Even though I’m a bit worn out by NPR’s regular reporting, I still really enjoyOn Point with Tom Ashbrook and Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. By chance, I caught part of the Fresh Air interview with the fantastic Dan Lyons, who was discussing HubSpot (and his new book, Disrupted), a product that I had already started to write a fevered review about. Being a huge fan of his work, I was curious about his new book and bought it. I read the prologue and immediately put it down. I didn’t want his experience to influence this article in any way. I’m excited to return to it, because the prologue was fantastic — but for the sake of making sure my thoughts and original software review aren’t tainted with his ideas, I present to: Why I tried the HubSpot Kool-aid and then Spit it Out 6 months later.
In the beginning of 2014, I moved to Austin, TX from a small state. I don’t want to give too many details as to where I’m from, but my original reason for making the trek to the new tech Mecca of Austin was to open a remote office for the small, but agile advertising agency I worked for back ‘home’. When I first arrived, a lot of what I did was on-the-ground footwork. I was hopeful that in a city of new, emerging tech and Silicon Valley-esque startups, that a marketing / advertising agency which offered affordable, but creative solutions to digital advertising and branding would have an opportunity to shine (despite having over 200 other ad agencies and marketing firms). I believed what we did to be different, as we took a more personal approach to an otherwise impersonal & saturated market.
As I spent more time in Austin, I realized that I had a challenge in front of me and making a name for our little agency was going to require a lot more strategy and leg-work than I initially imagined. I changed my methodology and in March of 2014, I signed up for as many networking events and conferences as I could. I was eager to position myself as an expert within the community and assumed that these events would allow me to meet other ‘experts’.
One of these conferences I attended in 2014 was called the “Inbound Marketing Summit” — sponsored by a company called HubSpot. I had no idea what HubSpot was and I had absolutely no idea what “inbound marketing” was. At this event, I learned two things:
- You can make friends at these conferences. I made a good friend at the conference, and though we’ve grown apart — he was a vital part of my becoming acclimated to Austin, Texas.
- I learned about “Inbound Marketing”, a methodology that we apparently just took for granted and already practiced…as it is literally the root of any half-decent marketing strategy.
Everyone there was so enamored by this mystical HubSpot software and Inbound methodology, that I couldn’t help but — dismiss it all as bullshit.Everything that people were so enthusiastically preaching from the podium, was practice we always followed, causing the entire dialogue to go in one ear and immediately out the other. My eyes glazed over and the fancy “content marketing” notepad I had received quickly became a prison full of desperate scribbles of cartoon girls trying to escape the situation that I could not.
After the event, I made an effort to network and did find a few people that ended up giving good advice about the Austin markets, but none of their advice was related to inbound.
Life went on and I went back to the grind of cold calls and digital strategy for our current client base. I managed to sign a few clients in Austin and things were looking great.
6 months later, I received a phone call from a sales guy at HubSpot. I’m not sure how he found my personal contact information, but I imagine it had something to do with my information being used to sign up for the Summit. Brilliant. Curious to see if there was value, and something that would later on become one of my biggest strategy mishaps, we decided to hear them out. After about 100 meetings with various people, our small little ad agency decided to give Hubspot a try.
The first 3 months, we spent learning the INBOUND METHODOLOGY which was not much to learn, as it was everything we had already been doing for all of our clients through custom WordPress development, content creation (such as blogs and content offers) and analytics software. Though, I will say that it did reaffirm that some of the practices are good to do on a consistent basis. Inbound is basically the bread and butter of their system and it ties directly into their funnel system which is supposed to help generate leads.
At the top level of this funnel you have content. Inbound requires you to make a shit-ton of content. They love this word. About 5 years ago, Google began to punish websites that were purposefully gaming SEO through keyword spamming and meta-tags. This changed the way people designed websites. Google’s current algorithm rewards people who put relevant content on their site. Due to Google being a magical unicorn, no one really has an idea of what that algorithm is, but the assumption is that the more relevant your content is to the page — the better the ranking will be.
