As reliable as the leaves changing color, the temperatures dropping a few degrees, and Starbucks rolling out the Pumpkin Spice Latte (and everyone’s personal feelings around pumpkin flavors), each fall, Boston’s population suddenly swells with Digital Marketers. 20,000+ people stream in from all over the world for Inbound, the digital marketing conference hosted by Hubspot. It’s a chance for marketers, entrepreneurs and creatives to network, mingle, learn, and be inspired. Speakers range from the mega-famous (um, hi MICHELLE OBAMA) to small agency owners or speakers trying to share a few nuggets of wisdom with anyone willing to listen.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend Inbound for the last two years, and I always leave feeling like I can scale 10-foot walls in a single bound. I’m so buoyed by new ideas, inspiring concepts, and new learnings that I can’t wait to share every tidbit with my team. Rather than unleash all this learning on my team like a fire hydrant that blew it’s top, I thought I’d channel this enthusiasm into this article for our Our Notebook audience!

Rather than a day-by-day breakdown, below I’ve outlined the big ideas or concepts I’ve walked away from the conference with, what I learned from those concepts, and what the takeaway for you is.

1. Empathy.

What I Learned:
There was no official theme to the conference this year, but if there was it would be Empathy without a doubt. I don’t want to bring politics into this post, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge that we live in a troubled and divided world. Speakers from Brene Brown, to Michelle Obama, and hundreds in between spoke to the power of empathy and the impact it can have in our world. And truly, this concept has never been more powerful than right here, right now in 2017.

The Takeaway:
The practical application I heard echoed repeatedly was: “Help your customers. Don’t sell to them.” As creatives and marketers, this means taking a step back, putting ourselves in our audience’s shoes and truly understanding them. What are their pain points? What are our services doing to improve or enhance their lives? What does your audience still need that you haven’t been providing for them? An authentic, empathetic voice and message will be the most impactful way to connect with your audience in the years ahead.

2. Messaging.

What I Learned:
The big tech trend at Inbound this year was messaging services. At their conference this year, Facebook announced that Facebook Messenger has over 1 billion active users (!!!), and has recently opened this tool up to businesses to keep in touch with their customers too. Thought leaders at Inbound predicted that using a messaging service, or a chat bot software can help eliminate some potential road blocks in the path to purchase of customers, while avoiding them needing to pick up a phone and call someone (gross, right?). This seems like an odd point to follow up Empathy with. But the truth is, in this modern and digital age, we as individuals are much more apt to source out information on our own rather than asking someone else. How many times have you Googled how to do something rather than reaching out to someone else you know who has that intel? Personally, I spent a good hour Googling which cleaning products were safe to use on my gas oven without blowing up my apartment before caving and just asking my mom.

The Takeaway:
My point is, empathize with your audience by understanding your tendencies for wanting to source and locate a solution to your problem independently. Not everyone has the resources to build or pay for a chat bot for their personal or business website, but try it this way: do you have a “Contact Me” section built out where someone can easily and quickly get in touch with you? Do you have an FAQ section that may address common questions or concerns about your services? Do you have your direct messages set to “public’ on Twitter? Try one or all of these, and see if it helps bridge the communication gap between you and your audience.

3. Yes. And…

What I Learned:
This is the now eponymous statement used by improvisers all over the world. In order for an improvised scene to be successful and funny, scene partners need to agree and build on one another’s ideas rather than shoot them down. For example: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast!” “What are you talking about? We’re not driving; we’re at the grocery store,” versus “Slow down! You’re driving too fast!” “Well, I’m never going to be a good race car driver if I don’t practice!”. Which of those exchanges leads to a stronger, funnier end result?

The Takeaway:
As a lifelong theatre student, I wasn’t sure I’d have much to glean from the talk on improv for marketers, but as soon as the “Yes. And…” concept was introduced, I realized how infrequently I use that tactic at work. If an idea or pitch clashes with my sensibilities or what I think is plausible, I’m more quick to shoot it down (“We’re not driving.”), rather than build off of it. My personal challenge walking away from Inbound is to “Yes. And…” my team more! It will lead to better, stronger work, and it will make my team feel supported and safe to introduce new ideas. And that’s a win for me too, because that’s exactly how I want my co-workers to feel, and the kind of work space I want for myself. So next time you’re in a meeting, make like Tina Fey “Yes. And…!”

4. Five Dollar Fouls.

What I Learned:
Mario Batali was one of the featured speakers at Inbound, and when asked for advice for new chefs, he shared an anecdote from when his children were growing up. Batali would pay his kids $5 to foul out of their basketball games when they were learning to play. Why? Because how do you know you’ve committed a foul until you’ve done it?

The Takeaway:
Be aggressive and go after the ball. You know you’ve gone too far when the ref blows the whistle. Batali also suggests new, at–home cooks and culinary students keep cooking their food a good 5-10 minutes longer than the recipe advises. How will you know the difference between perfect, golden, fully cooked texture, versus burned to a crisp until you’ve tasted both? Push yourself to the very edge, and maybe you’ll tip over. But you’ll know where the edge is.

5. Change the Story by Changing the Storytellers

What I Learned:
In 2016, Teen Vogue went from just another teen magazine to one of the premier sources for forward–thinking political, cultural, and fashion journalism. How did they accomplish such a huge brand U-turn? Editor—in-Chief Elaine Welteroth credits it to diversifying their staff. By changing who had a seat at the table, they changed what kind of stories they told. For example, they realized that they didn’t need to stay pigeonholed into stories about only makeup and prom dresses; teenage girls were expressing an interest in political and current events in addition to which highlighter would give them a glow up. They expanded their staff of writers and what kind of topics they would cover. The result was not only a broader audience that now stretches well beyond their young female demographic (Elaine mentioned proudly that Dan Rather now counts himself as a reader), but national acclaim for their publication.

The Takeaway:
If you are looking for the same kind of change, look for the voice or experience in your organization that is missing and act on adding that individual to the mix. Not all of us are able to make those kind of hiring decisions, or perhaps you’re not in a place where diversity is a huge priority for your company. Reaching back to the empathy theme, it’s important to understand the need for a voice or representation that mirror’s your audience’s own experience. If your work isn’t connecting with your audience in the way you anticipated, think about any other voices or experiences that may resonate with them more. You may not be able to hire someone who has that voice, but maybe you know them personally. Can you take them out for a working lunch and ask them to share their experiences with you? Can you seek out writers and artists whose voice resonates with your audience? Fold their work into your media diet. If you can’t impact the table at work, change the table of your own creative and digital round table.

In summary, it was remarkable to be at a digital marketing conference that gave me so many personal insights in additional to professional ones. Inbound this year encouraged it’s attendees to do more than buy a new piece of software or track a particular trend; it challenged us to look inward and see how we can improve upon ourselves and apply those same improvements to our professional lives.


Julie is the Project Manager for Creative Circle’s marketing team, and a life-long passionate storyteller. She manages the day-to-day workflow for the Marketing team, and oversees email marketing, marketing automation, and various other digital marketing initiatives. Julie has her B.A. with honors in Theatre and Creative Writing from Butler University. She is a Kentuckian by birth, Chicagoan by choice, and a fan of Beyonce,“Gilmore Girls,” and writing in pen. She is always trying to get a reservation at Girl and the Goat.