As a content marketer, you can call yourself a communicator, a creator, a social media guru and a passionate brand ambassador. With the right technique, you can also confidently call yourself an inbound marketer.

Here’s the elevator pitch: Inbound marketing is a technique that utilizes the tools of the digital age to attract consumers via content marketing, social media, SEO and branding. It creates a compelling pathway for consumers to find their way to your brand.

Ready for the whole story? Let’s talk.

Starting with introductions

Before we dive into the details of how inbound marketing works, let’s break the ice with the background story. Where did the term come from? When did it come to be? Does it have a degree in marketing?

If anyone can take credit for the birth of inbound marketing, it’s HubSpot. Brian Halligan, the company’s co-founder and CEO, officially coined the term back in the early 2000s. Sparked by the advent of the internet, the HubSpot founders picked up on how the digital world would change consumer perspectives and buying experiences.

As customers learned how to block disruptive ads and avoid sales efforts, the HubSpot founders realized that outbound strategies would continue to fall flat. Instead, brands needed to adapt to the digital age with new ways of reaching targeted audiences.

With that, inbound marketing was born and content marketers everywhere rejoiced.

Straying from tradition

You could say that inbound is the black sheep of the marketing family. While the inbound approach differs from traditional advertising and marketing tactics, they are still linked by the common goal of generating leads and increasing sales.

Traditional advertising consists of paid media that delivers company-specific, promotional messages to large audiences. Think about the commercials we’re so grateful we can now fast-forward through.

Outbound marketing is similar to advertising in that it pushes products, services and messages on consumers. Major drawbacks include its hefty price tag, considerable time investment and potential annoyance to consumers. The classic example is cold calling: If anyone says they enjoy cold calling, or receiving them, they’re definitely lying.

The good news is that the cold call tactic is an aspect of traditional marketing that doesn’t fit into the inbound model. Instead, inbound pulls customers to your company through high-quality, informative content.

Rather than fighting for attention, inbound marketing attracts consumers with content that addresses their needs and interests. That creates more of a meaningful relationship with potential buyers, as they’re appreciative of something that’s useful rather than salesy.

While the technique is different, the overarching goals of inbound marketing are similar to those of traditional and outbound marketing efforts. The difference is that inbound works to build customer loyalty along the way, which leads to happier consumers and longer-lasting results.

Understanding the inbound methodology

Inbound stands out from the crowd because it aims to earn customer awareness and loyalty rather than force it. To do that, inbound utilizes the tactics and tools you already know so well, including brand awareness, lead generation, content creation, social media, email marketing, SEO, influencer outreach, strategy and analysis.

By creating valuable and relevant content, customers can find and engage with brands through blogs, emails, videos, social posts and search engine results. The trick is putting all of these pieces together effectively and calling in the troops at the right time.

There are four phases of the inbound methodology:

1. Attract

Mom always said don’t talk to strangers, so keep her advice in mind by at least attracting the right kind of people to your website and social pages. By sharing relevant content at optimal times, you can attract visitors who are most likely to become leads. This is where your content marketing strategy comes in to play, guiding the blogs, videos, graphics and social posts that grab the attention of your target audience.

2. Convert

Once you attract the right visitors to your website, it’s time to convert them to leads. Make it convenient for them, and don’t be pushy or overbearing like your nosy aunt who’s always pining for family gossip. Instead, offer accessible conversation starters, like online forms, virtual meetings, live chat tools, newsletter sign-ups or webinar registrations. Keep track of these conversions in your CRM, as you can use that data to target your future efforts more effectively.

inbound marketing

3. Close

It’s time to close the deal and turn those leads into customers. However, inbound doesn’t call for a smarmy sales guy to do all the work. Instead, use data insights to put a personal twist on messaging that resonates with your targeted audience. Send them emails and keep producing that valuable, engaging content that will bring them back to your website. Tools like marketing automation, lead nurturing and social media monitoring will help you close at the right time.

4. Delight

Remember that the inbound way is to foster an exceptional customer experience that leads to long-term engagement. That means you have to follow through on your promises, focusing on consumers as well as leads. You’ll still want to engage them with dynamic content that continues to solve problems and address interests. Loyal customers can be some of your biggest brand ambassadors and promoters, so you want to make sure you treat them well.

The idea is to be involved in every step of the buyer’s journey, building worthwhile, long-lasting connections with your audience.

Reaching today’s consumer

The buyer’s journey starts with awareness of a product or service, flows into considering that product or service and concludes with a decision. We go through this process no matter how big or small the purchase is. You can’t blame us really, considering there are so many shampoos and conditioners – much less cars and homes – to choose from.

As an inbound marketer, the buyer’s journey is the framework for your strategy. It also helps you build relevant buyer personas to ensure you’re targeting not only the right audience, but also the right consumer problems, needs, trends and interests. As buyers focus on the problem they need to solve, your brand enters the scene with the answers.

The inbound twist is that this doesn’t always have to be a sales pitch. For instance, a beauty company may post an article or social media video with natural face mask recipes for healthy skin. The article helps consumers who are looking for a skin care routine, and may lead them to further explore the company’s products. Even if it doesn’t end in a purchase, the consumer will be grateful for the knowledge, and therefore walks away with a positive image of the brand that provided that oh-so-helpful info.

There is a bonus for your sales goals, of course! When prospects come to companies with their own needs rather than brands creating them, it drives more qualified leads. Plus, when content effectively targets ideal consumers, brands begin to build the trust and credibility that attracts qualified prospects. From there, the chances are high that those leads will turn into sales.

Creating stellar content

Content is to inbound marketing as sunshine is to Florida. The two struggle to survive without each other, and the better the content is, the sunnier your inbound results will be.

In other words, your inbound can only be as good as your content. You have to leverage multiple types of content and communication channels in order to keep things fresh and continually engage your audience.

Before you think about creating content, you need a well-crafted content marketing strategy. That way, you aren’t blindly writing blogs and posting videos, left wondering why they aren’t performing well.

Once you have a solid list of keywords and a strong strategic direction, you can focus on content creation. That can entail expertly written content, such as blogs, white papers, eBooks, case studies and more. Design elements can include custom illustrations, branded infographics, web design, email templates and so on. Email marketing campaigns, video productions and social media calendars will also likely play a role in your strategy.

In today’s world, quality reigns supreme over quantity. Michelle Obama doesn’t tweet every day – but when she does, people listen. Even famous YouTubers take a day or two off from posting each week. Not only do you want your audience to look forward to your content, but you also want them to expect useful, engaging and thoughtful content that’s worth their time. Take it from Michelle and YouTubers: Spend your time producing fewer pieces that are more likely to meet your inbound goals.

Jumping on the inbound train

Inbound marketing is certainly hot right now – and there aren’t any signs to suggest it will lose its steam any time soon.

How did it reach such success? By helping brands give consumers what they need at exactly the right time.

Today’s digital world empowers buyers with instant gratification. There’s a sea of information available at their fingertips, social media allows them to share their experiences in real time and mobile devices let them do it all whenever and wherever. Inbound utilizes these digital tools and communication methods to reach consumers in ways that resonate.

The inbound methodology further helps brands create flexible strategies that can easily adapt to the ever-changing customer experience and digital marketing landscape.

Once you’re on the train heading inbound, you can develop the inbound marketing program that takes your brand where it wants to go. Look at you, you savvy inbound marketer!

Stevie Snow is a writer at Brafton. Yes, she is named after Stevie Nicks. She’s a believer in "to life, to life, l’chaim!" because life is what brings us the Obamas, a really smooth vodka tonic and that moment on the dance floor when your favorite banger plays.