Why Did it Emerge, What Makes it Significant, and Where Next?
David James Olney
31 October 2022
Inbound marketing is a recent marketing strategy, having only entered the professional and academic marketing lexicon in the early 2000s. Over this brief period of time, it has gone from being a niche approach to becoming a successful, widely used marketing strategy. This thesis answers four related research questions: What is inbound marketing? Why did inbound marketing emerge? What makes inbound marketing significant? And where next for inbound marketing? Each of these questions provide a focus through which to elucidate essential features of inbound marketing, which positively reinforce and extend the value of this research. This thesis utilises a qualitative approach, because it provides a sound basis for undertaking thematic analysis of a diverse range of source material. It also approaches several sources written by marketing professionals from an ethnographic perspective, as thick description. Despite the limitations of its proponents’ explanations, inbound marketing is a valuable and effective marketing strategy, which will continue to be challenged and developed by marketing professionals and academics alike.
Table of Contents
Inbound marketing is a relatively recent marketing strategy, having only entered the professional and academic marketing lexicon in the early 2000s. Over this brief period of time, it has gone from being a niche approach to becoming a widely used, but not dominant, marketing strategy. Its advocates regularly speak about inbound marketing as if it is the only legitimate marketing strategy to employ in our digital era, while most other people do not know what it is. This thesis explains what marketing practitioners and academics understand inbound marketing to be, analyses why and how it emerged, and situates it in relation to the marketing strategies that preceded it and the circumstances that will affect its future.
Committed inbound marketers regularly define themselves and their marketing strategy in opposition to the strategies and tactics that existed before them. Such a deliberate differentiation raises at least two critical issues, which will be analysed in this thesis: it suggests that a rupture of some sort took place within marketing, without identifying a specific pivot point; and it ignores the gradual changes in marketing thought and practices that have occurred since 1900, in response to changing social, economic, and technological conditions. Consequently, it is important to assess whether inbound marketing emerged as the next adaptive step in marketing thought and practice, or whether inbound marketing represents a deliberate leap in a new direction for marketing.
Immaterial of whether inbound marketing is, or is not, a deliberate new strategy, or whether it is an evolutionary step, it is most definitely significant, because it represents a comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategy, which has brought a number of concepts and tactics together to form a successful approach to marketing.
Since we are living in an era of ongoing digital disruption, economic uncertainty, and societal stress, this thesis will also consider whether the inbound marketing strategy is sufficiently sophisticated and adaptive to remain effective under more difficult future circumstances. People always have problems they want to solve, and desires they want to fulfil, and marketing will inevitably continue to evolve to attract and maintain people’s attention. Inbound marketing is well adapted to today’s circumstances, but its proponents may not sufficiently understand its past to successfully evolve it into the future.
As both marketing professionals and academics are interested in understanding the nature and application of inbound marketing, this thesis deliberately balances theory and practice, along with historical development and future pressures, to provide a comprehensive and nuanced exegesis of inbound marketing. Where inbound marketing came from, why it emerged, what makes it significant, and where it is going are all important questions, and each of them will be discussed in the following chapters.
As each subsequent chapter of this thesis is based on critical analysis of diverse professional and academic marketing and management literature, it is vital that the methodological approach that underpins this research is clearly articulated and elaborated upon before readers engage with the exegeses and arguments that follow. A common methodology has been employed across the chapters of this thesis, which all depend on a combination of professional and academic literature, with arguments ranging from the predominantly commercial to the deeply theoretical and academic.
This thesis answers four related research questions: What is inbound marketing? Why did inbound marketing emerge? What makes inbound marketing significant? And where next for inbound marketing? Each of these questions provide a focus through which to elucidate essential features of inbound marketing, which positively reinforce and extend the value of this research. Answering the four research questions in the above-mentioned order was a deliberate choice, which was taken in order to facilitate the production and presentation of the most comprehensive and cohesive thesis possible. As some of the professional literature discussed is very engaging, but not particularly rigorous, and some of the academic literature discussed is very rigorous, but not compellingly written, striking an effective balance between academic credibility and broad readability has required nuanced decision making throughout the research and writing of this thesis.
This thesis utilises a qualitative approach, because it provides a sound basis for undertaking thematic analysis of a diverse range of source material (Rosen 2019). As thematic presentation is quite common in inbound marketing literature (Andrews 2021; Tyre and Hockenberry 2018), undertaking thematic analyses has increased the cohesion between source material and the arguments developed for and presented in this thesis.
As inbound marketing is both a young area of professional practice and academic research, this thesis utilises an inductive approach (Soiferman 2010). Many of the links between inbound marketing and earlier marketing thought have not yet been comprehensively explored, and many of the theoretical gaps in the inbound marketing literature have not yet been filled, so an inductive approach has provided a way to undertake analyses without unduly privileging or ignoring any particular factor. Consequently, the major integrated themes at the centre of this thesis have been developed as products of the research experience itself.
This thesis approaches several sources written by marketing professionals from an ethnographic perspective, as thick description, resulting in parts of the thesis being descriptive in nature. A descriptive approach is especially useful, as it provides a way to appreciate a source in its own terms. Presenting some material in a descriptive way has contributed to how this thesis demonstrates the differences between authors’ perspectives and the arguments that were developed for and presented in this thesis.
Consideration was given to employing a quantitative approach, as a part of a mixed methodology (Deacon et al. 2021; Snelson 2016), but the veracity of much of the available numerical data concerned with inbound marketing cannot be verified. Either the data has been provided by a marketer, and may predominantly serve their professional purposes, or it is a small sample from an academic study, which may not accurately represent broader themes.
A considerable proportion of the literature utilised in this thesis has been written by professional writers and marketers, who write for a professional audience, who are seeking to gain a competitive advantage. Consequently, authors’ commercial self-interest, self-serving bias, and the fallacy of composition have been considered throughout this thesis. Professional writers and marketers deliberately write to sell products, services, and ideas, which means they may overstate the significance and strength of their arguments, ignore things that don’t support their position, and privilege their perspective for strictly commercial reasons. Nevertheless, this literature still represents the most up to date source material available at the time of writing.
Academic literature has been utilised throughout the research and writing of this thesis, to support and critique the professional and marketing literature, which makes up a substantial proportion of the research material. Academic literature on inbound marketing is not comprehensive enough to provide a basis for an entire thesis on its own, but it is invaluable as a basis from which to deeply interrogate Inbound Marketing. Significantly, the majority of academic articles in areas relevant to this thesis are available in electronic format, facilitating immediate access to vital sources. Research for this thesis focused on identifying related concepts and themes, which have been employed to bring disparate sources together under a cohesive and credible methodological umbrella.
Inbound Marketing is currently an under-analysed area of academic research. This thesis brings the existing literature together in one place and subjects it to a comprehensive and cohesive analysis. This thesis both answers important questions about inbound marketing, as well as providing a jumping-off point for future analyses. In addition, this thesis provides marketers with a rigorous analysis of Inbound Marketing, as well as a grounded guide into how and why to apply inbound concepts and practices. Striking a balance between academic rigour and practical usefulness required constant effort, and has contributed to the academic and professional value of this thesis.
When groups of marketing professionals, or academics, get together, inbound marketing is either hotly debated, or not mentioned at all. Its advocates regularly speak about inbound marketing as if it is the only legitimate marketing strategy to employ today, while most other people do not know what it is. This chapter explains what marketing practitioners and academics understand inbound marketing to be, what aspects make it what it claims to be, and how these aspects fit together and are supposed to work in conjunction with each other.
Since HubSpot opened for business in 2005 (HubSpot 2022b) and the publication of Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah in 2009 (Halligan and Shah 2009), inbound marketing has been defined in clear and deliberate opposition to earlier marketing strategies. As the founders of HubSpot and the first authors to write a major book about inbound marketing, Halligan and Shah took the strategic decision to define and articulate inbound marketing in as distinct and oppositional a manner as possible. This decision has proven to be commercially significant, as well as making it easy for marketers and clients to define inbound marketing in terms of what it is not supposed to be: outbound marketing. Consequently, it is important to have an appreciation of what outbound marketing signifies, particularly because the line between inbound and outbound marketing is more arbitrary than HubSpot and its founders suggest, which will be analysed in subsequent chapters. Outbound marketing predates inbound marketing by at least one hundred years, and was central to several marketing theories during the twentieth century.
