What Is Inbound Marketing? A Guide to Sending Customers Your Way
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What Is Inbound Marketing? A Guide to Sending Customers Your Way

What is inbound marketing? Inbound marketing is a strategy that builds awareness, trust, and leads for a business by drawing in the intended audience through content marketing tactics. Inbound uses a pull marketing technique focused on connecting and engaging with customers on their terms, while encouraging a series of actions that eventually lead to the point of conversion.

Some of you are old enough to remember telemarketers and landlines. It’s true, once upon a time, phones used to be plugged into the wall. Adding insult to injury, any attempt to move around while talking to people left you tangled in the plastic cord attached to the receiver.

Before caller ID came into our lives, picking up the phone also used to be a game of chance, akin to Roulette. There was a chance you wanted to talk to the caller because they were someone you knew and trusted. Or, there was a chance you didn’t want to talk to the caller because they were a stranger trying to sell you something you didn’t want or need.

Either caller could be seen as a disruption to your day. Once the phone rang, you dropped everything you were doing. They had your attention. One method waves you down and it deserves your interest. That’s inbound marketing. Inbound marketing is not a cold call, it’s more like a warm welcome.

Do you need inbound marketing? You might need inbound if you’re a small, medium, or large team — a startup, mid-sized company, or enterprise. You get the point. The answer is “Yes, you need inbound marketing.”

Because your business needs to do business, that means you need to generate leads. Inbound marketing is a tried-and-true marketing methodology for sending customers your way and inviting them to stay.

What is inbound marketing?

What is inbound marketing?

Inbound marketing is a strategy that builds awareness, trust, and leads for a business by drawing in the intended audience through content marketing tactics. Inbound uses a pull marketing technique focused on connecting and engaging with customers on their terms, while encouraging a series of actions that eventually lead to the point of conversion.

Reaching a customer “on their terms” means the person was already looking for this information or potential solution. We live in a world driven by self-service, self-management, and self-education. Inbound marketing is a way to fulfill the modern buyer’s quest for knowledge, with less in-your-face interactions by the brand.

Inbound marketing is obviously not the same as outbound marketing… nor is it content marketing. As content began to rule the marketing scene, marketers starting using content marketing interchangeably with inbound marketing. Confusing, right?

Up next, we’ll take a long look at these differences, so you have a clear inbound marketing definition and understand how to execute programs accordingly.

Inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing

The most successful brands strike the right balance between inbound marketing and outbound marketing strategies to generate leads. One of these is not like the other, yet both strategies work in tandem to drive interest and conversions.

Inbound marketing uses modern tactics, such as blogs or videos distributed by email or social media, to draw people in. Whereas outbound marketing uses traditional tactics, such as direct mail and ads, to reach out to people then draw them in.

When looking at the difference between inbound and outbound marketing, remember that the very definition of inbound is “traveling toward a particular place” and outbound is “traveling away from a particular place.” With inbound marketing, customers come to you versus you going to them.

Another easy way to think about it? Inbound marketing is a pull technique and outbound marketing is a push technique.

Sometimes outbound gets a bad rap for being “pushy” and marketers become divided in their efforts. However, outbound is not the bad guy in marketing. Inbound and outbound shouldn’t compete for people’s attention. Both strategies and teams should work together to achieve results.

Common types of inbound marketing

Common types of inbound marketing (includes a lot of content marketing):

  • Website
  • Landing page
  • Form
  • CTA (call-to-action)
  • SEO (search engine optimization)
  • SEM (search engine marketing)
  • Opt-in email marketing
  • Social media
  • Blogs
  • Articles
  • Ebooks
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Guides
  • Reports
  • FAQs
  • Testimonials
  • Case studies
  • Interactive content
  • Et al. — Here are more content types.

Common types of outbound marketing

Common types of outbound marketing:

  • Ads — Social media, TV, radio, websites, PPC (pay-per-click)
  • Direct mail
  • Cold outreach — Calls or emails
  • Telemarketing
  • Marketing automation
  • Email marketing
  • Press releases
  • Retargeting
  • Trade shows
  • Content syndication

As with any marketing tactics, it’s not about “doing it all” but rather “do what’s best for you.” That will depend on a variety of factors, such as your customer’s preferences and your internal budget, capabilities, and bandwidth.

For example, it doesn’t make sense to create gated content assets, like a report or ebook, for inbound marketing if you don’t have the appropriate outreach mechanisms, like marketing automation, in place for outbound marketing. Otherwise, you generate a bunch of leads that go nowhere… fast.

Your team isn’t nurturing with relevant content and/or following up with an email from your sales team. Nobody is working toward turning those inbound leads into customers. Again, outbound and inbound — this push-pull approach — must be a cohesive effort that is thought through from beginning to end, from download to demo.

