Inbound Marketing: Where Are We Heading? (Part VI)

Nancy Hanks Masthead

Where’s the destination?

For several weeks, we’ve been talking about the details of inbound marketing for small businesses. We’ve used a train trip metaphor that’s persisted through several blog articles in this series:

Why Inbound Marketing is a Good Idea for Small Businesses
How Inbound Marketing Works
How to Build An Inbound Marketing Strategy
Where the Content Comes from
How to Measure Progress

If you’re building an inbound marketing program for your business and have come along on the trip, hopefully you’ve picked up a few ideas and now have a good sense of the process. We’ve built up a good head of steam on our inbound marketing train and we’re moving rapidly down the rails. There’s only one question we haven’t asked: Where the hell are we going?

Would you be shocked if I told you that there was no final destination? Sure, we can look down the track to the next stop or back from the caboose to see where we’ve been. But this is a train that keeps going for a long, long trip. We don’t get off until we’re ready to quit.

Changing Scenery, Changing technology

Just because the journey is a long one doesn’t mean that the landscape we see out our window stays the same. It doesn’t. In fact, the terrain under the tracks is changing rapidly and we’ll adapt the train to meet the new environment. We’ll add new cars from time to time and maybe even a more powerful engine to pull us over the mountains.

Markets don’t stay static. Audience preferences change and new innovations come around that change the way people operate and make decisions. In the last century, the influence of technology has been both formative and adaptive. It’s been formative in the sense that major innovations have simply changed the culture – automobiles, telephones, radio, television, the computer, and the internet drastically altered the way society operates. Other technological innovations are adaptations after the fact. Most (if not all) of the changes to marketing fit this category. As an example, in the 1960s, soap operas were an opportunistic means of luring a target market for household products to the TV in the afternoon. Wearables, like the Apple watch or Google Glass, are a predictable response to an increasing cultural need for constant connection.

Looking Ahead

So what’s ahead on the journey? Maybe it’s some swampland. One of the looming questions for inbound marketers has to do with the glut of content.

Alligator in the Swamp

Swampland Ahead? Watch out for the alligators.

How much is too much? Mark Schaefer has written an interesting book, The Content Code, that examines the question. Schaefer calls the problem “content shock,” and he asserts that the sheer volume of content is already presenting barriers to entry for small businesses who can’t afford to generate the quantity of material needed to stay visible online.

Schaefer describes a dilemma, but certainly not the end of content as a marketing tool. After all, how could we convey an idea without words and images? In the book, he provides dozens of tactics to help marketers escape the content swamp, but his key points are straightforward:

  1. Creating great content is mandatory, but insufficient. An “ignition strategy” is required to make sure that the word gets out.
  2. Inbound marketers must focus on audience development and community building to succeed.
  3. Successful inbound marketers will choose subject niches that aren’t (as) overloaded with content.

Central to his approach is the need to use different approaches to increase engagement – on the practical side, this simply means the sharability of the content that is produced. It’s a multiplier effect that comes from a core group of support that Schaefer calls the alpha audience. The idea of “tribes” is nothing new to marketers. Seth Godin’s book of the same title was published in 2008, and the practical application of his ideas have certainly proved out.

This key bit of thought adds some extra complication for small businesses who would rather just “put some stuff on the website” and move on to the next task of the day. It’s just not that simple any more. Small business marketers will have to be present and engaged, and that will ultimately entail personnel and cost. They’ll also need to be more selective of topic areas, keying in to real questions that customers ask, and avoiding subjects that have been overdone already. (Side note for printing companies – there’s no need for another article explaining why print isn’t dead. EVER!)

New Channels, New Trends

A bright point on the horizon for inbound marketers is an almost continually developing stream of new channels and modes for content. In 2009, a small business with a Facebook page and a weekly blog was certainly on the cutting edge. Now, blogging is de rigueur, and Facebook is so passé. You’re simply nobody if you’re not on Instagram.

Removing tongue from cheek, the expanding number of channels and media available to marketers really is an opportunity, especially for small businesses with readily identifiable target audiences. The questions have to do with identification and (again) engagement – where do your customers go and how do you communicate with them there? Are they on YouTube, Vine, G+? The opportunities to create inbound content magnets are continually expanding, providing adventurous small business marketers with lots of new opportunity to build an audience.

The “communicate with” emphasis is important. A very real current trend  is termed user-generated content. In essence, the idea goes beyond testimonials to a scenario where users (e.g. customers) relate their own experience with products and brands. It’s easy to see the value of this kind of social evidence, and intentional strategies to encourage customer-created content aren’t far fetched. Nearly every smartphone has video capability. How difficult is it to encourage a satisfied customer to record a spontaneous product review?

Managing the Inbound Marketing Process

As the choice of media expands and new opportunities for small business marketers develop, managing the process will remain a challenge. Planning and measurement are important now, and determining ways to guide the course of inbound marketing programs will be critical to the success of the multi-channel programs that small business marketers will implement in the future. Until recently, the technology to manage the process has been prohibitively expensive for small businesses, but that’s also changing rapidly.

Infusionsoft Dashboard

Infusionsoft offers small businesses an affordable marketing automation solution.

Software developers recognize the enormous potential of the small business market and affordable marketing automation platforms are available today. Infusionsoft is a rapidly growing automation platform that is designed especially for small businesses. It’s not perfect, but the cost of implementation is very manageable, providing even the smallest businesses with capabilities to automate email, website, and (limited) social media communications with their audiences. Other platforms are developing rapidly – here’s a good list if you’d like to read more.

Affordable options that allow small businesses to improve data collection and management will come next. Apple’s iBeacon (and competitors) is emerging as a possibility to enhance the customer experience for brick and mortar retailers, and MIS providers are improving data accessibility and interconnectivity between platforms. In short, small businesses will increasingly be able to use big data to improve their understanding of customer interactions and the ways that their prospects come into and through the marketing and sales funnel.

The End of the Line?

It’s easy to see that there’s not just one long stretch of track ahead of our train. Here’s where the metaphor ends. The track will split and we’ll need to choose new roads and forms of transportation. Steam trains were replaced by sleek aerodynamic diesels, which were then quickly surpassed by even faster (really aerodynamic) airplanes that took travelers to more places in less time.

It could be a wild trip. There are sure to be detours and probably even some dead ends, but the voyage is going to be interesting and probably some fun, too. The inbound marketing train for your business is waiting for you at the station. Are you ready to start the journey?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on inbound marketing for small business. If your business hasn’t climbed aboard the train, if you’re at the beginning of your travels, or if you just need some help, please get in touch. DP Marketing Services provides assistance and a practical approach to marketing planning and implementation. Our services are flexible and affordable and we’ll work with you to put together a program that moves your business forward. Climb aboard the engine and let’s get started!

7 Things You Can Do To Market Your Business Right NowFinally, if you’d like a few ideas that you can put in place today, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to download our latest Ebook, 7 Things You Can Do to Market Your Business Right Now. Leave a comment below with insights or questions or get in touch if you’d like to talk about more ideas for your small business.