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Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing

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Inbound vs. Outbound: Why is inbound marketing better than outbound marketing?

As CEO of a digital marketing agency and inbound marketing convert, I’m always talking about the differences between inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing, or, more to the point, “Why inbound marketing is better than outbound marketing?” In case you can’t tell from the header graphic, I’m more partial to the complexities of inbound marketing than the simplicity of outbound marketing. But seriously, I’m pretty sure people keep asking this question because the same answer seems to be given no matter whose blog you read. It’s as if someone (Hubspot and Pardot) wrote a canned answer and it’s being regurgitated without real life experiences and insights into the actual evolution of inbound marketing.

The canned answer usually goes something like this:

Why try to buy customers with traditional “outbound marketing” when consumers aren’t even paying attention?

  • 45% of direct mail never gets opened, 200 million people are on the national Do Not Call Registry
  • 85% of people fast forward through commercials
  • 84% of 25­–35 year-olds are likely to click off a website with excessive advertising
  • You have a better chance of surviving an airplane accident than having someone convert on a banner ad
    Etc., etc., etc. …

Forget about trying to reach a prospect under 40 with outbound marketing. Inbound marketing is different. Inbound marketing works by earning someone’s attention, rather than buying it.

It’s a good enough answer with compelling supporting statistics, but there’s more to inbound marketing than this. In this post I’m going to give you my insights. I’m not just going to harp on how outbound is reaching increasingly diminished audiences and how inbound is more engaging and more accessible — although both statements are very true.

I’m going to speak from experiences that are real. And in the spirit of full disclosure: Vital is a Hubspot Partner Agency, so I could simply repurpose Hubspot’s experiences and playbook like most partner agencies. But we also consider ourselves a Moz shop, with a Moz Pro account, and we develop using the WordPress CMS with the Yoast SEO plug-in (not the Hubspot COS), which means we have some independent experiences and additional tools that frame our perspective.

No experience is more relevant to that perspective than our own inbound transformation. Over the past three years we went from referring to ourselves as a creative agency (web design, SEO and branding) to wholeheartedly embracing the moniker “inbound marketing agency.” But we weren’t sold inbound — we experienced it. We are our own best inbound marketing case study. In an industry many say is difficult to scale, Vital has experienced 300% growth in revenue and 300% growth in employees, all of which is solely attributed to our inbound and content marketing strategies.

First, let’s define inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing, keeping in mind two aspects of marketing strategies: distribution and message.

Inbound vs. Outbound marketing strategy infographic

Inbound marketing — if Hubspot didn’t coin “inbound marketing,” they have certainly spent a lot of time and money branding it as their own. Here’s how they define it: “Inbound marketing focuses on creating quality content that pulls people toward your company and product, where they naturally want to be. By aligning the content you publish with your customer’s interests, you naturally attract inbound traffic that you can then convert, close, and delight over time.” This is a decent definition, if somewhat oversimplified.

The term “inbound” is relatively new. It took Vital a while to embrace the term “inbound” to describe what we were doing with our clients. In the beginning we referred to it as “SEO” and “content marketing,” and although we weren’t a Hubspot partner agency, we were reading their content. We knew a term was needed for the paradigm shift we were seeing in online marketing, because SEO had fundamentally changed and digital marketing was becoming increasingly more disparate from traditional marketing. Digital distribution made analysis highly measurable and results-oriented, showing that inbound marketing was exponentially more successful than outbound marketing, when done correctly.

It’s not just that traditional distribution was so different from digital distribution; the message was changing, too. And the more we were learning about the message, the better the results we were getting. The terms “digital marketing” or “traditional marketing” only spoke to the distribution aspect of the message, and “inbound marketing” included the new message itself. This new message was educational, it involved thought leadership, and was transparent and engaging. So, in the absence of anything better, we drank a little of the Hubspot Kool-Aid and gave in — today we call it inbound marketing, too. But there’s more to inbound marketing than the statistics on the dwindling audience of outbound and the engaged and accessible audience of inbound.

Outbound marketing is inherently obfuscated, duplicitous and full of shit.

Jeff Rosenblum Questus Inbound vs Outbound

Outbound marketing, or traditional marketing, is the marketing we grew up with: radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, direct-mail, billboards, event sponsorships, etc. The traditional outbound strategy can even be found in such digital distribution forms as email blasts, banner ads, PPC, and SPAM. But the defining qualities of outbound marketing is message. Outbound marketing’s message, as eloquently stated by Jeff Rosenblum of Questus, “is inherently obfuscated, duplicitous and full of shit” (check out his keynote speech “Can marketing save the world?” at Hubspot’s Inbound ’13).

Outbound is a world of jargon where the loudest and most obnoxious are rewarded. Back in the day, clever was rewarded, but due to the escalating costs and increased competition to reach dwindling audiences, marketers have had to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator to maximize their conversions. So we are left with advertisements that use fluorescent pink, bold print, BIG discounts, exploited women and puppy dogs. How dumb do they think we are? No wonder a paradigm shift in advertising had to take place.

