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Outbound vs inbound marketing in 2021, which is better?

(And, most of all, are they mutually exclusive when creating your digital sales and marketing strategy?)

Outbound vs inbound marketing in 2021, which is better? Blog Feature

Liz Moorehead

Editor-in-Chief, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast

May 18th, 2021 min read

Marketers are an all-or-nothing kind of group. The minute something new comes along, we quickly drop whatever it was that we had previously loved or sworn by as gospel and embrace the shiny new object put in front of us.

For example, let's all remember when inbound marketing really started gaining traction about a decade or so ago. By 2012, it had ascended to "industry darling" status, in parallel with the growth of HubSpot, a marketing, sales and service platform – at the time, the HubSpot team was positioning the inbound methodology as the philosophical crown jewel of everything they were building and stood for.

🎓 IMPACT+ course: Digital sales and marketing for today's modern buyer

Prior to inbound, we relied upon more traditional methods of marketing and advertising. You know, direct mailers, television and radio ads, print advertising, and so on. The stuff that interrupted an ideal buyer's "daily routine" or "regularly scheduled programming," so to speak.

With inbound marketing, on the other hand, us beleaguered marketers didn't have to fight for attention. Instead, we earned the attention of our ideal buyers organically. 

What's funny is that, when we originally wrote this article years ago, the differentiation and choice between inbound vs. outbound marketing might have seemed more direct and simple to some. That is no longer the case.

Moreover, after more than a decade in this industry – including our experience both with our digital sales and marketing mastery clients, and our paid media and social advertising clients – we noticed something else, too. Inbound and outbound marketing tactics aren't as mutually exclusive as some of us might have once thought.

So, in this article, revised entirely for a new decade, we're going to answer:

  • What is inbound marketing and where did it come from?
  • Are outbound and inbound mutually exclusive in 2020 and beyond?
  • How do you know what's right for your company?

First, let's dive more deeply into what inbound marketing is ... 

Inbound marketing wasn't created because some marketers got bored and decided they wanted something new to play with. Rather, thanks to the internet, consumer behavior has radically changed in the past 20+ years. 

For example, decades ago, if you wanted to buy a car, you would have gone directly to the lot and worked with someone in sales to learn your options, get answers to questions, understand what others thought of the vehicles you were considering, etc., before you took it for a test drive and signed on the bottom line.

Now, if you're like me this past November, I did all of that research online in advance, before I even set foot in the store. Specifically, I researched everything I could find on the 2020 Jeep Compass in what are now called The Big 5 blog topics – cost, reviews, problems, comparisons and best-of:

What are The Big 5 [v3]

Watch: What are The Big 5 best business blog topics?

(Psst, The Big 5 are simply the five inbound or content marketing blog topics guaranteed to drive the most traffic, leads and sales.)

Only once I had confirmed the 2020 Jeep Compass (Latitude Edition) was actually what I wanted — and I had confirmed the exact dealership that had the one I was looking for in stock — did I set foot in front of a Jeep sales guy.

And, by that point, I was just there for the test drive and confirmation that was the car I wanted, before I signed on the dotted line.

I'm not alone in this shift in buying behavior, by the way.

According to Google, buyers on average now conduct 70% or more of their research into a purchasing decision before they even think about contacting someone in sales or reaching out to a company for more information on their products and services.

🎓 IMPACT+ course: Creating memorable, money-making content for dummies

Inbound is designed to bring potential customers who are actively in the market to your business. It’s about getting found when they’re looking, rather than forcing your message on people who may or may not be interested.

Another way of looking at it is that inbound marketing is designed to better align your organization with the buyer’s journey, the natural process a modern buyer goes through when searching for a solution online.

How the buyer's journey works

  1. Awareness Stage: Prospect has a problem they want to solve or an opportunity they want to seize.
  2. Consideration Stage: Prospect has researched their problem, understands it, and is aware of potential solutions.
  3. Decision Stage: Prospect has narrowed down the products/services and must decide which one to purchase.

As an example, let’s talk about Mary. Mary owns a company that sells fancy dress socks. Cool, right?

Mary is looking to understand how she can use different marketing strategies to drive sales for her growing sock business. After reading several marketing blogs on the topic, Mary decides that inbound marketing is the best strategy because she’s looking to invest in long-term revenue growth.

