By John Tabita

Why Prospects Aren’t Looking for You: The Myth of the Self-Directed Buyer

By John Tabita

As much as I love companies like Hubspot who provide free webinars and ebooks on a myriad of web marketing topics, I also recognize that, behind every blog post and free marketing piece they give away, they also have an agenda—to convince business owners that “outbound marketing” is old-school and ineffective, and that “inbound marketing” is where it’s at. This clever if somewhat misleading video depicts their take on the differences between the two.

Reminiscent of Apple’s “Get a Mac” commercials, cool hipster “Inbound Marketing” sits at a table, lackadaisically reading his magazine while, seated next to him, nerdy and slightly older salesman-type “Outbound Marketing” brags how he’s “gonna set some appointments and close some deals.” As Outbound struggles making call after call with no success, Inbound sits confidently until his phone rings—then promptly closes a deal with someone who “found him on Google.”

Yet, in a recently-published ebook, Top 5 Mobile Marketing Case Studies and How-tos, this same Hubspot highlights a pizza restaurant chain that used SMS, a contest, and *gasp* direct mail to entice customers to register for their loyalty program. Yes, you heard right—direct mail. OMG, wouldn’t that be considered “outbound” marketing and therefore “old school”?

An equally realistic version of Hubspot’s video could show Outbound successfully making calls and setting appointments, while Inbound spends massive amounts of time trying to learn Google AdWords, agonizing over keyword selection (then paying too much for them), emailing Google’s help desk to find out why they’re rejecting his URL (only to receive cryptic replies back in response), then watching as his budget is blown and his ads disappear due to poor click-through rates. (Oh, did I forget to mention click fraud?)

Both scenarios are plausible—depending on your customer. Inbound marketing works well with the self-directed buyer. But if the customers you’re targeting are not self-directed, inbound marketing is a complete flop. Here’s why.

The self-directed buyer is one who knows he has a particular need, he can describe that need in terms of a solution, he knows where to find someone who can solve it, and he is motivated to find that someone. Let’s take a look at each of those.

Knows He has a Need

Recently, my wife discovered water leaking from a pipe that runs along a wall of our basement—not profusely, but enough to be a problem. The water had already flowed across a section of the basement and had gotten some things wet. Do you think I knew I had a problem? You bet I did.

Can Describe it in Terms of a Solution

Along with knowing I had a problem, I also knew that a plumber was the solution. But what if that weren’t the case? A few months ago, my wife noticed a burning smell—like an iron had been left on. The second time it happened, she called me upstairs and I could smell it, too. So we knew there was a problem, but who should we call?

Being the sharper tool in our cozy little shed, my wife suggested the fire department. Sure enough, three fire trucks and a dozen concerned neighbors later, we were able to breathe easier knowing the problem had been resolved.


Knows where to Find Someone Who Can Solve It

In both my examples, I knew where to find the people who could solve my problem. But what about those that don’t? I had a prospect once tell me that they knew they needed a website; they just didn’t know were to find someone like me. Since it wasn’t “mission critical,” they simply did nothing—until I contacted them.

Is Motivated to Find that Someone

Here is the final, key ingredient. One question I didn’t include in my list of Seven Questions You Aren’t Asking that Will Cost You the Sale was: “Is this problem a back-burner issue or something you need solved immediately?” This is a good question to ask. Here’s why.

Many people have problems. They know they have problems. They know where to get help for their problems. They simply aren’t motivated to do anything about it. (I suppose dental work falls into this category.)

When people know they have a need, can describe it in terms of a solution, know where to find someone who can solve it, and are motivated to find someone, they will typically go to one of three places: a search engine, the Yellow Pages, or a friend or colleague for a referral. The self-directed buyer is also the person who wants to be in control of the sales process. They will research purchasing decisions online, use social media to collect information and opinions about prospective vendors, products and services, and will purchase only after they’re ready to make a decision.

Now ask yourself this: does this self-directed buyer sound like the majority of the people who would be my potential clients?

Does it describe some of them? Of course. There will always be a percentage of those who seek us out. But are there enough self-directed buyers looking for the services you provide? And, if so, how likely are they to find you amongst the thousands, nay, millions of others offering the exact same service as you?

