Learning About the Future of Marketing at #INBOUND16 (recap)

For the second year in a row, I was fortunate to attend HubSpot’s annual INBOUND Marketing conference. This year saw 19,000 marketers assemble for a few days at the Bayside Expo Center in South Boston (yay Southie!).

The event kicked off on Tuesday night with the one and only Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary started off by addressing the elephant in the room: this day was the American presidential election. After telling the audience that neither candidate has a real impact on their lives, he moved to one of his favorite topics: Self Awareness.

If you’ve ever seen Gary Vee talk, (and if you haven’t you really should, here’s a link), you know he can be salty, but he’s focused on his topic. As usual, Gary was motivational. After asking who was in B2B and B2C, he went after the B2B marketers for knowing exactly who the target is but doing nothing beyond bulk emailing them. It’s lazy and ineffective.

Day 2

By Wednesday morning everyone in the crowd, even if they weren’t from the US, realized who had won the presidential election and it cast a certain cloud over the opening.

Ta-Nehisi Coates who is known as “the single best writer on race in the United States,” threw out his keynote in order to address the election of Donald Trump. He apologized for taking the vibe down in the room. I won’t get into the aspects of the presentation because I don’t want to politicize this post, but you can watch his keynote here. Feelings were still really raw for some of the attendees, so the takeaway from this session was mixed.

After Ta-Nehisi, the breakout sessions began. The first session I attended was Salma Jafri who focused on upcycling content. Instead of just creating one large piece of content, it’s important to figure out how to take the content, break it down, and spread it out across different channels and verticals. Creating a series of ripples is more effective than just one splash that slowly ripples out. She also wanted to clarify that upcycling should not be confused with content distribution or promotion.

My next session was Rebecca Lieb discussing how to create and manage a global content strategy. Rebecca has had the pleasure of working with many global brands, so she has learned that one size doesn’t fit all anymore. It’s important to tell stories that resonate with the culture you’re trying to influence. Different locations can be challenging due to resources and expertise. As with any content, Rebecca stressed that we need to focus on the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) aspect. And it’s essential to get top-down and bottom-up buy-in to be successful with any campaign.

Mikaela Tierney, the Senior Digital Marketing Production Manager at THOMASNET was up next. She discussed the benefits and challenges of using freelancers to build out your in-house content team. Because this is a topic near and dear to my job, it was really interesting to see how someone else runs their department. Mikaela walked us through her hiring process for writers, but what I found interesting was when she showed examples of her job sheet and job request form. Over on Twitter, I shared an example of the job sheet that our in-house creative team uses. A while ago I created a SlideShare detailing some of the key aspects that should be measured (look at me marketing my other content!)

Next up we were treated to the HubSpot keynote. After last year’s less-than-stellar reception, I was curious about what Brian and Dharmesh were going to do. But they delivered this year.

After a larger-than-life intro video/lighting show, HubSpot CEO, Brian Halligan, took the stage to discuss the death of cold calling. It makes sense that an Inbound Marketing company is going to promote ways to be helpful to prospects versus interruptive. The secret is to help the person looking for information. The customer/prospect is looking for a self-service experience with your company. Let them find what they’re looking for.

Brian then handed the baton (slide clicker) over to his co-founder, Dharmesh Shah who spoke about the future of online interactions being powered by bots. After the session I overheard some people dismissing the idea of bots. I think they’re going to be disappointed with the future.

Dharmesh has been spending so much time on bots because they allow organizations to scale. Organizations need to stop focusing on SEO and focus more on HEO: Human Enjoyment Optimization. Bots will allow prospects and customers to find answers to their questions. It’s all about teaching machines to better anticipate what the user wants. In order to do this, companies must invest in cleaning up their data. Without data to power the AI, the bots are useless.

The only part of Dharmesh’s presentation that I didn’t agree with was when he said that chatbots are the biggest wave in technology in the past decade. If it wasn’t for the mobile phone app store ecosystem, this might be a true statement. Dharmesh even mentioned apps when he said that 80% of our time on mobile is spent within apps … but probably not yours.

The final breakout session of the day was run by former HubSpotter, Jessica Meher (now VP of Marketing at InVision). Her talk was about creating ridiculously good-looking websites that convert. For those of us in the B2B space, it’s all about lead generation, so a session like this was very helpful.

