Kieran Flanagan of HubSpot – Inspirational Storytelling Key to Marketing Today, Most SaaS Companies aren’t Good at it

Inspiration and education. They’re the keys to modern marketing, according to Kieran Flanagan, SVP of Marketing for HubSpot.  And while some businesses are pretty good with the educational component, most tech/SaaS companies come up short on the inspirational side. That’s just one of the gems Kieran dropped on me and my CRM Playaz co-host Paul Greenberg on a recent episode.

With HubSpot’s pioneering role in inbound marketing, we’ve been watching closely as they continuing blazing a path in content marketing with their HubSpot Podcast Network, and the recent launch of their Creators Program.  So we were glad to spend a few good minutes with Kieran to learn more about the evolution of their content strategy, why he feels data is killing marketing, why YouTube is ready to disrupt podcasting, why newsletters and blogs are still a growing part of their strategy, and more.

Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation.  Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the entire conversation, as Kieran provided a great deal of insight on why HubSpot went the acquisition pathway for bringing in storytelling talent, and how he expects it to pay off in a number of interesting ways.


The New Playing Field

Kieran Flanagan: Marketing rides the waves of consumer trends, right? We find consumer trends in terms of the way the consumers are interacting with new platforms or consuming content or doing these things. And those shifting consumer trends causes an opportunity for marketing. And then marketing saturates that trend.

If we go back to content when the content was first becoming very prevalent for B2B companies, it’s always been intrinsic to how we sell or market products and services. But when did it become a core part of our marketing strategy? Well, it’s really the popularity of the Internet caused a lot of people to move online.

And when people moved online, they had lots of questions and they’re able to go and source the information for those questions. Self education grew in terms of prominence when people moved online. That give B2B brands an opportunity to build a real community around their products and services through educational content; we fill the void, and inbound marketing was how consumers wanted to adopt and learn about products.

Education is still a really big part of how we want to market our products and services. People want educational content. Funnily enough, I still think even though we’re 15 years into that trend, a lot of companies still don’t do a good job of that.  Some companies do, but I don’t think we’re at the point where we’ve all mastered that craft. I think we’re still mastering that craft.

Advertising Cost Explosion

Kieran Flanagan: If you look at some of the trends that we see today, paid advertising costs have exploded in the last 18 months. Why?  Because there has never been as much money raised in the US as there has been in the last 18 months. Over 40% of venture capital goes straight back into Google and Facebook, which increases the competition for everyone. We all moved our marketing budgets online because during COVID we couldn’t do all the offline stuff. And so that went to finance, went to Google and Facebook.

In 2021 there were more startups created in the US and ever before. Where did a lot of startups initially go to get some of that business –  on Facebook and Google? So you see those costs to acquire people from paid advertising has doubled – and that is actually going to increase rates by 2025.

Importance of Knowing the Trends

Kieran Flanagan: Over 70% of Internet users will access the Internet through their phone only.  So, in marketing, you have to be aware of consumer trends and how consumers trends are going to shape the way that you are going to build an audience around your product and services. Stepping back to media in the past two years, digital content consumption has really exploded. It’s increased 4X over the course of COVID.  It’s really become a prevalent part of our lives; that is across podcasts, YouTube, all of these different things. And so, I split media into education and inspiration. Inspiration is much more storytelling.   Education is much more ‘I’m trying to solve the problem for you’. I think B2B companies have mastered or some B2B companies have mastered education. We believe that the real utopia for media is mastering education and inspiration.

Inspiration and Education

Kieran Flanagan: We believe that most SAAS companies and tech companies suck at inspiration and are not good at storytelling. And I believe that’s very true today. And so we decided when we looked at what we could do, build this skillset in-house or try to buy something and then build out from there. We decided the great option for us was to actually buy.

Acquiring the Art of Storytelling

Kieran Flanagan: That’s why we bought The Hustle. Sam Parr, the founder of The Hustle. He was a great fit for us. We saw the world in the same way. That team are phenomenal team. So when we bought the Hustle, we used that skill sets to start launching these other things that are really good media products and differentiate it from tech companies.  They’re created by media-first people. The podcast network has grown to millions and millions of downloads in a very short period of time. The Creators Program. But it’s not just that there’s a lot of things we’re working on behind the scenes. We’re leveraging the talent that we’ve brought in to really learn how to do media correctly. I think the problem with most SAAS brands is they try to build the media capabilities in-house, in particular the storytelling, and what they end up as doing product marketing for their products.

YouTube – The Podcast Disruptor?

Kieran Flanagan: I fundamentally believe that YouTube could be disruptive for podcast. I think they just released. I probably get the numbers wrong, like 300 million crater phone or like pretty large creator fund where they will pay podcasters to create video shows. Why are they doing that? Well, if you actually look at podcasts. The biggest problem with podcasts is discovery because there’s no inherently inherent discovery mechanism to be able to mass acquire an audience in podcasts.

