we all know that marketing exists in many different shapes and sizes. indeed, you probably experience marketing efforts multiple times a day — whether it’s while you’re out and about or sitting on your couch watching tv.

you may have also heard of inbound and outbound marketing before. these terms might sound like industry jargon when they first hit your ears, but their distinction is actually significant.

there wasn’t always a clear divide between these two marketing strategies. in fact, once upon a time, there was no inbound vs outbound marketing — there were just traditional tactics.

so how did we get from the old days to modern marketing? let’s start at the beginning.

outbound marketing: a tale as old as time

back in the day, marketing consisted of cold calling, setting up trade show tables, passing around pamphlets or sending catalogs through direct mail. it was a one-way conversation: here’s our product, and here’s why it’s great.

this traditional marketing strategy would soon be known as outbound marketing. it was all about stopping potential customers in their tracks and getting them to notice your brand. the goal was to promote brand awareness, whether consumers wanted to learn about your brand or not.

when a potential customer realizes they have a need for your product or service and then goes to your brand first because it was top-of-mind, you know the outbound tactics worked.

when outbound marketing was all there was, it was the best strategy for lead generation. brands just had to be more in-your-face than their competitors.

but then, the internet happened, and a whole new form of communication was born. marketers took hold of the power of the internet and replicated their traditional efforts on digital marketing platforms. billboards became banner ads, pamphlets became pop-ups, and radio scripts – well, those stayed pretty much the same, but were inserted into online radio stations like pandora.

these marketing tactics fell flat in this new territory. we all feel the same way about banner ads and pop-ups. they can provide the right answer, but only some of the time – as long as there’s proper targeting, convenient and unobtrusive location on the page and no adblocking.

the one-way communication model isn’t effective when two-way communication is as simple as sending a tweet. thus, the online world gave way to a new marketing technique, made up of online articles, email newsletters and social media — basically, anything that can facilitate that two-way conversation.

in comes inbound marketing

inbound marketing methodology allows for two-way conversations between brands and audiences. it’s distinct in the fact that it invites people in rather than shoving a message in front of their eyes.

inbound marketing is nearly synonymous with content marketing – but not quite. they both rely on genuinely informative content (not salesy or braggy – just honest and helpful), like blog posts, white papers, infographics, email marketing and case studies. beyond these, inbound marketing also includes:

  • search engine optimization.
  • social media.
  • audience personas.
  • lead capture (like website forms).
  • attractive, helpful websites.

inbound marketing efforts largely focus on the buyer’s journey. in other words, inbound tactics are carefully designed to speak to a specific stage in the decision-making process. if someone is just encountering a brand or product for the first time, there’s a blog post for that. if they’re weighing their options and have some reservations about a product, there’s a white paper or a case study for that.

over time, inbound marketing strategies have evolved and improved. the banner ads and pop-up windows that many consumers previously ignored have been reconceptualized to be helpful to brands and less irritating to customers. in fact, when intelligently created and used, pop-up windows that prompt readers to sign up for email newsletters are highly effective and can serve to increase a brand’s reach. and, though banner ads aren’t often clicked on, they’re still valuable in that they encourage view-through conversions (which just means that a user sees the ad and visits that company’s website later on).

what's the difference between inbound and outbound marketing?

how outbound marketing complements inbound marketing (and vice versa)

have you ever heard of the marketing rule of 7? it states that there must be at least 7 points of contact between brand and consumer before a sale is made. is this always the case? not necessarily. you might see a new brand of ice cream at the grocery store and buy it for the first time on a whim, even though you’ve never heard of it. but with some purchases — especially expensive ones — customers need the hard sell.

this is where it goes from a competition between outbound vs inbound marketing to a happy marriage between the two. outbound and inbound practices can be strategically tied together to bolster overall marketing goals.

for example, consider a contact capture form on a website in order to download an ebook. this is an inbound technique because the user chooses to give his or her contact information to the brand, and because it’s providing the person with an informational resource.

but what does the company do with that information?

an optional next step is to pick up the phone. once you have this person’s name and number, why not have a real conversation about their needs or objectives? this action is an outbound technique because the company is reaching out to that person, with the ultimate goal of making a conversion.

inbound vs outbound marketing infographic

is outbound marketing outdated?

inbound marketing is the centerpiece of the industry today, but that’s not to say outbound marketing efforts should be abandoned. as mentioned above, the two are complementary, and both have a place in a marketing strategy.

for example, consider these statistics for popular outbound marketing techniques:

direct mail

  • millennials love mail. in a usps survey, 75% of millennials stated that receiving personal mail makes them feel special.
  • the same survey found that 62% of millennials have visited a business that they found out about from direct mail marketing.

radio ads

  • according to a neilson report, 80% of people listen to the radio either the same amount or more today than they did before 2020.
  • the same report found that 53% of radio listeners feel that the radio informs them about things they need to know.
  • 46% of respondents to the same survey said the radio helps them learn about which stores to shop at.

which is more effective, inbound or outbound?

the question on many marketers’ minds when contemplating how to build out a marketing strategy is which methods are most effective. this is a good question, and one that can be answered in many ways, depending on how you define effectiveness.

inbound has better roi

if you’re seeking a lower cost per lead generation, you want an inbound approach.

outbound marketing requires that you buy something to get started, whether it’s a pay-per-click advertisement, a billboard, a booth at a trade show or another costly tactic. inbound marketing, however, has many affordable (if not free) alternatives. you can launch a blog campaign for free or cheap, and it doesn’t cost anything to start a social media account. since there’s less upfront cost, the roi is higher.

of course, roi isn’t the only statistic marketers care about. it’s also important to think about the time it takes to bring in a lead and the actual probability that they’ll become a paying customer.

hubspot research: marketers see higher roi from inbound marketing tactics.

outbound is faster to implement

if you’re looking to implement a marketing strategy fast, outbound may be a more effective strategy. inbound marketing is a decidedly long-term strategy. it takes time to identify the right keywords and the best channels to utilize. in most cases, it takes 6-12 months to see results from an seo strategy.

outbound also needs some time to gain traction. however, it’s generally faster to execute an outbound marketing plan, and the results may begin coming in quicker.

what inbound and outbound have in common

though they may seem like conflicting priorities, the two marketing strategies do share a couple similarities. they both aim to bring more business and awareness to your brand. they also both need great content to work. without the power of words, along with compelling graphics, images, videos and sound bites, it’d be hard to capture an audience.

inbound marketing is heavily focused on great content; its goal is to be informative, after all. outbound marketing also requires good content in the form of direct mail campaigns, advertising scripts, pamphlets and info sheets.

in other words, though the marketing landscape is changing, there’s one thing that marketers will always rely on: captivating content that draws people in.

editor’s note: updated july 2021.

molly ploe is a marketing specialist at brafton. when she's not writing, she spends her time reading, going on walks and drizzling honey onto ice cream.