Jessica pointed out some of the things that marketers and web developers need to stay away from. I was happy to hear her rip on home page carousels. I’m of the firm belief that home page carousels were created for egotistical executives who believe that their product/content/whatever is SO DAMN IMPORTANT that is should be on the home page “above the fold.” Nobody sits and waits for a carousel to rotate through. A modern website isn’t a television from the 1970s. People actively move through the Internet. It’s been a very long time since they were passive observers with no other options (sorry, rant over).

Getting back to the session, Jessica talked about the importance of design being more than just visual design. People don’t look at websites, they use them. Think of a website as an app. As for what is on the website, having a content strategy is essential. If you’re trying to get people to turn over their contact information in order to read your content, your content has to be more valuable than their information.

After discussing the necessary evil of forms, and some tips to help them convert better, Jessica gave a few tips on how to get better engagement across the site and drive people to the forms you want them to fill out. Overall, it was a great way to wrap up a jam-packed day of great marketing learning.

Day 3

The third day of the conference started off with breakout sessions. My first session was with JP Kuehlwein, the Global Brand Builder for Ueber-Brands. Last year JP co-wrote a book called Rethinking Prestige Branding. Building a true brand allows a company to create its own category. Before RedBull, nobody was talking about Energy Drinks. Later on, he mentioned RedBull again because he asked the audience to name the occupation of the #1 consumer of RedBull. Nobody came up with a truck driver (he reminded us that “college student” is not a career). Even though truck drivers are their #1 customer, we don’t see anything related to that in their brand promotion. RedBull knows that its audience wants to be doing something more exciting than what they’re doing. So, they promote the type of lifestyle that their target market wants to have, as opposed to the life they want.

Another example of this is Harley-Davidson. Even though they promote a lifestyle of leather vests, tattoos, and long hair rebels, their real audience is suburban wealthy guys. The final takeaway from the session was to remind us that to have a successful brand myth, companies can’t just execute on the ideal, they have to live it.

My next session was a Bold Talk. This was a session with three different speakers who each had 12 minutes. I attended one of these last year, and I only remember two of the three speakers. I would imagine this session will have a similar impact a year from now.

Amy Vernon talked about the importance of keeping your audience. Because she had come from the print industry, she’s been watching the steady decline of print and print journalism. When the Internet first started to take off, newspapers had the opportunity to differentiate themselves, but instead, they cut costs and staff. Platforms are too quick to give away their audience because it’s either too hard or too expensive to keep those audiences. At one point Digg was a significant website, and it encouraged its audience to communicate with each other on Twitter. Then the audience didn’t come back. It’s essential to build a community to keep your audience.

Next up was Brian Fanzo. In full disclosure, Brian and I have been online friends for a few years, and we met in person for the first time earlier this year at Social Media Marketing World. Brian’s talk was about Limitations Inspire Creativity. One of the first questions he asked was for the audience to define “success.” Success should be about solving problems and creating real experiences, not the vanity metrics that your boss is asking for. It’s about establishing trust.

When it comes to limitations, everyone faces them. The key to success is finding ways to leverage those limitations in ways that nobody else can.

The next session I attended featured Shama Hyder, founder of Marketing Zen. Shama started her own social media marketing agency before most companies even knew what social media was. Shama’s presentation was about how to propel your marketing and transform your brand in the digital age.

One of the topics that Shama touched on was how we as consumers use a brand to demonstrate to others what we think and believe in. Also, due to the ever-evolving landscape, marketing takes bravery because we as marketers are forced to stay on top of the latest trends.

After a quick lunch, Dr. Carmen Simon gave a presentation I was really interested in seeing: How Does Neuroscience Influence Decision Making? Carmen discussed how memory fuels decision-making. The brain has been designed to constantly anticipate the future. And the way it does that is by making decisions based on past events.

Carmen also talked about reflexes and habits. Reflexes are automatic. Habits are reflexive at first, but then become more automatic. The more times we exhibit a behavior, the less cognitive energy we need to extend. When tied to marketing, we need to train our viewers/customers/fans to behave in anticipated ways more often. We have to find a way to be added to people’s habits. And if our brand/message is clear, it’s will be easier to be remembered.

Anna Kendrick was the only “celebrity” talk that I attended. These are entertaining, but not terribly valuable for a conference where I’m trying to learn and be better at my job. I know that’s not the goal for every attendee, but had there been other sessions at this time, I would have attended those. Anna is great in everything I’ve seen, but her “work hard and good things happen” message was a little unnecessary. And I did see some pushback to the woman who was interviewing her, Randi Zuckerberg.