If you are selling tacos, just write that you make tacos. Google is smart. They’ll know your tacos are being sold in Austin and will list your phone number and location next to the search result…if your site content is relevant. There’s no need to clutter your site up with the word taco 5000 times. The description of the site in the search results typically comes from the first paragraph of text on your site and sometimes Google will even show your logo if it is positioned properly. Pretty basic stuff.
Inbound and HubSpot’s funnel system comes from trying to game the search results by producing too much fucking content. For example, if you want to be known for “How to make the perfect Taco” and make sure that everyone searching for tacos KNOWS that you are the one who knows how to make a perfect taco, you need to write 14 blog posts about making perfect tacos.
And all of these blog posts must have the following:
- A bulleted list.
- A bunch of inbound links — these are links in your article that link to other articles.
- A content offer at the bottom of the blog article — Some sort of life-changing PDF or “package” that you’ve created which forces a user to fill out an assortment of personally identify forms in order to actually download it.
In theory, this isn’t exactly bad practice. Sometimes the blog posts can provide pretty invaluable information for free and the ‘content offer’ downloads can provide a decent resource that educates a user and helps position your business as an expert. But where inbound tends to go wrong is when people don’t understand marketing in the first place.
Marketing isn’t trying to game every single search result. While showing up in Google’s ranking system is a good thing and relevant search results can help grow a business — marketing isn’t just spamming every single human on the planet with inane bullshit. The inbound social media strategy seems to focus on this though. After writing an article, you’re supposed to spam every hashtag, multiple times a day or week (never forgetting #contentmarketing or #inbound because people who use these hashtags are definitely potential customers and not other HubSpot users). This seriously results in amazing feedback from other marketers who are spamming the same content that you are.
I’ve harped on this in the past, marketers need to stop using #marketing and #advertising on social media because it’s ridiculous. No one looking for an agency is prowling twitter for the hashtag #advertising. The only person who can do this 24 hours is a bot and the only OTHER person doing this is someone sitting in a room using HubSpot’s software (or similar product).
Everyone I talked to on HubSpot’s staff was actually super helpful and enthusiastic. They had the methodology engrained in their brain and the staff is some of the most responsive and nicest people I’ve personally dealt with. They are nice people. But like a pyramid scheme (especially on the ‘Partner’ side) it’s based around reselling their product to other people who might drink the Kool-Aid at some point.
For us and for our primary market, a small state, most people don’t drink that shit. HubSpot ended up being a sort of poison for our agency. Anytime we would try to pitch someone, regardless of whether they were a long standing client or potential new one, they would be completely enamored with our agency…until we started diving into INBOUND and HUBSPOT. It was essentially the same thing we were saying before subscribing to HubSpot, but now we were just using fancy buzzwords to describe the process. This new pitch resulted in two things:
- Made the client despondent and shut down.
- No sale
In fact, in the year of being a HubSpot partner we successfully sold a total of 0 people on the software, despite including it in nearly every pitch.
The icing on the cake was that every single pitch we did during our time with Hubspot that did not include INBOUND was a win for us. I can’t tell you why exactly, but my assumption is that most businesses aren’t susceptible to bullshit and buzzwords.
Now our experience may not be the typical experience and I know of several large marketing firms in Austin that successfully resale HubSpot on a weekly basis to new clients. But, I’m starting to believe that it may become the typical experience for most HubSpot partners — for the very same reason it’s difficult for a small state advertising agency in a city full of advertising agencies and marketers. There are too many people using this software.Especially in Austin.
The inbound side of HubSpot is not where it shines. I can do literally everything HubSpot ‘teaches’ in it’s 40 million hours of tests and lessons through any other publishing and analytics software.
Our primary web development and content management system (CMS) that we use for all of our clients is WordPress. WordPress is free software that with only a few weeks of training can allow you do anything you want for a client. It has a million integrations and mass potential to expand through plugins..and if something doesn’t exist, it’s easy to develop it yourself through use of custom fields and WordPress’s special form of php. It also allows for RSS, scheduling content publishing, social media publishing, smart forms and basically every single other thing that you may need to successfully develop a website for a client. The CMS is easy to teach to your clients as everything is available from the dashboard. The sky is the limit.
