Intrigue Marketing: An Evolutionary Assault To Inbound

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (March 14, 2016)

Innovate or die. It's not just the catchy title of Jack Matson's 1996 book. It's an evolutionary truism that applies to all life and business. And with Darwinian force, the neanderthal of Inbound Marketing is about to be replaced by its more evolved cousin: Intrigue Marketing.

Much like Darwin's trip down Galapagos way, what follows here are observations from my own journey of discovery (minus the S.S. Beagle) as a startup entrepreneur and financial services marketing executive. These have proven successful for me, and I imagine they will for you as well. As per usual, I will caveat that these theories can be applied to any industry and business type, but are perhaps most relevant to high-revenue, lower-volume outfits (e.g. financial services, B2B software, legal, insurance, etc.) where the ask and trust are necessarily larger.

Intrigue Marketing isn't some dramatic new paradigm. It is a shift in thinking. Taking the best of content and inbound marketing and evolving it for higher return on time and money invested.  In short, Intrigue Marketing:

  1. Utilizes Content Creation & Inbound techniques for distribution and driving traffic to a web repository

  2. Complements these efforts with old-school outbound techniques utilizing social platforms (e.g. LinkedIn)

  3. Kills off marketing automation in favor of more human-centered invitations to a society or meaningful intimate event

The goal with Intrigue Marketing is to bring a bit of humanity back to the art of the sale. Utilizing some old-fashioned techniques (such as the handshake) paired with modern resources (such as social media that allow for direct, immediate contact). It leaves ample room to accumulate those clients already seeking your services, but also increases the opportunity of turning mere window shoppers into paying clients--or at least in-network referrals.

Some may wrinkle their nose at the idea of taking the extra time, money and effort to develop a meaningful event that cultivates and converts leads, but my experience shows that a face-to-face meeting in a more relaxed social environment that builds human connectivity increases conversion by a factor of three as opposed to automated or cold business-focused techniques. It's enough to justify any additional program costs. And the human factor also leads to an infinite amount of additional warm referrals that further offset any overhead--friends refer friends. In short, it's cheaper to be hu-man than it is to be a sales-man.

The Origin of the Theory: What is Intrigue Marketing

The genesis of my search for a greater unifying theory of marketing came out of my frustration with the current total reliance on inhuman marketing automation. It felt both ineffective and tired. What I heard from the pitchmen of the automation companies was a lot of talk about increasing leads, but not necessarily meaningful qualification or conversion to sale. Seemed like a lot of effort for little result. Many of my fellow marketers followed-the-lemur off the cliff, and simply "did" marketing automation because that's what was "done" in the industry.

In short, personal relationships drive sales. Pure inbound has worked for last two decades because of its novelty and because few meaningful alternatives or variations existed--not because of its fundamental appeal to human psychology. It's worked well. Intrigue will work better.

Now, this isn't to say that marketing "organization" (e.g. content scheduling tools) isn't needed as firms increase in complexity, but we've swung the pendulum of automation so far as to remove all human touch. As an example, I recently downloaded an excellent article from Hubspot. After inputting my email to download the content I entered their automation funnel and received an auto HTML-email from one of their associates. Fine, except this associate had actually been a classmate of mine at university. Automation had removed the ability for us to make a meaningful connection that may have led to a business relationship. Mind you, a single personal anecdote does not an overwhelming trend make, but injecting a human element on a wider level does have large-scale benefits. That's how I began my personal journey into the development of Intrigue Marketing.

Let's juxtapose by looking first at the way Inbound Marketing currently works. We'll use a financial services company as our example. Firm X is actively looking for wealthy institutions to help them manage their assets. Their clients are typically high-revenue-drivers for the firm and 1-2 clients/year are needle-moving. Their current marketing strategy is focused on creating thought leadership videos, white papers, etc., targeting the relevant audience, and distributing their targeted content through their website, YouTube, social, search, earned media and other channels. Through these efforts they capture, score and respond to leads using a marketing automation system. Once a lead becomes a prospect, they make a solicitation for a business meeting to take the next steps towards converting their prospect to a client.

Now, let's look at Firm X (with the same needs and scenario) through the lens of Intrigue Marketing. They continue to create thought leadership content that's distributed to a targeted audience through relevant channels. But now, rather than a purely passive inbound approach, they complement this with an outbound campaign that invites prospects to learn more by first connecting with them on LinkedIn, and then offering an intriguing invitation to an intimate, socially-oriented event. So too, do they apply this technique of intriguing invitation to all inbound leads. Rather than taking a random person's downloading of their white paper or watching of their video as an opportunity to solicit with two weeks of auto-emails, they respond with a simple, personal message to bring the online conversation offline and into the real-world.

