Inbound marketing works in three stages, with some results happening much sooner than others. But not all results necessarily look like inbound at work.
A common question among both businesses who are considering an inbound marketing strategy and those who have recently embarked on one is 'how long will it take to work?'
There are, of course, innumerable variables that can affect how long it takes you to see inbound results. Things like your level of activity, the market you sell in to, and the strength of your inbound marketing strategy all influence the size and speed of your results.
But, as important as knowing how long inbound takes to work, is knowing what the results look like when it does.
You see, while inbound results can manifest quickly, often, these early results are not exactly what was expected.
The reality is that inbound results develop in three distinct stages; SEO success, MQL success and inbound success.
These stages normally occur one after another and, like most things inbound-y, they are compounding, meaning persistence will produce continually improving results overall.
Let's look at each stage in more detail.
Stage 1 - SEO success - 3 to 9 months.
When you first embark on an inbound strategy, the content you create in the first three months most likely isn't going to transform your business overnight. After all, we all agree inbound takes time.
But what we do expect to see pretty quickly is a rapid improvement in search engine optimisation leading to more relevant traffic to your website and more direct enquiries - by email and phone, however, not through the inbound 'funnel'.
You see at the start of your inbound process you should be researching the keywords and topics that your website should be found for.
Often these are not the ones that you currently rank for, or even the ones you think you should.
The right keywords and topics use your persona's language, not yours.
Having identified the most desirable keywords and topics, it is usually possible to re-optimise your website and existing content around them, producing an immediate improvement in your position for them and instantly training your site on better quality organic search traffic.
Achieving this may require redevelopment of your website but, even so, it is usually possible within 3 to 6 months of getting started, depending on your marketing budget. Any content that you can also produce in this timeframe will help you to secure better ranking position for the most attractive keywords.
When you rank better for the right topics, more purchase-ready buyers are able to find you and, usually, more of them will enquire with you directly.
If you were not expecting this sort of outcome, it can be easy to think that inbound marketing isn't having any effect. But the act of optimising all your existing content, and any new stuff, correctly, can transform your results quite quickly.
Now is the time to make sure that you website is effective at generating enquiries from the new traffic it is receiving, otherwise you may be waiting a long time for inbound to have the kind of effect you hoped for.
Stage 2 - MQL success - 6 to 18 months
Continuing to produce content supports further gains in relevant traffic - visitors from an increasing range of search results, and at different stages of the buying process.
This generates a continued increase in those direct enquiries from stage 1, plus a greater ability to convince and convert those who are almost ready to make a purchase to take some sort of action with you. This often materialises as a lift in bottom of the funnel conversions and the creation of what we consider to be marketing qualified leads, or MQLs.
The content you are creating will no doubt be generating more top of the funnel leads too, but it can be frustrating how hard it is to convert these leads into opportunities. Unfortunately, workflows are not a sure-fire way to move B2B prospects along the funnel and toward purchase.
Throughout this stage, B2B companies typically see a larger proportion of their MQLs each month coming from first-time visitors to their website who have not downloaded any content. Don't worry about this, accept it and lean in.
This is the right time to develop sales processes that can accommodate increasing numbers of hand-raisers. Repeatable sales processes, consistent CRM usage, and a closed sales and marketing loop are your friends at this stage.
Stage 3 - inbound success - 12 to 24 months
If you keep up the hard work and continue creating great content into your second year and beyond, you can expect to see what most would describe as inbound success - in addition to your SEO and MQL results.
By now, the volume of content you have driving traffic, generating leads and nurturing contacts should be substantial.
By extension, you will be enjoying increased reach and greater authority. Prospects are now more likely to encounter and engage with your brand multiple times and in multiple places.
Inbound is, in part, a numbers game. And now, you will start to see more leads follow the inbound path - discovering blog posts, consuming content, converting on offers, engaging with emails, revisiting your site and, finally, raising their hands.
It's been a long time coming but its finally here.
Now that leads are following the inbound path, there are a great many things you can do to drive up the results of all three stages. Double down on content production, spend time on conversion optimisation, or improve your sales and marketing alignment - all these activities will help you propel your suite of inbound results to new heights.
Is inbound worth it?
Given how long it takes to see the classic definition of inbound success, you may ask 'is inbound worth it?' Couldn't you just go about generating SEO and MQL success other ways?
Inbound marketing is one of, if not the, most cost effective way to generate all of the results we've talked about here.
Achieving the three stages of inbound success is not dependant on paid advertising, meaning it provides a lower costs per lead. And, since the effects of inbound are compounding, those costs get lower over time.
Plus, content is an essential component in many other marketing initiatives you may wish to try in addition to inbound. Thus, inbound marketing forms the perfect foundation for a broader marketing strategy.