Hearing a lot of buzz about ‘inbound marketing’? Not really sure what the phrase actually means? You’re in the right place. As part of our ongoing commitment to cut through the waffle and provide plain English explanations for some of the industry’s most pernicious buzzwords, we’ve pulled together a detailed guide to all things inbound.
First coined by HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan, ‘inbound marketing’ first started doing the rounds in 2005. Over the last has quickly become one of the most ubiquitous and tenacious buzzwords in the B2B space – and with good reason too.
See, inbound marketing is actually a pretty bomb-proof methodology for attracting leads and growing your business. HubSpot define it as
“A business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them.”
But as definitions go, we think that’s pretty indecipherable. In simpler terms, inbound marketing is about publishing helpful articles, blog posts, tutorials or case studies that help potential customers navigate the buying process – and establish your brand as the ‘'go to’ experts on a given subject.
Inbound v outbound marketing
It differs from ‘outbound’ marketing in the sense that it tries to earn attention instead of demanding it. TV and radio adverts, cold calling, email spam and other forms of traditional marketing interrupt your audience as they’re going about their day; trying to convince them to buy a product or service while they’re watching their favourite show or waiting to board a plane.
Inbound marketing is all about reaching people when they’re actively trying to solve a problem, find a product or make an important purchase decision. It’s about providing useful and authoritative content that establishes a relationship with potential customers and earns you top-of-mind awareness. (source: Brafton).
One easy answer to the question "what is inbound marketing?" is "any marketing activity that doesn't interrupt people." It's about activities that bring customers to you instead of you going after them. It removes the need to guess where they are going to be, for example in front of their televisions, and it removes the need to rent some space in order to put your message and products in front of them!
In very simple terms outbound marketing tends to rent the space it occupies whereas inbound marketing owns it. In order to reinforce that let's explore it by looking at an example.
Outbound Marketing Rents Space
Because outbound marketing interrupts people who are doing something else, it generally needs to rent that space. Think about an advert in your local paper, you pay for it, it might be seen by someone who's interested, it might not.
Inbound Marketing Owns Space
Many purchases today start with a Google™ search. Setting aside paid search results such as Google AdWords™, the results that people see in Google are effectively owned by the websites appearing there. They've earned their Google rankings by having great websites and great web pages. Another business with a big wallet can't simply buy that space off Google, they have to earn it. In other words, they need to own it.
Why Does inbound marketing work?
Now that we’ve established what inbound marketing is (and isn’t) it’s probably worth taking a quick look at why it works.
Simply put, the internet is becoming an increasingly crowded and noisy place. Everyone’s screaming for attention – Social media feeds are flooded with sponsored content, brands have taken over the top 2/3rds of any search engine results page, and ads squawk at you from the sidebar of every website.
These interruptions aren’t appreciated. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that a growing number of B2C and B2B buyers are learning to tune them out entirely. But people still turn to Google, Tik Tok and other search engines when they need help answering a question – or navigating a complicated purchase journey.
I'm currently considering a big ticket purchase, an electronic drum kit that retails for around £3k. The price of this kit is pretty much the same wherever you look; my decision of where to buy it is not based on price. At this stage, I'm still confused about which model to buy and I'm researching this by reading articles/blogs and watching review videos.
Now, guess which retailer is at the top of my list for the actual purchase? Right, the one who has fantastic product reviews and videos, the one who's helped me better understand the differences between the models, the one who has helped me and not just sold to me. They're doing inbound marketing.
Brands that eschew the typical ‘interruption advertising’ and focus on providing useful content that answer pressing questions develop a reputation for being genuinely helpful. They engender good-will, and they also cement themselves as subject matter experts – with the domain knowledge needed to provide a reliable service.
They cut through the noise, and reach customers when they’re at their most receptive, which is why we think inbound marketing is undoubtedly one of the most powerful approaches to sustainable growth in 2022. If you’re interested in learning more about the evidence base for inbound marketing, check out our article on why inbound marketing is here to stay.
how do you do inbound marketing?
Technically, every time you publish a blog post you’re doing inbound marketing. But you’re unlikely to have much success if you take a scattergun approach. As mentioned above, the internet’s an increasingly noisy place and rising above the hubbub requires a great deal of
- Hard work
- Strategic thinking
Most inbound marketing models rely on some kind of search engine to rank and display your content to people as they’re shopping about, asking questions and generally navigating the complexities of their purchase journey.
To ensure that these search engines rate your content, rank it well and serve it up at the right time, you need to understand the basics of modern SEO best practices. To ensure that this content actually converts your target audience, you also need to ensure that it’s
- Genuinely helpful
- Easy to read
Making inbound marketing work also means ensuring that visitors are guided towards a conversion, and nurtured beyond the first touch. In fact, research published by Vehnta suggests that the average B2B buyer journey has between seven and ten touchpoints, which means that your follow-up - and staying top of mind - is just as important as scoring the initial visit (source: Vehnta).
