Should your content generate leads or relationships?

Screenshot 2016-06-12 15.32.34

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with a Hubspot executive (now a former executive … but that’s another story). His business goal was to generate an ever-increasing number of leads from his company’s blog content and he wanted my ideas on what they might try to kick the number up.

“Are you sure that’s the right goal?” I asked. “Should your content be aimed at building short-term leads for cold calls, or for building real business relationships?”

Clearly the Hubspot model is built on leads. If you opt-in to something on their site, you’ll probably get a sales call within 24 hours. But is that the most effective way for everyone to build a business?

For a long time I’ve observed that there are two camps in the content marketing world — I’m in one and Hubspot is in the other — but I’ve never written about it before. I think this is an interesting topic, so let’s dive in.

Should content generate leads or relationships?

The Hubspot model is very clear: Produce content that generates more leads every month. But what does a relationship model look like?

Let’s start with a result. Last year, I received an exciting email. It went something like this:

Mark, I’ve been reading your blog for three years now. I love the podcast. I’ve also bought your books and they’ve been read by our entire management team. We’re convinced that you’re the right person to help us with our social media and content strategy. Can you work with us?

The email was from an executive with Adidas and it resulted in one of the biggest consulting contracts of my career. I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork to provide a quote. I didn’t have to compete with other agencies. They just wanted me, because through my content they felt they knew me and already had a relationship with me.

This is a perfect example of how the “relationship” content model works. The folks from Adidas didn’t opt in to anything (except the blog subscription I suppose). I didn’t make a cold call based on a phone number they provided. After a period of time, they wanted to hire me because I had built a voice of authority through my content.

This relationship approach has generated 100 percent of my business revenue for eight years.

The implications for your content strategy

Hubspot recently published an exhaustive analysis of how content quality and publishing rate affects their page views, leads and subscribers. It’s a complex article with more than a few statistical problems but it’s an interesting look into their process.

One of the take-aways was that their “top-of-funnel” content generated the most web traffic. This is typically light-weight, entertaining content and Hubspot noted that a post about funny out of office replies was their top performer. Likewise, my all-time high-traffic blog post has nothing to do with what I do for a living. It’s 20 of the World’s Most Clever Twitter Bios.

So the lesson here is that to attract more traffic, we should be producing dozens of funny Buzzfeed-type posts, right?

The problem is, this content may generate huge traffic, and may even result in some subscribers and leads, but it’s not consistently attracting the audience that is going to hire me or buy something from me.

That’s why my content focuses on more advanced ideas about marketing, social media, and content strategy even though pumping out funny or provocative posts might make my blog traffic numbers soar!

Which works for you?

The elephant in the content marketing room is that Hubspot has been around for nearly a decade and has never made a profit. Like many start-ups the company has been focused on growth and dominating a crowded space — a smart strategy. But a primary reason for their lack of profitability is not necessarily the focus on growth, it’s that their sales and marketing costs have been too high. Wait a minute. Isn’t inbound marketing supposed to lower our marketing costs?

The role of content in the Hubspot environment is to generate short-term sales calls, not long-term relationships. So their cost of sales is very high and the cost of generating 35 respectable blog posts a day is high, too.

With the relationship strategy I employ, my sales costs are nearly zero because people have decided to purchase from me by the time they contact me. The downside is that it has taken a long time to build the authority through my content that earns that business … but it works (and I have been profitable every year).

By producing thought-provoking content, I also will create online discussions and links back to my business. Fluffy stuff like the Twitter bios, or even the “how-to” content, will never work that hard for my business.

The changing nature of the inbound model

There is an emerging factor in our industry that could jeopardize the Hubspot “leads” model.

Social media is Hubspot’s third-most important source of inbound traffic, after email and search. But social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn are turning into content dead ends and will become a less reliable source of traffic.

I explained this concept in an article called Facebook content strategy is a time bomb for inbound marketing. The main idea is this: If we posts links to our content on social platforms, it re-directs reader attention away from Facebook to our own sites. Facebook hates that. So through Notes and Instant Articles, Facebook is encouraging (demanding?) content creators to publish their entire articles on their social platform.

