HubSpot CEO Discusses Inbound Vs Content Marketing and the Future of Digital

by Marcus Sheridan

In late 2009, I picked up a book that would help alter the course of my life forever– Inbound Marketing– coauthored by HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. Recently, the two have done a revision of the work and updated it to not only cover the important marketing topics and questions of the day, but also take a look into the future.

brian halligan


With the book’s release, I had the opportunity to interview HubSpot CEO Halligan (someone that has become a friend to me over these past 5 years) and was able to ask him some “hard” questions– questions I suspect will not only interest you, but also make you raise an eyebrow here or there.

So enjoy everyone, it’s well worth the read…

Q & A with Brian Halligan

1. Looking back at the first edition of  “Inbound,” what’s the one thing you wrote where you now say, “Man, I really whiffed on that one”?

I think we overestimated the importance of Digg (clearly, given that it’s now gone) and underestimated the importance of LinkedIn. Digg is a classic example of the Innovator’s Dilemma–the company focused entirely on what their existing user base said they wanted instead of looking at the bigger picture, and Facebook and Twitter’s popularity and virality beyond articles quickly meant the death of Digg.

On the other hand, at the time we published the first book, Dharmesh and I knew LinkedIn Groups were a powerful vehicle for marketing, but we had no idea they would launch the Influencers program and eventually become a force to be reckoned with to build people’s personal brands beyond social network to include content creation and promotion.

2. In conjunction with #1, what’s the one thing where you feel what you wrote then is even more applicable today?

The importance of agencies in marketing success. We devoted a very short chapter in the first book to choosing an agency that was almost entirely focused on PR. At the time, our agency partner program was still an experiment, and since then the program has grown to over 1,900 agencies worldwide. There are three key takeaways for me on the agency side:

  • Dharmesh and I knew the way people shop and buy had changed, and that businesses needed to change how they market and sold to match it. What we underestimated was the need for agencies to adapt their model to an inbound approach, which our agency partners have done. Realistically, many of our agency partners went from being dependent on one retainer a year and praying and hoping the client wouldn’t churn to being SaaS-based businesses where recurring revenue and measurable results are the norm–it has truly transformed the agency world in a way we couldn’t have guessed at the time of the first book.

  • In addition to agency transformation, the massive proliferation of marketing technology has created a new pool of unmet needs in the market. Companies need great writers to create content, they need technical marketers to set up effective lead nurturing and analytics, and they need seasoned practitioners who understand the relationship between sales and marketing well (ahem, Sales Lion) to construct SLAs for companies to effective align company goals with their demand generation program. The resulting shift has created a huge opportunity for agencies to help businesses go inbound. It’s also created a huge opening for people who are great technical marketers or remarkable content creators to do interesting and dynamic agency work on ongoing basis.

  • We talked a lot about the first book about how inbound marketing allows startups to compete with giants in the business world because it’s based on share of mind instead of share of wallet. But in addition to ringing true for companies, it’s true for agencies as well. Five years ago, small shops had a hard time competing with massively large creative agencies for talent and for accounts, and now the market is wide open. I love seeing agencies like Square2, New Breed, and Impact land huge accounts and grow massively year over year.

3. In simple terms, how would you define the difference between Inbound and Content Marketing?

Content is necessary, but not sufficient in today’s marketing world. If a tree falls in the woods does anyone hear it? Same thing with content no one ever sees–it doesn’t move the needle with your audience. So I think content is the fuel for inbound marketing goodness, but when I think about what makes inbound tick, it’s truly rethinking the consumer experience to be more frictionless. Let’s use HubSpot as an example–content, particularly blogging and social, were paramount to our growth strategy, but one thing people really underestimate is how important some of the applications our tech and marketing teams built–for example Website Grader, Marketing Grader, Twitter Grader, etc. Including freemium, top of the funnel tools as part of our lead generation strategy was critical to driving people’s understanding of what our model was about, and it allowed people to see how their site or presence stacked up without talking to a sales rep or committing to buy.

To me, that’s the big difference between content marketing and inbound marketing: content is a fundamental part of both philosophies, but inbound marketing goes beyond content and extends to every element of the customer interaction.

4. In the updated book, what’s the one point/theme you wish everyone would take away from it?

The megaphone versus hub analogy: most people think of their websites (and their social media efforts) as broadcast channels from which to shout or amplify their message like a megaphone to the world. To that end, they solve for the “audience” in an ambiguous manner instead of thinking about actual humans on the other side of the screen. You should think about your website as more of a hub, in which you can connect directly with individual consumers in a meaningful way. Thinking about a 1:1 communication helps you improve the content you deliver, the design you create, and the calls to action you employ.

Can you imagine how much more delightful being marketed and sold to would be if you didn’t feel like you were getting yelled at!?

5. How would you define “remarkable content?”

Most businesses are horrible at creating content. They talk about themselves constantly, they try to peddle their wares, and they avoid conflict or controversy like the plague–no wonder no one reads those blogs! To succeed with content, you need to be more educational, inspirational, or entertaining than anyone else in your space, and doing that requires a willingness to truly help your customer, taking stands that may or may not be popular, and a presentation style that cuts through the clutter. Remarkable content makes you stop in your tracks and tune in. It makes you want to share it with your friends. And it makes you want to tune into that channel on an ongoing basis.

6. When you look at businesses big and small today, what the biggest fear you have for them as you look ahead to the digital age?

The biggest fear for any business should be regressing to the mean: the millisecond in which you become average is the same millisecond in which your company ceases to be great. We all need to behave accordingly. I invest most of my time as a CEO railing against uninspired compromise–people default to the safest option because the alternative is hard or because “it’s what has always been done.” That’s a huge mistake–the best brains in business take the rules and rewrite them, all of us need to follow suit.


7. In 20 years, what percentage of business owners will know what the phrase “Inbound Marketing” means? Or, do you think it will eventual fade into the digital sunset and be replaced by something else? 

I should have known you’d have a curveball in here–I’d expect nothing less. I’d like to think inbound is a term that will be around for the ages. I think in the future there will be less of a delineation between marketing, sales, and services, so people will think about businesses being inbound (versus just one division or approach). I assume by then you’ll be the leader of the free world, Marcus Sheridan–I’ve learned never to underestimate you, that’s for sure.

Your Turn

So there you have it folks. Like I said, some interesting thoughts from HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan. If you’d like to ask Brian a question yourself, leave it in the comments section below. Also, make sure to check out the revised book as well.

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