12 Bite-Sized Marketing (And Life) Lessons from Inbound 2017

8 min read

Last week, I attended the Inbound conference in Boston, and it was pretty fantastic. I saw a ton of keynotes, spotlight talks, and breakout sessions that I loved, and I’ve boiled down the key takeaways from my favorite talks into twelve nugget-sized lessons for marketing and life.

Marketing Lessons 

1) The future is made up of screens, augmented reality, predictive search, and machine learning.

In a somewhat terrifying presentation about the future of SEO (and of the world really), the presenter, Tom Shapiro, predicted that every flat surface (restaurant tables, taxi windows, desktops, phones, wallets) will be screens. Reality will be augmented by our phones and life will be governed by machine learning. We’ve all seen this Big Brother-like future coming at us for a while, but let’s ask the important question: What does this mean for search? Google will move from delivering search results to recommending results before we even search. For marketers, this means adopting a mobile-first approach over everything—especially for industries like health care and dining. It means being in the right place at the right time—every time, increased focus on voice search, and increased visibility on other search platforms like Amazon, YouTube and Facebook.

2) Your team’s progress is the sum of everyone’s vector.

Hubspot co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah delivered a keynote about how to scale and grow a startup. In his half of the keynote, Dharmesh shared a story where he asked Elon Musk for advice on how to solve large problems, like growing a company. Musk responded with, “Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.” A vector is any quantity having both magnitude and direction. Even if every person at your company has a magnitude score of 9/10, but they’re not moving in the same direction, your overall vector score is null—zero magnitude and unknown direction. But when all the vectors are aligned, you’re looking at a maximum impact in whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. The full keynote, including Halligan’s talk, is available on YouTube.

3) Use your marketing copy to provide decision-making shortcuts.

In one of the best talks I saw all week, writer and creative officer Nancy Harhut shared data-backed psychological insights into the 26 words and copy constructs that are most persuasive. It sounded gimmicky, but it was truly amazing. She framed these 26 words and tactics as decision-making shortcuts, meant to help potential customers reach a converting action with as little friction as possible. With one tip for every letter of the alphabet, her list included items like offering small commitments to get visitors to convert a little bit at a time, engaging rational and emotional sides of the brain, and playing on the Zeigarnik effect, which suggests that humans tend to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks more than completed tasks. I’ve never taken notes so furiously. Unfortunately, her whole presentation isn’t available yet, but you can view a similar presentation from her at Inbound 2016.

4) Ask yourself: “How is cultural conditioning biasing my marketing decisions?”

Rand Fishkin’s talk urged marketers to consider how cultural conditioning governs our marketing decisions. In marketing culture, there are a few hard truths that we all accept: Investments must be measureable, channels need to be ROI positive, and search boils down to organic and paid only. Rand suggests that channels that don’t show immediate ROI, but that show promise, should be given time (like, years) to mature. He suggested investing a certain percentage of your marketing budget into channels that are hard to measure. He reminded us that Google’s image search is more powerful than we think, and using ALT tags or putting text directly on images can increase click-through rates and search visibility. The entire presentation is available to watch on YouTube, or you can click through the presentation slides.

5) They say content is king, but don’t forget about technical SEO.

For about a decade now, the marketing mantra has been “Content is King.” And it is, but technical SEO matters too. For your content to be seen, there are technical hurdles to overcome. Having a base of technical skills (e.g., basic understanding of HTML, CSS and Javascript) and a few tools (e.g., Google Tag Manager) in your toolbox is more important than ever.

6) Ask your audience or customers what they want.

Have we asked our audiences or customers lately what they actually want from us? And listened to their feedback? In some cases, it’s up to us marketers to tell them what they want or need—but it never hurts to ask, to listen, and to deliver.

Life Lessons 

1) Tap into your authentic self.

In a one-liner that would sound terribly basic coming from anyone else, Michelle Obama genuinely asked the audience, “Why doesn’t everyone tap into their authentic self?” She encouraged everyone, women especially, to ignore what we’ve been told about ourselves, how we’ve been told to act, how we’ve been told to look, and what we’ve been told to say. She encouraged us to reject how we’ve been taught to be silent, and to instead tune into the essence of what makes us who we are to truly find our own voice.

2) “Don’t lead with fear, lead with grace.”

In the U.S. in 2017, it’s hard not to lead everyday life in fear of the people around us, of the future, or of the people elected to public office. But living in fear is exactly what oppressors want us to do. Instead, Michelle Obama encouraged us to lead our daily lives with a refined elegance and strength that’s shaped by more important things than what we fear—things like empowering the next generation of leaders, fighting injustice, and effecting change.

3) Find freedom in not belonging.

Brené Brown’s keynote address focused on belonging, love vs. hate, and tuning into what makes us human. She used this quote from Maya Angelou to frame her talk: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” Feeling like you belong is a luxury that many will never experience. But, living a life on the fringes truly means that you can learn to feel like you belong anywhere. It’s difficult and lonely, but once you realize you don’t just belong in one place—you belong everyplace—the freedom that follows is rewarding enough to make the struggle worth it.

4) Lean into your strengths.

Piera Gelardi, co-founder of Refinery29, delivered a keynote about unleashing creativity. It’s a tired topic, but Piera managed to breathe new life into it and make it interactive. We made three columns in our notes: Just Like Me, Kind of Like Me, and Not Like Me. Then, she presented descriptive words like “curiosity, zest, and love of learning” and we put the words in one of the three columns. In challenging times, whether in work or personal life, she challenged us to lean into the qualities in our “Just Like Me” column, and to work on cultivating the qualities in our “Not Like Me” column. She encouraged us to leverage our strengths and bring them to places that are uncomfortable for us, to follow the trail of creative breadcrumbs that have led us to success in the past, and to use friction and adversity to create sparks that inspire new creative pursuits. Piera’s entire keynote is on YouTube.

5) Learn by doing, and learn by f*cking up.

Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure, is a brilliant content creator who’s been putting in work since before she even had an audience. When she took her script for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl to TV executives, she was turned down because they said she didn’t have an audience. So, she used her own resources to turn the script into an award-winning web series for herself and her friends. Even her first script for Insecure was a failure, but when asked about her success now, she shrugged and said, “I learn by doing, and I learn by f*cking up.” It’s simple, but reassuring. You won’t knock it out of the park every time, but you’ll learn a lot from your failures.

6) Put someone new in power and watch the story change.

Elaine Welteroth, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, is only the second African-American to hold the title in the company’s 107-year history, and at 29 years old, she’s the youngest editor. She was also the first African-American to be Teen Vogue’s beauty director, a position she held in 2012. She talked about how the story, the dynamics, and the alchemy of anything can change when someone new is put into power. Under Elaine, Teen Vogue has changed its voice from primarily fashion and beauty to empowering the next generation of female and minority leaders and offering better representation for minorities.