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Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing: Finding the Right Balance For Your Business

July 19, 2022By Shannon Curley

Topics: Marketing Strategy, Blogging

No matter the size of your business, marketing is an essential part of getting your company name out there. But marketing is more than just a publicity stunt; good marketing builds relationships with potential customers and leads to meaningful conversions, sales, and repeat business.

To understand the best marketing plan for your business, you must first understand two distinct types of marketing strategies: inbound and outbound.

This article will review the basics of inbound and outbound marketing models, including the inception of the term "inbound marketing" and the evolution from traditional marketing to content marketing. We'll discuss what's relevant (and outdated) about the marketing "funnel" and how to utilize both inbound and outbound tactics to create the most effective marketing plan for your business.

Is inbound marketing just digital marketing?

The term "inbound marketing" originated in 2005 and is accredited to HubSpot co-founder Brian Halligan. Some notable technological newbies in 2005 were YouTube, USB flash drives, and the first generation, teensy tiny iPod shuffle.

However, it wasn't really until 2012 that the term "inbound marketing" began to pick up steam. Here is a recap of technology that was gaining popularity in 2012 that might help give you some context as to why that is. Long story short: by the second decade of the 2000s, social analytics, cloud sharing, and predictive technology all began to change how customers interacted with businesses – and for our purposes, how companies interacted with customers.


It’s also worth remembering that inbound marketing really began to grow in popularity during the advent of more sophisticated search engine algorithms, and ultimately SEO in the second decade of the 2000s. As search engines like Google and Yahoo began to more thoughtfully sort their content based on what people were actually searching for, companies (and marketers) saw an opportunity to meet potential customers in their natural (organic) line of research, instead of having to target them specifically. 


We’ll talk about this more when we review content marketing below, but first, let's answer the question: is inbound marketing just digital marketing?


Yes and no. Yes, inbound marketing (in HubSpot's own words) is a "business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them," and more often than not, these experiences are delivered in a digital format. On the other hand, outbound marketing is more traditional marketing, where businesses contact customers to sell them a product or service.


Inbound marketing certainly is significantly facilitated by digital, and as we can see in that leap from 2005 to 2012, it is absolutely connected to digital transformation. However, the principles behind inbound marketing do not necessarily require a digital platform.

Here's an example: in 2011, the Life Is Good Company held a 2-day music festival in Canton, MA featuring a full lineup of acoustic pop artists, including Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz. The event was not a digital event like a webinar or a conference call, nor was it heavily promoted on social media. Most importantly, there was no impetus or prerequisite to purchase anything from the Life Is Good store or the Life Is Good apparel line.

Instead, with their Life is Good Festival, Life Is Good Co. created a, well, good life experience. By doing so, they successfully hosted an inbound marketing event that delivered a valuable content experience and likely generated a new and more diverse customer base – all without pushing a product or trying to "convert a lead."

Inbound, outbound, and content marketing

Inbound marketing doesn't need to be digital, but most of the time, it is. The same can be said for content marketing, which for some, is a term that is interchangeable with inbound marketing. Myself, I think of it more like the cart and the horse: the cart is your inbound marketing strategy, the horse is the content marketing (or simply, content) you use to get there.

We should also remember that outbound marketing – what most view as "traditional marketing" – is interruption-based marketing. This approach means pitching ads, spokespeople, salespersons, events, trade shows, and other explicit promotions directly to the potential customer in the hopes of converting them to a lead.

Nowadays, however, marketing is more complex. With digital transformation creating so much opportunity to reach and engage with new audiences, marketing has primarily shifted to the inbound model. This approach underscores the understanding that with so many more choices, customers are craving connection to a company or brand and not just their product or service needs.

This is where SEO and content marketing come into play; the driving factor behind both is to meet potential customers where they are – before they even know that they are potential customers.

Content is as content does

Connecting to your audience prior to the sales pitch is the core mission of content marketing. As you may have guessed, content marketing relies on, well, content. This includes everything from newsletters and blog posts to video, podcasts, ebooks, whitepapers, social media campaigns, and beyond. Content is how businesses engage with audiences who often do not know potential customers. Instead, content provides information, education, entertainment, or a service that moves the passive viewer or reader to a cool, warm, and warmer lead. With the right keyword strategy, your marketing efforts can intercept audiences during their everyday search process – what we refer to as “organic search” – and introduce them to your brand or business before they consider purchasing a product or service. 