Now that we have defined inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing, here are some of the comparisons we like to use at Vital:

Interruption-based vs. Permission-based

best inbound marketing Interruption vs permission based

Outbound Marketing: Outbound marketing is interruption-based marketing. Its premise is to find a medium with a large following and periodically interrupt that following with disassociated ads. The hope is that with some careful planning and a study of the demographics, a small percentage of the audience will listen to the interruption in the storyline and convert in to a customer. If you can find a large enough following or an above average association, the small percentage of conversions will be worth the investment. Those opportunities are increasingly more like a needle in a haystack.

Examples: TV, Radio, Direct Mail, Newspaper, Billboards.

Inbound Marketing: Inbound marketing is permission-based marketing. There are two premises here:

  • First, communicate via mediums in which the audience has given you permission to communicate.
  • Second, answer the questions people are asking and proliferate those answers around the web in anticipation of the question.

Both of these premises are permission-based.

In the first method, the audience is smaller in numbers than mass media, but because the audience is inherently more friendly and has already raised their hand to get your messages, the audience coverts at a 750% higher rate than interruption-based marketing.

Examples: subscription based email marketing, social media, blog subscribers, webinar attendees, etc.

In the second method, the numbers are virtually limitless, since your audience online is infinite. Thanks to targeting keywords, you can answer the questions prospects might be asking about your products and your industry. Since this audience is looking for the answers that you are proliferating throughout the web, the conversion rates are unparalleled.

Examples: SEO, keyword targeting, landing page strategy, content/blog strategy, etc.

An example of permission-based marketing that will put inbound into context is the Yellow Pages. Before websites, subscription-based email and blog subscriptions, the Yellow Pages was one of the few places you could advertise where prospects were actually looking for you and you weren’t interrupting them. Yellow Pages was so successful that companies would name themselves AAA or ABC to be at the top of the listings. In 2001, Vital had a $10,000 a month Yellow Pages marketing budget, buying enhanced listings (bold) and an ad in every book from Boston, MA to Portland, ME.  Why? Because it worked, and there was an undoubted ROI.

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  • Great piece, nice to see thoughts on inbound that didn’t come cut and pasted from a hubspot whitepaper.

    • Vital_Design

      Thanks, Bill! We are firm believers in testing web philosophies with experience and a wide variety of tools. As you know, SEO is too complex to rely on only one tool to get ahead of your competition.

  • mathews

    really informative article. It gives clear idea about inbound and outbound marketing.

    • Vital_Design

      Thanks for reading, and for the positive feedback—we appreciate it!

  • It’s kind of a self-serving straw-man argument to only define ‘outbound’ as interruption-based marketing. It’s not.

    Outbound partner marketing, for example, is responsible for the growth of many of the biggest players in tech, including Google, Microsoft, RedHat, VMware, Adobe and others.

    Additionally, many of today’s inbound marketers are not about ‘permissions’ at all. They’re about building behavioral targeting ‘skinner boxes’ that play unethical games with emotional manipulation and ‘neuroscience’.

    The Facebook experiment being a prime example.

  • Of course I read it. And on your ‘complex differences’ just look at your own ‘graphic’ with the ‘smiley face/frown face’ ridiculous comparison. When you write about outbound ‘another time’ maybe you could start by repudiating this simplistic view.

    And speaking purely historically ‘inbound’ has been around since the launch of AdWords almost 15 years ago.

    If the value proposition of inbound is what you claim it to be then you should defend it without resorting to straw man arguments and bad history.

    At the end of the day even today’s online leaders that used ‘inbound’ in their early stage are scaling their businesses via outbound bizdev around APIs and other partner integration methodologies.

  • Robert Decousta

    Great post. Keep sharing.

  • Knowledge Roundtable

    Fantastic article Zach. Ranked #5 on Google for “outbound marketing” by the way!

    I’m curious about the Vital team’s thoughts on the following quote from wikipedia:
    “According to HubSpot, inbound marketing is especially effective for small businesses
    that deal with high dollar values, long research cycles and
    knowledge-based products. In these areas prospects are more likely to
    get informed and hire someone who demonstrates expertise.”

    I run a web business that has low dollar value customers and often short research cycles (it’s a tutoring marketplace). My conversion rates on blog posts are pretty low, reaffirming the quote above.

    Any thoughts on how to tweak the inbound marketing approach for businesses like mine?

    • Vital_Design

      Hey Jared,

      Glad you found the post helpful. I’ll let Zac know how well it’s ranking, though knowing him he probably tracks it daily. :)

      We’d have to disagree with Wikipedia; any business, big, small, B2B, B2C, can benefit from an inbound marketing strategy. You have to remember that inbound isn’t all about converting visitors on just your blog, but also:

      Email Newsletters
      Lead Nurture Campaigns
      Videos
      eBooks
      Webinars
      Social Media
      Landing Pages
      And SEO.