In her research, she found several highly recommended inbound marketing agencies and reached out to a few whose service offerings aligned with her needs. Typical inbound marketing tactics that help take someone through the buyer’s journey include:

  • Blogging
  • Social media
  • Email marketing
  • Content creation
  • Lead magnets
  • SEO

Inbound marketing tactics like these are designed to help prospects discover your business in the early stages of the Buyer’s Journey and to educate them on the benefits of your solution, all while building trust throughout the process.

And, when implemented correctly, inbound works

Seriously, I'm not kidding. Just check out these stats:

  • 80% of business decision-makers favor getting brand information via articles rather than by way of paid advertisements. (Content Marketing Institute)
  • 83% of online tech buyers found their vendor via Google search. (MarketingSherpa
  • After five months of consistent inbound marketing strategy execution, the average cost per lead drops 80%. (Eloqua
  • When inbound marketing tactics are executed properly, they are 10 times more effective for lead conversion, as compared to outbound methods. (Gartner

Of course, these types of statistics are always more powerful when you put real names and companies behind them, right? So, let's do that with a few inbound marketing success stories that will illuminate the true benefits for you:

Read Aquila's full inbound marketing success story

Read AIS' full inbound marketing success story.

Tell me those numbers and these success stories don't make you excited, as a digital marketer or business leader, to get down with inbound marketing for your company.

Now, let's talk about outbound marketing

As opposed to marketing to people who are already looking for a solution like yours, outbound marketing aims at trying to reach as many people as possible, whether or not they are active buyers.

In the past, old-school marketers put their products and services in front of people with outbound tactics such as:

  • Commercials
  • Print ads
  • Billboards
  • Cold-calling
  • Direct mail

In the modern digital era, that list has expanded to include Facebook Ads, Google Ads, and other paid media strategies across platforms such as LinkedIn.

But again, in direct contrast to inbound, these tactics (traditionally) have been put out into the world as interruptions. The piece of mail you didn't ask for, the commercial you skip through (thanks to on-demand technology), the Google Ad that's in the way of the organic results you're looking for. 

And the numbers, on the surface, back up the idea that inbound wins out over outbound for marketing every single time:

Going back to what I said at the start, however, the choice between inbound and outbound was fairly binary for most marketers.

"Inbound is better! Outbound has no place in our hearts for us anymore!"

Now, the answer is a little more blurry. But in a good way.

What's the choice between outbound and inbound marketing?

Anyone who says that either inbound or outbound is always superior is giving you a biased answer. To determine which one is best, you have to consider your specific business, audience, and your marketing objectives.

Is inbound marketing the best?

One of the biggest strengths of inbound marketing is that it is focused on providing value to your prospects. It’s educational and often non-promotional.

Since inbound marketing aligns with the Buyer’s Journey, it builds a relationship between your prospects and your brand. This also attracts prospects to your brand at the right time, as opposed to interrupting them at a time when they are NOT in the market for what you offer.

For this reason, buyers prefer inbound marketing over outbound marketing. Instead of being annoying, it helps them.

The other major strength of inbound marketing is the long-term ROI. Generally speaking, inbound marketing requires a higher upfront investment and brings slower results for the first several months. However, those initial stages are necessary to build your digital marketing assets, increase your presence online and rank higher in search engines.

🔎 Related resources:

Over time, the value of those assets increases at a higher rate than they cost to maintain or improve. Digital assets like blog posts and premium offers can continue to generate leads years after they were originally created without costing an additional penny.

... Or is outbound the best?

The biggest positive of outbound marketing is its ability to get in front of a large number of people quickly and build awareness. If done correctly, you can launch an outbound marketing campaign, get seen by millions and have new customers within a few weeks. However, the results are more dependent on the money you invest.

Usually, you have to spend more to see more results, and when you stop spending money, the benefits stop. Unlike inbound, you don’t get many tangible, long-term assets that continue to generate leads with outbound marketing.

Also, outbound marketing tends to be more disliked. In fact, entire businesses have been built on the premise of regaining the control that buyers have lost to outbound marketing. Take, for example, Netflix’s attractiveness over TV's advertisement-laden programming or the incredible success of AdBlock on the web.  

Even with all that, outbound can still help you win in an inbound world.

Use outbound to accelerate inbound results

One of the most mind-blowing conversations I had about blending inbound and outbound was with one of my favorite humans (and one of our wizard-like paid media specialists), Jason Linde

Here's what he told me:

"Everybody's adopting content at a stronger level than ever before. The basic little rinky-dink websites aren't happening. They're getting more complex. People are putting more out there.