Getting back to the breakouts, I then attended the session that added the most to my “GSD” list. Michael King is a search expert who spoke about The Pragmatic Future of Search. In his presentation, Michael gives an overview of the different changes Google has been making to its algorithm and how they affect SEO. These days, Google is all about machine learning. The future of search will tie into beacon technology and will tie all of your digital devices together. Other companies, like Apple and Amazon, are looking to bypass Google with their own SERP (if you’ve made it this far, I probably don’t have to tell you that SERP is a search engine results page). Eventually, brand new interfaces, like Tesla’s computerized car, will need their own search capabilities.

Michael spent a good amount of time, and some great pre-recorded custom videos, showing the power of vocal search. It’s usually called voice search, but Michael likes to call it vocal search, and I’m good with that.

In the ever-evolving world of search, it will be important to have hyper-targeted content. Not only will everyone need persona- and context-based content, but it will be required that everyone have a content strategy.

With everything moving to mobile, it becomes important for web pages to be written for AMP or Facebook Instant Articles. The downside to this is Google penalizes pages for having the same content on different pages. It’s the reason you don’t see m.domain.com for mobile sites any more. Unless you’re going to rebuild your site from the ground up to adopt AMP best practices, it will be important to have separate AMP-ready pages. HTTP/2 will also be something to take into account for future web builds. Instead of a separate call/response for every item on your web page, HTTP/2 will open a stream and grab what it needs.

Michael then listed off a plethora of valuable tools which you can read on the SlideShare I linked above in this session description. There wasn’t much time for Q&A, but the questions that were asked all involved WordPress. It will be interesting to see how that platform evolves as mobile and Google further define the future of the web.

For the main entertainment of the event, we were going to be treated to comedians Ali Wong and Sarah Silverman. I’ve seen Ali Wong on TV before, and I really enjoyed her set. Sarah wasn’t able to make it, so HubSpot was able to quickly pivot and land The Daily Show host Trevor Noah. As I mentioned, it was a couple of days after the U.S. presidential election, so Trevor had some thoughts on the matter.

Day 4

Due to other meetings (work, am I right?), I wasn’t able to attend Alec Baldwin or the first session of the final day. But the two sessions I attended were really interesting.

First up was Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs. I had the privilege of seeing Ann speak earlier this year at SMMW in San Diego. This time, Ann was talking about taking the time to plan before executing a marketing idea. There is value in slowing down, but it has to be at the right moment. Marketing, as a business, is impatient. But it’s important to ask three questions before kicking off a campaign.

           So What?

           Wait, What?

           Does This Sustain Us?

Asking these three questions allows marketing teams to evaluate if the campaign is going to be worth doing. 72% of marketers aren’t thinking long term. It can look like everyone else is sprinting, but that is because you’re only seeing the final sprint. Taking the time to properly plan is essential to an effective marketing campaign.

The final breakout session of the event featured Doug Landis, Chief Storyteller of Box. Doug wanted the attendees to walk away with the awareness that stories are the way to differentiate. People process information better through stories. To tell better stories, Doug suggested that we bring our “weekend” selves to work. We tell better stories about our “real” lives than we do when we’re talking about work. If we take that comfortable mindset of telling a story and apply that to our work stories, it will help humanize the stories.

The biggest takeaway from this session is that people remember stories, not bullet points. The other benefit of telling a story is that the person you’re pitching can’t refute a story. They can argue facts or stats, but a story is something that the storyteller owns. Stories should make up 65% of your presentations.

When it comes to telling stories, it’s important to create unique stories for different stages of the sales funnel:

           Top: Create value – move beyond the status quo

           Middle: Elevate value – build a business case that passes muster

           Bottom: Capture value – protect your margins

Facts will fade, but stories stick. The secret is to be able to tell your brand essence, or brand story in six words.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, in his first internal presentation where he introduced the Think Different campaign, Jobs mentioned that they weren’t going to talk about “speeds and feeds” moving forward. This was 1997 and Steve Jobs knew the way to pull Apple out of their tailspin was to stop talking about bullet points and focus on telling a compelling story. Doug didn’t tell this story, but if he was willing to fall into the “here’s how Apple does it” cliché, it would have fit well with the story he was telling.

Even though this was the second time I attended INBOUND, I still learned a lot. The great thing about Marketing is that it’s ever-evolving. There’s so much to learn and events like this are a great way to hear from subject-matter experts that are out there practicing and mastering different areas of Marketing. 

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