raccoon caught in a no kill trap
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“Inbound marketing” was supposed to make life SO easy.

According to HubSpot, “Inbound marketing is about creating valuable experiences that have a positive impact on people and your business. How do you do that? You attract prospects and customers to your website and blog through relevant and helpful content. 

Once they arrive, you engage with them using conversational tools like email and chat and by promising continued value. And finally, you delight them by continuing to act as an empathetic advisor and expert.”

All you need to do is understand the Buyer’s Journey, and how a singular “Buyer” mystically progresses from Awareness (“the buyer realizes they have a problem”) to Consideration (“the buyer defines their problem and researches options to solve it”) to the promised land of Decision (“the buyer chooses a solution”).

Wow, sounds great, sold.

Inbound Marketing Sounds So Good ... Until it Doesn't

To make things even better, there are now handy marketing automation solutions to measure progress of the Buyer’s Journey. This satisfies the demands of those pesky C-level executives who annoyingly demand an answer to the “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half” conundrum. The promise of inbound marketing is that with enough content and enough marketing automation commitment, a marketing executive can finally answer the age-old “which half works” question by systematically measuring progress from visitor to lead to marketing qualified lead (MQL) to sales qualified lead (SQL) to opportunity to customer.

Even better. Game, set, match in terms of finally demonstrating the value of marketing and turning marketing from a mysterious Mad Man-esque art into a science.

Except for many enterprise software marketing executives — especially at small and mid-sized companies — it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Buy these folks a beer (or two) and they will often confess something similar to this: “We have commissioned a lot of content and lead generation programs. We monitor the performance of this content in our marketing automation platform. And now sales tells me we got zero — zero — leads from all of this. And the C-level is all over me.”

Related Article: 5 Basic B2B Marketing Tactics That Deliver Big Results

What Went Wrong?

There are many tactical reasons for frustrating inbound marketing results. Let’s start with four:

  1. Successful inbound marketing requires a LOT of content, in a variety of forms. A lot more than one realizes when you start a content marketing initiative.
  2. A lot of the content generated by many companies is — well, how can I say this delicately? — really bad. Inbound marketing requires a much more deft hand than simply repolishing all of those old product spec sheets.
  3. Many organizations gleefully embrace sales automation tools to automate the sales function and create some accountability for all those shoot from the hip sales people. And they embrace marketing automation for many of the reasons. But all the automation technology in the world cannot paper over cultural and management gaps that allow sales and marketing to operate like rival Games of Thrones kingdoms.
  4. And lastly, many organizations provide lip service to the concept of a “Buyer’s Journey” when the reality is that marketing generated “leads” are blindly thrown over the transom to sales rather than nurtured in a journey. Sales then assumes that each of these leads are highly qualified and ought to be eager to immediately buy a $100K enterprise software solution, even though all they've done is download a white paper. When Sales performs the equivalent of walking into a bar and yelling “Who wants to get married today?” and gets zero takers, the report goes back up the chain that “those marketing generated leads were useless.”

But all of these are tactical problems, and these problems don’t get at a core inbound marketing assumption that is just not true in the world of large ticket B2B software sales. Which is this: B2B marketing and sales is not the same as B2C.

Related Article: Inbound Alone Doesn't Cut It: What B2B Marketers Can Do Next

B2B Marketing and Sales: Forget Linear Journeys, Think Spaghetti

B2B sales and marketing is just not the linear process that is implied by all of those simple Awareness —> Consideration —> Decision diagrams. And all of the automation in the world of the Visitor —> Lead —> MQL —> SQL —> Opportunity —> Customer chain is not going to change that. In fact, for many companies, it distorts reality by implying process simplicity rather than accurately documenting the complexity that is actually reality.

Gartner has done a good job in educating companies about the reality of B2B sales: “The buying journey isn’t linear. B2B buying doesn’t play out in any kind of predictable, linear order. Instead, customers engage in what one might call looping across a typical B2B purchase, revisiting each of six buying jobs at least once.”

These buying jobs — which occur simultaneously rather than sequentially and with wildly varying degrees of sophistication and roles — include 1) problem identification; 2) solution exploration; 3) requirements building; 4) supplier selection; 5) validation; and 6) consensus creation.

All of which creates a process map that is not so much a linear and predictable flow as it is a chaotic spaghetti of a lot of interconnecting parts. Which means that the chain of Visitor —> Lead —> MQL —> SQL —> Opportunity —> Customer is actually a series of multiple and recursive chains, chains that take far longer to come to resolution in the enterprise software world than they do in the simpler world of B2C purchasing.

Does this mean that I am down on content marketing and inbound automation? No, but I do think organizations need to approach these tasks with a solid dose of reality. They need to resist the temptation to confuse automation with process simplicity. And they need to understand that there is a real and meaningful difference between B2C and B2B processes.