Don’t misunderstand me. Referral clients are wonderful to work with, because they are ready to buy and are usually not considering anyone else. If you generate a sufficient income from people who seek you out, then you’re doing something right. When my partners and I first started our business, we found that word-of-mouth generated more than enough work for a part-time venture. But we knew that, if we wanted to take this show on the road, relying solely on word-of-mouth would not support three people and their families. And that’s exactly what I found when I took the business full-time.

One of the larger and more successful web companies I know of has a job opening posted on their website—but not for the typical designer, programmer, or SEO guru. It’s for a sales position. Anyone without the following qualifications need not apply:

  • Must have earned performance based six figure income in this industry
  • Hunter-style business generator

Sounds just a little old school for a forward-thinking interactive web agency offering extensive search marketing solutions to its clients, don’t you think? You can bet they didn’t get to where they are by relying solely on “inbound marketing” and word-of-mouth. And neither should you.

So if you’ve reached the same conclusion, if you find that there are simply not enough people seeking you out or referring you, and your dilemma is, “What’s a poor freelancer to do?” then you may want to consider some form of old school outbound marketing. Stay tuned for next week’s article, where I’ll give some practical suggestions to put you on the right path to doing exactly that.

  • Ken Vermeille

    You make a good point in saying that a majority of buyers may not be self directed. They may even already have a solution to their problem and wont check out your blog or Google the topic. But thats why I think that it takes a good traditional and marketing sales system that will work together with your inbound marketing efforts.

    Imagine this, ever customer that ever interacts with you follows you on Facebook ad twitter (We know that this wont really happen, but lets let it be for the examples sake) Once they start following you and you become useful in their lives, when they’re friends or family are in the market for your services, you’ll get refereed AND they’ll feel more comfortable with you.

  • Jason

    Thank you for this post, John. I was beginning to think I was the only one who wasn’t drinking the Hubspot kool-aid. Like you, it’s not that I disagree with inbound marketing but it’s exactly as you say; a marketing method that needs the proper audience. One of our vertical markets is still very old fashioned. We’re not going to find those guys following us on Facebook and twitter. While that’s not our only vertical, as a marketer we need to focus on our audience first. Where are they? How will they find us? Do they know we exist? Do they even know they have a need? Answer these questions long before you start dreaming about all the twitter followers you could have. Or, don’t. We’ll be happy to contact all your potential prospects while you’re waiting for them to find your cool video on youtube. :)

    • “…I was beginning to think I was the only one who wasn’t drinking the Hubspot kool-aid.”


      “We’ll be happy to contact all your potential prospects while you’re waiting for them to find your cool video on youtube.”

      That one deserves two… :) :)

  • Mike Volpe – HubSpot

    Some points in this article make sense to me, others do not. I agree there is a difference between self-directed buyers and not. I would call them “need aware” or “active” buyers and “passive” or “non-need-aware” buyers, but that is semantics. Either way, I think the non-self-directed buyers are much more expensive to sell to (they don’t even know they have a problem, your problem is not top of mind) and it is more profitable to go after the more motivated and self-directed buyers first. So until you are capturing 100% of them, I would not invest much in outbound.
    I also agree there are some cases where some outbound marketing can be effective, depending on tactics and industry. But overall I think inbound marketing is extremely effective for hundreds of different industries and most companies have completely mis-allocated their investment in inbound marketing vs outbound marketing.
    From my career in marketing, this is what I think I have learned in the past 12 years:
    1) Most companies have their marketing mix all wrong. Most do 90% outbound marketing, and are overspending on their customer acquisition costs because they have not done nearly enough with their inbound marketing. Every company might have an optimal mix of the two, but 99% of companies are so far away from that mix that it is silly, and they need to make a huge investment in inbound.
    2) Outbound marketing is becoming harder and harder and more and more expensive. While it might work (sometimes) you are swimming against the tide, and the tide is getting stronger. Caller ID, spam filters, DVRs, Google Priority Inbox, Facebook Social Inbox and more technologies all make it harder for you to interrupt someone using outbound marketing. I like to invest in things where there is wind at my back (inbound marketing) not wind in my face (outbound marketing).
    3) You can use inbound marketing to turn non-self-directed buyers into self-directed buyers. Lots of things we do at HubSpot do this for us. Website Grader is just one example. People share their scores virally (they scores themselves, their friends, their competitors) and when people see the report, they then realize they have a problem, and become self-directed.
    4) Inbound marketing works really well, for thousands of companies in different markets. Our 4,000 customers have proven that inbound marketing works and is effective. On average these customers attract 4 times more leads after 5 months of inbound marketing (www.HubSpot.com/ROI). If you look at ourselves as a business, we attracted 40,000 new leads last month and have more web traffic than huge companies like Salesforce.com (check Compete or Alexa).
    5) Inbound marketing builds long lasting assets that help your company, outbound does not. Let’s say you spend a bunch of money on TV ads, print ads and cold calls. 6 months later those programs are doing nothing to help grow your business. Now let’s say you spend a bunch of money on inbound marketing, publish a blog, optimize for SEO, build a social media presence, etc. 6 months later you are still going to get web traffic from search engines and social media sites, even without any effort. You built a marketing asset that provides long term value to your company. That is another reason why I love the philosophy of inbound marketing, it makes your job as a marketer easier over time.

