Inbound Marketing: What you need to know

Inbound Marketing: What you need to know

What is inbound marketing, and what can it do for your business?

Definitions of ‘inbound marketing’

Inbound marketing is any form of marketing that makes use of the fact that some potential customers are looking for information that’s relevant to the business doing the marketing. If you do inbound marketing, you attract those customers to your business by providing the information they’re seeking.

The customers are attracted to your business, rather than your business trying to reach out to the customers (which is outbound marketing).

For example, when doing inbound marketing, you might answer customers’ (actual or anticipated) questions in:

  • Blog posts on your website

  • Articles you publish on LinkedIn or Medium

  • Posts on your Facebook page

  • Videos you put on YouTube

  • A podcast you make available in Apple Podcasts

In all these cases, customers can find the information you provide because they were looking for it. For example:

  • They asked a question on Google and found your blog post that answers their question.

  • They searched for a topic on LinkedIn or Medium and found your article.

  • They looked for your company on Facebook, found your page, and read some of your posts.

  • They searched for some how-to information on YouTube and your video helped with their task.

  • They searched for podcasts about the topics you cover.

I’ve read in a few places that HubSpot coined the term ‘inbound marketing’ and this is how they define it:

“Inbound marketing is about creating valuable experiences that have a positive impact on people and your business. How do you do that? You attract prospects and customers to your website and blog through relevant and helpful content. Once they arrive, you engage with them using conversational tools like email and chat and by promising continued value. And finally, you delight them by continuing to act as an empathetic advisor and expert.

Unlike outbound marketing, with inbound marketing, you don’t need to fight for your potential customers’ attention. By creating content designed to address the problems and needs of your ideal customers, you attract qualified prospects and build trust and credibility for your business.”

No matter where you host your content (your website, on YouTube, on LinkedIn, etc), you’ll likely have to work to earn that attention. Image by  analogicus  from  Pixabay .

No matter where you host your content (your website, on YouTube, on LinkedIn, etc), you’ll likely have to work to earn that attention. Image by analogicus from Pixabay.

The part about not “fighting for attention” is a little misleading. Although inbound isn’t about trying to advertise more loudly than your competitors, it can still be hard for customers to find you. You most likely do need to ‘fight’ to get found in search engine rankings, for example. This doesn’t just mean Google, by the way. It includes other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo. It includes getting your articles found on LinkedIn or Medium. It includes getting your videos found on YouTube. And so on.

Wherever your content is, you may need to “fight for attention”. Customers don’t always find you just because you happen to have a good answer to their questions. (If only!)

This is the definition of inbound marketing that Marketo provides:

“Inbound marketing is a strategy that utilizes many forms of pull marketing – content marketing, blogs, events, SEO, social media and more – to create brand awareness and attract new business.

In contrast to outbound marketing, where marketers attempt to find customers, inbound marketing earns the attention of customers and makes the company easy to be found.”

Again, “easy to be found” is misleading. Inbound marketing is not guaranteed to be easy. For some companies it’s easy to get found on Google. For others, it’s not.

The crucial thing for inbound marketing is that your business produces information of some kind, in some format, on some platform (digital or not) and then — with more or less work on your part — customers find that information. They come to you.

Inbound isn’t always digital

Note that although inbound marketing is often digital these days, it doesn’t have to be. As Zac Gregg notes in his article, Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing, the Yellow Pages is a form of inbound marketing.

In the days before the internet, when someone needed a plumber to fix their toilet, they’d look in the Yellow Pages instead of googling. Apparently, some people still do because the dead tree version of the Yellow Pages keeps getting delivered to my house. Any plumbing companies in the area would be smart to make sure they had an entry in the book.

The customer is attracted to the plumbing company because the customer was looking for someone to fix their toilet.

Suppose, in some context or other, you give out free magnets with your business contact details on them to your actual or potential customers. Your customer puts the magnet on their fridge and then — maybe a year later — when they need your products or services, they check out the details on the magnet and give you a call.

Regardless of how you originally connected (and how they got the magnet), the magnet serves as an inbound marketing tool once it’s on the customer’s fridge. When they need your products or services, they look for you, and find you on their fridge. :)

Inbound vs outbound?

Magazine ads are outbound marketing. (PS This person is not me.) Photo by  Bia Sousa  from  Pexels .

Magazine ads are outbound marketing. (PS This person is not me.) Photo by Bia Sousa from Pexels.

In contrast, outbound marketing is when a company reaches out to find potential customers, rather than having the potential customers find the company. Outbound marketing is designed to grab people’s attention, no matter what they’re doing — including when they’re not seeking information relevant to the company.

A TV ad is typical outbound marketing. It tries to grab viewers’ attention — with music and imagery and dramatic voice-overs. It’s not that a TV viewer was looking for information about Chevy Silverado trucks (or Chevy trucks more generally, or trucks, or vehicles), but the ad tells them about Chevy Silverado trucks anyway. The viewer is watching a TV show. That’s why they’re plopped in front of the TV — not because they were looking for information related to trucks.

The ad interrupts what they were doing — i.e. watching a TV show. (You might come across the expression ‘interruptive’ to describe this kind of advertising.)

