Lions, Watering Holes, and Inbound Marketing

The African Lion sleeps for 16 to 20 hours per day. This leaves, at most, eight hours per day for the 420-pound behemoth to get the nutrients necessary to sustain its lifestyle and status as the “king of the grasslands.” The key component to leading a lifestyle such as this: efficiency.

Digital brands need this same level of efficiency if they are to survive in today’s continuously changing digital world that is rife with disruption. One area where digital brands have been shifting strategies to gain efficiencies in recent years has been marketing. In a world that was once dominated by outbound marketing tactics like cold calling, mass emails, and trade shows, 74% of marketers now identify inbound marketing as their primary approach to marketing. In order to understand the power and efficiency of inbound marketing, let’s go back to our carnivorous comrades in Africa.

For digital brands, inbound marketing is all about creating their own version of a watering hole.

In a study conducted in a savanna of Zimbabwe, scientists used GPS devices to track Lion movements over the span of three years. A key finding reveals a very strong preference demonstrated for hunting within 2 kilometers of a watering hole in all seasons. For digital brands, inbound marketing is all about creating their own version of a watering hole. However, unlike the predatory exploits made by Lions, digital brands are creating these watering holes to connect with potential customers on a deeper level while giving them more space in the sales process. By doing this, digital brands are unlocking the dynamic duo of efficiency in business: reaching more people while expending fewer resources.

What inbound marketing looks like for a digital brand

For digital brands, a watering hole is anything that provides value to a potential customer. It could be a blog, podcast, eNewsletter, whitepaper, eBook, etc.. Ideally, potential customers and customers alike will come to your watering hole regularly for your latest content on topics such as how they can improve their job performance or adapt to the latest trends in their industry.

Runner’s World is a digital brand that publishes a magazine, offers a premium digital content subscription, and hosts its own online retail shop. A watering hole they utilize is their blog.

Runner’s World publishes information on its blog that any runner would consider interesting and helpful, including this article about virtual road races taking place during the pandemic. By posting this article across social media channels, Runner’s World can funnel people interested in running to its blog, and simultaneously position opportunities for these visitors to engage with its brand further, whether it be subscribing to its eNewsletter, magazine, or paid subscription service, or stopping by its shop to get a new pair of shoes.

Whole Foods Market has set up a watering hole on its website in the form of recipes.

By having influencers post pictures and links to their recipes on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, Whole Foods Market can direct visitors to its blog, and then from there they can easily direct those visitors to their email subscription form to get more useful info, a Prime Delivery, or their nearest brick & mortar location.

Salesforce shares industry expertise on their branded blog, The 360 Blog.

By targeting relevant industry keywords, Salesforce can optimize their search results in Google, and drive traffic to its articles. From these articles, Salesforce can direct visitors is email subscription form that delivers its blog’s latest content each week. Beyond that, visitors have opportunities to learn more about Salesforce products and even start a free trial.

There are a lot of ways inbound marketing can play out, but they all follow the same general flow:

  1. Set up resources for potential customer to glean benefit from
  2. Attract visitors through Search Engine Optimization, Social Media, and influencers
  3. Nurture these leads with email and free trials
  4. Close deals

By setting up a mechanism that can attract, digital brands are unlocking efficiencies that these traditional marketing cannot provide.

How inbound marketing is outpacing outbound marketing

There are two key efficiencies that inbound marketing creates in comparison to outbound marketing. Inbound marketing allows digital brands to reach more people while expending fewer resources.

Reaching more people

Hubspot conducted a study with customers and compared leads from the most recent month with leads from two months ago for six consecutive months. The results show that blogging businesses, whether or not they used the Hubspot platform, experienced 165% lead growth, a much larger increase than that of non-blogging businesses, which experienced 74% lead growth.

Using fewer resources

In an industry survey, Hubspot also found that inbounds leads costed 61% less to close than traditional outbound leads. And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense. When potential customers are coming to your site on their own volition to access the valuable resources you are providing, they are also self-selecting themselves as someone who is in the arena that your digital brand services, and also probably someone who is looking for some help.

The idea of attracting a targeted group of potential customers to you is so much more intuitive than pushing your products or services out to the masses and seeing where they stick. Think back to the African Lion. While it could hunt by roaming the savanna and chasing down anything that moves to try to feed itself, it is allocating its time and energy much more efficiently by finding a nice, shady spot in the brush around a watering hole and allowing its next meal to approach it.

And while the African Lion torments the animals that visit watering holes, digital brands with watering holes are doing the opposite; and their customers appreciate it. In fact, more than 70% of consumers say they prefer to learn about a product or service through content rather than traditional advertising.  At the end of the day, customers are looking for two things when making important buying decisions: helpful information and space. Inbound marketing offers both of these, and brands that are practicing it are reaping the benefits.

What are your thoughts on inbound marketing? Are there any strong inbound marketing initiatives you’ve come across that have helped direct you to resources you’ve benefited from?