The good news is, if we submit to Facebook and publish there, we get wider awareness for our content. The bad news is, if the reader is consuming the content on Facebook, they are not moving to our website to generate traffic and leads.

What do we do about that? I think the strategy is still evolving. I don’t have all the answers but my sense is that focusing on relationships instead of leads will work better in that environment. We build relationships and authority through our content, no matter where it appears.

How about you?

Does your content generate leads or relationships? What is your priority?

This decision may depend on your business type. If you are selling a personal service (like I am) the relationship model may work best. Likewise, if you are selling something distinctive, like a restaurant, or a clothing line, I think people will want to build an emotional connection to your brand rather than receive 35 posts in their inbox every day.

Hubspot is offering marketing automation, a business that has become far less differentiated over the years (and there needs to be some consolidation in this field). Trying to “out-lead” the other guy and out-last competitors may be the thing to do.

I know there are thousands of passionate advocates of the Hubspot version of inbound marketing and they may take exception with my ideas here. I’m sure there is a hybrid approach. I’d love to hear your views one way or another in the comment section. But either way, I hope by presenting an alternate view to the strategy behind inbound marketing it might provide clarity to your own business tactics.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Steve Johnson.

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  • Relationships are far stronger than leads, and quite often – no matter what industry you’re in, you tend to rely on relationships to sometimes get you leads, even if the relationship in itself doesn’t become a lead. I don’t do social and content strategy work in the Tennessee area, but if anyone asked me – I’d recommend Mark.

    However, a couple of points to add to your post, Mark.

    1. One of the main reasons why most agencies and consultants head for the lead route versus the relationship route is that a “lead” is something tangible that companies tend to recognize. For agencies and consultants – it’s easier to say, hey – I got you 100 leads last month, compared to 80 the month before, so I’m doing much better! The client says – yes, good job but those leads aren’t converting for me. The consultant then comes back and says – oh it must be your sales guys or a product issue, because these leads are solid and that’s what I’m scoped to do. As soon as the conversation shifts to being about relationships, the consultant will say things like – I’ve strengthened three relationships for you and got two new ones. But the measure of those, not so easily doable. I’m not saying it’s right, just saying that this is one of the key reasons why people prefer leads over relationships.

    2. This is the one that might sting, which is a little more interesting… is everyone as smart as Mark? Will everyone be able to create content on a regular basis that is as engaging, thought-provoking and unique enough to warrant companies to say – he’s our guy, we don’t need him to pitch to us, let’s just discuss how much it costs and engage him. My honest answer? Not a lot. Not a lot of people will be able to do that for a personal brand of their own, or for the space they’re in. Because let’s be real, in the hundreds of thousands of marketing consultants on the planet, you can count on your hand (or maybe your toes would need to help) – the amount of marketing consultants you’d be comfortable simply hiring based on what you’ve seen of them and heard of them. I think this is scary for most people, that they don’t think they’ll ever be able to get to that stage – so why try?

    But there’s a solution to all this (at least in my mind). It’s one that will probably take you 4-5+ years to actually figure out, but it’ll probably shed light on a number of things. Like Mark rightly said, if you’re in a “personal” service business, relationships are the right model for you. So here’s what you should be doing, since everyone is a little scared to let go of the lead-generation model, keep going at it. Keep using “leads” and social content to try and see what you can do. But at the same time, have a blog of your own, or a website of your own, or a video channel – where you post content that you think is actually valuable and isn’t the whole “four things you must do to excel in…” kind of content. And engage with your fans in the comments, take time to build a relationship with them, perhaps go so far as to see if they have blogs of their own and talk to them there. Go to local conferences if you can get invited, perhaps just as a guest, and then work your way up to being a guest panelist and then a speaker at one of the workshops, and then on the main stage. Keep doing this on the side, because after a couple of years, you’ll realize that those relationships are far more valuable than the ones that end up in your Mailchimp and get an automated e-mail to.

