Marketing jargon can be the worst. Terms like A/B testing, backlinks, gamification, and branding (not to mention all the initialisms, like CTA, PPC, or SEM) can make any beginner marketer’s head spin. Inbound marketing is one such term.
What Is Inbound Marketing?
Inbound marketing is the marketing strategy of drawing customers in by providing value. It’s about letting them come to you. Conversely, outbound marketing encompasses more traditional tactics, like email blasts, direct mail, or cold calling, that push marketing messages out to customers.
Other names for outbound include “push” and “interruption” marketing, while another term for inbound is “pull” marketing. HubSpot compares outbound marketing to hitting an audience over and over with a sledgehammer and inbound marketing to attracting them with a magnet.
“We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in,” says marketing pro Craig Davis. That’s what inbound is all about.
Now, there are certainly still instances when outbound marketing is appropriate and beneficial, but inbound marketing has become a crucial part of any marketing strategy. And that’s not just because it’s preferred by customers. (Who enjoys having a product pushed on them? Much better to discover something on your own terms and be entertained or educated along the way!) It also delivers more return-on-investment (ROI). Inbound leads cost 61% less than outbound leads on average. This is because inbound marketing brings in leads who are already interested in your content or what you have to offer.
So, What Does Inbound Look Like?
By this point, you’re wondering how one actually does inbound marketing. Let’s take a look!
We’ve already covered that inbound involves tactics that draw people in and nurture them to a purchase by providing value (content that matters to them). Here are some of the inbound tools and tactics you can use in each stage of the buyer’s journey.
Inbound attraction strategies are centered around creating and publishing content that provides value.
- Search Engine Optimization
Good website content that is search-engine optimized is foundational to inbound. Where do most people go to search for answers to questions, research a topic, or look for a specific solution? Search engines! So you want your website to show up in search results for relevant queries.
Tied in with SEO is blogging. Blogging can help you add to your website search-optimized content that addresses your audience’s pain points. REI’s “Expert Advice” section is a great example of providing valuable blog content. The content doesn’t overtly push products—it educates around topics its audience cares about. For instance, there are blogs like “How to Teach Kids Yoga” and “What Clothes to Wear When You’re Cycling.” When audience members search for these topics in Google, they may click a link to a blog on REI’s site. And REI takes the opportunity to highlight and link to products in those articles.
- Guest Posting/Blogging
Guest posting is a great way to reach a new audience, build your brand recognition, and improve your SEO (through backlinks). Reach out to industry publications that you know your target audience reads. When you submit guest posts, you’ll build awareness among that larger audience and drive traffic back to your own site.
- Other Content
In addition to blogs, you can produce other valuable content like eBooks, guides, blogs, videos, print, research studies, webinars, etc., to draw people in.
- Social Media
Growing followership on social media is a great use of inbound marketing. You can’t force anyone to follow you; you’ve got to attract them with value (entertaining and educational content). Thought leadership on LinkedIn, fun videos on TikTok, beautiful visuals on Instagram, engaging videos on YouTube—all can help you draw people in.
Once you’ve attracted people to your content, you can provide the opportunity for contacts to give you their information—if they choose to. Inbound conversion tactics include:
- Landing Pages
Inbound lead nurturing strategies can take place once someone has freely given you their information, using things like:
- Dynamic Content
- Sales Calls
Note that the use of email or sales calls in the Attract stage (before a prospect has given you their information, expressly inviting contact) would not be inbound.
Beyond the sale, you can use inbound strategies to delight your customers, like:
- Smart Content
- Email Marketing
- Social Media
- Loyalty Programs
Unaligned on Inbound
The marketing industry agrees on the general definition of inbound marketing. But once we start talking about tactics, things get a little hazier.
We’ve included tactics we believe to be inherently inbound in this article. We’ve seen other companies and bloggers approach explaining inbound differently. HubSpot (which coined the term “inbound,” though it didn’t invent the concept) even includes ads—which we see as inherently outbound because they are pushed into a user’s space—in its explanation.
Purists might argue that true inbound tactics are those that only pull, never push content to a viewer. Under that thinking, emails wouldn’t be inbound (even if sent to a double-opted-in prospect).
Optimizely separates inbound tactics into two categories: owned vs. earned. In this model, they include public relations under inbound.
All of this is to say: There’s a lot of grey area when it comes to what is or isn’t an inbound tactic. Speaking of, let’s discuss . . .
The Interplay of Inbound & Content Marketing
This is yet another area of confusion surrounding inbound. Is inbound content marketing? Is content marketing inbound? If they’re different, is one better than the other? Which comes first? Is it nap time yet?
Inbound marketing isn’t content marketing (and vice versa). That’s because content marketing can include outbound tactics, like ads or print, whereas inbound does not. However, content marketing can certainly be part of an inbound strategy.
How to Get Started with Inbound
If all of this seems pretty simple, I’ll warn you right now that it’s not. Inbound strategy takes time and lots of thought. You also won’t see an immediate impact on your bottom line. But, as outbound marketing continues to crowd the airwaves, customers will notice that you respect their space and provide value.
First things first, make sure you know everything there is to know about your customers. Create customer personas. Then you’ll be sure you have the knowledge to create content and nurturing strategies that will be of value to them. But before you write or set up anything, craft an inbound strategy. Don’t just plan to write a blog here or there and call that inbound. Consistent implementation depends on a set plan and objectives that are part of a larger marketing strategy.
You may consider outsourcing some of the work of inbound. It relies heavily on valuable content, and you may find it makes sense for you to hire an agency (with an experienced SEO professional, content developer, social media manager, etc.) to create it. It all depends on your capacity and budget.
Inbound is increasingly seen as the “right way to market.” But that’s not completely true. It is an important component (maybe the most important for some business), but it must also be balanced with outbound tactics. Your offering is valuable to people, so you can still share about it through social advertising, billboards, print, commercials, etc. I’ve happily bought products I’ve seen for the first time in an ad, and I bet you have too. But having a strong inbound strategy can set you apart and help you pull in customers.