Inbound marketing needs a conceptual and ethical realignment to survive

Inbound marketing needs a conceptual and ethical realignment to survive
Image by Ross Findon

To be precise: The lead generation, lead nurturing and lead scoring parts of a typical inbound marketing strategy need a major overhaul in order to be fit for the future. Why? Because measured against recent data protection regulations and their impact on people’s acceptance, inbound marketing is not always as sincere as it pretends to be.

Let me get this straight, in this article I’m not talking about some technical shortcomings of some marketing automation tools. I’m talking about conceptual aspects which are an integral part of the inbound marketing methodology or at least of its practical application. In addition, I want to clarify that it’s not my intention to denounce a misconception. The conceptual aspects addressed in this article had their raison d’être when they were introduced. But times are changing.

What’s wrong with inbound marketing?

To answer this question I have to go far afield.

Michael van Laar

Inbound marketing mimics the behavior of a good key account manager—in a scalable way, usually assisted by some kind of marketing automation technology.

Michael van Laar

This is how I typically explain the concept of inbound marketing, online lead generation and lead nurturing to sales people or C-level management. It’s a simplified illustration, but a vivid one.

A key account manager (in a typical B2B scenario) who wants to sell a (usually complex and rather expensive) product to a target client …

  • tries to get to know the right people within the company. This is comparable to the different free and gated content offers of an inbound marketing concept targeting different personas.
  • explores in which stage of a buyer decision process the potential client is. This is comparable to mapping certain pieces of content as well as certain behavioral indicators  to certain stages of this process. A lead scoring concept is based on these criteria.
  • spends a lot of their time listening to potential clients in order to understand their situation and motivation. This is comparable to individual-related tracking of a lead’s engagement with websites, emails and other marketing/communication channels.
  • offers tips and advice in early stages of a potential client’s buyer decision process—instead of rash sales pitches. This is comparable to lead nurturing streams set up in a marketing automation tool.
  • watches for the right opportunity and doesn’t start selling until a potential client is “ripe” for a sales pitch. This is comparable to rules and workflows for handing over marketing qualified leads to the sales team.

This concept sounds nice and works great. But it has two main flaws:

  • It utilizes permission marketing, but in many cases the permission is not given voluntarily.
  • Marketing automation tools use excessive individual-related tracking. And the inbound marketing methodology relies heavily on this.

Let’s examine these two points of criticism from a legal as well as from an acceptance point of view.

The “pay with your data” concept becomes outdated

A typical online lead generation scenario in a B2B inbound marketing context is based on a piece of—usually downloadable—content which is only accessible by filling out a registration form. The inbound marketing methodology promotes this as a win-win situation: The interested website visitor gets quality content, and the company offering the content can now connect a name, email address and other personal data with this particular website visitor’s tracking data. The interested person is no longer an anonymous website visitor to them. In many cases a registration like this also includes the (mandatory) permission for email marketing.

This model worked well in the past. And it still works well. But does it have good prospects? Two reasons speak against it.

Lead generation forms are so ubiquitous on the web that they are increasingly annoying

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Too many websites promote too much gated content, sometimes in a quite pushy way. Of course there are still countries with a rather low adoption rate of this technique. But especially in Anglo-American countries this type of online lead generation is an integral part of most B2B companies’ digital marketing activities. While only 5.2 percent of German B2B companies use gated content for their online lead generation, experts in more advanced markets like the USA already discuss what could be the successor of lead generation forms.

The more frequently this gated content lead generation approach is used, the more selective people become when it comes to leaving their data to content providers. Especially if there is no “double bottom” in place—like the mandatory email marketing double opt-in in European countries—, filling in a registration form usually means receiving a series of lead nurturing emails. People have learned this. That’s why more and more of them think twice. They consider carefully if the promoted content really looks promising enough to be worth being paid with their data and an email marketing permission.

