Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing

Are you trying to decide between inbound and outbound marketing?  You don’t have to decide.  You can have both.  You should have both.

Inbound marketing vs. outbound marketingThis is a debate that should not be taking place – not if you believe in taking a comprehensive and integrated approach to your marketing … not if you care more about solutions than about what tools you’re using.

Still, many people want to engage in this debate – at webinars and speeches, in blogs and social media.

But it’s silly … and very unproductive.

Inbound marketing and outbound marketing are two very good approaches to a marketing problem.  It shouldn’t be a competition.  It should be a cooperative venture.

Inbound marketing didn’t replace outbound marketing.  It enhanced it.

First, some definitions …

Inbound marketing is essentially online marketing in its many forms.  It may include website lead capture strategies, search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing development, pay-per-click search advertising and social media integration.

Inbound is a passive form of marketing in which you wait for prospects to come to you before you start marketing to them.   Well, you don’t exactly wait.  You create information people need or want.  You answer questions people may be asking on search engines – and if you do it well and do it enough, people will find you.

Once they find you, the goal is to encourage them to leave their contact information to obtain more information.  Over time, you build a list of interested prospects whom you continually reach via email until they are ready to buy.

Outbound marketing is a term created by the inbound marketing folks to describe a more direct and aggressive form of marketing in which you take the action of reaching out to find new business.

You start by identifying your best prospects and then you reach out and introduce yourself to them via direct mail, email or a telephone call.

Once you reach your prospect, you determine their need or interest, and – just as with inbound marketing – you start building a list of prospects that you continually market to over time.

How inbound and outbound are alike… and different

As you may have noticed from the descriptions above, both inbound and outbound have the same goal – to build an email list of interested prospects which can be marketed to over time.

If you spend any time observing the strategies of internet marketers, you’ll notice the core strategy is always building a list – meaning an email list of people who are interested in what you sell.

But there is nothing new about this strategy because building a list has also been a core strategy for direct marketing dating back to its earliest days.  Catalog companies have always known that their profits come from mailing to previous customers.

So the only real difference between inbound and outbound is how you build that list.

Inbound marketing wants to establish a website foundation with good content and lead capture strategies.  Outbound marketing wants to reach out directly to the people most likely to buy their products and ask them about their interest.

What would be wrong with both approaches?  Wouldn’t that be smart marketing?

Where this debate began …

As far as I can tell, this all started with HubSpot, a software company that sells marketing automation software designed to help companies manage their websites and online marketing activities.

As a way of marketing its product, HubSpot engages in very smart and aggressive content marketing by publishing a highly informative blog and a consistent stream of ebooks on a range of online marketing topics.   I subscribe to the HubSpot blog myself and have downloaded and read many of their reports.  They are very good.

Clearly, Hubspot practices what it preaches – and they are committed to getting others to do the same.

To that end – and this is where they run off the rails – they seem hell-bent on destroying all forms of outbound marketing – especially direct mail which they describe as “interruption marketing.”

Their key arguments

Perhaps it’s because they see direct mail as their competition – which is unfortunate and shortsighted – but Hubspot goes to great lengths to promote inbound marketing as the alternative to outbound marketing activities like direct mail.

Their key arguments are that:

  • direct mail is too expensive
    One of the strongest appeals for online marketing has always been that it requires very little cash.  It is largely an investment of time (a big investment by the way).  So yes, direct mail, which may cost 50 cents to $1 per mail piece, is considerably higher.  However, if you assign a cost to your time, chances are those prices will be much more competitive.[break][break]
  • direct mail is intrusive and annoying
    The term “junk mail” was coined long before inbound marketing was ever conceived as a way of distinguishing advertising mail from actual personal and business correspondence.  And it’s true, some people hate direct mail.  But most people could care less – and from that group, there is always a percentage who may be very interested.  The point is that direct mail still works – if you know what you’re doing.[break][break]
  • direct mail leads cost more
    Online marketing people always want to talk about their low-cost leads.  Once again, if you are not accounting for your time, online leads cost almost nothing.  But you have to ask “what is your time worth?”  At the same time, you need to ask about lead quality.  Online leads are notoriously poor quality for one very simple and obvious reason:  you cannot control who visits your website and downloads your whitepaper.  You are going to get many leads from people who will never buy what you sell.  Direct mail leads, on the other hand, will produce a much higher level of lead quality because you can pre-qualify who receives your message.[break][break]
  • direct mail is old school
    Really?  Yes, direct mail has a proven track record over many years.  How is that a problem? [break][break]

Back in the day …

Long before the Internet, businesses would routinely advertise in the Yellow Pages (the early version of search), but they didn’t stop with that.

Most would also advertise in local newspapers or magazines, target prospects directly with direct mail, exhibit at trade shows, speak at conferences and write columns in trade  journals.

Today, online or inbound marketing has all but replaced the Yellow Pages (and provided so much more), but with a few exceptions, an online-only marketing model is not a winning strategy.  [break][break]

If all you have is a hammer …

You may be familiar with this marketing axiom :  If all you have is a hammer, then every marketing challenge looks like a nail.

This is so true.  Not every marketing challenge can be solved with a single tactic.  Sometimes you need more than a hammer.   Which approach you take should be determined, not be the tools you have, but by the marketing challenge you’re facing.

I have many years of experience in direct marketing and many of my clients use direct mail.  But not all of them – because sometimes, direct mail isn’t the best choice for them.  Sometimes, what they need is print advertising, or pay per click, or telemarketing, or radio.  Or all of the above.

 When you find a new marketing tool, you don’t throw out the old tools.  You get a larger tool box.