"They Ask, You Answer is a real thing that has next-leveled inbound, and inbound has taken off like wildfire — so again, everybody's adopting this.

"So, your space is now being inundated with content. Now, it's a matter of how well you're writing that content and are you playing to the SEO gods? How paid can help is by elevating you a little bit when you need it.

"What I mean by that is content gets you into the top of the SERP. You want to be that go-to. But you've got steep competition, right?

"You can elevate that very fast with paid. You can take control of the top while your content climbs the organic ranks, because that does not happen overnight. In some cases, for highly competitive keywords, it can take months to crack the top 10 (if not more), no matter how high-quality your content is.

"If you have something new you want to roll out, if you have messaging you want to test, that's where paid benefits.

"You're getting in front of people faster than waiting on the organic side to take off.

"You can get there faster.

"You can get quicker return.

"You can make faster decisions.

"So, let's say you're in a space or industry that's super-competitive. Maybe you want to try out some messaging. Or you have a service that needs more love. Or perhaps you have an offer or something that isn't converting or hitting the right numbers, and you don't know why.

"Whatever the case may be, you need to get people on your landing page, looking at that service page, or what have you, at scale, so you can see quickly what is or isn't working. 

"Again, you can do that faster with paid on your side. Just because you write something and put it on your site doesn't mean that thousands of people are immediately going to find it, click on it and read it."

Read that. Then re-read it. Seriously, for a good number of you out there, this blend of inbound and paid media may be a real game-changer for your ability to achieve your most aggressive bottom-line goals.

More broadly, you can also be more inbound with your outbound

We believe in an inbound-focused approach that also uses outbound marketing when appropriate. This means using outbound tactics to get your company in front of potential buyers while focusing more on helping than selling upfront.

For example, let's say you sell landscaping services for a specific geographic region. To help boost leads and sales, you could run a Google Ads or PPC (pay-per-click) advertising campaign that promotes an offer for a buyer's guide on everything someone needs to know about big backyard landscaping projects. Or, if you're like Bahler Brothers, you could promote a project calculator.

This works because people are more likely to engage in a brand that helps them understand the buying process, instead of asking simply asking for their money.

Or let’s say you were purchasing a booth at a local conference. You could use inbound tactics to gather leads and promote your presence leading up to the event. For instance, you could provide a USB key as a giveaway, and that key could be loaded up with purely educational content that will empower someone to make a smarter purchasing decision.

So, what's right for your company?

There are businesses that have found tremendous success by exclusively using inbound marketing or outbound marketing. There are also plenty who have done well by using both. Ultimately, you have to figure out what’s right for your company by considering the following:

Your market

First, you have to consider who your ideal buyers are and how they normally shop for what you offer. Where do they go to learn more about the types of solutions you offer?

To get a better idea, take a look at your industry as a whole and your direct competitors. What marketing tactics are most common and seem to be most effective?

Your goals

What are you trying to achieve? Do you want to build brand awareness? Drive traffic? How many customers are you aiming to get and what’s your timeline for that goal?

Inbound marketing is the best long-term strategy, but it’s probably not going to dramatically increase business in the first few months. Outbound marketing, on other hand, can help you get customers in the door quickly, but it comes with diminishing returns.

More often than not, the best strategy is to combine a little of both, while taking an inbound approach to both – meaning you are measuring results accurately and you’re aiming for long-term brand-building alongside short-term growth.

Your brand

Finally, you should consider how the marketing tactics you deploy will affect your brand’s image. Launching an aggressive cold-calling might get some sales upfront, but how will it affect your reputation long-term?

You only want to use marketing tactics that your brand can be proud of and that your customers would approve of if they knew how you executed them. More often than not, the truth comes out and it’s incredibly difficult to overcome a bad reputation.

So, wait ... is inbound or outbound better?

Here's your answer: Neither.

Inbound and outbound marketing are two separate approaches that can be used effectively on their own or even together. Each one has its unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Outbound is a better short-term solution with higher long-term costs, while inbound marketing tends to be the better long-term solution with its own set of associated investment costs.

For example, the best inbound marketing success stories all share one thing in common – they own their content creation efforts in-house. So, instead of hiring advertising specialists, you'll need to invest in the hiring of a content manager to really do inbound well. 

Your best bet, however, is to focus like a laser on a single goal – to differentiate yourself as the No. 1 teacher about what it is that you do or sell. Only then can you leverage both inbound and outbound tactics to drive the traffic, leads and sales that you're looking for.

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