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Is Inbound Marketing Built on a Flawed Assumption?

by Doug Davidoff | Feb 25, 2016 1:00:00 PM

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

B2B-Inbound-Methodology-2.jpgI’ve lost count of the number inbound marketing (and inbound selling) websites that cite research into how buyer’s supposedly engage with salespeople in the B2B sales process. It’s usually either CEB or SiriusResearch, to which the site or blogger proclaim “Buyers are 67% of the way through the sales process before they’re willing to engage with a salesperson.”

The argument goes something like this:

The Internet and access to information has completely changed how companies learn, engage, shop and buy. A part of this change is how they engage with salespeople; namely, they won’t. Rather they’ll search for information on their own and after they’ve determined what they want and often what they’re willing to spend, then they will engage. Therefore, you should accept this claim as the truth and adopt inbound marketing methodologies to empower these newly enlightened buyers and change the entire nature of how you sell as well.

I’ve seen this claim so frequently from so many inbound experts and enthusiasts that I am beginning to feel like the inbound community is saying this is THE reason companies should adopt such a methodology, and if it’s not the only reason, it’s the primary one.

This begs the following questions:

Are these claims true?

If they are not, does that invalidate the foundation of inbound marketing?

Have Buyers Completed 67% of Their Buying Journey Before They Engage With Salespeople?

The answer to this question is a clear and emphatic “NO! NO! NO! A thousand times NO!”

I say this for the following empiric and data-backed reasons:

1. The Studies are Old and Their Use is Flawed

The two studies most frequently cited (CEB & SiriusDecisions) are both from 2013 and SiriusDecisions itself addressed the myths associated with these claims shortly after their own research was published.

2. Look at How Some of the Most Successful Companies Have Grown

Let me now highlight my favorite company in the world today...HubSpot. Let’s turn the clock back to 2012/13 (the very time this research was completed and published) and consider the question, “Were HubSpot’s prospects 2/3rds of the way through their decision process before they were willing to engage with a salesperson?”

The answer is clearly no. How can I say that? For two reasons:

First, we were involved in selling a number of HubSpot licenses in that time frame and since then. It’s only been in the last 12 - 18 months that as many a third of our prospects were even familiar with marketing automation tools like HubSpot, let alone considering its implementation. If these claims were true, Imagine would have no clients and I’d be working for someone else.

Second, look at the adoption curve of inbound marketing and you realize that HubSpot could not have hit their numbers if they relied on prospects initiating their own journeys (and those that had would have selected someone other than HubSpot).

3. Recent Research from SiriusDecisions Shows that the Claim is Not True

In May 2015, SiriusDecisions released their latest comprehensive study into the nature of the B2B buying process. Among other things, they affirmed:

  • The price point of an offering affects the number and type of interactions that occur between a buyer and provider.
  • As the price point of an offering goes up, human interactions between the buyer and the provider also increase. But even at low price points, there is evidence that human-to-human interactions occur.
  • More than half the time, sales representative involvement starts at the beginning of the buyer’s journey. In complex buying scenarios, sales rep involvement starts at the beginning of the journey two-thirds of the time.

To quote the words of bestselling author and noted new sales advisor, Mike Weinberg, “The only time a buyer goes 67% through the process before engaging a salesperson is when the lazy reactive rep is sitting on his ass!”

So, Is Inbound Marketing Built on a Flawed Assumption?

The answer to this question is a clear and emphatic “NO! NO! NO! A thousand times NO!”

This claim isn’t, or shouldn’t, be the basis to justify the investment in inbound marketing. Here’s why the claim is so dangerous. The data (from my review) is valid and valuable. The problem is how - and even more so why - the data is being misused.

Let’s go back to the argument I posed at the beginning of this post and provide a more balanced viewpoint:

The Internet and the democratization of information has totally changed the way companies learn, engage shop and buy. Today buyers no longer need salespeople to navigate the journey. By the time a prospect has to (and you can even say is inclined to) reach out to a sales organization they’re 2/3rd of the way through their journey and they’ve already decided what they want and often what they’re willing to pay.

Additionally, even when they are engaged with a salesperson or selling organization they are no longer dependent on sellers for information, and they conduct their own parallel investigation/deliberation through the buying process.

No one legitimately takes issue with the realization that buyers today have far more control throughout the buying/selling process than ever before. They're also smarter, more cynical and have more options than ever. The environment we find ourselves in is the ideal environment for the inbound methodology. The caveat is that you shouldn’t become dependent on inbound alone.

Inbound is built on the basic principle that it is far more effective to take a posture of “always be helping” rather than “always be closing.” That by taking a "customer-focused, create real value and solve real problems first" approach, you can align the interests of buyers and sellers and eliminate much of the friction that has historically existed in the selling world. The truth is that this approach isn’t new (I’ve been implementing it for more than 20 years) and it’s a solid philosophy regardless of how much of the journey a buyer does on their own.

What This Means...In 3 Words

Raise Your Game!

I’ve written much about the Zero Moment-of-Truth and what it means to the B2B sale. Simply put, it means that everyone involved in customer acquisition has to raise their game. I’ll share specific actions for each discipline, but here are five points for everyone involved.

1. Develop a teaching point of view and communicate it constantly

 It’s no longer enough to be a master of your products/services. Today you have to be a master of your customer’s world. It’s no longer enough to recite feature/benefit attributes; today you must be teaching.

2. Create valuable content

Whether you’re posting blogs, sharing updates on LinkedIn or sending an email to follow up with a prospect, you are in the content creation business; and if you want your content to matter, it better be valuable.

3. Learn how to engage with people when they're not in a buying mode

I often say the definition of a great salesperson is someone who can sell to someone when there's nothing to buy. I've learned the same is true of marketing. Build the skills and develop the tools to be relevant before the buying process begins.

4. Don’t wait around for the phone to ring

If you’re implementing inbound, I hope you’re not waiting for your leads to call you. The best opportunities didn’t download your content because they wanted to buy something and if you’re waiting, they probably won’t be calling. Develop a strategy and process to create value and bridge the lead across the chasm to a revenue generating, profitable customer. 

5. Go Allbound

I am exhausted by the silly debates about whether you should be inbound or outbound. There’s only one answer for people that are serious about growing, be allbound. I love inbound leads (if they’re managed properly), but why would I want to only focus on people that find me. I know companies that should be working with us and if they haven’t found me yet, that doesn’t mean I can’t create value for them by proactively connecting.