Probably the biggest challenge we Marketers face is managing the expectations of our stakeholders. Marketing is a crucial solution to the general problem of generating more sales revenues. Done right, Marketing can build a sustainable sales pipeline that increases revenues while driving down customer acquisition costs over time. Done wrong, Marketing gets the blame for achieving just the opposite. Reality is often somewhere in between, however, and managing expectations is the key to keeping stakeholders happy.
As usual, I am inspired this week by a Whiteboard Friday session by Rand Fishkin, this one entitled "Surviving the SEO Slog." In response to a post by Scott Clark (aka, BuzzMaven), Rand discusses the "delta of dissatisfaction." He describes the apparent gap between ramped up effort and lack of results during the first few months following a decision to overhaul a company's search engine visibility, when search professionals and content marketers work hard to optimize their content and web presence for better traction with Google's new algorithms, Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird. Typically, they see a quick uptick in ranking for relevant search phrases and an improvement in traffic and leads. Then, the results start to level off (hence, the "slog") even though the effort to embrace best practices is just getting started. Without properly managing the expectations of Senior Management (or clients), this dissatisfaction begins to breed contempt, or worse.
Since SEO is just one component of inbound marketing, it's safe to assume other slogs are also commonly at work as the Marketing Team works hard to build a sustainable, growing online presence and pipeline. In fact, it can also take months to build up a library of helpful, relevant content and a tuned-in audience that accomplishes the goals of inbound marketing, including:
As in SEO efforts, there can be a substantial lead time between startup of activity and a steady inbound flow of qualified sales leads. There may be some quick hits as well, depending on the quality of the content you create and the established authority of your authors and thought leaders, but overall it can take 12-18 months before your inbound pipeline begins to mature. After the initial effort to build a groundwork of personas, SEO and content creation strategy, you may find you can gradually reduce resources over time, but never to the point of pure automation and background process. Remember you are competing with everyone else for the attention of your buyers, so an ongoing creative impulse is needed to stay ahead of the curve. Inbound Marketing is, thus, a long-term investment that will pay dividends with sustained effort. But where does that leave our stakeholders who are starving for short-term results?
If Marketers simply present the reality of the inbound marketing "slog" to Management, they are likely to be met with cold stares and a few calls to HR. The Management Team has goals to fulfill, and postponing them 12-18 months is a non-starter. A more balanced plan, including more targeted outbound marketing (paid online and offline advertising in its numerous forms) in the early months, followed by a gradual shift of budget to inbound marketing later in the fiscal year can accomplish short-term, intermediate and longer-term goals, while reducing the cost of customer acquisition over time.
Of course, actual budget planning will depend on specific goals and timelines, as well as costs for the most effective outbound channels for your business, available in-house labor, outsourcing costs and your sales cycle and sales process. In general, your plan should seek to offset ramp-up time for inbound marketing with more immediate returns from outbound channels. Over time, you begin to replace outbound with inbound, but not entirely. There will always be a place for new outreach campaigns to find new buyers and nurture them with inbound content.
If targeted outbound campaigns are so effective, maybe we don't need to build an inbound marketing machine, right? Not so fast. Over time, you want organic search to become an important lead generation channel, because potential buyers are searching for solutions (not just browsing), and many of them have already started the evaluation process before they ever visit your website or contact you. A comprehensive content creation strategy, informed by up-to-date SEO best practices and social media engagement, is the way to go.
Then, maybe there are buyers who know about you from outbound channels. How do they do their due diligence? By Googling your content, visiting your website, reading your blog and downloading your premium content. How you perform with these "warm visitors" has everything to do with your inbound marketing efforts. Then there's the cost to acquire a customer (CAC) and customer lifetime value (LTV) thing. Inbound is invaluable in reducing CAC (as a function of your evergreen content) and increasing LTV (as a function of your helpful content and online support).
So next time you get in front of your stakeholders with that Marketing Plan and Budget, make sure it's balanced, anticipates the various "slogs" and compensates for them with alternate strategies and presents a realistic way to accomplish goals and timeframes. Without that, you are going to have a tough time managing expectations.
Photo credit: Jason LLagan