Rather than considering an explanation of outbound marketing written by someone associated with HubSpot, which could be perceived as privileging economic motivation over academic rigour, this thesis will utilise an academic explanation of what broadly characterises outbound marketing. As Lerner et al. define it:
“Outbound marketing is used to describe any marketing that is pushed out to the consumer, such as TV advertisements or billboards. This type of “interruption marketing” is placed directly in front of the consumer, with the goal to make it hard to ignore. The customer cannot respond or interact with the ad. The goal is not to foster communication or dialogue but instead bombard consumers until they give in.” (Lerner et al. 2021, p. 4)
There are three primary characteristics of outbound marketing that are succinctly summarised in this explanation: outbound marketing deliberately interrupts a consumer’s attention; attempts to persuade through repetition, rather than relevance; and does not provide any opportunity for the potential customer to interact, or say no to receiving future adverts.
Importantly, outbound and inbound marketing strategies are not mutually exclusive. As Lehnert et al. have argued: “There are some industries that benefit from a strategy that is mostly inbound marketing, whereas some industries should use mostly outbound marketing. However, for the majority of businesses, the most effective strategy has a balanced mix of both” (Lehnert et al. 2021, p. 10). How to effectively combine outbound and inbound strategies requires a research project of its own (Dakouan 2019), and is beyond the scope of this study. Therefore, this thesis will focus on what makes the approaches different, rather than on how to blend them together to create a successful integrated marketing strategy.
Outbound marketing was very effective during the twentieth century, in a world in which there were less products to sell, less channels of dissemination, and a mass of consumers who had not yet decided to avoid as many adverts as possible. In contrast, during the current era of on-demand content, high-speed and high-bandwidth communication, and ubiquitous hand-held digital devices, consumers are bombarded from everywhere, but do have the choice to avoid almost everything. As Opreana and Vinerean have argued:
“Particularly in online settings, marketing is undergoing a transformation. Online business can no longer rely on traditional marketing tactics and campaigns to attract, retain and expand consumers because there is a transformation in how people interact with brands and companies, how they shop and buy in online and offline settings. Traditional marketing is no longer a viable option.” (Opreana and Vinerean 2015)
Now, rather than there just being more general information available than any one person can absorb, there is more specifically interesting information available than any one individual can absorb. Consequently, we are all bombarded with more information than we can possibly acknowledge and appreciate, even when we narrow our consumption to particular channels and topics that specifically interest us. Between using search engines tailored by tech companies to find what we want, and ad-blockers to avoid seeing what we do not want to see, the slice of the digital world we engage with is paradoxically narrow and voluminous at the same time.
As Halligan and Shah wrote in 2009: “To connect with today’s buyer, you need to stop pushing your message out and start pulling your customers in. The rules of marketing have changed and the key to winning is to use this change to your advantage” (Halligan and Shah 2009). Marketing success in this new environment depends on making sure that information is readily available for when consumers want it, rather than interrupting them as frequently as you can. It also depends on that information being relevant to solve their problems, or satisfy their desires, rather than bombarding them with largely irrelevant messages, and depends on letting them determine the pace and intensity of interaction, so that they can feel respected, rather than assaulted by the commercial realm.
These characteristics are central to definitions of inbound marketing, as typified by the following example from HubSpot: “Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have” (HubSpot 2022a). Central to this approach to marketing is an explicit recognition that effective marketing depends on knowing precisely who you are communicating with, and having already determined what they most likely need and want. “It’s about valuing and empowering these people to reach their goals at any stage in their journey with you” (HubSpot 2022a). Even though all successful businesses should already know who their core customers are, as well as what they want, working out who else can be attracted, and how to gain their attention, is no longer as straightforward (or reliable) as pushing adverts out there and hoping they resonate with potential customers.
As people’s time has become even more precious, as they divide their attention between evermore tasks and distractions, their tolerance of irrelevant and unsolicited information has rapidly decreased. Meanwhile, people have just as many problems they want to solve and desires they want to fulfil, leaving ample opportunities for clever marketers to design effective marketing strategies. As the HubSpot website explains:
“As fellow graduate students at MIT in 2004, Brian and Dharmesh noticed a shift in the way people shop and buy. Consumers were no longer tolerating interruptive bids for their attention — in fact, they’d gotten really, really good at ignoring them. From this shift, a company was born: HubSpot. It was founded on “inbound”, the notion that people don’t want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by salespeople — they want to be helped” (HubSpot 2022b).
The founders of HubSpot have consistently articulated that there are no less marketing opportunities in the new world that motivated them to create their company, but that these opportunities depend on creating content that directly helps prospective customers to solve their pre-existing problems and fulfil their pre-existing desires (HubSpot 2022c). Halligan and Shah moved the focus of marketing (as they understand and practice it) from developing the most persuasive way to interrupt someone to developing the most effective way to help someone resolve whatever is already on their mind.
Since HubSpot began working with clients in 2005, inbound marketing has continued to develop, culminating in the comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategy it is today. Between Halligan and Shah’s Inbound Marketing (Halligan and Shah 2009) and Tyre and Hockenberry’s Inbound Organization (Tyre and Hockenberry 2018), people directly connected with HubSpot have provided comprehensive explanations of (and how-to guides for) inbound marketing, which are equally useful for marketers wanting to learn a new strategy, businesses wanting to undertake their own inbound marketing, and prospective clients researching what it could be like to work with HubSpot and/or another inbound marketer. Along with these comprehensive introductions to inbound marketing, authors such as Adele Revella (Revella 2019) and Stormie Andrews (Andrews 2021) have written complementary books on how to determine who your ideal customers are, and how to identify their needs and demonstrate that you are ready to help them. In addition, business owners such as Marcus Sheridan have applied what they learned from the founders of HubSpot and then written their own books on inbound marketing to help other business owners implement the strategy (Sheridan 2019). Sheridan’s experience of turning his failing business around, by implementing an inbound marketing strategy, convinced him to start a second career as an inbound marketer (Impact 2022).
Significantly, there is now a sufficient body of professional inbound marketing literature to inform clients and empower practitioners. Whether because of the size of this body of literature, or as a result of gaps in the literature, academics have generally written summaries, analyses, and critiques of the inbound marketing strategy. Academic literature on the topic is particularly valuable, because it provides a historical perspective and conceptual framework separate from the commercial imperative of professional marketing writing. The following academic explanation of inbound marketing has been chosen because it is clear and succinct, and because it is representative of other comprehensive academic explanations (Bezovski 2015; Bleoju et al. 2016; Caragher 2013; Dakouan 2019; Lindblom and AndrŽasson 2019; Opreana and Vinerean 2015; Rancati et al. 2015). From an academic perspective, the process of inbound marketing can be described in the following way:
“In order to guide the prospects from complete strangers to loyal customers and ultimately to promoters of the business the Inbound marketing process consists of four phases or actions: Attracting visitors, Converting visitors to leads, Closing sales, and Reconverting customers to loyal, lifelong customers and brand promoters” (Bezovski 2015, pp. 30-31).
The process of attracting visitors, converting visitors to leads, closing sales, and encouraging brand advocacy that defines inbound marketing has a lot in common with the consumer decision journey (Court et al. 2009), which will be discussed in subsequent chapters. In each of the four phases of the process of inbound marketing, the emphasis is on starting a conversation with a potential customer, or continuing a conversation with an existing customer.
As Jonah Berger has written: “you have to do more than create a product: you need to start a conversation” (Berger 2013, Introduction). Without this conversation, a prospective customer cannot necessarily determine that a company is interested in making a sale that actually helps them, and, without an ongoing conversation, an existing customer may come to believe that engaging behaviour was only a form of cynical short-term persuasion. This commitment to an ongoing conversation is a ubiquitous aspect of inbound marketing, in which the focus remains on the customer immaterial of who is speaking at any given moment. Marcus Sheridan’s book title encapsulates this focus more succinctly than anything else written by an inbound marketing practitioner: They Ask, You Answer (Sheridan 2019).
As a consequence of being committed to starting and maintaining conversations during all four phases of the inbound marketing process, it requires significant effort and allocation of resources to successfully implement the strategy. As Rancati et al. have argued:
“Inbound marketing is a much more complex approach than outbound marketing. It takes simultaneous usage of all the digital channels, continuous strengthening of the website, development of effective content and implementation of measurement tools all in concert with one another to achieve these unparalleled results” (Rancati et al. 2015, p. 235).
Since inbound marketing developed during the digital era, practitioners assume that clients and marketers interested in applying the strategy are ready and able to implement a comprehensive plan across multiple channels and platforms. The pre-2010 iterative approach of getting websites and blogs right first, and then gradually moving on to better customer relations management and social media practices, has been subsumed into highly integrated, simultaneous action. Even though it is good to understand all of the things that can be done to successfully implement an inbound marketing strategy, there is no reason why a client with limited resources, or a sceptical perspective, cannot begin with the basics of rewriting website content to answer customers’ questions and listening to their needs before they launch into a narrowly defined sales script during the closing phase.
