Whether you're a marketing leader or business owner, you've no doubt seen and heard the term "inbound marketing" used a million different times and ways.
And, like most buzzwords, there are a ton of conflicting ideas of what it is and how it can impact a business.
Can it help me reduce my company's dependency on cold calling? Can it create predictability in my sales forecasting? Or is it just another online marketing buzzword?
What is Inbound Marketing?
In simplest terms, inbound is a growth engine, empowering you to generate high-quality sales leads through your website.
It's rooted in both a philosophy and a tactical playbook, and the latter is constantly evolving. Why? Because we're evolving... because Google is only 20+ years old, and within the last decade, they've completely changed the way people buy...
How does it differ from traditional marketing strategy?
Rather than disrupt, inbound invites. And although content marketing can be found in traditional marketing as well, it's the center of inbound.
What's really important to note is the formula involved with inbound. It captures all stages of the sales funnel, not just attracting customers. We also want to convert, close, and delight them.
When I first started in inbound, I might have told you that inbound doesn't include things like direct mail or other outbound tactics. However, my view on this has changed. Why? Because inbound is more complicated today than ever.
I am a big advocate of listening to the search engines... and playing by the rules - Google's rules, to be specific. I know that doesn't sound sexy, but there are very few of you out there with enough resources to take on that juggarnaught and win.
Now, to be clear, we THRIVE on pushing the boundaries of conventional marketing, and we are constantly fine-tuning our process, delivery model, and strategic mindset. However, EVERYTHING must pass the philosophical sniff-test if we are to call it inbound, so that's where I want to start.
I like to call this the "separation of church and state" in marketing or the religion vs the science of a business. The philosophy/religion is one that won't change. The delivery/science, however, will... and often.
Pull vs Push - This is the probably biggest distinction between inbound marketing and outbound marketing (what are some others?). With inbound, you are pulling people to your website and through the marketing funnel. Each path to purchasing is unique, because buyers are the ones taking initiative by visiting your website. Outbound is the opposite; it pushes, and each recipient of your messaging is pretty much hearing the same pitch.
Owning vs Renting - With inbound, you OWN your marketing. You're creating a system that you can learn from and build upon. This contrasts starkly with outbound, because when you instead pay for ads or a service that sends you leads from THEIR inbound marketing program, the minute you stop the payments, all of the benefits stop as well. With inbound, you're not paying for clicks. You're paying for optimized content that will work for you 24/7/365, to earn those clicks. And even if you stop blogging tomorrow, you'll still earn rewards from your older posts.
In fact, our best performing blog posts are from 2015 and 2016, because they followed the rules, and after earning Google's trust and continuing to post related content, we have been rewarded with more traffic.
A lot of "inbound agencies" are actually only able to call themselves that because the leads they sell to their clients come from inbound marketing programs. But what they don't tell you is that you're only paying for the leads themselves, not the marketing, so your company won't actually own the IP or have any tangible assets.
I wrote an article about this very issue, which is blind sighting businesses when they turn the switch off or pause it for a month. You can read about it HERE.
Permission-based - This is definitely one of the next more important distinctions of inbound (top 3 in my book!). Leads that are generated by inbound give you permission to market and sell to them. You don't buy a list with their contact information, and your company is no stranger to them. THEY give YOU their contact information... willingly.
Earning & Learning - Inbound is all about earning trust with Google by proving that your website is an educational resource. Why do they care so much about your website being an educational resource? They care because their users care, and they became a global powerhouse by putting users first. Help your users learn - not about YOU - but about the problems your business solves. The difference between the two is enormous.
Narrow vs broad - Inbound is ALL about attracting people who have a high probability of caring about your messaging. By providing limitless conversion paths interconnected throughout your website and other online mediums, each visitor will have a unique, customized (by themselves) experience. It happens that way on purpose. Each word we publish has purpose, and each publication is geared for a specific persona.
