HubSpot’s global CMO on inbound’s rise, data use and martech competition

Kipp Bodnar talks about how he's diversifying his content and brand strategies and the importance of customer data integration

Kipp Bodnar
Kipp Bodnar

Six years is a long time in marketing when you consider the amount of technological, cultural and consumer change we’ve seen.

HubSpot global CMO, Kipp Bodnar, has been with the inbound marketing technology vendor for six years of its 10-year history, spending the last 12 months as the company’s marketing leader. During this time, the organisation has gone from less than US$10 million in annual revenue to hundreds of millions, built out its integrating offering to a suite of email, marketing automation, social, analytics, SEO, blogging, CMS and CRM tools, and grown a sales and support footprint worldwide.

Much of this has been propelled by the rise in popularity of inbound marketing methodology and content marketing. According to Bodnar, inbound marketing is no longer optional, it’s mandatory for customer engagement success.

“Up to this point, shifting towards inbound marketing was kind of optional,” he told CMO. “You haven’t had to – you would see better results, but you could still do your traditional marketing. It’s becoming less optional every day with the rise of adblocking, with the emerging messaging platforms. We’re all moving to Slack, Facebook and so on and you can’t spam people on these things.

“You need to adopt an inbound methodology and shift your marketing in order to be more customer centric.”

Bodnar caught up with CMO on a recent visit to Sydney to talk about the rise of content, the rapidly changing martech landscape, and why marketers continue to struggle to maximise their use of data for customer success.

You’ve been CMO for 12 months now and came into the role at a time of management controversy. What did you do to adjust those brand perceptions and put your stamp on the role?

When you come into a new job, one of the challenges we all face is that historical bias of how things have been done. The first thing I did when I became CMO was look at the team, focusing on what we’re really good at, what we needed to improve upon, and then identify key areas of execution we needed to improve. For example, we needed to improve our global conversion rate optimisation across our site and conversion assets, so we spun up a new team there. We also consolidated our marketing efforts around our sales business – we had two product lines – so the marketing team could focus on each of those funnels because the go-to-market is different.

The next thing was really looking at the brand. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary as a company, which is a big milestone. We considered what that 10th year was going to look like and made a deeper investment into the brand, increasing our budget towards brand. In this crowded marketplace, having brand trust and loyalty is more important than ever, so we have worked hard to scale that up.

In the six years you’ve been at Hubspot, the marketing technology landscape has changed dramatically thanks to launches, rapid consolidation and mergers. Today, it’s an incredibly crowded marketplace. Has HubSpot’s proposition had to change as a result?

All of that is true. On the flip side, the actual communication structure and how humans interact has changed just as much, if not more rapidly. We’ve seen the rise of ad blocking, messaging apps and collaboration tools have really taken off, video has soared, and podcasts have resurged. Both these factors have created a bunch of opportunities in the marketplace.

Our value proposition when we started was that because of these tech shifts, buyers have all the power, sellers and companies don’t have the power, and you need to evolve the way you’re doing your marketing as a result. That proposition and our vision has remained consistent. How you realise it, however, has evolved with the technology and market. But our core vision is just as true today as it was in 2006.

How about the way HubSpot positions itself against competitors in the marketing landscape who are increasingly touting a more consolidated, integrated martech stack approach?

There are some interesting things at play here. For all of this evidence of consolidation, it’s still a very under-penetrated market. Depending on who you look at, it’s an 8-12 per cent adoption rate. The biggest challenge is still inertia, it’s not competition. It’s getting people to evolve and change their strategy, it’s hiring different skills, adjusting their budgets to allow them to adopt these solutions, and getting them to think about their marketing in a much more different way.

When we think about our prospective customer and their needs, it’s always been about three things. Firstly, it’s about inbound and adopting a different way to do marketing. With that comes a methodology; regardless of the software you use, there’s a process that has to evolve and you need to execute against whether you use our tools or someone else’s. Then from a technology perspective, the core proposition has always been to build a suite of tools that is going to serve marketing teams. Everything we have done has been an extension of that, such as our free CRM product, which is the same database as our marketing product. It’s always been about that all-in-one value proposition.

It comes back to having a single prospect and customer view and all of your data in one place. There are certain things that can happen when that’s true, and new features are possible when products are integrated. You can monitor your customers versus your leads, your opportunities and your social streams, for instance. You can’t do that when they’re disparate data sets. Or you can have your keyword tool and your blogging tool together – you should know what keywords you should be blogging about.

The fact the market is moving this way and marketers are looking for this is great validation of our approach.

Marketers strive towards this vision of single customer view. However, the reality is most are nowhere near achieving that. What’s the typical roadblock?

