform to the other like we did. Think of it as a shift to a new marketing methodology. This is a whole new world for marketers and associations as a whole.

2. Build the Inbound Foundation First

At ERA we dove right in and basically winged it from day one. In hindsight this wasn’t the best strategy. You need to build your inbound foundation first. That is, focus on developing personas, buyers journeys, lifecycles, lead scoring, landing pages, etc. and you’ll save time and be more effective in the long run. 

Over time we educated ourselves about inbound marketing (Hubspot produces an amazing amount of content to help you) and slowly shifted away from outbound marketing. Inbound takes time, though, and you need to be patient. But plan first. Grow second.

3. Create a Content Strategy Based on Personas

Once you’ve developed your personas, your content strategy is much easier to articulate. I can’t underscore enough how important personas are – they are the heart of inbound. At ERA, we started blogging before we developed personas. We had an editorial strategy and a content mission statement (and we’ve had huge success) but our content wasn’t really solving problems for our personas. We’re still working on this. Check out Marketing Mike below.

Marketing Mike Persona Screenshot

4. You’ll Need Outside Help

Inbound marketing is brainy, complex and challenging. You may need outside help to develop your inbound foundation. We could have saved a lot of time if we had budgeted for inbound onboarding. There are many inbound agencies that do this work and I highly recommend considering it as part of your transition plan.

5. Conversion is King (Drop the Cookie)

Converting unknown website visitors into known individuals is a big deal with Hubspot. All visitors are strangers until they fill out a form like a blog subscription or an ebook download. So, even if you’ve uploaded your entire database to Hubspot, you still don’t know who is visiting your site. When a visitor fills out a form, however, Hubspot drops a tracking cookie on their PC which allows you to track their activities and learn about their preferences. This also allows you to personalize the individual’s website experience. See the below example from our D2C Show.

D2C Show Personalization Example

So you need to focus on converting as many visitors as possible whether they are members or prospects.

6. It’s not Creepy. It’s Smart.

Using a tool like Hubspot gives you a ton of information about your members and prospects – far more than you had in the past. This allows you to better understand your members’ website experience. For example, with Sidekick (a Hubspot tool) you can see who’s on your website and what they are viewing, all in real time. You can see how they jump from page to page, what emails they open, and what content they download. 

Some people may say it’s big brother and sorta creepy. I say it’s modern marketing and smart. Why not have more insight into your members so you can deliver them the right content at the right time?

7. Inbound Changes Your Messaging

After 12 months we are less focused on “catchy” and “clever” messaging and more focused on creating relevant content. There is less blathering in our marketing and more WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) messaging. We are more focused on value messaging. We produce more digital assets and less print (actually, almost no print at all). In the end, if you’re creating great content, convincing people in your messaging becomes less important. Actually, it’s no longer necessary.

8. A Big Shift in Budget

This revelation was unexpected. We’ve had a massive shift in our marketing budget. We now spend far more on content development and far less on creative. This makes sense if your messaging changes (see above). For example, we are launching our mid-winter event in a few months without external creative. I’m taking that $15,000 and reallocating it to content that solves problems for our attendees, exhibitors and sponsors.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Does this make sense?

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  • Barbara Armentrout ,

    Very nicely done and amazingly honest on your part about lessons learned in Year 1.

    My quick observations include a resounding check-mark on #6 (conversion is king), another on #7 (change your messaging), but I personally feel that both of those conflict with your shift #8 to all-electronic messaging. I realize that limiting to all-electronic likely works for ERA’s specific audience (although the marketer in me would insist on new testing linking all channels and measuring the results), but those with a less-electronic universe might need a little more discipline and data before abandoning other channels and being faced with the consequences 6 months down the road.

    My biggest desire you necessarily could not cover: Year 2 results, when Marketing Mike and his minions flow through renewal cycles. Will the persona need revision based on new data? What will be the trip wires to know when adjustment is needed? (sidebar query: Is ERA using monthly credit card invoicing? If so, that can make renewals a thing of the past as long as processing cycles can accommodate the new steps.)

    The really cool part about inbound is that we need to keep working on OUR mindsets to keep WIIFM top of mind–and remembering that “me” is my audience, and not me. I have seen far too many messages (using any and all channels) that continue to be association-centric or product-centric and that’s the antithesis of inbound.

    Congrats on a year of discovery, and on the upcoming year of even more discovery. And thanks for sharing.

  • Caroline ,

    Great blog post. You’ve got me thinking!

  • King Charles ,

    Very helpful. I am new to this. I have a pay per click campaign that launches today. I can’t wait to see what happens. Thank you for your article.

  • Dave Martin ,

    Barbara – thank you for your insights! Regarding the conflict you highlighted…I’m not necessarily suggesting all associations should move to digital-only marketing…I’m just saying that’s what we did. I agree that there will be some associations that may need to continue using direct channels but a year with inbound marketing might also change their approach as well. Again, the personas will drive the content, the delivery and the messaging. Great comment and thank you for always keeping me on my toes!

  • Dave Martin ,

    Caroline – that’s the best part of inbound marketing. It makes me think more as a marketer. It challenges me to move outside my comfort zone…and it creates lots of new possibilities! Thank you for your comment!

  • Dave Martin ,

    Charles – best of luck with your PPC campaign! If you need any input (or just want to chat) on inbound marketing don’t hesitate to contact me. dmartin at retailing.org

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  • Lorri Ragan ,

    Hi Dave, I’ve been interested in this since I saw you speak at a High Road luncheon. I have a question about the creative for the convention. Do you have an in house person to create a conf logo and website design? Or is that not something you do now? Is the web conf layout the same style as the rest of your site, or do you create a microsite? (Which would need some design). Great stuff to think about!

  • Dave Martin ,


    Great questions! You can see what we’ve done with our convention website at http://site.retailing.org/d2c. This site is hosted on the Hubspot CMS and is very different looking than our association website at http://www.retailing.org. The convention site was designed in conjunction with Suzanne Carawan at HighRoad Solution and a designer in India. It was done inexpensively.

    We also did a bunch of the work ourselves (me and our marketing manager) on the site and have learned a lot about the Hubspot CMS. Initially the Hero image on the home page was creative that we had developed externally but we found the current image works better. So we are using outside creative help for this site but in the future we will rely more on images and messaging than creative per se. For example, with our smaller conference in February we do not plan to have outside creative done for it. We plan to use photos with headlines laid on top. It’s a big departure from what we’ve done in the past. The logo for each event only requires the year to be changed and we have that done by an outside firm for a nominal fee.

    In the end, the more digital we do the less creative we rely on and the more web design we need help with. Hope this makes sense. It’s a shift in $$ but it is cheaper. 🙂


  • Donna Peterson ,

    Hello Dave – Great Blog. I currently work with several clients that have traditional marketing campaigns implemented. I have started to help them move some of their Traditional Marketing budget to Inbound Marketing. I believe you need both depending on the offer. Good luck with your 2nd year of Inbounding. Donna

  • Dave Martin ,

    Donna – thank you for the feedback. I agree that a mix of inbound and outbound makes sense…and the % mix will depend on the client and target market.

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