For at least the previous decade, marketers have been focused on the critical importance of search engine optimisation (SEO) (Sharma et al. 2019), often without equivalent regard for whether the content on a webpage solves prospective customers’ pre-existing problems. An inbound marketing strategy focuses on making sure that a webpage has both what it needs to be found, as well as having what it needs to answer a prospective customer’s questions. As Caragher states: “In addition to finding your firm, they must be able to locate the information they are seeking. It’s all about the prospect—not your firm” (Caragher 2013). Whether to answer customers’ questions first, or achieve good SEO results first, is not an either/or question. Prospective customers will not spend time on a page that does not directly answer their questions, even if it was on the first page of search engine results. Impressive SEO results might make a client happy, and a marketer look good, for a short period of time, but a short bounce rate and a lack of sales conversions make isolated SEO success a hollow victory.
Once a company has made sure that its website answers its prospective and current customers’ questions, then it can begin to focus on creating all of the other helpful content that positions a company as being a trustworthy expert, rather than a place where you buy the cheapest thing you have decided you need/want. Inbound marketing takes a vast array of content types into consideration, and marketers and clients need to decide how many types of quality content can be created, supported and maintained. Toward this end, Caragher states:
“Inbound marketing is about creating and sharing content. It is a marketing methodology that focuses on getting found by prospects through blogs, podcasts, eBooks, eNewsletters, website pages, whitepapers, search engine optimization, social media marketing, and other forms of content marketing. By creating content specifically designed to appeal to your ideal clients, inbound marketing attracts qualified prospects to your firm and keeps them coming back for more” (Caragher 2013).
If a company can create and support consistently helpful and trustworthy content, and maintain effective conversations with its prospective and existing customers, then it is likely to gain significant word-of-mouth benefits from existing customers who have chosen to act as brand advocates. Jonah Berger believes that word-of-mouth is responsible for between 20% and 50% of purchases, and that it is at least ten times more effective than conventional advertising (Berger 2013, Introduction). Consequently, focusing on creating helpful and trustworthy content is a central aspect of inbound marketing, but there is no precise way of determining how much quality content is enough for any particular organisation’s inbound marketing strategy. In general, inbound marketing literature suggests that more engaging and helpful content is better, as long as it has been placed where a prospective customer is likely to look.
In summary, to conclude this chapter, inbound marketing practitioners frequently define what inbound marketing is by stating what it is not: outbound marketing. From an inbound marketing perspective, outbound marketing is characterised by deliberately interrupting prospective consumer’s attention with repetitious and not necessarily relevant messages, which are not interactive. In contrast, inbound marketing is based around a four phase process that includes attracting visitors, converting them into leads, closing sales, and turning existing customers into brand advocates via ongoing conversations, which aim to solve people’s problems and help them to fulfil their desires. Inbound marketing depends on creating and sharing content that directly addresses prospective and existing customers’ identified needs and wants. This content should establish its creator as a trustworthy expert, and should provide the foundation for long-term relationships between an entity employing an inbound marketing strategy and its customers. In the next chapter, this thesis will explore why inbound marketing emerged, and consider whether it was an evolutionary adaptation, or a deliberate response to changing marketing and technological circumstances.
As illustrated in the previous chapter, inbound marketing professionals have a deliberate tendency to define themselves and their inbound marketing strategy in opposition to the marketing strategies and practices that existed before them. Such an arbitrary delineation is problematic for two reasons: it creates an artificial point of difference within marketing thought and practice, without identifying a specific pivot point; and it ignores the gradual changes in marketing practices in response to changing social, economic, and technological circumstances, which have occurred over the previous century. Consequently, it is important to assess whether inbound marketing emerged as the next adaptive step in marketing thought and practice, or whether inbound marketing does, indeed, represent a deliberate leap in a new direction for marketing, which genuinely separates it from what came before it.
A general investigation into the literature concerned with the history of marketing shows that marketing theory and practice have consistently developed and changed since 1900 (Bartels 1976; Hunt 2011; Meharanjunisa 2020; Tamilia 2011). Tellingly, changes in marketing theory and practice are normally perceived as being larger and more significant just after they have happened than they appear to be when assessed decades later. If this pattern remains consistent, we can hypothesise that inbound marketers’ claims that they are doing something radically different to the outbound marketing that came before them might seem to be true now, but may not stand up to rigorous academic inquiry in twenty years’ time.
Even though prognosticating on how future analyses will assess today’s practices (once they are firmly in the past) is entertaining, there are definite things that can be said about the history of marketing thought and practice, which inform the nature and role of inbound marketing today. Mark Schaefer has masterfully presented and analysed three of the four major factors/pivot points that have influenced and defined the development of marketing since 1900 in his book, Marketing Rebellion (Schaefer 2019). According to Schaefer, and in accordance with the other histories of marketing cited above, there have been turning points that have had irrevocable impacts on marketing since 1900.
Significantly, the three turning points that Schaefer discusses, which he refers to as the three marketing rebellions (the end of lies, the end of secrets, and the end of control), were each unleashed by changes in broader social, economic, and technological circumstances, which marketers have had to respond to, rather than marketers being in control of any of the initiating events. From Schaefer’s perspective (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 1), marketers have had to adapt to circumstances that have redefined the nature and scope of the messages they can successfully create and disseminate.
The first marketing rebellion (the end of lies) occurred in the early 1900s, when the general public began to loudly voice their dissatisfaction with marketers and producers’ frequent tendency to blatantly lie about the nature and quality of products. As a consequence of public outrage and comprehensive print media coverage, marketers were pressured into reducing the scope of their claims in terms of features and benefits, and began to steer clear of outright lies that could motivate broad public condemnation of products, companies, and the entire marketing industry.
The second marketing rebellion (the end of secrets) occurred in conjunction with the development of the internet. Almost overnight, companies could no longer keep secrets from customers. Once negative information that contradicted companies’ marketing messages made it on to the internet, consumers immediately began to use this information to inform their spending habits. For example, as progressively more negative information about the quality and healthfulness of McDonald’s food appeared on the internet, consumers turned away from the fast food giant in droves (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 1). McDonald’s had to change their menu and messaging to arrest their downturn in sales, resulting in a new identity and modified business model. Marketers may still choose to lie, or to try to help companies to hide information, but it has become progressively harder to hide a dirty secret, or to recover when it becomes public knowledge.
The third marketing rebellion (the end of control) occurred when review websites and social media became normal parts of people’s lives. Once consumers could both find out what their trusted community and strangers think about a product or service within seconds, marketers lost control of brand identity and perception. Immaterial of how a company wants to be perceived, or how marketers want to present them, brand image now belongs to consumers and critics who either want to say nice things, or intend to present their own experience in a direct challenge to the veracity of what companies say about themselves. As Daniel Pink has written: “we have moved from a world of buyer beware to seller beware” (Pink 2013, Chapter 3). Consequently, the impetus is on marketers and companies to present information that will not motivate a mass of consumers to articulate their contrary experiences, as consumers now have the power to more persuasively influence prospective customers’ perceptions than companies themselves.
According to Schaefer (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 2), each of these three marketing rebellions has had a profound impact on marketing, because each of the three has added to the pressure and changes wrought by earlier rebellions. Marketers are now working in an era where lies and secrets will be uncovered, and in which consumers and critics have the power to define a company’s image for future consumers. Reflecting Jonah Berger’s belief that word-of-mouth is more important than marketing (Berger 2013), Schaefer says of today: “we buy from those we know, like, and trust” (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 1). The combination of the end of lies, the end of secrets, and the end of control has culminated in an era in which marketers should focus on telling prospective consumers what they need to know in an engaging way that they can trust.
In response to his analysis of the three marketing rebellions, Schaefer proposes five constant human truths that should drive marketing: people want to feel loved (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 3); people want to belong (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 4); people want to protect their self-interest (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 5); people want to find meaning (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 6); and people want to be respected (Schaefer 2019, Chapter 7). Schaefer’s five human truths are meant to give marketers an advantage, because, if marketing reflects these values, the likelihood of consumers getting what they genuinely need and want increases, and marketers (and the companies they represent) are likely to be perceived as being helpful and trustworthy.
Schaefer’s five constant human truths parallel inbound marketing’s focus on helping people to solve their existing problems and fulfil their existing dreams. Like with inbound marketing, Schaefer recognises the importance of building relationships between customers and companies, which are based on relevance and trust. Interestingly, Schaefer does not mention inbound marketing in the title of his book, or in the chapters about his five constant human truths. Even though his analysis and predictions for the future of marketing align with inbound marketing, Schaefer bases his analysis on long-term trends and historical analyses of human behaviour. From Schaefer’s perspective, marketing has to adapt to a changing world, and the best foundation for this is an appreciation of what aspects of human behaviour remain constant when broader circumstances change. From this perspective, inbound marketing is an evolutionary step in marketing, in response to changing social, economic, and technological circumstances. Unlike Schaefer, who has laid out a history of changing circumstances that marketing has responded to, inbound marketing professionals have declared a break between outbound and inbound marketing without coherently, or comprehensively, articulating the tectonic pressures that have necessitated changes in marketing thought and practice over time.
While inbound marketers claim that they have instigated a deliberate break with outbound marketing and the past, arguably the most significant shift in marketing thought and practice experienced by marketing academics and professionals since 1900 has neither been discussed by inbound marketers, nor identified as a fourth marketing rebellion by Mark Schaefer. In 1969, Philip Kotler and his colleagues began to write about what has come to be known as the “broadening movement in marketing” (Kotler and Levy 1969; Kotler 2005; Kotler 2018). As Kotler explains:
“In January 1969, Sidney Levy and I published “Broadening the Concept of Marketing” in the Journal of Marketing (Kotler and Levy 1969). We defended this broadening proposal on several grounds: Marketing helps the practitioners in non- commercial sectors become more successful in pursuing their goals. The marketing field can benefit by recognizing new issues and developing new concepts that can be brought back to and can offer insight into commercial marketing practice. By expanding its territory, marketing can gain more attention and respect for what it can produce” (Kotler 2005, p. 114).
The broadening movement represents the fourth major factor and/or pivot point that has profoundly altered marketing thought and practice since 1900. “The broadening movement was an effort to free the marketing paradigm from the narrow confines of commercial marketing and to show its application to a far larger number of contexts, in which exchange and relationship activities take place” (Kotler 2005, p. 114). Until the development and emergence of the broadening movement, marketing concerned itself with helping to sell products and services produced by for-profit companies. After the broadening movement, marketing concepts and tactics could be directly related to a vast array of exchange activities across a variety of relationships.
To contextualise the broadening movement in terms of the material considered so far in this chapter, extending marketing to incorporate a broad array of exchange activities across a variety of relationships is akin to a fourth marketing rebellion, which could be described as the end of narrowly defined and applied marketing. As Kotler explains:
“Until 1970, marketing language and theory focused on explaining how goods and services are priced, promoted, and distributed in commercial markets by for-profit firms. Transactions and payment were considered central to the definition of markets and marketing. Other domains of exchange activity, such as the efforts of museums, performing-arts groups, churches, social agencies, city governments, social action groups, and celebrities to attract and serve visitors, members, donors, clients, fans, and others, were outside the purview of marketing and its concepts” (Kotler 2005, p. 114).
It seems improbable that there was ever a time when marketing was not central to exchange activities across all domains, but this was the case until Kotler and his colleagues started a public, academic debate about whether marketing should develop into other areas of activity, as well as how far it should extend into social, cultural, and personal relationships. According to Shah et al., Kotler and his colleagues writing led to a heated debate over whether marketing should step out of its traditional commercial areas of activity (Shah et al. 2018). “Some marketers challenged the broadening idea as not belonging in the discipline of marketing. The broadening scholars suggested carrying out a referendum with marketing professors. The subsequent vote proved to be overwhelmingly in favor of the broadening movement” (Kotler 2018, p. 20). The broadening movement found favour with academics, marketing professionals, and their clients, because people in the late 1960s/early 1970s had more disposable income and leisure time, and more organisations wanted to capture their attention.
By the late 1960s, significant numbers of people were seeking to define their identities through the experiences they were choosing to spend their time and resources on, instead of just purchasing products to show who they were (Howell and Guevarra (2013). As more people and organisations created services to meet this demand for experience, knowing how to attract and maintain people’s attention became important for everyone, including religious leaders and museum curators alike. As Kotler describes:
“I had the personal experience of being asked by heads of non-profit organizations about how marketing could help them find more clients and raise more money. I had the personal experience of individual artists and musicians asking how marketing could help them find and develop a larger audience for their work and attract sponsors. I received requests from museums, performing arts organizations, churches, and others to help them attract more visitors, members, supporters, and donors.” (Kotler 2018, p. 21)
Just like Schaefer’s three marketing rebellions, the broadening movement in marketing was instigated by changing economic and social circumstances, which motivated people to ask Kotler (a marketing professor) for help. Individuals and organisations were willing to try marketing techniques that had not previously been employed in their domains, because they needed to know how to attract new people to their services, experiences, and institutions. Communication technologies in 1969 (the year of Kotler’s first broadening movement article) were only suitable for pushing messages out to prospective consumers, so all of these new messages to new customers were outbound in nature. However, they were progressively tailored to more specific audiences and transmitted via the most suitable outbound channels available at the time. Consequently, the broadening movement resulted in an increase in marketing thought and practice concerned with designing more relevant messages for specific consumers via specific channels.
The broadening movement was the progenitor for inbound marketing’s focus on helping customers by answering questions concerned with their existing problems and existing desires. Inbound marketing is able to focus on developing and maintaining conversations with customers, because of the new channels and devices that were made possible as a result of the digital revolution, none of which were available to Kotler and the people asking him for marketing help in 1969. Kotler and his colleagues debated and defined new ground for marketing, whereas inbound marketing professionals have only adapted the concepts related to tailored messaging to technologies that facilitate ongoing two-way conversations. This adaptation is very important, but has more to do with commercial marketing practice than a profound change in marketing thought.
Along with the birth of the broadening movement, the 1960s also saw the creation and popularisation of the Marketing Mix, which has become the most recognisable, debated, and employed marketing concept of the previous sixty years. Jerome McCarthy reduced marketing to a simple four-element framework: “Product, Price, Promotion and Place,” (Constantinides 2006, P. 408) which, together, we now refer to as the Marketing Mix, or the 4Ps. No other marketing concept is as familiar to both marketing academics and marketing professionals, as everyone has learned it, taught it, and/or applied it for clients. “The 4 Ps were created for a manufacturer context. Nevertheless the adaptive capability of the 4Ps allow their application in competitive contexts that are significantly different from those for which they were created” (Dominici 2009, p. 18). As the broadening movement opened more areas of exchange and relationship activities up to marketing, the Marketing Mix provided a readily available and adaptable tool-kit for planning marketing in new domains.
Even though the Marketing Mix has proven itself to be adaptable, in 1990 Lauterborn recommended that each of the Marketing Mix’s variables (product, price, promotion, and place) “should also be considered from a consumer’s perspective. This transformation is accomplished by converting product into customer solution, price into cost to the customer, place into convenience, and promotion into communication, or the 4C’s” (Goi 2009, p. 4). Lauterborn’s recommendation that product, price, place and promotion should be appreciated from the customer’s perspective, by including customer solution, cost to the customer, convenience, and communication (Lauterborn 1990), marked a significant shift in debates surrounding the Marketing Mix. In its original form, the Marketing Mix only provided a way for a producer and/or seller to think about their market behaviour, but, with the inclusion of Lauterborn’s 4Cs, producers and sellers were encouraged to start analysing consumers’ decision journeys in a structured and repeatable way (Court et al, 2009). Lauterborn’s modifications to the Marketing Mix are not unique, but as has been demonstrated by Constantinides in his survey of debates around the 4Ps (Constantinides 2006), Lauterborn’s approach is clear and concise, and typical of suggestions on how to increase the value of the Marketing Mix.
When the 4Ps are combined with Lauterborn’s 4Cs, producers and sellers can begin to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the relationships between them and their customers, and make more informed decisions to effectively respond to their customers’ needs and wants. Such a comprehensive understanding of both sides of a business relationship fits very well with R. Edward Freeman’s work on Stakeholder Relationship Management (Freeman 2013), which focuses on companies learning as much about their customers’ needs and wants as they know about their own needs and wants. Like Freeman’s work, Lauterborn’s 4Cs are meant to improve the quality and length of business relationships for the benefit of both parties.
Like the broadening movement, Lauterborn’s modification of the 4Ps to include the 4Cs prepared the marketing ground for inbound marketers to focus on answering consumers’ questions, and on building long-term conversations. Also like Kotler and his colleagues, Lauterborn developed marketing thought in a world in which technological channels only allowed for unidirectional push marketing. However, once the digital revolution happened, and the internet and hand-held devices became unremarkable aspects of everyday life, Kotler and Lauterborn’s advances in marketing thought were ready to be applied to the new digital environment, which facilitates two-way communication. Inbound marketers have pushed the boundaries concerning how to make best use of the digital environment, to build excellent relationships between organisations and their customers, but the intellectual foundations for two-way marketing conversations were in place by 1990, fifteen years before the birth of HubSpot.