To build awareness, trust, and leads, you need #inboundmarketing. Here’s everything you wanted to know about this tried-and-true marketing driver. Click To Tweet

Inbound marketing vs. content marketing

Inbound marketing vs. content marketing

Content marketing has become synonymous with inbound marketing, even though it is a strategy within a strategy. At this point in the game, it’s safe to say that content marketing has a proven track record as an effective inbound strategy, as shown in this key takeaway from The State of Content Marketing 2020 Global Report by SEMrush.

Content should drive traffic and leads. Content efficiency is mostly measured through organic traffic (83%) and sessions/pageviews (70%). The next most popular metrics are leads (66%), and conversion rate (53%). SEO (61%), and updating and repurposing existing content (45%) are the most popular tactics for achieving these goals.

Depending on who you ask — and their response very likely relates to their marketing role — one person will say content marketing is a critical piece of inbound marketing and another will say inbound marketing is a critical piece of content marketing.

Whatever your viewpoint is, one thing is certain: inbound doesn’t work without content and content doesn’t work without inbound. I like to think of inbound being in the driving seat and content being the vehicle.

Now let’s break up the “common types of inbound marketing” list from the previous section into drivers and vehicles.

Inbound marketing drivers:

  • Website
  • Landing page
  • Form
  • CTA (call-to-action)
  • SEO (search engine optimization)
  • SEM (search engine marketing)
  • Opt-in email marketing
  • Social media

An important call-out with inbound marketing drivers is that these tactics encourage action: submitting a demo form, clicking on an article link on Twitter, or subscribing to receive content via email. The person took a voluntary action after the brand pulled them in.

A couple of tricky drivers here are email and SEM (search engine marketing). Although email marketing is used in both inbound and outbound marketing, with inbound, it is strictly opt-in rather than an unsolicited email.

And, SEM may seem like outbound because you relate it to ads. But, the person searched for a specific term to be served up that relevant ad, versus seeing a random in-your-face ad on a billboard while driving down the freeway.

Inbound marketing vehicles:

  • Blogs
  • Articles
  • Ebooks
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Guides
  • Reports
  • FAQs
  • Testimonials
  • Case Studies
  • Interactive content
  • Et al.

Content marketing is the vehicle that moves inbound marketing forward — if you’re doing inbound, you need content. If you send someone an invitation, they need somewhere to go and a reason to attend. This is where solid foundations, best practices, and efficient workflows factor in.

Solid foundations

When we think of solid foundations in content marketing, our mind goes straight to brand messaging (i.e. mission statement, vision statement, value props). Brand messaging is just one part of foundational content, which is also called core content in ClearVoice’s 11 content levels that define your brand experience.

Core content is the highest level of the brand hierarchy because it is essential to your business offerings. Think of it as an interconnected messaging system for your brand. In addition to brand messaging, buyer personas and your company website are core content too. Together, this core content trifecta creates a powerful brand experience.

Best practices

Content marketing is a conversation that leads to credibility — it is not a long-form ad for your product or service. Content is about serving others rather than serving yourself. Nobody in their right mind wants to read a 1,000-word ad. Content should always be helpful, valuable, and motivational.

Don’t produce a single piece of content without a content strategy. Remember to optimize your content if you want your audience to find it. Definitely align your content with the buyer stages: Educate, Consider, Decide, Delight. Meet your buyer where they are in the buying cycle, rather than jumping ahead and serving the wrong content at the wrong time.

Efficient workflows

Both inbound marketing and content marketing are never-ending… gulp. It means your team will constantly be in a state of chaos… I mean, state of content production.

Marketing teams who have efficient workflows are the teams who survive and thrive long-term with content. These teams know when to get support with content creation rather than fighting the process when they don’t have the time, resources, or skills to even bother.

Another smart option is teamlancing. When you work with teamlancers, you work with a networked team of freelancers and specialists who are a true extension of your team. This method of content collaboration keeps your team working and thinking ahead instead of trying to keep up or always falling behind.

What are the benefits of inbound marketing?

What are the benefits of inbound marketing?

The benefits of inbound marketing are boundless (yes, we went there). If we go back to the reason we do inbound marketing, or any marketing for that matter, we are making a valiant effort for the sake of the business. We want leads, of course. But, what happens before a prospect becomes a customer? There are quite a few steps in-between.

To help clarify the main benefits of inbound marketing, veteran marketing powerhouses Andy Crestodina and Jay Baer shared their thoughts below.

Andy Crestodina, Co-Founder/Chief Marketing Officer at Orbit Media, on inbound marketing

“Inbound marketing builds your audience without an ad spend. Ads require a budget and they basically just interrupt your target audience with something they didn’t ask for. No one searches for ads, shares ads, or subscribes to ads.

