In today’s always-on environment, people are skimming emails, joining Zoom meetings, browsing social media and performing an endless array of other activities. How can you break through this noise? Delivering insightful, informative and entertaining content can help prospective customers discover you. And that’s where the debate of content marketing vs. inbound marketing comes into play.
It’s easy to think of content marketing and inbound marketing as synonymous. They have similarities, and the definition of inbound marketing — originated by HubSpot’s Brian Halligan — has evolved to be closely related to content marketing. The company defines inbound marketing as “a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them.”
That’s a broad description that sure sounds a lot like content marketing. But they aren’t the same, are they?
Think of content marketing as a component of inbound marketing. Content marketing supports other marketing activities that qualify or convert leads. It helps establish relationships through a focused approach to messaging. Content marketing also establishes trust and authority by answering questions and providing guidance for prospects seeking information about your industry or niche.
Content marketing can be especially helpful when consumers are overwhelmed by their options or don’t have enough information to make a purchase. Great content can act like a helpful friend who helps prospects feel comfortable with sealing the deal.
These two disciplines have a lot in common. They’re both customer-centric approaches to guide leads down the sales funnel. Many organizations use them every day to identify and influence potential customers.
But they also have differences. Learn more about content marketing and inbound marketing’s distinct characteristics, when to choose one over the other and how they fit into your marketing approach.
How Do Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing Work Together?
Content is not a trend or a buzzword. It’s what people spend their time searching for and consuming. Content marketing provides value and information. It answers questions, entertains and inspires through blog posts, social posts, email newsletters, videos and other content-based communication.
Inbound marketing is about attracting customers with great content and personalized experiences instead of invasive approaches. The idea is that if you’re interested in a company or brand, you’ll be more accepting of what they offer. Inbound marketing tactics include simple steps like adding a call-to-action button or a landing page, as well as more sophisticated components, such as deploying social listening tools or chatbots.
Content is king in inbound marketing and content marketing (obviously), but in different ways. Content marketing provides informative, helpful content that connects with users and creates a positive and valuable experience. Inbound marketing is about processes (including content marketing) that drive the bigger picture: qualifying or converting leads for sales teams.
How Are Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing Similar?
The focus on content is an obvious similarity. While inbound marketing more explicitly focuses on search engine optimization (SEO), for example, every content marketer understands the value of SEO, especially if they’re primarily working on articles and blog posts.
Inbound marketing and content marketing also share the same goals — increasing brand awareness, attracting prospects, building relationships and converting customers. They’re also both focused on providing a consumer-friendly experience. Rather than aggressively contacting potential audiences, you enable people to discover your brand through your content.
What Are Some of the Differences?
When differentiating inbound marketing and content marketing, consider each method’s intentions, scope and intended audience.
Inbound marketing aims to convert prospects into customers by delivering the right experiences to the right audience at the right time. This process covers a variety of marketing methods such as lead nurturing, social media, website optimization and, of course, content marketing.
Content marketing teams also hope to inform, convert and show ROI by creating and sharing relevant content across different channels. Their work supports and powers inbound marketing but can’t replace such campaigns.
Another key difference is in scope. Content marketing focuses on content creation, distribution, planning, management and strategy. Inbound marketing includes content but also involves a broader range of tactics not included in content marketing, such as advertising and web maintenance.
As such, content marketing strategies aren’t identical to inbound marketing strategies, although they can work in tandem. Content marketers can particularly benefit from elements of inbound marketing, such as SEO and strategic web design.
Another difference between content marketing and inbound marketing is the intended audience. Inbound marketing focuses on specific buyer personas, while content marketing focuses on the broader target audience. This distinction can be difficult to parse because content can also be developed around the buyer personas that inbound marketers create.
What’s Best for Me?
So, when should you use one or the other? In general, content marketing is best for informing and captivating an audience with informational blog posts and other content. Inbound marketing goes further by optimizing conversion with technical SEO, call-to-action buttons, fully optimized landing pages and other efforts.
Many brands use both, understanding the importance of content marketing — and content in general — as part of a more comprehensive inbound marketing approach.
