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WWE: The Undisputed Heavyweight Champions of Inbound Marketing

Inbound Marketing

You’d be hard-pressed to find an idea that’s bigger in the marketing zeitgeist right now than “inbound marketing.” It’s a term that didn’t exist ten years ago and now it’s everywhere. Companies are obsessed with creating content, using that to draw an audience, and then getting that audience to open up their wallets. With a field that’s this young, everyone’s on the lookout for examples of inbound and content marketing that they can steal borrow from.

WWE: The Undisputed Heavyweight Champions of Inbound Marketing image kane and daniel bryan talking on mic

There’s one example, hiding at the low end of your cable dial and in your teenage son’s YouTube history, that’s been nailing the inbound marketing model since the 1950s. It showed up for about fifteen seconds in Seth Godin’s keynote at Inbound 2013, but it’s more than a cute metaphor: No one does inbound marketing better than professional wrestling.

To get everybody up to speed, inbound marketing is a methodology designed to “turn strangers into customers and promoters” of your business and product. (That quote’s from Hubspot, one of the leaders in this field, and the company that coined the term “inbound marketing.”) Pro wrestling is a “soap opera for dudes,” designed around mostly fake fights between grown adults in their underwear. (That description is from everyone I knew in high school, but it’ll work for our purposes here.)

So, what can one of America’s oldest, guiltiest pleasures teach us about the hottest new thing in marketing? Everything.

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Hubspot breaks the inbound methodology into four big actions: Attract, Convert, Close and Delight. Let’s take a look at how the world of pro wrestling tackles those areas and what your business can learn from them.

Attract:

Marketing only works if you can get the marketing in front of people. For inbound, that usually happens through blogging, social media, SEO and having a website that’s functional, useable, and doesn’t make you want to hit yourself in the head with a steel chair. You build out each of those things with an ideal customer in mind (Hubspot calls these “buyer personas”) and then constantly tweak your notion of your “ideal customer” as you get more information.

Pro Wrestling has its buyer persona nailed down. It’s two groups, really: males 18-35 and kids. A big part of why wrestling’s found itself tucked into the dark, damp corner of popular culture is how whole-heartedly it’s chosen to ignore everyone that doesn’t match it’s buyer persona. Back in 2000, World Wrestling Entertainment (then the World Wrestling Federation, continually pro wrestling’s big leagues since 1983) was under attack from the Parents Television Council for the amount of violence and sexual content in their programming. WWE’s response? A group of bad guys called Right to Censor, a super-subtle parody of the PTC who acted like they knew what was best for the WWE’s audience while insulting them in the process. WWE wasn’t content to ignore the people who weren’t their target market; they leveraged their protests to offer more content their ideal buyers would eat up.

Wrestling’s got more than just their ideal buyers figured out, however. Since the 1950s, the fake sport has been a mainstay of radio, television and print magazines. When cable TV and the Internet came to prominence, wrestling showed up there too. Whether you were turning the dial, walking past a newsstand or surfing America Online for the first time, seeing something wrestling-related meant seeing larger than life characters with big muscles and bigger personalities. If you were the type of person who was going to be interested in wrestling, you knew immediately. Wrestling doesn’t waste time being cute: they know who they’re speaking to and turn out a ton of content designed to gain those people’s attention.

Your organization might not have the budget for a three-hour TV commercial every Monday night, but you can be sure that every piece of content you turn out hits your audience with all the subtlety of a 2×4.

Convert:

If the Attract part of the Inbound methodology has worked for you, you’ve got visitors to your site. Before you can sell to them, you need to know who they are. That happens through e-books, white papers, podcasts – basically any awesome piece of content you can convince your visitors to exchange a little information for.

