Inbound versus Outbound Marketing: What’s the Fuss?

We are perplexed by the endless debate about whether or not inbound marketing is better than outbound marketing. It’s a distinction without much of a difference, especially because standard definitions for both do not exist. Specific marketing tactics may appear in either column, depending on who’s doing the categorizing.

Outbound seems to mean, generally, that businesses find customers proactively though overt messages that compel an action or reaction.  Inbound feels more subtle and a bit reactive:  Create interesting stuff (content) at an interesting location (a website) and let the world know it’s there so prospects can find it easily when needed.

Other definitions seem to revolve more around digital versus physical channels. Still others speak to active (outbound) versus passive (inbound) marketing.

Applying this kind of binary categorization does not contribute to the discussion when trying to determine how to allocate finite marketing resources. Moreover, the answer is almost always context-dependent because one size does not fit all. Before you leap onto the inbound bandwagon (whatever it means), you must consider a few basic questions about your business:

  • B2C or B2B?
  • Industry?
  • Target segment?

We agree that technology (computers, Internet, etc.) has shifted power to customers. It’s clear that prospects are increasingly finding businesses rather than the other way around. And yes, customers are searching via digital technologies that are generally considered inbound (search engine optimization, social media, blogs, useful content, etc.). But is that much different than so-called outbound marketing?

Prospective customers need to know you exist. They need to perceive that you offer some of value that is unique relative to your competitors. You want to establish sustained relationships with prospects. These marketing fundamentals have never changed, although the tools and mechanisms have.

Consider the following ambiguous examples:

  • You have a website, and you want to drive prospects to it with the ultimate goal of making sales. You use SEO, social media, etc. – so-called inbound tactics. At the same time, you host a booth at a trade show. You want to attract prospects to your booth and ultimately to your website. But that’s considered to be in the outbound realm. Nonetheless, the goal is the same in each approach. One is in the digital world and the other is in the physical world. Does categorizing these tactics arbitrarily as inbound or outbound help to determine their effectiveness?
  • You propose to host a webinar (inbound). However, to let a larger number of people know about the webinar, you need to send an e-mail (outbound). Doesn’t the inbound-outbound categorization confuse the matter needlessly?
  • How different is a highway billboard with your company’s URL from your presence on a social media site?  Yes, there is a huge cost difference. And yes, social media is flexible, enables conversations, and so forth. But aren’t both fundamentally about making your company’s presence known?

The optimal mix of marketing channels and tactics is best determined by ongoing testing and measurement. To say arbitrarily that inbound is becoming more important or is more efficient than outbound is not helpful. Although we agree that a digital path to customers is critical to the success of most businesses, we still recommend measuring the ROI for each channel before jumping to broad conclusions. Like our colleagues in the medical profession, we should practice “evidence-based marketing”.

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2 Responses to “Inbound versus Outbound Marketing: What’s the Fuss?”

  1. At the end of the day it’s all marketing, whether inbound or outbound and it should all fall out of your marketing strategy. I personally believe that traditional marketing methods such as tradeshows, direct mail, telesales etc are in decline but not in every industry so depending on who your audience is and where they are active dictates your medium and tactics.

    People are actively searching for the solutions you provide and it makes perfect sense to provide compelling, relevant and useful content wherever they’re searching to help you get found and this includes social media sites but even Hubspot, one of the main providers on “inbound marketing” software are heavy users of email marketing, which I would argue is an outbound activity.



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