    • Mike,

      I don’t necessarily disagree with much of what you’ve said. But in the context of the SitePoint audience (most of whom are freelancers or owners of small web design businesses) I think it’s a tall order to say they can easily use inbound marketing to turn non-self-directed buyers into self-directed ones or that it’s less expensive than outbound marketing.

      The types of prospects my company targets are very similar to those I targeted when I ran my web business. Most don’t connect their problem (not enough sales) with our solution (marketing and advertising). All they know is that they have a problem and aren’t sure how to solve it. For many people, especially in a down economy, the solution to “not enough sales” is to cut their advertising to save money. If we were to skew our marketing to be 90% inbound like you’ve suggested, we’d be out of business in short order. (And if you can prove otherwise, I’m sure my boss would be interested in speaking with you.)

      The average crazy busy decision-makers I’ve dealt with over the years are simply not researching marketing products over the Internet or using social media. How do you engage these crazy busy decisions makers if they never research your product online or never use social media to collect information and opinions about prospective vendors, products and services,? I see inbound marketing to these types of prospects as “swimming against the tide,” because they’re not even in the same ocean as you are.

      In your Hubspot video, “Inbound” asks the caller, “Where did you find us? Oh, on Google” – without mentioning how that same caller had a myriad of other ads and websites from which to chose. Merely turning a non-self-directed buyer into self-directed one doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll buy from you. It simply puts you into a pool with your competitors, hoping you’ll be the one to get “hooked.”

      Not that that’s a bad thing, but over the years, I’ve learned than every type of marketing had its strengths and weaknesses. Outbound marketing has the “first contact” advantage: that is, the non-self-directed buyer has probably not considered anyone else and is more likely to buy from the business that reached out and first made contact.

      Rather regarding inbound as “wind at my back” and outbound as “wind in my face,” I think it’s more effective to see all different types of marketing as a team and – depending on the type of business and its prospects – skew the percentage in the direction that is most cost effective at generating more revenue. (Which, coincidently, is the subject of my next post.) I’m sure we’ll have to agree to disagree as to exactly how to skew those percentages.

      • Amber

        Hm. This scares me: The average crazy busy decision-makers I’ve dealt with over the years are simply not researching marketing products over the Internet or using social media.

        What happens when your demographic changes? Because I can tell you right now if you *really* think your customers aren’t researching on the internet – then you have to be catering to a customer that’s at least 40+. So – what happens in 25 years when your customers all retire? Are you still going to be saying that they’re not using the internet to search?

        As a current Hubspot customer and the main person in my organization who manages the software – AND someone in the most antiquated industry there ever was (Commercial Real Estate, anyone?) – I have to say that NOT ONLY will you increase your leads with Hubspot, but you learn about marketing through education.