A magazine ad is also outbound marketing. It tries to grab my attention away from what I was doing (reading a magazine article). I wasn’t looking for the company in question or information it can provide. If the ad succeeds in grabbing my attention, the company finds me.

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

Content marketing is an essential part of inbound marketing. Your business needs content (e.g. blog posts, videos, white papers etc) in order to attract and engage potential customers. And attracting customers is what inbound is all about.

But inbound marketing is more than content marketing. It also includes technical SEO (search engine optimization). To improve your site’s technical SEO, here are examples of things to do:

  • Speed up how fast your site loads

  • Make your site mobile friendly

  • Have a clear and simple site architecture

  • Clean out the cobwebs and get rid of duplicate content

To find out more about how to do this, see The Beginner’s Guide to Technical SEO.

Although content marketing is an important part of inbound marketing, some outbound marketing can also involve content marketing. If you pay to boost a Facebook post so that people who don’t subscribe to your page see the post, that’s an example of both content marketing and outbound marketing. See this article on how to use Facebook’s boost post feature: The Facebook Boost Post Button: How to Use it and Get Results.

Is inbound marketing always free?

Even though you can write your own blog posts and post them on your website for free, inbound marketing isn’t always free. For example, you could pay a content creator to make a video for you that you put on your company’s YouTube channel. In this case, you pay for the creation of the content, but the use of the distribution medium (YouTube) is free.

You can create a business page on Facebook or LinkedIn for free and people can search for your business (or information related to your business) on those platforms.

Your Google ad that comes up in search results is inbound marketing — the customer comes to you (if they click on your link) because they were googling for information you have. But of course you pay Google for that advertising.

So, inbound marketing can be free, but it isn’t always.

What’s the role of social media?

You can use social media for both inbound and outbound marketing. Photo by  Tracy Le Blanc  from  Pexels .

You can use social media for both inbound and outbound marketing. Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels.

When someone searches for your business on Facebook and checks out your page, your Facebook page is functioning as inbound marketing material. If the Facebook user chooses to follow your page and then they see your posts in their newsfeed, those posts are then outbound marketing. Your business reaches outwards to your followers when you post on your Facebook business page.

Ordinary posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc are all examples of free outbound marketing.

Paid social media ads, or boosted posts, are examples of paid outbound marketing. Customers don’t come across them because they were looking for your company or anything related to your expertise. Your business found the (potential) customers while the customers were doing something else (i.e. browsing on social media).


Inbound marketing is not only about creating content, but that’s a big part of it. It can be difficult for many business owners and entrepreneurs to regularly create content — such as blog posts or podcasts — to answer customers’ search questions. That’s the first challenge.

Depending on your business, it can be hard to get found even when people are searching for information you’ve made available. SEO (search engine optimization) can be a deep, dark tunnel, dripping with slime, that you can get lost down before making any discernible progress with it. SEO is the second challenge.

The third challenge is that you might need to learn a whole bunch of stuff. (As if you don’t already have enough to do, right?) But if you want to do inbound marketing, you may need to improve your writing skills, or learn how to create videos or podcasts. You’ll need to learn how to do keyword research and how to optimize your content. Any of that can be challenging!

However, outbound marketing is similar. If you create your own outbound marketing material, this can also require improving skills and learning new ones. If you want to place an ad in a magazine, for example, you would need to learn how to design and write an effective ad — or else pay a designer and a writer (or an advertising agency) to create it.

So, both inbound and outbound marketing have similar challenges — you either have to learn how to do them well, or pay someone to do them for you. The biggest difference is that inbound requires frequent content creation.

Benefits of inbound marketing

Freeness is an excellent benefit. :) You can create blog posts for free if you already have a computer. Other types of content you can create fairly inexpensively. You can put the content on your website for free. You can distribute it for free on social media. There are many free resources online to help you learn how to create different types of media — blog posts, videos, podcasts, etc.

Will it be effective for your business, though? That’s the benefit we care most about.

A quick online search will bring up lots of websites that tout the benefits of inbound marketing. But if any of these companies is involved in selling products or services related to inbound marketing, you may be skeptical. (This Skeptical Marketer is certainly skeptical.)

How well does inbound marketing really generate leads, for example? What does academic research have to say on the topic?

Academic research on inbound marketing

By ‘academic research’, I mean research conducted by independent researchers working at universities and other research institutions. Ideally, it’s peer-reviewed. But, if not, it appears in a book edited by independent academics.

I’m not talking about research conducted by John, who looked at his company’s internal data, drew some conclusions, created a nice infographic or listicle, and then reported it as research. I’m also not talking about blog posts that reference only other blog posts and research like John’s.

Those resources can be useful, but it’s valuable to dig deeper. If you’re considering spending substantial time and money on a form of marketing, you want to know how likely it is to be worth it. Academic research is the best source of evidence.

Unfortunately, I found very little academic research on the effectiveness of inbound marketing as an overall marketing strategy. But I did find some research (not much!) on content marketing more specifically.