When Schaefer’s three marketing rebellions happened (the end of lies, the end of secrets, and the end of control), marketers had to play catch up to modify marketing thought and practice to successfully respond to changed social, economic, and technological circumstances. In all three cases, marketing developed incrementally and gained from these experiences. In contrast, the success of the broadening movement and the incorporation of the 4Cs into the 4Ps/Marketing Mix propelled marketing thought forward, beyond the technology available to marketers at the time. The broadening movement could be described as a fourth marketing rebellion (the end of narrowly defined and applied marketing), and, along with Lauterborn’s 4Cs, set marketing up to take advantage of what the digital revolution eventually enabled. Inbound marketing professionals have made very good use of digital technology, and how they use technology could be described as revolutionary, but in terms of marketing thought and practice, inbound marketing is an evolutionary step built upon earlier, significant advances in marketing thought and practice. The trajectory of marketing thought and technology were determined by different people at different times, and inbound marketing emerged when existing marketing thought exploited new technology. Marketing academics did not have to write about inbound marketing when it emerged in response to the digital revolution, because they had done the necessary thinking and writing to facilitate its rise in previous decades.
As was argued in the previous chapter, inbound marketing is based on earlier marketing thought and practice, which have been adapted and optimised for our digital age. Even though inbound marketing is not new, in terms of being a quantum leap in marketing thought, it is most definitely significant, because it represents a comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategy, which has brought a number of concepts and tactics together to form a consistent and recognisable whole. Despite this, inbound marketers’ claims that they are doing something new have created an unnecessary barrier between inbound marketing and significant marketing and management thought, which parallel and support the inbound strategy.
For the purposes of demonstrating significance, and illustrating the parallels between inbound marketing and other sophisticated thought, Bezovski’s articulation of the four constituent phases of inbound marketing is helpful, as it provides a useful summary of the categories under which concepts and tactics can be bundled together. “The Inbound marketing process consists of four phases or actions: Attracting visitors, Converting visitors to leads, Closing sales, and Reconverting customers to loyal, lifelong customers and brand promoters” (Bezovski 2015, pp. 30-31). In this chapter we will consider how and why different concepts and tactics have been employed within, and have parallels with, inbound marketing, because inbound marketing has evolved via this integration and frequently unacknowledged interconnectedness.
Before analysing the parallels between inbound marketing and other contemporary marketing thought, it is worth considering why inbound marketing is significant as a label for a comprehensive and cohesive assemblage of concepts and tactics. As Bezovski has argued:
“Having a single name, accepted by most of the internet marketers and broader stakeholders for this holistic strategy, could be useful for numerous reasons. A specific profession can be shaped under this industry and would be very pragmatic for training and educational purposes of these professionals. On the other side, clients looking for such services would be aware what to look for and what to expect under such services provided by different companies” (Bezovski 2015, p. 32).
Inbound marketing provides a clear and concise name for a particular strategy that utilises specific tactics, which a marketing company can apply, particularly in the digital environment. For marketing professionals, saying that they use the inbound strategy can act as shorthand for what skills they possess and how they employ them. For students trying to make sense of what they are going to study, seeing inbound marketing in a course title can help them to assess whether this is something they need (or want) to study to prepare themselves for their career. And finally, inbound marketing provides an identifiable and comprehensible label for clients who are searching for a marketing company to work with. Like most labels, inbound marketing does not say everything about what it represents, and arbitrarily simplifies what it signifies. It is useful shorthand for framing explanations and starting conversations between academics, students, marketing professionals, and clients.
To begin this chapter’s analysis of the links between inbound marketing and other approaches to marketing and management, it is worth considering Bernoff et al.’s writing about customer-obsessed companies, which parallels inbound marketing’s focus on serving customers’ needs, right from the first time they visit a website through to when they become long-term brand advocates. As Bernoff et al. write:
“A customer-obsessed company focuses its strategy, its energy, and its budget on processes that enhance knowledge of and engagement with customers and prioritizes these over maintaining traditional competitive barriers. Like all strategies, customer obsession is a choice, requiring not just a change in stance but a change in how money is spent and a commitment to valuing the customer embrace over building barriers” (Bernoff et al. 2011).
Bernoff and his colleagues began to write about what they call customer-obsessed companies in 2010 (Bernoff and Schadler 2010), with the aim of helping executives to appreciate that barriers between teams and units within companies disrupt customers’ experiences of interacting with companies. In their roles with Forrester Research (Forrester Research 2022), they have charted the development of electronic-commerce and outlined trends that companies should respond to, so that they can benefit from the evolving business environment.
While inbound marketers have predominantly focused on improving marketing for customer satisfaction, this was expanded in 2018, when Tyre and Hockenberry wrote Inbound Organization (Tyre and Hockenberry 2018). As well as continuing the development of inbound marketing, the book discusses why and how businesses should change their procedures and structures to support a comprehensive, customer-centric inbound strategy. This shift closely aligned inbound marketing with Bernoff and his colleagues, who have concerned themselves with how to enhance business structures over all, so that how a business functions is not at odds with what customers’ need and want. According to Bernoff et al.:
“Executives in customer-obsessed companies must pull budget dollars from areas that traditionally created dominance — brand advertising, distribution lockup, mergers for scale, and supplier relationships — and invest in four priority areas: 1) real-time customer intelligence; 2) customer experience and customer service; 3) sales channels that deliver customer intelligence; and 4) useful content and interactive marketing” (Bernoff et al. 2011).
In the same way that the 4Ps were made more valuable after the addition of Lauterborn’s 4Cs (Lauterborn 1990), Bernoff et al.’s analysis of how to integrate all of the parts of a business toward a consistent customer-obsessed end is intended to shift a business’s focus from being efficient to being effective—in terms of contributing to the quality of customers overall experience.
Bernoff and his colleagues use the word empowered to signal the customer-obsessed changes they would like to see implemented across businesses (Bernoff and Schadler 2010; Bernoff et al. 2011; Bernoff 2016). In doing so, they have reduced several big ideas down to one word, which has overloaded the amount of meaning empowered can convey. This has also happened to inbound marketing, which now signifies more things than anyone can convey without first writing a thesis, or signifies nothing more than pull advertising for people who do not appreciate all of the contributing concepts and practices.
In contrast, Fussell and Goodyear (Fussell and Goodyear 2017) use two phrases to signal all of the changes that they believe organisations should undertake to become more effective: empowered action and strategic alignment. Whereas Bernoff and his colleagues, and inbound marketers, conflate changes in thinking and changes in practice, Fussell and Goodyear speak in terms of strategic alignment when they are discussing strategy/ideas and empowered action when they are discussing tactics/practice. It is significant that inbound marketing is developing marketing strategy and management practices at the same time, and it can benefit from the expansive approach that Bernoff and his colleagues have taken to empower business practices, but separating discussion of strategy and tactics, as Fussell and Goodyear have done, would allow for greater clarity as inbound marketing continues to develop in response to changing social, economic, and technological circumstances.
Similarly, when inbound marketers discuss solving customers’ existing problems and fulfilling their dreams, they do so in narrowly defined terms. Even though it is significant that inbound marketing aims to pre-empt customers’ questions, it mainly does so by creating buyer personas (Andrews 2021; Cruz and Karatzas 2020; Revella 2019; Tyre and Hockenberry 2018, Chapter 13). This increases the likelihood of businesses being able to describe their customers and predict their behaviour, but does not suggest that a similar approach is being taken to predicting what other stakeholders need and want.
The body of literature concerned with predicting questions and likely problems is not large, but it has evolved in high stress/high consequence environments. Dan Heath’s work on predicting and answering questions before customers have to ask has been developed across multiple sectors, and Heath has continued to test and develop his methodology as a Fellow at Duke University (Heath 2020, Chapter 1). Meanwhile, Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley developed their problem pre-emption strategy while serving in the United States Marine Corps, where they were instrumental in developing a methodology for successfully predicting violent attacks and taking pre-emptive action to reduce casualties during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Van Horne and Riley 2015). The common lesson that can be drawn from these authors’ work is that it is better to identify and respond to known-unknowns/anomalies as quickly as possible, so that the scale of their impact can be mitigated. Since inbound marketers already make a significant effort to pre-empt customers’ needs and questions, it would not be onerous for them to incorporate equally sophisticated, parallel methodologies to analyse stakeholder relations and broader business conditions. As important as it is for a business to understand their customers, similar skills can be applied to interpret the broader environment.
Stakeholder relations are important in both business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) contexts, but, while inbound marketing has a lot to say about creating buyer personas (Andrews 2021; Cruz and Karatzas 2020; Revella 2019), it has a lot less to say about how to build long-term relationships between businesses and their broader stakeholders. Even though specific literature on inbound marketing in the B2B context is becoming more common (Bleoju et al. 2016; Caragher 2013; Holliman and Rowley 2014; Lindblom and AndrŽasson (2019), and authors are acknowledging the significance of stakeholder relations, this literature has not yet explicitly discussed the parallels between inbound marketing and relationship marketing.
