Today, most marketers understand that there is a difference between inbound and outbound marketing. Inbound focuses on engaging with an audience in a friendly, helpful way, while outbound deals in launching messages broadly outward and actively pursuing leads.

But there wasn’t always a clear divide between these two marketing strategies. In fact, once upon a time, there was just marketing – no inbound and no outbound.

Marketing consisted of cold calls, trade show tables and passed-around pamphlets. It was a one-way conversation: Here’s our product, and here’s why it’s great.

Then, the internet happened, and a whole new form of communication was born. Marketers took hold of the power of the internet and replicated their traditional marketing efforts on digital platforms. Billboards became banner ads, pamphlets became pop-ups, and radio scripts – well, those stayed pretty much the same, but were inserted into online radio stations like Pandora.

These marketing tactics fell flat in this new territory. Online readers barely glance at banner ads, and they rarely click on pop-ups (especially considering the very real possibility that they’re malware).

The one-way communication model isn’t effective when two-way communication is as simple as sending a tweet. Thus, the online world gave way to a new breed of marketing, made up of online articles, email newsletters and social media – anything that can facilitate that two-way conversation.

In comes inbound marketing

Inbound marketing allows for two-way conversations between brands and audiences. It’s distinct in the fact that it invites people in rather than shoving a message in front of their eyes. It’s complementary to outbound marketing (the name now bestowed upon traditional marketing practices).

Inbound marketing is nearly synonymous with content marketing – but not quite. They both rely on genuinely informative content (not salesy or braggy – just honest and helpful), like blog posts, white papers, infographics, email marketing and case studies. Beyond these, inbound marketing also includes:

  • Search engine optimization.
  • Social media.
  • Audience personas.
  • Contact capture (like website forms).
  • Attractive, helpful websites.

Inbound largely focuses on the buyer’s journey. In other words, inbound marketing tactics are carefully designed to speak to a specific stage in the decision-making process. If someone is just encountering a brand or product for the first time, there’s a blog post for that. If they’re weighing their options and have some reservations about a product, there’s a white paper or a case study for that.

Over time, inbound marketing strategies have evolved and improved. The banner ads and pop-up windows that many consumers previously ignored have been reconceptualized to be helpful to brands and less irritating to customers. In fact, when intelligently created and used, pop-up windows that prompt readers to sign up for email newsletters are highly effective and can serve to increase a brand’s reach. And, though banner ads aren’t often clicked on, they’re still valuable in that they encourage view-through conversions (which just means that a user sees the ad and visits that company’s website later on).

Is outbound marketing outdated?

Inbound marketing is the centerpiece of the industry today, but that’s not to say outbound marketing efforts should be abandoned. As mentioned above, the two are complementary, and both have a place in a marketing strategy.

For example, consider these statistics for popular outbound marketing techniques:

Direct mail

  • Response rates increased 43 percent in 2016.
  • ROI is 29 percent; this is greater than paid search and online display, and only one percentage point below social media.

Billboards

  • 60 percent of more than 4,000 respondents to a Nielsen survey said billboards are a good way to learn about brands, events and sales.
  • 40 percent said they visited an advertiser because of a billboard.
  • 24 percent said they made a purchase because of one.

Radio ads

How outbound marketing complements inbound marketing (and vice versa)

Some people in marketing and advertising like to say it takes a certain number of impressions to make a sale. There may not be a predetermined set number of encounters between an individual and a brand that will automatically lead to a sale. But it helps when a potential customer finds a company in search that they recognize from an external form of marketing.

Outbound and inbound practices can also be strategically tied together to bolster overall marketing goals.

For example, consider a contact capture form on a website in order to download an eBook. This is an inbound technique because the user chooses to give his or her contact information to the brand, and because it’s providing the person with an informational resource.

But what does the company do with that information?

An optional next step is to pick up the phone. Once you have this person’s name and number, why not have a real conversation about their needs or objectives? This action is an outbound technique because the company is reaching out to that person, with the ultimate goal of making a conversion.

difference between inbound and outbound

Which is more effective, inbound or outbound?

The question on many marketers’ minds when contemplating how to build out a marketing strategy is which methods are most effective. This is a good question, and one that can be answered in many ways, depending on how you define effectiveness.

Inbound has better ROI

If you’re seeking a lower cost per lead, it’s inbound.

More than half of marketers who responded to HubSpot’s State of Inbound 2018 report said inbound gives them greater ROI than outbound; only 16 percent said the opposite. A previous State of Inbound report showed that the cost per lead was 61 percent lower in organizations that focused on inbound when compared to those who focused on outbound marketing.

HubSpot research: Marketers see higher ROI from inbound marketing tactics.

Of course, ROI isn’t the only statistic marketers care about. It’s also important to think about the time it takes to bring in a lead and the actual probability that they’ll become a paying customer.

Outbound is faster to implement

If you’re looking to implement a marketing strategy fast, outbound may be a more effective strategy. Inbound marketing is a decidedly long-term strategy. It takes time to identify the right keywords and the best channels to utilize. In many cases, it takes at least 6 months to start seeing results from an SEO strategy, and even at that time, the results aren’t as great as they’ll get when that strategy is carried out even further.

Outbound also needs some time to gain traction and start seeing results. However, it’s generally faster to execute an outbound marketing plan, and the results may begin coming in quicker.

Inbound has higher close rates

If you’re seeking higher close rates, inbound is usually the way to go; SEO-generated leads have a 14.6 percent close rate, compared to just 1.7 percent for outbound practices. This makes sense, when you think about it: Inbound traffic has higher commercial intent. Those people made a conscious decision to visit your website, follow you on social media or download your white paper. They’re more likely to be viable customers than people who discover you through your outbound efforts.

What inbound and outbound have in common

Though they may seem like conflicting priorities, the two marketing strategies do share a couple similarities. They both aim to bring more business and awareness to your brand. They also both need great content to work. Without the power of words, along with compelling graphics, images, videos and sound bites, it’d be hard to capture an audience.

Inbound marketing is heavily focused on great content; its goal is to be informative, after all. Outbound marketing also requires good content in the form of direct mail campaigns, advertising scripts, pamphlets and info sheets.

In other words, though the marketing landscape is changing, there’s one thing that marketers will always rely on: captivating content that draws people in.

Molly Ploe is a Marketing Specialist at Brafton. When she's not writing, she spends her time reading, going on walks and drizzling honey onto ice cream.