How HubSpot’s CMO Stays Ahead of Content Marketing Disruption

By Erin Nelson February 4th, 2016

The content marketing industry is full of enthusiasm, buzzwords, education, advocacy, and occasional snark. But rarely is it taken over by scandal.

Last summer, however, HubSpot got on the wrong side of the news when it fired its CMO, fined its CEO, and watched its VP of content resign after word got out that high-level employees had violated the company’s ethics policies trying to get a manuscript of a critical tell-all book written by Dan Lyons, who worked at HubSpot as a marketing fellow for two years.

In the immediate aftermath, one of the world’s largest inbound marketing hubs had to undergo a major shift in leadership. Enter Kipp Bodnar, who worked as HubSpot’s VP of marketing for two years before inheriting the title of CMO. Following the departures of the executives, Bodnar had his work cut out for him—he needed to make people forget about the scandal and restore their faith in the company as one of the smartest players in marketing.

Since filling the role in July, Bodnar has put an emphasis on nurturing HubSpot’s loyal audience while continuing to use content that focuses on testing and innovation. We spoke to him about his responsibility to educate the marketing community, how HubSpot integrates content across departments, and why email marketing could fade quicker than you might think.

You inherited quite a sticky PR situation this past summer. Did content play a role in protecting Hubspot during the media firing squad?

I think what we’re really talking about is content going beyond marketing. Every organization in the company is responsible.

Some of the most important and popular content we’ve ever created is around our company culture. If you look at one of our most successful pieces ever viewed it’s our culture code text that co-founder Dharmesh Shah put together. It outlines the values and the culture of HubSpot, and I think that’s why it has been viewed millions of times.

I’ve definitely read that.

Right, it’s a great piece of content. It serves a marketing purpose, but it’s not a marketing purpose to generate new revenue to the business. It’s actually an even more important marketing purpose, which is to bring on really amazing and educated people who are in line with the core values and mission of the company. Our support team is just really awesome. They create a massive amount of content to make sure our customers have really quick access to the answers they need.

How have you led HubSpot as its new CMO?

My job is to help be a steward for the entire marketing industry because we hold an educational role—a trusted role—to help marketing and sales professionals learn best practices, but also the new trends and changes in the industry.

We’re a decade into inbound marketing, and I think we’re starting to see some shifts. It’s not inconceivable that there is a world where marketers could get more traffic from Slack than email in a couple years. It’s our job to understand those things and help educate folks on that. I think there’s a lot of changing trends in the marketing industry, and it’s my core responsibility to help be a steward for them and the industry at large.

How is content marketing different from 10 years ago?

I think if you look at the first decade of content marketing, you’ll find a major increase in transparency and trust. The buying process fundamentally changed.

People have become more reliant on user reviews and articles they’ve read on search engines than to a sales rep holding them hostage. Inbound marketing became a massive part of the entire buyer awareness and education process. A key part of that was blogging, and then came social media and, in recent years, infographics—much more visual content. Now there’s audio in the terms of podcasts and video in the terms of Facebook and YouTube.

How do you convince management to invest more in technology and services that can empower your content marketing?

Everybody has a quarterly goal, monthly goals, annual goals—they have very clear goals they’re trying to accomplish. A marketer’s job is to help them understand that leveraging content is going to align with those goals in very specific ways. It’ll enable them to over-achieve those goals because it’s a more efficient method of marketing.

How do you connect content strategy and social channel engagement to ROI?

For social, we look at if we are expanding our awareness and our reach at the top of our social media funnel. Are more people connecting with us on networks or are more people engaging with us? Because that’s going to grow our community.

We also want to understand how that community is turning into customers, so we’re looking at site visits, lead conversions and, ultimately, conversions into customers, as our metric for how successful we’re doing on social media.

There’s other things that you want to take in and consider, but, ultimately, when you’re thinking about allocating marketing dollars and allocating people’s time, you need some very specific revenue metrics to make those decisions.

How do you gauge the impact of individual pieces of content as part of this collective machine?

There’s a bunch of different content formats, messages, and strategies that are designed to accomplish different things. Our podcast is deeply engaging with a core audience of marketing and sales leaders, while on our core marketing blog, we’re a little more focused on reaching a large portion of the marketing-practitioner audience. For that reason, we care more about raw visits on that blog than we do raw number of listeners on the podcast episode.

The rise of podcast in the last year or two is really interesting to me. What stage of the buyer’s journey do you think it satisfies?

Podcasting is really just delivering audio via some type of subscription feed. So, it can accomplish anything. You could have a podcast that’s just dedicated to your customers—the people who have already paid you money—because you want them to be happy and get more value out of the product or service you’re offering. In that case, it’s the very bottom of that marketing funnel.

I think different people, different companies, use them for different purposes. It’s really the content and the message that you’re delivering through that platform that ultimately determines where it’s going to have that impact.

How can marketers take the customer from the early awareness stage and move them further along, like you’re saying, to this conversion stage?

What you really have to do is talk to people who have purchased your product. Understand what they used in that consideration process, what was most effective for them, and when it was effective to receive that information. Based on that buyer’s journey, you can build out targeted nurturing for buyer personas who are aware of the company but need some deeper education.

Verbal conversations are really important when you are trying to uncover information. As a marketer, you don’t want to go into those conversations assuming that you know exactly what every prospecting customer needs to make this decision. I need to have the ability to dig in and say, “Oh, so you came to our website. What pages specifically did you look at on our website? Was there anything that was specifically helpful? Did you know how to configure the price for the product that you’re looking for?” That’s really hard to do in an environment that’s not a one-to-one conversation.

What does the evolution of content marketing tell us about where we are headed?

If you look forward, I think you’re really seeing a decentralization of content.

If you’re a company today and you’re doing content well, you’re doing it across a lot of different platforms and in a lot of different formats. Just because someone reads your blog might not mean that they also watch your Facebook videos or they also subscribe to your podcasts. So you have different touch points with different people in your community.

What is the biggest trend approaching the marketing world? Or maybe one that’s already here?

It went from email to collaborative documents like Google and Box and Dropbox, and now we’re adopting Slack and WhatsApp and all of these different collaboration tools. I think that how teams collaborate and share information with each other is likely going to change, and that impacts how a marketer reaches those teams.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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