As a marketing agency, your primary goal is to sign people up for your services. How can you cut through the noise and demonstrate to potential clients that you’re the best choice? In an age of media oversaturation and endless advertising, traditional marketing approaches tend to have a low ROI. It’s important to figure out how to keep clients coming in the door both effectively and inexpensively. There’s a (relatively) new kid on the marketing block called inbound marketing.
This approach combines the strategies of new media with the needs of a consumer-centric world. Because your agency has to serve both your customer and your customer’s customers, it pays to adopt an inbound approach.
What Exactly is Inbound Marketing?
To understand how inbound marketing differs from traditional outbound marketing, you first must understand outbound marketing. In this classic approach, marketers attract leads to their sales funnel with ads or cold calls. These are called cold leads. Sales people then step in to “nurture” the leads and determine if they’re “qualified” with tactics such as discovery calls and gifting. As the leads become warmer, the sales reps increase their “touches” until the lead is finally “hot” and ready to “convert” (i.e. buy).
This approach is commonly used in a B2B context, where it’s sometimes called account-based marketing. For B2C brands, though, the process isn’t dissimilar: Marketers attempt to nab leads’ attention with ads and solicitations, and continued advertising keeps the brand present in consumers’ minds. Outbound marketing can be very effective, especially on a large scale. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Geico have well-established brands, yet continue to use traditional ads to keep their image fresh in consumers’ minds.
While outbound marketing attempts to persuade consumers to choose a brand again and again, inbound marketing acknowledges consumers’ previous choice of the brand and endeavors to build loyalty. The brand typically makes an effort to humanize itself by prioritizing its thought leadership and company story, while customers are treated as essential, active components of its marketing rather than passive recipients.
For example, classic ads, such as billboards, commercials, and Internet display ads are all outbound marketing strategies. The message is moving outward from the marketer. Some experts call this approach “interruptive” marketing: The commercial interrupts one’s TV program. The ad interrupts their perusal of a magazine or browsing of a website. Most consumers have learned to tune out these ads, and some go out of their way to ignore them. The leads that outbound strategies do produce tend to be “unqualified,” meaning that they’re not likely to convert into customers.
That’s because outbound strategies have low engagement with consumers, which leads to a lot of consumers “window-shopping.” They may click on an ad to see what it’s about (or by accident), or call a toll-free number to get a free quote, then never follow up. Inbound strategies focus on building relationships with consumers and providing them with value. That means that leads are more likely to be invested in the brand, which drives conversions.
Strategies such as books, email lists, public speaking events, and videos are all characteristic of inbound marketing. They draw consumers in and encourage them to engage and share. Indeed, referrals are an incredibly effective marketing strategy. Customers of a brand with an inbound strategy may feel a stronger sense of loyalty to the brand.
The other chief difference between outbound and inbound marketing is that the funnel is subdivided into different levels. Leads must be treated differently depending on where they fall in the funnel. Unlike in outbound marketing, this modified funnel assumes that some leads already come in “hot”: They’re ready to buy even if there have been no previous touches with the company.
Some inbound marketers abandon the classic funnel and treat their customers as part of a cycle. Rather than attracting “leads” to the mouth of the funnel and “nurturing” them until they’re spit out as paying customers, this approach focuses on moving customers through a cycle of attraction, purchase, referral, and loyalty.
Companies don’t have to choose between inbound and outbound strategies. Many major companies, such as Apple and Nike, leverage both approaches to their advantage. However, smaller businesses, especially those that need to prioritize customer relationships, would benefit from adopting an inbound strategy.
Why Agencies Need Inbound Marketing
Agencies hold an unusual position in the marketing world: They have to market marketing services to people. Typically, they operate in a B2B capacity, although some also serve individual consumers, such as people who want to build a personal brand. That means that traditional, account-based strategies might not be as effective as an inbound, relationship-building approach.
Often, traditional B2B marketers weren’t reaching the right people with an outbound strategy. They were reaching executive assistants or other salespeople, rather than people who could make decisions on behalf of the company. There was also the simple problem of noise: For every beleaguered sales rep who cold-called an account representative, there were five others waiting in the queue. Eventually, people learned to ignore the sales pitches.
Lucrative B2B relationships come out of mutual benefit and value-building. Strategies such as speaking at a conference or distributing ebooks are far more effective ways of driving purchase decisions. For agencies, these high-value offerings are especially important because that is their chief selling point. Agencies are selling the promise of value. If they cannot provide it themselves, why should a company sign up with them?
The cyclical approach to customers in an inbound strategy also supports a membership or subscription model, which is essentially what agencies are pitching to their leads. Just as individuals might cancel their subscription to a streaming service after it ceases to provide value, so might a company dump their marketing agency if they’re not seeing returns on their investment. Yet agencies have to “walk the walk”: In their own efforts, they must achieve a high ROI, which inbound marketing strategies have, and a commitment to creating value for other people. An inbound approach is crucial to landing long-lasting clients.