HubSpot’s annual report of inbound marketing and sales trends provides an overview of how companies are using inbound strategy and content marketing. The results deliver interesting insight into the ongoing evolution of the modern marketing ecosystem.

The 2018 annual report contains data gleaned from more than 6,200 marketing and sales professionals surveyed to uncover what marketing strategies and tactics they are using. One of the things I found compelling is the diverse audience composition. You might assume that a HubSpot survey would be comprised of mostly HubSpot customers, but in fact only 43% have an affiliation to HubSpot. Overall, the audience was a mix altogether: customers and non-customers, B2B and B2C, marketing and sales, as well as a mix of varying company sizes, industry verticals and job levels. With 99 countries represented, the report is also global.

What does HubSpot mean by “inbound” marketing?

Inbound marketing, a phrase coined by HubSpot back in 2006, is defined as “a methodology that focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product.” It’s fundamentally pull marketing, as opposed to push marketing (cold calling, advertising, purchased lists, etc. or outbound marketing as HubSpot likes to call it). As a philosophy, inbound marketing shares much in common with content marketing but the two are not synonymous. In a nutshell, inbound is essentially content marketing combined with modern approaches to lead generation, lead nurturing and marketing automation.

Modern marketers that neither use HubSpot nor use the “inbound marketing” vernacular will still find the report relevant and enlightening. The 72-page report contains a wealth of interesting statistics and findings for both inbound marketing and sales, but several rise to the top as key takeaways from the research.

1. Inbound is the primary marketing approach for most organizations

The methodology and approach of inbound has been rapidly picking up steam. In fact, it’s no longer just the small company’s answer to big marketing budgets. While middle market and enterprise firms still utilize outbound tactics, inbound marketing is equally deployed. In fact, nearly three out of four (74%) marketers across the globe prioritize an inbound approach to marketing. I won’t get into the debate over the difference between content marketing and inbound marketing; however, it’s clear that as buyers are evolving, marketers are adopting an attraction-based approach to marketing using online and social as primary channels and educational content as the magnet.

Inbound is a global methodology 2. Companies are nearly 4 times more likely to see higher ROI on inbound than outbound

While inbound is the preferred marketing approach of the majority of organizations, it’s also more likely to provide an ROI. Nearly half of respondents (53%) reported that inbound campaigns resulted in a higher a higher ROI compared to outbound efforts. Only 16% of respondents reported outbound marketing resulting in a higher ROI than inbound efforts. Interestingly, 31% of respondents either couldn’t answer the question or couldn’t calculate ROI. Outbound methods certainly still play a role in an integrated strategy, but we’re starting to see outbound becoming more of a support to inbound instead of the other way around.

Marketers see higher ROI from inbound marketing tactics

3. Converting leads into customers is the top marketing priority

Marketing’s role continues to evolve and shift towards a more bottom-line focused business unit. The study found that 69% of marketers see converting leads into customers as their top marketing priority. In the past, marketing was concerned with demand generation and generating leads, but we are now seeing the shift towards helping their firms close deals. In fact, the third biggest priority for marketers (44%) is increasing revenue from existing customers. As proving the ROI of marketing activities also continues to be a priority as well (42%), we’re seeing marketing’s transition from cost-center to revenue generator continue in the years ahead.

Marketers prioritize converting leads into customers – BOFU content is crucial

4. Traditional paid advertising is considered the most overrated marketing tactic

While it’s worth noting that this is an “inbound” marketing report, the marketers surveyed overwhelming (30%) listed paid advertising (print, outdoor, broadcast) as the most overrated marketing tactic. Add to that, online paid advertising (social media ads, PPC, etc.) was the third most overrated tactic (11%), reinforcing the new realities of modern marketing being more focused on attraction-based methods, as opposed to the largely interruption-based strategy of the past. While paid media has a place, it’s being used differently and marketers are recognizing the need for more relevant, customized content and messaging. 

Marketers rate paid advertising as overrated

5. Growing SEO and organic traffic remains a top inbound focus

While SEO tactics continue to evolve, the desire to build an organic search presence and drive website traffic only grows stronger. When asked to think specifically about inbound marketing projects, growing SEO and organic presence was listed as the top priority for marketers, representing 61% of respondents. A close second (55%) priority is blog content creation, which is a direct contributor to both SEO and organic traffic. As you’ll see in the next takeaway, generating traffic website traffic is not only the top priority, but marketers also see it as their biggest hurdle as well.