  • Sue-Ann Bubacz

    Mark: To my thinking, business is about building relationships, plain and simple. It is, in fact, H2H or human to human that is most effective in establishing the most valuable of business relationships that lead to the delicious ending that you describe.
    I’ve had many clients over the years, and still do, who don’t even ask a price, but rather, just place an order because they trust what I do, how I will do it, and what I will charge them. That’s trust. That’s good business built on relationships and not cold call leads by the masses.
    A relationship doesn’t start until there’s a two way interaction and mutual value found—customer to business and business to customer—it works both ways. Look, there are a lot of companies who survive by selling to the numbers and they may even flourish in spite of themselves. But, I think these businesses are often one and done, meaning you’ll buy from them once and never again. Clearly, they forget the relationship part of good business. Well that’s my 2 cents. And, I love the new look:) Thanks for all the good stuff and have a great week. Sue-Ann

  • Mark, you left open the door for a “hybrid approach” in your final paragraph. I worked for a company with multiple divisions. One (the oldest) is the category leader (it has the largest market share of all players). Its content strategy was “thought leadership first.” All its content was un-gated; and calls-to-action were often omitted. The other divisions sought “leads first,” gated all the good stuff, and included calls-to-action religiously. The two strategies are at odds, from the perspective of the clients (who are the same for all divisions) and the disconnect is apparent. There’s the rub with the hybrid approach.

  • As usual, your comment is better than the original post my friend. You continue to impress with the depth of your thought and generous contributions to the discussion!

    Your first point is exceptionally keen and accurate and I love your final “solution.”

    The second point also makes sense although I do believe there are opportunities to establish yourself as an expert on a regional or local level. For example, I have a friend who is doing amazing things to establish a trusted brand in Vancouver Canada. If local businesses were looing for a consultant, she would win out over me, even if I have a stronger national or international presence, but you’re right. In any field — engineering, research, psychology, whatever — there are going to be a handful of trusted experts. That’s why it is so important to investigate the idea of information density in a niche before determining a strategy.

    I think you and I are a perfect example of a content-based relationship. Through the content, we have found ways to help each other and become friends. There is no question in my mind we will continue to find ways to collaborate going forward. Thank you!

  • I do think there are many kinds of transactions not built on relationships. Sometimes you just want a hamburger or a car wash! We need to keep that in mind as marketers. But in terms of buying and selling a personal service you are 100% correct. Congratulations on establishing that bond of trust with your customers. That is an inspiration!

  • That is so interesting. Points out the disparity in the strategies, doesn’t it Bob? I do think there is so much room for innovation in this business, though. There are simply too many people copying the apparent industry leaders when there is so much more to be done. As I said in my post, I don’t have all the answers but I’m open minded and humble enough to realize there are lots of good ideas out there yet to be implemented. Thanks for sharing your wsidom with us today sir!

  • Mary Alice McMorrow

    My vote will always be generate RELATIONSHIPS. If the customer is willing to engage in content from your Brand, then you will have more than one opportunity to offer them your product, and you will learn more about your customer and your product – and your next product – to grow your business.

  • Mary Jane Kinkade

    Excellent, excellent, excellent. Relationships all the way!

  • Great discussion Mark! I am in it for the long haul.. so I agree- it’s all about the RELATIONSHIP.

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Mary Alice.

  • Thanks MJ.

  • Thanks for your “vote” Amy. : )

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  • T. Riedel

    Love this post Mark! Voting for Relationships. You can build a lot with relationships than just Leads.

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  • Mark, I really don’t have time to think today – and here you are forcing me! 🙂 I’ve been a fan of the inbound model for years, but in truth I’ve become disillusioned as I see that the customers I get are not a result of “lead generation” through content, but through referrals. And yes, HubSpot spends an awful lot of money on sales calls and advertising for an inbound company.

    I still think all this content creation is very important, but unless you use your email list masterfully to grow relationships, it is really more a support than anything else.

    If someone refers a business owner to me, they want to see that I know what I’m talking about – so they look at my content or listen to me on a podcast. But, I can only think of one fantastic client who came to me because of traditional inbound lead generation. Granted, he is the one who moved me into my specialty (Pinterest) and I have a great case study and a lot of experience because of him, but it’s just one client. In four years.

    I think we have to keep at it, but I’m becoming more and more open to the idea of ungating content.