Here are some considerations to think about as you map out your plan.
No one likes intrusive ads. Instead, offer ways for audiences to find your brand with inbound marketing tactics. Create marketing personas, and build customized experiences that address the needs of those targeted segments. Content marketing can augment this approach by creating a conversion path for a broader audience.
If you want specific, qualified leads, optimize landing pages for that audience. But if you want a larger audience, build a landing page with a less specific tone. For example, a marketing and sales automation platform might have a general landing page with broad messaging for generic visitors and another version of the page optimized for sales leaders. The second version can contain more specific messaging and terminology related to particular industries, roles or products.
Inbound marketing strategies can cover social media, email, SEO, digital marketing, web design and other areas. A well-crafted inbound marketing plan can be extensive, expensive and time-consuming. Start with a thoughtful content marketing strategy if you’re not ready to implement a complete inbound marketing strategy. Optimize each piece of content so you’re informing prospects, increasing their awareness and, hopefully, nudging them further down the purchasing journey.
A full-fledged inbound marketing experience means distributing relevant content to the right audiences at scale. This includes messaging across a variety of topics and channels. Making all of this content personalized could be inefficient, but content marketing can help you target certain topics for specific audiences. Test different approaches and channels, then evaluate the results to determine what works best for you.
Inbound marketing is focused primarily on conversion activities like completing a purchase or signing up for a demo. Content marketing goals may aim for a slower push, especially for prospects who aren’t near a purchasing decision. Great content might focus more on driving traffic and engagement to build awareness and brand affinity.
Both approaches can produce micro-conversions such as visiting a website or engaging with a brand on social media. Test inbound marketing and content marketing approaches and compare results to find the best fit for your audience, including at different stages of the buying journey.
Your inbound marketing process will be more extensive than your content marketing process simply because it covers more territory. However, each approach requires careful consideration of your intended audience, available resources and tactical approach.
To reduce the effort required, look for opportunities to streamline your operations, such as using automation for social media publishing. Not everything can be automated, however.
Remember where human expertise and effort are irreplaceable. Your inbound marketing campaigns might benefit significantly from a marketing automation platform without sacrificing accuracy or quality. By contrast, replacing your writers with an AI platform could create errors and harm your brand reputation without any of the intended benefits.
How to Optimize Your Processes
Marketing is a continuous process of iterating, learning and improving. Here are a few ways to improve your process..
Improve Your Website
It’s essential to have a modern, responsive website for both search engine ranking and your customer experience, but that isn’t enough. You’ll need to adopt an SEO strategy that includes ongoing analysis and updates to improve your rankings. Optimize high-traffic pages to improve the number of leads from your inbound marketing. Ensure you can effectively measure website activity and easily access and analyze that data.
Use Multiple Channels
You need to make it as easy as possible for people to find your content in whatever channels they use. Social media, email, pay-per-click advertising and other channels can drive inbound traffic, but they all need quality content to perform well.
Understand Your Audience
Most importantly, you need to understand your audience. The perfect blog post or the best email won’t do much for your business if it isn’t relevant or if it isn’t reaching the right people. Use your team’s knowledge and experience to create content that addresses the problems you can solve.
Inform your audience and don’t make false promises, but delight them while leaving them wanting to know more about your brand and offerings..
Create Content for Each Journey
Create content that mirrors your buyers’ journeys so customers can naturally discover you as they go through their day. Continue to test new formats, styles or channels, using analytics to drive decisions around your future content and inbound strategies.
Longform, evergreen content can be tremendously helpful in showcasing your expertise and encouraging people to explore your brand further. This content is relevant to your audience’s interests and needs and can also rank highly on search engines. Make sure to regularly assess the performance of evergreen content and update as needed.
What’s the Verdict?
Fortunately, you’re not limited to a single tactic or methodology. You don’t have to choose sides in the content marketing vs. inbound marketing battle. Instead, focus on what drives results — and why. You can build on momentum when you understand why you’re succeeding with content marketing and inbound marketing. And no matter what kind of marketing you’re working on, remember this: Analyze your efforts, apply what works, and focus on helpful content that delights your audience.