The term “digital marketing” covers a wide variety of purposes, tactics, and channels. Often we see the historical understanding of traditional “advertising” clouding the understanding of what the purpose of various digital marketing tactics is. In this article we’ll clear up the difference between high-intent inbound digital marketing and exposure-based outbound digital marketing.
How Advertising Has Shifted In The Digital Age
Gone are the days of simply advertising brand names, products and services in newspapers, radio, and television. It was a time when advertising was based on high-level demographic interests and highly coveted prime-time placements. High quality impressions were the name of the game.
That all changed when companies like Google and Meta (Facebook for those of you not keeping up) started shaping the way marketing and advertising were done online. With the advent of advanced targeting and tracking, advertising was no longer a crapshoot based on projected eyeballs. Outbound digital marketing would soon become the most targeted, trackable and affordable way to reach new audiences.
These companies, along with other social media platforms (such as Twitter, Snap, etc.), also opened up the door for brands to market to their audiences through engagement and education by producing content rather than simply serving ads. These channels, including search engines, created the landscape that led to the arrival of inbound digital marketing as a way to find audiences already looking for a brand, product, or service at that moment.
Sure, the newspapers, radio stations, and television channels didn’t go away, but for small businesses the digital marketing channels created in the ‘90s and ‘00s were game changers.
Inbound Digital Marketing
The purpose of inbound digital marketing is to be visible for customers in channels that they are already active within and lead them to your brand through content or promoted placement.
The digital marketing tactics included within inbound marketing are:
- Search Engine Optimization
- Search Engine Marketing
- Content Marketing
- Social Media Marketing
- Email Marketing (organic)
Let’s pause for a second and note the choice of the word “promoted” rather than “advertised” in the description above. This is a key distinction that often gets inbound digital marketing promotion confused with traditional advertising. Promotional spending in inbound channels is a way to boost visibility to those that are already looking for you. This is still “advertising” in a sense, but the definition and purpose is so much different.
Take the comparison of SEO and SEM. For both inbound digital marketing tactics the audience is pre-qualifying itself as a user looking for you. Whether you rank organically for “bicycles” or pay to rank at the top of “bicycles” is irrelevant to the user (unless they are super tech savvy or have ad blockers). In both cases, SEO or SEM, the user will see your “bicycle” related web page in the search results and click through because they are already interested in that content. The only difference is the cost. Organic search ranking costs “nothing” other than effort and quality. Promoted search ranking costs the click bid of a few dollars/cents.
In this sense, SEM is not really advertising as we all commonly define it. This is a stigma SEM gets because it costs money, like advertising. But unlike outbound advertising, the user seeing the promoted link is pre-qualified, was expecting the link, and has the same intent as the user that would click an organically ranking link.
Why Inbound Digital Marketing Works
Inbound works so well because the audience is pre-qualified and has high-intent. Inbound traffic converts to leads at a higher percentage than outbound traffic. It builds trust through engagement, entertainment, and education. It has long-term value through its considerate and nurturing approach to gaining visibility and builds loyalty over time.
Simply put, this strategy is all about converting prospects that are already warm into leads.
What Makes Inbound Digital Marketing Difficult
Most inbound digital marketing tactics take a heavy lift up front to get going. The social media and content marketing tactics are especially resource heavy to produce and maintain a consistent schedule.
Lastly, while they do provide longer-term sustainable value, the truly organic tactics of SEO, content marketing, and building an email marketing list take a longer time to spin up than their paid counterparts in SEM and outbound digital marketing.
Outbound Digital Marketing
The purpose of outbound digital marketing is to expose a brand or product to new audiences and boost awareness.
The digital marketing tactics included within outbound marketing are:
- Social Media Advertising
- Programmatic / Display Advertising
- Email Marketing (paid)
These channels offer a traditional advertising approach, but utilize more advanced targeting metrics than their predecessors in print and multimedia. Outbound advertising offers the ability to better spend cold outreach dollars to more finely customized audiences and report back on campaign success in great detail.
Why Outbound Digital Marketing Works
The ability to target by demographic or interest at a granular level for pennies is very useful. The pool of viewers available is often quite high. This approach is great for a new brand to get its name out and create awareness for a new product or service offering to those that might be interested.
It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to spin up digital advertising campaigns. The initial creative is the heaviest lift and cost, but maintaining outbound campaigns after launch is a bit more manageable than creating cyclical inbound content or working long-term search ranking growth.
It’s also an effective brand building strategy when layered on top of a successful inbound digital marketing plan.
What Makes Outbound Digital Marketing Difficult
Unlike inbound digital marketing, audiences in the outbound channels aren’t as pre-qualified or ready to see your brand. While the subject matter may be relevant through interests or display placements on websites with related content, the viewer is simply less interested than they would be in search or subscribed content.
Digital advertising requires ad spend to be active. As soon as the ad spend is paused or turned off, so are any results coming from the affected channels.
The Outbound vs. Inbound Digital Marketing Comparison
You’ll see the pros and cons of each digital marketing approach outlined below in a comparison table. Green notes an advantage for that aspect of the strategy and red notes a disadvantage.
All digital marketing channels serve a purpose. Which approach is best for you depends on prioritizing what’s needed for your brand’s success at this moment in time.
Are you early in your digital marketing journey and on a tighter budget? Inbound marketing could provide a better ROI going after high-intent prospects. It also provides long-term value, especially on the content marketing and SEO side of things.
Is your product or service brand new? Perhaps outbound digital marketing can get you wider exposure with all interested prospects who may need you down the road, if not now.
Is your brand well established? Then it’s likely that you should be doing a mixture of both inbound and outbound digital marketing to meet prospects at all stages of your buyer’s journey.
As always, if you need help figuring that out, we’ll be here.