Insight | Marketing

Five key themes from Inbound 2018

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought the house down on a wonderful Inbound 2018 and Boston said goodbye to the 24,000+ business leaders, marketers and salespeople making the annual pilgrimage to the conference, there were some core things that struck me about the running themes throughout my week in Massachusetts.

Even in the ‘Club Inbound’ area, in which a raft of event sponsors awaited to speak to willing delegates, I noticed a few things I had not seen at any conference in the past; no supplier talked about the competition, I don’t believe many of the guys on the stands were sales ‘reps’ and most importantly they weren’t pushy and were thoroughly nice to speak with, giving each person as long as he or she needed to talk. Perhaps these were a result of how digital content has significantly changed, how much more educated customers and stakeholders are when it comes to purchasing behaviour, or maybe down to the increased amount of people that are typically involved in a new technology purchase – particularly in B2B.

If you aren’t aware of the event. Inbound is now in its sixth year and is one of the fastest-growing business events in the world which includes four days of inspiring talks and breakout sessions.

Here are my key takeaways from this year:

1. The need to differentiate is key

This is hardly something new in the world of digital marketing. Experts have been talking about the need to differentiate for many years, but differentiation is key in every single part of the business. As Emil Everett talked about - there are hundreds of ways to differentiate yourself/your team, the company or the product/service. Here are some ways to differentiate your product/service:

Product/service differentiators

Here's the rest of his excellent list.

Your business values / DNA / beliefs, etc, play a more important role than ever before and will help people align with values that resonate with them. Think about Dollar Shave Club: they sell razors which by and large don’t change from brand to brand, but their distribution model is radically different to anyone else. In turn, this has also differentiated them on price (from wholesalers and retailers taking a cut) and as a result they’ve not only managed to build a 1% market share in just 3 years from the giant P&G brand Gillette, but have caused them to change their strategy

More importantly, differentiation by pointing to competition flaws is the easiest way to showcase that you don’t truly understand what your USP is! Speaking about ‘selling the competition’, Emil Everett referenced the great Albert Einstein:

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

There is something in the simplicity of this that is fundamental to understanding what your brand stands for and why it exists. If you don’t know that or can’t recite it off the top of your head, you don’t know it well enough-so how can you be expected to do a good job of explaining it to someone else.

Given that differentiation can be difficult, with lots of companies offering similar products, one thing that can separate you is customer experience! At a keynote, HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan noted:

“It used to be that your product needed to be 10x better than competition. Now it's your customer experience needs to be 10x better”.

2. Storytelling is more important than ever

Given two identical products, which one are you more likely to buy? The cheapest? Maybe. The one that offers better customer service? Perhaps. The one your children, family or friends prefer? Not a bad guess. But I would put substantial money that you will settle on the one that has told best story! 

As Beth Comstock opened with at Inbound; “strategy is a story well told”. As human beings, we are drawn to stories more than anything. We connect, resonate and understand stories because they give us context and meaning to situations we are emotive toward. Just what a brand wants you to do! 

According to Lisa Gerber – a good story should do the following:

  • Get attention (establish familiarity)
  • Create understanding (create trust)
  • Retain memory (over time)
  • Influence action (motivate behaviour)

There are many ways to tell a story but it’s no coincidence the best brands in the world do this better than anyone. The strongest (in my humble opinion) are Nike and Apple and despite being an Adidas/Android man through-and-through, I can’t help but love every single piece of creative that comes from these two brands and the powerful emotive stories they tell. 

Not only do they tell incredible stories, but they take risks doing it. Nike’s recent decision to put ex–NFL player Colin Kaepernic at the centre of their new ad campaign not only shows the company’s willingness to put an incredible story at the heart of their creative, but putting their values (mentioned previously) above everything else – even if that means potentially incurring the wrath of loyal customers.

Needless to say, Nike will almost certainly reap the rewards of this, despite the initial ‘easy to report’ backlash!

3. Authenticity is key to everything!

“To be future-proof in marketing, the key is that you must be authentic” (Sangram Vajre – host of the Flip My Funnel podcast).

One of the reasons Grey’s Anatomy is such a popular show (well, at least in my house) and resonates with so many people is that it has done something that hadn’t really been done on TV before. The excellent Shonda Rhimes explained that when she “wanted to populate the show with people that you would see in real life, perhaps a little prettier, I didn't realise how revolutionary that would be”. They are authentic characters that people understand and connect with.

Think about your favourite public role models. I’m willing to bet the reason that you like them so much is because you believe them to be authentic! 

