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Inbound vs. outbound is a nuanced concept that’s often separated and smooshed into two oversimplified categories.

Wait, who said you have to choose one?

We think it’s unhelpful to frame outbound vs inbound marketing as a binary choice because they’re most effective when used together.

A solid marketing strategy combines the two, but how that combination looks for you depends on a few key factors:

  • What success means for you right now
  • Your time frame for results
  • Your budget
  • Your business’s industry and growth stage

But, most importantly:

How well you know your target audience, where they’re most active, and what they find valuable.

So let’s take a nuanced look at the key differences between inbound and outbound marketing strategies, when each one is most effective, and how your marketing approach should determine the best strategy for your next campaign.

Inbound Marketing Vs Outbound Marketing: What’s The Difference?

The difference between inbound marketing vs outbound marketing is in how audiences receive your brand’s message: Inbound campaigns are ‘planted’ in appropriate channels for your audience to find themselves, whereas outbound campaigns are ‘pushed’ in front of your audience directly.

Inbound marketing earns attention; outbound marketing buys it.

Classic inbound strategies include blogs, organic social media posts, videos, and webinars. Then there are the traditional outbound methods like radio ads, cold email blasts, billboard and print ads, pay-per-click campaigns on search engines, and cold calling.

Those are inbound vs outbound marketing examples in terms of method, but what is the difference between inbound and outbound marketing goals? Both aim to generate qualified leads and boost sales, but:

  • Inbound marketing is a long-term play for increasing brand awareness, educating audiences, building brand authority, and generating highly qualified leads.
  • Outbound marketing efforts tend to be a more short-term play, generating leads and boosting sales during a particular time frame – perhaps for a particular sale, season, or promotion.

Marketers often compare inbound and outbound marketing using the magnet and megaphone analogy. We wonder if this analogy is helpful anymore. It frames outbound as invasive and annoying and inbound as innocent and wholesome.

Which isn’t exactly accurate.

We’ve all scrolled through a high-ranking article that doesn’t even answer our question (😡) and purchased through a well-timed social ad for the exact product we discovered the other day (🙏).

So, the lines have blurred a bit.

Let’s dive deeper.

What Is Inbound Marketing? Plus Pros, Cons, And Use Cases

Inbound marketing is a long-term strategy that involves consistently creating and publishing high-quality content (whether written, visual, or audial).

Inbound marketing methods are a significant investment, but the advantage is evergreen content with results compounding over time.

Theoretically, you get a higher long-term ROI with inbound marketing efforts than outbound tactics

Examples Of Inbound Marketing

Before we dive into why you want to use inbound marketing, let’s look at examples of it in practice.

Long-form content: SEO articles, whitepapers, reports

Long-form written content helps educate and build brand awareness, especially for B2B sales funnels where it takes time for customers to become solution-aware and evaluate their purchase.

Invest in this channel to build topical authority for key search phrases your audiences use on search engines.

When this is done well, this inbound marketing method brings success via:

  • Increased organic traffic
  • Higher SERP positions for relevant keywords
  • Increased MQLs who’ve engaged with the content and potentially converted

Talent assessment company TestGorilla’s thought leadership articles and state-of-the-industry reports are classic examples of educational inbound marketing.

HR professionals are still catching on to skills-based hiring, but this company is ready to capitalise on the inevitable popularity of this trend with a gold mine of authoritative content.

Organic social media: Posting on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, etc.

As consumers become more engaged with social media for entertainment, product research, and even community, companies benefit from building an active, relevant social media presence.

This involves regularly posting visual content like videos or reels, infographics, reviews, or behind-the-scenes footage – and actively engaging with your audience in the comments.

We’ll discuss social media marketing later, but social media as inbound marketing engages and builds an audience. How you do this and how successful you are depends entirely on how well you understand your audience’s demographics across channels.

Ryanair is a recent example of how brand self-awareness and audience knowledge can be rewarded. It uses its infamous reputation to capture a growing Gen Z audience that increasingly seeks entertainment from brands.

These hilarious, addictive videos capture on-trend formats and regularly go viral on TikTok and Instagram.

The Pros Of Leveraging Inbound Marketing

As we’ve mentioned, the main win with inbound marketing is that – although it’s expensive and time-consuming to execute – the results compound over time.

You can also think of content as a relatively democratised tactic: Google wants to provide the most valuable content to users, so let the best content win (kind of).

These are the core advantages of inbound marketing…

Inbound marketing is educational and valuable to your ICP

Most consumers do a LOT of research before making a purchase, and the time they spend researching increases in correlation to the product’s price.

It’s fair to assume you’re operating in a highly competitive market. You have plenty of competitors, and potential customers research at least five of them before they purchase.