Revenue-focused - At the end of the day, your inbound investment should be built around revenue-goals. It's not about "impressions" or "likes" or "shares" or "clicks" or even traffic to the website. It's about sales. Keep in mind though that when you talk to an inbound marketing agency about the subject, they will likely talk about traffic and leads. This is actually okay, because those are milestones, and they're great indicators of your existing situation. However, they are not the end-game. Revenue is.
The inbound playbook is going to evolve, just as it has numerous times since Hubspot first coined the term in 2007. As I mentioned earlier, Google really changed the game, and they're going to continue to do so as long as users' demands change.
If you're looking at something right now and trying to determine if it's inbound or not, and it's not on our list, then I suggest either connecting with one of our analysts to review or just go back to the original philosophy, starting at the top. Is it pushing or pulling? Does it require permission to market to somebody? And so on...
The playbook today looks like this (download the step-by-step version):
- Landing pages
- Content offers gated by forms
It's important to note that every piece is interconnected. For example, SEO will dictate the topics and language you use throughout your website, in your blog posts, and even the content offers you give away.
It's also important to note that in order for inbound to really truly work, you should be executing each one of those steps in the playbook. Yes, I have seen partial inbound programs work, but to the scale one would expect when ONLY focusing on traffic versus actual revenue. That said, I've also seen those same clients eventually go all-in.
Here's the image you'll see a million times before your search is over, but perhaps with context from this post it will make more sense now:
If you're looking for the safe bet, spread your resources. Although "going all in," may seem contradictory to that concept, but with inbound, that's exactly what you're doing, and that diversity is why it works.
Another great way to tell if something is inbound vs outbound is to look at the overall timing for reaching one's goals.
Inbound requires time because we're following the rules, and we're not deploying strategy meant to help us cut in line. We move ahead when Google determines that it's time. If somebody is offering 200% traffic growth month-over-month within the first quarter, it's likely not inbound - unless traffic is so low today that merely looking at it will give it more...
Now, even though Google is determining when we move up in the ranks, it's our job to ensure we're doing what they want us to do... which takes us back to the original philosophy.Here's what a typical inbound timeline will look like (post-launch, which should take about 2 months)
- Months 1 - 3: Q1 execution
- Month 3: Analyze & retool overall strategy
- Months 4 - 6: Q2 execution
- Month 6: Analyze & retool overall strategy
- Months 7 - 9: Q3 execution
- Month 9: Analyze & retool overall strategy
- Months 10 - 12: Q4 execution
- Months 7 - 12: Start seeing positive movement and even leads
- Months 12 - 24: Positive ROI
By month 12, you should see a tangible impact on your business, and by month 24, if your inbound plan was the right plan, you should hit and exceed your financial goals.
There ARE definitely exceptions to the timing rule. For example, one of our recent software clients started getting numerous qualified leads by month 3, and a recent staffing client of ours landed their first inbound customer in month 2.
And it's NOT uncommon for inbound to directly impact your other sales efforts. Take, for example, the same software client that started getting qualified leads by month 3, they actually leveraged their inbound program with their other sales efforts as well, and by the end of month 4, we were influencing a 500% year over year growth.
How did we do that? Simple. By providing a more comprehensive online experience, and helping their salespeople leverage said experience in their existing sales model, their success rates for book initial appointments AND closing the deals improved dramatically. And we could see clear as day that the big differentiator was them interacting with our content vs prior years where they were doing nothing but phone calls and emails.
Inbound marketing is great if you're trying to create a predictable source of highly engaged leads for your sales teams. It's also great if your growth goals extend past the 12 month mark, and if you're hoping to build on your successes. Flashy, high-risk/high-reward thrill-seekers should look elsewhere, because this isn't it.
Inbound is methodical and built off of a black-and-white formula. Relevant content. Relevant discovery. Relevant leads.
Get more eyes on your products or services. Filter out those who are ready to buy and those still needing nurturing through marketing automation.
Check out this guide to getting started with inbound: