Inbound vs Outbound Marketing: What’s the Difference?

Rosie Allabarton, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

If you’re part of a digital marketing team or simply learning about the field, you’ll probably have heard about inbound marketing or outbound marketing. While there are clear advantages to both methodologies, knowing when to adopt which approach can be crucial when putting together a successful digital marketing strategy, and is particularly important when attempting to attract the attention of specific audiences. 

In this article, we’ll be going over everything you need to know about inbound vs outbound marketing, including how these strategies work and the advantages and disadvantages of each. We’ll also be providing examples of both approaches so you can get a feel for what these marketing tactics look like to consumers in the real world.

You can use the clickable menu to skip ahead to any section, if you’d like:

  1. What is inbound marketing?
  2. What is outbound marketing?
  3. Inbound vs outbound marketing: What’s the difference?
  4. Summary

Ready to learn more? Then let’s go! 

1. What is inbound marketing? 

Sometimes referred to as content marketing, inbound marketing is when marketers attempt to draw users in by providing value via the content they publish online, content which typically answers a commonly searched-for query from their target user group. 

In contrast to traditional marketing or advertising methods which tend to push messaging or products onto the user, inbound marketing is a pull method that seeks to pique the curiosity or interest of users with content that is useful, interesting, educational or entertaining to them. 

Pros of inbound marketing 

Inbound marketing can provide a variety of benefits to both brands and their customers. 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, while also being more effective at winning over customers in the long term. 

Its effectiveness stems from creating strategic, high-quality, targeted content, rather than simply pushing a message onto unsuspecting users in the hope that they’ll want to find out more (as is sometimes the case with outbound marketing). 

Inbound marketing typically utilizes free channels and platforms, such as Medium, Instagram, and LinkedIn, which provides further savings for marketing teams. Not only free to use, these platforms also enable marketers to gather significant amounts of customer data for no additional cost. This data provides valuable insights into customer behavior and preferences that can inform and significantly improve future campaigns. 

Builds trust with potential users

By creating helpful content and educating users about the industry and what you do, customers 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 sign up for more 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, who might recommend your brand to colleagues, friends, or family, or write a positive review. 

Related reading: What is the marketing funnel, and how does it work?

Creates quality leads

When users are drawn to a brand because of that brand’s great content, those users are more likely to be higher quality leads (that is, more compatible with your brand and its product) than a user that comes to a company through, say, a billboard campaign.

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’re already interested in the topic or product and want to find out more. This makes these leads much warmer than those who come to a brand cold (for instance via an advertising campaign) and 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 in publishing content online is that it creates opportunities to start dialogues directly with customers about the industry as well as around specific products and services. 

Facebook Group threads, Instagram comments and Likes, and Medium comments are just some of the ways that users can let their opinions be known by brands, who can then use this information to further improve their output and bolster their relationships with users. 

Cons 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 content to stay relevant and competitive. 

Measuring return on investment 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). 

However, although the process of measuring ROI isn’t quite as straightforward with inbound marketing, 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 is 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 six and nine 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. 

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. 

Examples of inbound marketing 

To give you an idea of what inbound marketing looks like in practice, here are some key practices which the inbound marketer will use to attract and engage with their target audience. 

Email marketing

An email marketing campaign is a series of emails sent to users 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 a user to further commit or engage. 

You can learn more about email marketing in this guide.

Search engine optimization 

Search engine optimization (SEO) is when a website’s content is adjusted, optimized, and improved in order for it to be easily found via search engines. 

The more relevant a search engine algorithm deems a website to be on a specific search term or topic, the higher that page ranks on its results pages. The higher the page is on the results page, the more likely a user is to click on it.

Content marketing 

Content marketing is the production and sharing of high-quality online materials which seek to build interest in a company’s products or services, without direct selling or explicit promotion.

This methodology provides users with insights and information on an industry or topic, and builds trust and brand authority. Some companies also use content marketing as an opportunity to share a company’s values or mission. 