With this in mind, having a goldmine of content that…

  • Addresses the questions and concerns your customers have – about the problem they’re facing and the solution you’re offering
  • Compares your product or service to alternative solutions
  • Speaks to related topics and issues

…helps you establish your brand as a trustworthy, authoritative, and helpful voice in your industry.

By creating valuable resources tailored to your specific audience’s needs and interests, you build a meaningful, lasting connection. The gesture of providing valuable and relevant information without pushing the sale will build trust.

This helps ensure your brand comes to mind when they’re ready to purchase.

Inbound marketing supports sales enablement

Extended customer research time is a hallmark of a long and complex buyer journey, especially in B2B markets.

By aligning content to each stage of this sales funnel…

Top of funnel (TOFU)Customers are aware of the problem they’re facing. Content covering related topics and high-level search terms will attract organic traffic and educate them about the solution.
Middle of funnel (MOFU)Customers are starting to think about solutions but are looking for proof of efficacy – especially if they need to convince senior decision-makers. Content aligned to this might look like case studies demonstrating success and tackling common objections.
Bottom of funnel (BOFU)Customers intend to purchase a product but want to get the best bang for their buck. Bottom-of-funnel content might look like competitor comparisons and product reviews.

…marketing and sales teams can work together and close deals as a team.

The Cons Of Leveraging Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing is often framed as the cheaper and friendlier alternative to outbound marketing.

Sure, long-term ad campaigns can cost a fortune. But there are no shortcuts to creating quality content, especially if you need to publish at scale to see results quickly.

Let’s break down the cons of inbound marketing tactics that aren’t discussed enough.

Inbound marketing only works if you truly know your ICP

“Know your customer” is the most eye-rollingly obvious thing a marketing blog can say.

But it’s a cliche for a reason.

In the State of B2B Marketing 2023 report by Sirkin Research, 144 marketers were surveyed about issues relating to their work.

The insights revealed a paradox of inbound marketing efficacy:

  • The majority of marketers were proud of the content they created, believed it was high quality, and said they would consume it themselves.

BUT…

  • Only 19% of marketers were happy with the engagement rates of their content, and
  • Only 33% said that they know what type of content was most effective

If content isn’t effective, how can it be high quality? Surely the only measure of content quality is whether or not your ICP engages with it?

Engaging with customers can be daunting and time-consuming, especially if your target audience is difficult to reach or within a highly technical industry.

But unless inbound marketers reach out to their ICP directly and use those insights to inform content ideation, the strategy will continue to fall flat and waste budget.

Inbound marketing is difficult to attribute to tangible success metrics like conversion rates and sales

Unless you have purchase-based CTAs at the end of your blog posts – and no one makes purchase decisions from top-of-funnel articles anyway – it’s difficult to attribute revenue to content.

The value of inbound marketing is in the way it educates and builds brand awareness, but how do you measure that?

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of metrics you can use to measure inbound marketing strategies. They’re just not as directly attributable to sales as, say, a paid ad for a discounted product with a click-through purchase link.

Search engine optimisation success is measured is measured in KPIs like:

  1. Increase in organic traffic
  2. Increase in SERP positions for selected keywords
  3. Time on page
  4. Engagement rates

But it’s still difficult to discern if that traffic is coming from your target audience and if they’re engaging with your content because they’re interested in buying.

For this reason, inbound marketers often have a hard time getting senior buy-in on their marketing strategy.

Inbound marketing is time-consuming and expensive to create at scale

Inbound marketing can be framed as cost-effective compared to expensive outbound strategies like bidding on highly competitive keywords.

But it’s never cheap to produce, especially not at the scale required to gain traction quickly.

Google rewards consistency and publishing volume, so success with inbound tactics like SEO takes a dedicated content team of strategists, writers, editors, and designers.

Google also rewards high E-E-A-T content:

ExperienceLeverages first-hand experiences to provide context and tangible examples.
ExpertiseProduced by someone with proven qualifications or credibility in the area discussed. 
AuthoritativeComes from a relevant domain and has links to/from authoritative sources and internal link clustering.
TrustworthyProvides accurate, up-to-date information from credible sources.

While tools like AI are a huge cost-saver for content creation tasks, you still need to invest in expert input for inbound marketing to be valuable.

When Is Inbound Marketing Best?

While cost is the most obvious limitation with inbound marketing, it’s not impossible to win with a small marketing budget.

Inbound marketing is a long-term play that serves you best when you have:

  • Something unique and valuable to say that your ICP will appreciate. If you have industry data, insider knowledge, or years of experience to share with your target audience, this can fuel a wealth of quality, credible content.
  • A new category with low-volume search terms (for now). Inbound marketing is necessary and highly successful for pioneering companies in new markets. If it’s a new market, the search volume will be low, so it’s easy to rank for these keywords and dominate the SERPs when customers become more solution-aware.
  • An unapologetic focus on what your customer cares deeply about. Take the time to find out what matters to your audience, then do it better than your competitors.

