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4 ways your inbound marketing strategy can make (or break) your business

4 ways your inbound marketing strategy can make (or break) your business

They say the idea of marketing is to make selling unnecessary. Your sales team might take issue with that but they would certainly agree that marketing can make their jobs easier and more fruitful. A successful inbound marketing strategy will feed your sales team with warm, qualified leads, helping them hone in on demand and spend less time chasing lost causes.

As well as making sales more efficient, inbound marketing is also accountable. Properly-run inbound campaigns are transparent, measurable and easy to connect to a solid return on investment. When it’s done really well, inbound marketing can help you build a more creative and digitally-engaged business. It can have a positive impact not just on your sales, but also about how your people, your customers and your other stakeholders feel about your brand.

In this post we’re going to look at four examples. The first two examples show us how inbound marketing can make your business. These are the success stories that we all want to emulate. The second two examples didn’t go so well, but sometimes you can learn more from failure, even if it’s someone else’s.

2 ways to make it

“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” Amelia Earhart.

So, let’s start with the success stores. We’ve picked two examples of brands that have leveraged content marketing, social media and brand building tactics to drive success in their respective businesses. While the brands involved likely have bigger budgets than you, regular marketers can still learn useful lessons from them. We’ve added our takeaways below each example.

1. HubSpot and the pillar and cluster blogging reboot

HubSpot is the biggest provider of marketing automation software by market share and really owns the inbound marketing space. It runs a leading inbound marketing event, which 24,000 people attended this year. The HubSpot Blog has 42,000 subscribers and features more than 22,000 posts. Google something related to inbound marketing and chances are at least one of those blogs will be on the first page.

But even with the power of a world class content marketing operation behind it, HubSpot has not had it all its own way. Last year, the company saw its blog traffic start to plateau. Competition and changes to the way Google and leading social media sites rank content meant that the steady growth HubSpot’s blog had experienced for years appeared to have come to an end.

The company’s pillar and cluster strategy was not the only thing it did to get its traffic graphs pointing back in the right direction. But it’s what we want to focus on because it’s an excellent model for anyone running a serious company blog.

Pillar and cluster is like hub and spoke. The idea is to organise blog content around particular topics. For each topic there is a single piece of “pillar” content that provides an overview. That then links to a whole series of posts targeting related long-tail keywords. These posts are the “cluster” content. Probably easier just to watch the video:

Pillar and cluster was intended to work better for two audiences: Google and HubSpot’s human readers.

Google’s algorithm isn’t as smart as the Silicon Valley super-bros would have you believe. But it has got a lot better at interrogating the meaning behind search queries and serving up content that matches those queries more closely.

What that means in English is that a blog post that used to rank for multiple long-tail keywords now ranks for far fewer. On some of those keywords it now gets out-ranked by a bunch of different posts that provide better matches.

Pillar and cluster makes HubSpot’s posts that provide those better matches easy for Google to find and index. Combine that with the resources to create specific posts for however many long-tail variations you want and you’re back to dominating search results and driving more traffic to your site.

For human beings it makes it easy to explore a topic in more depth. You get hooked in after Googling a question or looking for help with something inbound-marketing-related. Reading that post, you follow a link to another post digging deeper into a particular aspect of your original query. Before you know it, you’ve subscribed to HubSpot’s newsletter or you’ve downloaded one of its research papers.

Takeaways

  • Blogging is competitive. Social media sites favour native content over your link shares. Google is serving up closer matches to queries, which means your content won’t rank for as many long-tail keywords as before;
  • HubSpot’s solution is pillar and cluster, which means building big overview pages on key topics (pillar content) and linking out to more specific posts targeting different long-tail keywords (cluster content);
  • The result has been a return to steady month-on-month growth both in organic traffic and the number of keywords HubSpot’s blog ranks for

2. Nike and the $6 billion Colin Kaepernick gamble

Earlier this year we wrote about Nike’s Colin Kaepernick-fronted marketing campaign. Marking the 30th anniversary of the very first “Just Do It” ad, “Dream Crazy” was one of the biggest marketing stories of 2018.

Kaepernick is a controversial and somewhat divisive figure. For his critics, he is a pampered, overrated troublemaker who has disrespected the American flag and the US military. For his supporters, he is an icon, who has given up the trappings of a successful NFL career to take a stand (or a knee) for something he believes in.

Nike’s decision to align itself with Kaepernick’s progressive politics was a measured risk. The young people it wants wearing its trainers and connecting with its brand values are much more likely to approve of or at least not be offended by Kaepernick’s activism. But there was a real chance that the Kaepernick die-hards would resent a multi-billion-dollar apparel brand latching itself on to one of their heroes. As we’ll see in the next section not all attempts to ride on the coat-tails of pop culture trends pay off.

In Nike’s case it did. As this lovely chart from CBS News shows, Nike’s share price hit a record high in the post-Kaepernick period. Now, share price is not the only way to measure a company’s success. And there are more variables than just the latest marketing campaign that influence share price. But, it’s a fact that Nike’s market capitalisation increased by USD $6 billion in the three weeks after the campaign was launched.

nike stock

Nike had reportedly considered dropping Kaepernick altogether in 2017. But the decision to not only retain him but have him front “Dream Crazy” now looks like one of the best marketing calls of the year. It’s worth noting here that the record high of USD $85.55 per share on September 21st hasn’t been sustained since. Nike shares closed out November at USD 75.12. That’s still 25 per cent up on a year ago.