Content marketing involves creating content (e.g. blog posts, videos, podcasts, etc) to attract and engage potential customers. This is an important part of inbound marketing. If your business does inbound marketing, you use content to attract potential customers (e.g. when they use a search engine) and engage them when they find you (e.g. blog posts on your website).

The study

We don’t want this blog post to turn into a book, so I’ll talk about just one study I discovered, published in 2018: The Effects of Engaging with Content Marketing on Business Outcomes for B2B Service Providers.

The authors first note that there’s a lack of evidence showing that content marketing is an effective way to generate leads for B2B (business to business) companies. They intend their research to help fill that gap.

The researchers looked at the behaviour of over 1000 companies that were potential clients of a large, international consulting services firm. They tracked the behaviour of each potential client on the consulting firm’s websites over a four year period.

Most relevant for our purposes, the researchers found that:

Potential clients that interacted more on the firm’s websites resulted in more sales leads.

This raises at least two questions, the second of which the researchers note themselves:

  1. Did potential clients’ activity on the consulting firm’s websites actually help cause leads from those companies? (Or would those clients have resulted in leads anyway, even without lots of website activity?)

  2. Does this result from one large consulting firm generalize to other businesses?

I think there is good reason to think that, yes, repeated website activity is a causal factor that helps turn potential clients into leads. And, yes, the result does generalize (within certain limits I’ll explain).

Why think more website activity helped cause companies to become leads?

Compare a potential client buying B2B consulting services to this very different scenario:

When Anne saw her friend wearing a lovely purple summer dress, she decided on the spot that she wanted to buy the same dress. Anne’s friend told her that she got it from your dress shop. You currently have the dress on display in your shop window. 

Anne walks past your shop on her way to work, and looks at the dress in the window every workday for a month. At the end of the month, she buys the dress from your shop.

Betty, on the other hand, never wears dresses and is totally uninterested in your dress shop. She never looks in your shop window when she walks past it on her way to work every day. At the end of the month, she doesn’t buy the dress from your shop.

In our tiny sample of two (Anne and Betty), there is a correlation between repeatedly looking in your dress shop window and buying a dress from your shop at the end of the month. 

But looking in the dress shop window didn’t cause Anne to buy the dress — because she’d already decided to do so.

Looking in the dress shop window was causally irrelevant to Anne’s buying the dress. In our story, she’d already decided to buy it. (This illustrates the expression “correlation is not causation”.)

Anne’s repeated window-gazing activity is not causally relevant to her buying the dress. So why think that potential clients repeatedly spending more time on the consulting firm’s website is causally relevant to them resulting in more leads? Why think the correlation between website activity and becoming a lead is a causal relationship?

What’s the crucial difference between the dress scenario and the B2B consulting services scenario? The answer is:

Buying expensive B2B consulting services is a complex decision that involves considerable time to research, alleviate concerns, ask and answer many questions — probably by more than one person. 

Unlike buying a dress.

To make the decision to buy, the potential client company will require multiple interactions — or ‘touchpoints’ in current business lingo — with the consulting firm. These don’t have to be on the consulting firm’s website (e.g. blog posts, videos, white papers, FAQ, etc). The potential client’s questions could be answered and their concerns alleviated with phone calls, in-person meetings, and physical documents.

These days, though, the potential client company would expect to find answers to many of their questions on the consulting firm’s website. So it would be risky for the consulting firm to rely only on offline resources such as phone calls, meetings, and physical documents.

It would be risky because if the potential client can’t find what they’re looking for on the firm’s website, there’s a good chance they’ll give up, rather than phone to ask their questions, for example. 

In sum:

Multiple interactions — to answer questions and alleviate concerns — are required to turn a potential client into a lead for the consulting firm.

And, these days, many of those interactions must be on the firm’s website.

In which case, there must be plenty of content (e.g. blog posts, white papers, FAQ) on the firm’s website to answer potential clients’ questions and alleviate their concerns.

So: plenty of content on the firm’s website is required to help convert a potential client into a lead.

If this is correct, the best explanation of the correlation between activity on the firm’s website and becoming a lead is that there’s a causal relationship:

The potential clients’ website activity addressed their questions and concerns, helping to turn them into leads.

This means that the consulting firm’s content marketing efforts were effective at lead generation.

Now to turn to question 2: Does this result from one large consulting firm generalize to other businesses?

I think this conclusion generalizes to other businesses that sell products or services that are expensive, complex, or both. In these cases, potential customers will have lots of questions and concerns before making a decision. So they will need multiple interactions before becoming a lead.

If multiple interactions are required for a buying decision, website content (addressing potential clients’ questions and concerns) is going to help turn potential clients into leads.

If your company’s products or services are inexpensive and simple (e.g. you sell books or dresses to consumers), then this line of reasoning doesn’t apply to you. Inbound marketing will still be valuable to you if it brings customers to your website. But it may not be necessary for you to have tons of content on your site — because your customers have fewer questions and concerns for you to address.

What do you think?

If you sell expensive or complex products or services, does having plenty of content available on your website help turn potential clients into solid leads? Or have you not noticed any benefits from having content on your website? Scroll down (way down, after the social links) and leave a comment.

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