How Hubspot Built The Inbound Marketing Category

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Since I started co-hosting the #categorycreation series on the B2B Growth Show, I’ve had the chance to speak with some of the top thinkers around category design.

And right up there at the top of the list is Kipp Bodnar, CMO of Hubspot.

Hubspot is one of those companies that comes up in nearly every conversation about category design in the B2B space. It’s such a clean example of a company that took an idea, coined a term around it, and turned it into a full-on category.

In Hubspot’s case, it’s the practice of “inbound marketing“.

Not long ago, inbound marketing was a thing no one had heard about. Now, it’s a full-on marketing discipline – one that its practitioners typically associate with Hubspot.

Since Kipp’s been at Hubspot for nearly nine years and joined just as “inbound marketing” was coming into usage, I was curious to hear his story. To listen to our interview, just use the player below. You can also find the episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify.

Here are the highlights from the show:

  • [2:23] Why being a first mover in marketing matters so much
  • [5:08] How long it took Hubspot to get inbound marketing into use
  • [7:13] Why new categories need more than one player to exist
  • [8:16] The importance of a catalyzing event to cement a new category
  • [11:49] The role of mission and vision in category design
  • [18:28] What Kipp would do differently if he went back in time
  • [21:35] Kipp’s recommendations for learning more about category design

John Rougeux: Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of the category creation series on the B2B Growth show. I am John Rougeux, your host for today’s episode. And joining me today is Kipp Bodnar, the CMO of Hubspot, who is going to talk to us about how category design has impacted Hubspot’s dominance in the marketing and sales software space. So, Kipp, I am a huge fan of Hubspot. I’ve used the platform for several years myself, and I really admire what you guys have done in the marketing space. So it is a real pleasure to have you on the show today.

Kipp Bodnar: John, John, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited. You’re letting me do what I love to do best, which is talk about marketing for a few minutes, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.

John Rougeux: Awesome. Well hey, before we dive into category creation itself, I was wondering if you could give us a little bit of background on your own career as a marketer. You’ve accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time, and I’d just love to hear a little bit more about the journey you’ve been on so we have some more context for how you view the world as a marketer.

Kipp Bodnar: Sure. I love marketing, and one of the things I love about marketing is it’s one of the most level playing field vocations that exists, you know? You don’t have to go through seven years of college and pass a bunch of board exams to be a marketer, right? As fast as you can learn and apply that knowledge, the better you can be as a marketer.

Kipp Bodnar: So my career started out in the very early days of marketing doing marketing, PR on the agency side of marketing. And it was right before online marketing websites and everything really took off. And I saw that the online marketing industry was starting to take off, and I thought, wow, if I could really learn and be a first mover here, I could potentially have some opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have if I just stayed in kind of the way that everyone else is thinking about doing marketing today.

Kipp Bodnar: So I did that. I started a blog. I started speaking at some events. Taught myself everything I could learn. I’d interview anybody who would talk to me, and learned a bunch of stuff. Eventually met the folks at Hubspot and that was about nine years ago, a little over nine years ago now that I first met the Hubspot team. And then March second will be my ninth year at Hubspot.

Kipp Bodnar: So at Hubspot, I’ve spent my almost decade now doing every kind of marketing job you can imagine, from creating content to marketing automation to international non-English marketing, all of it. Now I get the lucky opportunity to lead the best team of marketers around.

John Rougeux: Awesome. So you were fortunate in a way in that you joined the marketing field at a time in the early, mid 2000s when social media was new, digital marketing was still a nascent thing, and you were able to jump into that field just as it was growing, and you saw that opportunity and really took advantage of that. So I think that’s really great.

Kipp Bodnar: Yeah, reminder to everybody. First mover advantage matters in marketing. It doesn’t matter in everything in life, but man it matters in marketing.

