Evolution of Inbound Marketing for a PLG World – Eric Peters
Eric is a growth marketer responsible for driving user acquisition for HubSpot Academy. He’s passionate about building and scaling marketing programs for technologies that can change the world and make a difference in people’s lives. Eric came to HubSpot with a background in technology entrepreneurship, digital marketing, and growth-stage startups.
Inbound marketing is a business strategy that is not necessarily just a marketing strategy anymore, and we’ll get onto that a little bit later. However, it’s based on attracting your target persona with valuable content, engaging them with products or services that meet their needs and delighting them by exceeding their expectations.
It is about delighting them, and exceeding their expectations is one of the main ways inbound has evolved over the last ten years or so, and many of us probably have this view of Hubspot.
Turning Customers to Promoters Through Product Led Growth
There’s a slight problem as lead generation becomes a marketing responsibility. With the funnel that we have, we have a problem. Our customers are kind of leftover at the end, and we’re not thinking of them the way we should be. They have the power to be our most influential marketers or most helpful salespeople, and our most beneficial customer success people because they’re, you know, on the ground using your product, telling other people about it, thinking about when you buy something online these days, rarely do you not look at the reviews about it.
And those reviews are customers advocating for them. The product is not advocating for the product. And it’s a potent thing to activate your customers into being advocates for you. So we dropped the funnel a few years ago, and we said, you know, modern businesses, particularly in a product-led growth world, they use this flywheel approach.
PLG and Flywheel Approach Expanding the Customer Base
We think of the flywheel as the modern version of inbound methodology or inbound marketing. And if you think about it, we’re attracting strangers in, and engaging with them. We’re building trust with them, deciding who is a good fit for our product, and we’re converting them into customers.
And it doesn’t stop there. With customers, we have the opportunity to exceed their expectations, not only meet their needs but exceed them and turn them into promoters. And then that, therefore, attracts additional strangers. So this flywheel on the right side here, the spins, and the faster it spins, the faster your business grows.
So if you think about force is, are all the things that make this spin faster, right? So the more demands coming into your website or, we can make it spin more quickly. The faster we’ll grow. And friction is the opposite. Resistance is what keeps it from spinning fast. So all the ways we can decrease friction will be able to go faster and faster.
Sale Funnel vs Flywheel
I got this definition of product-led growth from OpenView venture capital. They’re a VC in Boston.
“PLG is a go-to-market strategy that relies on using your product as the primary vehicle to acquire, activate, and retain users. “
That sounds an awful lot like the flywheel, doesn’t it? We’re using the product to make that flywheel spin faster, to remove friction, and to speed it up.
So in a PLG, your product is enforced to remove friction in your flywheel. So it’s responsible for acquiring and programmatically upgrading users. It offers value to the market. It has to achieve a product-market fit of some sort, and then it turns users into promoters. And the product is taking more and more responsibility for those numbers that sales and marketing teams and services teams used to own.
That’s where the evolution of inbound marketing is happening in the PLG world. So, for instance, in the attract stage, when we’re attracting people in, you want to make it as easy to try and evaluate your product as possible. You don’t necessarily want the user to have to read a bunch of content on your website or talk to a sales rep to decide on their own whether they might be a fit.
Perks of making your B2B SaaS software stick
For smooth signup flow, a freemium model is great or free trials can be great for a self-service onboarding. These are all ways that, for instance, at HubSpot, we use HubSpot Academy to help our users self-service onboard. That’s also really important because often in B2B SaaS (software as a service), the one user who’s buying the software is often not the same user who is using the software and the more users at a given account that we can have.
Be active in our software and HubSpot, nor likely they are to stay customers for a more extended period. The software gets stickier as more people learn it. So the first person who buys the software isn’t getting that white glove. You know, welcome handholding and onboarding that user two, three, four, and five are getting, and we need to have, you know, resources there for users two through five to learn the software.
And that comes into, you know, the core product. How easy is it to learn? And also how easy it is to teach. So we measure when somebody signs up for the free version of our software, how quickly we can activate them, right? Like their aha moments. It is a number that we hold very close to the measurement of performance of our systems because we need people to go from signing up to activating quickly to see the real value.
These customers are much more likely to stick around and upgrade from there as they see that activation moment. We also focus a lot on learnability, as I was saying, your software these days, when you don’t have a salesperson or a services person to help your new users learn, the software, you need it to be learnable.
