Since becoming HubSpot partners in 2016, I’ve flown from the UK to Boston each year to experience HubSpot’s annual INBOUND event. In fact, I’ve even been lucky enough to have spoken at INBOUND 2018 and INBOUND 2019. It’s easily one of my favourite points of the year – an opportunity to speak to people from across the globe and attend inspiring presentations by individuals who are, without doubt, world class at what they do. 

But… this is 2020… 

The global pandemic reshaped INBOUND 2020 into an online event with pre-recorded sessions, with many followed by a live Q&A. It’s a format that worked well. Sure, I missed the experience of meeting people face-to-face (all the Zoom one-on-ones in the world don’t quite replicate sitting in Club INBOUND with a coffee and time to chat) but, by and large, I still left the conference inspired. 

In previous years, I would leave Boston feeling that there was a clear theme that could be taken away. 2018 was all about the flywheel, whereas 2019 was focused on customer experience. Of course, it was inevitable that 2020 would focus on surviving ‘the new normal’. 

Due to the reduced cost of sending your team to INBOUND this year (no flight fees!), more companies had the opportunity to get their teams in attendance than ever – if you did, we hope you enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot. But if you didn't, we'd like to share a few of our key takeaways from the world of HubSpot and inbound marketing in 2020... 

Remote work beyond 2020

ESM Inbound started as a fully remote agency. On three occasions, we briefly tried having an office but it just didn’t work for us. We did better work when our team was fully remote. Back in September 2019, we decided to stop flirting with having a physical space to work in and finally embraced the fully remote lifestyle that we had always leaned towards. 

In retrospect, the timing was remarkable. 

When lockdown struck, we needed very little time to adjust. We supported our team with any changes at home (family workers suddenly working from home, children being homeschooled, etc) but, otherwise, it was business as usual for our team. 

Where things really changed was with our clients. Suddenly, they were joining Zoom calls and, while we had the same backgrounds as ever, they were getting used to having their living rooms or kitchens on display. We were delighted to help many of them find processes and systems that helped them tackle the new way of working, learning from our success and failures with remote working. But many of those clients were still thinking about remote work as being a temporary blip "until lockdown ended". 

Yet, here we are at the tail end of 2020 and even the businesses that are starting to return to the office aren’t doing so wholeheartedly. Remote working is rapidly becoming part of the DNA for business. It’s a global shift and companies are racing to figure out how they can integrate it into their cultures. In fact, some are still trying to find out how they keep their company culture alive without a permanently in-office team. 

This was one of the main points made by Brian Halligan during HubSpot’s opening Spotlight: 

"There are companies that are leaning into the changes that are happening now, leaning into online marketing, inside selling and there are companies that are trying to get back to 2019. I think the future, 2022, looks a lot more like it does today than it did in 2019." 

There’s so much truth in this. Talented individuals have become accustomed to working from home. Some of them want to go back to the office but many of them would give anything to continue working from the spare bedroom. Those talented individuals will actively look for jobs where they can work the way they want to. If your company is entirely focused on a full-scale ‘return to the office’, then expect to lose out on some of the top talent in your sector. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same

As I watched the other sessions, I was struck by how similar the content was to previous years. I don’t mean that people were presenting the same material they’d shared in 2019, but they were delivering the same type of talk that I’d have expected in any other year. 

Sessions about improving customer experience, technical SEO, leadership, buyer personas, inbound vs outbound, sales & marketing alignment… all the topics you would expect to see on the agenda for an in-person event in a pre-pandemic world. 

Even the content of the sessions felt remarkably close to what you would expect in previous years. Sure, there was the occasional reference to lockdown, social distancing and working from home, but the real focus was on marketing, sales, customer success and business leadership. 

And this was refreshing. 

I’ve attended a few webinars and training sessions this year. It’s important to me that I remain up-to-date with the areas where our team offers services. But so many presenters have felt it necessary to focus on the impact of the pandemic in training that had nothing to do with it. This wasn’t the case with INBOUND 2020. 

While the spotlight sessions discussed leading a company through the pandemic and tackling issues of diversity, the workshop sessions focused on the day-to-day detail of delivering great work. I enjoyed fully immersing myself in the possibilities of accurate lifecycle-stage definitions. It was a pleasure to listen to a discussion about scaling innovation. It was fascinating to explore frameworks for building a revenue operations function. 

Yes, Covid-19 represents one of the (if not the) greatest business challenges of our time, but we won’t overcome it by over-analysing it. As ever, making a decision is better than spending months deliberating between options. If businesses are to survive, then they need to do two things: 

  • Embrace the change that remote work represents
  • Return to a focus on delighting customers

There are existing playbooks for tackling the first of these points. It’s time to get it done and move on, accepting it to the extent that we call it ‘normal’ instead of ‘the new normal’. With that done, emphasise the normality of the situation by getting back to work. Solve problems for your customers, make it easy to do business with you and look after your team. 

The first companies to return to focusing on their customers and employees will be the ones that survive 2020 and thrive in 2021. 

How ESM Inbound is focusing on customers

ESM Inbound started 2020 with a focus on delighting our clients. We had two aims: 

  • Improve response times for client communication
  • Make clients’ voices heard by our wider team

We’ve introduced a number of changes that are helping us to turn this into a reality. Our new Client Services Department is responsible for ensuring speedy responses to client communication and advocating for clients’ needs to the wider team. Our proposals and scopes of work are now dramatically more detailed (and visual), ensuring that we’re on the same page right from the start, which helps us to ‘get it right’ the first time on a more regular basis (fewer revisions means happier clients!). And we’ve increased the size of our implementation departments (Content, Martech, Design and Development) so that we can offer more specialised team members to deliver higher-quality work. 

I’m certain that our existing clients have been seeing the benefit already and I know that our newest clients are consistently delighted by the speed of communication and quality of work we provide. 

But, as ever, it’s not over. To borrow a phrase from Jeff Bezos (that I learned during an INBOUND 2020 session delivered by Sandy Carter of Amazon Web Services), “It remains Day One”. We’re continuing to invest in customer experience. I hope that your business is able to move away from managing the transition to a post-pandemic world, to an obsession with customer happiness.