John Rougeux: Absolutely. That’s a good segue to what we’re going to talk about today, which is this idea of category design, which has been a principle that’s existed for a long time, but I think marketers over the last few years have really started to talk about it more intentionally, especially in the B2B space. And one of the reasons I’m so excited to talk to you today is Hubspot is one of those classic examples of category creation that people love to talk about. And there was a time not too long ago when inbound marketing was not a thing, and then Hubspot came along and now it’s an entire discipline of marketing. So I know you joined maybe just a year or two after that term was coined, if I’m correct. So I’d love to hear, just to start that conversation around category, what was it like when you joined Hubspot? What was the discussion around inbound at the time?

Kipp Bodnar: To back up a little bit, if you’re going to create a category, there has to be need for it, right? You have to see some change that you’ve noticed in the world and you’d be able to provide something different. So for us, Brian and Dharmesh and Mike and a bunch of the early Hubspotters saw that. They saw how people were buying and how they were shopping and interacting with marketing had changed dramatically. And so they started thinking about it a different way and thought it needed a different term. And when I joined, I think Brian and Dharmesh published an inbound marketing book if I remember correctly, late 2008, early 2009, and I started 2010. Nobody was really talking about inbound marketing. We had a loyal community of customers and some very few agency partners at the time that was joining us and talking about it with us, but the reality is a ton of people weren’t talking about it. It took us probably seven years before it was something that people were really consistently talking about, and felt like was a consistent term in the industry.

John Rougeux: So you guys were talking about this internally, and it took you more than half a decade really before this was a term that was used outside of Hubspot. Is that right?

Kipp Bodnar: Yeah. We started using it externally really right before the book got published and everything. Because we felt like it was the best description for the work we were doing, how we were doing marketing, the software we were building. But man, it takes a long time to change the hearts and minds of people, it turns out.

John Rougeux: So was that the goal, early on, to turn this into an industry term? Or was it more than inbound marketing was a convenient way of describing what you do and differentiating yourselves, and it was more by accident or circumstance that it became an industry term?

Kipp Bodnar: So if you’re going to create a category, by default it has to be an industry term. It can’t be a category if only one player plays in it. So you could have made the choice to say, we could have trademarked inbound marketing and made it a thing that was specific to just our company. And that would have been a different play and it may have worked in some ways and not in others. But Brian and Dharmesh, their strategy was essentially, no, we want this to be a term that’s adopted by everyone because we believe that this is fundamentally how marketing has shifted, and how people want to be marketed to. And obviously, we wanna be a player in that category, we wanna be a pioneer in that category. But we want a lot of people to come and join us in that category.

John Rougeux: So I would have to imagine that … You mentioned Mike, Dharmesh, Brian talking about inbound marketing early on, but I would have to guess there was a certain level of indoctrination or education or evangelism among the team about inbound marketing and what that looked like. I’m curious to hear more about what that effort looked like internally.

Kipp Bodnar: If you’re going to create a category or start a movement or go about a major marketing position stance that’s going to last years and years, it starts with a few things. One, it starts with a catalyzing event. And for Hubspot, that was Brian and Dharmesh publishing the inbound marketing book. And then that was the creation of partnership with some other folks. What was first the inbound marketing summit, and then years later evolved into our inbound event, which we still host every fall here in Boston. It’s growing, it’s an awesome place for the community to get together. And you need that catalyzing event because it allows everybody in your company to understand what the story is. And it helps them understand what it is, how to tell it, both in a succinct fashion and in a more detailed fashion. And you have this source of truth that people can look to when they’re still learning or have questions or get a question that they’re not exactly sure how to answer.

Kipp Bodnar: And then, I think it’s the job of everybody leading to work with everybody in the company to say, “Hey, this is our mission.” And sometimes it’s easier as a marketer to just talk about or give people what they know. Get higher click-through rates, get more people to read your blog article or watch your video, whatever it be, and it’s a topic that people know about and are interested in. Much harder to do all those things when it’s a new topics that people are not yet familiar with and you have to create more compelling stories in that world. And so I think that’s what a lot of it was about, was how do we tell and create really compelling stories that push the education around the concept of inbound marketing.

