Content Marketing

What is the difference between Inbound and Outbound Marketing?

Audrey Ference
Audrey Ference

Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing - Outbrain Blog

If you pay attention to marketing trends, you’ve heard people throwing around the terms “inbound marketing” and “outbound marketing,” but what do they really mean?

Listen, marketing professionals love to make up words: if your entire profession depended on convincing people to buy things using language, you would too. But inbound and outbound marketing aren’t just jargon.

These terms embody a kind of cultural shift in the entire concept of how marketing works, particularly across channels.

What Is Outbound Marketing?

Outbound marketing is what used to just be known as “marketing.” It’s interruptive and it pushes itself at an audience, whether the audience wants it or not. TV and radio ads, telemarketing, banner and display ads, billboards, newspaper and magazine ads, cold calling, pop-ups and pop-unders, and contextual ads are all examples of outbound marketing. Outbound marketing has fallen out of favor in the last 10 years. Oversaturation — especially on the internet — caused people to start ignoring display advertising.

Since the advent of the ad blocker, it’s only gotten worse. Clickthrough rates for display ads are now at a dismal 0.05%, and according to Hubspot’s State of Inbound 2017, marketers consider paid advertising like print, outdoor, and broadcast to be the most overrated marketing tactic.

Outbound vs Inbound - Outbrain Blog


This eyeball heat map from Michael Daehn illustrates the problem of “banner blindness.”

What Is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is a relatively new marketing concept where marketers attempt to “pull” in potential customers with interesting content. Also called content marketing, inbound marketing involves creating blog posts, social media, infographics, white papers, email newsletters, and other content that people actually want to read. Search engine optimization paid discovery, and paid search help people find marketers’ content. If it’s engaging enough, they interact with it, reading and sharing, and come away with a positive impression of the brand that influences later purchasing decisions.

Inbound marketing is very hands-off and indirect: there’s never a noticeable sales pitch. Inbound marketing nudges customers down the sales funnel by increasing their engagement with the brand. Here’s an illustration of how it works.


Leads in Inbound & Outbound Marketing - Outbrain Blog


How the inbound process works, from Hubspot.

What Is the Difference Between Inbound and Outbound Marketing?

To review, here’s the difference between inbound and outbound tactics.

Inbound Outbound
Pulls in interested readers Pushes at everybody, regardless of interest
Written for the consumer’s needs Written for the product’s needs
Interactive and fluid Inert, one-way
Draws in customers Seeks out customers
Is part of content consumption Disrupts content consumption
Natural habitat: blogs, social media, opt-in emails, search, influencer marketing Natural habitat: display ads, billboards, telemarketer scripts, magazines, TV ads

What’s More Effective, Inbound or Outbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is far and away the more fashionable marketing choice right now. According to Hubspot’s State of Inbound 2017, 71% of companies globally reported that they’re primarily focused on inbound. Certainly inbound provides a better ROI: inbound marketing efforts are 62% less expensive than outbound.

On the other hand, inbound’s effectiveness can be hard to measure. Since the inbound strategy relies on raising brand awareness, providing value, and not giving the hard sell, it’s difficult to quantify exactly how well your strategy is working. The biggest criticisms of outbound marketing traditionally have been that it’s expensive, it’s not responsive, and it isn’t targeted. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a TV ad, send it out into the world, and hope for the best. And while most companies aren’t going to increase spending on those kinds of outbound advertising — let’s be real, telemarketing isn’t ever going to make sense for most brands — recent upgrades in audience targeting are breathing new life into display advertising.

Things like retargeting pixels, contextual ads, and Lookalike Audiences allow Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google display ads to be directed specifically to users based on what they are interested in. This is a kind of outbound marketing that shows untapped potential and gets around ad blockers. Unlike outbound marketing of the past, it incorporates inbound’s strategy of showing users things they specifically will find helpful or interesting.

In today’s marketing landscape, many companies employ a combination of a brilliant inbound strategy and retargeting outbound display ads. Remarketing can work solely with inbound, too. Here’s a case study of how Brooklinen used Outbrain’s Lookalike Audiences and retargeting to get a 50% lower CPA, all within Outbrain’s ecosystem. Of course, like anything in marketing, you’ll have to find a mix that works for your potential customers.

What Is Inbound Methodology?

A good inbound strategy involves creating content that appeals to your desired reader, then helping them find it through search, social, and discovery. To get started, you’ll need to create buyer personas: Who are the people you want to draw to this content? What are they looking for? What kinds of things do they like? After that, craft a solid SEO strategy. How will this audience find you? Will you optimize your content for Google keyword searches? Will you promote your content on discovery networks like Outbrain Amplify? Will you push it to your social? How often will you post? A lot of this is stuff you’ll figure out as you experiment. After that, it’s time to create your content and put it out into the world.

Make sure you build in a way to assess the success of your efforts. Before you do anything, figure out a concrete idea of what success would look like for your content, and have a way of measuring that. Metrics will drive what you do going forward. Any successful marketing strategy is dynamic and changes based on the data you collect about how effective your content is. If that sounds too impersonal, think of this way: figure out what your people want, and give it to them.

Finding the Right Marketing Strategy for You

Ultimately, the best marketing strategy for your business will be the one that works. Always try new things while you continue to do the old things that are working. Analyze your data frequently, and be on top of any changes you see. Remember, audiences change, too. What worked last year might not work this year. People get tired of seeing the same thing, and marketers can run certain methods into the ground, robbing them of their usefulness. Your mix of inbound and outbound marketing will almost certainly change with time and as technology adds new features and ways of connecting with people. That said, the most important strategy will always be: experiment, measure, repeat.

Audrey Ference

Audrey Ference

Audrey Ference works with Outbrain's headline writing team. Her work has also appeared in Slate, Salon, the Hairpin, the Billfold, the Toast, Teen Vogue, and others.