Inbound MARKETING VS Outbound Marketing – What’s the Difference?

Before you can have a race, you need to determine the course and mark the finish line.  In the race between inbound marketing versus outbound marketing, it’s critical to establish what your business wants to accomplish.

As the saying goes, “Everyone has a horse in the race.” In the context of marketing, some are betting on social media and others on inbound marketing (social media actually counts as inbound, but we will discuss this in a moment).

Many focus on pay-per-click and other outbound techniques, while others insist that content marketing and SEO are the only way to go.

Are your objectives based solely on short-term revenue? If so, you’re running a sprint and outbound may be your best option. Are your objectives long-term sustainability and brand loyalty? In that case, you’re probably going to resonate with the inbound marketing approach. If you’re like most businesses, you probably need a mixture of the two.

We decided to take a look at all of these marketing methods. In settling this contest – inbound marketing versus outbound marketing – we should begin by defining our terms.

Defining Our Marketing Terms

What is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is a marketing strategy that seeks to attract customers to owned media channels with value-added content. It further focuses on customer retention and long-term loyalty through impeccable customer service.

Inbound marketing places emphasis on the Buyer’s Journey or customer funnel. Hubspot popularized the Buyer’s Journey in recent years (see diagram below), though the concept has been around for decades.

Inbound vs Outbound Marketing? Which is better?

An inbound marketing strategy is less concerned with traditional advertising and more concerned about establishing industry authority. In theory, this approach takes longer to achieve but produces greater brand stability and momentum over time.

What is Outbound Marketing?

Outbound marketing is any marketing technique that involves reaching out to prospects first. This approach does not wait for customers to visit a website or call a phone number.

In digital marketing, outbound marketing includes paid media (pay-per-click) and influencer marketing. Outside the digital space, traditional advertising and sales techniques all constitute outbound marketing.

Examples of Inbound Marketing

There are many different ways to attract potential customers. But the most effective approach is through various forms of owned media development. These owned media channels include a company website and branded social media channels.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization is what most people think of first when they think of inbound marketing. It is the process that specialists use to improve a website’s visibility in search engine organic rankings (i.e., Google rankings).

There are a few key pieces to a sound SEO strategy, including keyword analysis, content development, meta tag editing, backlink development, etc. With every task, you hope to raise your website in Google search rankings as buyers search for terms relevant to your business and industry.

One of the biggest SEO challenges is understanding how search engines index and rank websites. Google is the leading search engine, and as such, most SEO experts focus on Google search results performance.

SEO is the foundation of any inbound or content marketing program. Other factors that can dramatically impact SEO effectiveness include, but are not limited to:

  • Keyword competition in your region and industry
  • Quality of website content
  • Duration in which visitors remain on your website
  • Domain authority (objective signals that your website is authoritative on the subject matter to which it speaks)

Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing has grown and developed exceptionally in the last twenty years. What started out as a way for friends and family to connect has turned into an opportunity for brands and marketers to authentically engage buyers.

Social media allows people to develop online communities that encourages them to share information amongst themselves. From a digital marketing perspective, it is the most scalable way to promote word of mouth marketing in the 21st Century.

Social media is ongoing and can be a time consuming process when done well. It’s certainly not something you can set up and expect to see continued results without additional effort.

Further, the effectiveness of your social media marketing relies greatly on your ability to connect emotionally with your target audience. This skill comes naturally to some brands more than others.

Downloadable Resources

Most inbound marketing strategies incorporate downloadable resources, such as pre-programmed spreadsheets, e-guides, and e-books. Prospects find these resources helpful, download them (often in exchange for emails and/or phone numbers), and refer to them to improve their quality of life or work.


Blogs are the most popular way to nurture an inbound strategy. Helpful articles that focus on answers to common questions or raising awareness are easy for prospects and customers to read and share online. Quality blog content is often the most critical piece of any inbound approach.


Informative and compelling videos are also popular ways to attract customers to your brand. Businesses can post original video content on their website and on multiple social media channels to inform audiences and generate leads.

