Cambridge, Mass.-based HubSpot, provider of an inbound marketing and sales platform, had some not so surprising findings in its eighth annual report on the state of inbound marketing.

It found 73 percent of marketers use inbound marketing as their primary strategy.

HubSpot surveyed 4,500 global marketers and salespeople from 132 countries. While it didn't specifically ask its customers to identify themselves, a HubSpot spokesperson said it's “safe to assume some that a portion of the respondents are HubSpot customers.”

HubSpot is, as you might expect from the products it offers, pretty enthusiastic about inbound marketing.

Some call the company's founders, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, the pioneers of inbound marketing. And HubSpot's Inbound conference is massive, drawing 14,000 to Boston last year with more expected at next conference this November.  

Inbound All the Way?

Jake DiMare

But is inbound all the rage like the HubSpot report says it is? The key to understanding this statistic is in the size of the organizations that responded to HubSpot’s survey, according to Jake DiMare, director of marketing for New York City-based advisory firm Digital Clarity Group and a CMSWire Reader Advisory Board member

About 45 percent of the respondents have 10 or less employees. Only 8 percent were larger than 1,000 employees and only 3 percent are billion-dollar-plus earners. 

“If you asked senior marketers at consumer brands in the Fortune 500 their response would be, 'Sure, inbound has a role, but it’s obvious where our marketing spend is going,'" DiMare said.

Walmart, currently No. 1 on the Fortune 500, spent $2.09 billion on advertising alone in 2015. "On the other hand," DiMare said, "if Walmart has an inbound strategy, it’s invisible."

DiMare said larger enterprises spend more on things like advertising, channel partnerships and product placement.

Smart, Creative Marketers Win

headshot of kipp bodnar, chief marketing officer at hubspot

HubSpot CMO Kipp Bodnar maintains inbound marketing can work for any organization, although he conceded "it is especially attractive to smaller companies, with smaller budgets, that are looking to make and impact and compete against larger competitors with more money.” 

“One of the beautiful things about inbound is that it isn't about how much money you spend on marketing, it's about how smart and creative you are in the content that you create and how effectively you provide value to your customers,” he added.

Bodnar defined inbound marketing as the “full process of taking potential customers, turning them into visitors to your site, then leads, prospects and ultimately happy customers.”

Cold calls, email batch-and-blasts banner ads and pop-up ads represent the outbound side of the marketing aisle.

Content marketing is a piece of the larger inbound marketing puzzle,” he told CMSWire. “but it's not the whole thing.

"Content is a key part of the process but it works along side social media, search engine optimization, email marketing and other inbound channels. Sure content is a part of each of these but so is the campaign and distribution elements to make sure that the content is seen by your target audience.”

HubSpot report authors go on to boast about particular findings in today's report, citing the 81 percent of inbound organizations feel that their marketing strategy is effective, making inbound organizations four times as likely to rate their marketing strategy highly, compared to outbound organizations.

HubSpot Uses Broad Definition of Inbound

ben smidt

The large number of marketers classifying inbound as their primary strategy in this year’s HubSpot report may have to do with the term itself being “very broad,” according to Benjamin Smidt, founder of Focused Excellence and a digital marketing specialist.

“Inbound, as defined by HubSpot, is very broad,” Smidt told CMSWire. “This could in part be why 73 percent are claiming to be leveraging inbound marketing. The definition of inbound has evolved over time and as a result the value placed on that term, in my opinion, has degraded. According to HubSpot, inbound now appears to focus most strongly on brand loyalty, which can be difficult to convert into sales and as a result may be why we see some mixed data responses in the report.” 

Claiming nearly three out of four marketers are leveraging inbound marketing illustrates potential market saturation and that inbound has become a global trend, Smidt said.

“I don’t disagree with this conclusion,” he said, “however I believe inbound needs to be defined more granular to truly understand what is working for these surveyed marketers who claim to be utilizing these techniques within the report.”

Leads, Conversions Still Rule

Call it inbound or outbound, marketing is still marketing, and marketers want quality leads that convert into customers who buy things from their organizations. Marketers reported in this year’s survey they still see quality leads that convert to customers as the top priority as they did in the last three reports.

“Converting contacts/leads to customers” ranked No. 1 this year, ahead of “grow traffic to website," “increasing revenue derived from existing customers” and “proving the ROI of our marketing activities.”

Increasing and converting leads ranked in the top two in the last three HubSpot reports, outside of 2013, when “reaching relevant audience” snuck in as the No. 1 priority.

Asked what he sees in terms of marketers priorities, DiMare called growth, conversion and revenue “table stakes.” 

“I spent three days with senior marketers from some of the largest, most recognized brands in the world at CMO Digital US in San Diego last week,” DiMare told CMSWire. “Most of the conversations we had were about mobile, proximity marketing, experiential and wrestling with big data.”

What’s Behind Priorities?

headshot of ann breckenkamp

It’s not always true that converting leads should be a marketers’ top priority.

Ann Breckenkamp, vice president of marketing and operations at San Francisco-based Giftly and a CMSWire Reader Advisory Board member, said the survey respondents seem to hail from businesses at different stages of maturity with different types of products or services.  

“It's hard for me to say that ‘converting contacts/leads into customers’ or ‘growing traffic to website’ is where priorities should or shouldn't be without knowing more about a specific organization's operation,” Breckenkamp said. “For example, these are not things you would want to prioritize just yet if you have a retention problem or if you aren't able to measure the impact of your sales/marketing activities.”

Inbound, she added, can be a “very effective strategy.” 

“But,” she added, “unless you're able to quantitatively measure conversion associated with each of your inbound marketing activities, you could be wasting a lot of resources without realizing it.”

Marketers’ priorities have shifted as a consequence of the effectiveness of previous years’ strategies, according to Courtney Beasley, director of marketing at Chicago-based public relations firm Walker Sands.

“Instead of focusing on filling the funnel, marketers are now trying to figure out how to work with the leads they have,” Beasley told CMSWire. “This tells me two things: One, marketers now have to learn how to create more mid- to lower-funnel content to continue the conversation they started and two, budgets will be spent in different ways that the last two to three years.” 

Title image "DSC_0069" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by jameskm03