Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing: what’s the difference between these marketing techniques?

Inbound and outbound marketing are often seen as alternatives to each other, but in reality they are often two sides of the same coin. The techniques used are different, but the goal is the same – to create an appealing message that convinces people to buy your products or services. The disadvantages of each method are also generally covered by the advantages of the other.

Inbound marketing is essentially the process of making it easier for people who are looking for services that you provide to find you rather than your competitors, often through SEO and website optimization. Outbound, on the other hand, is more traditional advertising where you create a message and look for people to tell it to, often through television, radio and newspaper ads.

Advantages of inbound marketing

Inbound marketing techniques such as SEO typically have a very high return on investment. They are also, by their very nature, highly targeted towards your market, as people have to be looking for the services you provide to find them. This means that you save a lot of money on traditional market research, as you don’t need to work out what demographics you are targeting (as much).

Your messaging is also easier, as rather than trying to convince people they need your product you are largely preaching to the converted. You only need to convince people to buy what they need from you in particular, rather than your competitors.

The work you do to improve your SEO and website will also be permanent, rather than disappearing as soon as you stop paying (with the exception of AdWords, but even then your landing pages will remain and can be used for SEO purposes). This means that, rather than simply trying to keep up, you are constantly improving your website and positioning.

Search engine advertising (for example Google AdWords) is a bit of a special case. This combines elements of both in and outbound marketing, as you are paying to place your website at the top of the search results, but you are still picking the keywords to compete for. Because you are still trying to attract people who are specifically looking for your services, it falls on the inbound side.

Note that I’m very carefully saying search engine advertising and AdWords rather than PPC – this is because social media advertising, which is also often Pay Per Click (or per impression) falls on the side of outbound marketing. It’s important to remember that not all digital marketing is inbound marketing – in fact, most advertising you see online is outbound.

Disadvantages of inbound marketing

Inbound marketing also isn’t the magic potion that some SEO firms would have you believe it is. While it can be a great way to attract people who are actively looking for your services, it doesn’t offer you the opportunity to convince people that they need what you are selling. There is also a lot of competition, and the reach can be quite limited.

Traditional advertising methods have the huge advantage that they give you the opportunity to employ sales techniques to convince people that they need what you are selling. This is especially crucial for innovative companies who are producing new products and services – after all, if people don’t know your product exists they won’t look for it.

If you are relying on SEO to attract customers you need to be aware that there is a lot of competition out there, and not a lot of places. Google, by far the biggest search engine, only has so many first page spots – and you will be competing with a lot of rival companies. The most searched keywords will also, inevitably, be the most competitive.

Advantages of outbound marketing

Conversely, outbound marketing allows you to show your products to people in order to convince them to buy it. If you aren’t in a mainstream industry then this is essential, as you need to persuade people that they need the service you provide before you can think about getting them to pick you to provide it.

You can also reach a much greater audience through media such as radio and television – and even billboards – than you can through having a great website. Sure, most of the people you reach won’t be looking for your product (unless you sell essentials such as power and groceries) but as long as you do your research into your target market you will be seen by some of them.

Outbound marketing also doesn’t need to be effective immediately. If you create a compelling advertisement people will remember it, even if they don’t need your service immediately. As a conveyancer, for example, you could run a series of radio ads and people will remember your brand when they buy a new home – even a few months later.

Disadvantages of outbound marketing

The primary disadvantage of outbound marketing is cost. Buying ad space is expensive, and with the ubiquity of advertising in modern life there is no guarantee that your message will get through. This means that, unless you produce great content and work out exactly how to showcase it, you might not get a great ROI.

Speaking of ROI, it’s also very difficult to measure the success of an outbound marketing campaign (well, offline marketing anyway). While your website can track how people found it and which sources deliver the best leads, you have no way of knowing how effective billboards or other traditional advertising is.

You also can’t tell if your outbound marketing is helping you, or if it is driving people to your competitors as well. If you are particularly successful in convincing people that they need a fitness tracker, for example, a good number of them will probably look at the category as a whole and may well buy from your competitors instead.

Of course just because success is hard to measure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It also doesn’t mean that outbound marketing doesn’t work – it can, and often does. However, if you have a tight budget it can be hard to know whether to increase our decrease spending on ad space. Advertising on websites and social media also does give you reliable figures.

If you are considering inbound vs outbound marketing you are probably asking the wrong question. You don’t need to pick one over the other – in fact, you should probably be doing both. The right question is what kinds of each type of marketing you should do, and what the breakdown in priorities should be.

If you want to have a clear breakdown of how successful your campaigns are, keep it digital – but if you just want to try and attract as many people as possible, you need to address all media. You also can’t do outbound marketing alone – there’s no point getting people to want your product if they can’t find your business!

If you are in an essential industry, or one that people often look for such as law or clothing, then you may be able to get away with inbound marketing alone. It would be better to do both, but if you are on a tight budget and need to pick one of inbound vs outbound marketing then inbound will offer you better results.


Raphael Garcia is just getting his start a reporter. He attended a technical school while still in high school where he learned a variety of skills, from photography to car mechanics. Raphael also helps keep The Marketing Folks social media feeds up-to-date.