Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing: What’s the Difference?
Inbound marketing is where you build brand awareness and interest with content. Outbound marketing is where you reach out to consumers to do the same thing.
In this post, you’ll learn how to decide which is better for your business.
Let’s start with the basics.
Inbound marketing is a marketing strategy that aims to “pull customers in” with relevant and useful content.
The term was coined by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, founders of the SaaS company HubSpot. According to them, it typically involves three stages:
- Attract – Bring in the right people.
- Engage – Help them with their pain points and goals.
- Delight – Help them find success with your product or service.
This stage is all about attracting potential customers to your website with useful content.
One way to do this is to create content for topics your target customers are searching for. You can find these topics using a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
For example, here’s how we can find topics for an online store that sells coffee products:
- Brainstorm words and phrases potential customers may enter on Google
- Enter them into Keywords Explorer
- Go to the Matching terms report
- Switch the tab to Questions
Learn more: Keyword Research: The Beginner’s Guide by Ahrefs
Some people who visit your website will buy right away. But many won’t. That’s because they need time—time to think about their problems, consider their situations, and evaluate solutions.
Even if they’re not buying now, you’ll want to be there and continue to engage them. That way, your brand will be top of mind when it’s time to buy.
One way to do this is to build an email list. Encourage your website visitors to sign up, then send them regular updates. For example, we send a weekly newsletter that includes both our latest content and recommendations from around the web.
Each happy customer can spread the good word among their friends and family, therefore referring more customers to you.
But how do you “delight” your customers?
The best way to do this is to have a great product. If your product doesn’t help your customers solve their problems, it doesn’t matter how many tactics you implement.
You’ll also want to guide your customers to make the best use of your product or service. For example, at Ahrefs, we have tons of in-depth courses that cover the nooks and crannies of using our tool.
Inbound marketing is mainly about creating and publishing content. So examples of inbound marketing typically boil down to the different types of content you can create, which include:
- Blog posts, e.g., this blog.
- Videos, e.g., our YouTube channel.
- Podcasts, e.g., “The Perpetual Traffic” podcast.
- Webinars, e.g., ConvertKit’s webinars.
- Social media content, e.g., our Twitter account.
Should you invest in inbound marketing? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Here are the advantages of inbound marketing:
- Non-interruptive – Prospects find you in their own time and will.
- Targeted – Prospects search for your content only when they’re interested or have problems. This makes it easier to sell to them.
- Staying power – Prospects can continue to discover your content as long as it ranks high on Google, is internally linked to, or exists as part of your content archives (e.g., YouTube channel). This sends consistent traffic to your website without you having to “actively” maintain it.
- Can be more cost-effective in the long term – Our blog gets an estimated 573,000 monthly search visits. If we were to buy that traffic via search ads, it’d cost us an estimated $795,000 per month (or $9.5 million per year). Considering that our content team is <10 people and we’re not paid millions each in salaries, we can reasonably say inbound marketing is cheaper in the long term.
Here are some downsides to inbound marketing:
- Takes time to work – You need time to create high-quality content. You also need time for Google to discover and rank your content. In fact, SEO takes around three to six months to work.
- Challenging to do well – There’s simply too much content these days. If you want to stand out, you need to create high-quality content that people enjoy reading. That can be a tall order if you lack resources.
Outbound marketing is a marketing strategy where a company actively pushes a message about a product out to prospects.
While outbound marketing constitutes completely different tactics, from cold calling to social media advertising, we can roughly break it down into these “stages”:
- Audience targeting – Decide who should see your message.
- Message pushing – Actively push the message out.
- Following up – Follow up with the target audience (if there is no response).
1. Audience targeting
Audience targeting is where you decide who should see your message. For example, if you run a billboard ad in Times Square, you’ve decided to target the people of New York City.
Even tactics like cold calling and cold emailing are not random. Companies usually procure a relevant list of numbers or emails (e.g., people who are customers of X company) to push their messages.
2. Message pushing
This is where you create and push the message you want your target audience to see. For a social media ad, it’ll look like this:
For cold calling and cold emailing, it’ll be your pitch.
3. Following up
If there is no response to your initial message, you might want to consider following up. For example, this is a follow-up email I sent to check if someone was interested in contributing to a post:
For social media advertising, follow-ups can be done via retargeting.