      Depending on the content that you’re sharing you might see a below average conversion rate on your blog posts, but an above average rate when you offer webinars or through your lead nurture campaigns.

      There are a couple things we’d recommend reading more about:

      Conversion rate optimization and how to best optimize your forms
      Creating lead nurture campaigns using downloadable pieces of content

      Doug

      • Knowledge Roundtable

        Thanks for the response Doug! I’m working on a strategy for The Knowledge Roundtable now and I will certainly be incorporating elements from here.

  • Inbound marketing is good and I devote significant attention, time and money to it. But outbound marketing is also good. I have significant ROI on some of my outbound marketing. The debate on which one is better is just plain stupid. You should use both intelligently. They serve different functions.

    • Vital_Design

      Agreed that both are useful. We find outbound tactics (paid amplification) useful for things that are doing well organically/through inbound. —Crystal

  • John JB Russell

    A superb article highlighting how to navigate through the #inbound vs #outbound arena. Both have their merits for specific objectives, but I’m a big fan of inbound marketing. How can it be more effective? With the addition of another cool way to engage effectively…. #Gamification !

    • Vital_Design

      Great thought for a future post, John! What are some examples of effective gamification that you’ve seen? —Crystal

  • This is a great article! I just formally learned the difference between inbound and outbound marketing. Thanks!

    • Vital_Design

      Happy to help, Romeo!

      Crystal

  • Very interesting article with clear explanation on the difference between inbound and outbound marketing. Wording changes over time along with trends and this is good to have such kind of article that goes back to the basics.

    • Vital_Design

      Thanks, Stéphane! Glad you enjoyed the article. We believe in getting down to those basics!

      Crystal

  • Sippy

    Good post

    • Vital_Design

      Thanks!

  • Anuradha Chawla

    Typically, I see inbound marketing as a long-term strategy for lead generation, whereas most outbound efforts can generate leads much more quickly. Have you found any inbound methods that have a more immediate impact?

    • Vital_Design

      We see immediate results from some of our inbound marketing campaigns, although you’re right that (depending on the content) sometimes it takes a while for efforts to pay off (especially if SEO/search rankings are the main goal). For example, our RFP template blog post ( https://vtldesign.com/web-strategy/web-design-web-strategy/how-to-write-a-website-design-request-for-proposal/ ) started bringing in leads almost immediately and hasn’t stopped. We also see outbound efforts be more successful when they’re used as amplification for contents that have already generated immediate inbound results (proof that it’s quality and useful content to begin with). Hope that answers your question, Anuradha! —Crystal

  • Dmitry Sharov

    Greate article! I wanna translate it in russian and repost to my blog. How should I refer to it to make it in a right way?

    • Vital_Design

      The name of our company is “Vital” and our blog is called “The Alley Blog.” Just be sure to attribute the post with a link to this post. If you have any other questions, please ask! Thanks for finding our article useful.

  • middlemanN

    Great article!

  • Mark Sullivan

    This was fascinating, thank you. Question: given the effectiveness of Wall Street’s obfuscation (aka bullshit), do you think inbound marketing can help to clarify in a meaningful way the significantly greater value proposition of an independent fiduciary advisor over captive “advisors” who are not permitted to be fiduciaries, which is more than 99% of ever-friendly licensed agents and representatives?

    • Vital_Design

      The answer to his question is also “yes” creating a content marketing strategy around the differentiation between these types of advisors would be very effective. The question we would ask is this a differentiator that prospects are interested in. We could determine whether this is content that would resonate by analyzing the keyword opportunities around it, in other words the amount of times these keywords are typed into a search query. The other consideration we are always concerned about when dealing w/ financial, insurance and other highly regulated industries is whether content marketing will get approved by your underwriting institution and will be in compliance. The additional burden of compliance can add to the costs and time to publish and lower the ROI.

  • Terrie Thaler

    I am the director of admissions and marketing at a large private school in Denver, CO. I love your choice of words regarding marketing strategies. Interruption-based or permission-based. I am finding this year that I have to really focus on permission-based marketing because, as you stated in the article, people listen if they have given us permission to “talk” to them. I am in the midst of trying to convince some around my office that we need to put our money into strategies that will actually work. We have done the direct mail campaign in the past and we had absolutely no leads generated. In my mind, I prefer to use outbound, interruption-based marketing to help strengthen our visibility and to lead people to us rather than use it to generate a specific lead. When we do any outbound marketing we are pouring dollars into a wider audience (again addressed in your article) that has no interest in who we are. That is why I prefer to use it as branding and recognition to create awareness of who we are. It finally clicked this year that inbound marketing is the way to go. So, here’s to hoping I can put my dollars into inbound and focus on those who have given me permission to market. I love your perspective and agree wholeheartedly!!!

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