We’ve actually written a detailed playbook for B2B inbound marketing, but we’ll use the rest of this article to provide a more general summary of the inbound marketing methodology – and help you start building your own inbound marketing campaigns.
In simple terms, it’s all about focusing on value and expertise; you want to be publishing detailed and authoritative guides, case studies, white papers and FAQs that cut through the noise and share genuine expertise with your potential customers.
But there’s obviously more to it than that…
getting the fundamentals right
Raring to write? Hang on a second. We’re still jumping the gun. See, inbound marketing may be about content but even a discussion about taking strategic approaches to content creation misses out on all the essential stuff you’ll need to do before you can start brainstorming killer article titles.
Skip this important groundwork and you can spend a lot of time and money producing content that won’t rank for the search terms your audience are actually using – or engage users once they do reach your site.
Luckily, the inbound marketing methodology has been around for a few years now – more than long enough for the boffins at HubSpot, Marketo, The Digital Marketing Institute and other, equally prestigious institutions to experiment with what works and come up with a bulletproof blueprint for successful campaigns.
Put plainly, you’ll want to start with audience research. Try as you might, there’s no way to make inbound marketing work until you have a good understanding of your ideal customers
- Preferred language (ie. the keywords they use to find information)
- Expectations (do they want longform content, case studies, video testimonials?)
- Pain points (are they struggling to solve a specific problem, worried about price etc)
- Motivators (do they want to save money, deliver their project on time etc)
We’ve written a fairly exhaustive guide to creating killer marketing personas. Dive in if you’d like to know more, but if you don’t have the time, we’d definitely recommend
- Turning to a good keyword research tool like Keyword Planner or SEMRush to figure out what people are looking for
- Mining Google Analytics and/or Adwords (if you’re using it) for demographic data
- Spending some time researching forums like Reddit or Quora to uncover common pain points
That should at least get you some way towards being ready to start drawing up a strategy.
Writing An Inbound Marketing Strategy
Once you know who you want to reach and how you want to reach them, you’ll want to sit down and draw up a proper strategy. There’s no ‘right’ way to do this, but we find that it often helps to start with a list of the content you want to write.
Plug it all into a spreadsheet or the content planning tool of your choice; work out what keywords you’re going to optimise it for, how long it’ll need to be and what pages of your blog/website you’ll want to link out to. You could also spend this time thinking about what CTAs you’ll use on each piece of content; what your visitors’ next steps should be and what downloadable content you’ve got to offer them.
Then start prioritising your list based on how long it’ll take you to write each piece of content, and the relative value it’ll bring to your overall campaign. This’ll give you the info needed to produce a proper content calendar and start planning out your overarching inbound marketing strategy.
For more detail, check out our content strategy checklist or get in touch with one of our marketing experts. Strategy is probably the most important part of any marketing campaign so it’s worth quizzing an expert on your plans, or at least getting a second opinion before you dive in and start writing.
Setting Goals For Your Inbound Marketing Strategy
Setting the right goals is critical to the success of any campaign – inbound or otherwise. Ultimately, you need to make sure that you’re tracking the right outcomes so that you can report on successes, accurately pinpoint points of failure and refine your strategy as you start to launch content that ranks for your target keywords.
A lot of marketers defer to the obvious: They focus on tracking web visits or conversions, direct revenue or enquiries. Sadly, for B2B inbound marketing campaigns, these goals rarely tell the whole story.
As noted above, B2B buyers often take weeks to make a decision; engaging and re-engaging with potential suppliers seven to ten times before they eventually engage your sales team and sign a deal.
This means that a single piece of content is unlikely to generate revenue on its own – and that focusing on top-level goals will often obscure the relative importance of content at the top of your sales funnel.
In our eyes, the best way to track and measure success has to be relative to the content you’re producing. For a video, views over one minute will probably give you a good idea of whether you’re successfully engaging your target audience.
For podcasts, repeat downloads, or downloads of multiple episodes is probably a key metric, and for written content, something like internal clicks, form fills or a scroll depth over 50% would all be good indicators of engagement.
Then you’ll want to try and link those engagement metrics to acquisition and retention metrics, double-check goal paths in Analytics and look at those top-level conversion/enquiry metrics mentioned above to start building a clear picture of what’s happening when people land on your new content.
Goal setting for inbound marketing is a complicated business , but we’re always more than happy to talk through best practices if you’re struggling to get a handle on your goal-tracking setup.
How Long Does Inbound Marketing Take?
If you’re starting fresh, you’re probably about six to nine months from inbound marketing success.
Why so long? The truth is, your work has to be good to move the dial. Sure, you can set up a Google AdWords campaign and start getting traffic the same day, but inbound marketing is a different beast.
Inbound uses a strategic approach and starts by creating a detailed strategy. This work alone can take four to six weeks to complete but without it, you'll be flushing money down the pan. Seriously, don't even think about jumping straight into tactics such as blogging and creating e-books until you've created a strategy.
Once you've created your strategy you'll then have a shed load of work to do. There will be blog posts to write, e-books to create, videos to record and the list goes on. You'll be in planning and production mode and, in all likelihood, by the end of month two you still won't have published much content, if any, unless you're throwing a lot of resources at it.
