Collin Sparling

Gather ‘round as we talk about a tale almost as old as the internet itself: Inbound marketing.

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.

This not-so-new-fangled way of marketing has accelerated in popularity over the past decade or so, right alongside (unsurprisingly) the social media boom. But social media is just one piece of the inbound marketing puzzle.

So what’s the whole picture?

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 growth 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.

Understanding the Inbound Marketing Methodology

The Fundamentals of Inbound Marketing

If nothing else, inbound marketing is about drawing people to your brand. More specifically, drawing people from your target audience. The first order of business is to inform your audience and make your brand stand out as a thought leader in your industry. As this happens, the audience will naturally be exposed to your brand. When audience members are in the market for a particular product that you happen to sell, your brand will be top of mind.

How is this done? Through creating a series of engaging content on multiple platforms and channels. Think social media posts, blog posts, email newsletters; anything that your audience would look for or interact with themselves that is a direct extension of your brand.

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.

The trick is putting all of these pieces together effectively and calling in the cavalry at the right time.

There are four phases of the inbound methodology:

1. Attract

By sharing relevant content at optimal times, you can attract the visitors who are likeliest to become leads. This is where your content marketing strategy comes into 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. 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. 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 and email automation, lead nurturing and social media monitoring will help you close at the right time. When the time is right, call in your sales team to make it official and close the deal.

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 along the way.

The Inbound Marketing Funnel

We can’t talk about marketing without referring to the famous visual representation of it known as the marketing funnel. The marketing funnel is an image that details the customer journey, starting with awareness of a product at the top, and ending with making a purchase at the bottom.

The original sales funnel was built in the late 19th century and covered only the most basic aspects of the sales journey:

  • Attention: Advertise and grasp the attention of the public.
  • Interest: Create interest in your product, making prospective customers want to research further.
  • Desire: The customer will make their interest in a product known to the company.
  • Action: The act of buying the product, which could be followed up with advocacy for the product by the customer.

The modern inbound version of the funnel looks a lot different in comparison. It covers the four phases of the inbound methodology as mentioned above, but in a different way:

  • Awareness Stage: This is the section at the top of the funnel (TOFU). It’s here that people are discovering your brand for the first time and looking into your content and messaging. They aren’t interested in making a purchase yet.
  • Interest Stage: This is where the prospects who are interested in learning more about your product or service lie. They’re trying to assess whether your service can fulfill their needs. This section is known as the middle of the funnel (MOFU).
  • Consideration Stage: This stage is the moment of truth. Prospects are heavily considering making a purchase and are comparing your prices and services with competitors, while also consulting with their internal stakeholders to make sure they’re making the right choice. From here, prospects will transition to the bottom of the funnel (BOFU) provided they move toward a purchase.
  • Purchase Stage: This is where conversions happen. Here, a lead has ultimately made the decision to purchase your product or service after making all of the necessary considerations and consulting with internal stakeholders, as well as your sales reps. After this, the details will be pinned down between both parties and a contract secured.

Beyond these four stages, the modern funnel accounts for the needs of modern marketing, such as online traffic and content marketing, that didn’t exist when the original funnel was created.

Reaching Today’s Customer

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.

As an inbound marketer, the buyer’s journey is the framework for your content 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 strategy twist is that this doesn’t always have to be in the form of a sales pitch. For instance, a beauty company may post an article or video on social media 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 valuable content.

There is a bonus for your sales goals, of course! When a potential customer comes to companies with their own needs, 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.

Inbound vs Outbound Marketing

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 largely 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 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 probably 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.

Your inbound marketing strategy 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, marketing automation, video productions and social media calendars will also likely play a role in your strategy.

In today’s world, quality reigns supreme over quantity. 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. Spend your time producing fewer pieces that are likelier 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 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!

Editor’s Note: Updated June 2021.