Digital Marketing

What is inbound marketing? Definition, strategies, and examples

Though its main principles have been in use within marketing since the mid-1800s and it is now a ubiquitous part of the business and marketing world, inbound marketing as a collective concept is relatively new.

The term “inbound marketing” came into existence in 2005 after being coined by co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, Brian Halligan. Following that, the term was still hardly used until it started building small but steady momentum in 2009 until the end of 2012 before skyrocketing at the beginning of 2013. 

So what exactly is inbound marketing, then? According to HubSpot, “Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them.” 

Though it may only be as old as the final “Star Wars” prequel movie, understanding inbound marketing strategies is now an essential part of any business toolbox. 

What is inbound marketing

Inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing

As opposed to inbound marketing, outbound marketing might be thought of as traditional marketing. With outbound marketing, brands send messaging and content out to potential customers instead of bringing them in by providing content they have sought out. 

The primary difference between inbound marketing and outbound marketing boils down to how broadly each type targets potential customers. While inbound marketing targets quite specific audiences with each piece of marketing content through strategies such as target keywords, the broad aim of outbound marketing is to reach as wide of an audience as possible to reach those who might be interested in purchasing your product.  Think of inbound marketing as fishing with a fishing rod while outbound marketing is more similar to fishing by dragging a large net behind your boat. If you think in terms of the marketing funnel, inbound marketing seeks to create content that targets potential customers who are already interested and hopes to strategically bring those potential customers to that content. Outbound marketing targets content through channels where  as large an audience as possible can see it, in hopes that potential customers will be among that audience. 

What do inbound marketers do?

The primary goal that all inbound marketers strive for is to bring new potential customers to your company, drive engagement with those potential customers, and deliver satisfaction to them through that engagement. There are a variety of tasks inbound marketers complete to achieve these goals.

Here are some of the primary skill sets or areas of professional development valuable for inbound marketers:

  • Content marketing
  • Search engine marketing (SEO)
  • Blogging
  • Social media marketing
  • Google Ads
  • Chatbots
  • Marketing automation
  • Smart content
  • Email marketing

The skills leveraged by inbound marketers are as varied as the range of jobs they might be responsible for. Therefore, inbound marketers must have a solid foundational knowledge of these various strategies. Fortunately, if you find yourself needing to grow your skillset, there are courses available, ranging in scope from courses covering inbound marketing as a whole to specific topics, such as courses on social media marketing essentials

What do outbound marketers do?

Outbound marketers strive to send their organization’s messaging out to a wider (though still subtly-targeted) audience in hopes that a portion of that audience will be attracted to the brand and become customers. There are a variety of tasks outbound marketers complete to achieve this. 

Here are some of the primary tasks of outbound marketers:

  • Traditional advertising
  • Pay per click (PPC)
  • Social media ads 
  • Paid email campaigns
  • Sales phone calls

Though outbound marketing strategy has grown and adapted along with technology and society today, these strategies still more closely resemble those traditionally used throughout the history of marketing than those used by inbound marketing. 

Inbound marketing strategies and examples

According to Hubspot, inbound marketing strategy is based on the foundational methodology of “growing your organization by building meaningful, lasting relationships with consumers, prospects, and customers. It’s about valuing and empowering these people to reach their goals at any stage in their journey with you. Why? Because when your customers succeed, you succeed.” 

This methodology makes up what HubSpot calls the Marketing Flywheel. Drawing its name from the wheel used by 18th-century inventor James Watt in his steam engine, the Flywheel model is an alternative take on how businesses view the relationship they have with current and potential customers. It’s akin to the more traditional concept of the marketing funnel. 

However, the difference between the Flywheel and the funnel is that the Flywheel takes a more active view of how customers impact a business and its growth on an ongoing basis, versus the more passive view of the funnel. 

With this more ongoing and comprehensive approach, inbound marketing utilizes a very wide variety of elements that make up the whole of digital marketing skillsets today. These skills include:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Content marketing
  • Google Analytics
  • Customer satisfaction tools (chatbots, surveys, social media engagement)
  • Ads

Flywheel strategies can be broken up into three major categories: attract, engage, and delight. Inbound marketers will engage with several marketing tools to accomplish each of these strategies. As stated previously, understanding these concepts is crucial to finding success as an inbound marketer today. 

Fortunately, however, if you find yourself needing to learn more about them, you can do so through courses on specific topics, such as SEO courses, Google Analytics courses, or even overall digital marketing courses if you need to take a step back and learn from the very beginning. 


