What Is Inbound Marketing?

Inbound Marketing Explained

Inbound marketing is a term that you’re going to hear quite a lot over the coming months and years. It is becoming increasingly important across all areas of marketing and business, so now is a good time to make sure you understand how to incorporate it into your everyday practices.

But what exactly is inbound marketing?

There seems to be widespread argument over what inbound marketing is and isn’t, its applications and methodology, and what it consists of. So let’s take a look at some definitions.

The first port of call for most definition searches would usually be Wikipedia, but on this occasion their definition leaves me a bit cold. Instead, I have come up with a few, hopefully more straightforward definitions that provide simpler answers to the question, ‘what is inbound marketing?’

Here’s my simplest definition:

Inbound marketing is pull marketing, i.e. getting the customer to come to you. Outbound marketing is push marketing, i.e. putting you in front of customer.

And here’s my slightly more scientific definition:

Inbound marketing looks to earn someone’s attention without interrupting their attention flow. This contrasts with outbound (or interruption) marketing, which interrupts their flow to gain attention.

Alternatively, you could look at it like this:

Inbound marketing is focussed on getting a business found by its potential customers, who are made to feel as though they are in control of the buying process.

Inbound marketing is the opposite of outbound or interruption marketing, which is focussed on finding customers.

For inbound marketing, think search, blogs, word of mouth. For outbound marketing, think cold calling, TV advertising, print advertising.

A very simple analogy for outbound marketing is to think of it as the foot-in-the-door salesman or TV ad campaign. The simplest way to think about the meaning of inbound marketing is to consider all the processes that could be involved when you are looking to buy something.

Inbound marketing is a recognition that times have changed from the days when the brands were all-powerful and people were ‘sold things’. People now have a whole new world of information and communication at their fingertips, accessible via their computer, tablet or mobile, whenever and wherever they want it. Gone are the days when the only way a brand could communicate with its potential customers was through newspaper advertising, TV and radio or outdoor advertising.

Welcome to the new marketing environment.

Inbound marketing: the new marketing environment


In 2005, Proctor & Gamble’s term, the First Moment of Truth, came into the public eye in a Wall Street Journal article. The First Moment of Truth (FMOT) is defined as the 3-7 seconds after a shopper first encounters a product on a store shelf.  It is during these precious few seconds that marketers have the best chance of converting a browser into a buyer, by appealing to their senses, values and emotions.

Traditional 3-step mental model

In 2011, Google introduced us to the term ZMOT, realising that an important step was taking place before the consumer had even encountered the product. This is the research stage, where consumers learn about the product through a variety of sources, often relying as much (or more) on peer-to-peer knowledge and experience as they do on ‘official’ media and advertising.

The new mental model

Read more about ZMOT here.

ZMOT recognises that in this multi-device, connected world, the balance of power has changed. A consumer will now research a product, read reviews, seek out the views of their friends, family and peers, read blogs, compare prices and visit websites before they even consider purchasing. Gone are the days of being ‘sold to’.

So What is Inbound Marketing?

Hubspot, one of the leading advocates of inbound marketing, has produced this diagram reflecting their inbound marketing methodology:

Hubspot inbound marketing diagram

This graphically illustrates how a stranger, with no knowledge of a product, company or brand, finds out about it through blogs, social media and search. They then connect with that product, company or brand via its website, generating a lead. Next they become a customer, and perhaps even a promoter of the product, company or brand.

Although the consumer might not realise it, the business has subtly crafted an experience for them in order to engage them with the product, company or brand, eventually leading them to become a customer, and potentially, a promoter. This is the process of inbound marketing.

Focussing on getting the customer to come to you is not only cheaper and more effective than outbound marketing; it also empowers the customer and makes them feel in control. Making it easy for people to buy from you and then delighting them with your product(s) and service doesn’t only make your marketing more effective; it also encourages your customers to become more loyal.

Furthermore, happy customers can become your new sales force, a group of evangelical brand advocates who make your job even easier! And let’s face it, who are consumers more likely to listen to – a ‘foot-in-the-door salesman’, or other consumers?

Inbound vs Outbound Marketing

Outbound marketing still plays a vital role in communicating and educating an audience, establishing brand awareness and developing brand values. Think of the $1 billion that Apple spends on advertising each year. However, also remember where you heard about the launch of the iPhone 5S and 5C, who told you about iOS 7, and what made you buy your iPad or iPhone.

There are also important crossovers between inbound and interruption marketing. For instance, a user who has visited a site through referral or search, or search ad campaigns relating to TV or radio ads, might subsequently be followed around by remarketing ads.

When I ask myself the question, ‘what is inbound marketing?’, I still think back to my uncle who was a career salesman. He always advocated the notion that the best salespeople don’t sell; they allow people to buy from them. To me, that pretty much captures the essence of inbound marketing.

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