Inbound Marketing, Outbound Marketing, and Spam: #IMS09 day one

Yesterday was day one for the Inbound Marketing Summit (see #ims09 for tweetstream) at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. If you’ll allow me an early morning extended metaphor, it reminded me an aspect of Boston public transit: the distinction between inbound and outbound, and how they can get confused.

Kendall Square, Inbound (Photo by Eric Kilby, cc-by-sa license)
Kendall Square, Inbound (Photo by Eric Kilby, cc-by-sa license)

For those not from around here, in Boston the mass transit system trains run by the MBTA, and popularly called the “T,” are generally marked with inbound (going towards downtown Boston) and outbound (going away from downtown). The exception is four stations in the middle of downtown Boston, where the concept of Inbound and Outbound gets a bit tricky, since (and this is very much a Bostonian perspective) you’re already at the center of the universe, so everything is outbound.

Heart of the System (Photo by Eric Kilby, cc-by-sa license)
Heart of the System (Photo by Eric Kilby, cc-by-sa license)

What does this have to do with marketing? I’m getting there.

Inbound marketing is defined in opposition to outbound marketing, most clearly in this post on the hubspot blog:

When I talk with most marketers today about how they generate leads and fill the top of their sales funnel, most say trade shows, seminar series, email blasts to purchased lists, internal cold calling, outsourced telemarketing, and advertising. I call these methods “outbound marketing” where a marketer pushes his message out far and wide hoping that it resonates with that needle in the haystack.

[. . . ]

Rather than do outbound marketing to the masses of people who are trying to block you out, I advocate doing “inbound marketing” where you help yourself “get found” by people already learning about and shopping in your industry. In order to do this, you need to set your website up like a “hub” for your industry that attracts visitors naturally through the search engines, through the blogosphere, and through the social media sites. I believe most marketers today spend 90% of their efforts on outbound marketing and 10% on inbound marketing and I advocate that those ratios flip.

While there was lots of great content at day one of the summit, it felt to me like there was a natural tension between those who still think of the job of marketing as being to spread professionally crafted messages – to shape the market by getting your brands’ story out there before or more loudly than anyone else’s – and those who have started to think of the job of marketing as being to humanize, to listen, to engage with communities.

A great example of the latter – listening to and engaging with communities in a real human voice, was Kodak’s Chief Blogger (@kodakCB), who talked about Kodak’s expanding social media programs, how they leverage content created by their customers, and their current initiative to create a “chief listener” to supplement their other efforts. Similarly, Justin Rasmussen (@thisisjustin) talked specifically about humanizing technology and many folks spoke about the need to maintain relationships and the important of human thinking (and empathy) over the importance of platforms.

At the same time, other sessions seemed overly focused on shaping, defining, and dominating the conversation through outbout techniques. This included a session on PR as a way of “getting the word out” (which focused on sending out press releases, and “social media releases,” but also noted that PR has to move away from essentially doing interruption marketing to the press on behalf of brands) and email marketing (isn’t email by definition outbound? I guess one does opt-in, but it still feels very outbound to me). The final session of the day, from Tim Street (@1timstreet) was focused on “how to make your videos viral,” and focused on spectacle, story, emotion – and the need to hire a pro to create video for you.

I really don’t mean to pick on individuals or categories – and I’ve worked with some very smart PR folks, email service providers, and video artists who totally “get” the value of listening to customers – but it felt to me like these sessions represented the outbound meme: craft professional content and push it out as a way of reinforcing your message.

While Chris Brogan‘s “Listening is the new black” was my favorite tweet, and the concept of dropping the “engine” from SEO my favorite concept, the #ims09 stream was quickly polluted by a variety of spam from the explicit and pornographic to the more subtle “we’re here at #ims09, come talk to us about our products” kind (which I think is still marginally spam – certainly “interruption marketing”). Twitter as a conversational, inbound marketing tool was being turned into an interruption based, outbound, spam engine.

It will be interesting to see the contrast between the ProjectVRM summit at the Berkman Center next week and the Inbound Marketing Summit. If Doc Searls, founder of ProjectVRM and one of the co-authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, can be said to represent former marketers who abdicated from marketing on behalf of the customer, does the Inbound Marketing Summit represent marketers who stayed in marketing but are nevertheless learning from Cluetrain how to be better marketers?

If markets are conversations, is the job of marketing to “own” and “define” that conversation by pushing out messages, or to listen to that conversation and help companies make better offerings more closely aligned to the needs of the customer?

What should the balance of “inbound” and “outbound” be in your marketing programs?

Outbound Platform (Photo by Andrés Monroy-Hernández, cc-by-sa license)
Outbound Platform (Photo by Andrés Monroy-Hernández, cc-by-sa license)

Maybe a better way to think about it is that there are good and bad ways of doing both inbound and outbound marketing. Email newsletters can be a great way to reach interested customers who’ve chosen that as their communication preference, and applying the lessons of professional storytelling (and the 100+ year history of film craft) to your company’s videos is a great way to improve their quality and potential relevance to users. At the same time, setting up “listening” channels in social media doesn’t necessarily mean a company actually plans to hear what users are saying in those channels.

Ultimately it comes down to finding the appropriate balance and sincere intent. Marketing has become humanized, and the voices of real people inside and outside the organization need to play a role in the conversation. If your intent is to dominate rather than participate, perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter whether you’re using outbound or inbound techniques to get there.