Authenticity in Marketing: What I learned at Inbound22

HubSpot’s Inbound22 Conference was a huge success. Read about Spitfire Inbound’s digital copywriter/brand journalist, Justine Azzie’s experience at her first Inbound conference and the key insights she’s taken away from the sessions she attended.

From community to emotion, storytelling to representation, I learned an incredible amount at HubSpot’s (virtual) Inbound22 conference. 

Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I never wanted to go into advertising and marketing. In fact, I was vehemently opposed to it. I held this misconception that all advertising was soulless and shamelessly capitalist. 

But when I came across Spitfire Inbound, I learned that not all marketing is like that. I learned about the way Spitfire markets, using the Inbound methodology; a methodology that is so far removed from what I thought all marketing was. 

It was so different that I actively pursued a career in marketing, with my goal being to work at an agency or consultancy that uses the inbound methodology.

Through Spitfire, I learned about HubSpot, and learned more about the inbound methodology. I also this year had the opportunity to experience (virtual) Inbound22 during September. This was my first HubSpot Inbound conference.

When I decided I wanted to write an article about my experience at Inbound22, I struggled to pin down a single topic. There were so many sessions I attended that gave me new insights and perspectives I’d never considered; it felt impossible to choose a single session to write about. 

Instead, I started looking at the overarching themes and lessons of the sessions I attended and how they were all intertwined. The biggest insight I found was the importance of Authenticity in the marketing space; both as a brand and as individual content creators. There are so many facets to authenticity, more than I expected. There’s the importance of storytelling, representation, emotion, and more. 

From a professional and brand perspective, authenticity is becoming increasingly more important. In the past, companies could get away with ‘shallow’ marketing that pushed products at a rate of knots and overwhelmed their target audience with product and service offerings. However, consumer behaviour has shifted significantly, especially around digital marketing and e-commerce. As digital platforms have become increasingly more integrated into our everyday lives, consumers are tired of being inundated with product/service offerings and relatively irrelevant content. 

As Yamini Rangan, HubSpot’s CEO, said in her Spotlight at Inbound22, “Digital fatigue and mistrust are now at an all-time high.” In essence, we're experiencing digital overload, which has been compounded by the boom in digital communications as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There has been a shift from mindlessly consuming content to becoming aware of and intentional about the type of content we consume. Consumers want content that is relevant, meaningful, relatable, real, and honest. Above all, consumers want content that is easy to connect to. 

Dharmesh Shah, HubSpot’s co-founder and CTO, spoke about the importance of building a connected community in his Spotlight at Inbound22. Community reminds us all that we’re never alone; that we are supported and seen. We’re living in a, “crisis of disconnection” he says, making the creation of communities more important than ever. Ultimately, the value that a community adds to any space is a sense of connection. 

This connection is at the heart of the Inbound Methodology, and is a key factor in understanding the importance of authenticity in marketing. 

That spotlight session established that consumers want content they can connect to. The question then becomes, ‘How exactly do I craft that content?’ 

In my experience, it’s all about storytelling, emotion, and representation. 

At the heart of all quality content lies storytelling, in one form or another. 

Whether it’s taking the consumer on a clearly set-out journey or guiding consumers to create their own stories—as Tamsen Webster suggested in her Inbound22 segment The Logic Of Emotion: How To Make Inaction Impossible—storytelling plays an important role in decision making. As Webster says, “Every decision has a story, planned or unplanned,” which allows marketers to create structure and give consumers the opportunity to transform their lives or situations using the product or service you’re offering them. She goes on to explain that consumers will consciously, or subconsciously be thinking, “I see the transformation of/in someone else and I want the same.”

Storytelling is most effective when coupled with emotion, something I learned in my storytelling course at university. If you want your audience to become invested in the story you’re telling them, you need to give them a reason to do so. Stronger emotions are the most effective: joy, fear, sadness, hope, and so on, with the greatest stories being ones of triumph or hope in the face of adversity. 