Having a single customer view is the one part of all of this where technology comes to play. When it comes to executing marketing well, that’s about nailing your personas and your strategy; whatever tools you use are your mechanism for delivering it. Single customer view is a technology battle. The companies that do that right at a bare minimum have a marketing database and CRM that are well integrated. That’s the start. Anyone who has fallen down usually doesn’t have those things talking to each other, or has one but not the other.

What new initiatives are you working on right now as an inbound marketer?

Video is becoming a huge part of the inbound world, so we’re investing aggressively not just in producing video but live video such as Facebook Live. We’re diversifying our content play across the board as well.

When we started HubSpot, the game back was emailing people as they came to your website, or from your blog, eventually link up through social channels, then they’d visit your product page and end up talking to a sales person. It’s a very different situation today. We have a podcast we host, plus a separate publication on with all of our Facebook videos, Instagram videos and images. You can consume all that content from us, have a real education experience, and we wouldn’t know you’d done all of it. But there’s a lot of influence for us as a brand, and that’s a big change. We’re making investments into all of those places because we want to go where the prospect or buyer is.

As a CMO, how are you positioning the value of marketing back to the executive team?

It’s really about winning over the CFO. They’re not interested in the systems or campaign measurements, they want marginal dollar improvement and for marketers to show an understanding of revenue. For that, you need closed loop systems to hone in on what’s contributing to growth. For example, I’m showcasing our work in regions and how we’re influencing growth. It’s about marketing and sales’ ability to acquire new dollars.

What keeps you awake at night?

The biggest challenge is hiring, and the thing that keeps me up is the team and people. You can hire great people and enable great people, but do those people have access to the information they need, and can they collaborate in the way they need to? We’ll have hits and misses around strategy as we go, but if you have the right people in place, any misses will be shorter and smaller and the hits will be much bigger.

From a skillsets point of view, it’s to continue to scale globally. We have marketers across four different locations now. We have an emerging, multi-product brand to build, so it’s how we enable the team with the right operating systems, meetings, communications and collaboration to allow them to do that. We look a lot at employee NPS and retention of our employees, as all of that is important to us.

A CMO very recently suggested to me that the CMO’s job today is more internally focused than external. Would you agree?

The people of the company are the brand; they exude the brand and help bring it to market. What’s also interesting as a CMO is that you have two teams: Your executive team and your marketing team. Often, you are the executive team member first, which is hard. You have to collaborate with your sales and product leaders, and that’s especially true in my case, when we’re developing products for marketers. At the same time, you need to have the right transparency and communication with the marketing team.

What’s your view on the concept of customer engagement as a marketer?

Our CEO would tell you the same thing: You look at the marketing funnel and you have the stranger, then leads, customers and at the end, a happy customer, and that’s where you get your word of mouth. Enabling customer engagement is about enabling word of mouth and aiding efficiency back in the top of funnel. If you’re doing engagement really well, that is what is happening.

We treat our customer services team in a similar way to the sales team – we help enable them, we run campaigns to the customer base. Three or four years ago, that wasn’t the case so it’s definitely becoming more prevalent.

Every marketer wants to know how everyone else is using data. Are you able to share how you’re tapping customer data to drive your marketing activities?

We’re using data across the marketing and sales funnel. We have in-funnel reporting and a good idea of who our customer is, so we can know exactly the campaigns and tactics that are working and iterate on those and at a granular level. We can optimise for blog post topics, for example, or email subject lines, but on a holistic level, we can also determine how much to balance an owned event strategy versus a content strategy, versus more traditional field marketing.

We look at that in two different ways. Firstly, what we call ‘true funnel’ and then a ‘snapshot funnel’. The true funnel is following all the way through on a cohort basis; on the snapshot side, it’s what’s happening this month, or how are we directionally trending.

One of the most difficult challenges for marketers is what your dollar return is per visit. There are a bunch of calls to actions and offers you can adopt for any given flow, you want to know what is going to deliver the highest return for the company. You need that end-to-end data to find that and deliver.

There’s using data for automation, for testing and employing tactics. There’s also ‘preventative’ data, which is looking at how you are trending on an email unsubscribe rate, or late engage conversion rate. You want to see your long-term trend and identify any blips, because those can turn into a pothole very quickly. Oftentimes, companies don’t have their data strategy complete enough to look at the different types of data, even if they have it, to properly enable that kind of process.

Are there other common blindspots you’re seeing within marketing teams today?

A big one is the application of content. Marketers know content is important, they have some ideas from a tactical perspective, but they’re not sure of their content strategy or how to implement it. Another is they’re trying to figure out how to move from a channel-based technology stack to an all-in-one integrated tech stack. That’s a big part of this shift.

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