Why “Inbound Marketing” Is Under Attack

Is “Inbound Marketing” the new marketing snake oil? I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say the practice is over-hyped and too often seen as a “one size fits all” solution.

The concept was named and popularized by HubSpot, the automated marketing software maker from Boston. HubSpot and its acolytes believe a company can publish valuable industry content to both inform and acquire new customers. I also believe this, but my beliefs are moderated by two decades of experience as an ad guy.

One of the missteps HubSpot and others make is to say that businesses no longer need traditional advertising. The reality is content is additive. Content, which is the heart of “pull marketing” (the unbranded version of Inbound) does not replace advertising, it deepens the brand story in ways that traditional advertising does not.

Brian Burns, host of “The Brutal Truth About Sales & Selling” has had it with all the hype about Inbound.

I work with salespeople from hundreds of companies and the consistent theme is that inbound marketing does attract leads. The problem is that the leads are trash. Not that they are unqualified but that they are literally trash. People visiting websites are smart enough today to know that if they give their contact information, they will be contacted, so they give a personal email address instead of their corporate address. In some cases, less than 10% give a real phone number or name. Of course, marketing counts these bogus contacts as leads and will spam them until they unsubscribe.

Another sharp critic of Inbound, and HubSpot specifically, emerged in a big way this week. Dan Lyons, a technology journalist and writer of the TV Show Silicon Valley, recounted his days working at HubSpot in his new book Disrupted. His report is a fascinating, often brutal look at the modern workplace.

Lyons’ writing is definitely the pin prick that the tech bubble needs right now, but his book is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable and angry. Of course, that’s partly the job of an investigative reporter and he’s a good one. The book contains many important sub-themes like rampant ageism, sexism and racism, but the real story is about tech founders and their VC buddies willfully duping today’s workers and the public about the value of their work, and the values held by the companies they’re working for and investing in.

Underlying all the personal drama in the book (and there is plenty), and the insanity of an industry running on free candy and ego-fueled bluster, is the question about HubSpot’s product and the methods they employ to convince small business buyers to subscribe to their software as a service. Lyons correctly asks if a plumber, for instance, is going to go out and fix pipes all day then come home and blog about it? The assumption is ludicrous on its face. Nevertheless, there are case studies that point to the successful use of the software and the advice that HubSpot dispenses on an hourly basis. Lyons points out that the software does work for about 10% of the company’s customers, so it’s not all gloom and doom in HubSpot land. But what about the 90% of their customers who are left holding their jocks?

I’m certain that plenty of people are ready and willing to come rushing to HubSpot’s defense at this time. There’s already talk (in social channels) about how Lyons is out of touch, vindictive and just plain wrong. I don’t think he is. I think he’s a journalist who willfully walked into a work world that he could not have imagined was real. It changed him and he wrote a good book about it.

A slide in HubSpot’s Culture Code deck.

Lyons reveals the cult-like aspects found in many tech companies, the lily white bro culture and how the offices are configured to be one part Romper Room and the other part frat house. Ultimately, he leaves the reader with plenty to think about and reconsider. Take the use of language inside HubSpot and throughout our industry, as one small example.

A quick peek inside the jargon factory:

  • SFTC means solve for the customer.
  • TOFU means top of the funnel.
  • MOFU means middle of the funnel.
  • DRI means directly responsible individual.
  • KPI means key performance indicator.
  • SLA means service level agreement.
  • VORP* means value over replacement player.

This hierarchy of acronyms is enough to make anyone want to scream STFU. I mean seriously, WTF?

Lyons swam into the belly of the beast and survived. Not everyone is so lucky. His book is full of references to lawsuits brought by women who have been treated unfairly, as a rule, across tech. He completely eviscerates Salesforce’s leader Marc Benioff and the company’s annual conference. And so it goes throughout this entertaining book, but the thing is it’s not just a takedown of a company or an industry out of control. The book is a chance for readers who work in tech and in marketing to pause and ask, “Am I mindlessly following the rules of this ‘new playbook’? Or, are my fundamentals solidly in place?”

*VORP is a particularly pernicious topic that deserves further examination.

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