In talking with companies about digital marketing & sales, and how a gradual integration of the two traditionally separate functions can yield better business results for both, it has happened to me more than once lately that members of the management team do agree that their company needs to find a way to strike a new balance between outbound and inbound practices, but are not quite ready to act on it.
There may be several factors holding them back. At a somewhat abstract level, the concept of content marketing, inbound and allbound marketing & sales may be rather foreign to the company’s current marketing and sales processes. Even if they see the need for change, managers may find that the current marketing and sales culture may be hard to change, and it may be equally hard to achieve buy-in from the whole executive team.
Unfortunately, this “cultural objection” can be rather tenacious. As we know, allegedly thanks to the late Peter Drucker, organizational culture has strategy for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner), so a strategic choice to take the company in a new direction needs to include a plan on how to align the culture accordingly.
Whatever the balance between outbound and inbound, one of the main functions of any company’s website is to contribute to converting potential customers into actual customers.
A simple maturity model
Let me propose a simple maturity model to illustrate how websites can fulfill this function.
During the Web 1.0 era, from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, brands established their “homes” on the internet in the shape of brochure-type websites. In their simplest form, these websites would explain what the company “does” and how it can be reached. The website as a brochure communicates an impression of the brand through its visual design, its content-matter (ie. the message), its tone of voice, and how the information is structured. The structure communicates priorities and usability. For the purposes of this post, let’s call this type of website a maturity level 1 website.
After the dot-com crash of 2001-2002, we entered the Web 2.0 era with the advent of open-source software and content development, blogging, RSS, podcasting, APIs to enable data interoperability between web services, new web services centered around social objects (such as music, books or videos), and of course what we now call social media. Many company websites added functionality to reflect these trends, including blogs, RSS subscription, newsletter sign-ups, contact forms and easy sharing to social media platforms. Many acquired social media accounts to increase brand visibility and communicate more actively and directly with their audiences.
Many company websites nowadays still reflect the Web 2.0 era. By this, I mean that they have implemented a set of technical features that allow them to share and communicate like never before, but… they don’t necessarily have a digital marketing & sales strategy with a content programme to make full use of those technologies, to support lead conversion to the fullest extent.
Level 2 mode of operation
I’ll call this type of website a maturity level 2 website. Such a website often reflects a certain mode of operation that governs the company’s marketing and sales process. Let’s call this mode of operation “level 2” as well. A level 2 mode of marketing & sales is typified by the way the two departments relate to each other. Simply put, sales is an outbound operation and marketing supports their activity with advertising, trade marketing, PR reach-out, and “sales material” such as product brochures and case studies.
Marketing is a function of sales. Sales generates business and is, therefore, a profitable activity. The marketing department supports the sales team with whatever “material” they need in order to make the sales process as effective as possible.
Level 2 websites and social media channels are informed by this relationship. Any content that is published on the website is there for one reason only: to help the sales team sell.
Now, when salespeople reach out to new prospects and get an opportunity to explore the prospect’s needs, they need “sales material” to refer to and share. In order to cover as many sales situations as possible, the marketing department would have to create a variety of “solution stories”. The point of each story is to offer the sales team a solution for their prospects’ every conceivable need.
Evolved level 2 websites have such sales-support material, like product pages and case studies, company news and trade show announcements. When talking with prospects, salespeople can use this content to lend substance and credibility to their conversation.
The level 2 marketing & sales approach is an outbound process. Companies who run their business this way are organized around supporting their sales team with information about themselves and the solutions they have on offer.
Inbound is the antithesis
The antithesis to this approach is inbound content marketing and inbound sales. The purpose of inbound content is not primarily to serve as “sales material” for the salespeople but to attract potential customers, convert them into leads, close leads into customers and delight customers so that they will become brand advocates who spread the word to new potential customers.
On their journey to finding a solution to a problem they have identified, potential customers may initially be entirely unaware of the company in question. They start by educating themselves about the perceived problem first, then about possible solution strategies, then about solution categories, after which they may compare and validate solution providers and their specific offerings.
An effective inbound content strategy caters to each stage of the journey in which a potential customer may find themselves. Only if the content is relevant, informative and engaging will the potential customer give the solution provider the implicit permission to take the conversation to the next stage. Talk too much, too early, about your product and the lead will disconnect.
Level 3 is not that simple
Many companies have taken elements of inbound content marketing & sales at heart in recent years. For the purposes of this post, let’s call this a level 3 digital marketing & sales approach.
Now while the transition from level 1 to level 2 was relatively uncomplicated, the transition from level 2 to level 3 is not so simple. The former involved adding some content syndication, subscription features, and social sharing functionality to web channels in order to make them “come alive”. The latter transition, on the other hand, requires for the marketing and sales teams to organize themselves in an entirely different way.
From a technical standpoint, the tools required to create, publish and amplify content, as well as to identify, track, nurture and qualify leads are quite affordable and readily available through SaaS services.
But there are two bigger issues to consider. One of them is how a company goes about embracing the change in the relationship between their marketing & sales teams. What is the Service Level Agreement (SLA) between marketing and sales going to look like? How is success going to be measured and rewarded? Does the new set-up require adjustments to people’s incentive systems?
Content strategy and execution
The other issue is that of content strategy and execution. This requires clarity of purpose, a commitment to keep gathering intelligence about the needs and wants of potential customer personas in the various stages of their customer journey, and a well-planned editorial calendar to create engaging content for the right people at the right time.
To start a content programme involves an up-front investment. With an advertising campaign, you know what you pay for. You only pay for the clicks that take visitors from your rented ad space to your website. Your ROI on this paid media attention depends on how well you succeed in converting those ad campaign visitors into customers.
When you publish and amplify your own content, it is hard to predict how many leads it will generate. While the lifecycle of a rented ad is one click, the average lifespan of a B2B blog post has been reported to be close to 700 days. As you build online content wealth by addressing more and more topics relevant to your intended audience, the probability of that content generating new traffic will increase. Your various pieces of content will support each other.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The prophets of the Church of Inbound have been pitching their gospel as the only road to salvation for many years now. Some of them are actually retracting a bit, admitting that there may be a place for outbound and paid media as well.
The Allbound Way
I also believe that a synthesis is possible, which I call ‘The Allbound Way’. It’s the idea of finding a balance between owned, earned and paid media attention that is right for each particular business. This implies finding the right balance between outbound and inbound practices.
What I’m saying is that I understand that it can be challenging for companies to make the transition from level 2 to level 3, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. I do not advocate throwing traditional “sales support” and “sales material” categorically out of the window. There is no upside in paralyzing the sales team. But I do believe that many companies have a great opportunity to grow their business with a more integrated marketing & sales programme, whereby salespeople benefit from the intelligence that marketing gathers about leads, and marketing benefits from the intelligence that salespeople feed back from their conversations with customers and prospects.
So, where is your company’s online presence at? Level 1? Level 2? Level 3?
(Photo by Alex Grodkiewicz on Unsplash)