“I’m not sure what the difference between inbound marketing vs. content marketing is, and at this point, I’m too afraid to ask.”
If this confession from the beloved Chris Pratt meme rings true to you, you’ve come to the right place.
A lot of marketers use these terms interchangeably, even though they shouldn’t.
Let’s start with a simple comparison. “Writing” is a blanket term for many things that have to do with creating written words. “Conversion optimization,” however, can also be a type of writing, but it refers to the method that turns writing into tangible results.
In the same vein, content marketing is the blanket term, and inbound marketing is the refined methodology. In this article, you’ll find out how they work together and how you can fulfill both your customers’ needs and your sales funnel with these two methods.
Content marketing is the collection and usage of content-based resources created to provide need-based, value-added, and relevant information for the end-user or customer.
In short, it’s a marketing technique that seeks to captivate prospects not just with products or services but also with content. Content types can be blog posts, email marketing, ebooks, social media posts, landing pages, and so on.
While offline content types also exist (pamphlets, books, posters, etc.), this article will focus primarily on online marketing.
Content can inform, educate, or entertain potential customers. People today consume content at double the rate than in previous years. This increase means that you need to develop content that’s unique or otherwise grabs the eye.
Here’s an example. Canva’s landing page in this content marketing example roundup is the perfect value-added tool for those who are strapped for color palette ideas.
Content marketing is a great technique to have in your marketing campaigns but to turn your leads into sales, you’ll need to optimize... everything.
Enter inbound marketing.
Inbound marketing is an optimization technique that inserts conversion-boosting elements into your content to attract and drive customers to the end product or service and then convert them.
In a report by Visualobjects, businesses said that inbound marketing had increased their leads by 72% and their conversions by 55% in the past six months. Inbound is the secret ingredient in your digital marketing strategy.
Inbound marketing can be as simple as adding a “sign up here” call-to-action or as complex as creating an entire conversion-optimized landing page.
There are a lot of components to choose from when creating an inbound marketing campaign. Here’s a list of examples.
Back when MOZ was called SEOmoz, they were already ahead of the inbound marketing game. They combined a lot of their content marketing efforts with community building or free tools. Today, they are a $60m+ company.
The MOZ toolbar today. Source: MOZ
Inbound marketing can be used by any company that offers services or sells products. You just need to know how to use it right.
When inbound marketing was introduced to the world, customers had a collective sigh of relief in a marketing minute. They hated pushy, one-size-fits-all sales and were ready to call the shots for a change.
Content marketing and inbound marketing both provide non-interruptive content during the buyer’s journey. They also both prioritize a customer-centered approach. Yet, there are a few areas where they diverge.
In the following sections, you will find out how these two strategies differ and how you can apply some of the tactics to your brand.
1. Audience Engagement
Most users today try to block out online ads, banners, and spam actively. In the US, mobile ad blocking has reached 586 million users. People are tired of intrusive ads, and inbound marketing is here to save the day.
Inbound marketing engages with the audience through understanding their pain points and providing solutions.
With inbound marketing, you can narrow your engagement strategy even further by creating marketing personas and supplying them with relevant, tailor-made content.
Of course, you can’t personalize everything. Content marketing generally focuses on a broad audience and therefore may keep its tone more general, for example, on web pages.
The good news is that personalized and generalized content can both live under the same roof. Here’s proof!
On the first screenshot, you can see ClickUp’s general task management landing page. While it’s optimized for conversion (see: headline, email capture form, social proof, etc.), it talks to a broad audience.
The second screenshot features ClickUp’s landing page for marketing teams. See the industry jargon popping up throughout?
Lucy Literado, VP of Marketing at Reply.io, also adds on about the importance of knowing which customers you want to target in case your content strategy includes a degree of personalization. “This year, we focused on shifting to refined ICPs to make the content more appealing to our target accounts,” she said. “We’ve run an in-depth research of our target personas (both current and new ones) which allowed us to tailor our content strategy accordingly and improve its effectiveness.”
An example of how they executed this in their content marketing strategy is this blog post on sales director tools.
By refining the content to focus on the pain points of sales directors, Reply.io found a way to deliver personalized content within their broader content marketing strategy.
Audience-optimized landing pages will capture more qualified leads, while general landing pages might piquè the interest of a broader audience group. Offer both options on your website to attract a wide range of customers.
2. Marketing Strategies
With content marketing as its backbone, inbound marketing covers a large spectrum of marketing and sales strategies. It’s inclusive of SEO, digital advertising, conversion optimization, social media, lead management, email marketing, and more.
If you want to fully embrace inbound marketing, you’ll need to have the following things ready at the bare minimum:
A mobile-optimized website with a CMS (content management system)
Once you’ve covered the basics, you can step up your strategies to include AI, automations, branding, video marketing, remarketing, or advanced content offerings such as ebooks, webinars, or a podcast.
Source: MediaberryContent Marketing
Running a content marketing strategy alone is possible. However, this technique generally bypasses a more coordinated multi-channel approach and focuses on the performance of each content piece on its own.
Take this LinkedIn post as an example. Lemlist CEO, Guillaume Moubeche’s smart post aims to stir engagement to the fullest extent. It fulfills multiple purposes:
Promotes an upcoming webinar
Attracts a broader audience with a freebie
Engages users with a poll
Engages users with a call to comment
The post is likely part of a more extensive inbound marketing strategy for Lemlist. Yet, it would also work well as a standalone piece in a basic content marketing plan.
Source: LinkedInYour Takeaway
If you do not yet have the bandwidth to employ a complete inbound marketing strategy, that’s okay. You can start with a content marketing strategy; just make sure that each content piece is fine-tuned to return the most results (either as conversions or via engagement).
In the first point, you learned about audience engagement via customized messaging in inbound marketing. Now, what does messaging look like at scale?
Inbound marketing exercises a broader positioning tactic. This approach leaves room for thought-leadership for several topics at the same time while using all active channels for distribution.
Here’s what that looks like:
Let’s review ClickUp as an example one more time. They use multiple channels for content distribution, such as social media, email marketing, blogging, etc. They also have different audiences they target, such as marketers, agile teams, project managers, personal users, and probably a lot more.
The topics they talk about to these audiences may overlap in some cases. For example, task management is a topic that will interest most audiences. However, learning about scrum methodologies will only apply to agile teams.
Content marketing is less likely to employ a large-scale messaging tactic with customized content for each audience group. Instead, it may focus on a few topics for one single audience.
For example, if you find yourself emailing your complete email subscriber list about the same few topics, you might be running a content marketing-focused brand.
For an all-encompassing inbound experience, your brand needs to create relevant content to the appropriate audiences and distribute it at scale. Since this strategy involves so many moving pieces, it’s best to add some cross-channel analytics to the mix. Regular evaluation ensures that you invest your money and resources in the right content and channels.
4. End Goal
Inbound marketing is almost synonymous with conversion marketing. The end goals are clear: driving traffic, selling products, and converting leads.
There are two types of conversions that inbound marketing may produce: macro and micro conversions.
Macro conversions are:
Buying a product or paying for a service
Creating an account
Signing up for a newsletter
Requesting a demo
Micro conversions are:
Visiting a website
Searching on a website
Engaging with a brand’s content (clicking, liking, favoriting, adding to cart, etc.)
Of course, without content marketing, there would be no persuading force that fills the sales funnel with qualified leads. Your marketing team must have inbound marketing and content marketing work together to achieve a profitable end goal.
Most content marketing tactics rely on multi-faceted goals with a greater focus on relationship management and customer engagement. This means optimizing the content on a piece-by-piece basis, using sales psychology.
The end goal in content marketing can be based on:
Engagement (likes, comments, shares, clicks)
Industry partnership growth
Positive ratings and reviews
With that said, relationship management or customer engagement are certainly not exclusive elements to content marketing. They simply appear in different forms during the buyer’s journey.
Here are two example scenarios:
As you can see, the end goals may be similar or the same, it’s the methods that differ.
Personalized and value-added experiences help customers build a trusting relationship with your brand. Experiment with both inbound and content marketing to see what works best for your audience and niche.
5. The Process
The inbound marketing process involves creating the perfect customer-centric environment that will, in return, generate premium leads. It includes the following main steps:
Fine-tune conversion elements, such as CTA buttons, web design, or forms
Develop a well-aligned multi-channel marketing strategy
You may need to thumb through this robust process in at least two scenarios. One, when you’re creating a campaign, and two, when you’re creating an overall brand strategy.
Your competitors or sales personas may not change from campaign to campaign. In that vein, you can expect to research and generate new SEO keywords, new content, and other new creatives from time to time.
Not surprisingly, the process of content marketing places hyper-focus on content creation. Personas and research are also a part of this process, however, lead generation gets a secondary focus.
Here are some examples of content sans lead gen purposes:
Using engagement-driven content pieces (nurture-type email sequences or most social media posts)
The process itself hones in on providing relevant, premium content and distributing it to the right audiences.
To streamline your efforts, set up social listening for ad-hoc social content creation (such as comments and replies) and outline your other planned content with a content calendar template.
Inbound marketing may be a significant undertaking if you have a small team. Whether you’re using that or opting for content marketing, make sure to look into ways you can automate your workflow on social media and beyond. Once you have the basic process down, you can start scaling up your marketing from there.
As you have seen, inbound and content marketing are different in many ways. Yet, they have a lot of overlapping qualities in terms of customer-centeredness or value-based content.
Reply.io, for instance, views both as powerful weapons in their marketing arsenal. Lucy Literado, Reply.io’s VP of Marketing, adds, “We have always viewed content marketing as a part of a larger inbound marketing strategy. But we’re still on the way to a more close-tight sales & marketing alignment which, we believe, will help us make our approach more powerful.”
Learning how to use both inbound and content marketing in line with your broader organizational goals can drive long-term returns. For best results, have your sales team integrate marketing techniques from both strategies. They can secure qualified leads with inbound marketing and delight existing customers with content marketing.
Here are some examples of how you can make both methods work together in perfect synergy:
Remember, without content, you cannot have inbound marketing. Without inbound marketing, you can’t generate any leads. If your resources allow, invest time in both to set the foundation of a thought-leader company.
At the end of the day, what matters is not whether you do inbound or content marketing. It all comes down to keeping your leads flowing and your existing customers happy.
Experiment to see if inbound marketing, content marketing, or a combination of both works best for your brand. Remember to do your research, set up some solid processes, and track all your results to know what’s working and what isn’t.
The customer-focused approach is not going anywhere. And neither is your business. Now start generating more leads and delighting customers by implementing the takeaways from this article.
Mark Quadros is an SaaS content marketer with over 6 years of experience. Mark creates actionable content that is results-driven.
Mark has contributed to several authoritative blogs like CoSchedule, Zapier, HubSpot, Foundr, Monday.com, AppSumo, and much more.
Mark has written 14 blog posts for CoSchedule on a variety of topics. Some of his topics include marketing management, blogging, content marketing, inbound marketing, and more.
Mark started his work as a marketing and sales intern in 2017. Since then, he has been in a number of different positions such as lead website developer, marketing consultant, and digital PR specialist. In 2019, he began working as a freelance writer and has worked with a number of well-established companies. This experience has molded him into the amazing writer he is today.