For a business to grow, it needs to not only bring people to a website — but it must also bring the right kind of people. Large amounts of site traffic may look good as a metric on a report, but if that traffic does not also generate leads or conversions, then the benefits likely do not match the effort. This is why it is vital to attract the right kind of visitor by utilizing strategy to target potential customers who are more likely to become converting customers themselves. 

Common “attract” tools include:

  • Ads
  • Video
  • Blogging
  • Social media
  • Content marketing


Once a potential customer is attracted to a brand, inbound marketers need to drive engagement with them. Depending on the type of business, its core audience, what conversions look like for that business, and many other factors, the engagement phase may take many shapes and require varying degrees of personalization and individual follow-up.

Common “engage” tools include:

  • Lead flows
  • Email marketing
  • Lead management
  • Chatbots
  • Automation
  • Social media

If, like many people in business and marketing today, you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or confused about how to implement social media into your marketing campaigns, fortunately, you do not have to give up or continue to take blind swings at it. Instead, you can take a social media marketing course to keep up with the constantly evolving social media landscape.


The third stage of the Flywheel model is to delight the customer. Generally speaking, to delight means to ensure the customer receives superior customer service and satisfaction. Once a company engages with a potential customer, and once they have become a customer, it is crucial to take the next step to build upon that engagement to delight them. In a broad sense, this means delivering the specific information they need to foster and strengthen the newly built relationship. 

This might take the form of follow-up emails highlighting products they viewed previously on the company’s website. Or you can provide additional information about content and products, discount codes for first-time or repeat customers, automated chatbots to answer any questions they might have, and much more.

Common “delight” tools include:

  • Smart content
  • Email marketing
  • Attribution reporting
  • Automation

Tips for implementing your inbound marketing campaign

Understanding the concept of inbound marketing is one thing and effectively implementing that knowledge into an actual inbound marketing campaign is another. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to foster the successful use of these concepts. The following are practical tips to implement to be successful with your inbound marketing campaign. 

Defining business goals

Before starting an inbound marketing campaign, it is essential that you clearly define what your business goals are for that campaign and as a whole. For your campaign to be successful, you need to have a clear understanding of the specific types and areas of growth you are aiming for. Know the timetable you are looking to achieve that growth in; determine how these specific campaign goals fit into your organization’s larger goals and trajectory.

Defining target audiences and buyer personas

Inbound marketing inherently relies on businesses building and nurturing relationships with their customer base. Therefore, for an inbound marketing campaign to be successful, you must have a well-defined understanding of who your target audience is and create detailed buyer personas to represent members of that target audience. 

By utilizing real existing customer data as well as information about your target audience to create buyer personas, not only will you have a better understanding of your current and potential customer base, but you will also have more defined guiding principles to steer your inbound marketing campaign. With everything you do for the campaign, make sure you are targeting one of your established buyer personas.

Stages of content

For your inbound marketing campaign to be truly successful top-to-bottom, it is crucial to create content that covers the entire scope of your campaign goals. Put each phase of the Flywheel model to full use. No matter how many leads a piece of content you create brings in, that success in the attract stage is wasted if you don’t have the right follow-up content. Continue growing the relationship between your customer and your brand through the engage and delight stages as well.

Delivery and marketing platforms

There are seemingly countless delivery methods for inbound marketing messaging. For any of it to be successful, businesses must identify the correct platform for both their target audience and their content. Even within the various platforms available, it’s important to understand the best content delivery methods for the specific brand, content, and audience. 

Unfortunately, having a deep and up-to-date knowledge of the wide variety of platforms available today is a steep mountain to climb, and is often a point of weakness for many inbound marketers, especially when it comes to the constantly evolving landscape of social media. This means inbound marketing campaigns may utilize a wide variety of platforms at the start before dropping ones that are not immediately effective or that the marketer is less facile using. 

Inbound marketers should strive to stay on top of current social media trends across the board so that they are not losing out on campaign opportunities due to their lack of knowledge. Instead, a truly successful inbound marketer will ensure they are staying up to date and as knowledgeable as possible through routine research and even further education by taking social media marketing courses.

Analyzing results and making improvements

Regardless of how successful an inbound marketing campaign may or may not be, you should always at least be able to take lessons away. Apply these lessons to your strategies going forward, whether you make adjustments to the same campaign, or craft new inbound marketing campaigns down the road. 

For this to be its most impactful, you must be willing to be humble and receptive to hearing answers you didn’t hope for. Be open to change and adapt your approach when appropriate so it aligns with what your findings dictate is the best course of action. Finally, be knowledgeable enough of the current inbound marketing landscape and all its strategies and concepts to engage in the best ones for your campaign.