        We increased our organic traffic 600% in 9 months. We get leads from old-school investors who are looking for Market Data for our area, for property owners who want to list with us, and small businesses who are looking for commercial space.

        Hubspot doesn’t advocate that inbound marketing should take the place of outbound marketing entirely – I’ve actually worked with Hubspot’s support team to build landing page URLs that our company has used on print ads (which, by the way, got us ZERO leads, just so you know).

        I don’t know – I call lazy if you honestly think your target customer will never be researching online. The core principals of markeing will never change… but the vehicle might.

        I say you lose more by not doing it than doing it. But I’m a little biased.

  • Joseph Malleck

    Wow, great article. This has been something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    In my case, I cant rely on inbound marketing to fill my sales funnel. It’s just too slow. I HAVE to be proactive. Weather that’s selling to existing clients, or reaching out to new ones. I am #2 in my keyword search terms, I update my blog on a regular basis, etc. I do all the inbound marketing stuff. But, I find that the leads that are gernerated from my inbound strategies are far more particular, and they are usually getting bids from multiple firms.

    On the flip side, prospects that I find through “outbound” marketing usually don’t go and get quotes from other firms. They are either interested or not. Or they just need some time.

    Also, many of the prospects that I get through my outbound marketing seem to have been “awakened” to their need. Or it has been, as you have said, a “back-burner” issue for them and they just didn’t have the time or know where to start to find someone.

    It really depends on the industry that you are in and if your potential customers are likely to go and search for you using online channels. For one of my clients that owns a horse stable, inbound marketing is perfect, because horse people are REALLY interested in horse stuff. However, decision makers who need websites aren’t really interested in design and coding best practices, or even how to make money from your site (to the extent that they would search on that subject online).

    Just my 2 cents.

    (P.s. I wrote a blog post on my blog totally contradicting what I just said a few months ago. But since then I have changed my opinion. :) )

    • “… a ‘back-burner’ issue for them and they just didn’t have the time or know where to start to find someone.”

      This is so often the case. I’ve heard it said that when someone opens a small business, they go from having a job to owning a job. They show up each day with the same mindset: “I’ve got dogs to groom…” “I’ve got transmissions to repair…” “I’ve got service calls to go on…” Marketing is simply not on their radar.

      “It really depends on the industry that you are in and if your potential customers are likely to go and search for you using online channels.”

      I met the owner of a casket manufacturing company who was making a killing (no pun intended) with AdWords. That was the last product I’d have imagined would sell online. But he knew his industry and was smart enough to take advantage of the best marketing channels available.

      “(P.s. I wrote a blog post on my blog totally contradicting what I just said a few months ago. But since then I have changed my opinion. :) )”

      Not too many years ago, I would have been saying the same negative comments about cold-calling as others have posted on the topic. Funny how our perspective changes when we get some experience under our belt.

    • Dave Lawrence

      “decision makers who need websites aren’t really interested in design and coding best practices, or even how to make money from your site”
      I think you need to change your content strategy. You’re right in saying that the average business owner doesn’t care much about coding. What they do care about is how a properly designed and optimized website can help them achieve growth and add to their bottom line.
      I wrote an article a few days ago called The Static Website Lifecycle. I think it might be an interesting example of material that might appeal more to your target audience.
      I’d love to hear what you think!

      • Dave,

        I used to write article like that when I had my web business, thinking that the more I educated my clients, the more of them I would have. But I’ve found that clients don’t want to be educated; they want results.

        Most decision-makers I’ve dealt with over the years are far too busy to research and test the features of various CMS. (Most went with the CMS we provided, because they trusted us; then, ironically, were too busy to update the site, and so paid us to update it, using the CMS they paid us to build. But I digress.)

        My point is, the typical client is too busy to care about the details. All they really care about is the last part of your statement: “achieve growth and add to their bottom line.” Most really don’t care how you accomplish that. Telling them about “a properly designed and optimized website” is like explaining how the watch works when all they really wanted to know was the time.

        “A properly designed and optimized website” is the Feature. “Adding to their bottom line” is the Benefit. Talking about features is fine, but you ought to lead with (and emphasize) the benefit, and only talk about features if and when they want to know more.

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