Inbound vs Outbound Marketing: Which One is Better?

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If you own a blog or affiliate website, you’ve probably heard about inbound and outbound marketing. Or, maybe not. However, in the world of online (and offline) advertising, these terms are often used to describe different ways of bringing in traffic and generating sales. Likewise, different marketing automation platforms often focus on inbound or outbound marketing.

To use a common social stereotype, inbound marketing can be compared to an introverted and nerdy kid who, though not socially outgoing, is a technological whiz. Thus, in spite of his social awkwardness, other kids flock to him for help with their computers, game consoles, etc. That’s inbound marketing for you- quality content and rich media that rely mostly on organic discovery by the customer.

To use another social stereotype, outbound marketing is like the trendy socialite who goes out of her way to get noticed and invited to all the right events. In her case, she need not be proficient at anything aside from being social (having good looks doesn’t hurt either). Outbound marketing, like the socialite, relies heavily on promotion and image. It also gets customers’ attention, if for no other reason than because it interrupts whatever they were searching for or doing online.

Inbound marketing typically consists of introspective activities like blogging, researching and using keywords for better SEO, generating valuable white papers and pillar articles, and posting in-depth product reviews.

By contrast, outbound marketing relies heavily on extroverted activities like sending out emails to a subscriber list, posting announcements and discounts on social media platforms, and buying pay-per-click (PPC) ads through sites like Google AdWords.

To outbound…or not to outbound?

There is an ongoing debate right now, at least among marketers of different persuasions, that inbound marketing is the marketing of the future and outbound marketing is, well, on its way out.

As opposed to outbound marketing, which carries the stigma of the annoying banner and pop-up ad of the late 90’s, inbound marketing is being touted as the gentler and more “humane” way to approach potential customers. It’s not sales-centric but rather customer-centric. Build it (your content) and they (your customers) will come. There’s no need to do “push marketing” anymore because the Internet has redefined how customers can be enticed to buy.

Inbound marketing is also being touted as vastly cheaper than outbound. According to an infographic published by MDG advertising, inbound marketing channels such as blogs and SEO/organic search were identified as being below average cost compared to outbound channels.

Of course, cost is relative. While it may not cost as much money to write a blog post as to print trade show materials, good quality content that is keyword-optimized and contains the right “link bait” can take several days to produce. Pillar articles and white papers might take weeks to months to publish. And ditto with other organic methods of generating leads such as operating online forums, engaging in public speaking events and creating videos/animations.

Time is still money.

At the other end of the scale, there is outbound marketing, which traditionally includes PPC and boosted ads as well as the offline and more traditional television and radio ads, billboards, trade show booths, direct mailings, etc. While often vilified, outbound marketing does serve an important purpose: To alert potential customers that a given product or service exists. After all, what good is it to have a solution to a customer’s inquiry or issue if the customer is not aware of this solution?

Therein lies the problem with relying on just a blog, pillar article or referral (i.e., inbound marketing) for increased brand awareness: Unless you want to wait several years for traffic buildup, your sales will languish while a competitor takes over the virtual landscape by using big splashy PPC or other ads.

However, if all you do is rely on outbound marketing, customers who continue to be inundated with your ads and promotions will quickly tire of the endless advertising. Also, if your website or blog can’t back up your claims with useful information, videos, etc., your initial traffic streams will dry up as disgruntled visitors go away.

What is inbound and outbound marketing anyway?

There is some disagreement on how certain marketing channels should be defined. For example, HubSpot’s Mike Volpe considers email marketing to only be outbound when it’s not permission-based. Other marketers would not even consider sending emails to recipients who had not first granted their permission due to concerns about being perceived as a spammer and violating the CAN-SPAM Act.

Rand Fishkin of Moz, formerly SEOMoz, categorizes PPC advertising as inbound and not outbound or so-called “interruption marketing.” Why? Because he views PPC as contextual in nature; in other words, if you’re searching online for a pizza joint and come across a PPC ad for Pizza Hut, that ad is being portrayed within the context of your search and is not interrupting your quest for pizza.

The debate is pointless

In the end, the debate about using only inbound or only outbound is pointless. So is vilifying one form of marketing. There are many benefits to promoting your site in an assertive manner, including attracting new and bigger numbers of customers, generating additional comments and feedback, and even initiating collaboration and community.

Likewise, building up your blog and making sure you include in-depth product reviews and videos is invaluable because potential customers want quality content. These same customers have no reason to stay on your site, never mind return to it, if all you do is launch PPC or other outbound ads that point to an empty or thin content site.

Also, regardless of whether you focus on inbound or outbound marketing, both types require time, money and talent. There is really no such thing as free marketing.

In the end, you need not choose one type of marketing over another. What you can do, however, is balance inbound and outbound marketing by focusing on just one or two channels from each marketing category. For example, you might choose blogging as a way to draw readers in, and email marketing as a way to notify subscribers about your affiliate product sales. Otherwise, you could post product reviews and run a small PPC campaign.

By engaging in both inbound and outbound marketing (no matter how small each channel effort might be), you’ll gain both quality content and increased traffic, search optimization and customer advocates, site authority and brand awareness. Likewise, your website or blog will see a steady stream of new and returning customers, experience increased revenue, and have constant access to a pool of potential product reviewers and advocates.

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