It needs to be somewhat intuitive, or at least, you know, provide resources like HubSpot Academy or documentation to help users self-educate, which also means making it teachable. So, for instance, our users will often assign the HubSpot Academy resources to each other to help learn.
How you build Virality into the product?
The virality and advocacy are built on the delight part of the flywheel. So if you make your software easy to share, your product easy to advocate, you will turn your customers into your most significant marketing team.
We’ve reached an age where your marketing team has the capacity, and your customer base can be much more substantial. They are the trusted stakeholder for your business. Take advantage of the fact that your customers are advocates for you and make sure that they’re delighted in every possible way, you know, you meet their needs and exceed them.
One of the ways that we help our customers help us is by giving them UGCs. A way to create user-generated content we have a couple of free tools like website creator, make my persona. These are all tools that the user can do something valuable for themselves, but then they produce some content that they can share out with their team and kind of spread the brand awareness of HubSpot internally.
It’s so rare to buy anything these days without understanding what you know, what the existing customer think about it, and how do you lean into that. How do you ask your users to review? You have to be at the right time or in the right place or after the right amount of time has passed. It’s super important to ask for reviews.
So many companies think of virality. As you know, our company is attracting all this attention, and we can kind of slot in a banner ad for ourselves in this piece of the product and external people who see it will click through hopefully and sign up or use our product.
I think this is kind of like a half-hearted way to think about virality. Virality works a lot better when you build it into the product natively. The user who shares about your product gets the same value as others coming in contact with the share.
For example, Uber’s ride-sharing or shared payments feature where, you know, one user wants the other user to split the fare among them and ride. So, of course, they’re going to make sure the second user downloads Uber signs up so that they can do that. It’s beneficial to both. They both, the user, one pays half the match for the ride. User two can then participate in the, in the payment. So building virality, and it’s a big opportunity for a lot of SAS companies.
The evolution of inbound marketing for a product-led growth is about thinking about your company as a flywheel, not as a funnel, and taking advantage of enabling your customers to be advocates for you in a systemic programmatic way.
It takes much effort off of your marketing teams, sales teams, and customer success teams. Anytime those teams are doing something that could be automated, chances are it probably should be automated.
AMA with Eric Peters
The following is excerpts from the AMA session with Eric.
What is the difference between inbound marketing and sales funnel?
I was saying in the first slide; inbound marketing is a cycle. It is more than just your marketing team’s responsibility. Every unit at HubSpot is responsible for, the experience of that flywheel, whether you’re tangentially responsible for it or directly. I think sales funnels are excellent for measuring pipeline and productivity, in kind of a microcosm. But when you think about your business as a whole, you want to think about the attract stage delight stage, engagement stage, and how you are adding force or removing friction, that is, I think, core to inbound versus a typical sales funnel.
How do I choose between premium and a free trial as a business owner to optimize my results?
I think anytime you’re making a prioritization or decision between two options. I would experiment with both. I guess it depends on how quickly they can see the value. If you create a free version of your product, you better like to have a very simple, simple enough product where they can help onboard themselves and learn about it and use it. Cause you’re going to have so many people in there that it’s, it’s not going to be cost-effective for you to help each of them individually.
At HubSpot, we use both freemium and trial only because of the higher tiers of our software do tend to require a little bit more handholding. So a test tells the sales rep, okay, this person’s in the software, let’s see what they’re doing in there, in our more pro features.
The sales rep can be a consultative person and supporting their use of that trial to see what they need. Whereas freemium, it’s completely hands-off, and the users in there, we have built inflows and built-in demos, to help users get started and activate in the freemium. But I don’t think it’s, I think it’s on a per-company basis, I would say, try both, see what takes less effort to create an MVP for and, and go from there. It’s just a matter of experimentation and knowing how much, at what time, you value your specific audience in your particular product.
How has inbound marketing redefined email marketing?
I used to do a lot of email marketing. I was a typical outbound marketer when I started my career. And that’s what made inbound so attractive to me is because I didn’t have to feel bad for spamming people and downloading lists and spamming people in.
Our marketing would dictate that you use email at a different part of the funnel. You use email in the engagement section of your flywheel rather than your attraction part. So you use email only when it needs to be. And nowadays, it’s even more critical because marketers so often abuse email. It is consequently vital only ever to email people they are subscribed to you, who have actively said,” Yes, I wanted to get this type of email from you. Not even just any email, but this one you’re sending me.”
