There are two major challenges that inbound marketers and the organizations they represent will have to solve in the foreseeable future. These challenges are related to content saturation and the economics of content distribution.
While content marketing and inbound marketing strategies are currently proving to be highly effective forms of engaging the buyer across the entire purchase lifecycle, we’re rapidly approaching a saturation point. This timeline will accelerate as the creation of content continues to become commoditized, both by outsourced labor and advancements in artificial intelligence.
What's Next for Inbound Marketers?
While efforts continue to advance the capabilities of search engines to recognize and reward quality content, this is only a single channel through which content is being discovered and—at least in the near-term future—there doesn’t appear to be any promising solution for overcoming determinations of quality or authority except around metrics that are either readily manipulable (e.g., post length, semantic sophistication, etc.), or clearly biased in the favor of legacy brands (e.g., Domain Authority).
So, each distribution or discovery channel will face the same challenges: how to differentiate truly helpful and authoritative content from the superficially similar imposter content.
On top of this, marketers are generally operating from a relatively limited toolset as it relates to content distribution. Irrespective of the quality of the content, practitioners of inbound marketing (who are generally the most devoted and prolific as it relates to creating optimized content) are typically following the same basic playbook when it comes to content distribution, which is why:
2) why many publisher sites are powered more by Outbrain than brainpower,
3) and why browsing in Incognito Mode to avoid obnoxious retargeting campaigns is the layman’s equivalent to a celebrity wearing a low-fitting hat and dark sunglasses for the sake of anonymity.
Ever notice how you type a research-based query into Google and five of the first page results are some variation on: “[Some Number] of [Best Practices/Tips/Challenges/Steps] to [Whatever You Typed In]” … it’s like walking into a Cold Stone that advertises “10 Awesome Flavors!” to discover that five of them are actually vanilla and the other five are some weird experimental flavor that no normal person would ever consume, like anchovy pâté.
It’s lame and tired. But it also happens to work.
We’re in the era of digital noise, where quantity is oftentimes demonstrably more lucrative than quality and where it’s better to say with 1500 words what could be said more efficiently in 250. And, for better or worse, we have to play along.
Inbound Marketing Challenges Mirror SEO
My first real job in the digital space was at UpWord Search Marketing, a Boston-based boutique Search agency (they were recently acquired by San Diego’s BusinessOnline). UpWord was at the forefront of SEO—they built their business on providing effective white-hat SEO (and, later, paid search) services for some of the world’s biggest brands.
As SEO became more and more commoditized, and as desires to attract visitors gave way to desires to convert leads, it became increasingly apparent to me that agencies that were relying solely on Search as a revenue channel were at significant risk.
I foresee Inbound Marketing agencies facing the same set of challenges over the next 3-5 years. The day is not far off where, like SEO, we’re competing with agencies offering cut-rate services for a superficially similar set of deliverables.
Real inbound marketing takes a significant investment of time resources, but it will become more and more difficult for legitimate agencies to differentiate themselves at first blush from agencies who are promising the same (or better) results at a fraction of the cost.
This impending reality will not impact the bigger players who have established an enterprise-sized footprint, but it will make it incredibly difficult for smaller or startup agencies that sell into the SMB space to be successful.
Apart from the impact that commoditization will have on the agency landscape is the question about how commoditization will continue to make bad problems worse.
When every website that you visit is offering an ebook, a white paper, a webinar, a guide—and where the quality of these assets has been compromised based on the fact that they’re being produced as inexpensively as possible—as a lead generating gimmick as opposed to a helpful or educational tool—the effectiveness and integrity of inbound marketing will be fundamentally compromised.
Visitors will start to regard content offers with suspicion and become numb or averse to providing their information, because the risk of being ripped-off by a low-quality piece of content, and then inundated with associated marketing and sales campaigns, is too high. It’s inevitable. It is going to happen.
So the challenge facing marketers is how to rise above the noise. The challenge facing the industry in general, both on the platform side (e.g., HubSpot, Marketo, Pardot, etc.) where the business model is tied to the effectiveness of the inbound methodology, and on the provider side, is to find some way to clearly reward quality while punishing cheap, spam tactics.
In this sense, it will be no different from the trajectory of SEO: at first, on-page and Meta tactics were sufficient for sites to rank highly. But these could be manipulated, and so they were. And soon every website was replete with keyword-stuffed page elements. And so the search engines needed to determine a way to award rankings based on criteria that could not be so easily manipulated. Hence inbound link equity, domain authority, etc.
But these new variables tended to favor large, established brands—which negatively impacted the level-playing field and ended the democratization of Search. So at each new stage there have been challenges, and at each new stage there have been proposed solutions, and at each new stage these solutions contain real and obvious deficiencies.
Content Saturation Poses a Real Danger
On the distribution side of the fence, marketers need to get smarter. Some of this is already happening with tools that allow marketers to identify high-affinity influencers relative to their target buyer personas and leverage those influencers for audience penetration and reach.
But this will not be enough—while it will many times yield incrementally better performance than a spray-and-pray distribution model (i.e., the absence of a strategy)—the issue of noise and clutter and confusion and saturation still exists.
Prospective buyers will more and more tune out the noise by developing native psychological filters, and it will become increasingly difficult to penetrate those filters even with a high-quality offer, distributed intelligently and respectfully, that warrants their attention.
The publisher platforms themselves will need to adapt quality control measures. Their ad revenue is dependent upon being able to drive results, and as marketers are held more accountable for the ROI associated with spend related to content distribution, publishers will need to build mechanisms that protect this ROI.
The only way to do this will be to minimize noise by minimizing the volume of low-quality or untargeted ads that they serve, ensuring that their users are incentivized to consume the content that is being distributed because there is a basis of trust: a belief or an existential knowledge that the publisher doesn’t serve fool's gold under the guise of 24-karat helpfulness.
That paragraph put me at 1,195 words, which means that I can start to wrap up because I’ve crossed the threshold of significance in the eyes of the search engine. This blog post will be considered more authoritative, and I’ll stand a better chance of getting it ranked. I guess we’re all playing the same game according to the same rules, and hoping that it will gradually improve.