Collecting these information is no longer allowed in some markets

Image by Bernd Marczak

Yes, I’m talking of the GDPR. Please note that a lot of the GDPR rules are couched in such nebulous terms that it will probably require courts and judges to clarify their actual meaning and impact based on precedential cases. That’s why the considerations in this article range between a reasonable case scenario and a worst case scenario. And of course: This is no legal advice. Please consult a specialized lawyer for detailed information.

The GDPR basically prohibits the collection of such personal data in association with a certain task (e. g. provide access to a white paper) which is not required for this specific task. In other words: If someone asks you to send them a letter, you need their postal address because otherwise the letter would never reach its recipient. Because the postal address is absolutely required for this task you are allowed to collect, store and process it. But you don’t need their phone number to send a letter. That’s why you are not allowed to collect the phone number (at least not as a mandatory information). Another example: If somebody explicitly wants to subscribe to your email newsletter, you need to get their email address to be able to send them the newsletter. But you neither need their name nor the name of their company to deliver your email newsletter.

Let’s turn back to typical lead generation forms: Which personal data do you need to provide the download of a white paper PDF? In all honesty: None at all! You neither need a name nor an email address nor any other personal data to provide a PDF download link. So if you interpreted the GDPR narrowly, the classic “register for this exclusive white paper” lead generation forms are no longer allowed. All the more if the registrant is also tricked or forced into an email subscription by filling out the form. This is even worse because in this case you also violated the coupling ban, which says that any permission (like an email opt-in) must be given voluntarily and not because it was tied to another action or permission.

Long story short: Unless a court decides that “paying with personal data” is a legitimate reward for high-quality download content, this lead generation tactic probably may no longer be used by companies with websites which are accessible for European citizens. And even if this “payment” will be allowed, I don’t see any chance that tying a mandatory email subscription to a registration may ever be legal in Europe.

Interestingly enough you don’t have a problem if you promote the whole thing the other way round.

  • Not allowed: “Register for this white paper download and have an (unwanted?) email subscription on your hands.”
  • Allowed: “Register for our email newsletter and receive this white paper as a welcome gift—exclusively for our newsletter subscribers.”

Update: According to German data protection regulatory authorities, paying for a white paper download with an email opt-in is allowed. Read more about the authorities’ commentary (in German). However, their estimation does not refer to the above-mentioned principle of not collecting more data than you absolutely need, but to the prohibition of making other types of consent dependent from an email opt-in.

Of course the legal aspect and the acceptance aspect have effects on each other. You probably already noticed: Being more honest with your leads as well as with yourself is the only reasonable way to cope with these conditions. More on that later.

Tracking is not the same as listening

You remember the idea of inbound marketing mimicking the behavior of a good key account manager? If a key account manager spends a lot of their time listening to potential clients, there must be an inbound marketing equivalent to this approach. Individual-related tracking of a lead’s engagement with websites, emails and other marketing/communication channels is the answer, provided by every marketing automation system out there.

There is just one little spot of bother: Tracking, especially individual-related tracking, is not the same as listening—both from a legal and from an acceptance point of view.

Let’s start with the legal aspect.

The GDPR prohibits individual-related tracking unless you obtain a permission

Image by Pete Linforth

At least this is the norm. In some cases you don’t need a permission because you can refer to one of the other justifications listed in Art. 6 (1) (a) GDPR. But there’s only a slight chance that the latter applies.

For a typical inbound marketing use case you need to get an “informed consent” which allows you to link tracking data to the personal data of a particular person. To obtain such an informed consent you typically expand your registration form by another checkbox (which must be separate from the email opt-in checkbox and which must not be preselected) with an appropriate field label explaining how you gather, process, store and analyze individual-related tracking data. If you want to be completely GDPR compliant, this consent must be given voluntarily, so this checkbox may not be a mandatory form field.

If a person submits the form but leaves the consent checkbox empty, your marketing automation system should be capable of not linking any tracking data to this person’s contact record. In such a case any tracking data you collect may be analyzed anonymously (e. g. as part of cumulative statistical reports). But without a consent you are not allowed to know that “Mr. X has clicked link Y in email Z on [date and time]”. Unfortunately no marketing automation software I know of is capable of suppressing individual-related tracking on a per-person basis at the time of writing.