John Rougeux: It’s almost not unlike a brand awareness campaign, because it’s not like you’re selling the features or benefit of a specific product. You’re trying to, like you said, change the hearts and minds of people in being aware of a term and then assigning some meaning to that as they see what inbound marketing looks like over time, right?

Kipp Bodnar: Yeah. Marketing at its very simplest thing is you’re either giving people more of what they know about what they want, or you’re asking them to learn and believe something new. You’re creating a category, you’re spending oftentimes as much or more time and effort and sweat and capital getting them to believe something new as you are giving them the thing that you know that they want.

John Rougeux: So did you guys tie goals to awareness and adoption of inbound marketing?

Kipp Bodnar: We were a startup just trying to make it, you know? I wish we would have been that thoughtful. We would do some things. We would look at can we move Google Trends for inbound marketing? We would think about that type of thing, but we just set proxies. Like, if we’re going to have an event about inbound marketing, the next one’s going to be 100 percent bigger than the last one, and how do we make that happen? We looked at it more on a project basis or piece of content basis, really.

John Rougeux: So you were looking at specific tactics and then trying to understand, what can we do this next time around, this next iteration, to drive that much more awareness and adoption of inbound?

Kipp Bodnar: Yes.

John Rougeux: So I’m curious, as a category owner, how does that affect your marketing strategy? Do you feel like, if you look at other competitors of yours, do you feel like your strategy is shaped differently versus someone who’s a number two, number three player in the space?

Kipp Bodnar: I don’t know the answer to that question, to be honest with you. What I do know is that the best marketing strategy is shaped from a company that has a very clear vision and mission, right? And our mission is we want to help millions of companies grow better. That’s what we want to do. And the vision for this business has always been the same thing, which is, wow, technology changes the way that people shop, buy, consume, interact with businesses. And we want to provide businesses with the tools, the education, and the help to really evolve with their customers.

Kipp Bodnar: And so when you’ve got that kind of clarity on vision, I think it allows you to always execute on marketing that’s true to that, and subsequently very differentiated, because you have this unique vision in the market that isn’t shared by others.

John Rougeux: I love what you said there about mission and vision and the importance of that, because I think that’s one of those examples in marketing where it’s done lip service. Like a mission is done quickly, it’s put on the wall somewhere, but then it’s quickly looked over and it’s right back to tactics and how can we get more leads this month. And some of that long-term vision and real purpose in the marketplace is lost, and then people don’t really have a reason to get behind you and rally behind your values.

John Rougeux: And I know Hubspot has evolved quite a bit, even since inbound. You’ve added so much in terms of a CRM, you’ve got live chat functionality, there’s several other additions you’ve built over the years. Do you feel like everything you’re doing continues to be under the umbrella of inbound? Or is there a point where inbound is what it is, and now Hubspot’s at a place where it needs to explore new categories?

Kipp Bodnar: I think inbound is the category that we operate in the marketing industry. And our business that we started deeply in the marketing technology business, and we’ve expanded from there. Now we have a really great set of products for sales people and sales leaders, and a new set of products that are very good and getting better every day for customer service people. And just like inbound marketing is for marketing, you have other categories that exist in those markets and we look at ourselves overall, we are in the business to help businesses create really remarkable customer experiences. And that’s what we are here to do. And that’s why we think about inbound marketing, it’s just about marketing. We think about Hubspot, it’s about growing better.

Kipp Bodnar: And if you’re talking about inbound marketing is how you grow better if you’re thinking about doing marketing. It’s one of those really helpful … It’s earning attention and not stealing attention. It’s better for you and better for your buyers. And we want to apply some of those same values to sales and customer service. But I don’t think that the term inbound service is the category that we’re looking to create in that market.