Here are some common examples of outbound marketing:
- Cold calls
- Cold emails
- Direct mails
- Print ads
- Television commercials
- Social media advertising, e.g., Instagram ads
- YouTube ads
Should you invest in outbound marketing? Here are the pros and cons.
What are some advantages of outbound marketing?
- Faster results – Generally speaking, outbound marketing tactics are much easier to set up and run. Therefore, you can actually get results faster.
- Easier to track “success” – For example, you can easily measure the number of opens or replies for cold emailing, the number of impressions and clicks from social media advertising, or even the number of positive responses from cold calling. (There are exceptions, such as running a huge billboard ad in Times Square.)
There are downsides to outbound marketing too:
- Interruptive – Prospects are not necessarily looking for your product or service, so you’re basically disrupting their daily schedules to show your message. For tactics like cold calling and cold emailing, there is a risk that you could “damage” your brand in the long term if you’re spammy.
- Blindness – People tend to tune out or ignore cold calls, emails, and advertising. They can also—and increasingly are—use tools like ad blockers and email solutions like Gated to block out ads and unsolicited emails.
Despite being styled as opposite, inbound and outbound marketing are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, the best companies use them together.
Here’s how you can combine both inbound and outbound marketing:
1. Capture leads using inbound and follow up using outbound
Imagine this: What if you can reach out via outbound marketing to people who’ve already indicated their interest? Won’t it be much easier to sell?
Well, you can. People who are searching for you or your content have already indicated their interest in your product or a pain point you solve. So rather than “blast” everyone with emails or ads, here’s what you can do instead:
- Do keyword research to find topics that your prospects are searching for on Google
- Create SEO content that ranks high for such topics
- Capture their contact information when they visit your site
- Follow up with the most promising leads, e.g., people who’ve tested your free trial, visited a comparison page, completed your free course, etc
Here’s an example of how it works. A prospect wants to learn how to audit their site for SEO issues. So they search for “how to perform an SEO audit” and discover our blog post.
In the blog post, they learn that they can sign up for a free Ahrefs Webmaster Tools (AWT) account and run an audit of their site. So they do.
By signing up for AWT, they’ve qualified themselves to be interested in an SEO tool like ours. So, if we had a sales team, we could easily reach out to them via email to see if they would be interested in upgrading to a paid account.
This is only one blog post. You can see how this easily scales up across the hundreds of pieces of content we’ve created on the blog and on our YouTube channel, generating hundreds of leads we can potentially follow up on.
In fact, this is a core strategy of many SaaS companies. Generate qualified leads via inbound, then reach out via their sales teams to generate sales.
Learn more: Lead Generation: The Beginner’s Guide
2. Use content for building brand awareness
Imagine getting a cold email from a HubSpot rep. Even if it’s unsolicited, would you give it a few minutes of your time to see what they had to say?
I bet you would. That’s because it’s HubSpot. It’s a massive brand. You trust that the email—even if unasked for—potentially contains something important.
My point is this: Outbound marketing benefits from having a recognizable and known brand. People will choose whether to read your emails or tune in to your ads based on your brand.
And one way of building a brand is to create relevant and useful content for your potential customers.
If your prospects are constantly seeing you on the SERPs and if your content genuinely helps them solve their problems, your brand will be top of mind. And that can only serve to boost your outbound marketing efforts.
3. Repurpose inbound content for outbound marketing
Outbound marketing isn’t always just about the sales pitch. It isn’t a case of “spamming” until someone buys.
Offering value upfront can be helpful in converting prospects into customers. For example, here’s a cold email sent to HubSpot from Bryan Harris:
Instead of pitching his services in the first email, Bryan offered value. He created a demo video for HubSpot to show what that could look like for it. He didn’t ask for anything in return either—all he wanted was to gauge its interest.
And it worked—Bryan got the contract to work with HubSpot.
In this example, Bryan created the demo video from scratch. But you don’t have to. If you’re already creating content, you can easily repurpose it into new formats that you can offer prospects. For example, you can put together an ebook from your published blog posts.
Of course, the exact piece of content you should create depends on who you’re reaching out to. But the point stands—if you’re doing inbound marketing, you can simply repurpose the content for your outbound marketing efforts.
Check out these resources to learn more about inbound and outbound marketing:
Any questions or comments? Let me know on Twitter.