Images (Products, Infographics, Tutorials, etc.)

Well-designed images are also common in an inbound marketing strategy. These informative images can tell a story, illustrate concepts in infographics, or even demonstrate steps in a “how to” tutorial. Images are easy to share on social media channels.

What is the Difference Between Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing?

One reason the two are often confused is because there are so many areas where they overlap. In fact, you can’t really have one without the other.

What is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is the inbound marketing technique of providing information to consumers that they are interested in to promote customer acquisition.

For example, if you’re trying to sell tires, you might create content related to the pros and cons of different types of tires and the reasons someone might buy a particular type of tire.

The focus of content marketing is to provide good, relevant information to people trying to wrap words around their problems, compare relevant solutions, and ultimately feel more empowered in their buying decisions. While most content marketing strategies build their foundations on written blog content, content marketing also includes any kind of informative content including, but not limited to:

  • Video (vlogs, tutorials, etc.)
  • Images (infographics, screenshots, etc.)
  • Social media posts
  • Audio (podcasts, audio books, etc.)
  • E-Guides

How is Inbound Marketing Different from Content Marketing?

Inbound marketing uses content marketing to attract and retain customers. That said, inbound marketing is a marketing approach and content marketing is the practical application of inbound principles.

What is the Difference Between Digital Marketing and Inbound Marketing?

Digital marketing is all marketing that utilizes digital tools. Within digital marketing, most businesses adopt an inbound marketing strategy, outbound marketing strategy (paid media), or a combination of the two.

Inbound marketing favors the development of owned media, such as using content marketing to build out a company website and social media channels.

Examples of Outbound Marketing

Certain industries and business models prefer to “go get” the customer in one form or another. Buyer behavior and consumer data privacy law have restricted some formerly successful outbound tactics, such as cold calling and cold emails.

But outbound marketing is still crucial and effective when done well.

Direct Sales

Plenty of businesses utilize some form of direct sales. Any organization that hires a sales staff to engage customers beyond company grounds (both physical and digital) is a proponent of direct sales.

Pay-per-click Advertising (PPC)

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is the most widely-accepted mode of paid digital media. Popularized by search engines and social media platforms, PPC allows advertisers to pay for impressions rather than flat rates for digital ad space.

Some of the benefits include increased share of the search results page, improved click through rates on organic search, increased branding effect, the ability to narrowly target customers, remarketing, and more.

PPC is fairly straightforward as a concept but can be difficult to implement without professional assistance. You find an appropriate medium such as a search engine, websites, or social channel and pay the platform (or exchange) for each impression (view, click, etc.). The cost of these campaigns varies significantly depending on the product or service you’re selling and your competition.

To be truly successful with PPC, it takes a great deal of time and effort. There are many variables to take into account when trying to manage and optimize a PPC campaign. That’s why most brands partner with PPC experts to manage ad bidding, audience targeting, ad design, and more.

Traditional Advertising (Signage, Print, Direct Mail, etc.)

While much of modern marketing and advertising has “gone digital,” some traditional advertising mediums are still active. Billboards, print ads, TV ads (now online streaming ads), and direct mail are all forms of traditional advertising.

Influencer Marketing

A fairly new outbound marketing technique over the last three years or so is influencer marketing. Social media power users with followers of 1,000 or more can use the power of influence to endorse certain products and services. Brands partner with these social media influencers to publicize product launches, promotions, or to test new products/services.

Conclusion: Which is Better – Inbound or Outbound Marketing?

All methods can be effective within about six to nine months if done correctly and consistently. This is an important caveat. When you are developing and implementing any type of marketing campaign, you must realize that they all take time and effort to be effective.

There is NO method that will work over the long haul if you just make a one-time effort and then expect to achieve lasting results. Every method, even PPC, which can result in quick traffic, will likely be unprofitable if you do not take the time to develop and manage it well.

According to experts, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method. Many of the methods require greater time and effort to build. There is no absolute right way for almost any business. What you can do is look at the opportunities available and try to determine which methods are most effective for objectives you’ve set within a given timeframe.

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