Takeaways

  • Marketing campaigns built around controversial figures and political causes carry a lot of risk for brands, but also big potential pay-offs
  • You can use inbound marketing, content creation and social media to associate your brand with the values of your target audience, but you need to be consistent, authentic and sensitive

2 ways to break it

“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself”. Charlie Chaplin.

We’ll say this section is about the valuable lessons we can all take from marketing campaigns gone wrong. But let’s be honest, schadenfreude is just human nature. Don’t fight it.

1. Burger King and the World Cup baby boom

Even if you actively tried to avoid it, you will have noticed that 2018 was a World Cup year. And when it comes to marketing opportunities in sport it doesn’t get any bigger than the football World Cup.

In 2014, the World Cup final attracted a television audience 20 times bigger than the Superbowl. The four-year cycle that culminated with that tournament brought in USD 1.63 billion in sponsorship revenue for Fifa, the much-maligned organising body. That was more than three times the revenue for the 2003-2006 period, according to the Nielsen World Football Report.

Sponsorship revenue dipped for the first time in the 2015-2018 cycle, which included this summer’s tournament in Russia. But when you consider that Fifa had been doing its very best to alienate sponsors during that period, USD 1.45 billion isn’t at all bad.

Fifa had 16 official partners this summer. Its list of benefactors included representatives from a range of industries including automotive, dairy produce, white goods, financial services, soft drinks and, of course, burgers.

But not Burger King.

McDonald’s has been a Fifa sponsor since the 1994 World Cup. And despite rumours ahead of this year’s tournament that Fifa’s ethical transgressions had put that long-standing relationship at risk, McDonald’s remains a top tier sponsor.

Being a Fifa sponsor isn’t cheap and part of what you get for your money is a guarantee that you won’t be sharing any World Cup infographics with your competitors. In fact, Fifa takes a tough line with brands that try to piggyback on its showpiece event by creating football-themed content for their summer marketing campaigns when they’re not an official sponsor. Here’s 32 pages of brand protection guidelines to prove it.

For the 2018 tournament Burger King was one of the many non-sponsor brands looking for a way to get in on the action without falling foul of Fifa’s rules. What it came up with in Russia backfired spectacularly.

The company took to VK, Russia’s leading social media site to offer women a cash prize and free whoppers for life if they got pregnant by a World Cup player. There was something in there about wanting strong football genes to ensure Russia’s success in future tournaments but Burger King’s Russian arm was quickly deleting its posts and apologising.

The negative reaction in Russia was amplified to the rest of the world, with newspapers in the west digging up previous marketing blunders from other parts of Burger King’s global franchise network. The fact that Burger King wasn’t an official sponsor made the whole thing look especially clumsy and desperate.

Takeaways

  • Guerilla marketing around big sporting events carries two big risks. Firstly that the organising body will sue you. Secondly that your attempts to be cheeky and controversial will backfire
  • An event like the World Cup amplifies the potential reach of related marketing campaigns, but that works for fails as well as wins

2. Adidas and the Boston Marathon email fail

At this year’s Boston Marathon Adidas won plaudits for its creative use of user-generated content. Its “Here to Create Legend” campaign provided 30,000 participants in one of the world’s biggest road races with personalised videos. These videos combined footage from cameras along the course with data from RFID chips and were available to runners within minutes of them crossing the finishing line.

Adidas has sponsored the Boston Marathon for 30 years but not every one of its marketing campaigns inspired by the event has been so well received. In 2017, Adidas sent out a marketing email after the race congratulating participants for “surviving”. Now, with any other marathon that might seem like a perfectly normal thing to say. It’s a gruelling event that takes months of preparation and a huge physical toll even on accomplished runners.

But the Boston Marathon is very different. In 2013, three people were killed and 264 were injured when two bombs exploded at the finish line. To Bostonians, “surviving” means something very different to finishing a race.

Adidas apologised.

It could have been worse for Adidas. Marketing fails really hurt brands when they gatecrash a trending story or big social issue they don’t understand or have any real connection with. Tone deaf attempts to be funny or controversial for the first time have real consequences.

For Adidas, it had three decades of supporting the Boston Marathon behind it. Receiving a marketing email from the official sponsor of the event won’t have offended anyone who took part, even if the choice of words in the subject line did.

That said, if you Google “Adidas Boston Marathon” you’ll see the story about last year’s email error outranking the official Adidas Boston Marathon apparel range and the 2018 “Here to Create Legend” campaign.

Takeaways

  • Email is an essential tool for inbound marketing but mistakes can have big consequences. You can’t unsend an email and stories about failures tend to remain in the public consciousness (and Google’s search results)
  • Even when you’re the official sponsor, poorly-worded marketing can lead to a backlash on social media. It’s much worse if your brand has no connection with the event or story in question

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Adam Barber
Adam Barber About the author

Adam is one of Castleford's founders and remains actively involved in the day-to-day running of the business. He started out as a writer and still contributes regularly to our blog, covering SEO, CRO, social media and digital strategy.

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