Relationship marketing became a topic of scholarship in the early 1990s, and can be defined as: “the process of identifying, developing, maintaining, and terminating relational exchanges with the purpose of enhancing performance” (Palmatier 2008, p. 3). “In a B2B setting, where both parties have a profit motive, it is more apparent how to motivate a lasting relationship. Thus, it is not surprising that partnerships and cooperative efforts are a key means of creating competitive advantage in the 21st century” (Zinkhan 2002, p. 85). Like the broadening movement and the 4Cs, the concepts underpinning relationship marketing were highly developed and ready to be implemented years before the digital revolution provided excellent opportunities for their application.
Relationship marketing, as elucidated by Gummesson, is concerned with each phase of a business relationship, and recognises that everyone within a business is acting as a part-time marketer when they participate in a relationship with a stakeholder:
“Relationship marketing (RM) emphasizes a long-term interactive relationship between the provider and the customer, and long-term profitability. It is particularly obvious in the relationship approach that marketing is embedded in the whole management process. In order to recognize this embeddedness, it is more appropriate to speak of marketing-oriented management than of marketing management. RM recognizes that everyone is a part-time marketer and that marketing is not confined to the full-time marketers of the marketing and sales departments” (Gummesson 1994, p. 6).
Like inbound marketing, relationship marketing focuses on building a long-term relationship between the customer and provider from their first interaction, and, even though there is no mention of buyer personas in relationship marketing, relationship marketing emphasises the importance of getting to know the customer and their needs. Almost twenty years before Bernoff and his colleagues began to write about customer-obsessed companies, author’s such as Gummesson were already writing about marketing-oriented management: moving the emphasis from internal efficiency to effectively creating a quality relationship experience for customers. If inbound marketing professionals were less committed to over-emphasising the newness of what they do, they could benefit from outlining the significant links between what they do and relationship marketing. Building and maintaining relationships has technically become easier since the advent of the digital revolution, and good relationships are significant for everyone in business, not just for inbound marketers.
Ironically, close, long-term relationships used to be the norm in business, and relationship marketing scholars have discerned that people and businesses are returning to normal. As Palmatier explains:
“Researchers have made the compelling case that relational-based exchange was the norm for most of recorded history; the anomaly of transaction-based marketing emerged only in the early 1900s. Thus, relationship marketing “is really a rebirth of marketing practices of the pre-industrial age” (Sheth and Parvatiyar 1995, p. 399).
Prior to the industrial age, most exchange occurred in local markets, where farmers and craftspeople (producers) sold their products directly to end users. Producers represented both manufacturers and retailers, and embedded relationships between producers and consumers provided the trust and business norms necessary to conduct the transaction, because few institutionalized protections existed” (Palmatier 2008, p. 8).
Today, businesses and customers have institutionalised protection, but they are interacting in a highly competitive and chaotic global market. Consequently, business relationships are now as important as they were hundreds of years ago, because familiar, trusted faces provide a level of psycho-social security that a good deal alone cannot. Inbound marketers continue to speak loudly about the significance of good relationships, but it is relationship marketing scholars who have done much of the analyses and developed the methodologies to normalise good relationships.
Immaterial of whether we are discussing the B2B or B2C context, good relationships depend on understanding how customers move from first contact with a business, to buying from them, and then becoming brand advocates. Since 1900, most marketers would have tried to understand and shape this process via the marketing funnel, which is a tool that is supposed to push potential customers toward the point of purchase. In a world where businesses and marketers controlled the information, the funnel worked well enough, but in today’s world of information overload customers readily sidestep the traditional funnel. It is not unusual to read about marketers trying to flip the funnel (Jaffe 2010), or analysing whether the funnel is dead (Ritson 2016). The idea of pushing potential customers down the marketing funnel makes no sense to Bernoff and his colleagues, relationship marketing experts, or inbound marketers. Instead, the significant question has become: how can a company keep pulling potential customers closer, without applying so much pressure that prospective customers balk and turn away? Consequently, “outreach of consumers to marketers has become dramatically more important than marketers’ outreach to consumers” (Court et al. 2009).
To keep prospective customers engaging at their own pace, inbound marketing aims to provide people with the information they need, when they want it. This aligns the inbound strategy with the customer decision journey (Tyre and Hockenberry 2018, Chapter 15), which is the most significant area of research concerned with understanding customers’ buying behaviour from their own perspective (Maechler et al. 2016; Rosenbaum et al. 2017; Santos and Gonalves 2021; Van Bommel et al. 2014). As Court et al. explain:
“The decision-making process is a more circular journey, with four primary phases representing potential battlegrounds where marketers can win or lose: initial consideration; active evaluation, or the process of researching potential purchases; closure, when consumers buy brands; and post-purchase, when consumers experience them” (Court et al. 2009).
The four phases of consideration, evaluation, closure, and post-purchase, which make up the customer decision journey, parallel the four phases of the inbound strategy (attracting, converting, closing, and brand advocacy). Moving from any phase to the next depends on customers wanting to proceed, as well as companies making it easy for them to proceed. Toward this end, businesses need to combine an appropriate marketing strategy and customer-obsessed business practices, which can be understood together through the customer decision journey. Like Bernoff and his colleagues, Court et al. are interested in making sure that every part of a business understands how to interact with customers in ways that respect their time and interests. Bernoff has summarised this approach in his ‘Iron Imperative’: “their time is more valuable than your time” (Bernoff 2016, Introduction). In the case of the customer decision journey, inbound marketing has openly aligned itself with parallel thought and practices, which bodes well for the future, in which customers are likely to have even more choices and to only pay attention to content that immediately interests them.
In relation to content, inbound marketing has openly identified itself with content marketing. Indeed, content marketing provided the foundations for inbound marketing. As explained by Pulizzi:
“Content marketing is the idea that all brands, in order to attract and retain customers, need to think and act like media companies. Yes, storytelling, in all its forms. Opposite to advertising, which is generally transmitted around someone else’s content, content marketing is the creation of valuable, relevant and compelling content by the brand itself on a consistent basis, used to generate a positive behavior from a customer or prospect of the brand” (Pulizzi 2012, p. 116).
For example, in 1895 John Deere (an agricultural machinery manufacturer) leveraged its experience and launched its own periodical, The Furrow Magazine (Pulizzi 2012, p. 117). In the magazine, John Deere still tells farmers about new technology, better farming practices, and business skills that can help them to do well, and in doing so the company has earned the trust of millions of farmers worldwide. The Furrow Magazine is a classic example of the power of helpful and engaging content that does not push people down a marketing funnel. Inbound marketing does not acknowledge that such sophisticated pull marketing was in place before the marketing funnel, the 4Ps, and the digital revolution. Somewhat like the broadening movement in marketing, it is amazing to think how different marketing was in earlier eras, and how much this has informed current strategies.
Inbound marketers are very happy to explain how significant their strategy is, for obvious commercial reasons, but how inbound marketing fits together with other marketing and management thought is not always made clear by its proponents. Inbound marketing is up-front about its links to the customer decision journey and content marketing, but does not appear to recognise the depth of history that preceded it in both areas. In terms of customer-obsessed companies, relationship marketing, and pre-emptive strategies, inbound marketing does not acknowledge the parallels between what it promotes and what other areas do. Wanting to be something new is understandable, but inbound marketing has surrendered some depth and credibility by not always acknowledging its parallels with other sophisticated and successful thought. Despite this, inbound marketing is an important label for an assemblage of thought and practices that, together, add up to form a comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategy. Where inbound marketing goes from here will be discussed in the next chapter.
As has been discussed in previous chapters, inbound marketing is a comprehensive and cohesive strategy that has evolved out of a variety of earlier marketing and management thought, which are sometimes acknowledged, and sometimes not. Its proponents claim that it is the marketing strategy for our current era, and it is being successfully applied by marketing professionals around the world. However, as has happened to all previous eras and strategies, eras come to an end and strategies have to evolve to survive and thrive under changed circumstances. Since 1900, marketing has been transformed by the end of lies, the end of secrets, the end of narrowly defined and applied marketing (the broadening movement), the extension of the Marketing Mix to include the 4Cs, the digital revolution, and the end of control. Consequently, we should not assume that our globalised, digital era will remain the same, or that inbound marketing will not have to evolve to maintain its relevance and effectiveness. As we can see all around us, economic conditions are uncertain, digital technology is changing rapidly, the quantity of information available to us is increasing (while its credibility is in decline), and people are more overwhelmed and unwell than at any point in living memory. The future is up for grabs, and inbound marketers will need to pay close attention to the moving ground, lest their strategy stumbles and falls.
