10 Questions for HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan

October 19, 2010

Brian Halligan is the CEO and founder of HubSpot.com, a company that helps other companies develop its inbound-marketing, which, essentially, means having clients find you, rather than the traditional, opposite route. By its very nature, HubSpot has to stay ahead of the curve. We spoke with Halligan regarding building customer relations and loyalty in today’s rapidly changing social media world.

1. What was your inspiration for creating HubSpot?

I was a venture capitalist trying to help small startups grow into big, valuable companies. They were all using the same techniques to market themselves that worked great for me my whole career – email blasts, telemarketing, advertising, etc. What I came to realize is that people (the market) had changed in two ways.  First, people were sick-and-tired of being marketed to and were getting better-and-better at blocking marketers out with things like spam protection, caller ID, DVRs, etc.  Second, people were fundamentally shifting the way they shopped and worked. They started living in Google, blogs, and sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

The reason we built the HubSpot software product was to help people transform the way they market their products to match the way humans actually shopped and learned.

2. What’s the most important advice you have for companies in terms of trying to build an online relationship with customers?

The social media revolution has dramatically changed the marketplace’s expectations of how a vendor should behave. Rather than write a press release once a month or so that no one will read, vendors are MUCH better off starting a blog where they can engage the marketplace in a two-way dialog several times a week, getting involved in the conversation already going on about your industry in Twitter, getting a Facebook fan page, and getting a LinkedIn group going, and getting active in LinkedIn Answers. The marketplace expects a much, much higher level of transparency and authenticity from a vendor than ever before.

3.  What’s the biggest mistake you’d say most companies make?

The way humans shop, learn, buy, and engage has radically transformed in the last few years. If the same people, processes, and tools are in place from your last job (i.e. three years ago) in your current job, then you are out of sync with current realities. The biggest mistake I see companies make is not changing.

The world of customer communications and marketing in 2010 remind me of world of the horse and buggy in 1910. One hundred years ago, there were 16,000 horse and buggy companies – today there is only one left: Timken. They make the ball bearings for wheels. The rate of change at the early part of the last century around transportation is similar to the rate of change around communications and marketing today.

4. What effect has social networking had on the value of having a high-profile website? How can these effectively enhance each other?

I think our idea of what a “website” is needs to radically change.  When I think of a modern website, it includes the stuff most people think of on their domain, the activity/rankings in search engines, the discussions happening in the blogosphere, the conversations happening in social media sites, the links coming back into your domain, etc.  In other words, the modern website includes all of these things on one system.

The traditional website definition typically is like a billboard in a desert – it is very pretty (expensive), your mother is very proud, but no one ever drives by it.  The modern website is a living breathing pulsing magnet for prospects, customers, and conversations.

5. What’s the chief value that HubSpot brings to a company starting out? (There’s a nice, fat, softball for you to hit.)

Simple – a lot more leads and customers acquired at a lot lower cost.

6. Can you talk about “offering value” versus “selling product” when it comes to posting blogs?

Every fiber in your soul tells you that you should be in “selling product” mode on your blog, but that is the exact opposite of the direction you should go in. I look across the tens of thousands of blog posts written on HubSpot’s blogging tool and the ones that mention the company’s brand get far less links, less tweets, less Facebook thumbs up, less visits, and generate less leads than ones that don’t mention the company’s brand.

Just as the currency of the US economy is dollars, the currency of the web is links. No one wants to link to or tweet about self-promotional blog content. You are much better off writing thoughtful pieces about your industry which will draw conversation, links, and ultimately customers.

7. Are there companies you think should NOT use social media/Twitter, and why?

Yes, the folks who sell the “I’m falling and I can’t get up” stuff.  They use television to communicate with their marketplace and should continue to do so.  The folks in the demographic they target are the only ones not coming into the social mediasphere and blogosphere in droves.

8. Can you list (briefly) your 5 top tips for inbound marketing?

Here’s a five-step process for becoming an inbound marketing ninja:

  1. Create tons of remarkable content – think like a publisher.
  2. Optimize that content for search engines and the social mediasphere.
  3. Promote your content and create conversation around in the social mediasphere.
  4. Convert visitors back to your content into leads with strong calls to action and segmented nurturing campaigns.
  5. Measure visitors-leads-customers per channel (i.e. Google organic branded, Google organic unbranded, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc) on an ongoing and adjust as necessary.

9. Can you give me a “horror story” of a company doing something egregiously wrong trying to “inbound market?”

The big mistake I see people making, recently, is putting their toe in the water only. This is the type of thing that requires you to jump in up to your waist – it’s a bit cold at first, but you’ll get used to it and then it will be really refreshing.

Just setting up a blog with a couple of self-promotional pieces and setting a Twitter account up with a few self promotional tweets is not going to move the needle.  You need to jump in.

10. Everyone wants you to “follow them on twitter.” Is there a danger of it becoming ineffective due to overload, and how can a company stand out in this way?

If you do this stuff right, you get into a really scalable, virtuous loop.  Here’s how it goes.

  • Step 1 – Tweet good stuff (relevant industry links, your brilliant blog posts, responses to questions, etc);
  • Step 2 – Your followers retweet the good stuff to their followers;
  • Step 3 – Some of their followers look at your tweet stream, realize you are a genius, and follow you on Twitter;
  • Step 4 – Repeat.

The Twitter math works like the interest in your 401k account.  When you first start, you have very little mojo, so when you post something to Twitter, very few people see it. Over time, when you post to your ever-increasing following, more people will see it, giving you more leverage. If you post one of your brilliant articles when you are first starting to your 80 followers, you get x. When you post one of your brilliant articles a year later to your 8000 followers, you get 100x.