Inbound marketing goals include SEO, content creation, and automation6. Proving ROI remains a top challenge, but others are emerging

Proving ROI remains a significant concern for marketers (39%), but it’s no longer at the top of the list. Rising sharply in the past year is generating website traffic and leads—with 61% of marketers saying it’s their top marketing challenge. Other challenges include securing enough budgets (27%), managing the website (25%), identifying the right technologies (24%), training our team (23%), hiring top talent (2%), targeting content for an international audience (20%), and finding an executive sponsor (8%).

Generating traffic is a constant challenge

7. Senior marketers have more confidence in the effectiveness of marketing than front-line marketers

When asked if they feel that their organization’s marketing strategy is effective, 71% of respondents answered “yes” (up from 61% in 2017). However, when you look at the respondents’ answers by seniority, interestingly, there was a disparity between the views of C-level executives (76%), VP/Directors (80%), Managers (70%), and individual contributors (66%). This is certainly a curious finding, causing one to wonder if marketing’s view of its own effectiveness is too low, or if senior leadership’s view is too high. There may also be a disconnect between the data and KPIs that senior leadership is privy to versus the information marketing has at its disposal. Either way, continued misalignment will likely lead to organization issues down the road.

 junior marketers have less faith in the strategy set out by managers

8. Marketing budgets for inbound activities are on the rise

The one thing all respondents have in common is the desire for a bigger budget. Fortunately, over the last several years, budgets have either remained consistent or been increased. When asked how their company’s current budget for inbound marketing compares to last year’s, 46% reported a higher budget and 32% reported no change from the previous year. In previous years’ reports, companies that had success investing in inbound methodologies were more likely to get higher budgets to spend on inbound activities. The point is, there is usually a direct connection between increased budgets and demonstrating ROI, which is all the more reason for marketers to prioritize connecting the dots from where they spend their time (and money) to their company’s bottom line.

46% of teams have higher budgets in 2018

9. Sales prospecting is getting harder

The report underscores the growing challenges sales teams face, with getting a response from prospects (40%) leading the way, followed by engaging multiple decision makers at a company in the buying process (31%), closing deals (30%), connecting via phone (29%) and identifying/prospecting good leads (28%). When asked what part of the sales process reps struggle with most, 55% of sales people identified presale activities, including prospecting (37% overall, but 49% in North America) and identifying leads (18%).

Perhaps a contributing factor to the growing challenge is the amount of time sales people are spending on data entry. The surveyed revealed that 27% of salespeople are spending more than an hour a day on data entry work instead of selling, meaning critical prospecting and selling time is lost to administrative work. An added concern is that senior leaders underestimate the amount of time salespeople spend on data entry, with only 15% believing that their sales team spends more than an hour a day performing data entry or other manual tasks.

Prospecting has gotten harder

10. Marketing and sales teams with SLAs have better alignment and performance

Over the last several years, business executives have been focused on better aligning marketing and sales in an effort to increase and sustain growth. While many firms have been making progress, there is still plenty of room for continued improvement. However, research has shown that implementing structural change through the development of a documented service level agreement (SLA) between marketing and sales is a game changer.

According to the study, tightly aligned teams with SLAs not only name marketing as their top source of leads, but they also see higher ROI from inbound marketing (65%) as well. SLAs also mean growth for sales and marketing teams: sales teams are more likely to grow (70%) when there’s an SLA and marketing teams with SLAs are more likely to get increased budgets (52%). Unfortunately, only 26% of respondents operate under a marketing and sales SLA.

Just 26% of respondents operate under a marketing and sales SLA

More insights to be gleaned

There are a lot of interesting finds in the State of Inbound 2018 Report, but these 10 stood out. Inbound marketing methodology (and everything associated with it) is not simply a fad or the flavor of the month; rather it’s a fundamental shift in marketing in response to today’s changing buyer. To read about all the findings from the research, download your free copy of State of Inbound 2018 from HubSpot.