What Is Inbound Marketing? A Beginner’s Guide

Turn strangers into readers, readers into customers, and customers into fans.

That’s the promise of inbound marketing.

Inbound marketing is a powerful marketing philosophy that emerged as a response to the demands of the digital medium. 

At a time when 67% of the customer’s journey is finished before they even speak to a sales rep, inbound marketing offers a solution to businesses that have seen shrinking returns from traditional marketing.

However, despite its tremendous growth in the last few years, inbound marketing is still largely misunderstood.

Whether you’re running an ecommerce store, a SaaS app, or an offline business – you need to know about inbound marketing.

So in this post, I’ll break down core inbound marketing concepts and help you understand how you can use it to grow your business.

The need for inbound marketing

Outbound vs Inbound Marketing Custom Image

The best way to understand the need for inbound marketing is to see it in relation to conventional marketing.

All conventional marketing is focused on interrupting the user’s experience. Think of an ad on the radio or a commercial on TV. This content is rarely entertaining and almost never helpful. Yet, customers are forced to sit through it – an experience few enjoy.

In digital mediums, such interruptive marketing is rarely effective. Most people ignore advertising altogether – display ads, for instance, have a dismal 0.06% click-through rate according to SmartInsights.com. Some even go out of their way to block all ads with ad blocking software (around 25.8% of internet users block ads).

To reach out to these customers, you need a marketing strategy that pulls them in, instead of pushing them a marketing message.

This is why we need inbound marketing.

Underscoring this is another phenomenon: that most of your buyers are now searching for solutions online.

Just take a look at these statistics:

Here’s what this means:

What would once be done by sales people – educating customers and offering them solutions – is now being done by customers themselves through search and social media.

If your prospective customers can’t find you when they search for you on Google or ask around on social media – you might very well lose customers forever.

Which brings us to the most important question: what exactly is inbound marketing?

Understanding inbound marketing

In a nutshell, inbound marketing is an umbrella term for a number of marketing tactics that aim to attract, qualify and win-over customers with helpful content.

At the heart of inbound marketing is a simple belief: that helping is better than selling.

When you create helpful content that helps customers understand their problems, you “earn” their trust and time. If you do it frequently and effectively enough, you get the right to sell them your products.

This is a big departure from conventional marketing where you buy ad space to push a marketing message to prospective customers.

Although it might sound radical, inbound marketing is actually a very old idea. Right from Campbell’s recipe booklets to Michelin Restaurant Reviews, companies have been creating helpful content to spur purchases for years.

Inbound Marketing Example - Campbells content
Source: Good Reads

In fact, any top salesperson will tell you that the best way to win a client is to become their trusted advisor who helps them understand their problems.

Inbound marketing essentially brings this approach online through customer-oriented, permission-based and ownership-focused marketing.

Inbound marketing is customer-first marketing

The first rule of inbound marketing is to prioritize the customer over everything else. Everything you do, from creating content to distributing it, will depend entirely on your customers.

This is also why there is no fixed playbook for inbound marketing; what works for one business might not work for another.

For example, if your target customers hang out on Instagram and prefer looking at videos over reading text, your inbound marketing playbook should focus on creating visuals (infographics, videos, GIFs, etc.) and distributing them over Instagram and YouTube.

On the other hand, if your customers are mid-sized corporations who need extensive information before buying, you’d do better by spending your time creating whitepapers and distributing them through LinkedIn and email marketing.

This is another characteristic of ‘pull’ marketing. Instead of interrupting your customers’ experience with a forced marketing message, inbound marketing helps you create content your customers love and distribute it where they already hang out online.

Inbound marketing is permission based

Think of an annoying TV commercial or an ad filled website.

Not exactly good user-experience, is it?

Now think of the last time you signed up for a business’ email newsletter. You probably did it because you found the content useful and wanted to learn more. Since you readily gave up your contact information, there’s a good chance you’ll open their emails and hear what they have to say.

Seth Godin calls this “permission-based marketing”, and it is the foundation of inbound marketing.

With inbound marketing, customers don’t receive a message from you unless they:

  • Explicitly seek it via search or social media.
  • Give you the permission to receive it, by signing up for your email list or following you on social media.

A customer who has agreed to receive your messages is much more likely to hear what you have to say. This is why email marketing often gets open rates as high as 30.5%. You’ll be lucky if even a 1/20th of that sit through your YouTube commercial or click on your ad.

Related Reading: The Best Email Newsletter Software Compared.