Social media marketing 

Social media marketing is when social media platforms (such as Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, or Facebook) are used to promote something, find and connect with audiences, and drive revenue. 

Thanks to the high levels of engagement on social media by users of almost every demographic, social media marketers have found they can not only directly interact with users on their favorite platforms, but also grab their attention by posting content that is highly relevant to them—and even personalized. 

Now that we know all about inbound marketing, its pros and cons, and use cases, let’s move on to outbound marketing.

2. What is outbound marketing?

Outbound marketing, also known as push marketing, is when a product, service, or message is pushed out to an audience using traditional (that is, non-digital by today’s standards) advertising methods.

These methods can include TV commercials, newspaper or magazine advertisements, flyers, posters, and billboards. In some cases, sales calls, trade shows, and cold emails are also used by outbound marketers. 

This form of marketing has been around for much longer than inbound marketing. It’s certainly less sophisticated, less data-driven, and less targeted than inbound marketing, but the options for brands at the time were much more limited. 

The defining factor in outbound marketing is that the company or brand is always the initiator, never the user. While it’s much easier to track the ROI of an outbound marketing or advertising campaign, the ROI is significantly lower than when inbound marketing methods are used.  

Pros of outbound marketing 

Despite being a less-popular marketing method in recent times, there are some clear advantages to outbound marketing. Let’s take a look at some of them. 

Builds awareness and reaches new audiences 

As an approach, outbound marketing is considerably less targeted than inbound marketing. However, one huge advantage to outbound marketing practices is its reach. Outbound marketing methods such as billboard advertising, television commercials, and even telemarketing produce brand familiarity that reaches across demographics, and creates an audio and visual presence for a brand that is instantly recognisable. 

Fast and easy to implement 

As we’ve seen, inbound marketing takes time in terms of both implementation and customer conversion. Outbound marketing, on the other hand, has a considerably quicker turnaround. When a marketing team chooses to send out print flyers, run a newspaper advertising campaign, or pay for billboard ads, they know their message is being seen by the public almost instantaneously. 

Quick results 

A marketing team can track users which come from more traditional advertising methods more quickly than those who are nurtured with a long-term content marketing campaign. If a user clicks on a digital ad, the marketing team can see that action and where the user came from instantly. With print, television, or billboard advertising, users can also be tracked using discount codes. 

Complements inbound marketing 

Inbound and outbound marketing tactics are most successful when used together. While inbound methods engage a target audience and provide opportunities for conversation and trust building, outbound methods help a brand to promote its products, services, and values to a much wider audience. 

Cons of outbound marketing 

Despite the range of benefits of outbound marketing, there’s no getting away from the downsides of this more traditional approach to marketing strategy and execution. 

Targeting is difficult

Due to the broader nature of outbound marketing strategies, tailoring campaigns to address the needs of specific demographics can be difficult. Although outbound marketing can target location–for example, with billboards, or local newspaper advertising–targeting other defining factors such as age or preferences is much more difficult and can result in a campaign being much less effective overall.   

Perceived as invasive 

Few people would say that they like to receive unsolicited calls advertising a product or service. Similarly, other outbound marketing and sales tactics (such as radio and television advertising) can be perceived as interruptive by consumers. 

When marketing from a company is considered to be invasive by users, it can have the opposite effect intended by the marketing team responsible for it, and result in reduced interest from consumers.

Difficult to cultivate real customer relationships 

While organic, inbound marketing campaigns actively encourage interaction and engagement between user and brand, an outbound marketing campaign is a more one-sided approach. With an outbound marketing strategy, customers rarely get the opportunity to ‘talk back’ to the brand, and can feel more like a message is being pushed upon them against their will. 

When a relationship between a user and a brand cannot be developed, users experience lower levels of trust and are more likely to look elsewhere. 

Easily avoidable

Users these days are savvy. Rather than being told what to buy and from whom, increasingly customers enjoy having autonomy over their shopping habits, with many actively enjoying the process of researching and discovering products that meet their specific needs. 