In fact, a recent in-depth, validates how the traditional information "bombard approach" in the financial marketing space fails to gain traction "Marketing Effectively to Financial Advisors"

Here is an intriguing invitation for both outbound LinkedIn or email-sourced prospects. It can also be used in reply to inbound leads and should be text-based, not HTML:

SUBJECT: The Summit: A Society Invitation


We haven't had the chance to meet yet, but see that you're [insert personal detail of individual.] We run a small monthly invite-only dining society called The Summit, and we hope you'll have a seat at our table . It's just 10-15 interesting people doing interesting things gathering over a good dinner to discuss their ideas. Below are the details of the event, and I hope to meet you there.


Your Name

[Insert Event Details]

It's that basic. If for any reason they cannot make it to the event, you've opened the channel to begin a back-and-forth and find a time to meet one-on-one, or at least you're asked to keep them on your list for future events. And if they do make it to your event, you're able to look each other in the eye, shake hands and make a human connection. Of course, it takes a bit of time to learn how to organize a proper dining or event society, and I highly recommend keeping it "elite" by foregoing any web presence. I've previously discussed the benefits and psychological attributes of why this type of invitation and society-based setup works: The Propinquity of a Handshake.

Intrigue Marketing also brings the idea of interruptive, outbound marketing back into the light after Seth Godin banished it to the shadows. You'd be amazed at the difference in receptivity to an invitation rather than a solicitation--perhaps a nod to Cialdini's idea of "reciprocation," in that we create an artificial human obligation to respond to an invite, even if we didn't ask to be invited. In my application of this technique, I've found an approximately 30 percent increase in "open" rates for unsolicited emails, and have been able to seat CEOs, celebrities and the most interesting men and women in the world around my table. Sometimes it has led to business, sometimes an introduction, sometimes just a good story. And over time, this network has grown to thousands of trusted friends willing to help me network in to those individuals beyond the reach of most mere mortals.

And no, this is not an invitation to another 50-person cocktail party in some hotel lounge. It is an invitation to get to know one another and share perspective while perhaps demonstrating expertise. Do not make this simply a passing-one off. Rather, make it a repeating group--your own personal, salon, society, whatever you call it. Get to know your group over time, let them get to know each other, and be there, ready for them when their need arises. This is intimate-scale handshake marketing, that when executed and repeated properly can lead to large-scale results.

And note that having an event society run with consistency is also a great way to meaningfully follow up on all those business cards from the conference, or that billionaire you hit it off with in first class on the way back from svenoborgia (you're welcome '30 Rock' fans).

A History Lesson: Standing on the Shoulder of Inbound Giants 

Speaking of Seth Godin, in 1999, he wrote his arguably most famous book, Permission Marketing. In it, he detailed how the world of interruption marketing was dying. No longer would the cold call or TV ad invade your life as the primary means of grabbing your attention. Rather,  through creating great content and marketing that content, people would come to you, and give their permission to be sold to. Permission marketing always somewhat paradoxically involved a bit of interruption to initially get the content in front of your eyes, but it was still an earth-shattering twist that turned the door-to-door vacuum salesman into a creator of informative content.

About six years later in 2005, Hubspot's CEO and co-founder Brian Halligan coined the term "Inbound Marketing." Inbound relied on Godin's permission-based principles, but focused on thought leadership-style content that drove visitors to websites where their information would be captured for follow up. Coupled with Hubspot's automated platform, Inbound lighted the way for content to become king for the past decade.

The misnomer of Inbound Marketing, however, was that the moment someone came "in" to your site, the marketer then turned them "out" again by reaching out with a business ask via an auto email or phone call. It seemed a bit contradictory to the inbound ethos, though it had its successes. But I believe this "inbound" methodology is heading the way of AOL circa 1996--still dominant, but Google is about to eat your lunch. And like Google, so too does Intrigue Marketing plan to devour Inbound's pastrami on rye. But this can only occur by recognizing the remnant value of the Inbound technique and applying its best practices for our own means.

Google in many ways stood on the shoulders of what AOL had built--developing more efficient ways to communicate, updating user interfaces, perfecting email, web browsing and search. Standing on the shoulder of giants is the only way to see further than they do and eventually displace them. And that's what Intrigue Marketing is doing to the idea of inbound. Just as Google did not wholesale reject the notion of email or web browsing (they simply made it much, much better), so too are we embracing the fundamental elements of inbound marketing (and simply making them more effective).

In this way, beautiful, thoughtful content that excites, disturbs or informs, in our mind, is still king. And effectively marketing that content through traditional digital and earned media methods to highly-targeted audiences is still tops. (Hubspot can breathe a sigh of relief). However, we Intriguers kill off the byzantine auto-respond email chain and audience pathway decision trees that have made automation so popular, and so cumbersome (Hubspot may want to reach for their inhaler). Instead, we replace automation with humanity and replace attempts at luekwarm business initiation with an intriguing invitation that provokes human interaction rather than eye rolls at another solicitation-in-sheep's-clothing.

Why Intrigue Works; A Human-Centered Philosophy

The Intrigue Marketing process relies on two human principles: curiosity and sociability. We have a need to learn more when teased. We have a fear of missing out. We have a need to be around others. We have a need to share our ideas. We want to be welcomed to a group to feel like we belong. We don't want to be sold to--at least not obviously. We don't want to be forcibly social in large settings where we know no one. We don't want to trust strangers immediately. These "dos" and "donts" are some of the underlying elements of the behavioral psychology of Intrigue Marketing that would make Skinner and Pavlov proud (not so sure about Freud).

Even Hubspot recognizes the upside of bringing humanity and psychology back into the marketing process. In their article, "Wake Up, Cold Callers" the author lists six reasons she'll never by from you:

  1. I have no idea who you are

  2. You have no idea who I am

  3. You're obviously using a script

  4. You want me to buy something right away

  5. You won't let me off the phone

  6. You launch right into your pitch.

But it seems that they (i.e Hubspot), and in fact most inbound proponents, don't heed their own advice. Getting my IP address or looking me up on LinkedIn doesn't mean you know me, and just because I've come to your website doesn't mean I know you. Sending me an automated email is your version of a script. There's always an immediate call to action to get me to learn more or set up a demo. You email me 3-5 times over the course of a few weeks, the same as not letting me off the phone. Rather than getting to know me, you send me an immediate email solicitation. Yes, it's a more passive approach than a cold call, but, in the end, isn't it just a drawn-out sales pitch masquerading as something more valiant?

With Intrigue Marketing, we combine the best of modern marketing with what IDEO calls human-centered design and put the person at the center of our philosophy. A unique combination of art (humanity) and science (technology) that is greater than the sum of its parts and certainly greater than the status quo. As Intriguers, we are working under the assumption that even when people give "Permission" to be marketed to, they really don't want to be "Sold" to. Signing up for a website or inputting your email to download a white paper does not mean bombard me with automated email follow ups for two weeks. Would you ask someone to marry you simply because they said "ok" to a coffee date?

Rather, we Intrigue Marketers take your interest as an invitation to engage at a human level. Yes, we may want a sale, but also accept that our best result may be to turn you into a referral or, gasp, a meaningful acquaintance that adds value and insight to our lives.

We may clearly both have a degree of interest in the same thing, but you don't know us, and we don't know you. So, before we marry, let's go on that coffee date. You can see that I don't have three noses, and I can see that you're really more interested in talking about hang gliding than my software platform. We don't waste each other's time or leave a disingenuous impression, and, at worst, we part as friends. Or, perhaps, coffee turns to dinner and dinner to date number two and so on until we get married.

In short, personal relationships drive sales. Pure inbound has worked for last two decades because of its novelty and because few meaningful alternatives or variations existed--not because of its fundamental appeal to human psychology. It's worked well. Intrigue will work better.

As Jean-Baptise Lamarck Once Theorized...

There's a chance that Intrigue Marketing is the equivalent of a giraffe having a long neck due to the "nervous fluid" of wanting to reach leaves in tall trees. That is, a good idea based on a false premise. But, while modern theories of marketing are still new and plentiful, I strongly believe Intrigue will stand at the top of the evolutionary chain as time, pressure and environment weed out the less evolved. But even still, we do pay homage to Inbound in the same way that Cro-Magnon or neanderthal were necessary to the survival and eventual triumph of homo sapien. These precursors needed to exist so that others could survive and thrive.

And, much like Darwin, I'll rely on the observations, insights and scientific methods of others to turn my theory into law (and yes, I know Darwin's Theory is still a Theory--cut my tortured metaphor some slack). So, I invite you all to please email me your experience with the elements of Intrigue Marketing, good, bad or otherwise. And who knows, perhaps an intriguing invitation may come your way. I'm available at neil@neilstclair.com.


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair