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Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing: A Complete Guide

By: Compose.ly — April 01, 2020

What’s the best way to spend your marketing dollars in today’s climate? Some businesses focus on advertising—outbound marketing—while others put SEO and content creation—inbound marketing—at the center of their strategy. Understanding the differences between inbound vs. outbound marketing is vital to choosing the right method for your situation.

What is Outbound Marketing?

Promotions that reach out to an audience and try to capture their attention used to be the only way to increase sales, and they were simply called “marketing.” Today, this method is called outbound marketing. Conventional advertising consisted almost entirely of outbound marketing tools, such as:

  • Billboards
  • Television ads
  • Radio commercials
  • Print advertising
  • Direct mail
  • Directory listings
  • Cold calling

Modern digital marketing also includes some outbound methods.

  • Display advertising
  • Social media advertising
  • Online radio advertising
  • YouTube ads
  • Email blasts

Outbound marketing scatters communication as widely as possible using generic messages to appeal to large numbers of potential customers. This shotgun approach has advantages and disadvantages for marketers.

For example, a brick-and-mortar guitar store using billboards, mailed flyers, and radio to promote a sale is using outbound marketing to bring in new customers. If the guitar shop was online, it would use digital outbound techniques, ads on Google and Facebook, or emails sent to a purchased list.

These outbound marketing efforts would reach a large number of people, but only a fraction of those people would be in the market for a new guitar.  As soon as the ad campaign ends, sales would level off, and the store would need to do something else to bring in new customers.

The following are just some of the pros and cons of an outbound marketing approach.

Advantages of Outbound Marketing

  • Broad reach
  • Easy implementation
  • Increased brand exposure
  • Immediate results

Disadvantages of Outbound Marketing

  • Generic messaging
  • Easy for consumers to avoid—they may unsubscribe, block advertising, skip commercials, or tune out
  • Low response rates
  • Perception as intrusive or annoying
  • Higher long-term costs— you must continually spend money to get results

Outbound marketing is an excellent way to reach out to lots of people quickly, but the effects are short-lived, and it’s hard to be sure you’re reaching your target market. Plus, with about a quarter of all internet users blocking advertising, it’s getting harder to deliver outbound advertising online.

What is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing pulls audiences into your website by hosting content for potential customers to encounter when they search for information. Examples include:

  • Blog posts
  • Reviews
  • Infographics
  • Videos
  • White papers
  • Lead magnets (ebooks, checklists, webinars)
  • SEO
Big Tip
Check out these real-life inbound marketing examples from brands that have mastered the art of subtlety—that is, by getting leads to come to them instead of the other way around.

Inbound marketing connects with a small but specialized audience—those who are actively seeking information about your products or services. By offering helpful content for free, you can build your brand identity and your relationship with prospects.

For example, an inbound marketer selling guitars might create a website with useful content like downloadable sheet music, tutorials, reviews of fine instruments, and technique articles. People who are interested in guitars will find that content in their searches and share it on social media, bringing more guitar lovers to the site.

Through this process, the company builds a bond with its potential customers, establishes its expertise and brand identity, collects email addresses, and eventually makes sales. The money spent on content won’t bring immediate results, but it will gradually bring traffic to the site and build brand recognition in the guitar community.

Inbound marketers tailor their content to different stages in the buyer’s journey:

  • Researching problems and solutions
  • Comparing potential solutions
  • Making a final decision

You can easily imagine how different content, from general information to reviews and buying guides, attracts search traffic during the different stages of this journey.

Consumers, on average, will initiate a dozen searches during their shopping process, so inbound marketing offers many chances to put your content in front of shoppers. Content marketing also allows you to provide free, helpful information for your prospects.

With inbound marketing, instead of annoying customers with sales pitches about your products or commercials that disrupt their programming, you can build positive relationships and prove your worth. The following are some advantages and disadvantages to an inbound strategy.

Advantages of Inbound Marketing

  • Creates brand authority
  • Brings in customers on the brink of making a buying decision
  • Builds relationships
  • Doesn’t interrupt or irritate the audience
  • Offers a high long-term return on investment
  • Has a long shelf life, particularly for evergreen content

Disadvantages of Inbound Marketing

  • Complicated to implement
  • Has a higher investment at the beginning
  • Doesn’t offer quick results

Inbound Marketing or Outbound Marketing?

The best way to choose between inbound and outbound marketing—or find a balance between the two—is to analyze your situation carefully:

  • Define your target market.
  • Look at how potential customers research and make purchasing decisions.
  • Study your competitors’ marketing.
  • Be specific about your marketing goals regarding brand awareness, sales, traffic, customer relationships, or other areas.
  • Specify your timeline. Can you afford to adopt a long-term strategy that will bring steady growth, or do you need immediate sales?

In general, if you want to get quick results, outbound marketing works well. However, you will have to continue to spend to bring in sales, so in the long run, it’s more expensive. Inbound marketing requires a higher initial investment and doesn’t bring instant results, but all the content you create will still be working for you months, or even years, later.

Combining Both Strategies

Most businesses look for a balance between inbound and outbound marketing. They fill their site with content that customers will find useful and then use display and search advertising to make sure their best prospects find that content.

For instance, our online guitar store might create advanced technique tutorials to draw experienced players to the site. Then they might buy some YouTube and social media ads promoting that content.

The store could also offer a free ebook called Top Techniques of the World’s Most Awesome Guitarists as a lead magnet. When someone downloads the ebook, they can then send an email series that ends with an invitation to shop the store at a discount.

Combining inbound and outbound marketing in this way creates a complete sales funnel that could be drawing in new customers well into the future.

Which Will You Choose?

Knowing the difference between inbound and outbound marketing will help you choose the right techniques for your business.

Outbound marketing works well to reach large numbers of people quickly. You’ll get an immediate return on investment.

If you are thinking long-term and trying to build a brand identity and a relationship with customers, then inbound marketing is your best bet.

Combining the two approaches wisely can give you the advantages of both methods.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Lauren Haas.


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