cannes Lion

Advertising is a blend of art and commerce. It's art because it needs to make a compelling, emotional connection with an audience. It's commerce because, at the end of the day, it needs to sell product.

Sadly, the broader marketing and advertising industry is obsessed with creating ads that win creativity-based awards. And everyone in the industry wants to go to the South of France for a week every summer to bask in the sun, drink gallons of rosé, and pat each other on the back for winning a Lion at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, the industry's most prestigious creative award.

Too much emphasis is placed on the glamour of advertising rather than its intended purpose; to create a smooth, gentle pathway that moves people along to a point at which they decide to open their wallets and hand over their hard earned cash for your products or services.

With inbound marketing, it's not about creating things that look pretty and appeal to judges at awards shows. It's about developing creative that has a purpose: to provide your potential customers with the information they need to take the next step along the path toward a sale. While every piece of marketing creative should ultimately have a specific goal-related purpose, creative developed for inbound marketing has to be ultra-specific.

Why Function Trumps Form in Inbound Marketing

Developing effective creative for inbound marketing requires you to be deeply connected to your buyer personas, customer mindset, and the purchase loop mentality. It also means you need to have a clear understanding that you're not aiming to create a Super Bowl spectacle. Rather, your goal should be to create informative content that directly addresses the changing needs of your audience as they travel from prospect to lead to customer.

Blogs have to be well designed and well written. Compelling infographics have to be created to support content and social media efforts. Landing pages have to be designed to convert well. Websites have to have a single-minded focus and take visitors through an easy-to-navigate path. Emails have to be crafted by copywriters who know how to sell all the way through the funnel -- not just sound witty.

The premise of inbound marketing is based on the fact that the buyer can ask the internet anything they want and get an answer. That's really it. It's that simple. They don't need a silly TV commercial that they're going to skip over anyway. In today's Google-fueled world, it's about creating fantastically useful content and imagery that informs, educates, enlightens, and concisely addresses a particular interest.

Here is a list of considerations you should take into account when developing creative for inbound marketing:

1) It's not all about selling a product.

It's about answering a question -- particularly when prospects are at the very top of your funnel. So if you sell pools, and a person is interested in how much it costs to install an inground pool, you want to be there with content that directly addresses that question in an informative manner when they do a Google search. For example, you could create an infographic that explores the benefits of each type of pool construction.

2) It's not about telling people how great you are.

It's about providing information that guides a person through the steps they need to take when considering a purchase -- for every stage in the funnel. So if a prospect is in the middle of your funnel, creating an informative "how-to" buying guide with step-by-step details is an effective approach at this stage. Referring back to the pool example, you might also incorporate an explanatory video that walks the lead through the different types of pool styles and construction materials.

3) It's not about entertaining for entertainment's sake. 

How many TV commercials have you laughed at, but immediately after viewing, forgotten who the advertiser was? Sure, humor can be very effective. But it also has to support your strategy. For example, at HubSpot, we just created a video that we automatically send to a segment of our leads who have opted in to hearing from us, but who have been marked as "unable to contact" in our CRM system after a sales rep has reached out to them a few times with no response. The video comically identifies with what it's like to be hounded by salespeople. In the email and in the video, we congratulate these leads on their ability to avoid sales reps. In addition, we very humbly give them the option to respond or simply click on a link to explore HubSpot on their own. That email has a CTR of 16.4%, which is 583% higher than the 2.4% industry average.

4) It's not about shouting as loud as you can.

It's about telling a story. A story that engages the prospect at each and every step toward a purchase -- and afterward as well. It's about providing them with the answers they need to instill the confidence that your products/services will deliver on your promise. It's about listening to your prospect through social media, and authentically and educationally engaging with them. 

5) It's not about Super Bowl-style spraying and praying.

It's about getting targeted and using segmentation in your marketing. With techniques like progressive profiling, you can ultimately paint a very clear picture of your target customer and their needs, wants, and goals. At this stage, you can then customize your messaging by segments, matching it to those leads' mental states and interests -- just like we did in our "Congratulations on Avoiding the Sales Rep!" video. Most importantly, you can get in touch with these mental states by learning about the intricacies of a prospect's perspectives -- and then provide them with valuable, killer content.

6) It's not about interrupting. 

It's about becoming part of the content stream. Traditional advertising, by design, interferes with a person's content consumption patterns. A TV commercial. A pop-up ad. An, intrusive, expanding banner ad. All designed to distract a person from the content they came for in the first place. With inbound marketing, the content is the ad. There is no interruption. And design has to address the function of the content, which is to inform, educate, and directly answer questions. Which leads us to ...

7) It's not about pretty pictures.

It's about informative charts, detailed graphs, visually-arresting infographics, thoughtful diagrams. It's about providing the best possible user experience when a person comes into contact with your content. And to provide design elements that, again, answer questions and deliver the informative content a person needs to ultimately make a purchasing decision.

8) It's not about forcing a brand identity down an unsuspecting public's throat.

It's about designing creative and informative content people can find on their own. It's about engaging in conversations people are having about the brand. It's about listening to those conversations to glean insight on how people are defining the brand. It's about monitoring how people experience the brand both online and off. And it's about using this information to foster a brand identity that mirrors public perception.

The Bottom Line

Developing creative content for inbound marketing is all about providing the right information at the right time to both build trust and serve the information needs of an individual at each stage of the funnel. It's like storytelling, really. And each stage of the process is like a chapter in a book. There must be a consistent theme. And there must be "hooks" to get your prospect to progress from one chapter to another.

Perhaps someday, we'll have Inbound Marketing Awards to supplant Cannes Lions, and recognition will be awarded for what really matters: how well a marketer eased a prospect through the funnel to final sale. Until then, inbound marketers will have to earn their praise through all the upward-skewing graphs in their marketing analytics. Which, for inbound marketers, is really all that matters anyway.

Originally published Mar 4, 2013 9:00:00 AM, updated March 21 2013