Additionally, consumers have considerably less time and attention for standard advertising, with many users actively avoiding ads, unsubscribing from email lists, and blocking cold calls. 

Examples of outbound marketing 

If you’re curious to start implementing outbound marketing in your customer-acquisition strategy, here are some methods you might want to try out. 

Traditional advertising 

Sometimes known as above-the-line (ATL) advertising, this outbound marketing method incorporates television, radio, print, and billboard advertising. Although these approaches can help a brand reach a large number of people, it’s less helpful for those hoping to target precise groups. 

Digital advertising

Digital advertising is similar to traditional advertising except it takes place online and can be considerably more targeted than ATL approaches. This kind of advertising also enables marketers to track the interactions, behavior, and preferences of those who click on their ad. Types of digital promotion include social media ads, display ads, email ads, and video ads. 

Email marketing 

Email marketing refers to a series of emails that a brand uses to communicate with both current and potential customers which aims to pique their curiosity about a product, feature, or service. This methodology straddles both inbound and outbound marketing methods, as it can be used for pushing a message onto cold leads (outbound), or sending a personalized, high-value, interactive message to a user who has already shown interest in the brand (inbound). 

3. Inbound vs outbound marketing: what’s the difference?

The difference between inbound marketing vs outbound marketing is primarily how they approach the user. An outbound marketing campaign typically pushes a message onto a user or many users, irrespective of that user’s previous relationship with the brand or their current needs. 

In contrast, an inbound marketing campaign seeks to draw a user in. This is done by gathering data about that user and using it to inform high-quality, relevant content that will appeal to the user and leave them wanting to interact and find out more. Inbound marketing is a slower, data-backed, targeted approach, while outbound marketing is more of a blanket approach used to reach larger numbers of people across a range of demographics. 

Many successful marketing strategies seek to combine elements of both inbound and outbound marketing techniques to reach their audiences. While inbound marketing can seem like the more attractive of the two, it relies heavily on users finding your brand themselves.

On the other hand, outbound marketing (although less targeted and sometimes more aggressive-seeming) at least ensures that large audiences have heard of your brand. By using outbound techniques to reach many individuals and inbound techniques to engage and interact with those who are already curious, a brand ensures it’s both attracting new users and engaging with warm leads simultaneously. 

Inbound marketingOutbound marketing
Pulls in relevant usersPushes at a wide, generalized audience
Centered around the user and their needsCentered around the brand and/or its product
Concerns the digital marketing funnelConcerns the traditional marketing funnel
Incorporates multiple channels as part of an all-encompassing strategyIncorporates limited channels as part of a linear strategy
Easily trackable user engagementDifficult to track user engagement
Online (blogs, social media, opt-in emails, organic search)Online and offline (display ads, billboards, magazine ads, cold email outreach)


4. Summary

In this article, we’ve gone into detail about inbound and outbound marketing pros, cons, and use cases, and discussed the key differences between the two. As we have seen, inbound vs outbound marketing doesn’t have a clear winner; in fact, many marketing teams seek to incorporate elements of both marketing approaches in order to extend their reach to new audiences while still nurturing long-term, interactive, and loyal relationships with users. 

Has this piqued your interest in the world of digital marketing? Why not try out our free, 5-day short course? You may also be interested in the following articles:

What You Should Do Now

  1. Get a hands-on introduction to digital marketing with a free, self-paced short course comprised of five short tutorials.

  2. Take part in one of our FREE live online digital marketing events with industry experts, and check out digital marketing student Adelina’s portfolio project.

  3. Become a job-ready digital marketer in just 3-7 months—all backed by the CareerFoundry job guarantee.

  4. This month, we’re offering a partial scholarship worth up to $1,365 off on all of our career-change programs to the first 100 students who apply 🎉 Book your application call and secure your spot now!

What is CareerFoundry?

CareerFoundry is an online school for people looking to switch to a rewarding career in tech. Select a program, get paired with an expert mentor and tutor, and become a job-ready designer, developer, or analyst from scratch, or your money back.

Learn more about our programs