And inbound marketing has changed the way we think about, you know, whom we’re sending to, what we’re sending them, and why we’re sending it to them. We want the right email to go to the right person at the right time. So, marketing automation tools has gotten incredibly advanced.
Email marketing is all about personalization and behavior-based emails. It should be sent on their time based on their actions, not, you know, our time, and our campaign date. Like when we create a new piece of content, that doesn’t mean that content immediately gets emailed out to everyone.
We’ve picked very carefully who seems to have the behaviors on our website that would match up with who should get that email with many triggers and nurturing that way.
What is the real cost of inbound marketing? How do you measure it?
So inbound marketing’s interesting, in some ways it seems expensive because you’re putting much effort in and you see minimal results early on, but in the long run, it’s incredibly cheap because those results compound on themselves over and over. So let’s just take one channel; for example the, let’s look at the HubSpot marketing bucket.
That’s where we get a lot of our demand. And that started, you know, relatively small. It was a blog every couple of days. Nowadays, we post three blogs a week and optimize one or two past blogs. So we think of that blog as this like demand engine that we’re continually optimizing.
We’re going back to old blogs, updating them, adding call to actions to them to generate leads from those blogs. And it’s a continuously evolving thing. So you don’t necessarily, so your new blog posts coming out. Are not necessarily the ones that are generating all the demand. It’s those old ones. We have, you know, five-year-old blog posts that are making thousands of leads per month because they happen to rank for some keyword that is highly relevant to what HubSpot offers.
There’s a course at HubSpot Academy. It’s a relatively advanced SEO course, kind of at the intersection of SEO and blogging. It’s called the search insights report course. It goes into our strategy for blogging. And Optima and figure out which keywords are, you know, the best keywords to drive traffic to your blog.
And I guess to make a relatively long answer short; the cost of inbound is incredibly cheap in the long term, you have to put in much effort, and you have to build up to content library and catalog, and you have to think about content as it’s like a machine that’s attracting an audience in that you’re continually optimizing because then when you get that organic traffic coming in. It is pretty much free. Like we have blogs that you know, might’ve taken, you know, a week to produce from five years ago that are still generating thousands and thousands of leads. So in that way, inbound is, is exceptionally cheap.
Is the Inbound marketing approach relevant for a service-led growth? If yes, how different is it from inbound for a product-led growth?
I think in a service-led growth situation, the principles of attracting the most relevant people in finding the folks who are, or finding the personas who are searching for information about a problem that you solve.
Fundamentals to inbound are you’re not going and seeking out and spraying and praying. You’re creating a solution to someone who has a problem, and you’re creating education to help solve that problem. And then finding you and finding your answer to that problem, you have identified them as a fit for your product.
So I think whether it’s service letter, product, lead, the, you know, the rules of inbound still apply. You want to attract the right person in, engage with them, and build trust with them through that educational content and turning your marketers into educators; you’re turning your salespeople into doctors.
We love in our content and HubSpot Academy, like to use the doctor metaphor for salespeople because it turns into a conversation where a salesperson is saying, let me, let me see if you’re a fit for this. Let me prescribe you the right thing based on the problems you’re describing. For me, it’s not me trying to push myself around you because you’re already coming to me saying, you know, we have this problem with content marketing. Let me learn more about that problem and figure out if HubSpot is for your organization.
That’s how you get long-lasting customers, really trustworthy customers that love yourself, love your marketing experience because they feel, you know, genuinely helped and enabled and supported before they even become customers.
I think so many companies that don’t practice in that marketing often think we only have to care about them once they’re customers. But that welcome experience, that initial like time, they visit your website up until, you know. That’s when you need to care about the experience you’re creating for them.
How do I make my customers my brand ambassadors?
So there are many ways, I think the one, the most straightforward way to put it is to exceed their expectations. So if you think of your product or services have a product-market fit, then you are, hopefully, attracting someone who has a need. If you can build in little delight moments into your product that goes above and beyond their expectation, it’s like tiny, like light bulbs go off in their brain, and they say, wow, I found something interesting here. I think it’s in human nature to see, like pleasure in telling other people about something exciting you noticed, right?