John Rougeux: Gotcha. So inbound marketing, while it was a catalyst for Hubspot going from day one to where you are now, it’s a core part of the company, but you’re saying that’s not the company itself, it’s actually something bigger than that. You talked about building great experiences between companies and the people they do business with.

Kipp Bodnar: Absolutely.

John Rougeux: So I do want to ask you, as you expand that vision and some of these offerings for teams outside of sales, you’re still continuing to nurture and evangelize for inbound. And you’ve been that category leader for quite some time now. And so I’m curious, what have been some of the biggest challenges in maintaining ownership of that category?

Kipp Bodnar: I don’t know if we’re owners of that category, if anybody’s an owner of any category, to be quite honest. I think what we look at is how are we true to the message and the story that we are telling about our business? So for us it’s like, man, one is continuing to walk the walk. It’s continuing to try to do great marketing ourselves and set an example for everyone. And two, it’s how do we continue to evolve with the changing buyer and marketing landscape out there? And you mentioned that’s new tools, that’s new methodologies, that’s new education that we’re doing. And that’s fundamentally what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is lead by example, and as we learn something and as we’ve noticed that the industry is changing, we want to help build software and education so we can empower our customers and our community to take advantage of that change.

John Rougeux: Along with that, I’m curious. You described a really strong mission for Hubspot, and I’m not sure that I’ve heard it before or heard it talked about much, at least in my own interactions with the brand. Was that mission there early on, and is that what then guided inbound? Or did that not come until a little bit later?

Kipp Bodnar: I think vision and mission are interesting things. The vision was clear, but it’s hard to have a mission in the early days when you’re just figuring it out. You can have one, and it’ll evolve. But largely, I think for us as we started to really grow and mature and figure out how we can really help our customers and our community, it became clear that our mission wasn’t just to help people do inbound marketing better. Our mission is to, wow we think we can help millions of people around the world grow better. And for us, grow better encompasses inbound marketing. But also again, encompasses making the right choice, making the human choice, solving for the long term instead of just short term quick wins. And I think those things are really powerful.

John Rougeux: So in a way, it sounds like as important as category is, you’re saying that a mission and vision really are even stronger statements than category itself. Am I hearing you right on that one?

Kipp Bodnar: I don’t know if it’s stronger, but I think they’re critical to being able to have clarity in your marketing strategy and in your marketing messaging.

John Rougeux: Sure. So Kipp, knowing what you know now and the journey you’ve been on at Hubspot, I think you said you’re coming up on nine years now. If you could go back and tell Kipp from eight, nine years ago what you know now, what would you tell yourself and what would you do differently?

Kipp Bodnar: Oh gosh. It would be a long conversation, John, I think. So many things. But on the topic that I think we’re talking about today which is category creation, I think it would have been, go even harder, faster. Do more to evangelize inbound even than we did. Because that type of common message and common goal with your community is so powerful. I think we did a lot, but I think looking back on it there was still a lot more we could have done. And I think we would have leaned into that even more.

John Rougeux: And would you have done that, you think, through … I don’t know what your marketing budget looked like at that time, but, would you be spending more or would you allocate more of your time? Would you incorporate it more into your messaging? What are some of the specific things you would do?

Kipp Bodnar: I think I would incorporate it more in the messaging. I think I would probably try to find a little bit better of a balance between performance marketing and pushing the inbound marketing story. It probably would have come through in a lot of things. For a few years, we had an event called The Hubspot User Group before it was inbound. And it’s like, wow, if we had to do it all over again, we would have never done that user group event for example. It would have always been this inbound event that was for more than just Hubspot customers, it was really for anybody who was passionate and interested in inbound and inbound marketing. So that’s just one specific example of something we would have changed.

