When I was first introduced to the Inbound Methodology at Emerson College I was immediately struck by how it can be the foundation for so many courses of action. My professor, Randy Harrison, assigned the HubSpot Inbound Certification classes for homework and encouraged us to apply what we learned to group projects where class members teamed up to create several integrated marketing campaigns. Inbound worked every time.

During my team’s research, we found again and again that the most effective practices of successful companies resembled inbound. And when we fleshed out our favorite ideas it became increasingly clear that the more they meshed with our inbound methods, the better they were.

What I found so compelling about inbound was not only its usefulness but also its moral correctness. Inbound-informed actions begin with empathy and end with giving people what they want. Even simulating empathy in this way for imaginary customers felt right.

When later I recommended an inbound-inspired action to my skeptical boss, it was the empathetic, customer-centric conditions of the suggestion that assured him we should bring the price of our cheese and wine pairing app down to free.

Personas and Understanding Inbound

Personas are the marrow of inbound’s empathetic approaches. When this fact fully sunk in at the end of Emerson’s spring semester, inbound’s influence got through to me in an intimate way. 

For our final project, my team created an integrated marketing campaign for the record label Def Jam. For this assignment, we paid extra close attention to seeing each component of our campaign through inbound lenses. We were especially inspired by the process of forming personas and making them the foundation of our strategy. Doing this drove home the interdependence of product development, pricing, and creating content people want to consume.

After some market research and persona creation my team realized an important trend: the majority of our ideal customers were already lovers of Def Jam’s artists who had a desire to be more intimate with their favorite artists, but who found it challenging to do so. So we devised an online hub and corresponding app. A freemium model offered personalized add-ons and product variation for personalized needs. Even the design featured a personalized, persona-inspired system of swiping – giving the user the ability to swipe from lyrics to related blog posts by the artist, for instance. “Personalized” came up a lot during our presentation. Each component of our campaign tied into a sustainable promise to bring artists closer to fans. In inbound style our proposal amounted to implementing interconnected tools and initiatives to be helpful and relevant to ideal customers in engaging ways.

The Freeing Power of Personas

It’s easy to make recommendations with a massive imaginary budget. But our budget at MAXVOL, Inc. for our cheese and wine app isn’t Def Jam-sized (yet). So when I recommended that my boss Max McCalman release for free the app that took him decades to create he was understandably wary. I explained that abundant information wants to be free and scarce information wants to be expensive, something else I learned in Randy’s class after he assigned Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. A freemium model would offer the abundant information at the margin – the pairings – for free and reserve scarce information for premium users – geo-targeted event offerings, for example. What really convinced Max freemium was the way to go was when I described the components of my proposal in terms of personas. “The same research that reveals our personas want this app to be free,” I said, “is the same research that will continue to reveal where our customers are, how they want to be engaged, and how to translate that engagement into profit.”

Ultimately Max empathized with the proposal because the way the proposal was created empathized with actual people. Now we take to heart that our indirect revenue from the free experience of the app will only be as large as our understanding of personas is deep. Investigating the why that motivates our personas’ goals is the only way that reliably leads us to understand how we can meet people where they want to be found, address their challenges and establish the trust necessary to foster lasting relationships. 

Seeing Is Believing

It is remarkable when a system of thought is always applicable - not merely rational under certain circumstances, but a logic to follow. Conducting a SWOT analysis every six months may be a good idea, but inbound informs the day-to-day actions of everyone who embraces the methodology. As with all good logics, I repeatedly discover new coherences in the Inbound Methodology and more diverse uses for inbound techniques. I’m grateful my exposure started in a classroom where the challenges could easily become stimulating with the help of community and practice. And I’m grateful inbound principles are so cohesive and useful that they’re suffusing my best efforts to enhance more and more individual cheese experiences.

The economist Peter Boettke said in an interview “theories are eyeglasses” and we need “to put the eyeglasses on in order to do the applications.” Without a good pair of eyeglasses, data cannot be interpreted. Inbound is a good set of eyeglasses. The persona-prescribed lenses work. When I wear them I see that delightful experiences are the flora and fauna of an inbound ecosystem. The lenses are refined the more I learn, and what is clarified is a productive, empathetic way of engaging the world and the individuals in it. What is also clear is that practicing the pragmatic actions that follow from such an upright methodology is how I want to spend the rest of my marketing career.

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Originally published Aug 14, 2015 12:00:00 PM, updated February 01 2017