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."