Inbound marketing is about ownership

When you advertise your product on TV or radio, you are essentially renting your audience’s attention. Once the 30-seconds or so is over, your audience’s attention drifts away as well. Not to mention that you also have to jostle other businesses advertising in the same slot or platform.

Compare this with inbound marketing where you drive traffic to your own properties. Any leads that you capture belong entirely to you. You can contact them whenever you want, however you want. If you decide to start a new promotion at 2AM in the morning, you don’t have to pay a publisher for advertising – you can just send an email broadcast for free. Or add a call to action to your website.

Owning the audience also gives you a chance to own your story. Rather than compressing your message within a 15-second space, or a 300×250 pixel website banner, you can hold real conversations with your audience.

Take a look at this email from Alex Turnbull, the founder of GrooveHQ:

Alex Turnbull email GrooveHQ

By writing such personal emails, sent under the CEO’s own name, GrooveHQ manages to tell an intimate story about itself – something no 15-second advert can manage.

The four stages of inbound marketing

Four Stages Of Inbound Marketing - Custom Image New

Unlike conventional marketing, inbound marketing doesn’t just drive leads into a funnel; it also helps qualify, nurture and close them.

In fact, inbound marketing goes one step further and even helps you delight your existing customers and turn them into lifelong fans.

Based on this, we can break down inbound marketing into four stages:

1. Attract customers

In this ‘top of the funnel’ stage, you turn strangers into website visitors. However, it isn’t enough to just attract an audience; you also want to attract the right kind of audience.

This involves three steps:

  • Developing relevant buyer personas.
  • Create content based on these buyer personas.
  • Distributing content through search, social and outreach.

Again, what kind of content you create and where you distribute it depends entirely on your customers as well as your existing budget and expertise.

Some tactics you can use to attract traffic include:

  • SEO: Search-optimized content backed by a strong link building and blogger outreach campaign can be a powerful source of high quality traffic.
  • Link building: While this is an offshoot of SEO, it’s worth mentioning separately because of it’s effectiveness. Not only will backlinks help your website rank, but if you use the right link building strategies, you will drive direct traffic as well.
  • Blogging: Creating relevant content customers actually want to read is a great way to attract direct, referral and social media traffic. Of course, creating keyword-focused content has SEO benefits as well. Plus, good blog content gets you loads of social shares.
  • Social publishing: Creating videos on YouTube, sharing pictures on Instagram, and developing infographics for Pinterest are all viable strategies to attract traffic.

2. Convert visitors into leads

A “conversion” in inbound marketing terms is when you get a site visitor’s permission to send them a message.

This usually happens when the visitor signs-up to receive any form of content – an email course, a whitepaper, a webinar, etc. – and gives you their contact information (phone number, email, etc.) in return. This way, he goes from ‘visitor’ to ‘lead’.

There are several tools and techniques you can use here to convert visitors, such as:

  • Content offers: In order to get a visitor’s contact information, you have to give something in return. Usually, this is some form of high value content that adds to the content you used to attract the visitor to your site (such as an eBook or a whitepaper). Otherwise known as a lead magnet.
  • Forms: You’ll use forms, either within a page or on a separate landing page, to capture visitors’ contact information.
  • Landing pages: Landing pages are designed to capture a visitor’s contact information. How much information you can ask for depends on your existing relationship with the visitor. A visitor who trusts you and your content is usually willing to give up more contact details besides ‘name’ and ‘email’. And, thanks to landing page software, they’re easy to create.

Note: While we’re on the subject of conversions, it’s worth mentioning that the process of optimizing for conversions (AKA conversion rate optimization) should be used throughout your business – not just in this stage.

3. Qualify and close leads into customers

In recent years, we’ve seen marketing take over more and more sales duties at the middle and top of the funnel. This includes nurturing and qualifying leads – duties which were once the domain of sales.

Fortunately, inbound marketing can help you automate lead nurturing, qualification and even closing. This is made possible through tools such as:

  • Email autoresponders: Once a lead gives over his contact information, you can send him a series of automated emails to push him further along the sales funnel. This helps with lead qualification as well as nurturing – the more emails a lead consumes, the more invested they are in their problem (and your solution). And email marketing providers such as ActiveCampaign make this easier and more cost effective than ever.
  • Marketing automation: The CEO of a 500 person company who downloads all whitepapers of your high-end products represents a very different customer profile than a solopreneur looking to buy your cheapest product. Using marketing automation, you can send these customers personalized and relevant offers, automatically. And there are plenty of marketing automation software tools available.
  • CRM: For B2B sales, you’ll need relevant and up to date contact information for all your customers. A CRM makes this easy and painless. Plus, it helps you track what part of the funnel your leads are stuck in. It’s particularly useful if your CRM integrates with your email provider.