I’ll give you some of my own authentic people I admire: Richard Branson, Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, Matt Damon and Amy Poehler to name a few. I know this eclectic collection of people may not be your cup of tea, but you can probably admit they’re authentic in their demeanour, and that they believe everything they say and stand for.

There is a strange trend on Amazon whereby “People buy products that have a rating of 4.3 or 4.5 rather than ones with 5” (Sangram Vajre). It’s all down to authenticity of a product. No one believe that a product is 100% flawless so seeing that little bit of authenticity helps them sell even more.

One of the main ways to achieve this is to become customer-centric. By putting customers at the heart of the business, you will understand their needs, irks, character traits and communication channels better than a brand that puts themselves at the heart of their ‘story’.

Troy Carter also talked about the huge pop stars he’s worked with in his career, who (coincidentally?) ‘build that authentic relationship’ with their fans. Among the standout client names were Lady Gaga and Beyonce, some of the biggest popstars on the planet. 

"Listening to consumer is important but listening to yourself is more important!"

4. The traditional funnel is dead, long live the ‘flywheel’

This was a big theme this year. At last 2/3 of the speakers I saw all pointed towards a new way of thinking about the traditional funnel. 

This outdated model, typically split into marketing and sales activities – in siloed acts – often sees a purchase as the ‘end’ of the funnel.

Traditional funnel - Five key themes from Inbound 2018 - Distinction Thoughts


The main problem with this model, it seems, is a relatively simple one. It doesn’t put your most important factor at the heart of your business – your customers! Customers are the lifeblood of any business and the importance placed on reviews above anything else means that happy customers are the key to ongoing sales and marketing strategy.

The other problem with this approach is that it brings to the table the issue around sales and marketing acting in their own silos and pointing the finger at each other when something isn’t working quite right. This often happens when marketing employs a ‘shotgun’ approach to targeting leads, whereas sales is focused on revenue and closing.

This is where the ‘flywheel’, championed by HubSpot’s Brian Halligan, comes in:

flywheel inbound method lifecycles -Five key themes from Inbound 2018 - Distinction Thoughts


This model puts customers front and centre and encourages growth (the faster you can spin it!).

“Funnels produce customers, but don’t consider how those customers can help you grow. And all the momentum you built acquiring that customer? Gone. Each day, each month, and each quarter, we have to start new.”

- Hubspot blog

This method also encourages account-based marketing in which sales and marketing are typically tasked with targeting the specific accounts with the right person, with the right message, at the right time. Make no mistake, account-based marketing isn’t a fad. It is here to stay and to me, it is the best way to do B2B marketing!

5. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of business

“Time is the currency today” and “Health is the foundation for peak performance, sustainable success and life/work integration” is how Jeanette Bronee from eloquently began. There was a definite theme running through a lot of speakers about making sure you put yourself first, that the best work gets done when you are in the right mindset and that exercise is a better way to re-energise yourself than any amount of coffee.

Some key things to take away:

The three basic things human beings need to survive are…Water, food and rest – three things that I think we can all admit to putting at the bottom of our priority list at work!

  • WATER - Not drinking enough water can actually lead to increased anger, disease and a huge decrease in productivity. So much so that a recent study in the US showed that there is a $2.5 billion loss in productivity each year as a result of people taking time off work due to chronic illness – much of which could be put down to simple dehydration. It also promotes teamwork!
  • FOOD - Within 20 mins, food will affect mood, energy and happiness. A mix of serotonin, dopamine and vitality are the keys to well-being. The tip here was that you can change what you eat to combat what you are feeling. Here is a breakfast example: 
    • Anxious in the morning = oatmeal (serotonin)
    • Can't get up / motivated for it = egg (dopamine)
    • Vitality (green foods) = focus, engagement, energy
    • All adds up to Nourishment
  • REST / PAUSE - Studies have shown that we are most effective at work when we spend 45-90 mins focused then 5-15 mins off, have 30 min meal breaks and 7-8 hours sleep.
    • A walk around nature for 10 mins can be as good for you as a half hour nap. Even looking at a photograph of nature helps almost as much as taking a walk.
    • A 10 min nap gives more energy than a cup of coffee!

It’s self-care that gives us precious time back! Health is the new currency - it's what affects our lives the most.


These were the standouts in what was an incredible event.  You can view the main keynote speakers on the Inbound site.

If you want to chat about anything I’ve mentioned, as well as the latest SEO trends, tactics MAPS or story telling techniques, then please reach out to me on social or email me directly.