John Rougeux: Sure. I think to be fair to your past self though, there’s no guarantee that once you start evangelizing a term, that it gets legs. So there could have been an alternate scenario where you guys tried to push inbound, and maybe you liked the idea yourselves but the industry just didn’t grab onto that. And so I understand that tension of balancing between performance marketing and the branding and evangelization side of marketing, especially early on. Because like you said, it took you guys what, seven years, to really get inbound into an industry term. And that’s a pretty long time horizon. A lot of startups are not looking at seven years, they’re looking at seven months or seven weeks. Or less. So I do think that’s an important lesson though, is category creation, whether you’re really going to own a category or just put a new term out in the industry, it’s kind of a risk in a way, and I think you have to be willing to put the time, put the money, and be consistent in that effort. Because that payoff isn’t going to be there from day one.

Kipp Bodnar: I totally agree.

John Rougeux: Well Kipp, tons of valuable advice today for people learning about category. I wondered if I could ask you for one last piece of expertise from you. If one of our listeners is out there, and they’re thinking about pursuing category design. Maybe they think they’re in a space where that makes sense for them, what’s one resource you’d recommend for someone to dive deep into and learn a little bit more about the practice.

Kipp Bodnar: That’s a really good question. I think it’s something that there’s not a ton … I don’t have a great go-to resource. I would look at different companies who have done it. I would look at how they’ve told their stories and the insights they’ve drawn, and what parts of those stories really resonated with their community. Which I think if you can do that across a handful of different companies, you can really start to see some of the common traits that really exemplify success and can give yourself a better chance of being successful when trying to create a category.

John Rougeux: I think you’re right. It’s a new, I was going to say category of marketing but that sounded a little too meta. It’s a new discipline in marketing and there’s not a whole lot about it, at least not yet. So maybe a better question to ask would be, when you look out in the space and you look at other companies who have developed categories, what are two or three of your favorites? Who’s doing it really well?

Kipp Bodnar: Oh man. That is a good question. Who is doing it really well? There’s a lot of people these days disrupting categories more than they are forming categories. Salesforce is the classic example with the creation of the cloud computing category. And really the first people to really, really make the CRM category stick. They’re obviously somebody who’s just the gold standard of marketing and brand marketing. They’ve done a great job.

Kipp Bodnar: I’m trying to think of somebody more further adrift in an industry. A brand that I’m really a fan of that’s very, very different is a brand called Bevel, which is grooming products for the African American community, started by a gentleman named Tristan Walker, a really brilliant entrepreneur. And he’s created a category of products that just otherwise never existed. And it’s a pretty interesting thing. He just sold the business to Procter and Gamble. Very interesting story, definitely a story that people out there should go check out.

John Rougeux: And that’s Bevel, you said?

Kipp Bodnar: Yeah, B-e-v-e-l.

John Rougeux: Okay. I’ll try to add that to the show notes. That reminds me of Dollar Shave Club, they didn’t invent the category of razors of course, but they developed the category of subscription based grooming product. And I think they were later bought by Gillette, if I’m not mistaken.

Kipp Bodnar: Unilever, actually, I believe.

John Rougeux: Oh, Unilever. Okay, very good. Well Kipp, if one of our listeners wants to get in touch with you today and ask you a question about category, about Hubspot, about inbound, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Kipp Bodnar: I have a weird name so I’m easy to find really anywhere on the internet, but probably the easiest way is to just send me a note on LinkedIn. and you’ll find me very easily.

John Rougeux: All right. Good deal, Kipp. It’s been a real pleasure having you on the show. I was thrilled for the interview and I’m really excited about all the advice you’ve shared with our listeners. I’ve learned a lot myself. And really appreciate your time. Thanks again.

Kipp Bodnar: Thanks, John. And thanks to everyone who listened. I appreciate it. It was fun.

John Rougeux: All right, take care.

Kipp Bodnar: You too.

John Rougeux: Okay, well that wraps up another category creation episode of the B2B Growth show. I’m John Rougeux, and if you have any thoughts you’d like to share about category creation, I would love to hear from you. Just type in your browser. That’s j-o-h-n dot marketing, and you’ll find all of my contact info there. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next time.

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About the Author

John Rougeux

John Rougeux is a Partner at Category Design Advisors. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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