    Thank you for this.

  • Chris Handy

    I look at a lot of HubSpot instances on behalf of clients. Many businesses are intentionally trying to remove the relationship from the marketing because they have the automation.

    I will see endless dripped emails without any segmentation set up to basically end up in the “promotions tab” graveyard. There is almost always a drop-off after 2-3 of these in open rate. The worst part is that most companies don’t disclose that the drip is coming.

    Even now though, people are numbing to the “Free eBook” offering and the snazzy 20 best things article.

    But… completely ungated content (as presented by Drift recently) works when you have a Freemium product, in which case, that free version of the product becomes the gated thing. It works less so when you are a company without that.

    Some of the best ways (at this moment) to *generate leads* is by offering alternative versions of content. This is commonly called “content upgrades”. In these situations, all the content is out there for free and the gated piece is a checklist version of it, in conjunction with a curated group of related articles as an “email course”. This should always lead into a defined newsletter.

    HubSpot themselves use paid social, paid search, sponsored content to drive traffic and nurture leads in certain stages. They do a great job of segmentation. We shouldn’t lose sight of the power of segmenting your database based on interests they have shown or actions they have/have not taken Customer/non-customer.

    Ultimately it is about understanding the baby steps you want the reader/listener/viewer to take when they consume your content. In the case of your article, Mark, you asked for our thoughts in the comments. That was what you needed from us. It’s a low barrier that many are wiling to take. I like this for your site. In order for brands to take advantage of this strategy, they need to put personalities forward who are going to take the time to respond in the comments. The ghost-written executive who cals for comments but never answers them is far worse than Ted from customer service and actually responding. The executives need to get the relationship part of it.

    Many who generate a lead from a download haven’t thought that far ahead and they just ask for the sale after the eBook was downloaded or someone subscribes. This tactic seems silly when you map it out on a whiteboard and ask yourself what the person’s intent or need is at that time.

    If an “inbound automator” got involved in your strategy at grow; they might make some incorrect assumptions about the audience origins and send repeated messages about subscribing to your podcast (until they clicked) after they signed up for the email list. They may not know that I was a listener first, and already have that set up.

    Instead, the first step after a subscription to grow could be a question/survey about “how you found grow”. This would help lead to valuable segmentation for both sides.

    To be fair (re: HUBS profitability), HubSpot has poured a whole lot of money into R&D and new product development. Much of the new stuff they have built is more based around empowering salespeople to do more with content, have more contextual conversations based on one timeline of customer interaction. I see their vision as to become the “system of record” for customer/contact lookup and notes for sales/service/marketing. I like this vision.

  • Thanks for commenting.

  • Thank you so much for offering your experiences Alisa. Much appreciated!

  • Yes I saw a demo a few weeks. Really like what Hubspot is doing with their technology and their content. They are also doing a better job responding to comments and showing a little personality. Very smart perspective here. Thanks for adding your valuable view Chris.

  • BiggsMontana87

    If you are only interested in the Guy Kawasaki pop (great case study in the content code of why short term is short sighted) then eventually it will catch up with you. Humans thrive on relationships, why not focusing on building them?

    Sort of off-topic question, does your SEO get penalized if you post the same content on multiple websites? Like if you post on your own blog, Facebook, Medium etc… I see the value in Medium but also the value in posting on Facebook and your own blog.

  • Tara Geissinger

    I’ve been working closely with a client that offers an automated email mining service and I’ve been diving into Account Based Marketing strategies. I agree with what you’re saying, Avtar, in that there’s often a disconnect between Marketing and Sales departments. Marketing loves inbound strategies and the benchmarks of generating more and more leads. Meanwhile, sales is shaking their heads saying “but these aren’t even the accounts we’re targeting!”

    Someone building a personal brand would be mindful to follow your advice to post content, network through local events, use video and podcasting platforms for a more personal connection, etc. But if you’re marketing a product and have a sales team behind you, I think the hybrid solution comes into play when Marketing aligns with Sales and implements content strategies targeting specific accounts (or types of accounts.) This is where HubSpot’s responsive text and list segmentation can be very beneficial!

