Inbound Marketing vs Outbound Marketing – What is the difference?

It is not easy to try to think of a world before the internet, and in the world of marketing that is even trickier. The evolution of the internet as a marketing tool has changed the way that marketers execute their marketing and changed the way that audiences experience and interact with that marketing.

Every day people see around 5,000 brand messages. What?! Well, that number includes branded labeling if you walk into a grocery store, but if we are just talking exposure to adverts, we see around 400……per day.

With that level of exposure, people have become very sophisticated when it comes to consuming media and marketing. People’s expectations from marketing have become higher: they expect to be entertained with something different and, where appropriate, expect marketing to be personalised to their individual needs.

These expectations are driven by the level of control that the audience now has. It is pretty easy to opt out of digital communications with unsubscribe options on every (legitimate!) email, and free ad blockers readily available.

So with these key changes to consumer behaviour in mind, what are the differences between inbound and outbound marketing?

Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing is marketing which is designed to engage with a specific audience and to pull the audience towards your company and product/service. It typically has the following characteristics:

  • Customer comes to you: the customer will seek out your business and give you permission to communicate with them, something that would have been virtually impossible in pre-internet marketing.
  • Content is well targeted: inbound marketing allows the audience to be very highly targeted. The best inbound marketing strategy talks to people who are receptive to the marketing messages as a result of a highly targeted campaign – the ultimate version of this is personalised content, e.g. Amazon’s personalised recommendations based on previous purchases and search history.
  • Content is interactive: the audience has the opportunity to respond to marketing messages and often does. This opens up a two-way dialogue between the audience and the company, used to discuss both positive and negative experiences.
  • Content doesn’t (always) sell: the content is varied and is not centered on how amazing and unique your product is. Instead, the content is designed to inform, entertain or interest the audience. This builds the audience’s trust and makes the likelihood of a future conversion greater.
  • Content is geared around the broader interests of the audience: to attract the audience, inbound marketers recognise that their content needs to be broader than just their product/service – it needs to answer some of the wider-ranging questions that their audience are asking.
  • Easy to opt out of: the ease at which the audience can opt out of conversations means that those who are listening should be very engaged and almost looking for your content. This leads to great conversion rates.
  • Results are measurable: not only will you be able to see where people have come from when they find out about your business, you will also be able to tell which channels are working best for you in terms of conversion. OK, so this does take some infrastructure work to get in place, but it is very possible. Also, results are available almost immediately depending on the tool that you are using – you can use the metrics for the tool to understand whether a campaign is working or not within hours and tweak it accordingly.
  • You own the media: assuming that you keep working on the optimisation of your content, that content will be around forever. You own the media that it is published on and the content itself. With continued SEO investment, it will remain visible so that the content can keep working and working.

Tools which can be classed as inbound marketing include

  • Search Engine Optimisation – audience segments itself through its keyword query
  • Pay per Click advertising – audience segments via keyword search as well as by location, device, geography, etc.
  • Display advertising / remarketing – but only if it is highly targeted, otherwise this is outbound marketing
  • Social media – the ultimate example of where the audience comes to you and asks to receive your content by clicking ‘like’ or ‘follow’
  • Email marketing – only if it is opt-in, not a paid database of unsuspecting recipients
  • Blogs, webinars, sound clouds, podcasts, etc. – all designed to attract audiences to your business, and put on the web for your audience to find

Outbound Marketing

Outbound marketing is marketing which is pushed out to the audience in the hope that some of the target audience will capture the message and act upon it. It is sometimes defined as anything that isn’t digital, but that is not accurate: not all digital marketing is inbound marketing – everyone receives random emails, right? Here are some characteristics of outbound marketing:

  • Not everyone asks for it: due to the ‘push’ nature of outbound marketing, not everyone is receptive to the message: particularly with today’s audience, they may feel that they have not asked for it and as such should not receive it. You may well end up communicating to someone who isn’t interested at all.
  • Targeting is tough: targeting is not non-existent for outbound marketing, but it is very difficult: for example, a billboard is targeted geographically but not by age, gender, income, family status, social grouping, etc.
  • Costs are high: audiences tend to be larger because in order to find the target audience, the net needs to be cast very wide – you could upset a lot of the collateral audience who have no interest.
  • Difficult to say no: to opt out of certain outbound marketing is nearly impossible (e.g. TV) and even opting out of direct mail and telephone marketing can be very difficult.
  • Measurement is vague: unless you have enormous scale and can track brand awareness / recall / association, you will need to ask someone how they heard about your business. But who’s to say that they will provide an accurate answer? And if they say ‘internet’, do they mean your website, a review website, a social media site, a Google organic search, a display ad, a Google PPC ad, etc.
  • Desperate times: in order to attract a decreasing and mostly disengaged audience, the marketing tends to be dominated by rather desperate ‘buy now’, ‘huge savings’ and similar ‘sale’ messages – which ironically turn people off from marketing.
  • You rent the medium: when the newspaper becomes out-of-date or the direct mail is thrown in the recycling, the message has died – the following day there will be a new message in its place. You are only renting the space, your competitor could be in it tomorrow.
  • Outbound marketing tools include the more traditional marketing: radio advertising, TV, newspapers and magazines, direct mail, billboards, event sponsorship and trade shows.

Tools which can be classed as outbound marketing include

  • Poorly targeted online display advertising
  • Using paid or rented email databases


Marketing has changed dramatically over the last 15 years, and will continue to evolve. The rise of inbound and content marketing has made outbound marketing look an out-dated and speculative way of finding customers. But that’s not to say that outbound marketing is dead: there is still a lot of money being spent on outbound marketing.

But not necessarily smart money. According to Hubspot’s 2014 State of Inbound Report, the cost per lead for businesses employing 1-25 people for inbound marketing is $37 – for outbound marketing it is $102.

One of the most important elements of inbound marketing is. The modern marketing emphasis on content drives the requirement for visibility of that content. People are using search engines to ask questions (why else would Google invest so much trying to understand the context of search), so if you do a great job on SEO for your content, then your answers to the keyword queries will appear in front of the audience…time and time again.

What are your views on inbound and outbound marketing? How is your marketing budget split between the two, and what are the reasons why you would use one over the other? Is your industry still using traditional marketing tools when digital ones would do a better job?

Nathan Whitaker About the author

Nathan is the co-founder and Strategy Wizard at eMagic. He is responsible for the development and execution of our effective SEO strategies. He is passionate about search and delivering unrivalled results for our clients and industry partners.

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