HubSpot likes to say it integrates well with WordPress, but in all actuality it fails at this miserably. If you have a primary site on WordPress, but use HubSpot software, you basically have to use their blogging software to publish your blogs on a HubSpot hosted blog. There’s not really a way around this despite their being an “official” HubSpot WordPress plugin, because in order to use it’s lead tracking features you have to use their blog. This forces you to publish your article twice and use a permanent 301 redirect on your main site to the HubSpot blog featuring the same exact content — which creates a bad conversion metric.
HubSpot’s design manager, if you decide to let HubSpot host your site instead, is also a nightmare. They have some sort of magical energy that will build your website for free when you sign up, but this mystical energy can only develop the desktop side properly. They are lazy when it comes to the responsive side and every menu on HubSpot developed sites ends up being the same at around 480px width. They use some sort of weird cookie cutter version of bootstrap for mobile widths and I hate bootstrap. Bootstrap is great for static sites or mockups, but complete shit for custom design. Custom designing in bootstrap is like trying to jam a square peg into a circle shape…you can do it but you have to carve a literal square into the circle. I’m not saying that it’s definitely bootstrap, but I’m fairly certain it’s some sort of template that they use outsourced developers to design within. That being said, their ‘custom designed’ sites are responsive and it does what it needs — but if you want to have a custom design at mobile and tablet width, you’re going to have to hop into the design manager and do it yourself (or spend hours arguing with their design team).
This very situation led to my having to learn their form of custom php, HubL (they pronounce in Hubble, I guess because it sounds spacey). It is a kind of personal hell, because unlike WordPress which allows you the freedom to develop whatever you need through its functions and plugin support, HubL is limited to a few reference codes and 5 major functions: Text, image, rich text, Boolean, Choice. There are more “robust” functions in the reference material, but you’re going to have to rewrite those anyways if you plan on incorporating custom sliders, blog embeds, etc.
The purpose of a CMS is to allow a user to easily edit the content on a page. So, instead of a nice WYSIWYG editor and shortcodes, you have to try and make sure that whatever custom module you write for your client can be updated on their end, causing a convoluted column mess of TEXT for Headlines, TEXT for LINKS, IMAGE for SLIDER, RICH TEXT FOR BODY, TEXT for BUTTON A HREF, when a user is trying to update a page template with your custom built modules. There’s truly no way to describe this process without pulling it up and showing it to you, but in short it increases development time roughly 3 fold. Example: If you want a custom slider that isn’t the prebuilt HubSpot one, you have to build it from ground up. Which is fine, because you’d have to do that in WordPress (if you’re not using one of their million free slider plugins), except in HubSpot it’s not as straight forward for the user to update.
The beauty of free software and open software is it allows you the ability to do whatever you want. Closed software like HubSpot and it’s HubL code only allows you to do what the software wants to let you do, unless you hack the shit out of it (which we often had to). As I designed in HubSpot’s design manager, I wistfully reminisced about WordPress and cried.
It’s not the worst, I just wish I didn’t have to 3 separate windows open during the development process: The design manager, the page manager and the custom module editor. In order to make sure the modules function properly in the CMS, you have to constantly cross-reference the 3 windows.
I don’t consider HubSpot’s software to be a CMS. It does have pretty neat visual template managers. It’s cool. It looks cool. You can see your editing live. People like that. But, HubSpot by nature isn’t a CMS.
The best feature of HubSpot and the most sinisterly evil feature (though it’s being done anyways by most marketing agencies, so HubSpot’s not at fault) is it’s CRM lead tracking. HubSpot uses some sort of voodoo, which I assume is based on cookies and referrals, to track individual users throughout their journey and return to your site. For example: John Smith visits your site through a social media post, he downloads a PDF and submits a form (this gathers more demographic data about John Smith) and returns a week later. This allows marketers to capture that lead and gives them the ability to follow up at an appropriate time. This is cool and evil, but it’s just part of marketing in 2016.