But why should someone not click the consent checkbox in a registration form? This is a good question which leads us to the second spot of bother.

Listening feels like appreciation while Individual-related tracking feels like stalking

Image by Peter Griffin

It’s as simple as that. Web browser extensions like Ghostery or browser settings like Do Not Track exist and are used for a reason: Many people don’t like the idea of being monitored when they are browsing the web or reading their emails.

But let’s go back to our initial comparison. If a sales-rep remembers some small-talk details and weaves them into the chit-chat during a follow-up meeting (“What was your holiday in … like? You wanted to explore …, didn’t you?”), this is usually regarded as a sign of paying attention. Either the sales-rep is really interested in you as a person. Or at least they have done their homework, i. e. actually remembering those details or (more likely) taking notes. Most people view such extra work as a sign of respect and appreciation.

Now compare this to the explanatory field label of the consent checkbox in a registration form. Since you need to be quite detailed and have to use understandable language, this explanation may easily leave the impression of “Big [insert company name] is watching you. We spy the hell out of you in order to put our marketing and sales machinery on you more effectively.” It’s a dramatization. But if you are honest, this dramatization is not completely wrong.

Marketing automation tools actually save many details about each and every website visit, email interaction, link click or document download. They even combine this information with all of the details stored about a particular person inside your CRM system like telephone notes, fair booth visits and notes about personal conversations. Almost no interaction with your company or brand will be left unconnected. In many cases most of this data is never actually used for any automation or personalization purpose—but nevertheless stored for many years.

Personally, I think that most people’s negative attitude towards individual-related tracking is massively exaggerated and almost paranoid. But if you read the last paragraph again, you get an idea why not all people would voluntarily give a consent for such extensive tracking. The good news: This attitude may be different if they know what they get in return, of which more later.

In short: inbound marketing can be quite unethical

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At the beginning of this article I wrote that inbound marketing is not as sincere as it pretends to be. This may sound harsh and grossly overstated. Especially since inbound marketing is positioned as the modern, prospect-centric alternative to obtrusive and pushy techniques like cold calling or interrupting advertising.

But a closer, ruthless (and slightly dramatized) look reveals: Online lead generation with the classic “register for a download” method is quite often about …

  • tricking people into unwanted email subscriptions,
  • urging them to tracking consents or simply concealing the individual-related tracking at all,
  • collecting lots of data without a true purpose or service in return.

Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not my idea of professional ethics. There must be a better approach.

The solution: be honest, be selective, be creative

Image by Fathromi Ramdlon

We don’t have to reinvent the inbound marketing wheel. But we should definitely make it a little bit rounder.

Be honest:

  • Explain why you collect certain data. People know that your company is not a welfare institution and needs to sell its products. They know that you collect data in order to use it in your marketing and sales process. But the less often someone wonders “Why the heck do they want to know this?” the better the conversion rates of your lead generation forms will be.
  • Make it easy to unsubscribe or revoke a consent. An email preference page should not only enable subscribers to select which types of email they want to receive but should also include a way to revoke their consent for individual-related tracking. Your marketing automation tool probably doesn’t provide this out of the box. But usually there is an easy way to build such a feature yourself.

Be selective:

  • Ask yourself which data you actually need for your marketing activities. Instead of creating extensive progressive profiling forms, ask your sales team for the three or four key facts that characterize a promising lead.
  • If you want to collect more than the absolutely necessary data, make those form fields optional. A little “i” icon next to an optional form field, which opens a tooltip with a reasonable explanation, can eventually lead to better data quality than making this field mandatory.
  • Focus on the quality of your lead generation content, not the quantity. Gated content has become ubiquitous on the web. Everything below “top notch useful content” won’t be enough to convince people that it is worth entering their data into a registration form.

