What Is Inbound Marketing?

Kirstie Sequitin, CareerFoundry Editor

Inbound marketing is the methodology of attracting customers by pulling them to your brand through valuable content. This content is tailored to your audience’s values, interests, and needs, and helps forge a long-term relationship between brand and customer. 

In this article, we’ll look at inbound marketing and the methodology behind it. We’ll also look at the benefits and constraints of using inbound marketing as part of your overall digital marketing strategy, and wrap up with some actionable next steps.

If you’re interested in skipping ahead to any section, feel free to use the clickable menu:

  1. What is the inbound methodology?
  2. How is the inbound methodology used in a digital marketing strategy?
  3. What are the benefits of inbound marketing?
  4. What are the constraints of inbound marketing?
  5. Next steps

Ready to get into it? Let’s get started!

1. What is the inbound methodology?

We’ve already explained that the basis of the inbound marketing methodology is pulling customers to your brand using valuable content (as opposed to outbound marketing, which pushes customers to your brand using methods such as cold-calling or display advertising.)

Related reading: Inbound vs outbound marketing: What’s the difference?

But what does this methodology entail, exactly? In order to convert a casual user into a loyal and returning customer, there are four phases your digital marketing strategy should follow: attract, convert, close, and delight.

We’ll use some potentially new terminology in this section, so before we get started, here are some quick definitions:

  • User: this is a person who has landed on your website for the first time (likely as a result of a successful inbound marketing campaign!). Sometimes, when looking at analytics, we look at new users (those who have never been to the website before) and returning users (those who have been to the website before, but haven’t yet converted to a lead) in order to see how content performs.
  • Lead: This is someone who has expressed or implied interest in a product or service by sharing contact information, such as an email address or social media handle.
  • Customer: While not always the case, in this context a customer is someone who has been brought to your website as a new user, converted to a lead, then made a purchase (or other similar action, such as a download) as a result of your inbound marketing efforts.

Now that we’ve gotten those definitions out of the way, let’s look at each phase in more detail.

The inbound marketing methodology

Attract

This phase is all about attracting your target audience through the creation and publication of eye-catching, relevant content. This could be in the form of a blog post (much like the one you’re reading now!), a video, webinar, or podcast.

Once you’ve captured your audience’s interest, you’ll bring them towards your product or service with a call-to-action in order to find out more. 

When someone lands on your website for the first time, they become what’s called a user. In digital marketing, we hope to convert users to leads, and, eventually, to customers. This brings us to the next phase: conversion

Convert

Once you’ve attracted the user to your website, your goal is to obtain their contact information for further communications—thereby converting them to a lead.

To do this, you’ll need to offer them some very high-level content that will go towards solving their problem, in exchange for their contact details. 

Gated content—such as an ebook, white paper, or video that requires an email address in order to be accessed—is one effective way of doing this. Once a user has converted to a lead, you can then market more directly (and personally) to them in the future.

Close 

Okay, so now you’ve captured the lead’s interest—how do you seal the deal? At this stage, digital marketers can use a range of tools to deliver personalized or curated content to the lead. 

Let’s use ecommerce as an example. How many times have you started to build up an online shopping cart, only to get distracted and forget to check out? You’ll click off the website, maybe with the vague idea of coming back the next day—but you don’t.

You might receive an email a few days later, prompting you to check out what you left behind. Because of your genuine interest in the product, you return and check out, closing the journey from user to customer.

In this example, a marketing team would use automation tools to intercept the lead’s journey in order to close the deal. Monitoring tools may also be used for this purpose, though this is likely to be handed over to the sales team at this point.

Delight 

You may think once the sale has been made there’s no more work for you to do. Unfortunately, a digital marketer’s job is never done when it comes to inbound marketing—you want your customers to become brand advocates, promoting your work to others who may need your services, as well as becoming repeat customers themselves. 

In order to do this, you’ll need to continue to engage and delight them with relevant, high-quality content that solves their issues and supports their goals, even after they’ve made a purchase. 

So, that’s the methodology all explained, but what tools do digital marketers use to implement it successfully? We’ll look at that in the next section.

2. How is the inbound methodology used in a digital marketing strategy?

To give you an idea of what inbound marketing looks like in practice, here are some key tools and techniques which the inbound marketer will use as part of their digital marketing strategy. We’ll organize them here according to each phase of the inbound methodology.

Attract: Search engine optimization (SEO) 

Ever wondered how your Google search results are organized? Each webpage online is “crawled” and ranked according to an algorithm. Therefore, pages that Google deems more useful to a specific search term will rank higher.

Search engine optimization (SEO) exists in order for websites to work with the algorithm, ensuring that their content doesn’t get lost among the swell of other pages on the same topic. Since algorithms are always changing, it’s important to stay up-to-date and optimize pages regularly in order to maintain or improve their positions. SEO is also used to identify valuable keywords and search terms that may attract new sources of relevant organic traffic.

Convert: Content marketing

As mentioned previously, making clever use of content marketing materials such as ebooks, white papers, and videos can help convert a user to a lead. But how is this done? Inbound marketers use gated content to do this, making valuable pieces of content available only after a user has given their permission for materials to be sent to them by email (or other form of contact information, such as a phone number or social media details). 

These leads can then be marketed to in many ways. For example, they can be added to email marketing lists, which can also be personalized depending on their preferences.