Whereas in YouTube you have search and recommended videos and all of these things. So they could actually be very disruptive to the way we think about podcasts. We we really want to own the places where we think it’s going to be really important for consumers in the future. I think podcasts is one of those areas. I think short form video is one of those areas.

The Power of Short Form Video

Kieran Flanagan: If you look at YouTube’s numbers, much of its growth has come from stories, whether they get stories from where they just stole that from all of these other brands doing well in stories, like Instagram, Tik Tok. And to your point in terms of the younger generations, the less they actually want to consume and the more they want you to get right to their point.

There’s an art in being able to create Short-form content that’s interesting to people. I think SAAS brands want to create this longform, glossy product marketing type content and most people don’t want to consume the content that way. I think audio for us is big. I think short form video and video for us is big.

Blogs Still Drive Major Traffic

Kieran Flanagan: It’s definitely a real part to play in that strategy. And then for us, our blogs are still one of the biggest drivers of our business. They continue to grow and sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, how does that team continue to grow the size of these blogs?’ But our blogs, when you look at the web traffic in comparison to TechCrunch or these other big media brands, we actually have bigger you know, we have more web traffic than there was traditional kind of tech media brands.

They are really a sizable part of how we’ve continued to grow. I think data has killed marketing, right? I think data has been one of the best and worst things that happened to us. Data was great because if you go back marketers really wanted to have a seat at the grownups table and be able to speak about revenue, right?

That was great for all marketers. We could go in, show our reports and actually say, ‘hey, these are the things that work. Look at the revenue that’s attributed to marketing. Great. Let’s give me more budget, give me resources’. And I think that has made the job better for all marketers.

Reverting to the Mean

Kieran Flanagan: I think that’s been great. I think the problem is that in marketing, you can either operate at the extreme, like do something that is very uncommon. very unreasonable, or you can do something that everyone else is doing. And what data does is it causes you to revert to the mean because I can only go on the things that have worked historically, right?

I can track this thing. I can see it meaningfully works, and it’s harder for me to separate my, you know, my work from that. I actually kind of always deviate to what works and that is death by incremental gains because you start to like get smaller, smaller gains. But I can see the data going up, so I feel good about it.

Obviously data is really, really good, but you have to have conviction about something that truly you think is going to matter in the future and believe that you will iterate and get yourself to a place where you can kind of quantify the results of the business now.

And it’s really kind of a tactical answer. You can quantify the return to the business on inspirational content by the amount of brand, you know, fake brand advertising dollars. You get through the engagement and reach. So let’s say the equivalent amount of brand advertising across unknown media properties would cost me this. And on our on our media properties, it would cost me this.

So I’d get an X amount of dollars each and every month through my own brand advertising to advertise our own products. So when you see HubSpot podcast network or you see all the media assets that we’re creating, we have in-product ads that are tailored for those shows within those things so we are advertising our own products.

But because you are building the media product, you can actually better contextualize the add to that media product. So, you know, when did podcasting really explode for tech brands? When the cereal podcast came out and everyone started advertising on it. We would much rather have the skills in-house to build podcasts and contextualize our advertising than rely on third parties to have to keep advertising on.

So I think not every unreasonable bet you make can be measured in the short term, but if you don’t do those things, how do you just not end up doing the same thing as every other company? Um, and I think that I think that’s the problematic part for marketers. We have a monthly media and we are very data focused.

Importance of Reach Metrics

Kieran Flanagan: I think if we can get our heads around inspiration, most brands can. We think of our total media network reach as a reach metric. And through that reach metric we have quantifiable direct monetization goals and direct indirect monetization goals. So, Reach Metric for us is like number of people view and blogs, number of people view and our YouTube videos, number of people downloading their podcasts, number of people consuming our newsletter each and every month.

Now it’s a little bit more advanced but in general, that’s how we do it. Then we have, okay, how much direct monetization do we get if that how many of those people directly go on to actually become a net you contact for HubSpot in all of the ways that you can do that, and we’re able to measure the direct conversion, so we’re able to measure the dollar return on our blogs, on our podcast, on our whatever it may be in a podcast is mostly an inspiration channel.

Monetization Mathematics

Kieran Flanagan: But on the direct monetization, we can say, ‘Oh, is anyone clicking on these things and come through and actually become a conversion on the inspiration part’. What we do is we think about what is the total dollar value of that advertising that reach to us so we can quantify it. Okay, if we had to go out into the market and pay for that amount of monthly downloads in terms of podcast or monthly views in terms of YouTube or wherever, whatever the media property may be, this is how much it would cost us an average in a third party market.

So we say, ‘Okay, that’s how much advertising dollars we have created, owned advertising dollars that we have created within our own media network. And so that’s how we get to like the direct monetization. How much direct revenue have we created for the sales team?’ And then the indirect monetization, which is how many brand dollars have we created through our media network to be able to promote our own products and do all that good stuff.


One-on-one interviews

This article, “Kieran Flanagan of HubSpot – Inspirational Storytelling Key to Marketing Today, Most SaaS Companies aren’t Good at it” was first published on Small Business Trends