  • I started a broader distribution strategy a couple months ago. Not long enough to really see a material difference but I don’t know that it matters. I think we need to think more broadly about how we attract attention and more important, fans. I need to optimize me, not necessarily search. Sticking to what we think the “rules” are for Google may inhibit my ability to spread content. And I think spreading content is the number one goal for me, so I am letting my instincts take over, not my fear of Google.

  • Great article Mark, as usual!
    I agree that relationships win the day for the way our blog and content strategy works. But this is at a very small scale. We’re a tiny business with a business model that doesn’t require us to close a large volume of sales to make our numbers. So for us, our content strategy has delivered all of our new business for 7 years and counting.

    In contrast, Hubspot’s model requires them to do a lot of volume and feed leads to a bunch of hungry sales reps. Without commenting on the lack of profitability of their sales model (that’s a whole different blog post!), I think that scale needs to drive a lot of the decision. I don’t think I could massively scale my model and get the same kind of results, no matter how smart the people who got involved in the conversations. And as Avtar points out, most organizations don’t have even one Mark Schaefer, let alone a bunch of them all driving relationships at scale. And if they did try it, they might cause their own content shock (which I suspect is happening at Hubspot).

    What do you think? Can your relationship approach scale so support 100 sales people each needing to close 50 sales a year?

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  • As I mentioned near the end of the post, I think “business type” dictated much of the strategy. In a personal services business, the relationship angle probably works best. In the SaaS world of Hubspot, maybe lead churn is the way to go (but don’t you eventually reach a point of diminishing returns?)

    Even in the big company setting, I think there is room for being human. Who is the face of Hubspot? They really don;t have one. For years they never even answered the comments on their blog (although I think they have improved in this area). But what if there was a real human presence that helped form an emotional attachment between the company, the content, and the customer? I think that is possible, too. Thanks for the very interesting discussion topic Candyce. Would be interested to hear your opinion on it.

  • Great insight Tara. Thank you!

  • Fantastic article Mark.

    I find that in my industry agencies are always on the lookout to create the fluff content to grab eyes but don’t know what the real strategy is for behavior change within their audience.

    Bullhorn blasts and posts for laughs are great for your outbound metrics but in the end are they adding to the ecosystem of relationship building? No

  • You’re exactly right Tim. I think a lot of this is also driven by the need to measure. It is easy to measure views, more difficult to measure relationships.

  • “Even in the big company setting, I think there is room for being human.” Could not agree with you more!!!

    My work is almost exclusively with smaller companies and sales teams of 5 to 15 people. In those cases, it is pretty straightforward to have 2 to 5 key thought leaders publishing content and engaging directly with an audience (not that they do consistently, but it’s possible). But in most cases, SMEs are too busy with their “day jobs” to really get involved in the relationship building you’re describing. They do take speaking engagements, but primarily just on panels. But their online outreach is very limited. The marketers and sales people who can and want to dedicate that time don’t have the subject matter expertise to be the thought leaders themselves.

    I know you work with much larger companies. Have you seen this work at scale?

  • Dear Mark, I agree with you on the importance of developing honest relationships between businesses and their customers, ultimately that’s what HubSpot is highlighted in the last phase of his famous methodology, however Consultant have found the growing need to show results in the short term for my clients, to be honest most of them do not hire a consulting service to sit and wait for the SEO yield results.

    I can say based on my experience in business that offer something tangible as a product, a food, an electronic device generating demand from works traffic. Perhaps it is the impulse that many brands seek through their campaigns; I imagine not need six months to decide buying a TV. But I watched my services, I have a growing need to develop my personal brand and do not think that only the post are the way to achieve this, the actual contact and a handshake has a very important effect on my scale of factors that can trigger a ” good “business relationship.

    I worry a little growing incorporation of PPC scheme in Inbound scenario; perhaps a few years ago, the same HubSpot not speak only to get traffic through purely organic methods? It has certainly changed his speech and I do not think his method tends to collapse by itself … I send you a big hello.

  • BiggsMontana87

    Well said Mark. Google can be daunting. Your advice seemed picture worthy.

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  • Manish Tayal

    I agree with you Mark

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