Traditionally, pro wrestling hasn’t been terribly interested in collecting addresses or phone numbers for their viewers, but the conversion is still an incredibly important part of their process. Wrestling companies like WWE can’t do a whole lot if you just stop for a few seconds when you’re flipping through the channels – they need you to become a wrestling fan who tunes in week after week. (In case you need proof of how much wrestling depends on television audiences, during the last big boom period in the 90s, success wasn’t determined by attendance numbers or merchandise sales, it was based on how a company’s free TV shows did in the Nielsen ratings.)

How do you convert an innocent bystander into a wrestling fan? The same way your company converts visitors to contacts: offer them a little content they love, and then make sure you’re giving them a reason to want more. In wrestling, that’s a preview for what’s coming up next week and which of these superheroes you’ll be able to cheer on. For inbound marketing, it’s a blog post or infographic that points to a bigger piece of content. It’s all yours, all free, if you’ll just give us your e-mail address.

Close:

Once you’ve got a lead’s contact information, you’re faced with a harsh reality: leads don’t pay the mortgage. You’re going to have to convert those leads into sales. Hubspot’s explanation of this step includes targeted e-mails based on the items you know a lead has already interacted with, automated workflows that put the right information in front of the leads that are ready for them, and lead scoring that lets your company know which leads are ready to be introduced to your sales team.

Wrestling companies have mastered the close, and they’re facing obstacles your organization isn’t. Whether they’re trying to talk fans into their local arena on a Saturday night or asking them to call their local cable operator to purchase the next big Pay Per View event, they’ve only got one shot to close the deal. If a fan decides they’d like to go to the matches two days after the company’s moved on to the next town, that’s money the company isn’t going to be bringing in until the next time they’re in town… and that’s if they’re lucky.

Since everyone is progressing through the sales process at the same time, wrestling companies can put all of their “close” eggs in one basket: the “go-home” show. It’s the big, hail-Mary pass, the culmination of a month or longer of content, the big cliffhangers that set up the main event that you just have to see. The battle lines have been drawn and the stage has been set for a historical night, and it’s available just by picking up the phone and ordering the show.

Obviously, your company doesn’t have the luxury of forcing everyone through your funnel at the same speed, but the idea of the “go-home” show can translate perfectly to the Close portion of your process. Everything up until this point should have been laying the groundwork for all the fantastic things your company can do, but to really make it come alive, your leads just need to pick up the phone when your sales team calls.

Delight:

Whether you’re running a tech firm or a wrestling company, you can’t afford to ignore people after they’ve given you some money. Hopefully, you’ve got more things for them to buy in the future, but at the very least, you want them to do a little marketing on your behalf. How do you delight your customers? Be more awesome.

WWE has built this delight into one of their biggest events of the year, the Royal Rumble. It’s a 30-man battle royal and in the weeks leading up to the event, the company gives its fans a pretty comprehensive list of everyone who’s going to be in the match. It’s enough to get people to order the show, but it’s not everybody.

Even after the match has started, fans don’t know exactly who’s on the show. As the match progresses and more and more people enter the fray, WWE surprises people with some of their favorite wrestlers from years ago, superstars making comebacks from injury, and some people they’d just never expect to see.

WWE’s already got their money, but it’s the delight those surprises create that drives the conversation online (and television ratings) the next night.

I’m not recommending surprising your clients with new services you neglected to tell them you’re paying for. But by utilizing e-mails, social media and blog posts to keep them in the loop with everything your company is doing (and delivering service above their expectations), you’re much more likely to turn them into promoters of your organization for a long time to come.

That’s the big appeal of inbound marketing – it’s a methodology that serves more than a single sale. It creates visitors, turns them into leads, lets you leverage those leads into customers and turn those customers into long-time fans with a loyalty to your brand.

Inbound’s big now partially because it’s a fresh focus on content, a welcome relief from the SEO-crazed, “set it and forget it” years of the late 90s and early 2000s. However, the ideas behind it aren’t revolutionary, and that’s a good thing. The fundamentals of inbound and content marketing are so solid they’ve been working for decades, even for businesses that are getting people to watch two dudes fake fight in their underwear.

If it works for them, it’s going to work for you.

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