These stories don’t necessarily need to be world-changing or applicable on a grand scale; they can be more specific, smaller-scale stories—particularly in the marketing space. For example, a story of triumph could be a consumer experiencing a specific pain point, obstacle, or situation that can be easily addressed using the product or service you offer. Showing a subject overcoming the obstacle they were experiencing and resolving their pain point/s will allow consumers to relate to the subject and see hope for overcoming their own obstacles and pain points. This also nudges your audience to take action. As Dr. Jane Goodall said in her Inbound22 segment, Rebuilding Our Collective Future, “Hope is about action—not just wishful thinking.” She continued, "What should give us hope for the future? The resilience of nature and the indomitable human spirit." Appealing to that ‘indomitable human spirit’ that Dr. Goodall referenced can be an incredibly powerful storytelling, and marketing, tactic. 

And this doesn’t just concern the content you create, but also the type of messaging your brand communicates.

I’ve outlined an example of offering consumers a product/service, but your brand identity is as important, if not more so. As much as each product or service you offer consumers has the potential to improve their quality of life, you must first build trust with your consumers. Most consumers are reluctant to purchase from or partner with brands that don’t seem trustworthy. This also ties back into Authenticity. 

Building trust is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight, as Dr. Goodall went on to explain. “Let [people] come gradually and you’ll gain their trust,” she said. Before we can ask consumers to believe in our brand, we must first believe in it. Content writing is a definite skill, especially when considering the variety of voices, tones, and essentially personas you have to become through your writing. However, no matter how talented you are as a writer, your audience will feel when you’re writing about something you don’t believe in or trust. Inauthentic content can be extremely damaging to a brand and will undermine any trust you may have built up with consumers thus far. As I previously mentioned, merely selling a product or service is not enough for consumers anymore. The success of the inbound methodology supports the notion that people want to invest in brands that stand for something; brands that make an impact.

"Every day we make some sort of impact. We get to choose what kind of impact we make,” said Dr. Goodall. This was my favourite quote from the entire Inbound22 conference and it’s something I’ve taken to heart in both my professional career and my personal life. You can choose to either make noise (which is the easier option), or communicate something worth listening to—knowing that not everyone will want to listen. Speaking to everyone is almost impossible. Identifying and speaking to a specific group of people, on the other hand, can elevate your brand and allow you to reach more of the right people. Think back to creating relatable content. Consumers won’t spend their time, energy, or money investing in something they can’t relate to. 

This is where representation comes in. As human beings, we tend to look for the differences rather than the similarities, making relatable content harder to create, but more crucial than ever. And this doesn’t just apply to content; it applies to media as a whole. Viola Davis spoke about personal struggle and representation in her Inbound22 segment, On Capital, Creativity, And Community Care. Addressing the importance of representation, she stated, “Everybody wants to matter. And how we see people matters.” She went on to explain that, “in order to get those diverse stories, we had to create them.” 

When applied to the marketing space, you need to ask yourself (and your brand), ‘Who do I want to hear the story I’m telling?’ Because it can’t be everyone. 

Identify your audience and then make your messaging as personal as possible (without making it personal in a literal sense). Identify the pain points your consumers experience, the struggles they’re facing, convey that they are not alone in those struggles, and then give them hope. 

“We’re living in an age where people are just fighting to survive—and that’s deeply personal,” Davis said. The sense of relief, community, and strength that comes from knowing you’re not alone in your struggle is immense. When you’re honest about the struggles you face, you unknowingly give others the permission to do the same. “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are,” Davis said. This quote stuck with me because so often we’re afraid of being who we are and being honest about what we experience. Most of us are taught, directly or indirectly, that in one way or another we’re not enough. People like Viola Davis remind us that we are enough. We’re always enough. She goes on to say that, “the voice within yourself is the most important one.” 

Write content that gives your audience the space to be human; the space to be themselves; the space to let their guard down and be honest about what they’re experiencing. Like I said, you don’t need to speak to everyone, you just need to speak to a select few. You don’t have to change the whole world because that’s an insane amount of pressure and responsibility to put on yourself and your brand. As Davis said, "I just want to tell stories. I don't necessarily want to change the political landscape of the world. I just want to be me."

So be you. 

Write content with the goal of forming meaningful connections. Create brand identities that you believe in. Create the kind of marketing you’d want to see yourself. 

And never be afraid of telling your own story. There is more power in authenticity than you may think. 

We’re living and operating in a new age of digital marketing, the Inbound age. I’m incredibly inspired by what I experienced, and I’m excited to see how we all grow as content creators using the insights we gained from Inbound22. 

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