Should your content generate leads or relationships?

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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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