This feature is invaluable for marketers and the only reason to use HubSpot. The only thing you can’t do with WordPress by default is track leads like this (though a clever combination of analytics software and paid CRM plugins will deliver similar data). HubSpot’s CRM, Sales and Lead Tracking software is great. We never got to actually see what a Partner sales / lead looked like, but I’m sure it’s something else.
As I said, we may not have been selling the Kool-Aid properly. But here’s something that a lot of people don’t consider when moving their business to Hubspot. A good marketing and advertising agency will generate content regardless. Shitposting and spamming social media isn’t good marketing. Good content is the key to real leads and returns on your site and it doesn’t take a special methodology to incorporate that. Relevant content is important, click throughs should be useful (this is an issue with Hubspot and it’s Inbound linking principle. It takes a lot of clicks to get the “good stuff” and user drop-off is pretty high past 2 or 3 clicks. They do this to capture as much user information as possible, but it can be just as harmful to retention as helpful).
I would venture a guess that over 70% of businesses that sign up with Hubspot see a “massive ROI” because Hubspot is those businesses first foray into actual “Content is Key” marketing. A lot of small businesses are still stuck in that game the keyword SEO philosophy. They haven’t had an opportunity to work with an agency that would produce good digital strategy and relevant content. The agency I worked for did a lot of educating to new clients. The first few weeks was explaining digital strategy and showing the benefits of content management. Educating clients is important and Hubspot does do this through its Inbound Methodology, but they didn’t invent the wheel here. When people are seeing these results and fancy graphs and etc, they are amazed. There’s nothing wrong with them being happy with their subscription, but it’s important to realize that all of their data can be accomplished through other platforms.
I don’t like to just bash on Hubspot. As I’ve said, their staff is kind and seemingly passionate about what they are doing. But, this whole cult following of Hubspot is really scary.
The last thing I want to touch on is the cult of Hubspot. Attending different events in Austin, I learned a valuable lesson. Everyone in Austin uses or has used Hubspot. That makes reselling Hubspot in Austin incredibly difficult, as only a few major marketing firms have a foothold on the few businesses that don’t already use it. This is akin to a pyramid scheme. It’s almost as hard as selling to people in small state, because they don’t give a fuck about it.
The Hubspot events are full of people eager to share how Hubspot has changed their lives and webinars and live seminars are all of the rage. One interesting thing to note is how many Hubspot users run adblock and tracker blocking extensions in their browser.
ASIDE: If you are a regular web user and you don’t use extensions: reconsider. Get an adblock and get a tracker blocker like Ghostery. While there’s some major panic and push to create anti-ad blocking software, the truth is that only about 5–10% of daily web users have these extensions installed. Trying to get past their adblockers to advertise to these people will eventually bite advertisers in the ass because that 10% of web users are what I call the “unmarketables” anyways. These are discussion board, tor users, etc that see through the bullshit and will call bullshit to everyone they know. So stop trying to fix what isn’t broken, traditional web marketing isn’t going to work on these people. A fun tidbit is that you can sell adspace on your website by using a static ad (like a digital billboard) and adblock won’t block it because it’s seen as a native image link. No one is forcing you to use adsense and adXverb. Get creative.
There’s nothing wrong advertising on your site and maybe there’s nothing wrong with using trackers but I do think there’s an issue that comes into play when the people who are doing the marketing are all using these extensions to stop seeing the very things they are creating. All this means is you’re not creating good content and you know it. It means you’re not building your clients brand properly. It means you don’t have faith in your messaging. Advertising is important for small businesses and business in general. It’s hard to get seen on a web that has millions of new content generated daily. Just be mindful, unique and honest. This is truly the key.
Anyways — even from my initial entry into Hubspot, I couldn’t figure out the cult following. I tried to get onboard, I tried to be enthusiastic. I wanted to be that group that created daily content. The further and further I delve into this world, the more disillusioned I become. There’s a sickness on the web based around closed networks and shallow content generation. Hubspot can be a valuable tool for some businesses, especially those uneducated in marketing practices or major need for sales management. But, please, stop cluttering up the web with shit.
To end, I’ll leave you with this TEDx talk by The Escapist’s Founder,Alexander Macris.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to read.
Post publishing Addendum: