Inbound marketing

Quick definition

Inbound marketing refers to marketing campaigns where engagement with the brand is initiated by the consumer. Instead of directly contacting consumers, inbound marketing focuses on earning a customer’s attention. Blogging and search engine optimization (SEO) are two examples of inbound marketing.

Key takeaways

Inbound marketing developed as a result of customers preferring to research on their own, rather than be pitched to directly.

Outbound marketing refers to marketing that uses direct advertising to reach customers, while inbound focuses on creating quality content that customers can find while researching or asking questions.

To effectively use inbound marketing, companies should use data and analytics to see how customers interact with their content and whether the information provided leads to conversions.

Companies can use a combination of outbound and inbound marketing to reach customers throughout the buyer journey.

Bob Conklin joined Adobe through the Marketo acquisition and is a leader within the Adobe Experience Cloud strategic marketing team. Prior to Marketo, he led global marketing for large, multi-billion dollar businesses at other tech brands including Oracle and HP.

What’s the difference between inbound and outbound marketing?

What’s the difference between inbound marketing and content marketing?

How did inbound marketing develop?

How do companies implement an inbound strategy?

What tools are necessary for inbound marketing?

How can companies make inbound marketing more effective?

What are the limitations of inbound marketing?

What mistakes do companies make with inbound marketing?

What is the future of inbound marketing?

Q: What’s the difference between inbound and outbound marketing?

A: Essentially, the difference is that outbound marketing is initiated by the marketer, while inbound marketing is initiated by the consumer. Outbound marketing would be any type of marketing where the company is actively reaching out to the consumer, like targeted display ads or cold calls, while inbound marketing is the opposite. One way some companies differentiate between the two is to say outbound refers to any paid marketing, like paid search or paid social, while inbound refers to free methods.

Inbound marketing involves putting the information out there for the consumer to find on their own. SEO is very important in inbound — brands can have high search results for the kinds of questions customers are asking and then present them with content. That content could be a blog, a web page, or an asset that's on a landing page, for example. The other big vehicle for inbound marketing is social media, as social media allows a brand to engage with customers easily and be a part of the conversations that are going on.

Sometimes, inbound is considered better for B2B marketing while outbound is better for B2C, since B2C generally has a shorter sales cycle, but inbound can work for both applications. Inbound is especially useful in B2C scenarios where the buying journey is particularly complex, and customers have to do a lot of research or consider a lot of factors before they make a decision.

Most companies include both inbound and outbound in their marketing strategies. There are times when a brand needs to push a message in front of a consumer to get their attention, especially if they need to build awareness or tell consumers about a brand-new product. Brands will need to do some advertising to start the conversation, and then use inbound to provide additional information and insight. They will share content on their social media pages or blog, then optimize SEO to boost their site’s search engine rankings and drive traffic. The content shows that the brand knows what they’re talking about and can answer customer questions.

There are strengths in both inbound and outbound marketing and situations in which one or the other will be the better option. Companies succeed when they use a combination of both tactics to deliver quality content when customers are researching and asking questions, then reach out directly when customers want to know about a specific product.

Q: What’s the difference between inbound marketing and content marketing?

A: Content marketing is something that can be utilized by inbound marketing, but you can do content marketing apart from inbound. A company could develop a lot of content and then push it all out with outbound techniques. This would be an option for a B2B company that has a limited number of customers and doesn’t need to do broad-based marketing — they only need to reach directly to their buyers.

All types of marketing need content, but the content is only one part of the equation with inbound marketing. Inbound also requires marketers to successfully place the content, and to know how to get it in front of customers.

Q: How did inbound marketing develop?

A: Inbound marketing grew out of the widespread adoption of the internet. Before the internet, people found out about a brand through television ads, radio ads, print ads, billboards, or by talking to a salesperson about their products. With the internet, consumers gained the ability to research products and companies on their own.

At first, marketers would focus on creating websites that showcased the products and continued the concept of outbound marketing by reaching out directly to consumers. The move to inbound marketing came when marketers realized it wasn’t all about the product — they needed to engage the buyers during the process leading up to the purchase. They needed to provide answers when the buyers were asking questions and becoming educated on the product.

Marketers got better at thinking about the buyer journey and considering the questions the customer is asking throughout. They field content that answers customer questions and got the brand name out there in a way that wasn't promotional or pushing a product. The idea was that instead of promoting the company, they were helping the customer. Modern customers prefer to research a product or service themselves rather than be told to buy something, and inbound marketing allows companies to help the customer along in their research.

Q: How do companies implement an inbound strategy?

A: The first thing marketers need to do is to understand the customer journey. They need to know what questions customers are asking and at what stage of the journey they’re asking them, so that the marketers can create content that answers the questions or offers a solution to the problem.

Once the marketers know what kinds of content they can share to engage a consumer, they need to start creating that content. Inbound marketing tends to be more top of funnel — its purpose is to reach consumers at the beginning of the buyer journey, then guide them through each phase. And the three main ways marketers can get that content in front of buyers are SEO, blogs, and social media.

Inbound marketing is more passive than outbound and might not have immediate results. To determine if an inbound marketing strategy is effective, companies need to look at how many consumers choose to opt in to getting information directly from the company and how many customers eventually convert after seeing content from social media or a search engine results page.

Q: What tools are necessary for inbound marketing?

A: Brands, first of all, need a way to collect data and analyze it. They need to be able to track who the customer is and how they’re engaging across all channels. And brands need to stitch that information together so they can measure the impact of each touchpoint during the buyer journey. Companies need a tool that will be able to see how customers are flowing through a journey and will associate each of those touches back to revenue.

Q: How can companies make inbound marketing more effective?

A: The number one way to make sure inbound marketing is working effectively is to measure it and understand what is and isn’t working. That starts by going all the way back to the beginning and ensuring people are actually searching for the terms the company is building content around. Companies need to see if customers are getting to their page and engaging with the content or if they’re falling off at some point.

Q: What are the limitations of inbound marketing?

A: If a company literally knows who all of their prospects are, inbound marketing becomes less important. They don’t need to work as hard to tune their SEO and indirectly guide potential consumers to the content. If a company already has a relationship with their customers, direct communication is more effective, and the customer has already opted in.

Q: What mistakes do companies make with inbound marketing?

A: Being too product-centric is a classic mistake companies make. They can be too self-promotional early on in the funnel, which will turn customers off. Later on in the customer journey, it can make sense to show the potential buyer how a product will meet their needs. But in the research phase, brands should provide more general information.

Q: What is the future of inbound marketing?

A: Increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) will make it easier for companies to match the right people with the right content. Companies are increasingly letting AI make real-time decisions about what content is being delivered, and the scale of AI will continue to grow.

AI can also help marketers drive consumer engagement further down in the funnel. Right now, inbound is often associated with top of funnel and getting new leads. But the customer still isn’t through the buyer journey. They're somewhere at the beginning or in the middle, and the company needs to keep nurturing the leads and serving up the right content. In the future, AI can help manage the leads and keep engaging the customer beyond the initial contact.

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