4. Delight and turn customers into fans

Turning a lead into a customer is relatively easy. Turning a customer into a fan who’ll recommend your product to others is significantly harder.

Inbound marketing can help here as well. By creating useful content for existing customers, understanding their problems better through surveys, and personalizing messaging based on past behavior, you can delight customers and turn them into fans.

For example, you might show a personalized ebook download form with pre-filled data to a customer who has already bought from you. Or you might reach out to customers with relevant surveys and questions based on their past browsing history.

Some methods you can use to delight customers include:

  • Email Personalization: Send different emails to different customers based on their past interactions with you.
  • Personalized Landing Pages: By personalizing landing pages, you can show your customers that you appreciate them, and that you have the most relevant offers for them.
  • Surveys: By regularly collecting feedback from customers, you can show that you care about their business – and send them messaging that resonates with them.

The result? When you turn customers into fans you will significantly reduce customer churn.

Inbound marketing vs content marketing, social media marketing, and email marketing

There is a lot of confusion among businesses over the differences between inbound marketing, content marketing, social media marketing and email marketing.

This is an easy difference to understand: all the marketing channels listed above – email, social media, content – are subsets of inbound marketing.

It boils down to this:

Inbound marketing provides an easy way of categorizing marketing channels that attract users instead of interrupting them.

For example, to attract and convert leads, a business might:

  • Create high-quality content that helps potential customers understand a problem (Content Marketing).
  • Distribute content across social media (Social Media Marketing).
  • Capture leads and send marketing messages over email (Email Marketing)

If you closed a lead this way, you would say that you used inbound marketing to make the sale.

Inbound marketing vs growth hacking

While the distinction between inbound marketing and content/social/email marketing is quite clear, it is less easy to differentiate between inbound marketing and growth hacking, mostly because on paper, they sound similar.

(Interestingly, both these terms have gained a fair bit of popularity in recent years).

Inbound Marketing vs Growth Hacking

If inbound is defined as the sum of all techniques used to attract, convert and delight customers, growth hacking is defined as a collection of tools for attracting new users.

However, growth hacking and inbound marketing differ in four crucial areas:

  • Philosophy: Inbound marketing is all about putting customers first. Growth hacking is about acquiring new users over and above everything else, sometimes even at the cost of the customer experience.
  • Approach: Inbound marketing is process-oriented and scalable. Growth hacking, on the other hand, relies on one-off techniques that can’t really be scaled easily.
  • Long-term vs. short-term: Inbound marketing doesn’t reap results unless you commit to it for a few months at least. Growth hacking, if done right, can give you quick returns but doesn’t work consistently well in the long-run.
  • Funnel operation: Inbound marketing owns the entire marketing funnel, right from attracting traffic to nurturing leads. With marketing automation, it can even take over some sales duties. Growth hacking, on the other hand, is only concerned with attracting new users. That is, it operates mainly at the top of the funnel.

Whether you use growth hacking or content marketing, you’ll eventually be driving leads into inbound channels.

Which is to say, inbound is the whole; growth hacking, content/social/email marketing, etc. are just parts of this whole.

If you have to choose between inbound marketing and growth hacking, choose the latter if you want quick results that may or may not stick. Choose the former as your long-term strategy for getting traffic, leads and influence.

But, in an ideal world, you should use them along-side each other.


The best way to understand inbound marketing is to see it as a complex system made up of many smaller parts.

Each of these parts – SEO, social media, analytics, email, etc. – can help you attract traffic and customers on their own, but when put together, they create something much more compelling: inbound marketing.

But, it’s equally important to remember that inbound marketing is one part of the marketing puzzle. 

Adopting the inbound marketing philosophy doesn’t mean that you have to ignore outbound marketing entirely. It has its place in any successful overarching marketing strategy.

Here’s a recap of what you should take away from this post:

  • Inbound marketing focuses on pulling customers in by helping them solve their problems.
  • Inbound marketing is cheaper, more effective, and more suitable to the demands of the digital medium.
  • Inbound marketing is customer-oriented, permission based, and focused on audience ownership.
  • Inbound marketing has 4 stages – attracting traffic (Attract), turning them into leads (Convert), converting leads into customers (Close), and customers into fans (Delight).
  • Adopting the inbound marketing philosophy doesn’t mean you should ignore outbound marketing entirely. Each approach has its place.