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How the sales cycle has changed in the wake of inbound marketing

HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan recently outlined research on how the sales cycle has changed: Supply is up, demand is down and the cold call is dead.

In 2006, HubSpot, a marketing services and software company, articulated the notion of inbound marketing.

Unlike traditional outbound marketing, companies use content in inbound marketing as a tool to drive prospects to websites to learn more about products and services. In 2006, inbound marketing was new to marketers' toolboxes, but it swiftly became an appealing alternative to outbound email blasts and buying ad space in the vain hope for a boost in leads. Inbound marketing is designed to target the right buyers with the right messages at the right time in their buying process, so it's considered more nuanced than traditional outbound methods. With more discriminating consumers, inbound marketing tries to engage customers more than simply sell to them. That's a tall order, when according to "The State of Inbound 2016," 40% of sales reps say that getting a response from prospects has gotten more difficult.

At root, inbound marketing is an approach that recognizes that the customer lifecycle has changed, and traditional sales has less of a role in that lifecycle. Consumers do more research online (as much as 80% of the former sales process may take place online), and sales representatives aren't involved until later stages of the buying process. In addition, in the age of the customer, savvy consumers have more power in sales transactions. Inbound marketing seeks to exploit this new dynamic by helping consumers gather education and research as they go through the buying process.

During his keynote at the recent Inbound 2016 conference, Brian Halligan, CEO and co-founder of HubSpot, held forth on some of the sales and marketing trends that took shape in 2006 with the introduction of inbound marketing and how trends like inbound have changed the sales cycle so dramatically today.

How a new sales cycle has changed marketing

Buyer choice has expanded. In 2006, Halligan said, prospects had between four and five vendors to choose from for any given product. Now, they have between 14 and 15 different vendors for any given product or service. This overwhelming choice is a function of supply and demand mismatches.

If you're not marketing inside the [Mark] Zuckerberg universe, you might as well be marketing inside a trashcan.
Brian HalliganCEO and co-founder, HubSpot

"Supply is up -- way up," Halligan said. "It has become so much easier to ... build useful stuff. Things like agile methodologies and open APIs have made it much easier to build products. Supply is up, but at the same time, demand is flat."

Halligan also noted that vendors have additional pressure to stand out from the competition, partially because of the internet. "Competition is up -- way up. Back in 2006, we were battling for inches on a four-foot shelf. Now we're battling for space on the internet shelf."

Content marketing types have shifted. In 2006, "Buyers read stuff all day," Halligan said, referring to blogs, product reviews and the like. Today, buyers mostly watch videos. At the time, Google and text formed a solid marriage, enabling online searchers to get their questions answered. "Google and text -- that was like pigs in a blanket. In 2016, there's another delicious combination: That's video and social. That's like scallops and bacon -- just a delicious combination," he noted. Halligan said that video and social enables marketers to share messages in new, viral ways but also that users are less singularly focused.

"Buyers used to focus on one piece of content at a time; now they are looking at your content, then your competitor's content, then posting on Twitter and Instagram, then having breakfast. Welcome to the buying generation," Halligan said.

Companies now need effective marketing strategies on social media platforms. Halligan noted that social media platforms are essential to a healthy marketing strategy. "If you're not marketing on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you might as well be marketing inside a trashcan. If you're not marketing inside the [Mark] Zuckerberg universe, you might as well be marketing inside a trashcan."

Search has changed. Since 2006, Google has become more than just a search engine. In 2006, Google helped searchers find answers to a question. Today, Google just gives them the answer itself. But just as much as organic search has become an important element in the marketing playbook, Halligan noted that paid search has also become critical since 2006. "In 2006, ads took up about 50% of the screen above the fold," Halligan said. "Today, it takes up 100% of the screen above the fold. Increasingly, buyers are clicking on AdWords. AdWords has gone up in my mind." As HubSpot CTO and co-founder Dharmesh Shah noted, "You're going to have search everywhere," from Amazon to the Echo, to Siri to your car.

The buying process becomes more multichannel, more personalized, more self-service. Because online research has become so critical, content has become more important to the sales process than the sales rep, in some cases. "In 2006, the website augmented the sales rep. In 2016, the sales rep augments your website," Halligan said. Companies like Airbnb and Uber have changed the nature of how prospects shop and buy with their "killer end-to-end processes" for consumers, Halligan noted.

Halligan gave marketers some advice in the new era:

  1. Video is the new black. Stop looking for a blogger. Start looking for a videographer.
  2. Social. "You're not B2B marketers," he said. "You're H2H, or human-to-human, marketers."
  3. Accelerate your market. Divide your paid and content marketing. Repurpose your content on Twitter and Instagram. That is the power of content marketing.
  4. Automate. Users are expecting you to automate their processes and offer self-service.

How a new sales cycle has changed sales

Why cold calling is dead. Halligan noted that many of the brute-force methods of traditional sales have been challenged by the web, self-service and multichannel customer service. "Your prospects hate cold calling," Halligan said. "I'm going to go on record in front of 19,000 of my closest friends and say, 'The cold call is dead.'" Halligan noted that in his research on successful sales, not a single purchase started with a cold call.

Why email messages are alive. Halligan said he thought self-service and online content might also have unseated traditional email in the sales cycle. But, he added, "I thought email was going to be dead, but it wasn't. It's alive and well. I looked at purchases and traced them to the original content that triggered the sale. In many cases, it started with an email, but the message had to be good -- they didn't just put the right name on their message but spent time creating a thoughtful email."

Why product trials make a difference. Back in 2006, customers expected to get value after they purchased a product. Today, they expect to get value before. Dropbox provides freeware, and consumers can try the product for 100 days before they spend any money. In an era of supply outstrips demand, you have to change your tactics. Halligan referenced the David Mamet film Glengarry Glen Ross, which depicted the cutthroat nature of sales. At that time, a sales manager intoned that "coffee is for closers." But today, Halligan said, "Coffee isn't for closers; it's for helpers."

Halligan had some advice for sales reps as well:

  • Email. Less is more.
  • Cold calls. None is more.
  • Trials. A taste is more. "Let them eat cake by the ocean," he quipped.

The buying process and the customer channel. While sales reps still have power, they exert it later in the process. Prospects spend half of their time researching content, then half the time talking to reps. Further, customers have become key sources for buying decisions. According to Halligan, two of top three most trusted sources for buying decision are customer reviews and comments, not marketers or salespeople.

Halligan concluded that in a world where supply is up and demand is flat, instead of squeezing value from customers you have to add value to their experience. "You can't outgrow the phase where you're adding value to your customers," Halligan said.

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