What Is Inbound Marketing and How Does It Support Marketing Strategy?

Inbound marketing is any marketing campaign where consumers initiate an interaction with a brand. This allows them to attract prospects with value-added content and/or experiences tailored to their interests. This organically connects the prospect to a brand.

According to a report from Statista, 29% of US B2B companies plan to explore inbound marketing as a marketing strategy in 2021. That ranked below:

  • Account-based marketing (ABM): 46%
  • Video marketing: 41%
  • Influencer marketing: 38%
  • Artificial intelligence: 38%
  • Retargeting: 33%
  • Personalization: 32%

The History of Inbound Marketing

Business owners have used inbound marketing tactics for decades. However, the founders at HubSpot, a Cambridge, MA-based marketing and sales software provider, are said to have formally identified these marketing-strategy concepts in the early 2000s.

HubSpot defines inbound marketing as “a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them,” according to Jon Dick, HubSpot senior vice president of marketing. “While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have.”

HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah met at MIT Sloan School of Management in 2004. They noticed a shift in the way people shop and buy, according to Dick. Consumers were no longer tolerating interruptive bids for their attention; in fact, they were immune to these traditional outbound techniques, Dick added. The founders devised a new way to market: inbound marketing. This allowed companies to match their marketing with how buyers liked to buy, Dick said.

“They built a new type of marketing application to help them pull it off that adds value rather than extracting it,” he added. “Today, the inbound movement continues to empower businesses around the world to stop interrupting, start helping, and return their focus to the customer.”

Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing

Inbound marketing courts customers and prospects without directly contacting them. Outbound marketing specifically targets them through tactics such as email marketing blasts.

“The comparison between inbound marketing and outbound marketing is clear,” said Christine Bowes, associate vice president of marketing at All Campus. “Inbound marketing is a pull strategy that draws prospects in through relevant, useful or meaningful content, while outbound marketing is a push strategy that aims to intersect targeted prospects with a brand message.”

With inbound marketing, the customer initiates interaction while the marketer initiates contact with outbound marketing, according to Bob Conklin, solution marketing leader at Adobe. Outbound marketing often sends a message to a massive amount of people in the hopes of making a sale, Conklin added. This strategy is rooted, he said, in the thought that the larger the group you message to, the larger the return.

“In contrast, inbound marketing is usually more subtle and focuses on convincing a particular group or individual to make a purchase over time,” Conklin said. “It must also be said, though, that more targeted versions of outbound marketing — for instance, used in conjunction with account-based marketing strategies — have emerged. For most businesses, a mix of inbound marketing and targeted outbound marketing is the best bet.”

Inbound Marketing vs. Content Marketing

Comparisons between inbound marketing and content marketing are less clear, Bowes said, and they actually have more similarities than differences. Well-crafted content is central to each strategy. This represents a less-intrusive form of marketing with a shared goal of generating awareness, building relationships and conversion.

“When it comes to targeting,” Bowes said, “inbound marketing is focused on specific prospect personas, whereas content marketing has a much broader reach.”

Content marketing is a piece of the inbound marketing puzzle, according to Conklin. Content that is personalized, relevant and engaging is essential to attracting and keeping the attention of customers, he added.

“And while content plays a vital role in inbound marketing,” Conklin said, “it is only one part of the equation. Inbound also requires marketers to successfully place the content; and know how to get it in front of customers.”

Inbound Marketing Examples

Inbound marketing continues to evolve, according to Dick. In the early days, it was largely blogs and eBooks, but marketers have adapted as customers and the technology they use evolves. Freemium software gives customers the power to chat, engage with companies and buy on their terms.

Here are some inbound marketing examples:

HubSpot’s Adapt Series Features Webinars, Blogs

Dick cited a specific example of inbound marketing in a campaign his teams created for customers during the height of the pandemic called “Adapt.” Adapt was a series that leveraged trend data, webinars, blog content and more to help customers and community weather the storm of COVID-19.

“Each week, we pulled anonymized customer benchmark data so our community could have a baseline of what others in similar industries and regions were experiencing,” Dick said. “All of this content was completely free, and it was based on what people actually wanted to learn, which made it attractive. Adapt’s impact can be seen in thousands of people that registered and viewed our various pieces of content. This is an example of meeting readers where they are with education that helps them solve their specific challenges.”

Inbound Marketing Features SEO, Social Media Marketing

Inbound marketing comes in many forms, including search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing, blogs, email, events and lead management efforts, according to Bowes. Infographics and engagement tools like quizzes and surveys are also very impactful tactics to incorporate into inbound executions.