This really is the make-or-break factor for inbound marketing success.

When her colleagues wanted to exhaust their marketing budget sponsoring a pro golfer, Rena Patel from Capgemini staked her reputation on just producing hyper-relevant content for their audience. This innovative customer-centric inbound approach earned them millions.

What Is Outbound Marketing? Plus Pros, Cons, And Use Cases

Outbound marketing is when you pay to expose your message to a defined audience. This audience may have already opted-in to your marketing (such as with SMS marketing) or be a totally cold lead seeing your company for the first time (eg. running an ad on LinkedIn).

Outbound marketing often gets oversimplified as ‘casting a wide net’, ‘interruptive’, and even ‘annoying’.

With traditional marketing, like newspaper or TV ads, you’re speaking to a large audience in the hopes that you’ll generate more customers quickly.

But as outbound becomes more modernised with digital marketing tools, it can actually be just as targeted and meaningful as inbound methods.

Examples Of Outbound Marketing

It all depends on how well you know your target audience and how well you time your message to trigger your desired action.

Let’s take a look at some examples…

Social media ads that leverage UGC and influencer marketing

User-generated content (UGC) marketing is a game-changer for brands wanting to produce valuable, authentic content at scale.

Increasingly, research on ads in social media shows us that Gen Z and millennial audiences use social media to research products and get inspiration.

Ads that promote products with experiences from real people – particularly respected influencers – are highly successful because they show products in situ and answer common queries.

A great example of this is TALA, a sustainable athleisure brand that’s taken its industry by storm.

TALA’s outreach campaigns on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok consistently demonstrate an intimate understanding of what their target audience is looking for: authenticity, diversity, and community.

By taking snippets of UGC from popular influencers and focusing ads around known audience priorities, TALA’s ads blur the line between generating inbound vs outbound leads.

With the founder, Grace Beverley, regularly featuring in ad campaigns in a refreshingly personal way, TALA’s outbound strategy feels community-driven while still creating the necessary urgency and FOMO to drive record-breaking sales.

B2B brands are taking advantage of influencer marketing, too – especially given that consumers trust people over brands.

Budgeting app Pocketsmith’s outbound tactics are a great example of marketing for fintech, using the financial community “The Broke Generation” to create ads that feel authentic because of a genuine alignment of values and interests.

Retargeting active users on other channels

As marketing becomes more data-driven, companies have the power to target audiences with extreme specificity.

Retargeting involves targeting visitors who’ve previously interacted with your website or left a product in their cart, showing them a highly personalised ad (usually for the exact product they were looking at) on another platform.

For example, let’s say yesterday I was looking at these pants and decided not to purchase, only to see this on my Facebook feed:

Yes, this used my data to follow me across to my social media, but now they’re offering me 20% off, which I might consider well worth the slight invasion of privacy.

This outbound marketing method can be ethically questionable – but also highly valuable when executed responsibly by:

  1. Being transparent about customer data collection and usage
  2. Capping the number of retargeted social media ads and banner ads that someone receives from your brand
  3. Providing a straightforward opt-out mechanism to comply with GDPR laws

This is one of the most game-changing digital marketing strategies top ad agencies use to get insane results for their clients.

Evidence shows that retargeted leads are 70% more likely to convert.

The Pros Of Leveraging Outbound Marketing

The core advantages of outbound marketing are fast results and the degree of control you have over who sees your messages.

This is gold if you have a very specific target audience that’s highly active on a particular channel, as you’ll see below.

Outbound marketing gets results quickly

While it’s good to think about long-term success, sometimes you need to have time-bound goals and campaigns that move the needle quickly.

This is especially true for time-sensitive campaigns, like Black Friday sales or responding to a popular trend.

Successful PPC campaigns can theoretically deliver results within days, but realistically it’s more like 2-3 months because you need time to run tests and capitalise on what’s most effective.

Running a targeted outbound campaign like PPC or SMS marketing for a limited time can be highly effective, especially if you have strong content to continue nurturing leads that clicked on your ad but haven’t converted – yet

Outbound strategies can be highly targeted to reach your ICP

If you have a clearly defined target audience for a particular channel, outbound marketing campaigns can still get you high-quality leads.

Unlike inbound marketing, outbound marketing allows you to specify exactly who sees your content. If you’re strategic, you can serve ads directly to the people who will engage or convert.