When I read an excellent book, I want to tell my whole team about it. It makes me feel smart, cause I’ve found the school book. It’s the same with your product—build-in small delight moments in your product that are exciting. For instance, in HubSpot, it is a marketing automation system, in our, in one of our hubs, you’re creating a blog post.
What most people don’t realize when they’re buying software, they think, okay, yeah, I can create blog posts. I can publish blogs on my website, but they don’t realize is that the blog posts are going to be SEO optimized and provide a bunch of performance-enhancing suggestions to you about that blog post. And that is such a delight feature. It’s like, Oh, wow, Hubspot is doing some of this work for me. It’s like having this professional SEO consultant built into the system to tell me how to make my blog posts rank higher in Google.
So those little moments, if you can build them in, you can create some powerful little delight moments.
How predictable are sales calls taken on, made in, inbound versus outbound strategy?
Having worked in one other outbound sales organization, I can say that the big difference between sales calls in an inbound org is that they have to happen very quickly.
So the user becomes a lead. They have your company on top of the mind. The sales team has an SLA to call within five minutes to say, “Hey, I saw you reading this ebook about content marketing. Let’s chat about some of the problems you’re having there.” Based on the volume that we’re getting in those leads, we can make the productivity of our sales team extremely predictable. As we know that if we generate a thousand leads, you know, this percentage of them will result in qualified leads; this percentage will result in sales qualified leads and so on.
As opposed to campaigning and running marketing campaigns where you’re creating 10,000 leads all at once and then they kind of die out, and then you have to do it all over again, and then they die out. Then you have to do it all over again. Then they die. That’s so much less predictable than having this consistent flow of 3000 leads every month that your sales team gets good at handling because they’re downloading the same ebooks.
Leads are reading the same blogs and, I think the sales team would much rather work in a very predictable, consistent stream of leads. Then suddenly the marketing team is running this new campaign that’s unlike anything we’ve necessarily done. Who knows how much prep they’ve given us to like really, follow up on those leads, et cetera.
What are the three things that you must do in inbound marketing and the three things you must avoid at all costs?
In Inbound marketing, three things you must do are:
- You have to do persona research. HubSpot has a free tool called make my persona. It’s highly recommended you check it out and build out your persona. Share it with your team. Become friends with those people. Those personas guide everything to do with your marketing and sales.
- Create educational content. Education enables companies to build trust in a way that traditional marketing simply doesn’t. It also lines up nicely with digital marketing and, creating good online experiences.
- Exceed the customers’ expectations. You need to take whatever you offered them and go beyond, and then they will advocate for you, those three things are a core part of the full flywheel.
Three things to avoid are:
- Do not be shortsighted. Do not buy email lists or people’s information? It’s bad for your email deliverability rates. Because when they mark you as spam or when they don’t open your email over and over, you know if you send someone five emails and they’ve never opened them, Google will literally like lower your deliverability score. You will be sending fewer emails, having fewer emails to be delivered over time, so you can hurt your company by spamming people, and being too outbound oriented.
- Do not be overly promotional too early on in the flywheel. Make sure that the message you’re getting, you’re pushing out is, directed and, takes into the context of the user is in your flywheel. So you have your kind of attract stage messaging versus your engaged stage messaging be different. It’s pretty standard for companies to kind of go in for the sell a little bit too quick when the audience is really in that like nurturing. Educate, like in the educate mode, because again, if they’re coming to you, they might not necessarily be like ready to buy at that moment. That’s fine. But you need to keep them happy and engaged and educated so that when I do have a need, they remember, Oh, that upside, they, they’re great. I want to buy it from them. You can’t jump too quickly into sell mode.
- Don’t forget about your customers. Like I think, it’s so easy for companies to say, oh, salespeople are the most critical team in the company because they bring in new people or marketing. Like any of your front office teams to tend to get all the love your customer success team, if you’re in a SAS business, is responsible for a lot more revenue coming in every month than your sales team. You can’t do anything without all three.
All of them play equally beneficial roles in the overall experience. So invest in your customer success team because they’re the ones who are going to turn your customers into advocates. And one of the ways you can invest in them is by building products or augmenting products to make their lives easier.
So when your customer success team says, Hey, I’m having the same conversation 50 times a month with all of these different companies, that’s when you want to build something that can enable you to make it faster and better.