In September, I spent a week in Boston’s Seaport district with 21,400 of my fellow writers, content creators, marketers, and industry pros. We gathered for INBOUND 2017, the must-attend conference for anyone in the modern marketing space.
INBOUND is hosted by HubSpot, and the event does an excellent job of curating experts from across industries each year.
2017’s keynotes included incredible names (Michelle Obama, anyone?) — and provided some (admittedly raunchy) entertainment in the form of standup routines from Judd Apatow and Tiffany Haddish.
If you get a chance to go next year, I recommend coming on up to Boston for this conference. Any entrepreneur can benefit — you don’t need to be a marketer to feel the impact here.
Plus, you already know a local (me!) who can point you in the right direction of all the great things to enjoy in Boston while you’re here!
I believe the best value is also provided by the cheapest pass: the $299 Community pass. I had an All-Access pass in 2016 and 2017, but found that I spent most of my time in content tracks accessible to Community pass holders.
Here’s what I took away from this year’s event.
INBOUND 17 Recap: Quick Takeaways from Keynotes, Sessions, and Spotlights
In case you don’t want to wait to check out what next year will bring, I wanted to share the most valuable ideas, insights, and inspirations I got from attending INBOUND this year.
Below, you’ll find my favorite takeaways from sessions, keynotes, and spotlights.
Some of these snippets came directly from speakers and presenters. Conversations with fellow attendees and friends generated others. And some takeaways came from me after being inspired by conference content.
Let’s dive in and spread a little inspiration.
Brené Brown: Increasing Division Causes Increasing Loneliness
Brené Brown opened up the conference this year as Monday night’s keynote. Well known for her work and research into vulnerability and what it means to connect with others, she continued this theme and shared new discoveries (which we can read more on in her new book, Braving the Wilderness).
I thought this was relevant for us as entrepreneurs and people who put other people at the core of what we do.
As a content marketer, I strive to help make business more human and to connect the right advisors with the right clients to the benefit of both parties. And as a financial advisor, you likely strive for some variation on the mission of helping your clients live their best lives.
We need to understand how to reach out and connect with others if we hope to make a difference or leave a positive impact on our environments. And that’s becoming increasingly difficult to do in a world that’s increasingly divided.
Why does it matter if we’re drawing lines and making distinctions between us and them? “Loneliness is a better predictor of early death than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” explains Brown.
Brown shared the following that might help make it a little easier to start bridging that gap and finding connection again.
On how we got here: Brown explained there’s an easy-to-trace path that started at 9/11.
“We’re afraid. Terrorism is time-released fear. The goal of terrorism is not the immediate aftermath of an attack. It is to embed fear so deeply in community that it’s a matter of time before it turns on itself.”
On connecting with others: We have to make an effort to get close to each other again. And that requires us to seek truth while rejecting the bullshit of those who would try and stoke the fear we already feel.
“People are hard to hate close up. Move in,” she advised. “It doesn’t matter what side of politics you’re on. It matters what side of humanity you’re on.”
On finding your own belonging: Brown still looks at how we can be brave and embrace vulnerability as part of what makes us human. In addition to talking about connecting with others, she spend time talking about the meaning of belonging for each of us.
Belonging starts within ourselves. Brown shared this quote from Maya Angelou:
You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.
And she shared her own wisdom, too:
“People with highest level of belonging seek out those they don’t know to share experiences with. You do not negotiate your belonging with other people. If you go out and seek evidence for your belonging ‘out there,’ or from other people, you will not find it.”
Lisa Gerber: The Power of Story Lies in Making Emotional, Human Connections
Too often, brands don’t bother with stories. It’s easy to dismiss storytelling as for the arts, as not substantive enough for the business world.
But I would argue we need story more than ever, and becoming a storyteller is a critical part to becoming successful in today’s world.
I imagine Lisa Gerber, founder of Big Leap Creative, would agree with that. Her breakout session focused on how brands can tell stories to expand their reach and get new customers.
Here are some great nuggets from her talk:
- Our stories are what get us found. Storytelling in marketing is an account or narrative of events around your brand.
- Purpose, truth, vision, values, design, experience, quality… all are elements that feed into great brand stories.
- Stories that drive action appeal to the head and the heart. The real power of storytelling is in making emotional, human connections.
- All good stories have protagonists. But the mistakes brands make? Making yourself the hero.
- Get in the head of someone — a real someone — before you tell your story. Use empathy.
That last point is critical to remember. Too often in marketing, brands and businesses talk about themselves and the solutions they provide. While it’s important information for a prospective client to have access to, it’s not what drives their ultimate decision-making.
People are influenced and persuaded not by facts and data as much as they’re led by stories.
Adam Grant: The Fragility of New Ideas and How to Be Original
Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton and the author of three books, including Originals and his newest, a collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg, Option B.