Close: Email marketing

Email marketing campaigns are a series of emails sent to leads to communicate a message, encourage an action, or promote a new product or feature. Often, an email sequence is used to guide and nurture users at different stages of their customer journey to boost faith in the brand and encourage them to further commit or engage. 

As mentioned previously, automation can be used hand-in-hand with email marketing to prompt leads in the closing phase of their journey.

Delight/All phases: Social media marketing 

With much of the world now using social media on a regular basis, social media marketing has become an indispensable part of the digital marketing strategy. It’s a great way of finding and connecting with audiences and engaging directly with them. 

Some social media platforms, such as Instagram, have also made it easier for businesses to establish themselves and accrue potential leads, and even customers, with swipeable links and in-built shopping features. 

3. What are the benefits of inbound marketing? 

Inbound marketing can provide a variety of benefits to both brands and their users. Let’s take a look in more detail at why more and more companies are adopting this user-centric approach to marketing. 

Incurs lower costs 

Inbound marketing costs 62% less than traditional outbound marketing methods. Rather than paying to distribute your content on external channels, inbound marketing typically leverages your content on cost-free channels. 

By utilizing free-to-use platforms such as Medium, Instagram, and LinkedIn, savvy digital marketing teams can grow a large audience without having to spend big bucks.

These sites are not only free to use, they also enable marketers to gather significant amounts of customer data at no additional cost. This data provides valuable insights into customer behavior and preferences that can inform and significantly improve future campaigns. With lower costs and platforms that allow brands to establish relationships with users, inbound marketing can also be more effective at winning over customers in the long term.

Builds trust with potential users

By creating helpful content and educating users about the industry and what you do (and how well you do it), users are likely to view your brand as a trustworthy source of information and an authority in its field. With this trust in place, customers are much more likely to engage with further  content, provide more information about themselves (which can inform future campaigns and help you create more personalized content), and make a purchase of your product or service.

When the experience of purchasing the product or service is also a positive one, trust is further cemented between business and customer. They might go on to recommend your brand to colleagues, friends, or family, or write a positive review of your brand, product, or service online. 

Creates quality leads

Users who are drawn to a specific brand because of its great content are more likely to be higher quality leads than a user that comes to a company through a magazine ad or a billboard campaign, for example. This is because it’s likely that the user who engages with a brand’s online content has found it because they have been searching for related content or keywords; they are already interested in the topic, product, or industry and want to find out more. In other words, the user has been pulled towards a brand’s valuable content through clever, inbound marketing techniques.

This makes these leads much warmer than those who come to a brand cold, for instance via an advertising campaign, and they are therefore much more likely to continue along the customer journey, engaging with the brand, and purchasing a product or service. 

Creates opportunities to get direct customer feedback 

As we’ve seen, content marketing provides numerous opportunities for collecting data on customer behavior and preferences. However, another significant advantage for brands publishing content online is that it creates opportunities to start dialogues and encourages two-way interactions directly with customers.

Facebook groups, Instagram interactions—such as comments and likes, and Medium comments are just some of the ways that users can share their opinions with brands, who can then use this information to further improve their output and bolster their relationships with users. 

4. What are the constraints of inbound marketing? 

Although there are many advantages to inbound marketing, it’s not without its drawbacks. Here are a few downsides you might experience when incorporating inbound marketing into your strategy that you should watch out for. 

It’s time-consuming 

While crafting high-quality pieces of content is great for drawing in your target users, it also takes time. A small in-house marketing team might have to outsource content creation to freelancers such as graphic designers, videographers, and content writers in order to create enough regular content to stay relevant and competitive. 

Measuring ROI can be tricky

Unlike pay-per-click (PPC) advertising which reveals precisely how many leads you’ve gathered for the money you’ve put in, inbound marketing requires more finesse to measure its return on investment (ROI). The process of measuring ROI for inbound marketing isn’t quite so straightforward, but it’s certainly not impossible. 

Using an integrated, automated system that tracks every user interaction with a brand’s content output, a marketing team is able to see which content pieces are converting well and what the ROI is. 

It takes longer to see results 

Inbound marketing is certainly not a quick fix when it comes to attracting users and converting them into customers. Most inbound marketing campaigns take between 6 and 9 months before marketers see a return on their investment, though this can vary from company to company. 

Requires a team of mixed talents 

An inbound marketing strategy requires a broad range of differently skilled team members in order to be successful. As well as a digital marketer, you’ll need graphic designers, UX designers, web designers, web developers, content writers, videographers, copywriters, social media specialists, SEO specialists, SEM specialists, data analysts, and email marketers all working together to execute a seamless and integrated campaign. 

5. Next steps

If this article has piqued your interest into the vast world of inbound marketing, that’s great! While you can certainly get into the industry without any formal experience, your digital marketing resume will definitely stick out from the others if you’ve got something to show you’re dedicated to the craft.

If you’re interested in learning about how inbound marketing sits within digital marketing as a whole, why not try out the free, 5-day short course with CareerFoundry? During the course, you’ll learn about: the most important digital marketing channels, how to research for your campaign, how to produce creatives, and common marketing metrics. 

There’s a short test at the end of it, and if you ace it (pass at 70% or over), you’ll receive a discount that you can use for the full Digital Marketing Program.

You can also learn more about digital marketing by reading some of our other articles:

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