“Integrating these various tactics –– while also ensuring they’re supported by relevant, engaging content –– are really the keys to a strong inbound marketing strategy,” Bowes said.

SEO in Action: Searching for New Marketing Products

Each inbound marketing strategy works together to move customers along their buyer journey, Conklin said.

A simplified example may be a customer looking for a new marketing analytics tool. The customer starts by searching for “marketing analytics” in their search engine and clicks on the first organic result. “The result turns out to be a blog about the pros and cons of various analytics tools,” Conklin said. “At the end of the article is a link to a webinar to learn more about marketing analytics tools. The customer signs up for the webinar and is now engaging further along the buyer journey.”

Which Technologies Support Inbound Marketing Strategy?

The essential technology components for an inbound marketing strategy include a content management system (CMS), a customer relationship management (CRM) system for lead management, marketing automation software, web analytics and social media monitoring tools, according to Bowes. “Given the amount of moving parts to any marketing strategy, a project management tool is essential,” she added.

Brands need a variety of technology and software to successfully implement inbound marketing, according to Conklin. A few technologies to consider include:

  • Customer data platforms: CDPs collect and analyze customer data that unifies data across multiple technologies into a single view of the customer.
  • Marketing automation: These solutions enable marketers to orchestrate cross-channel customer engagement and capture and manage leads.
  • Content management systems: CMS help marketers turn content into exceptional digital experiences that earn engagement.
  • Marketing analytics: These platforms allow marketers to see how campaigns are performing, adjust campaigns as needed and justify their efforts.
  • Artificial intelligence: AI’s built into many of the technologies mentioned above. AI makes it easier for companies to match the right people with the right content. Companies are increasingly letting AI make real-time decisions about what content is being delivered, and the scale of AI will continue to grow, according to Conklin.

What Problems Does Inbound Marketing Solve?

Inbound marketing can help brands solve a variety of problems, including:

Creates Delightful Customer Experiences

Inbound marketing helps create a delightful customer experience from a customer’s first interaction with your company, according to Dick. “Philosophically, it’s about giving the customer education to help them reach their own purchasing decisions instead of relying on what a sales rep says,” he added.

Builds Strong Organic Acquisition Channels

Inbound marketing helps build strong organic acquisition channels that bring down customer acquisition costs (CAC) and help your businesses scale. “In 2021 and beyond, consumers are in control; actually, they have been for a while,” Dick said. “In addition to reading educational content and blogs, customers research decisions through review sites, their own networks, and vibrant communities of their peers who have strong opinions strongly held. Inbound marketing is about being in the right place, with the right education, when your customers and potential customers are looking for help.”

Creates Qualified Leads

Inbound marketing can solve a multitude of marketing challenges. It can help brands increase brand awareness, drive website traffic, generate and nurture leads, retain existing customers and increase conversion, according to Bowes.

“These are similar to the problems that outbound marketing can help solve,” she said, “but the main difference is that inbound marketing often generates better quality leads at a lower cost.”

Empowers Consumers to Research on Own Terms

Today’s customers want to do their own research before making a purchase, Conklin said, and often that research starts online. Inbound marketing allows consumers to do their research in a less intrusive way on their own terms — where, when and how they prefer. The brand’s role is to provide the relevant content on the right channels to attract the right customer.

“Another benefit of inbound marketing is that it is quantifiable,” he said. “Each component of an inbound marketing campaign can be tracked and optimized over time.”

Getting Started With Inbound Marketing

One of the most important first steps marketers can take while developing an inbound marketing strategy is to ensure you have an understanding of your intended target audiences, according to Bowes. “This is the foundation that provides the ability to create the right mix of topics and tone for your content,” she said. “It’s also important to establish your goals. Are you wanting to increase site traffic? Achieve weekly or monthly lead volumes? Generate a particular number of downloads?”

Establishing a nurturing strategy, whether it’s through email automation, a strong inbound call center or both, is also a key initial step. “Some portion of your audience will convert high in the funnel, but most need additional touches to reach your goal, so establishing a nurturing strategy that accounts for each stage of the funnel is critical,” Bowes added.

The first thing marketers need to do starting an inbound marketing strategy is to understand the customer journey, Conklin said. They need to know what questions customers are asking and at what stage of the journey they’re asking them, so that the marketers can create content that answers the questions or offers a solution to the problem.

“Once the marketers know what kinds of content they can share to engage a consumer, they need to start creating it,” he said. “Inbound marketing tends to be more top of funnel — its purpose is to reach consumers at the beginning of the buyer journey, then guide them through each phase.”

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