Warnings about the need for marketing to stay vigilant, to remain relevant, are often sophisticated and prescient, as illustrated by Constantinides in 2006:
“If marketing is to exist as a significant value-adding corporate activity in the future, marketers must focus their attention on getting better insight on the dynamics and the constantly changing rules of the marketing environment of the 21st century. Instead of managing the 4Ps-defined processes managers should focus on the factors underlining customer value as well as building market-oriented, flexible and inventive organisations, able to constantly innovate and adapt to fast-changing market conditions” (Constantinides 2006, p. 431).
Within a few years of the writing of the above recommendation, Bernoff and his colleagues began to write about customer-obsessed companies, and professionals and academics alike began to write about the customer decision journey. Constantinides’ observation that marketing had to increase its insights and enhance its organisational structures and practices is now reflected in entire areas of research and development. However, what becomes clear, when we consider the history of marketing, is that there are always a few professionals and academics out ahead of the pack, and that a large proportion of people do not change their professional thinking and practices until what they are doing begins to fail on a regular basis.
Kotler and his colleagues’ instigation of a debate, which culminated in the broadening movement, is a clear example of how a few people can be a long way ahead of the pack. Kotler had discerned that circumstances were changing and that marketing should evolve, so that marketing would be relevant for people and organisations who needed to attract new attention. Tellingly, when Kotler wrote about the state of marketing just before the fiftieth anniversary of his first broadening article, he continued to warn marketing professionals and academics that they should increase their understanding of people and the circumstances within which they operate. In 2018 Kotler wrote:
“In the 1991 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Regis McKenna published his article “Marketing is Everything” (McKenna 1991). It is worth reading. I share his belief that marketing is a broad human activity. Academic marketers need to study marketing behavior as social scientists. They should study the marketing behavior of producers, distributors, and consumers. I would go even further—I wish every citizen would know something about marketing, how to use it to pursue their own objectives, and how to be aware of how they are being marketed to by so many for-profit and not-for profit organizations” (Kotler 2018, p. 22).
Forty-nine years after unleashing the broadening movement on his profession and the world, Kotler reinforced that marketing happens in a vast array of domains, and that every individual person should understand how they can use marketing concepts, and how marketing is used on them. In contrast to Kotler, Pink has argued that most people do realise that they are persuading people every day: “eight in nine people say that they spend 40% of their time in non-sales selling, convincing people to give up what they have got for what we have got” (Pink 2013, Chapter 1). If we combine Kotler and Pink’s observations, then we can say that marketing is everywhere and that everyone can use marketing concepts on each other, which is either inspiring, or daunting, depending on what you think of everyone being an empowered agent.
Dholakia et al. have taken the implications of the broadening movement even further, paralleling the development of marketing into all domains with the consequences of the widespread adoption of neoliberal ideology and policies. Dholakia et al. have written: “While noble intentions were behind the broadening of the concept of marketing, the implicit assumptions reinforced neoliberal ideology and policies that led to rapid rise in inequality and to disastrous financial and economic crises.” (Dholakia et al. 2020) “Globally pervasive marketing practices – based on the broadening of the marketing concept – have become imbricated in contemporary spiralling crises. To escape such spirals, radical rethinking of marketing theories and practices is required.” (Dholakia et al. 2020) Since the early 1970s, neoliberal ideology has facilitated the commercialisation of almost all aspects of culture and society, reducing human activity to a series of competitive transactions. Whether Dholakia et al. are being entirely fair to marketing, or not, the reality still remains, that the benefits of globalisation have been spread unevenly, and growing inequality and insecurity are eroding people’s ability to create positive plans for the future.
Under such circumstances, marketing may receive even more sceptical responses from the general public, and marketers may well find it even more difficult to convince people that they are credible and ethical. We should remember that inbound marketing emerged during the years immediately preceding the Global Financial Crisis, and that the good economic times it was associated with may not return any time soon. At the time of writing this thesis, we are still to see what long-term impact the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and growing food and energy scarcity will have on commercial activity, and people’s perceptions of marketing in this environment. Inbound marketing may benefit by being seen to help to solve people’s problems, or could be tainted by the stench of destructive late-stage capitalism.
There was probably a time when marketing professionals believed that they were primarily competing with each other to influence the non-marketing public. That era, whenever it existed, is now over, and marketers are now competing with individuals who know how to say no, know how to persuade for their own purposes, and know how to challenge and mitigate marketing messages. Consequently, inbound marketing will only remain effective if it evolves faster than circumstances and other strategies. Indeed, to use a relevant analogy, inbound marketing practitioners are not involved in a war with obvious combatants, front lines, and allies; instead, they are involved in a counter-insurgency, and the specific number, nature, and strengths of the insurgents remain unknown.
Like in all forms of information operations, inbound marketing’s claims need to be credible, lest the audience become incredulous and unresponsive to messaging (United States Government 2016; Vertuli et al. 2018). For example, inbound marketing practitioners’ mantra that content should always be helpful and engaging is very appealing and considerate of consumers, but can businesses always afford to be considerate, or are they more likely to wrap appealing content around self-serving pressure? Inbound marketing’s emphasis on being helpful reads a lot like the ‘Golden Rule’: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2022). Living and marketing by the ‘Golden Rule’ sounds ideal, but we see evidence of this not being the case in everyday life, so why would it be the case in the competitive and financially precarious world of marketing and business? If a company tries to hide anything behind its content, which turns out to be an overt lie, secret, or an attempt at control, it is just a matter of time before the public find out and negatively redefine the business’s brand image. Under such circumstances, crisis communication strategies will be more important than marketing strategies.
Inbound marketing’s emphasis on creating helpful and engaging content emerged at the same time as Sisodia and Sheth were undertaking research for the first edition of their book, Firms of Endearment (Sisodia and Sheth 2014). Sisodia and Sheth were interested in finding out if there were successful companies that were loved by their customers, which did not rely on outbound marketing to drive sales. What they argued in their first edition, which was published just before the Global Financial Crisis, was that there were several successful companies that created helpful content based on a plus sum approach: both they and their customers could get what they needed and wanted, together at the same time. When Sisodia and Sheth revisited these companies for the second edition of their book, after the Global Financial Crisis, they discovered that these companies had stuck to their approach, successfully weathered the financial storm, and were bigger and better than they had been before the crisis. Sisodia went on to write Conscious Capitalism with John Mackey (the founder of Whole Foods Market), in which they defined these companies as “doing good while doing well” (Mackey and Sisodia 2014). Conscious Capitalism has gone from being the name of a book, to becoming the name of an influential and growing ethical business movement.
The Conscious Capitalism movement combines ethical business practices, a plus sum game, something like Bernoff’s ideas about customer-obsessed companies, and its marketing often looks a lot like inbound marketing, without using the phrase. Conscious Capitalism companies take an integrated approach to being ethical and implementing effective business strategies and practices, within which something like inbound marketing is just another strand in the tapestry of doing good while doing well. In terms of the future, Conscious Capitalism represents a holistic approach to business that can align all of a business’s units and practices behind a common goal, while inbound marketing is one strand of thought and practice that may not fit together with other business practices—within an unaligned and incoherent corporate environment. Inbound marketing implies ethical behaviour without being grounded in a comprehensive ethical approach, and this may come back to haunt inbound marketing practitioners, if their strategy is employed by unethical businesses.
As Maechler et al. argued in 2016: “companies need to recognize and address the fact that—at least, in most cases—they are simply not wired to naturally think about the journeys their customers take. They are wired to maximize productivity and scale economies through functional units. They are wired for transactions, not journeys” (Maechler et al. 2016, p. 4). The implications of Maechler et al.’s observations are expansive and relevant to the future of inbound marketing. Changing a company’s marketing, or their sales process, or their product development cycle, is difficult enough in and of itself, but changing everything in conjunction to become an aligned Conscious Capitalism company, or a customer-obsessed company, is daunting and highly disruptive. Inbound marketing practitioners have begun to articulate the necessity of transforming all aspects of a business, as illustrated by Tyre and Hockenberry’s book, Inbound Organization (Tyre and Hockenberry 2018), and in the following passage from HubSpot:
“There’s this notion that to grow a business, you have to be ruthless. But we know there’s a better way to grow. One where what’s good for the bottom line is also good for customers. We believe businesses can grow with a conscience, and succeed with a soul — and that they can do it with inbound. That’s why we’ve created an ecosystem uniting software, education, and community to help businesses grow better every day” (HubSpot 2022b).