Part of his talk touched on the fact that cold, hard data just doesn’t do much for people when it comes to making your brand memorable.
In fact, as Grant shared during his spotlight session, 63% of people remember a story after you tell it. Only 5% will remember a stat.
And if you’re bemoaning the fact that you’re just not creative enough to walk away from the facts to spin a story instead, Grant might argue that point with you. “Humans are inherently creative,” he said. “We lose creativity when forced to choose what to do with our many ideas.”
Here’s more from Grant’s session on new ideas, originality, and convincing others to buy into what you’re selling:
- Your favorite idea is the one you’re so in love with you can’t see its flaws. Idea number 2 is usually the best one.
- Originals are willing to put their worst foot forward. When you list your flaws, you make it harder for others to come up with their own objections. Explicitly addressing the weaknesses in your ideas can help you convince people they are good ideas.
- Admitting your flaws is a bit of a marketing device, as well. It’s attention grabbing. It’s honest, too.
- The more original your idea, the harder it is for other people to appreciate it. Make bridges between an existing understood concept and your unique, original idea.
That last point is critical to understand for your marketing — and where most people fail to position themselves well enough.
People already have a preconceived notion of what a “financial advisor” is. That space in their mind is occupied. And you’re wasting your time if you try to get them to make room for a wholly new concept of what a financial advisor is and does.
But if you can make a connection between what they already know and the new, unique, original concept you’re bringing to the table as a different kind of financial advisor, they’ll understand you (and your business) faster and better.
Michelle Obama: Know Your Own Voice and Stand Up for It
Michelle Obama’s keynote took place in a conversation with author Roxane Gay. She spoke at length on the importance of knowing who you are and staying true (and standing up for) your authentic self.
Here’s what I appreciated most from her candid conversation:
- Life is so long. What you think are dark times right now will turn into some of most important periods of growth that you’ll have. Embrace it.
- Life is hard when you don’t value your own voice. It’s hard to stand up for yourself if you don’t like who you are. In the end, it’s about loving yourself.
- If you’ve been socialized to think your voice doesn’t matter, it’s hard to drum up courage to take up space. Why wouldn’t you speak up? Why wouldn’t you believe your opinion matters? Don’t let your voice become invisible.
- It’s cliche, but don’t let other people define you. That’s the simple truth. Don’t let what others say affect you. People are doing to like you or they’re not. Just do the work and let them judge that instead.
Tiffany Haddish: See How Much Fun You Can Have
Tiffany Haddish — who, according to Vanity Fair, is the “funniest person alive right now” — knows how to make an entrance.
She leapt out on the stage during INBOUND Rocks (which serves as a sort of end-of-conference party with entertainment) to a song from her movie, Girls’ Trip, and got down. She only danced for a minute but it was awesome.
It takes guts to put yourself out there like that, and some kind of talent to immediately light up a room of 15,000 people.
She launched into a great routine that was genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.. and unexpectedly insightful.
In the middle of her set, she asked the audience in general, “any questions?” and then actually answered a few including one from a woman who shouted, “how do I be you when I grow up?”
Haddish was there to be funny, and she was. But her answer also served as such a simple but important reminder that I’m carrying around with me now:
- Say everything you’re thinking.
- In every situation, see how much fun you can have.
- Be happy. You woke up today. Not everyone got that opportunity.
I wasn’t expecting for that to mean so much to me, but it did. Maybe it was Haddish’s honesty and authenticity that got me — the fact that she responded to that question with these answers immediately and without a filter.
You knew she meant what she said. She wasn’t just saying it to sound good to try and motivate a bunch of people to do anything. Haddish was in the middle of her routine and this was part of her truth, so it made an impact.
Mario Batali: Hold a Space for Others to Be Heard
I wasn’t sure what a celebrity chef could bring to a marketing conference, but that’s what I like about much of the content at INBOUND. It’s not marketing and sales content, at least not explicitly.
I find that when I attend sessions that are strictly about marketing, it’s stuff I’ve heard before, things I already believe, or what I already taught and do myself.
Getting perspectives and insight from other domains helps spark new patterns of thought. It’s what I find provides me with the most inspiration. It helps generate new ideas better than listening to the echo chamber of your own industry.
So I sat in on Mario Batali‘s spotlight, and loved what he had to say on listening:
When people have a problem, they want to be heard. If you listen, you’re halfway to solving the problem.
Batali explained that when people in his restaurants made complaints or reported issues with something, it was rarely about the food or the atmosphere or the staff.
It was because they were having a bad date with their husband. Or they were reprimanded by their boss in front of their team earlier that day. Or they were dreading going home later.
Batali said that simply listening and letting the other person know they were heard worked wonders. We can do this in our own businesses and interactions, too. Instead of fighting objections or defending ourselves, what if we just truly listened and held a space for the other person to be heard?
Here’s what else Batali shared:
- Being great at something and being great at it while having a zest for your work are two very different things.