The attract, engage, convert goal of inbound marketing is a simple concept, but actually actioning this stuff is seriously hard work.
Don’t let that deter you though: It’s also (undoubtedly) one of the best things you can do with your time/money. Think about the lead generation tactics you've used in the past, and the money you've spent on them. How many of those tactics are still bringing in leads? Probably none of them. They will all, most likely, be the type of activities that worked while you were paying and stopped once you closed your wallet. That can be fine, that can work but wouldn't you prefer doing something that compounded? You know, like the interest on your savings account.
We still get leads every week from content we created months or years ago. One of our most popular pages attracted over 150 visitors (sometimes more) every day for years, and from that valuable enquiries. Maybe we got lucky, nevertheless, the emails keep coming in without us lifting a finger or spending a penny. Nothing lasts for ever though, and it's important to keep refreshing your best content to ensure that it is still doing the job, particularly since Google's Helpful Content Update which goes heavy on quality, focus and expertise.
How Much Does Inbound Marketing Cost?
How long is a piece of string? In all seriousness, it’d be nice to give an accurate ballpark for this question, but there are too many variables. How competitive is your niche? How much content do you need to produce and what form will it take?
Video, for example, may be much more expensive than written content, or hiring someone to help you record a podcast. Then you’ve got to consider the amount of work you’ll be doing yourself and the amount that you’ll be outsourcing to third parties, the volume of content you’re trying to produce and the complexities of writing about your field.
Rather than make up something to placate you – or provide a misleading baseline that’ll skew your thinking, we’ve written a detailed guide to working out the cost of an inbound marketing campaign.
Give it a read if you’d like to get down into the nitty gritty and work out exactly how much you’ll need to budget. Sadly, there’s really no shortcut here.
Can I Do Inbound Marketing Myself?
You can absolutely do inbound marketing yourself. We recently gave a talk to a group of 50 business people in Aberdeen – focusing on how to set up and run your own inbound marketing campaigns and the advice we gave there holds true here too:
If you have the time and expertise needed to
- Research your target audience
- Research the keywords they’re using as they navigate the buying process
- Plan out content for those keywords
- Write, build and publish that content
- Optimise your content for search
- Accurately measure and track your results
there’s really no reason that you can’t dive in and start running your own campaigns.
People generally turn to agencies and/or freelancers when they haven't got the capacity to do some (or all) of this work themselves, or they need to lean on someone else’s talents to write or plan a particularly important piece of content.
Ultimately, it’ll depend on the specifics of what you want to achieve and how much time you’ve got on your hands, but we think inbound marketing is a lot more accessible than people assume, and there’s certainly no reason that you shouldn’t give it a go.
We’ve written a detailed guide to setting up your first DIY inbound marketing campaign here. Give it a read, and you may well find that you want to try taking this in-house before you go searching for an agency!
Does Inbound Marketing Work For B2B?
Absolutely. In fact, inbound marketing may be the most successful form of marketing for most B2B agencies. According to HubSpot, 56% of marketers who leverage inbound marketing say it generates leads, and approximately 10% say that it generates the best ROI of all their marketing channels (source: HubSpot).
These are general stats too. If you get specific and start looking at the success of individual channels, the same research from HubSpot shows that 80% of marketers think video directly influences sales, and a further 80% say that they’re planning to meet or exceed their current spend on audio content as we move into 2023.
And this does make perfect sense when you consider the unique position most B2B brands are in. As we point out above, B2B buying journeys are long and complex. Anything you can do to help people navigate the decision-making process will win you loyalty and ensure that your brand is firmly entrenched at the top of people’s minds. It’s a win-win really, and it’s often far cheaper than a traditional - outbound - marketing campaign.
Which Industries Need Inbound Marketing?
We’re a little biased: in our eyes, every industry needs inbound marketing but it’s probably most effective in industries where it's a considered purchase, choosing a product/service provider is complicated, the buying journey is full of difficult decisions, or people really struggle to get a handle on what they need.
For example, we think inbound marketing is particularly effective for
Lawyers and legal firms
Manufacturing and engineering companies
Planning consultants and architects
Service providers like IT companies or oil and gas field service companies
Investment brokers and wealth management firms
Health and wellness companies
This list is by no means exhaustive: according to HubSpot, 82% of marketers are currently dabbling with inbound marketing (source: Moray Creative). So it’s probably safe to say that most industries would benefit in some way. But it is still important to be realistic and work out whether your audience really want/need helpful content.
Assuming that they do, inbound marketing is a safe bet. But we probably wouldn’t recommend it for - say - a footwear brand banking on the visual appeal of their product or a fast-moving consumer goods brand wanting to entice impulse purchases.
Get Started With Inbound Marketing
If you think you could (or should) be leveraging the power of inbound marketing, you’ll find a wealth of helpful content on our blog. You can also head over to the inbound marketing page of our website or get in touch with the team to learn more about how we can help you reach and engage your ideal customers.