Written by Bob McCarthy

This article may be reprinted without permission as long as the article includes the following credit:

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant helping businesses develop measurable marketing programs across multiple marketing channels. You can read his blog, The Direct Response Coach, on his website at Bob can be reached at 508-473-8643 or at


Bob McCarthy is a direct response copywriter and lead generation specialist.

Download his Freelance Copywriting Information Kit.

About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."

18 comments to Inbound Marketing vs. Outbound Marketing

  • Couldn’t agree more – thanks for this clearly articulated bit of sanity.

  • Thanks Steve … for your readership and your comment.

  • Hi Bob,
    A very well articulated post and very much needed.

    Thank you,

  • Hi Pat – I appreciate your kind comments. Bob

  • pravin

    Hi, I like your article, Thx for describe you inbound marketing Vs outbound marketing.


  • Thanks for reading, Pravin

  • I think in 2013 we will see a drastic change with inbound marketing occupying 2/3 of all marketing efforts for most companies. Traditional outbound marketing will no longer work as you can just imagine watching a t.v commercial and most of the time you will be turning the channel, as the products and/or services does not relate to you.

  • Thanks for your thoughts Trung

    I don’t agree, however. I don’t think outbound marketing is going anywhere. You may see an increase in inbound marketing, but as I pointed out in the post, you should really being doing both.

  • ravindra JOSHI

    Hi Mr Bob McCarthy,
    I liked your last line “When you find a new marketing tool, you don’t throw out the old tools. You get a larger tool box”. I find that certain markets take it too long to allow the tool box to get larger. For making the marketers test out new methods, we need the likes of HubSpot who go ahead and push new tools aggressively. This helps in faster testing of new tools. Let the customers test them out. The fittest ones will survive.

  • Thanks Ravindra for your insight.

    I love all the new tools. Sometimes it takes a while because of the learning curve, but these tools have dramatically improved the efficiency of our marketing. I just don’t see the sense in demonizing the old tools.

  • patmcgraw

    Bob, I just saw your comment on a related topic on LinkedIn so I clicked on your link to this post…and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed both your LinkedIn comments as well as the post.

    I have to give the marketers at Hubspot a lot of credit. They took the age-old concept of getting the right message to the right person at the right time and created a new name (inbound marketing) for the online world.

    That said, I think I curse them daily because so many have taken their concept to the extreme and turned marketing into a publishing unit. Now I have people freaking out about how to create content that will rank high in organic search – rather than relevant messages and offers for the right people at the each stage of the buying process.

    It’s the modern day version of fighting over the inside front and outside back cover of the Yellow Pages. 🙂

    Crazy world!

  • Thanks Pat
    Inbound content marketing is a worthwhile activity even if it’s limited. But if you’re going to rely on it as your sole method of marketing, you will be frustrated with both lead quantity and lead quality.

  • Like Pat, I came to your post from LinkedIn. And I agree that the In vs Out battle is silly.

    While both approaches use most of the same tools, you’re right that inbound is about building lists from the names of people you don’t know. But once someone registers for a webinar or eBook, you have a name (not a lead as HubSpot would say) that can be qualified, segmented, nurtured, scored and sold to the same as any other. So in that sense, inbound is a precursor to outbound rather than a competitor — a way to bring in incremental business.

    Also, inbound is essentially a fulfillment strategy. It’s good for finding products, services, vendors and information through active online research and social sharing – things like shoes, TVs, CRM software, the best widget manufacturer or the latest word on business process management. The “known unknowns,” as Don Rumsfeld would say. It’s not likely to work as well for new problem spaces or new solutions. People don’t search for the unknown unknowns. That’s where good ol’ fashioned outbound awareness building shines.

    As for the term itself, ”inbound marketing” used to mean the process of doing market field research and bringing that data back in. Seth Godin claims to have (re)defined the term way back in the last century – before HubSpot. But HS certainly owns it now.

    Good stuff. Thanks for the post.

  • Thanks for your insight, Michael.

    Lead cost is a great selling point for inbound. It’s mostly your time. But lead quality is a real problem. People need to watch the numbers. For every 100 signups you get through inbound, how many are going to be real leads? And how will you make that determination? The whole backend (fulfillment) of inbound is an enormous task. Worth doing, but don’t think it will be easy.

    Outbound has a backend too, but if you qualified your list going out, pretty much everyone who responds is a candidate for what you sell.

    I used to use the terms outbound and inbound to describe the two actions of a direct response campaign – outbound meaning outreach to your target audience, inbound meaning the use of response channels like reply mail, telephone, landing pages (and PURLs) and walk-ins. But you’re right, Hubspot owns the term now.

  • HubSpot pushes lead cost, but for most businesses it’s not as important as other indicator trends such as conversion rates, cost per sale, size of sale, etc. Partly it’s because the definition of lead varies from company to company, and because by itself, cost-per-lead doesn’t tell you much.

    You’re right that lead quality can be an issue, which is why inbound needs a solid person-to-person qualification process behind in addition to automated nurturing and scoring.

  • Amen Michael

    Lead definition is critical here. If you define a lead as anyone who downloads your whitepaper, you’re going to need a lot of them before you find any qualified buyers. And you’re right, you’re going to need a process to qualify them.

  • Fantastic article Bob. This helped me really put a finger on the thoughts already running through my mind. You’re absolutely correct that inbound and outbound marketing need to co-exist… Even work together!

    I’m coining a new term: Direct Inbound Marketing.

    A powerful combination of direct response (outbound) with inbound tactics.

    Hey, if Hubspot can make up a new term, why can’t I? 🙂

  • Thanks Kevin

    I love inbound marketing. But it takes so much time and effort before you see any results. Most of us need to get out there and knock on doors.

    Direct Inbound Marketing sounds good to me.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>