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So What Exactly IS Inbound Marketing?

While the practice of "inbound marketing" has burst on the scene and is growing in popularity, it's still puzzling to many. Here's a primer.

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Many who keep abreast of the sweeping changes in the marketing field are familiar with the term inbound marketing. Here's the latest Google Trends report on inbound marketing

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But beyond the "marketing insider" echo chamber, awareness and understanding of inbound marketing drops off precipitously. In truth, most business owners and managers are not familiar with the term and how it can benefit their business. Here's an overview.

But first, some historical context.

The Way People Buy Has Changed

Marketing has changed a lot in recent years simply because the way people buy has changed.

  • In years past, when a buyer was researching a purchase, they had to contact the seller in order to learn about the product, pricing, options, guarantees, etc. For instance, when someone wanted to buy a car they had to make a trip to the dealership to get most of the information. At that point, the sales person could influence the sales process since they had the leverage of information.
  • Now, thanks to the Internet, buyers can research the product without having to first go to the seller. Before visiting a dealership, the car buyer can research what options are available, the selling price (and the dealer’s price), reviews, safety data, etc. The buyer can also use social media to get the opinion of friends and even strangers.

In a B2B buying situation, a study by the Corporate Executive Board found that buyers are now 57%-70% through their purchase before they first contact the seller.

CEB Buyer's Journey Research

People Hate Being Marketed To – They Always Have

People have always hated being marketed to, and in recent years they have been able to tune out more and more unwelcome marketing messages.

These days, consumers can avoid a lot more marketing messages than before. For that we can thank DVRs, satellite radio, MP3 players, Caller ID, Do Not Call Lists, Do Not Mail Lists, CAN-SPAM legislation, Internet ad pop up blockers and RSS readers.

And the ability to tune out marketing messages is not going away:

• 86% of the population skips TV ads
• 91% have unsubscribed from email lists
• 44% of direct mail is never opened
• Over 200 million phone numbers are on the Do Not Call List

The Currency of Marketing Has Shifted

In marketing, one of the biggest shifts created by the Internet is from space to attention.

  • Before the Internet, marketing's core constraint was space. That could include the size of an ad, the length of a TV or radio commercial, the dimensions of a direct mail piece, etc. Money was the most important factor.
  • With the Internet, there is almost no space constraint. Websites can have a nearly infinite number of pages, multiple emails can be sent, videos can play for hours. Quality content is now what matters in marketing.

As a result, attention has become the core constraint of marketing. That's why great content, rather than money, is now the coin of the realm in marketing.

Marketers Now Need To Think Like Publishers

We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in. ~Craig Davis 

And this brings us to inbound marketing.

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Inbound marketing is a philosophy rooted in the idea that people value personalized, relevant content – not interruptive messages.

The inbound methodology is about helping brands attract, convert, close and delight visitors, leads and customers through a variety of channels like social media, blogging, SEO and email. In essence inbound marketing pulls customers to your company instead of shouting at them with interruptive messages.


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One of the leading inbound marketing software companies, HubSpot, has boiled down the inbound marketing process into four key areas: 1) Attract 2) Convert 3) Close 4) Delight.

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In a nutshell, inbound marketing is about getting found online, converting a visitor to a lead, and then measuring, analyzing and iterating to refine the process and improve the results.

Marketers are publishing useful, helpful and even entertaining content about solutions to the problems for which their prospective customers are searching online. Keyword research and SEO are a part of this and blogging is the primary method of publishing the information. Social media is used to help spread their content and attract more traffic.

Once on a site, a visitor is offered something valuable related to their research (like an ebook) in return for their email address and contact information.

Now with permission granted, the marketer continues to offer helpful information via email on a regular basis to the prospective customer. If there’s a fit, the prospect takes the marketers “digital hand” as they are guided through their buying experience.

How are they guided through the buying process? Primarily with two things:

  1. Content – A continuous stream of helpful content that fills the requirements of their buying research.
  2. Context – The right content has to be provided at the right time. For instance, after a lead converts, they are more likely to next want information about your company before getting a price quote or product demo.

Does it work? According to HubSpot’s annual State of Inbound Marketing Report, companies who are increasing their inbound marketing budgets are enjoying a lower cost per lead, shortening their sales cycles and increasing their sales close rates.

For a light-hearted contrast of inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing, watch HubSpot’s “Bachelorette” parody with Brooks Forester (himself an inbound marketer): 

photo credit: CarbonNYC via photopin cc
Graphics credit: Corporate Executive Board and HubSpot
Douglas Burdett
Douglas Burdett
The Principal and Founder of Artillery, Douglas Burdett is a former artillery officer and Madison Avenue ad man. He also hosts The Marketing Book Podcast, where he interviews authors every week about the latest in modern marketing and sales.

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