winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
Conversion Evangelist
How HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan helps thousands of companies turn strangers into brand advocates.
Nov 10, 2015

As the founder and CEO of HubSpot, perhaps no one else is as bullish on content as Brian Halligan. The success of his software company, which went public in 2014 and is now valued at $1.6 billion, speaks to the hunger among businesses for a way to generate leads using educational and entertaining content. The folks at Silicon Valley VC firms like Sequoia Capital apparently agreed, as they were among HubSpot’s early funders.

“Humans have been immunized against marketing.”

We recently sat down with Halligan and interviewed him at New York Media Week, during which he entertained the crowd of startup founders with tales of how to get funded. Afterwards, we found a press room and we asked him about the future of content marketing.

Content: What does the nature of content marketing—educating instead of interrupting—say about how we feel about consuming content?
Brian Halligan: I think what it says is humans have been immunized against marketing. They're immune to TV ads—unless it's a live sporting event. They're immune to being spammed. They're immune to being cold called, because they use caller ID. They're immune to online ads, to a certain extent, because ad blocker software has really done a nice job on that. The reporters are immune to PR agencies. It's just like everything that we grew up with and knew and loved about marketing, humans are sick and tired of it, and they're just very efficient in blocking it out.

“Marketing used to be about the width of your wallet; today it's much more about the width of your brain.”

Are we getting better at blocking out content as the amount of content proliferates?
The ad blocking software industry has gotten more specific, and I predict they're gonna get even more so. I think at some point, just like you get spam protection on your computer and you mark something as spam, phones will have that. You'll mark something as a cold call and telephone numbers will be similar to email. I think advertising on the radio sort of works now for certain industries—but I think if you look at the behavior of humans, more and more, they're just plugging their phone into their car and they're listening to Pandora or Pandora is built right into their car. It's just really hard to get to them. It's really hard to turn money into interest. The industry has changed a lot.

You just said, “It’s really hard to turn money into interest.” Unpack that a little bit.
Sure. I think marketing used to be about the width of your wallet; today it's much more about the width of your brain. It doesn't matter how much money you spend on that advertising, if you're doing it on Seinfeld nobody is watching those ads anymore. Even if they're watching them, they're DVRing them and they're fast forwarding through. I just don't think that slows down. I think it speeds up.

“Software seems to be eating almost every industry, and it's kind of eating marketing too.”

Something like 27 million pieces of content go live every day. There's obviously content shock. A lot of businesses are thinking, "Well, by the time I start doing content marketing, all the keywords are going to be too competitive.”
I think there's stuff that will naturally evolve. You've got content and that will work for a certain extent, but you can layer on other things: you can create an application, you can create an ROI tagger. There's all kinds of stuff you can start to create. One of the ones we've done at HubSpot that's worked remarkably well is something called website grader, It's a free app and I think of it as content. Software and content are sort of the same thing, so we can give it away, and it behaves in a very similar way to a blog article. You build a blog article once and if it's a really good blog article, it's a permanent magnet for customers, pulling people in through links and through Google and through social.

“Google understands your content better than you do.”

If you build a nice app, you build it once. It takes a certain amount of time and energy to do it, but that could be a magnet for pulling customers. At the end of the day, it's still about the width of your brain, not the width of your wallet. So it's about quality. So you create a really good quality piece of content or a really good quality app, it spreads.

You coined the term, "Inbound marketing." Was it an in-the-shower, a-ha moment? Did you workshop on the names?
I actually don't remember exactly how it happened. People were talking about outbound at the time, and I started saying outbound, and I'm like, "Yeah, the way you should do it is more inbound." And I don't remember the first time I said it, but I said it a bunch of times and then other people started saying it. It was by no means an a-ha. I just remember at one point in time, my co-founder took me aside, and said, "Should we call this an inbound marketing thing?" I was like, "That sounds pretty good." He's saying to me, "You keep saying this word, it sounds right." And I'm like, "All right, let's give it a shot."

“There are lots of ways to win with content.”

What if that quality piece of content doesn't have a keyword associated with it that's winnable or even there? What if it's not being searched for?
I think the content can win in all kinds of different ways. First of all, I think Google has gotten a lot smarter about keywords. It used to be you needed the keywords in the page title and in the headers and in the meta-tags, and now Google has just gotten so much smarter, so it understands what you're writing about. It understands your content better than you do. So I don't think you have to obsess as much. The good news is, in order to rank in search, you don't have to obsess as much about all that little technical stuff, you just have to write a good piece of content and get links and Google will be like, "All right, I got this, I'll take it from here, I know what's going on." But Google is only one place you can get that and the other place you can get that is if your content's good, it will spread on social, for sure. If your content's good, people will link to it and those links will send you traffic. So there's lots of ways to win with content.

Does the future belong to coders and engineers?
The modern CMO, I think a lot of them are gonna be very technical. Whether it's an engineer or a software developer, much, much, more technical, for sure. Software seems to be eating almost every industry, and it's kind of eating marketing too.