Be creative:

  • Utilize communication channels which actually make use of the data you collect. You want a person’s email address? Then promote something which can only be sent to them via email. This is much more honest and attractive than promoting a PDF download and silently slipping them an email subscription.
  • Utilize collected data to personalize or optimize your content offer—and tell people about it. If people know that they actually benefit from providing certain information, they are much more willing to do so. A lot of products work this way and are perfectly accepted by their users. Think for example of the suggestion features of audio or video streaming services. They are based on individual-related tracking data. But users accept this because they want better suggestions and thus see a direct benefit. It’s even a selling point for a streaming service. (In contrast to that: No one is really keen on receiving better personalized banner ads or promotion emails.) This approach is definitely much more challenging than just putting together a simple white paper. But it’s worth the extra effort.

Two ideas for operational execution

Image by Colin Behrens

Propagating three trivial principles is easy. But how can these basic ideas be transferred to operational marketing activities?

Here are two rough ideas that came to my mind spontaneously. Please don’t expect anything extraordinary. The following suggestions are just a starting point for more sophisticated concepts tailored to the needs of specific industries or business models.

Package your lead generation content as email course

You have a comprehensible reason to collect an email address if you use emails to deliver the lead generation content you promote. An email course may seem old-fashioned. (Some of you might remember this way of delivering content from the early days of the publicly available internet.) But it is not only a perfect justification for “selling” an email subscription. It also actually makes sense didactically, which in turn is a good selling point.

How many white paper PDFs have you downloaded, skimmed and “saved for later”—but never actually read? The majority of white papers, studies, guides, etc. I downloaded over the years suffered this fate.

An email course splits a comprehensive piece of content into small, easily and quickly consumable chunks, delivered over a specific period of time. You do your audience a real favor because you ensure that they have the best chance to actually read the content they are interested in. That is, if your content is comprehensive enough to be split up into smaller parts and if you put effort in creating top-quality emails. I highly recommend having a look at Matej Latin’s “Better Web Typography for a Better Web” email course. It’s a perfect example for a well-crafted email course. 19,000+ subscribers can’t be wrong.

By the way, providing a series of emails doesn’t mean that the good old white paper PDF has had its day. You should definitely provide a PDF download. But not up front. Instead it should be a summary at the end of the email course.

Providing something downloadable is important because of its impact as a psychological trigger. It’s something people can own, even if it’s “only” a PDF file. But although it’s only a virtual asset, downloading and saving it to your hard drive is psychologically different from only being able to access the same content on a website. People like to own things. OK, they also “own” the emails you sent them. But a well-designed PDF document, which is the digital equivalent to a book or brochure (and even looks good when printed), is often perceived as being more valuable than a fleeting email. That’s why I recommend mentioning the summary PDF as a selling point when promoting the email course. Then you have a kind of “best of both worlds” approach.

Ask people for certain information to personalize the content you send them

You want to collect more personal data than just an email address? Then give people a real reason. Personalization is a good approach, albeit a labor-intensive one. But as I mentioned above: Focus on quality, not quantity.

Example: If your lead generation form includes a dropdown list of industries, you can use this information to include industry-specific use-cases in your content instead of some default one-size-fits-all examples.

Not only can you use this approach to explain why you want to collect certain data. It’s also a strong selling point because it improves the quality, accuracy and thus the value of the content people receive. With this approach and a well-designed landing page you can collect the same amount of information up-front as you would be able to collect using traditional progressive profiling. You can even develop the registration form into a kind of “content configurator”.

Of course, after collecting the data you have to deliver what you promise. If you use an email course as described above, this is easy to achieve. Most marketing automation systems let you include dynamic content blocks in your emails. Dynamic content blocks are pre-defined pieces of content (e. g. text blocks or images) which are included in the email based on certain segmentation criteria. Creating personalized summary PDFs is a bit more of a hassle. But depending on the amount of “moveable parts” it should be prepareable.

Final comment

Image by Fab Lentz

The two ideas described above are still based on the old idea of using some kind of form gated content for online lead generation. High quality and valuable content, especially when provided in early stages of a buyer decision process, triggers the psychological principle of reciprocity (read Dr. Robert B. Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” for details). That’s why this approach may still be a good choice in the future. But I wouldn’t rely on it solely. So keep an eye out for other ways of identifying potential customers and coming into contact with them.