When Outbound Marketing Makes Sense for Startups

There's lot's of attention on inbound marketing these days, and rightly so, because it's a powerful approach that can find engaged people when/where/how they want to engage you.  It’s genuine and much more representative of how most of us want to be “sold” now.  Unfortunately the increasing emphasis on inbound marketing has many people thinking that outbound marketing is, and should be, completely dead.  While I agree that the relative mix of tactics is swaying significantly toward Inbound, I do believe there is a role for some outbound marketing in companies – even startups. 

Inbound marketing involves creating content-rich websites, blogs and social media content that helps customer prospects find your company and product when they are actively involved in searching and seeking information.  In order for inbound marketing to be effective, there must be keyword-rich content and links so that search engines find and rank your website.  This obviously requires content as well as time so that the search engines may find the content and rank it in their search results.

In contrast, outbound marketing tactics may include any number of methods when the company initiates the conversation and sends out a message.  For B2B marketers this may mean sending emails, making cold calls, using appointment setting agencies, buying contact lists, attending tradeshows, sending “clutter buster” direct mail, advertising, or “retargeting” programs.  These tactics are initiated on your schedule.

One reason that I like some mix of outbound marketing in startups is because it can be a fast way to test, learn and jumpstart programs in a way that is tough for inbound marketing while its tactics wait for SEO rankings to kick in.  Just pick up the phone and make some calls, walk a tradeshow floor and talk to people, send some targeted emails and you’ll get some feedback.  Outbound tactics can be powerful and quick for testing messages (think A/B testing) against your target segments and provide valuable feedback that can drive some pipeline while also guiding where inbound marketing investments should be made.  Outbound messages can also help by increasing awareness and leading prospects to search, thereby driving them into or enticing them to search for Inbound-ready content.

Aside from testing segments and messages, outbound marketing may have a ongoing role in your GTM mix – particularly if you are selling into a complex internal buying landscape, have high enough prices to offset higher cost/lead, or if you have a field sales organization that needs help working their way into or through specific accounts. Even highly effective outbound programs will still have generally lower effectiveness rates than well-run inbound programs.  Given the generally higher costs of outbound tactics, startups must carefully watch the lead-to-pipeline “waterfall” to ensure the economics of an ongoing program make sense.

With outbound marketing, one cannot segment too much.  The narrower the segmentation, the more likely your program and its value-based messaging should resonate with the target market and therefore increase engagement rates.  The alignment of target segment and messages of how your product/service delivers value is a critical success factor.

I believe another critical success factor is to have a rockstar telequalifier, or “business development” person, on the phone contacting customers who respond to emails, register for your webcasts, or simply placing outbound calls to try to set up appointments for your salespeople.  This person should command your core messaging, be skilled in qualification, and have a personality fit with your target audience.  For example, if you are selling into deep technical areas it will help to have someone comfortable and conversant with the technology.  Many people will entirely outsource this function to an agency, which I believe is a mistake.  Hire someone or get a contractor in-house and sit near him or her.  Listen to what’s working or not working.  Ensure they are executing the messages you want and make adjustments to improve their effectiveness.

Outbound marketing certainly won’t address all the challenges a startup faces, although neither will inbound marketing.  In all likelihood there will be a mix of both.  As the company, its products, and the market evolve, so will the mix of marketing programs to drive through growth.  Diligent measurement and benchmarking will help guide the team on when to switch gears.

I originally wrote this post on Michael Skok's blog in support of his Harvard iLab class, "Startup Secrets", where he invited Brian Halligan (CEO Hubspot) and me to discuss the merits of Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing.