Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing: What’s the Difference?

Alexa Engelhart
By Alexa Engelhart

Inbound marketing and outbound marketing are two different approaches to marketing. Both options encompass multiple methods of advertising. They have many differences with few similarities.

What Is Outbound Marketing?

Outbound marketing is a term that summarizes the use of traditional marketing methods. These methods include television, radio, and print advertising, among others. These methods are considered traditional because they were the basic methods used when the concept of marketing was first introduced. These options are often low-tech and simple and, as a result, are easy for agencies to use.

The focus of outbound marketing is to push a message onto the audience and hope for a response. The commercial, radio advertisement, and print advertisement all have a message that marketer wants the consumer to see. Outbound marketing casts a wide net in order to possibly capture just a few fish.

And in order to cast this net, you have to pay big bucks. A commercial can cost a company tens of thousands of dollars during prime time. A commercial that does not air during prime time is much cheaper, but reaches fewer people.

Cost of Outbound Marketing

Different channels have different costs, depending on the traffic and the target audience. There is an entire section of the marketing world that is devoted to deciding when and where to air commercials, that section is called media planning. In addition, these commercials have to be created and produced, which is a separate cost from the cost to air a commercial during prime time. It is well known that a 30 second spot during the Super Bowl could cost a company millions of dollars, just to reserve the spot. Millions of dollars can go into a commercial and there is no guarantee that the target audience will absorb the commercial.

Depending on the ink and the magazine, a print ad could cost thousands of dollars as well and cause the same amount of issues. Radio advertisements are even cheaper, but they still run the risk of wasting opportunities.The focus is not on just hitting the target audience. People that are not a part of the target market can also view these advertisements. These are wasted opportunities because these consumers will definitely not act on the advertisement.

As a result of the large cost of outbound marketing, it becomes very difficult for smaller agencies with smaller budgets to afford these methods. Before the introduction of more contemporary methods, smaller agencies struggled greatly with the pressure of needing to create expensive commercials.

Problems With Outbound Marketing

This type of marketing is also characterized as interruptive. Outbound marketing is meant to interrupt the consumer’s daily life and thus bring attention to the advertisement. Before the internet and DVR, a commercial interrupted a television program and the consumer had to view the commercial in order to watch more of their program. This forced the consumer to consume the advertisement.

A similar process is meant to occur with print advertisements and billboards. Print ads interrupt the pages of the magazine or newspaper, sometime abruptly enough for the consumer to consume the advertisement. Billboards interrupt the landscape. Radio advertisements interrupt the music.

Outbound marketing is a lot of effort for a small return. On average, a person must view an advertisement 3 times before they truly notice and possibly act on the advertisement. Due to the audience issue of casting too wide of a net, messages focus on being flashy rather than relevant. The messages were crafted to interrupt flow of the millions of other advertising messages.

Every company wanted to be noticed more than the other and they unfortunately used similar methods to do so. This resulted in billions of similar messages that a consumer had to wade through. The consumer becomes bombarded with millions of flashy messages, where most do not apply to her or him. Over time, the consumer can become numb to all of the messages because it became almost impossible to distinguish between advertisements. As a result, the outbound marketing efforts became decreasingly effective.

Outbound marketing continued to decrease in effectiveness as the way people consumed media changed. With the advent of the internet, people normally have multiple screens on at the same time. Often they are focused on still another concept while these screens are spewing media and advertisements. People do not pay attention to the media.

Televisions have become the background noise of daily life and commercials have to push through a lot of other subjects in order to reach the foreground of someone’s mind. It is very difficult to be noticed once, and studies have shown that a person has to view a commercial at least three times before they are pushed to act on it.

All of these different concepts made outbound marketing decreasingly sustainable. Marketers needed to change their tactics. This new method had to figure out a different way to connect with customers and make them feel wanted. The messages needed to be differentiated but still be sustainable long-term. It needed to be more cost effective because smaller agencies wanted a piece of the marketing game.

Marketers needed a new method: inbound marketing.

What Is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound marketing is the method that evolved from marketers wanting to revamp their marketing methods. Outbound marketing was becoming less effective with each passing day and the cost of creating commercials and print advertisements was only increasing as the market was expanding. Customers were numb to almost all advertising and it was incredibly difficult to find new avenues of connection. Marketers needed to try something new.

Inbound marketing is about pulling audiences to a business. The focus is to create valuable content. The marketers create interesting and engaging content, then use it to attract customers that already need the services of that business. People are always searching on the internet for the things that they need.