  1. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Great post and awesome follow up to your presentation last Wednesday. I definitely don’t have that strong of a marketing background or knowledge so this was a great opportunity for me to learn. One of the thoughts and questions I did have was is some of inbound marketing just luck? The example with the virtual race calendar seems to be a third party blog, so it is also marketing for those races that they included in their calendar. If I had a personal blog and publish about our class and Professor Kane’s book, that is technically inbound marketing for him, but his organization didn’t have much to do with it. Once again I really enjoyed your presentation and follow up, the lion analogy was a great way to guide the presentation.

    1. Scott Siegler · ·

      Thanks Olivia. To answer your question, yes, I would say a huge part of inbound marketing success is luck to some degree because every action being taken is voluntary on the part of the potential customer. I think that the most skilled marketers are successful with inbound because they are the best at setting their brands up to be recipients of good luck.

  2. Scott – great presentation last week and I enjoy reading more about the specific examples here where brands are utilizing inbound marketing. Another thought I had was that with so many people becoming influencers and content creators across all social platforms, I’ve seen so many companies taking advantage of this and using them in inbound marketing (i.e. YouTuber promoting a product/brand while talking about a relevant topic). This has not only been effective in selling the product by allowing consumers to hear from a trusted reviewer but also probably has saved companies so much money by no longer having to pay celebrities as much to be brand ambassadors. With digital marketing growing so quickly, I think that inbound marketing can be the future of marketing so thank you for sharing this!

  3. Great post about inbound marketing! I never heard of inbound marketing before since I’m not a “marketing” guy. Marketing is always my worst grade class before. Thanks for bringing the knowledge of inbound marketing to us. Now, inbound marketing is within my range of considerations in the future’s business. This is really helpful for me to think about applying cutting-edge marketing tools/concepts to the actual business.

  4. conoreiremba · ·

    Great post Scott, and I think what inbound marketing provides in addition to helpful information and space, is a compelling reason to buy, which combine to allow the consumer to come to their own decision about engaging with a brand. I am someone who very rarely makes a purchase as a result of an outbound marketing technique, and so I love your analogy of the lion and the watering hole. Although I am now more aware of the lions that are circling me when I engage with various forms of inbound marketing.

    My former employer who was a wealth manager in Ireland has started to use inbound marketing techniques very effectively in the past few years. Wealth management is an industry that traditionally would have relied on personal connections and networking for engaging new clients.

    First, they started placing weekly e-columns in the top national newspapers, with insights from some of their top analysts providing commentary on current events, and the article would always finish with “to hear more about how this will impact you, speak to one of our trusted advisors at Davy”. Secondly, they have also started utilizing sponsorship of sports stars and use interviews with these stars to advertise the services they offer, drawing the attention of potential clients who are just reading to hear more from the sports star, making wealth management influencers of these stars in the protest (who knew there was such a thing!). However I do agree with both your and Olivia’s comments about luck, and some are definitely more skilled than others. After all “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.

    I hadn’t really thought about effective inbound marketing has been for that former company until your presentation last week, and so thank you for sharing your research both during class and in the blog above.

  5. sayoyamusa · ·

    Great follow-up, Scott!
    I kind of understood that inbounding marketing was becoming more and more important, but your insightful blog and presentation have made it clear to me.
    I totally agree that one of the best parts of inbound marketing is to attract “good” customers since it’s pull strategy. A water hole can be a strong customer base by nurturing them to be more loyal to your products/services. They can also be brand evangelists who promote your services via word-of-mouth.
    I have to admit that classic advertising and mass marketing were more familiar to me…our focus was on paid media, not owned, earned or shared ones. My company is in the traditional industry (alcohol and beverages,) and I believe outbound marketing is still effective to some point for us, but we definitely need to shift focus and identify the sweet spot. I’ve learned a lot from your thoughts and ample examples. I appreciate it!

  6. kellywwbcedu · ·

    I love the concept of inbound marketing and the analogy you made to the water hole… if you can’t get your message to the people, go to where the people are. I myself, always find it funny when I hear a commercial on a podcast that I’m listening to and I buy the product. Part of me feels like a victim for falling for their inbound marketing, but part of me enjoys the convenience of the targeted marketing. Either way, the marketing world is changing and it is interesting to see unfold.

  7. alexcarey94 · ·

    I really enjoyed this post. I think it is funny that today some inbound marketing is done by influencers trying to get promotion deals from brands they like via promoting them on their platform. You see this a lot on Instagram and tik tok (which ends up attracting a lot of attention.) Though a lot of this inbound marketing is luck it is also a very effective way to reach people you may not otherwise reach through others.

  8. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    I really liked that you used your post as a compliment to your presentation. Before your presentation and post I was not clear on how inbound marketing worked. You painted a clear picture and the use of examples allowed me to understand it better and think of ways in which my company can create watering holes.

  9. courtneymba · ·

    I loved your presentation, and this just further sears the metaphor of the watering hole in my mind. The multiple references here to the element of luck are interesting. While you can’t rule out coincidence/luck in marketing (inbound or outbound), I think this is more of an exercise in “you make your own luck.” I think the key attraction variables here are sample size, spend, content, strategy, and the product/service itself that drive the lead gen results.

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