Nonetheless, at the time of writing, these perspectives are still an exception, rather than the rule in inbound marketing literature. Inbound marketing’s customer focused approach is good for customers, if all of their other interactions with the rest of the company are also helpful and engaging, but there is no guarantee that any particular company appreciates that it needs to change anything more than its marketing strategy.
Inbound marketing can add the most value to a Conscious Capitalism company, or a customer-obsessed company, because they have already moved to an ethical and holistic approach to doing business. As Vandermerwe has argued:
“Because companies with deep customer focus are constantly thinking about better, quicker, easier ways of doing things that customers need, they ultimately become indispensable. Whatever customers need to do (say, use information to make critical decisions differently, ensure employees’ lifetime well-being, manage energy or do on-demand computing), the company with deep customer focus excels at offering the outcomes each customer seeks. Through constant innovation, customer feedback and the use of knowledge, the enterprise becomes indispensable. And as the relationship intensifies, truly sustainable gains ensue” (Vandermerwe 2004).
If inbound marketing’s focus on being helpful can be integrated into a company that wants to become indispensable to its customers, then the alignment between different business units is likely to result in customer satisfaction and business success. Under such circumstances, inbound marketing needs to acknowledge where it came from and articulate how it fits in more comprehensively than it has done so far. Otherwise, companies might as well pay attention to experts in Conscious Capitalism and customer-obsessed companies, who can get them closer to their overall integration goals than inbound marketing practitioners can.
While changing business structures, strategies, tactics, and practices will all have an impact on the future of inbound marketing, the nature and use of the digital environment should also be given serious consideration. Inbound marketing is a strategy born out of the digital era, and, as such, it should evolve in conjunction with the digital environment. The digital environment was a much simpler place when HubSpot opened for business in 2005, being based around websites, computers, and e-mail communication. Today, in contrast, social media, content on demand, and hand-held digital devices are ubiquitous.
As a result of these changes, the number of digital touchpoints marketers have to prepare for has increased exponentially. As Van Bommel et al. have argued: “the forces enabling consumers to expect real-time engagement are unstoppable. Across the entire customer journey, every touchpoint is a brand experience and an opportunity to engage the consumer—and digital touchpoints just keep multiplying” (Van Bommel et al. 2014). It is now difficult to imagine not being able to find an answer to a question we have about a product, or service, in less than one minute. If we cannot find an answer on a company’s website, we simply move on to digital reviews and discussion on social media. If companies do not put helpful and engaging content wherever we are looking in the digital environment, then we are likely to absorb whatever content other digital denizens have created about the topic we are interested in.
In particular, social media has become a massive free-for-all, rather than a coherent commercial battleground. From a traditional marketing perspective, social media should be an environment in which the consideration, evaluation, and post-purchase phases of the customer decision journey can be effectively managed. However, as Augie Ray wrote in 2015:
“Social does not deliver purchasers (accounting for 1% of e-commerce sales, compared to 16% for email and 17% for cost-per-click). Social delivers poor conversions (with a conversion rate of 1.17% compared to 2.04% for search and 2.18% for email). Social fails to deliver trust (with B2B buyers rating social media posts among the least important for establishing credibility and just 15% of consumers trusting social posts by companies or brands)” (Ray 2015).
As illustrated by the above passage, social media is not the right part of the digital environment in which to focus on conversion numbers. People spend time on social media to relax and have fun. Consequently, inbound marketing’s emphasis on creating helpful and engaging content, and on interacting with customers in the way they want, is perfectly suited to what social media has become. Social media is the environment in which brand perception and brand image escaped captivity and entered the wild, and an inbound marketing approach to content in this environment enhances the chances of a company being well received by digital denizens. As long as inbound marketers continue to respect customers time, social media users might continue to find time for marketers’ content.
Immaterial of what the digital environment becomes, its impact on people also has to be considered in its own right. In 2011, Nicholas Carr sounded the first significant warning about the adverse impacts that digital life is having on us, including damaging our memory and reducing our ability to focus on deep work (Carr 2011). In 2015, Sherry Turkle wrote about the significant negative impacts that digital life is having on young people’s ability to show empathy and engage in conversation (Turkle 2015). In 2022, Johann Hari made a damning case against the impact of digital technology on our psychological well-being and productivity in his book, Stolen Focus (Hari 2022). Also in 2022, Nicholas Kardaras argued that social media is driving our mental health crisis (Kardaras 2022), and Daniel and Gabor MatŽ put all of these negative pieces together in a single book (MatŽ and MatŽ 2022). Even though digital technology and the digital environment could do so much good for humans, the uncomfortable fact is that, in their current forms, they are doing us significant harm. Under these circumstances, inbound marketing could easily be labelled as just another persuasive tool that is contributing to the harm caused by the digital environment. If society decides that we actually want prosocial social media, then inbound marketing is well situated to be accepted as a less intrusive and destructive form of influence.
The future of inbound marketing will be influenced by the health of society, the state of the economy, and the nature of physical and digital human interaction. Marketing strategies have always had to adapt to changing social, economic, and technological circumstances, and change in all three areas is becoming faster and more extreme. Inbound marketing practitioners have done a good job of articulating the relevance and effectiveness of their preferred strategy, but they have not sufficiently developed a broad conception of how and where inbound marketing fits in relation to significant theories of business transformation. The Conscious Capitalism movement, as well as the literature concerned with customer obsessed companies, have developed integrated visions of where business is going, which include sophisticated marketing thought very much like inbound marketing. Inbound marketing fits comfortably within these theories of business transformation, but is not, itself, ready for a difficult transformation, or difficult times ahead.
In conclusion, inbound marketing is based around a four-phase process that includes attracting visitors, converting them into leads, closing sales, and turning existing customers into brand advocates via ongoing conversations, which are meant to solve people’s problems and help them to fulfil their desires. Inbound marketing depends on creating and sharing content that directly addresses customers’ needs and wants, and this content should establish its creator as a trustworthy expert, as well as providing the basis for long-term relationships.
Marketers have consistently adapted marketing thought and practice to successfully respond to changed social, economic, and technological circumstances, as illustrated by the end of lies, the end of secrets, and the end of control. In all three cases, marketing developed incrementally and gained from these experiences. In contrast, the success of the broadening movement and the incorporation of the 4Cs into the 4Ps/Marketing Mix propelled marketing thought forward, beyond the technology available to marketers at the time. Indeed, the broadening movement and Lauterborn’s 4Cs pre-positioned marketing to exploit the opportunities unleashed by the digital revolution. Inbound marketing professionals have made particularly effective use of digital technology, and how they use technology could be described as revolutionary, but in terms of marketing thought and practice, inbound marketing is an evolutionary step built upon earlier, significant advances in marketing thought and practice. The trajectory of marketing thought and technology were determined by different people at various times, and inbound marketing emerged when existing marketing thought exploited new technology. Consequently, marketing academics had no immediate need to write about inbound marketing as it emerged, because they had done the necessary thinking and writing to facilitate its rise decades before HubSpot opened for business.
Inbound marketers are happy to explain how significant their strategy is, for obvious commercial reasons, but its proponents have not effectively explained how inbound marketing fits together with other marketing and management thought. The links between inbound marketing, the customer decision journey, and content marketing have been articulated by proponents of inbound marketing, but the depth of this history, and the breadth of these links, has not been given sufficient consideration, or recognition. In relation to the literature concerned with customer-obsessed companies, relationship marketing, and pre-emptive strategies, inbound marketing literature has not acknowledged the parallels between what it promotes and what other areas have already done. Wanting to be something new is understandable, but inbound marketing and its proponents have surrendered some depth and credibility by not always acknowledging its parallels with other sophisticated and successful thought. Despite this, inbound marketing is an important label for an assemblage of thought and practices that, together, add up to form a comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategy.
The future of inbound marketing will be influenced by the psychological state of society, the state of the economy, and the nature of physical and digital human interaction. Marketing strategies have always had to adapt to changing social, economic, and technological circumstances, and change in all three areas is becoming faster and more extreme. Inbound marketing practitioners have done an excellent job of articulating the relevance and effectiveness of their preferred strategy, but they have not developed a broad conception of how and where inbound marketing fits in relation to significant theories of business transformation. The Conscious Capitalism movement, as well as the literature concerned with customer obsessed companies, have developed integrated visions of where business is going, which include sophisticated marketing thought that has already been incorporated into future focused management strategies. Inbound marketing fits comfortably within these theories of business transformation, but has not yet become a comprehensive business strategy in its own right.
This thesis has provided a comprehensive and concise exegesis of inbound marketing’s place within marketing thought and practice, which transcends the explanatory limits of inbound marketing practitioners’ commercial expediency. Despite its incomplete exposition, inbound marketing is a valuable and effective marketing strategy, which will continue to be challenged and developed by marketing professionals and academics alike.
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