The valuable content brings in the consumer and hopefully keeps them. Inbound marketing methods include: social media, blogs, emails, websites, etc. Though this is a completely different method than outbound marketing, often companies supplement inbound marketing with outbound marketing.

This is considered “permission-based marketing.” Consumers only receive the messages that they want to hear, thus giving the company permission to spread their message. Inbound marketing is not about throwing a message out and seeing who catches it. This method is akin to two people trying to start a romantic relationship. This is an effective method because when a customer gives permission to a company to receive its messages, the customer already likes the company.

The act of getting permission puts the product on a fast track to success. The concept is similar to asking someone on a date and they agree. The agreement means that they at least do not hate you and see you in a positive light.

Steps of Inbound Marketing

There are four basic steps to inbound marketing: attract, convert, close, delight. The first step is to attract customers. This step moves a person from a stranger to a visitor. Companies try to complete this first step through engaging social media posts and search engine optimization. The key is to show up on their social media feed in order to spark the consumer’s interest or be on the first page of Google during a keyword search.

Companies target the major social media platforms their audience uses during this stage. The choice of platform is the result of the intersection between the needs of the consumer and the needs of the brand. As for the first page of Google, people are less likely to move to the second page of a Google results page, so marketers must do what they must to get to the first page.

The second step is to convert. The focus is to convert the consumer from a visitor to a lead. The company tries to open a conversation with the person and find out how best to help them. This is often when a company tries to gain contact information and demographics from the consumer. A call to action is paramount during this step. The consumer must interact with the company in some way. This interaction can come in the form of subscribing to emails, getting an e-book, a how-to guide, and much more.

Helpful emails are one of the methods for the third step, close. This converts a lead to customer. The third step is almost like taking care of a plant or animal. This is where the company is feeding the customer information and responding to their needs. A company can target the emails to the individual needs of the consumer.

For example, a consumer that looked at paint on the ACE Hardware website would receive a different email than a consumer that viewed gardening equipment. This is also the step where a person makes his or her first purchase with a company.

Companies offer solutions to many of the concerns a customer may have about making a purchase. A company may provide testimonials and money-back guarantees in order to assuage their concerns. The testimonials tell the consumer that other people have been happy with the company interaction; a happiness that can be extended to the consumer, should they make the purchase. The money-back guarantee is a safety net that will catch the consumer if they end up not enjoying the interaction.

The final step, delight, converts a customer to a promoter. This is where social media can come back into play. The focus is to make sure that all of their needs are meant in a way that the promoter wants to spread the word. Companies use this time to check in with the consumers and find out what content works best.

Benefits of Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing costs 62% less than outbound marketing. The cost of a promoted social media advertisement is almost nonexistent in comparison to the cost of a commercial. In addition, when a social media advertisement is created, it is shown only to their target audience. A TV commercial is costing a company or agency a large amount of money to be shown to people that that business is not even targeting.

Even if the target market sees the commercial, it is unlikely that he or she is paying attention to and absorbing the commercial. Outbound marketers are often wasting money on people that do not need or want their products. Advertisements and messages that are given to consumers that have “opted-in” to are much more likely to be returned with action. This is because the person is more likely to pay attention to the message because he or she likes the company behind the message.

Outbound marketing helps with brand awareness. Commercials and print advertisements create big images of the brand that, after a time, can permeate the clutter of advertising and make a connection. If the company makes an effort to sound organic and human, it can make use of these impersonal methods.

Outbound advertisements have an opportunity to invoke a serious feeling in an consumer. This ranges from the nostalgia of the famous “Director of Operations” commercial to the inspiration in all Nike commercials. This feelings can be an avenue of connection with people that are outside of the target market.

Inbound marketing does a good job of standing out from the advertising clutter, though as more agencies move to inbound marketing, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. The connections are long lasting, though volatile. If a social media post goes wrong, it can be difficult to be forgiven. Time becomes crucial, every hour counts. Every hour that a scandal is left unaddressed is another hour that millions of people have to denounce the company responsible. However, companies have an easier time coming back from scandals if they make a concerted effort to build deep relationships with their consumers. Inbound marketing makes turns a scandal into a hurdle, rather than a finish line.

Wrapping Up

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, the choice between each or both methods is up to the company and the needs and capabilities of their brand. A company should not spend all of their money on a single commercial if a social media marketing campaign would work as well.

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Alexa is a Content Marketing Strategist at Power Digital Marketing who works with a wide range of clients on web copy creation, landing page strategy, email marketing, and blogging efforts. She loves working hand-in-hand with other digital marketing channels and departments to get the best results for her clients!