For example, LinkedIn Ads can be a great method for B2B brands, enabling you to refine your target audience based on job, industry, and more:

Surveys show that LinkedIn is 277% more effective for lead generation for B2B companies than Facebook and X.

But don’t rush in – success ultimately comes down to how well you know your target audience and how well your messages speak to them.

Outbound marketing tactics let you run experiments to validate your messaging

By approaching your initial outbound campaigns experimentally, you can objectively test and double down on the best-performing elements of your ads.

This is called A/B testing. It involves running two ads that are the same except for the variable that you want to test, which might be:

  • CTA button placement
  • Ad copy
  • Colours
  • Images

The Meta ads manager has a dedicated A/B test function for you to set up and run A/B tests on Facebook:

Theoretically, the ad that performs the best is the one you should invest in and run for the remaining campaign time.

The Cons Of Leveraging Outbound Marketing

The majority of the difficulties with outbound marketing centre around striking a balance between well-timed, personal promotions and just being interruptive or even creepy.

Then there’s the issue of growth – while inbound results compound over time, the only way to grow with outbound is to spend more money.

Let’s dive deeper…

Outbound marketing has a high cost per lead with linear growth

Though the research is pretty dated now, HubSpot famously shared that outbound marketing had an average cost per lead of $346 (roughly €318) – with inbound leads 61% cheaper at $135 (€124).

Cost per lead depends on a huge range of factors, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that results will always be proportionate to how much you spend on your campaigns.

This is really important to consider, especially with a limited budget. With inbound marketing methodology, you have the reassurance that results can compound over time as your company builds domain authority and attracts more traffic.

But with outbound, you spend X to get Y.

Outbound marketing is risky because people hate, ignore, and block ads

Outbound marketing is everywhere, and the spammiest brands have ruined it for the rest of us.

Brand reputation, once lost, is extremely hard to earn back. The challenging state of the consumer’s perception of outbound marketing is clear to see:

  1. About a third of internet users find ads across social media, TV, websites, and email marketing campaigns to be excessive
  2. 31% of people use ad blockers
  3. 58% of people even don’t pay attention to online ads

That’s a very high possibility the ad campaign you poured your heart and soul into will be perceived negatively by your target audience or ignored altogether.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest in outbound marketing at all. Instead, it shows it’s never been more important to put your customers at the front of your strategy.

Everything about your outbound marketing campaign should be tailored and validated around what your target audience will find valuable.

When Is Outbound Marketing Best?

Outbound marketing is definitely worthwhile when:

  • You need immediate visibility and reach for a time-bound promotion or opportunity. Outbound campaigns are highly effective when you create a sense of urgency about a particular product, promotion, or hot trend. Product launches, Black Friday sales, and playbooks with AI prompts for marketers are classic examples.
  • You have valuable content or message for a highly-targeted audience. Outbound is most effective in collaboration with solid content. If you’ve got a goldmine of relevant and helpful content ready to nurture a new audience, an outbound campaign to pull them in will help you drive engagement.
  • You have the budget (and permission) to experiment. Growth marketing is experimental by design. You can do as much research and planning as you possibly can – at the end of the day, you’ll always need to run a few tests to validate your message and target audience. Even if they don’t yield the results you want, a carefully controlled outbound campaign is a valuable test of whether your strategy is resonating with your audience.

Inbound Marketing Vs Outbound Marketing: Which To Pick?

Telling a business to choose inbound or outbound marketing is like telling someone to choose exercise or healthy eating.

While the exact formula of the two will vary depending on many factors, the best-case scenario is to combine inbound and outbound marketing.

Think of inbound vs outbound digital marketing not as opponents but as a symbiotic relationship where the quality of one affects the efficacy of the other.

A perfect example of this is the Seltzer Goods Facebook ad campaign, which increased monthly organic traffic by 183%.

But if you’re a startup trying to gain traction, we think you should prioritise creating valuable content assets ready to nurture traffic from your outbound campaigns.

If you master content marketing for B2B tech first, you’ll be able to leverage some compounding growth and traffic in the background while improving return on ad spend (ROAS) because your audience recognises your brand for its valuable content.

The most important thing to remember is to know your target audience and understand what they want – from marketing content, from ads, and from your company.

Get that right, and you’ll be on the right track.

Conclusion: It’s Not Inbound Vs Outbound Marketing – Use Them Together

Deciding how to balance inbound and outbound tactics can be very difficult, especially if you’re a startup or haven’t pursued digital marketing in new channels before.

This is where our experienced team is valuable. Bringing our expertise in combining inbound and outbound marketing, we can help you create and refine specific short- and long-term goals and execute campaigns that’ll get results.

Book a chat with us or download our Digital Marketing Strategy template to get started yourself – best of luck! 🙌

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