Great Ideas Start Here

blog: a regularly updated web page, typically run by an individual or organization, containing relevant thoughts and ideas.
by: Lindsay Denton, Copywriter

Long gone are the days when traditional marketing worked seamlessly or was the only option available. Well into the digital age, marketers need to engage in multiple proverbial arenas to succeed. One may bring to mind Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Landing Page Optimization (LPO) as notable modern marketing practices. Similarly, one may consider such means of advertising as Pay Per Click (PPC) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). It is in this context where options abound that a common debate takes place; inbound vs. outbound marketing. But which is which, and what are the merits of each? Perhaps most importantly, are these two even direct competitors, to begin with? Let us use this article to explore this intricate subject.

Defining Our Terms
Starting with the fundamentals, let us define these two terms. Understandably, no deep explorations and comparisons can take place before we do.

What is inbound marketing?
As the name suggests, inbound marketing refers to marketing that caters to inbound traffic. In other words, it seeks to market to those who come to you looking for information and value. To do so, it encompasses non-intrusive means of marketing, such as the following:

Among the two, this is typically the marketing type that is seen as more “ethical”.

What is outbound marketing?
Conversely, outbound marketing seeks to market to audiences that don’t actively look for your product or service. Thus, it is the more traditional of the two, if conceptually so; it seeks to advertise to everyone. Examples of outbound marketing include:

  • Traditional media; TV, radio, print, billboards, etc.
  • Paid ads such as display ads
  • Email Blasts

Understandably, this is typically considered the more “intrusive” of the two – and thus the less desirable and lucrative one.

Inbound vs. Outbound: The Characteristics
Now, beyond this cursory glance, let us delve into the specific characteristics of each. Should you be wondering which marketing strategy is best for you, these key points should help inform your choice.

Inbound: The “Pull”
As highlighted above, inbound marketing entails a more subtle and less salesy approach to marketing. Its conceptual core lies in SEO; engaging potential customers with valuable information and interactive content, as opposed to direct marketing.

In this regard, inbound marketing may be viewed as a “pull” toward one’s sales funnel. Prospects are not presented with ads they’re not looking for and are instead expected to find you. This concept stretches across other types of inbound marketing, of course, such as social media marketing.

This approach does typically, but not always, boast higher Return on Investment (ROI) – if we’re strictly comparing the two directly. It is also perceived as more “ethical”, due to it offering value to willing audiences and aiming for organic traffic. Finally, it helps build a strong marketing foundation through enhancing your digital presence and your website’s technical health. It does, however, also present some notable challenges, including:

  • Heavy reliance on content quality. SEO holds that “quality is king”, and inbound marketing heavily relies on it.
  • Fierce competition. Ranking high in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) takes a considerable effort, given the fierce competition.
  • Upfront investments. Unlike such practices as PPC, inbound marketing typically requires upfront investments that may not yield the desired ROI.

Finally, such forms of inbound marketing are typically long-term efforts by nature. SEO experts claim it may take 100 days or more before clear results attest to your efforts.

Outbound: The “Push”
In contrast, outbound marketing tactics take a traditional marketing approach by “pushing” their message to potentially unwilling recipients. For this reason, many people dub it “interruptive”, “intrusive”, and similar adjectives today.

Characterizations aside, outbound marketing does not have to be “unethical” in any colloquial sense. One may view purchased email lists and similar underhanded tactics as such, but it’s very traditional at its core. It also offers such distinct benefits as more easily measurable ROI in the case of PPC and quicker short-term results. Where SEO may take months to yield results, PPC may drive inorganic traffic almost immediately.

Nonetheless, this approach has, admittedly, fallen out of favor with modern audiences over time. Neil Patel aptly explains that “nobody asks for display ads”, which can explain the core of its multiple challenges today:

  • Low Click-through Rates (CTR). Outbound marketing is, by definition, unwanted; it is luck that determines if prospects are interested, if done indiscriminately.
  • Multiple avoidance options. Internet users, especially more tech-savvy ones, can use spam filters, ad blockers, and other options to avoid outbound marketing material.
  • Broader content creation scope. Because outbound marketing is, by itself, less focused on specific subjects or audiences, it is often less focused by nature.

In conjunction, the above should explain why outbound marketing frequently sees less favorable analyses. However, this article wouldn’t need to exist if the answer was as clear-cut as “outbound marketing doesn’t work”. It does, by all means – but arguably not as efficiently by itself.

Inbound vs. Outbound: Which Is Better?
Thus, we may better examine the inbound vs. outbound question under a different scope. Namely, one that treats them as mutually complementary instead of as direct competitors. To elaborate this point further, Neil Patel offers an excellent illustration of the two:


In the same article, Craig Borowski argues that “[t]he ideal marketing strategy recognizes the strengths and weaknesses inherent in both [.]”. He then concludes that “inbound and outbound should be considered teammates—not competitors”.

Thus, if one can afford to engage in both, the two can complement each other terrifically. Consider such examples as the following:

  • Cold email blasts being informed by audience segmentation tools.
  • Social media PPC ads being informed by social media platforms’ audience analytics tools.
  • Search Engine Advertising cooperating with SEO.

Of course, if one absolutely has to choose, inbound marketing may be the way forward. But outbound marketing tactics can still yield results as well, especially in tandem with a solid inbound marketing foundation.

In closing, then, it may be wiser to indeed view the two as “teammates”, for the two can certainly collaborate. Inbound marketing may present the more welcome approach that audiences continue to warm up to, but it too presents challenges. Outbound marketing may have fallen out of favor, by all means, but it is not to be fully abandoned either. Therefore, if one has the option, a combination may yield the best of both worlds.