- When you become a leader, you risk starting to believe the bullshit. You risk letting your ego get in the way.
- People are fascinated by the story of their food now (another indicator that storytelling is critical in every industry!). “When I talk about food,” Batali says, “I don’t just talk about the technical details. I share the story of the food, and why the food exists.”
Ed Catmull: Magic Happens When Ego Leaves the Room
Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, joined INBOUND to explain the concept behind the company’s famous braintrust approach that helped his team create some of the most unique, creative, and beloved pieces of film for children.
Catmull was soft-spoken, but delivered some heavy-hitting gems that I’ll be working to incorporate into my own creative process.
On failure and bad ideas: “Too often, failure is used as a bludgeon. Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something great. Zero dumb ideas is not the right goal. (Of course, neither is 40 dumb ideas.) So what is the right amount of bad ideas? It’s somewhere in the middle, by definition not something you can define. It’s a messy space but it’s where we should be.”
On keeping faith long enough to let the process work: “All of our movies suck at first. New ideas are often off track. We have to protect the process long enough, we have to trust our creators will keep working on the idea and refining it until eventually they work that initial bad idea into a diamond.”
I also loved how he said that magic can only happen when the egos of the creators leave the room. That’s the point at which ideas can come and go without people becoming attached to them, and clinging to ones that should be set free.
Rand Fishkin: Obedience to Societal Norms Is Mucking Up Our Marketing
“If anybody dares to step outside of the box, the retaliation is swift,” wrote Terrance Real. Conforming to what established culture tells us to do can harm us both personally and professionally if we let it drive us to make dumb decisions — and it often does.
Rand Fishkin, esteemed Wizard of Moz, explained more in his spotlight session. He pointed out that cultural conditioning is what causes us to do stupid stuff like commuting to offices every day, when the data shows us office work tends to be less productive than other solutions.
It’s why that even though we know working more than 50 hours a week leads to net negative productivity, people brag about working 80-hour-weeks and the rest of us feel bad for “slacking.”
And it’s why, in marketing, we continuously through money at activities that are measurable. We’re lead to believe that our investments must be measurable, and the more measurable they are the more likely we are to give them more funding.
Fishkin argues that this is just more conditioning at work and we do it despite the fact that the overall trends suggest investing in harder-to-measure channels because they make a bigger impact for brands who use them.
Those hard-to-measure channels are things like SEO, content marketing, word-of-mouth, and other organic ways of increasing reach and therefore results.
Fishkin points out that hard-to-measure doesn’t mean impossible to measure. Look for trends over time. See how you earn more attention from your audience.
Focus on the trajectory of a given marketing initiative and measure progress as you go. When you see potential, keep going even if it starts with little to no ROI.
Is INBOUND Worth It?
To wrap up this INBOUND17 recap, I want to run through a few quick notes to help you decide if attending a fututre event might be worth it for you.
If you’re local, yes. INBOUND17 is totally worth it. Many communities and startups in Boston provide free community passes through giveaways and events throughout the year. But even if you can’t get your hands on a free pass, the regular price of $299 is a good value.
It gives you access to multiple days full of big-name, well-known speakers who can surprise you with relevant insights and ideas that get your own gears in motion.
Access to INBOUND Rocks alone gets close to paying for the pass, considering you’d likely pay big bucks for tickets to a standalone show by the comedians they usually bring in.
If you’re looking for serious, heavy-hitting marketing & sales content, probably not. I think I have yet to sit through an entire breakout session. While not all the speakers are bad, most are mediocre.
It’s definitely not worth the $799 price point for the All-Access pass for 2018, on top of any travel you need to do to get to Boston. (And that’s early-bird pricing. All-Access passes for INBOUND17 ended up at $1,699.)
If you’re looking for inspiration, all the big ideas happen on the main stages. Get the Community pass. If you’re looking for in-depth, tactical information and how-tos… well, I don’t know where it is at this conference.
I haven’t found it yet and I think you’re better off Googling the answers to the marketing questions you have (or just staying home and hitting up HubSpot’s free online resources and tools instead).
If you don’t want to get political, no. I respect that HubSpot is a company that is not afraid to be loud and opinionated. I believe in defining your values and standing up for them.
But for a professional event, INBOUND does dive pretty damn deep into some touchy political subjects and they don’t just toe the line to the left from the middle of the aisle. The content and presenters takes a decidedly liberal stance and some of the commentary can be more divisive than productive.
(As a side note, I think Michelle Obama did a wonderful job in NOT going there and keeping 90 percent of what she shared something we can all connect with, regardless of political affiliation. Alec Baldwin did the same last year and refused to go down a partisan path during his interview.)
If you’re open to different perspectives and news ideas, yes. Again, get the Community pass and come on up to Boston for a week of content that might be hard to find in one place anywhere but INBOUND.