HubSpot Inbound 2016: A tech conference disguised as a sales & marketing one

Chatbots, messaging apps kicking cold calls and (some) email to the curb

HubSpot Inbound 2016: A tech conference disguised as a sales & marketing one
Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

I had my reservations about hitting HubSpot’s annual Inbound conference in Boston this week. Yes, it would be easy enough to swing by from our suburban Boston headquarters, but Network World caters to enterprise IT professionals, not software maker HubSpot’s sales and marketing crowd.

Sure enough though, the 19,000 registered attendees at the flashy event full of funky seating arrangements and celebrity speakers (including President-elect Donald Trump, er, Alec Baldwin) were treated to a steady stream of tech talk, so I didn’t feel out of place at all. Neither did the target audience given that they are increasingly making the kinds of technology purchasing calls in this cloud-happy world of which IT staffs are well aware.


HubSpot Co-Founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah divvied up a Wednesday keynote address with fellow Co-Founder Brian Halligan, with Shah focusing his talk on the potentially dazzling technologies of the future that could be used for inbound marketing.

Halligan first ran through changes in mainstream technologies such as marketing videos (people want them shorter and with the sound turned off), social media (today’s prospects are hunkering down in social networks as if they are their favorite coffee shop, not a drive-thru lane), search (people are clicking on Google Adwords more often these days because the ads are more prominent on search pages and are better quality because advertisers have to pay more for them) and websites (people enamored with Uber expect great self-service on all websites now, leaving sales people to augment the websites in a complete role-reversal from years past). Halligan labeled the cold call as being dead and thought he would be doing the same for email marketing, but after researching the topic he found that email pitches are "alive and well" as long as they are delivered in the appropriate context -- this despite a big shift in workers to internal communications platforms like Slack.

hubspot inbound Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

Inbound exhibitor floor at Boston 

Halligan's spiel set the stage for Shah and this bold pronouncement: “Are chatbots going to be a passing fad or the next big thing? I think they’re going to be the biggest wave we’ve seen in technology in the last two decades.” Today’s chatbots ( software you can converse with in natural language) are a whole different animal than past “intelligent” digital assistants like Microsoft Office’s old Clippy the paperclip, he says.

The rise of chatbots has been enabled by advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning as well as by the huge shift from good old email and phone calls to Facebook Messenger and other messaging services, the top four of which Shah says now have more users than the top four social networks. He argues messaging services can actually benefit marketing and sales by allowing more trust-based communications than traditional cold calls and email list blasts. And he says bots are going to be a boon to sales, marketing and customer service as well, delivering “human to the bot power.”

Dharmesh Shah Hubspot inbound 2016 Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

HubSpot CTO Dharmesh Shah takes the stage at Inbound 2016: AI advances are fueling chatbot growth

This all provided a lead-in to the fact that HubSpot itself has a chatbot, dubbed GrowthBot, in beta and it works with popular messaging services like Slack, Twitter and Facebook Messenger. Shah, who says 10,000 people have tried GrowthBot, touted sample uses, such as asking the bot if website traffic is seasonal rather than messing around with CSV data files and Excel spreadsheets to ferret out such information. Chatbots will also be able to work in the background and offer up useful information without being asked for it and maybe even update programs like CRM applications, he says.

This extends beyond helping sales and marketing to directly helping customers, once reliant on navigating websites to find answers around the clock, Shah says. “They won’t replace the website but they will power them,” along with living in devices like Amazon Echo or in messaging apps, he says.

You could get as techie as you wanted to in other sessions at Inbound, including a new products demo session by another Hubspot official,  and plenty of demonstrations on the exhibition floor as well.  Sessions focused on topics such as “10 Human Behavior Hacks That Will Change the Way You Create Email” and “Social Media is Broken: Community is Your Duct Tape.”

In the latter session, former IDC social media analyst and current Principal of The Community Roundtable Rachel Happe said social media is on black ice in terms of being a productive engagement platform for organizations. There’s just too much anxiety-producing behavior going on, where people have become afraid of speaking their mind, and too much flooding of social media with content rather than a focus on presenting quality content in the right context so as to encourage engagement, she says. Facebook groups, like the invite-only Pantsuit Nation Facebook Group that took hold in recent weeks leading up to the election, have overtaken Facebook pages as a place for productive social media interactions, Happe says.

Then of course there are live events like HubSpot Inbound: That's where the real human engagement takes place.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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