Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thoughts on and Definition of Inbound Marketing (Listening)

Marketing is a word that has lost its meaning, and marketing is a discipline that has lost its way. When I say “marketing” to most people on the street, the first words that are mentioned are overwhelmingly negative. Marketing is thought of as “advertising”, “spam”, “pushy offers”, or “tricks”.

Here's an ironic and unlikely hypothesis--marketing accountability has driven this trend. This is meant to be a controversial statement. Marketing accountability, otherwise known as “ROMI (return on marketing investment) measurement”, has forced the marketing function into a single role driven by a single metric—driving incremental, short-term revenue. Of course, this is an oversimplification. Many companies think “long-term” and do care about their long-term customer relationships. But, there has been, over the past fifteen years, an undeniable trend toward the short-term profit-driven marketing function.
  • At AOL, in the late-1990s, marketers pushed an obsolete product to customers with such relentless efficiency that the company’s infamous CD-ROMs became the gag in its own television ads.
  • Through the 1990s and 2000s, credit card companies pushed a product to customers that they knew will destroy them in the long-run, unapologetically. Letter after letter came for pre-approved cards, even when customers are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
  • Pharmaceutical companies have given in to a seemingly never-ending arms race of more direct-to-consumer advertising and more physician detailing, leading patients to develop a deep distrust of companies that keep them healthy.

This sounds borderline socialist, but I assure you, I'll get around to making money. The question, however, is whether marketing must be considered a “zero-sum game” where a company treats its customers as wells to be tapped as deeply as possible, as quickly as possible. In future posts on inbound, I will make the argument that this objective is deeply flawed and must be changed by companies across the landscape. The goal of marketing must became customer advocacy.

Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing
A colleague of mine loves to talk about “inbound marketing”. The problem is, most marketers at big companies these days usually respond with a blank stare. For marketers at Fortune 500 companies, 90% of jobs are “outbound”—getting customers to buy stuff or feel a certain way. The inbound function is usually encapsulated in market research. But, even this has been gutted. Market research departments spend a lot of time figuring out how to sell better to customers. Their business customers are compensated on “selling more stuff” so they need “actionable research.” This is all great, but something has been lost in the shuffle.
Here’s a first attempt at a definition for inbound marketing:

Inbound Marketing: The voice of the customer manifested inside the company.

  • A good start, but not very descriptive. The voice of the customer, manifested inside the company, could be one person aggregating a bunch of customer feedback speaking to no one in particular.

Inbound Marketing: The voice of the customer manifested inside the company, that acts as an empowered advocate for customer needs across all company functions.

  • This is much better, because now the voice of the customer is actually changing the way the business operates. But something is still missing, which is how this customer advocacy is gathered and communicated.

Inbound Marketing: The voice of the customer manifested inside the company, that acts as an empowered advocate for customer needs across all company functions, gathered through the ever-increasing digital interactions and channels available.

  • This definition brings together the what, the why and the how, and seems pretty comprehensive and precise. A lot more work needs to be done to flesh this definition out, which will be the subject of future posts on this topic.


Anonymous said...

Too many marketers forget that marketing is about thinking like the customer not trying to get the customer to think like you. Your comments are spot on in this post and, unfortunately, this is an age old problem for too many marketing departments. They are focused on the "back end" sales support function rather than a comprehensive view that aligns the capabilities of the company with the needs of its customers. If you are so inclined you can read good, free articles on this at

philip light said...

This is one of the problems I have with calling inbound marketing, inbound marketing. People (as you say) have negative thoughts when you mention the word marketing. Inbound marketing is really more about being found. I think it's more fitting to call all of this exposure enhancing ;) Good post.