But what do we search for, share, and subscribe to every day? Helpful, useful, informative articles. That’s content. It builds awareness and affinity, trust and traffic, loyalty and love. You can build a business on it.

I built one of those businesses entirely on inbound marketing. Each year we attract 1.4M visitors and 900 qualified leads for our services. Annual revenue is steady at $6M with no ad budget whatsoever. Our content actually generates a bit of revenue (book sales and conference tickets).

Inbound marketing is powerful because it aligns with the interests of the audience. Give enough people what they want, and a few of them will give you what you need: leads.”

Jay Baer, CPAE, Founder of Convince & Convert, on inbound marketing

“Inbound marketing is an efficient and effective customer acquisition method because the content you put out into the world becomes the filter through which your prospects pass. By the very nature of their content consumption, your prospective customers qualify themselves, which saves time and effort for the sales team.

And ultimately, every research report for the last decade shows that customers increasingly want to research and compare and shop via self-serve information. Inbound marketing gives them that opportunity.”

3 inbound marketing examples to fuel your strategy

Fasten your seat belt, because the three sterling inbound marketing examples below are a lot to handle. Because inbound marketing is so multifaceted, multiple drivers steer people’s attention toward just a single piece of content, which is the vehicle being used to build awareness, trust, and leads.

1. Report from SEMrush

Mentioned earlier, but as I was writing this piece… guess what magically dropped in my lap (inbox)? The State of Content Marketing 2020 Global Report from SEMrush, who never fails to create top-drawer content.

The timing of the release in November is ideal as marketers are strategizing for the coming year, figuring out the best move with their budgets. Having essential data from industry peers helps anchor decision-making, rather than relying on emotions and feelings about their own in-house programs.

In this multi-step inbound marketing strategy, you can see there were several drivers steering me toward the report they wanted me to download. It started with an email and ended on a landing page.

Drivers: Opt-in email marketing with CTAs
Email subject line… 🙌  State of Content Marketing 2020: New Discoveries

Opt-in email (State of Content Marketing 2020)

Drivers: Landing page on the website with CTAs and a form

Landing page on the website with CTAs and a form (SEMRush)

Vehicle: Research report

Research report (State of Content Marketing)

2. Webinar from Buffer

I’ve been a happy Buffer email subscriber for ages. Their emails are fun, conversational, and useful. The “Who is ready for 2021? 🙋 ” subject line is cheeky, relatable, and so on point. It says: Ready to move on from an insane year? Here are some things to look forward to and ways to set yourself up for success.

Below is a short preview from a longer round-up email that was chock-full of interesting new features and a webinar about 2021 trends that I did not hesitate to sign up for.

In this inbound marketing example, opt-in email marketing and CTAs are behind the steering wheel. The webinar is the main vehicle, but there are also feature call-outs throughout the email content.

Drivers: Opt-in email marketing with CTAs
Email subject line…Who is ready for 2021? 🙋

Opt-in email marketing with CTAs (Buffer)
Vehicle: Webinar

Webinar (Buffer)

But, wait there’s more to this sizable Buffer email — another content vehicle is being driven by the CTA in the P.S., which leads to their State of Remote Work Survey. Mark my words, these remote work survey results will become future content for Buffer and the inbound marketing cycle will repeat itself.

Drivers: Opt-in email marketing with CTAs

Opt-in email marketing with CTAs (State of Remote Work Survey)

Vehicle: Survey

Survey (State of Remote Work)

3. Article from ClearVoice

Right where you’re standing (or sitting… depending on your desk setup), is a shining example of inbound marketing. I encourage you to snoop around the ClearVoice website and subscribe to their blog. They get inbound and they get content.

I’ve personally written almost 50 posts here as a ClearVoice contributor over the years. I know that ClearVoice has countless high-performing, high-ranking articles thanks to a very special inbound marketing driver… SEO… combined with useful, high-quality content as the vehicle.

Although ClearVoice has many fab inbound marketing examples to analyze, this difference between vision and mission statements article is an established piece that continues to perform well.

“This versus that” articles are fan favorites with audiences everywhere because they clear up the confusion. How many times have you heard mission and vision statements used interchangeably? Precisely.

This article ranks No. 1 for multiple related search terms around “mission and vision” and it captured a “people also ask” result for: Do you need a mission and vision statement?

Drivers: SEO and website

SEO and website (ClearVoice)

Vehicle: Article

Article (ClearVoice)

Conclusion

If we distill inbound marketing down to a single word, it’s like an invitation. You don’t want to assume someone knows an event that they want to attend is going on. People are busy, distracted… and they still want to be invited to the party.

We know how crowded the digital environment is, but we also know that inbound marketing is a way to stand out. It’s push and pull, outbound and inbound. It’s give and take, providing resources in exchange for someone’s attention. Be the brand that creates great content and invites people to enjoy it through great inbound.

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