In the next section, we'll talk about the marketing funnel and marketing flywheel and how both relate to content marketing, but first, here's a recap of some of the top takeaways from the Content Marketing World 2021 Conference (credit to The Content Standard, 2021):


  • 59% of consumers feel like companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience
  • Know who your audience is, personalize their experience, and deliver the right content at the right time.
  • People want different things based on where they are in making a decision. As such, you should identify what type of content you need for someone at a specific step in the journey. We'll talk about this more in the following section.

Funnels, flywheels, and marketing to your audience

Stop me if you've heard this before, but the idea of the "marketing flywheel" was introduced by Brian Halligan of Hubspot in 2018 in response to what some future-facing marketers viewed as an outdated "marketing funnel" model.

As a refresher, the marketing funnel is a unidirectional model for how customers move from prospects to leads to conversions to advocates. The funnel is broken down into 4-6 stages depending on who you ask. These stages include:

  • Awareness – this is where lead generation and customer attraction happen (also the most considerable space available for SEO play)
  • Consideration – this is where you inform potential customers, either about your product, service, or marketplace
  • Conversation – this is where leads turn into sales, AKA where interest turns into action
  • Loyalty – this is where customers become advocates for your brand or product


You may also hear the stages of the funnel referred to as TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU: top, middle, and bottom of the funnel, respectively.


However, when Halligan proposed the marketing flywheel in 2018, he did so because he believed that not all customer journeys are linear or unidirectional. He argued that all parts of the marketing funnel are in motion, for all prospects, at all stages. Therefore, the marketing flywheel implies speed and efficiency and more accurately represents the complex nature of audience relationships and the need to revisit your marketing approach to keep the wheel turning continuously.

Right on track: balancing your inbound and outbound marketing

Inbound marketing and content marketing go hand in hand with digital customer engagement, but that doesn't mean there's no longer a place for traditional outbound. Instead, as with most things, the right marketing plan for your business comes down to striking the right balance.

As Oktopost describes it, outbound marketing is an "exchange proposition, like 'Hey there, want to buy my thing?'" And while that might seem a bit on the nose, that might just do the trick for specific industries and businesses.

A friend of mine sells water heaters, for example. And yes, they've got a whole marketing funnel flywheel full of all kinds of excellent content – from informative blog posts about keeping warm in the winter to customer testimonial videos about a job well done. But at the end of the day, it's still the trade shows that drive the significant conversions. 

This might come down to industry: generations of water heater salespeople like the idea of a classic (outbound) trade show event. It’s how the industry has run for years. On the other hand, inbound content has generated sales with newer audiences, like homeowners searching for “winter water heater” on Google. 

In short, both inbound and outbound marketing tactics can be used to create and nurture relationships with prospective clients, converted leads, and long-time customers. When considering the right balance for your business, remember that different audiences are met differently at different stages of their journey.

Wrap-up: aligning your content to your objectives

Whether you prescribe to the funnel or the flywheel, content is key to the future of marketing. Although most content types can be used at any stage of the audience journey, some are more appropriate at some points than others. For example, during the "Inform" stage, blog posts may be your best bet for organic traffic from unqualified leads. Alternatively, suppose you have a prospect already at the "Consideration" stage. In that case, a compelling case study in the form of a whitepaper or short video testimonial might be just what you need to push them into the "Conversion" stage.

Whatever your content needs, from creating a successful inbound/outbound marketing strategy to producing top-of-the-line digital, web, and print content. Trailblaze Marketing is here to partner with you to develop a marketing plan that connects you with your customers and helps build lasting relationships.

Interested in building a marketing plan that's right for your business? Schedule a call with us today.



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Posted by Shannon Curley

Shannon Curley is a content and brand strategist from Providence, RI who has written about everything from superheroes and dinosaurs to medical innovation, sustainable energy, and tips for traveling with your dog.

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